Wartime Britain flooded by imports

Speaking at the Chalke Valley History Festival last night, Professor David Edgerton had some fun dispelling a number of long-established “myths” about Britain in World War II.  Several of the “myths” were really cases of competing truths.  For example, he attacked the idea that Germany’s submarines substantially reduced British imports during the war.  Yes, imports went down when measured by volume, but the value of imports went up.

This paradox is easily explained.  With the Nazi occupation of Europe, Britain had to shift the primary source of her imports from the continent to the Americas and Australia & New Zealand, making freight journeys much longer.  Before the war, the country had imported large amounts of animal feed and iron ore, both low value raw materials.  With freight much more expensive, it made sense to switch imports to low-volume finished goods.  So imports of canned meat, finished steel, machine parts and engines increased dramatically, while imports of maize were eliminated.  Instead of growing our own cows we got the Uruguayans to do it for us.

The truth that Hitler’s U-Boats contributed to a general reduction in imports (by volume) was helpful to Churchill and successor politicians trumpeting Britain’s ability to stand alone.  The truth that imports (by value) actually increased during the war is probably more relevant.

Edgerton’s book, Britain’s War Machine, is here.

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