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After the battle of Dunkirk, the U.S. shipped something like 500,000 rifles to Britain. This compares to about 400,000 Allied troops at the port (counting captured French), 338,226 actually rescued, perhaps 250,000 of which were British. So the total number of shipped U.S. rifles was a multiple of the number of British troops.

To what extent did the Allied troops bring back rifles and small arms (as opposed to heavy equipment)? Were almost all weapons sacrificed to save the men? Or was it not possible for most men to carry a rifle over their head while boarding ship?

More to the point, why were 500,000 American rifles needed/wanted to resupply 250,000 British soldiers? Was it the case that each man at Dunkirk was supplied with (and lost) "multiple" weapons, so that even if many men brought back "one,"the 500,000 American rifles would have re-equipped no more, and possibly less than 250,000 men? Or was it that Britain was so short of weapons that they would have been "stuck" even without the debacle at Dunkirk?

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    In addition to troops from the BEF evacuated from Dunkirk, rifles were also needed for new conscripts coming through training and also for the nascent Home Guard – sempaiscuba May 22 at 1:29
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    Soldiers of other nationalities also made it to the UK, either from Dunkirk or from other locations and arming them made a lot of sense, especially without the hindsight that Operation Sea Lion (the German invasion of the UK) was never going to happen. – Italian Philosophers 4 Monica May 22 at 5:15
  • @sempaiscuba: Then the issue was "they were 'stuck' even before the debacle at Dunkirk." – Tom Au May 22 at 16:16
  • @TomAu Yes. The previous governments had pursued policies of appeasement and refused to re-arm in case it lead to an escalating arms-race. The fact is simply that the UK was absolutely not ready for war in 1939/40, even with the resources of the whole British Empire behind it. – sempaiscuba May 22 at 16:21
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Both to resupply withdrawn men and initially supply new units coming to readiness.

In Chapter 7 of Their Finest Hour Churchill enumerates the equipment losses at Dunkirk as including 90,000 rifles, amounting to personal arms for over 25% of the evacuated men. He also notes further along that the territorial troops that had been raised and begun training over the preceding 8 months were at best only partially equipped with personal arms, and nowhere near well enough equipped in early June, 1940, to be assigned combat duty.

There were apparently no significant stock of any weapons in Britain at that time, due to the disarmament policies of the preceding decade and a half.

The impression I get from reading Churchill's description is that as opposed to the British requesting a specific number of rifles, they inquired of the U.S.A. how many spare might be available - and when told half a million agreed to purchase all of them. So the quantity of 500,000 is not so much specification of an immediate need, as a quantity not unreasonable to acquire in expectation of need.

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    Also, don't forget, that it is not a good idea to use a training rifle for battle - if you train well, the precision of the barrel of the rifle significantly lowers. So, for a fresh soldier you'd better use two rifles – Gangnus May 23 at 0:50
  • @Gangnus: Excellent point - though in extremis better one rifle for everyone than two for every second man. – Pieter Geerkens May 23 at 1:04
  • "agreed to purchase all of them" - did they ever pay for them? Lend-Lease was about a year away. – Mazura May 23 at 21:49
  • I would throw out "disarmament policies" because Britain started rearming in 1934, well before the war and even before Germany en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_re-armament – rs.29 May 24 at 6:37
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    @Mazura: So far as I know, the UK repaid the US for all loans. Lend-lease, Anglo-American Loan. – RedGrittyBrick May 24 at 19:58
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Question: Why was the British army so short of rifles after Dunkirk?

Short Answer:

Although Britain's expeditionary force (338,226 rescued) lost much of their equipment in France, British stockpiles on hand were more than enough to re-equip them with rifles. (Britain had stockpiled more than 1 million rifles in june of 1940). The overall shortage of rifles while stressed by Dunkirk had more to do with the increasing needs for rifles relative to the collapse of France and what that meant both planned and unplanned to Britain's strategic situation.

Britain in the summer of 1940 was being called to:

  1. Re-equip it's existing 27 divisions who had been rescued at Dunkirk
  2. Equip an additional 28 divisions deemed necessary by British military leadership (as soon as possible).
  3. Equip the better part of a million civilian volunteers who came forward after Dunkirk known as the home guard,
  4. Export a sizeable amount of Britain's production capabilities and stockpiles to strategic parts of the empire (Egypt, Suez Canal) in order to safeguard them from German aggression in a time when Britain's home islands were under imminent threat of invasion

They couldn't do all four in the timeframe necessary after Dunkirk, nor could they risk not doing so. All four of these pressures created a shortage of rifles which necessitated the request from the United States.

While 500,000 rifles from the United States seems like a lot, it was a fraction of what Britain required after Dunkirk. A fraction of the rifles Britain already had on hand in stockpiles after Dunkirk (1 million + rifles), not to mention what they already had spread across their active duty military divisions, and what Britain was able to produce domestically in the months following Dunkirk.

Detailed Answer:

1. Materials Lost at Dunkirk.

British War Production
The stores the British Army left behind were equivalent to the equipment of eight to ten divisions, and included 880 field guns, 310 guns of larger calibre, some 500 anti-aircraft guns, some 850 anti-tank guns, 6,400 anti-tank rifles, 11,000 machine guns, very nearly 700 tanks, nearly 20,000 motorcycles and 45,000 motor cars and lorries, to say nothing of large dumps of ammunition. These losses had to be made good at once. For having shipped to France every possible weapon necessary to maintain in action the expeditionary force, this country found itself in June 1940 standing not only alone but also unarmed.

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British Equipment losses at Dunkirk and the situation post Dunkirk
The Dunkirk evacuation represented massive losses in materials and equipment for the British army.

The following table shows the percentage of the 27 "token" divisions in the United Kingdom that could be equipped with army stocks within the UK, June 30th 1940. enter image description here

..... the United Kingdom (had enough equipment) to fully equip around 10-12 divisions with artillery and small arms (there are more than enough rifles to equip the full 27). .....the most serious situation is that of anti-tank weapons, with only enough 2pdrs to fully equip just over 4 divisions.

enter image description here

2. Need to double the existing 27 army divisions in Britain.

British Equipment losses at Dunkirk and the situation post Dunkirk
it is important to look at the situation the United Kingdom and the British Army was in. The British Army before the war was a small, professional force but as the probability of conflict increased the size of the British Army was rapidly increased and so did the need to modern equipment. The War Office requirements for equipment until 1939 was around 5 field divisions, by February 1939 this had increased to 10 divisions and by September the requirement was for 20 divisions with "55 as soon as possible".

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Which means after Dunkirk British stockpiles/industry were being asked to reequip the existing 27 divisions in June of 1940, in a time where their production was meant to go towards equipping the additional 28 divisions the British Military Leadership was calling for (as soon as possible) from Feb 39.

3. Need to arm the better part of a million volunteers who came forward after Dunkirk for the Home Guard.

Real-life Dad's Army used BROOM HANDLES instead of rifles
enter image description here The (British) Home Guard often lacked a uniform or weapon between them and was dubbed the Broomstick Army. The Government expected 150,000 volunteers when it was set up in May 1940 – but within a month 750,000 men had come forward.

US Material aid to Britain was not limited to Rifles, But of the 500,000 rifles sent to Britain in the wake of Dunkirk, The Home Guard is where they were put to use. Due to the incompatibility of the ammunition and other factors most of them went to the British Home Guard, which ramped up exponentially after Dunkirk.

British War Production
The urgent needs of home defence, however, went further than the rearming of the existing Army formations. The whole nation had to be drawn into garrison duty, and to begin with, the Local Defence Volunteers (the Home Guard of the later phase) had to be supplied with uniforms, infantry weapons and certain other military stores. Fortunately much of this equipment could be drawn from the first-aid shipments of American arms. For, in response to the Prime Minister's appeal, the American Government sent to this country with the greatest dispatch a large consignment of weapons, including over half a million rifles, 22,000 machine guns, 55,000 'tommy' guns, 895 75-mm. guns and supplies of ammunition for these weapons. But, large and important as this shipment was, it did not provide for more than the initial instalment of the home defence requirements. Above all, the demand of the Home Guard for grenades, Sten guns, Smith guns and clothing had to be met from domestic sources.

4. Exporting arms from the UK After Dunkirk to other strategic parts of the Empire

British Equipment losses at Dunkirk and the situation post Dunkirk
The following table shows the increase in equipment from June to August 1940, large amounts of equipment were sent to the Middle East and these have been included in the final column. enter image description here

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  • The only Canadian force in the UK in 1940 was first infantry division and it had lost most of a brigade's equipment in the second BEF fiasco. – C'est Moi May 23 at 1:16
  • "The First Canadian Army was the only fully equipped force in Britain." equipped by whom? One of the two counties on a continent completely unravished by war? Russians won WWII wearing American boots. 'Why was the British army so short' of everything, is a different question than the extent of which the Allied troops brought back rifles from Dunkirk. – Mazura May 23 at 17:20
  • Japan awoke the 'sleeping dragon', named not for her military might at the time, but the horde she sat upon with the ability to enact the lend-lease with dollar-plus contracts. You want it, we got. We really want to get at it though; anyone wanna poke the bear? – Mazura May 23 at 17:29
  • @Mazura, Yes, the United States army was not a player with the Major powers of Europe and never had been. As I said roughly the size of Portugul's or Belguim's when WWII began. But the US economy had been the largest economy in the world since the 1920's. Roosevelt engaged the entire US economy into manufacturing War materials and that's really what the US excelled at. But that transformation had not yet taken place i(summer of 1940), so the weapons transferred to Britain did impact the US army, and were controversial at the time to arm Great Britain at the expense of the US army. – JMS May 23 at 21:02
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There doesn't appear to be acute shortage of rifles, compared to other arms

Officially, BEF lost 68 000 men in France 1940. This include KIA, MIA and WIA. Many of them were made prisoners. We could assume they all lost their personal weapons (i.e. rifles) . Number of personnel evacuated from Dunkirk is estimated at around 338 000 (including French), and number of troops evacuated in subsequent Operation Ariel is estimated at around 192 000 (again, with French) .

How many rifles did these troops lose is difficult to estimate, Churchill goes with 25% or 90 000 rifles, most pessimistic would be that both British and French lost all equipment. However, question is what was the status of British strategic stock in period in question. I found this report which shows amount of equipment lost and remaining. As you can see, situation was dire considering tanks, anti-tank guns and artillery. Rifles, not so much . There were 1 150 000 rifles left (mostly Lee–Enfield), enough to rearm every British solider coming from France. Ammo stocks for these rifles also do not appear to be critical. Granted, many of these rifles could be old WW1 stocks, still they were usable in case of emergency and Lee–Enfield (in various modifications) remained primary service rifle throughout WW2.

As for the need to buy US weapons, Britain was in the war. As said before, lack of rifles was not acute, but there was a great need for other types of weapons. British strategic goal was to lure US into the war, and they were doing that step by step. By delivering arms to British (and French) plus their neutrality patrols, US was in fact slowly moving from neutrality towards conflict with Axis. Maybe US rifles (M1917 Enfield, ammo not compatible with British version) were not needed on front lines (they were mostly used by Home Guard) , but they sent powerful political message that US is not willing to let Britain fall into German occupation, and that US entry in the war could be expected if certain lines are crossed.

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  • In line with rebutting the top answer; one of its comments: "not a good idea to use a training rifle for battle"... indeed, which is why these were for the home guard, with incompatible ammunition to boot. With a population in 1940 of about 45M, .5M is not enough. These were "surplus" rifles; afaik, no US Army regular was ever deployed in WWII with a bolt-action rifle. They all had semi-automatic M1s. - How many 30-06 cartridges were sent? NG armories c. 1970 trained with surplus ammo and M1s still left over from WWII, 25y and two wars later.... – Mazura May 24 at 23:13
  • @Mazura British Army peaked at 2.9 million in June 1945. In June of 1940 they had around 1.7 million man. Not all of them lost their rifles at Dunkirk, so the need was not that high. Arguably, American M1917 Enfield and British Lee–Enfield are similar enough for basic training (except different caliber) . – rs.29 May 26 at 0:03
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Seems to me to be some question as to what was actually delivered and their purpose. As early as May 1940, the US War Department declared some 500,000 Enfield rifles as surplus. But, other sources, present 250,000 of these Enfields as being agreed to be sent to the British in September 1940.

The 500,000 -

In the UNITED STATES ARMY IN WORLD WAR II - CHIEF OF STAFF: PREWAR PLANS AND PREPARATIONS by Mark Skinner Watson (1950) we can find discussion including mention of 500,000 rifles and ammunition:
Chapter X, starting on page 299, covers Aid to Britain versus Rearming America. See https://history.army.mil/books/wwii/csppp/ch10.htm and starting on page 309

*“. . . On 22 May <1940>, the day when General Marshall resisted the Treasury's airplane proposal, the Chief of Ordnance provided the Chief of Staff with a list of ordnance items that might be released without imperiling the national defense. It was strikingly close to an Anglo-French request of the day before, and included 500,000 Enfield rifles, 100,000,000 rounds of .30-caliber ammunition, 500 75-mm. guns, 35,000 unmodified machine guns and automatic rifles, and 500 3-inch mortars with 50,000 rounds of ammunition. It is noticeable that the list, submitted in answer to a request from the Chief of Staff and resubmitted that day to the President, was made up of items far larger than ever before mentioned as surplus. General Marshall based it on Ordnance and G-4 estimates of what would be surplus to the needs of a 1,800,000-man army, reckoning on new equipment to be produced before the 1,800,000 total was attained. Accepting both the reasoning and the estimate, the President asked General Marshall to consider legal means of transferring to the British the declared surplus, and accordingly the Chief of Staff took up this matter with Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles. They agreed that the goods could not legally be sold direct to the Allies, and parted for separate consideration of that dilemma. To his Staff advisers General Marshall mentioned his further remarks on that occasion

“’. . . I explained to Mr. Welles the situation regarding aircraft, that we could not jeopardize the completion of our augmentation of operating units by releasing planes under process of manufacture for delivery to the Army; that the situation with regard to pilots would become an impossible one in a very few months if we did not receive deliveries of planes. He agreed with this. I told him that in the smaller matters of accommodating them regarding engines and things of that sort we would do practically all of this as desired by the Allies.’

“A report on legal methods of accomplishing the President's wish was made by General Moore, of G-4, who explained that an exchange of old for new ammunition could legally be effected only in the case of deteriorated or unserviceable ammunition; other items could be declared surplus by the Secretary of War and then sold to a domestic corporation which could resell abroad. He warned that it could not be done without public knowledge, but that formal public advertisement was not compulsory. The method subsequently outlined by General Marshall met the approval of the Secretary of State and the Attorney General, but the Secretary of War complied with Mr. Roosevelt's wishes only under order. He dutifully signed the transfer to the U. S. Steel Export Co. on 11 June - when the ordnance had already been assembled for shipment to Britain but this was after he had asked for legislation to designate the Secretary's future responsibilities in such a situation. It was not long afterward that Mr. Woodring was replaced in office - not by Mr. Johnson, who had expected the higher post, but by Henry L. Stimson.”*

. . . And jumping to page 312

*“The Critical Shortage in Small-Arms Ammunition

“Another item in these 1940 "surplus" lists calls for examination; this is the small-arms ammunition, of which 100,000,000 rounds were declared by General Wesson on 22 May to be releasable. Arrangements were made on 4 June to make the shipment, but in the next two days further exchanges of information, of which General Marshall was told, led to the conclusion that the Protective Mobilization Plan requirements were still exceeded by 30,000,000 rounds and these were added accordingly to the previously declared surplus. Further, the Chief of Staff then promised another 58,000,000 rounds to be delivered before December, to be replaced by 50,000,000 rounds on order, but only 8,000,000 rounds of that total were in fact delivered.

“Two circumstances intervened to prevent full delivery. One was an amendment to House Resolution 9822, the amendment prohibiting transfer of any more munitions except after certification by either the Chief of Naval Operations or the Chief of Staff that the munitions in question were not essential to defense of the United States. The other circumstance was the recognition in late July that there was present need for much more .30-caliber ammunition than had been previously estimated for training, for Philippines support, and for emergency supply. On 9 August Lt. Col. Orlando Ward, then Secretary of the General Staff, in a memorandum to the Deputy Chief of Staff noted a current proposal to release the remaining 50,000,000 rounds for shipment abroad, and predicted that "G. C. M. [General Marshall] will not certify it as surplus." He was right, for a 16 August memorandum from the Chief of Staff stated that no more .30-caliber ammunition should go to Britain from Army stocks, because there now was a shortage of 1,077,000,000 rounds.

“This startling admission, two months after the June tender, can be attributed to belated recognition of a fact, or else to a considerably altered situation. The Congress had passed the new appropriation bills for an Army much larger than the PMP force for which previous ammunition calculations had been made, and the National Guard and Selective Service calls were both in prospect. This appreciably changed the situation which had prevailed in June. Even so, General Marshall relented slightly four days later when, after discussions with G-4 and Ordnance officers, he agreed to release for shipment 5,000,000 rounds of the July-December allotments previously promised the British. The entire 50,000,000 allotment "I now consider too essential to our defense to permit the transfer." A directive he had issued on 14 August shows how thriftily he was dividing equipment at this time among the Army units, so that the demands of first-line troops would not absorb the supply to the total exclusion of second priority units. The directive ordered a general distribution up to one-fifth of organizational allowances but only after full priority had been given to the Alaskan defense, to the Armored Force (so far as tanks were concerned), and to the antiaircraft units.”*

Now, the 250,000 -

On the other hand, in Loewenheim, Francis, et al., eds., Roosevelt and Churchill – Their Secret Wartime Correspondence, (1975), (afraid I can’t help with an on line version, I using as first edition hard back for these citations) in the introduction to Part I, on page 80:

“Toward the end of July <1940>, however, various American organizations – including the so-called Century Group of prominent and influential interventionists and William Allen White’s Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies – began publicly advocating greater aid to Britain, and Churchill resumed his campaign for American destroyers. The Prime Minister’s anxieties were greatly increased by the onset of the blitz – the devastating bombing attacks on Great Britain designed to destroy British air strength by blasting airfields and key industries. The raids were widely regarded as a prelude to invasion. “While British pressure increased, the American response was slowed by the presidential election campaign. Partisan feeling in the United States was running high, making concerted effort difficult. Moreover, problems soon developed when the Americans insisted on formal contractual arrangements. The British were reluctant both to make unlimited territorial concessions and to give more than private assurances regarding the disposition of the British fleet in case of defeat. Despite this, the two powers reached broad agreement by September, though final details were not settled for another 6 months, on the ‘deal’ which brought Britain no only fifty over-age American destroyers, but also five B-17 bombers, 250,000 Enfield rifles, and 5 million rounds of .30-caliber ammunition. All this material was given in exchange for long-term leases to construct American bases in various British possessions in the Western Hemisphere. In large measure, the whole arrangement was made possible only because of the degree of trust and understanding that had already developed between Roosevelt and Churchill.”

Fast forwarding to a couple of messages cited in this work . . .

On page 109, responding to a message from Roosevelt on 13 August 1940 outlining the potential disposition of the Royal Navy in the event of defeat and the establishing of various locations for naval bases for the United States, Churchill wrote back, in part, on 15 August:

“I need not tell you how cheered I am by your message or how grateful I feel for your untiring efforts to give us all possible help. You will, I am sure, send us everything you can, for you know well that the worth of every destroyer that you can spare us is measured in rubies. But we also need the torpedo boats which you mentioned and as many flying boats and rifles as you can let us have. We have a million men waiting for rifles.”

. . .

Then Roosevelt to Churchill, in full, on 23 September 1940 (page 114):

“As soon as your message was received from Lord Lothian arrangements were undertaken for the release of the 250,000 Enfield rifles to the Purchasing Commission. I am informed that the rifles are already under way to New York for shipment.”

I wonder as to the significance of “. . . release of the 250,000 . . . “ as opposed to saying simply “release of 250,000 . . . ” Sounds pretty specific to me.

And in a long missive from Churchill to Roosevelt on 7 December 1940, we can find buried in the text on page 124:

“. . . You may have also received information about the needs or our armies. In the munitions sphere, in spite of enemy bombing we are making steady progress. Without you continued assistance in the supply of machine tools and the further release from stock of certain articles we could bot hope to equip 50 divisions in 1941. I am grateful for the arrangements already practically completed for your aid in the equipment of the army which we have already planned and for the provision of American-type weapons for an additional 10 divisions in time for the campaign of 1942. . . .”

So, perhaps, it was not so much that the rifles, be they the 500,000 identified as surplus or the 250,000 Roosevelt messaged as being released, were not so much needed for defense of the British Isles from German invasion (especially by the end of September 1940 German invasion was becoming less and less likely), but rather to start the process of carrying the war back to the Germans. Truly, the US Enfield rifles had to be clearly marked as they could only use the US .30-06 round, not the British .303. It was probably never envisioned to use the US Enfield’s in combat operations (not a good idea operationally or logistically to mix rifles/rifle rounds so similar in appearance in places of serious employment, leads to unpleasant surprises), but to use them in training until British production could reach equipping the forces as necessary.

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