Women at Oxford University are allowed to receive degrees
Academic halls for women were first established at Oxford in the 19th century, but although women had been able to attend degree level courses, they could not receive degrees until 1920.
25 April 1920
Britain is given mandates for Mesopotamia and Palestine
The mandate system was conceived by US President Woodrow Wilson. France and Britain were commanded to govern their mandates in the interests of their inhabitants, until these territories were ready to be admitted to the League of Nations. The British took over two areas that had previously formed part of the now defunct Ottoman Empire.
1 July 1920
First British high commissioner of Palestine is appointed
In 1917, the Balfour Declaration had given official British support for a Jewish national home in Palestine. The territory’s new high commissioner, former Home Secretary Sir Herbert Samuel, was Jewish, but he was determined to deal even-handedly with the Palestinian Arabs and the increasing numbers of Jewish immigrants. In May 1921, Arab unrest caused Samuel to halt Jewish immigration.
Unemployment reaches a post-war high of 2.5 million
Prime Minister David Lloyd George had promised ‘a land fit for heroes’ following World War One, but after a short post-war boom, demobilised soldiers found it increasingly difficult to get work. Deprivation was widespread and industrial relations deteriorated. War debts to the United States and non-payment of European allies’ war debts meant the government could not pay for many planned reforms. The 1922 Geddes Report recommended heavy cuts in education, public health and workers’ benefits.
23 August 1921
British mandate of Mesopotamia becomes the Kingdom of Iraq
The three former Ottoman provinces of Baghdad, Basra and Mosul, named Iraq by the British, were in a state of revolt. In an effort to quell the unrest, Emir Faisal was made king and administrator of the country. King Faisal was a member of the Hashemite family, who had been important British allies against the Ottoman Empire.
6 December 1921
Anglo-Irish Peace Treaty is signed, resulting in partition of the island
This treaty ended the war between the breakaway southern Irish Republic and Britain, and was supposed to resolve the sectarian ‘Ulster problem’ by partitioning Ireland. It turned southern Ireland into a dominion – rather than a republic – called the ‘Irish Free State’, with the British sovereign as head of state. The fact that the treaty still bound Ireland to Britain caused deep conflict and led to the outbreak of the Irish Civil War.
28 June 1922
Irish Civil War breaks out
The civil war was ignited by the Anglo-Irish Peace Treaty, which created a partitioned Irish ‘Free State’ within the British Empire. The pro-treaty faction under Michael Collins accepted partition and believed the treaty would eventually lead to a republic. The anti-treaty faction, led by Éamon de Valera, rejected partition and wanted a republic immediately. The war ended in victory for the pro-treaty Free State government under Collins (who was assassinated) but caused lasting bitterness.
19 October 1922
Prime Minister David Lloyd George resigns as his wartime coalition breaks up
The wartime coalition of Conservatives and David Lloyd George’s Liberals won the 1918 general election and began the work of national recovery after World War One. But in 1922, Tory backbenchers overruled their own party leader and voted to leave the coalition, resuming independence as Conservatives. They were disgusted by Lloyd George’s Anglo-Irish Treaty and fearful he was about to go to war with Turkey. With his government fatally compromised, Lloyd George resigned.
23 October 1922
Conservative Andrew Bonar Law becomes prime minister
Having precipitated the fall of David Lloyd George’s Liberal-Conservative coalition government with a brilliant speech to his Conservative colleagues, Andrew Bonar Law was invited by George V to form a government. Law called a general election on 15 November 1922. The Conservatives won 344 seats, Labour 142, National Liberals (Lloyd George’s party) approximately 53, Liberals (under Herbert Asquith) approximately 62. Ill health forced Bonar Law to retire in 1923. He died six months later.
15 May 1923
The British Mandate of Transjordan becomes a semi-independent state
The mandate for Palestine was divided along the River Jordan, with ‘Transjordan’ on the eastern side. The Hashemite Emir Abdullah, eldest son of Britain’s ally the Sharif Hussein of Mecca, became ruler of the territory. In 1946, Transjordan received independence and Abdullah became King Abdullah I of Jordan.
22 May 1923
Conservative Stanley Baldwin becomes prime minister
Conservative Stanley Baldwin became prime minister, with Neville Chamberlain as chancellor of the exchequer, after Andrew Bonar Law resigned due to ill health. Baldwin proposed to abandon free trade, hoping that tariff reform would help to beat unemployment – an unpopular measure. Following the elections of December 1923, the reunited Liberals joined Labour to extinguish tariff reform by a vote of no confidence. Baldwin resigned.
23 January 1924
Ramsay Macdonald becomes the first Labour prime minister
After the vote of no confidence that saw Stanley Baldwin resign as prime minister, the leader of the largest opposition party, Ramsay Macdonald, was called on to form a minority Labour government. Labour was unable to realise its more radical ambitions because of its reliance on Liberal support. This helped Macdonald allay fears that a party representing the working class must be revolutionary, but disappointed many supporters on the left.
29 October 1924
Conservatives win a landslide election following the ‘Zinoviev Letter’
In February 1924, the Labour government formally recognised the Soviet Union, despite nervousness about Communist ambitions. In October, MI5 intercepted an apparently seditious letter from a Soviet official to British communists. Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald agreed to the suppression of the ‘Zinoviev letter’, but it was leaked just before the election. Stanley Baldwin’s Conservatives won by a landslide. Labour’s share of the vote actually increased, but the Liberals were totally eclipsed.
28 April 1925
Chancellor Winston Churchill returns Britain to the ‘Gold Standard’
In his first budget as chancellor of the exchequer, Winston Churchill returned Britain to its pre-1914 monetary system, whereby sterling was fixed at a price reflecting the country’s gold reserves. The move resulted in massive deflation and overvaluing of the pound. This made British manufacturing industries uncompetitive, which in turn exacerbated the massive economic problems Britain was to face in the 1930s.
5 August 1925
‘Plaid Cymru’ is formed to disseminate knowledge of the Welsh language
Although the party was initially formed to promote Welsh language and culture, by the 1930s it had a political agenda and was determined that Wales should achieve independent status as a dominion.
26 January 1926
John Logie Baird gives the first public demonstration of television
John Logie Baird, a Scottish engineer and inventor, gave a demonstration of a machine for the transmission of pictures, which he called ‘television’. Around 50 scientists assembled in his attic workshop in London to witness the event. It was not until after the World War Two that televisions became widely available.
3 May 1926
General strike is declared after miners reject the Samuel Report
The Samuel Report sought to rationalise the British coal industry, whose coal had become too expensive, through pay cuts and increased hours. The Trades Union Congress (TUC) ordered a general strike. Well-organised government emergency measures and the lack of widespread public support for the strikers meant it was called off after nine days.
16 May 1926
Irish politician Éamon de Valera establishes the Fianna Fáil party
The Irish Civil War made the Irish Free State a reality. Éamon de Valera, who had fought against the treaty that established the Free State, now created the Fianna Fáil party to participate in its political life. Fianna Fáil members elected to the Free State’s Dáil (parliament) initially refused to take their seats unless the oath of allegiance to the British sovereign was abolished. Faced with exclusion from politics, Fianna Fáil eventually took the oath, dismissing it as an ’empty formula’.
19 October 1926
Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa are recognised as autonomous
In 1923, a dominion’s right to make a treaty with a foreign power had been accepted. The Imperial Conference in London went further towards legally defining a dominion by recognising that the dominions (Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa) were autonomous and equal in status, a decision that was later affirmed by the 1931 Statute of Westminster.
1 January 1927
British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is created
A group of radio manufacturers, including radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi, set up the British Broadcasting Company in 1922. In 1927 the company was granted a Royal Charter, becoming the British Broadcasting Corporation under John Reith. Reith’s mission was improve Britain through broadcasting, and he famously instructed the corporation to ‘inform, educate and entertain’.
7 May 1928
All women over the age of 21 get the vote
The fifth Reform Act brought in by the Conservative government altered the 1918 Representation of the People Act, which had only allowed women over 30 who owned property to be enfranchised. The new act gave women the vote on the same terms as men.
The first ‘talkie’ (film with dialogue) is shown in Britain
British audiences were introduced to talking pictures when the ‘The Jazz Singer’, opened in London. Cinema-going was immensely popular during the 1920s and 1930s and virtually every town, suburb and major housing development had at least one cinema. There was often a double bill of a main and ‘B’ feature, supported by a newsreel.
30 September 1928
Alexander Fleming discovers penicillin
While working at St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington, London, Alexander Fleming noticed that a mould growing on a dish had stopped bacteria developing. Howard Florey and Ernst Chain developed penicillin further so it could be used as a drug, but it was not until World War Two that it began to be mass produced.
30 May 1929
Labour wins the general election with Ramsay Macdonald as prime minister
Ramsay Macdonald headed the first Labour government with a clear majority. It lasted for two years. Labour won 287 seats, the Conservatives 262 and the Liberals 59. Macdonald’s administration coincided with the Great Depression, a global economic slump triggered by the Wall Street Crash. Unemployment jumped by one million in 1930, and in some industrial towns reached 75%.
24 October 1929
Wall Street Crash sparks the Great Depression
The crash of the American Wall Street financial markets in 1929 crippled the economies of the US and Europe, resulting in the Great Depression. In Britain, unemployment had peaked just below three million by 1932. It was only with rearmament in the period immediately before the outbreak of World War Two that the worst of the Depression could be said to be over.
21 January 1930
London Conference on Naval Disarmament starts
A powerful disarmament movement reached the peak of its activities in the 1930s. Ramsay Macdonald, a committed internationalist and pacifist, was an enthusiastic believer that the League of Nations could make the world disarm through dialogue. But in 1931, Japan seized Manchuria and pulled out of the League. The rise of militarist regimes across Europe meant that by 1933 the idea of ‘collective security’ was looking increasingly unworkable.
12 March 1930
Mohandas Gandhi leads a march to the sea in protest against the Indian salt monopoly
Mohandas Gandhi defied the British government, which had a monopoly on salt-making, by leading a 400km march to the sea to make his own salt. Five million Indians copied him in defiance of the government. Gandhi was imprisoned from 1930-1931, as were approximately 60,000 others.
24 June 1930
‘Simon Report’ proposes representative government for India
In 1927, a parliamentary commission headed by Sir John Simon was sent to India to investigate grievances and make recommendations on the future of the country. Notably, the commission did not have any Indian members. Although the commission recommended representative government in the provinces (provincial assemblies), it advised that power should remain with the British Viceroy. The Indian National Congress, which wanted dominion status granted immediately, organised huge demonstrations.
12 November 1930
‘Round Table’ conference on India opens in London
Three of these conferences took place from 1930-1933, the last of which failed to include any Indian members. The collapse of the Round Table talks led to further mass non-cooperation in India. A new Government of India Act was passed in 1935, granting Indians an elected assembly and extending the powers of the eleven provincial assemblies.
4 March 1931
Mohandas Gandhi agrees to suspend civil disobedience in India
With popular protests causing significant problems, the viceroy of India, Lord Irwin, agreed the Delhi Pact, under which political prisoners would be released in return for suspension of the civil disobedience movement. In the same year, Mohandas Gandhi attended a Round Table conference as the sole representative of the Indian National Congress (INC). Gandhi was promised dominion status for India, but it was rejected by the INC because he had failed to consult its minority leaders.
22 – 23 August 1931
Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald resigns in a row over the budget
Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald asked a commission, headed by Sir George May, to investigate Britain’s dire economic situation. The May Committee recommended slashing government expenditure, including unemployment benefit. Macdonald agreed, but the measures were voted down by his cabinet colleagues. He offered his resignation to the king, George V, but was instead persuaded to lead a ‘national government’ coalition, which included Conservatives and Liberals, but only three Labour ministers.
27 October 1931
‘National government’ coalition wins the election, but Labour support plummets
Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald called a general election to seek legitimacy for his ‘national government’ coalition. He was returned to power with 556 pro-national government MPs, of which 471 were Conservatives. The Labour Party expelled Macdonald for what was perceived as treachery. The new national government forced through the measures that Macdonald’s Labour colleagues had vehemently opposed.
16 February 1932
Éamon De Valera’s Fianna Fáil party wins the Irish general election
Once the champion of armed opposition to the Irish Free State, Éamon De Valera now rose to lead it with this general election victory. After a second general election win in 1933, De Valera began unilaterally dismantling the Irish Free State’s relationship with Britain. A trade war began after Fianna Fáil reneged on a £100 million loan from the British government.
1 October 1932
Oswald Mosley founds the British Union of Fascists
Oswald Mosley, formerly a Conservative and then Labour member of parliament, modelled his party along Italian fascist lines. The party never became part of the political mainstream and was banned in 1940. Moseley was interned during the war and twice attempted unsuccessfully to return to parliament in post-war Britain. He died in 1980.
3 October 1932
Iraq joins the League of Nations after the British mandate ends
Iraq became independent under King Faisal, who died in 1933. Its strategic importance and oil reserves ensured that Britain maintained a military presence there. During World War Two the British occupied Iraq, as the pro-Axis government intended to cut oil supplies and British access between Egypt and India.
Scottish Nationalist Party is founded to fight for an independent Scotland
Scottish ‘Home Rule’ had been supported by both 19th-century Liberals and 20th-century Labour, but had made no progress. The Scottish Nationalist Party was an amalgam of the left-leaning National Party of Scotland (NPS) and the more right-wing Scottish Party. Its objective was to secede from the United Kingdom.
19 July 1934
New air defence programme adds 41 squadrons to the RAF
In 1933, German leader Adolf Hitler had withdrawn from the Disarmament Conference and the League of Nations in order to begin re-arming. Despite a 1935 League of Nations ‘peace ballot’ that showed 90% of the British public favoured multilateral disarmament, the British government reluctantly began to re-arm. There remained a strong political determination to avoid war at all costs.
22 September 1934
Gresford Mine Disaster kills 266 in North Wales
This explosion, which killed 266 men, was one of the worst disasters in British mining history. Two hundred children were left fatherless in an area of North Wales where a 40% unemployment rate had already caused widespread poverty.
11 April 1935
Italy, France and Britain meet to discuss German rearmament
The Stresa Conference was intended to form a united front against Adolf Hitler’s Germany, but Italian leader Benito Mussolini had more in common with Hitler than with the western democracies. On 2 October, he invaded Ethiopia. Despite public sanctions, in a secret agreement dubbed the Hoare-Laval Pact, France and Britain devised a partition plan which gave Italy two-thirds of Ethiopia.
7 June 1935
Conservative Stanley Baldwin becomes prime minister for the third time
Stanley Baldwin became prime minister after Ramsay Macdonald resigned due to ill health. The ‘power behind the throne’ during Macdonald’s premiership, Baldwin remained prime minister until 28 May 1937, when he was succeeded by Neville Chamberlain.
First Penguin paperbacks go on sale, bringing literature to the masses
Publisher Allen Lane felt there was a need for cheap, easily available editions of quality contemporary writing. The first ten Penguins included works by Ernest Hemingway and Agatha Christie. They cost just sixpence, the same price as a packet of cigarettes, and were available in traditional bookshops, but also in railway stations and tobacconists. Three million Penguin paperbacks were sold within a year. It was a revolution in publishing that massively widened public access to literature.
20 January 1936
George V dies and is succeeded by Edward VIII
As Prince of Wales, Edward had visited many parts of the country hit by the prolonged economic depression. These visits, his apparently genuine concern for the underprivileged and his official overseas tours on behalf of his father made him popular in Britain and abroad. But his choice of bride would spark a constitutional crisis. He had fallen in love with a married American woman, Wallis Simpson. When she obtained a divorce in October 1936, it opened the way for her to marry Edward.
26 August 1936
Anglo-Egyptian Treaty ends the British protectorate of Egypt
Britain was reluctant to end its occupation of Egypt because the Suez Canal provided a vital sea route to India. The treaty allowed the British to retain control of the Suez Canal for the next 20 years, and for Britain to reoccupy the country in the event of any threat to British interests.
5 October 1936
Jarrow men march to London to highlight local poverty and unemployment
Poverty and mass unemployment (as high as 70%) in the north east of England drove 200 men from Jarrow, Tyne and Wear, to march 300 miles to London to deliver a petition to parliament asking for a steel works to replace the local shipyard that had recently closed down. The marchers attracted considerable public sympathy, but the crusade ultimately made little real impact. In heavy industry areas like the north east the Depression continued until the rearmament boom of World War Two.
10 December 1936
Edward VIII abdicates in order to marry Wallace Simpson
Edward VIII wished to marry American Wallis Simpson. Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin advised him that the British people would not accept her because she was a divorcee. Faced with losing the woman he loved, Edward chose instead to abdicate. On 11 December, he broadcast his decision to the nation. He married Wallace Simpson in France in June 1937. They became the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Baldwin was widely credited with averting a constitutional crisis that could have ended the monarchy.
12 May 1937
George VI is crowned king
Edward VIII’s younger brother, the Duke of York, was crowned George VI. He and his wife Queen Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother), became inspirational figures for Britain during World War Two. The monarch visited his armies on several battle fronts and founded the George Cross for ‘acts of the greatest heroism or of the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme danger’.
7 July 1937
Peel Commission recommends partitioning Palestine
The idea of partitioning Palestine between its Arab and Jewish inhabitants was rejected by both sides, and by January 1938 a new report had been commissioned. In 1939, a government white paper recommended that the final number of Jewish immigrants should be limited to 75,000, and Palestine should become independent under majority Arab rule. The outbreak of World War Two put the issue on hold.
29 December 1937
New constitution makes Ireland a republic in all but name
With the British government distracted by the constitutional crisis of Edward VIII’s abdication, Irish Free State leader Éamon De Valera seized the opportunity to draw up a new constitution for Ireland that omitted any references to its place within the British Empire. In addition to making Ireland a de facto republic, the constitution laid claim to the whole of Ireland, including Ulster. De Valera became the ‘Taoiseach’, the equivalent of prime minister.
12 February 1938
First refugee children of the ‘Kindertransport’ arrive in Britain
A total of 10,000 Jewish children between the ages of five and 17 were sent from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia to Britain between December 1938 and the outbreak of war in September 1939. Many were given homes by British families, or lived in hostels. Very few of them saw their parents again.
20 February 1938
Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden resigns over the ‘appeasement’ of Italy
With overt militarism on the rise across Europe, Britain persisted with its policy of ‘appeasement’ – making concessions to avoid provoking a wider scale war. Notably, Britain had not intervened in the brutal Spanish Civil War in order to avoid antagonising Italy. The decision of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to recognise the king of Italy as emperor of Ethiopia following the Italians’ unprovoked invasion was a concession too far for Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, who resigned.
12 March 1938
Germany occupies and then annexes Austria in the ‘Anschluss’
The union of Austria and Germany was forbidden by the Treaty of Versailles. The treaty was deeply resented by both countries for its allocation of ‘war guilt’ and imposition of heavy reparations. When the German army marched into Austria in March 1938, they were welcomed by cheering crowds of Austrians.
28 – 30 September 1938
‘Munich Agreement’ cedes the Sudetenland to Germany
The Munich Conference between Britain’s Neville Chamberlain, Germany’s Adolf Hitler, Italy’s Benito Mussolini and Edouard Daladier of France agreed that the Czechoslovakian territory of the Sudetenland and its three million ethnic Germans should be joined with Germany. Chamberlain returned to Britain claiming he had achieved ‘peace in our time’. In fact, it would come to be a clear demonstration that appeasement did not work, as by March 1939 Hitler had seized the rest of Czechoslovakia.
31 March 1939
Britain guarantees territorial integrity of Poland
This guarantee formally ended the policy of appeasement, and the British government reluctantly began to prepare for war. Conscription was introduced for the first time in peacetime on 27 April, with little protest. On 23 August, the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact put paid to British hopes of a Russian ally. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain warned Adolf Hitler that Britain would support Poland if it was attacked by Germany.
3 September 1939
Britain declares war on Germany in response to the invasion of Poland
On 1 September, German forces invaded Poland. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain still hoped to avoid declaring war on Germany, but a threatened revolt in the cabinet and strong public feeling that Hitler should be confronted forced him to honour the Anglo-Polish Treaty. Britain was at war with Germany for the second time in 25 years.
9 April 1940
Germany mounts surprise invasions of Norway and Denmark
Germany invaded neighbouring Denmark on 7 April, and the Danes surrendered after two days. Denmark provided a land route to neutral Norway, which was invaded on 9 April. The small Norwegian army mounted fierce resistance, with the help of 12,000 British and French troops. The campaign in Norway ended when the German invasion of France and the Low Countries changed the focus of the war. The Allies were forced to evacuate.
10 May 1940
Winston Churchill becomes prime minister of the coalition government
Following the disastrous Norwegian campaign, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain faced heavy criticism at home. By early May, Chamberlain had lost the confidence of the House of Commons. Labour ministers refused to serve in a national coalition with Chamberlain as leader, so he resigned. Churchill became prime minister on 10 May, the same day Germany invaded Holland and Belgium.
10 May 1940
German invasion of the Low Countries and France begins
The German army rapidly defeated France with a strategy called ‘blitzkrieg’, or ‘lightning war’, which used speed, flexibility and surprise to execute huge outflanking manoeuvres. Paris fell on 14 June and France capitulated on 25 June. Hitler had achieved in a matter of weeks what the German army had failed to do after four years of desperate fighting on the Western Front of World War One.
26 May 1940
Thousands of Allied troops are evacuated from Dunkirk, France
Allied forces were utterly overwhelmed by the German ‘blitzkrieg’ in France. Thousands of soldiers were trapped in a shrinking pocket of territory centred around the French seaside town of Dunkirk. The Royal Navy’s Operation Dynamo succeeded in evacuating approximately 338,000 British and French troops in destroyers and hundreds of ‘little ships’ – volunteers who sailed to France in their own vessels – over a period of ten days, while under constant attack from the Luftwaffe (German air force).
30 June 1940
German forces occupy the Channel Islands
Britain had taken the decision not to defend the Channel Islands in the event of a German invasion. As German forces overran France in June 1940, about 30,000 people were evacuated from the islands, with about twice that number choosing to remain. Jersey and Guernsey were bombed on 28 June with the loss of 44 lives. The German occupation began two days later. The Channel Islands were the only part of the British Isles to be occupied during the war.
3 July 1940
French fleet in North Africa is destroyed by the Royal Navy
The attack on the French fleet at the Algerian port of Mers-el-Kébir left almost 1,300 Frenchmen dead and the fleet immobilised. Prime Minister Winston Churchill personally ordered the fleet destroyed if it refused to fight alongside British, following France’s capitulation to the Germans. Despite the cost in lives, Churchill could not allow the fleet to become a threat to British naval dominance in the Mediterranean.
13 August 1940
Battle of Britain begins with heavy raids by the German Luftwaffe
In July 1940, German leader Adolf Hitler ordered preparations for Operation Sealion – the invasion of Britain. The Luftwaffe (German air force) first had to destroy the Royal Air Force. Vastly outnumbered, the RAF nonetheless consistently inflicted heavy losses on the German squadrons, thanks to excellent aircraft, determined pilots and radar technology. On 17 September, two days after the Luftwaffe sustained its heaviest single day of losses, Hitler postponed the invasion.
2 September 1940
‘Destroyers for bases’ agreement gives Britain 50 US destroyers
In September 1940, US President Franklin Roosevelt signed an agreement to give Britain 50 obsolete American destroyers in exchange for the use of naval and air bases in eight British possessions. The lease was guaranteed for the duration of 99 years ‘free from all rent and charges’. Nonetheless, the US showed no sign yet of entering the war on the Allied side, as many in Britain hoped they would.
7 September 1940
‘Blitz’ begins with a massive daylight raid by the Luftwaffe
German bombing raids had already targeted Liverpool and Birmingham during August, but on 7 September the ‘Blitz’ intensified as 950 aircraft attacked London. It was the start of 57 consecutive nights of heavy bombing. The raid caused some 300 civilian deaths and a further 1,300 serious injuries. By the end of the Blitz, around 30,000 Londoners had been killed with another 50,000 injured.
15 April 1941
1,000 people are killed in the Belfast Blitz
No city, save London, suffered more loss of life in one night raid than Belfast, after 180 German bombers attacked the city. At the height of the raid an appeal was sent to the Irish leader Éamon De Valera, who sent fire engines to help fight the fires raging in the city.
20 May 1941
German troops invade Crete, driving the Allies out of the Eastern Mediterranean
German and Italian troops had overrun Greece in three weeks, starting on 6 April. Commonwealth troops were rushed there from Egypt to help the Greek resistance, but had to be evacuated. Many were sent to Crete in an effort to prevent the Axis powers dominating the eastern Mediterranean. Crete was attacked by the Germans on 20 May, and the Allied forces there were defeated and evacuated by the end of the month.
24 May 1941
HMS ‘Hood’ sunk by the German battleship ‘Bismarck’
The British battlecruiser ‘Hood’ was sunk during the Battle of Denmark Strait, probably by a single shell from the German battleship ‘Bismarck’. The ship sank so quickly that only three of the 1,418 man crew survived. ‘Hood’ was a well-known symbol of British imperial power and its loss was a significant psychological blow to Britain. The ‘Bismarck’ was itself sunk by the Royal Navy on 27 May 1941.
12 August 1941
Anglo-American alliance is sealed with the Atlantic Charter
The Atlantic Charter, agreed by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and US President Franklin Roosevelt, set out the principles that would shape the struggle against German aggression. It was drawn up during a secret meeting aboard the USS ‘Augusta’, off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada. The charter was supported by 26 countries, including the Soviet Union, and after the war formed the basis of the United Nations Declaration. America entered the war four months later.
26 January 1942
First American troops arrive in Europe, landing in Belfast
America entered the war on the Allied side in December 1941, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and subsequent German declaration of war on the United States. Millions of men and thousands of planes and tanks were deployed to Britain, which became a base for American airmen flying bombing raids over Europe, a staging post for American troops on their way to fight in North Africa, and crucially the launching point for the D-Day invasions that began the liberation of Western Europe.
15 February 1942
British colony of Singapore surrenders to Japanese forces
This catastrophic defeat was a fatal blow to British prestige and signalled the fall of the empire in the Far East. The Japanese unexpectedly attacked down the Malay Peninsula instead of from the sea, where Singapore’s defences were concentrated. About 70,000 men were taken prisoner, many of whom would not survive the war due to the brutal conditions of their incarceration.
11 March 1942
Sir Stafford Cripps goes to India to offer post-war self-government
Sir Richard Stafford Cripps was sent to India in March 1942 to win the co-operation of Indian political groups. The Japanese had occupied Burma, and were at the border of India. Stafford Cripps effectively offered post-war independence, which Mohandas Gandhi described as a ‘post-dated cheque on a crashing bank’. The Indian National Congress insisted on immediate independence, which Stafford Cripps refused. Gandhi launched a last civil disobedience campaign, for which he was imprisoned.
30 May 1942
Start of the RAF’s ‘thousand bomber raids’ on German cities
Air Marshall Arthur Harris took command of the Royal Air Force’s bomber force in February 1942. He wanted to demonstrate the effectiveness of Bomber Command with massive, concentrated raids (‘area bombing’) on key German cities. The first ‘thousand bomber raid’ was on Cologne, with a second, two nights later, on Essen. A third raid, this time on Bremen, took place on 25 June. The raids caused massive destruction, particularly in Cologne.
19 August 1942
‘Dieppe Raid’ ends in disaster for the Allies
The Allied attack on the German-occupied port of Dieppe, on the northern French coast, had a variety of purposes. It would raise morale at a time when the war was going badly, it would show the Soviets that the western Allies could open a second front, and it would teach valuable lessons for the eventual full-scale invasion of Europe. It was a disaster. Of the 6,000 mainly Canadian troops who made it ashore, more than 4,000 were killed, wounded or taken prisoner.
23 October – 4 November 1942
Decisive British victory over German forces at Battle of El Alamein, Egypt
General Claude Auchinleck had stopped the Axis forces (mainly German and Italian troops) during the First Battle of El Alamein in early July 1942, but the Allied position was still precarious. When General Bernard Montgomery took command of 8th Army, he built up its strength to a level of superiority before smashing the Axis forces in a carefully coordinated assault, driving them all the way back to Tunisia. By May 1943, the Axis had been completely cleared out of North Africa.
‘Beveridge Report’ lays the foundations for the Welfare State
Sir William Beveridge’s report gave a summary of principles aimed at banishing poverty from Britain, including a system of social security that would be operated by the government, and would come into effect when war ended. Beveridge argued that the war gave Britain a unique opportunity to make revolutionary changes. Beveridge’s recommendations for the creation of a Welfare State were implemented by Clement Attlee after the war, including the creation of the National Health Service in 1948.
13 May 1943
Axis siege of the island of Malta is lifted
Malta’s position in the Mediterranean made it strategically vital for the Allies. It was effectively under siege from 1940 and suffered devastating Axis (Italian and German) bombing. From January to July 1942 there was only one 24-hour period when no bombs fell on the island. In summer 1942, George VI awarded the island of Malta the George Cross in acknowledgement of the bravery of its inhabitants. The siege was finally lifted when Axis forces capitulated in North Africa on 13 May 1943, .
16 May 1943
‘Dambusters Raid’ by the RAF breaches two dams in the Ruhr valley
This Royal Air Force raid by 19 Lancasters utilised a ‘bouncing bomb’, developed by British scientist Barnes Wallis, in an attempt to destroy three major dams supplying water and power to the important German industrial region of the Ruhr. Two of the dams were breached, but 53 of the 133 aircrew were killed. Severe flooding killed over 1,000 people, but the damage to the Ruhr’s industrial capability was relatively minor. Nonetheless, the raids were a major propaganda victory.
23 May 1943
Germany calls off the Battle of the Atlantic
Allied merchant shipping losses to German ‘U-boats’ in the Atlantic had reached crisis levels in late 1942 to early 1943. At the Casablanca Conference in January 1943, Allied leaders allocated more resources to the battle. In March 1943, after a ‘blackout’ of several months, German U-boat ciphers were once again broken, allowing the new resources to be deployed to devastating effect. By May 1943, U-boat losses were so heavy that Kriegsmarine commander Admiral Karl Dönitz called off the battle.
10 July 1943
First Allied troops land in Europe as invasion of Sicily begins
When British and American troops landed on the south eastern tip of Sicily, it was the first significant Allied landing on European soil in two years. After a prolonged battle, Axis forces started withdrawing from the island on 11 August. The island of Sicily gave the Allies a foothold for the invasion of mainland Italy, which began in September.
Butler Act creates free secondary education
RA Butler, the progressive Conservative chancellor of the exchequer, created universal free secondary education to the age of 15, something people had campaigned for since the 19th century. There were three types of schools – grammar, secondary modern and technical, entrance to which was determined by the ’11 plus’ examination.
18 May 1944
Allies win the Battle of Monte Cassino after five months of fighting
The battle centred on the ancient Italian monastery of Monte Cassino. The Allies were attempting to break through the German ‘Gustav Line’, which ran across Italy, south of Rome. The Germans sought to halt the Allied advance north by holding them at Monte Cassino. The bitter fighting lasted over five months, during which the monastery was reduced to rubble. By the time the Allies broke through, casualties numbered more than 54,000 Allied and 20,000 Germans troops.
6 June 1944
Allied forces land in Normandy on D-Day, starting the liberation of France
The invasion of Europe – the largest amphibious invasion in history – succeeded in landing 150,000 troops on the beaches of Normandy on the first day, through a massive combined operation requiring hundreds of ships and total air superiority. Behind the lines, Allied paratroops seized key strategic targets, while the French resistance sabotaged rail and communication links. By the end of D-Day, five beachheads were secured, and the Allies had a foothold in France.
22 June 1944
Allies defeat the Japanese at the battles of Imphal and Kohima
Since the start of the Burma campaign in 1941, Allied forces had done little but retreat to the point that Japanese forces stood ready to invade north east India. When the command of 14th Army passed to Lieutenant General William Slim, he imbued it with a new fighting spirit and developed a strategy of air support that allowed besieged positions to hold out against Japanese assault. He used Kohima and Imphal to break the Japanese in Burma and by June 1945, 14th Army had retaken Rangoon.
25 September 1944
Allied forces are defeated at the Battle of Arnhem
Operation Market Garden was a bold plan to land 30,000 Allied troops behind enemy lines and capture eight bridges spanning a network of waterways on the Dutch-German border near Arnhem. It would allow the Allies to outflank German border defences, opening the way for an advance into Germany and an early end to the war. A combination of factors, including faulty intelligence about German strength and bad weather, resulted in failure. More than 1,130 Allied troops were killed and 6,000 captured.
4 February 1945
Allied leaders shape the post-war world at the Yalta Conference
The war leaders agreed that Germany should be forced to surrender unconditionally and would be divided into four zones between Britain, the Soviet Union, France and the United States. It was also agreed that the Soviet Union would enter the war against Japan after Germany was defeated.
15 April 1945
British troops liberate the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen, Germany
The liberation of Bergen-Belsen brought the horrors of Nazi genocide home to the British public when film and photographs of the camp appeared in British newspapers and cinemas. Conditions at Bergen-Belsen were so desperate that more than 10,000 prisoners died in the weeks after the liberation of the camp, despite the best efforts of the Allies to keep them alive. Millions were murdered to satisfy Nazi theories about racial-biological purity, at least six million of whom were Jews.
8 May 1945
Britain celebrates the end of war on Victory in Europe Day
German forces had been utterly defeated by the end of April 1945. Adolf Hitler committed suicide on 30 April as Soviet forces closed in on his Berlin bunker. The German Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz surrendered to Allied General Dwight Eisenhower in France on 7 May. The following day was officially celebrated in Britain as Victory in Europe Day. The entire country came to a standstill as people celebrated the end of war.
26 July 1945
Labour wins the general election by a landslide
On 23 May the wartime coalition government ended. Winston Churchill headed a temporary Conservative government until the July general elections, which Labour won with a majority of 146. Returning soldiers wanted social reforms and had rejected the ‘war leader’ Churchill in favour of Labour’s Clement Attlee. The post-war years saw the implementation of many of the reforms recommended by Sir William Beveridge in 1942, and the creation of the Welfare State.
15 August 1945
Victory over Japan Day marks the end of World War Two
On 6 August, an atomic bomb was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima by the American bomber ‘Enola Gay’. Three days later, a second bomb was dropped on the port city of Nagasaki. In all, 140,000 people perished. Less than a week later, the Japanese leadership agreed to an unconditional surrender, and the Emperor Hirohito broadcast his nation’s the capitulation over the radio. Victory over Japan day also marked the end of World War Two.
24 October 1945
United Nations comes into existence with Britain as a founder member
At the Yalta Conference in early 1945, the ‘Big Three’ of Britain’s Winston Churchill, US President Franklin D Roosevelt and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin agreed to establish a new global organisation – the United Nations. The structure and charter of the organisation were established at another conference in San Francisco. Britain became one of the five ‘security council’ members, with a power of veto. On 24 October, the UN officially came into existence when its members ratified its charter.