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Just how special was the ‘special relationship’ in the Second World War? (Part 2, 1942–44)

The Allied commander US general Dwight D [Eisenhower] (© AFP/AFP/Getty Images)

The USA and the UK have often been said to have a special relationship because of the economic, political, military and cultural links which have developed over nearly four hundred years of shared history. In Part 1 of this investigation we looked at the ‘special relationship’ from 1939-41. This early part of the Second World War saw the USA emerge from a period of isolation to ally with the UK against Germany, Italy and Japan. At first the support came in the form of loans, food, equipment and other vital supplies. After the Pearl Harbor attack in December 1941 the USA was a full combatant in the war.

One key element of the ‘special relationship’ during this period was the personal relationship between US President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. They met eleven times in person and exchanged over 1,700 letters and telegrams throughout the course of the war.

Yet the alliance was much more than just this personal friendship. The two countries co-operated in many ways. They shared military bases and even ships and aircraft. This proved vital, particularly in the Battle of the Atlantic (see investigation on this battle), in which the American and British navies and air forces battled against German submarines to keep the supply lines open.

The two countries even had a joint military command called the Combined Chiefs of Staff. Over the course of the war they worked closely together on the planning and execution of key operations such as the invasion of North Africa (Operation Torch), as well as the invasion of Italy in 1943 and the invasion of occupied France (D-Day) in June 1944. Of course they also disagreed, sometimes bitterly, over strategy and other issues, for example when US commanders wanted to invade France much earlier in the war. There was also rivalry between several of the British and US commanders.

Convoy WS-12: A Vought SB2U Vindicator scout bomber from USS Ranger (CV-4) flies anti-submarine patrol over the convoy, while it was en route to Cape Town, South Africa, 27 November 1941. © USN. (Source U.S. Navy Naval History Center [1] Photo #: 80-G-464654; also U.S. National Museum of Naval Aviation photo No. 1996.253.2152 [2] via Wikimedia Commons)

The US and UK also shared military intelligence and other types of information. Under the Quebec Agreement of 1943 the two countries agreed to work collaboratively in researching the development of atomic weapons. British scientists shared key research findings with the Manhattan Project (which developed the first Atomic Bomb), although there were tensions and accusations that the US researchers did not share their findings in return.

This is one of the areas which has led historians to ask questions about the ‘special relationship’. Was it really a partnership of equals? Did it deteriorate towards the end of the war, as Roosevelt’s own strength and health failed in the run up to his death in April 1945? Many of the letters and messages sent by Churchill suggest that this issue worried him as well at times.

Regardless of the exact nature of the relationship, it is clear that the two sides were close allies and the war only strengthened this bond. Hundreds of thousands of US troops, airmen and other service personnel were stationed in Britain. As well as intelligence, the US and UK also shared technological developments and equipment. US and British (and Commonwealth) service personnel fought together, particularly from 1944 as they fought their way through German-occupied Western Europe. The war period also brought massive cultural interaction as well, with US music and films brightening up wartime Britain. Thousands of British women fell for American servicemen and became ‘GI Brides’.

Explore the first part of this investigation, Just how special was the ‘special relationship’ in the Second World War? (Part 1, 1939-41)

➜ Investigation page

➜ The sources

➜ Notes for teachers

Find out more

The ‘Special Relationship’ between Great Britain and the United States Began with FDR
The Birth of the Anglo-American 'Special Relationship' – David Woolner
The Century of the 'Special Relationship': Britain and America in the Age of Churchill – David Woolner
Teaching With Documents: Documents Related to Churchill and FDR
What If Franklin D. Roosevelt Had Disliked Churchill?
British Pathé Search Results for “Churchill AND Roosevelt”