The overall picture of Britain’s so-called special relationship with the US since the D-Day landings 75 years ago is not one of mutual respect and cooperation between equals, but rather one of dominance.
As the 75th anniversary of the incredible feat of cooperation that began the liberation of Europe, D-Day or Operation Overlord, approaches on June 6, it is worth reflecting on the nature of the relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States, and indeed whether such a relationship can be constituted as “special.”
The D-Day landings were the product of a partnership of equals. The plans were conceived by a British general, Frederick Morgan, and supported by a British-dominated staff in control of the Allied forces: General Bernard Montgomery in charge of land troops, Air Chief Marshall Trafford Leigh-Mallory responsible for aerial support, and Admiral Bertram Ramsay the sea. Furthermore, the deputy supreme Allied commander, Arthur Tedder, was British, leaving Dwight Eisenhower, as supreme Allied commander, the only non-British person in a strategic command position. Given that the plans for the operation had been developed by the British, and that senior command positions were held by British officers, it strongly suggests that Eisenhower’s appointment was more rooted in politics that ability, not to say that he wasn’t a capable general.
The picture of cooperation is further reinforced by the participation of forces. Britain supplied 892 out of the 1,213 warships taking part, and 3,261 of the 4,126 landing craft, with the Royal and Merchant Navies providing more than double the personnel level of the United States. The Royal Air Force supplied around half of the 11,590 Allied aircraft involved, whilst on land British and Canadian forces had responsibility for three landing beaches (Gold, Sword and Juno), with 75,215 troops and 7,900 paratroopers, while the US covered the remaining two beaches (Omaha and Utah) with 57,500 troops and 15,500 paratroopers.
Furthermore, the intelligence operations at breaking the German Engima codes were led by Alan Turing at Bletchley Park, and the substantive disinformation campaign, including the fictitious First United States Army Group designed to trick the Germans into believing the invasion would take place at Calais, was led by Colonel David Strangeways, a Brit. Therefore, the bulk of forces involved in D-Day were provided by the British Empire. This is not to say that the American participation should be overlooked. But a reversal of the common perception put forward by Hollywood films that the United States led the salvation of Europe is in order, when the operation was, in fact, planned by the British, based on British intelligence, British-led and involved a majority of British troops.
After the War
The so-called special relationship of the Second World War was, therefore, one of military parity in terms of command, personnel and capability, with intelligence arguably dominated by the British. Political relationships were largely dependent on the respective personalities of the individual leaders at any given time and, as such, can’t be considered to be part of a special relationship. However, the lend-lease programs and the postwar Marshall Plan aid demonstrated the economic dominance of the United States, which was further reinforced by the Bretton Woods system, based on linking the dollar to gold reserves. Furthermore, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are both effectively controlled by the United States, as the voting percentages in each organization are dictated by the levels of contribution. Since the Bretton Wood system collapsed in 1971, the dollar has operated as a global reserve currency.
Until the Gulf War broke out in 1991, the United Kingdom and United States had been unwilling to support each other, directly, in military terms. The UK did not engage in combat operations alongside the US in Vietnam, nor did the United States get involved in the legacies of empire, like the Suez Crisis of 1956 and the Malayan Emergency 1948-60, for example, or indeed when the territorial integrity for the United Kingdom was undermined with the Argentinian invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982.
Beyond the mutual support offered as members of NATO and the P5 of the UN Security Council, where the interests of both countries were arguably aligned, there is little evidence of a special relationship between Britain and the US during the Cold War period. Indeed, it could be argued that the only reason the notion of a special relationship has such prominence in the mindset is down to the positive relationship between President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.
The Gulf War saw combined operations to overthrow Saddam Hussein, with the British providing a number of specialist roles. Notably with special-forces and low-level runway denial missions, which the Royal Air Force was the only air force in the world capable of performing. (The Tornado GR1 was the only supersonic low-level bomber and utilized the JP-233 Low-Altitude Airfield Attack System.) However, the bulk of the coalition forces, around 700,000 out of a total of approximately 950,000 troops were provided by the United States. Furthermore, every command position was held by an American officer. It can be argued that as this was ostensibly an American operation, this is unsurprising. However, it is also worth noting that the United States didn’t feel obligated to make a political appointment, as in the case of Eisenhower on D-Day, to reinforce the special relationship.
Lacking the Means
The nature of the relationship is stark when operations to defeat the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan from 2006 onward, but especially following the 2009 surge under President Barack Obama, are considered. The US provided over 75% of the troops deployed to Afghanistan, even with a coalition of 43 partner countries participating in operations during the course of the 11-year International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission.
American troops consistently took part in riskier combat operations, despite the common perception of the increased risks to British troops operating in Helmand province. Once again, all the senior command positions were maintained by American officers after 2007, following the establishment of the ISAF countrywide command under a British general, David Richards, and NATO’s Allied Rapid Reaction Corps. The initial period of the ISAF mission that saw the mandate expanded outward from Kabul between 2003 and 2006, was run on a rotational basis from contributing countries. A number of deputy commanders were British, and the regional commands involved a rotational system between Allies, though none were specifically British.
Despite the United Kingdom supplying the most troops after the United States and operating in one of the most dangerous areas of Afghanistan, no special dispensation was given in terms of providing the command structure for the mission. Therefore, the argument that Britain is just another US ally and not in any way special gains credence.
The change over the course of recent history in the widely-hailed special relationship between Britain and the United States is difficult to miss. Politically, the relationship is dependent on the respective leadership personalities at a given time. Economically, there is no special relationship, and, as seen in the Gulf War and Afghanistan, militarily, the United Kingdom is lacking with regards to the ability to contribute relative to the United States.
The only area that could be considered special is in the field of intelligence, where the UK, as part of the Five Eyes alliance, does enjoy a privileged status based on capability. The overall picture, thus, is not one of mutual respect and cooperation between equals, but rather one of dominance. Therefore, when we remember the bravery of those involved in the Normandy landings of June 6, 1944, and the associated costs, both in terms of human lives and resources, it could be worthwhile to also contemplate just what should Britain’s role in the world — and its relative power within the international system — be going forward given that it is no longer an equal partner in a special relationship.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.