The British Empire at War

Like many academics, over the years my work has taken different directions within a broad field of study. The broad field is the history of Britain and its empire, a subject that became my main focus while an undergraduate at what was Thames Polytechnic when I started my BA in 1989 and the University of Greenwich when I departed three years later. Within this broad field, directions of enquiry have included the general history of the Empire, British imperial culture and its visual representations, the Empire’s built environment, imperial defence, and the life of Winston Churchill, with occasional forays into more distant fields such as contemporary African and Indian Ocean security.

But the core research strand within this broad field, dating back to 1993 when I began my doctorate, has been the history of the British Empire during the world wars of the twentieth century. First and foremost, my work has been that of an imperial historian. Working at the intersection of imperial and military history (loosely defined), my work bring military, naval, and strategic history into contact imperial and colonial history. Accompanied by journal articles, my work in this area began with two books looking at individual British colonial territories and their surrounding regions during the Second World War. The first, Botswana 1939-1945: An African Country at War (Oxford University Press, 1999), was based on the doctoral thesis I had completed at Oxford in 1996. Funded by a British Academy studentship, it was conducted under the supervision of Terence Ranger, occupant of the splendidly-oxymoronic Rhodes Professor of Race Relations chair. I had spent the second year of my doctoral studies living in Botswana, trawling the national archives with a tooth-comb and interviewing dozens of former servicemen and their wives. The second book, War and Empire in Mauritius and the Indian Ocean, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2001 after archival and oral research in Britain and Mauritius. The approach in both books was to examine multiple aspects of the colonial, regional, and imperial war experience. What impact did a global war have on the ‘home front’, for instance? How were men and women recruited into military and civilian war work? Where did they serve in the armed forces, and how was contact maintained between soldiers far away and their families back at home? What was the food and supply situation, and how were service personnel demobilized and repatriated? What challenges did British colonial and military authorities face in managing a global war effort, gearing colonies for war, and utilizing colonial resources – land, labour, and produce – for their own strategic purposes?

Having looked at the imperial war experience in a manner that attempted to connect the decisions of Churchill’s War Cabinet and Whitehall departments of state to overseas theatres of war and colonial zones, I decided that for my next book I’d like to take a view across the entire Empire. To my surprise, no one had ever written a book on what was clearly an important topic – the war effort of the biggest empire the world had ever seen. This led to the publication in 2006 of the 600-page The British Empire and the Second World War, published by Hambledon Continuum, now Bloomsbury Academic.

My work has continued to explore the global and local interactions of the British Empire at war, with articles and book chapters on issues such as home front propaganda in Asia, the war experiences of African troops, and the wartime role of colonial governors. Some of these were brought together with new work in Distant Drums: The Role of Colonies in British Imperial Warfare (Sussex Academic Press, 2010). This volume included some material on the Empire and the First World War, a theme developed further when I had the opportunity to edit a volume comprising articles previously published in Routledge history journals. This led to the publication of The British Empire and the First World War (Routledge, 2015), which featured chapters on diverse aspects of the war and its impact in places such as Australia, Canada, Cyprus, Ghana, India, Iraq, New Guinea, Nigeria, Palestine, and South Africa.

But the Second World War remained the main focus of my work. Continuing the practice of looking at individual colonies and their environs, I had started work on Sri Lanka wartime experience in the late 1990s. Progress on this was delayed by other book projects, though briefly reignited in 2007 by a British Academy-funded research trip to Sri Lanka. The work finally came to full maturity in 2018 with the publication of Ceylon at War, 1939-1945 (Helion). In the same year, a long-standing interest in the war history of the Indian Ocean region as well as Africa led also to the publication of Of Islands, Ports, and Sea Lanes: Africa and the Indian Ocean during the Second World War (Helion, 2018). Completing a calendar year hat-trick, 2018 also saw the publication of Persian Gulf Command: A History of Iran and Iraq during the Second World War (Yale University Press). This work was supported by an Arts and Humanities Research Council grant awarded to Yasmin Khan and me in 2012 for a project entitled ‘Home Fronts of the Empire-Commonwealth’. The project also led to an edited collection, with Yasmin and the project’s Research Fellow Gajendra Singh, entitled An Imperial World at War: Aspects of the British Empire’s War Experience, 1939-1945 (Routledge, 2016).

Other material on the Empire and the Second World War has been published in article and book chapter form (see the ‘Book chapters’ and ‘Articles’ tabs on this website), including some cross-cutting summary pieces; a chapter on ‘Ocean War’ in the 2012 Wiley-Blackwell Companion to World War Two, an entry on ‘Empires and the Second World War’ in the 2015 Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Empire, and an overview chapter on ‘The British Empire at War’ in the 2015 Cambridge History of the Second World War.

Working on the Empire and the world wars naturally involves the study of imperial defence, and this had led to contributions such as ‘The Colonial Empire and Imperial Defence’ and ‘Imperial Defence in the Post-Imperial Era’ in Greg Kennedy’s 2008 Routledge collection Imperial Defence: The Old World Order, 1865-1956. Britain’s post-imperial world role and posture had also been the subject of the review article ‘Empire and Beyond: The Pursuit of Overseas National Interests in the Late Twentieth Century’, which appeared in the English Historical Review in 2007. More recently, work on imperial defence has led to the book chapter ‘The British Empire as a Strategic Alliance’ for Alex May’s forthcoming Commonwealth companion volume in the Oxford History of the British Empire series.

My work on the wartime British Empire continues; the main project at the moment is a book provisionally titled Superpower Britain: The Post-War Plan and Why It Failed, co-authored with Andrew Stewart. The book looks at British government plans for post-war world power status and the preservation of the British Empire, and will investigate the war’s effects on the Empire. I am also coordinating the preparation of an edited volume that looks at the war’s effects on a range of countries beyond the major combatant powers, called Many Worlds at War: Beyond the Belligerents. It develops the argument for a new way of thinking about the global dimensions of the Second World War outlined in the ‘Afterword’ to the Imperial World at War volume, and can be read here.

Other research strands

In terms of the other strands pursued within the broad field of the history of Britain and its empire, study of the Empire’s general history led to the publication of The British Empire: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2013), an attempt, within the 35,000-word limit imposed by the series, to describe and explain the Empire’s evolution. A general history of a different stamp was Mad Dogs and Englishmen: A Grand Tour of the British Empire (Quercus, 2011). At first glance a heavily-illustrated ‘coffee table’ volume, this was actually the first book to reproduce in colour a wide range of images relating to Britain’s connections with the wider world. Having drawn some of the material from the Bodleian Library’s John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera, it led directly to a further book drawing exclusively on this remarkable archive, Illustrating Empire: A Visual History of British Imperialism (with David Tomkins), published by the Bodleian in 2013.

An interest in the Empire’s built environment, its impact on the natural world, and the manner in which manifestations of British imperialism were grafted onto other places and other people’s lands, led to the publication of Buildings of Empire by Oxford University Press in 2013. In this book, Dublin Castle, Gordon Memorial College Khartoum, the HSBC headquarters in Hong Kong, Colonial Williamsburg, Wembley Stadium, Fort St Angelo in Malta’s Grand Harbour, New Zealand’s Christchurch Botanical Gardens, Raffles Hotel Singapore, the Gezira Sporting Club in the middle of the Nile in Cairo, Viceregal Lodge in the Indian hill station of Shimla, King’s House in Spanish Town Jamaica, and the Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne were used as vehicles to explore numerous imperial themes.

Finally (to date) another distinct research direction has been the life of Winston Churchill, which led in 2011 to the publication of a biography, inevitably titled Churchill (Quercus).