After the British military was kicked off continental Europe in 1940, left to face Hitler alone, London went searching for new guns and equipment.
While the U.S. was a guarded neutral at the time in a conflict that was a European-only issue, President Roosevelt responded to calls for help from across the pond and entered a deal to supply the British with old warships in exchange for a 99-year lease on a host of England's overseas bases. Going further, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill implored the U.S. to "Give us the tools and we'll finish the job," seeking modern munitions to replace those lost in the disastrous withdrawal from Dunkirk during the fall of France. This led to the Lend-Lease program.
Narrowly approved by Congress in March 1941– some nine months before Pearl Harbor – the Lend-Lease program allowed the U.S. to either lend or lease war supplies to any country the administration felt was "vital to the defense of the United States." This meant lots of stuff shipped direct from factories, usually passing through the U.S. military's hands, and then transferred abroad.
"TNT from Tennessee, Tommy Guns from Trenton, and tanks from Toledo," boasts a British newsreel of the day, "Each muzzle and machine pointed against Germany."
As much as a quarter of British and Commonwealth munitions used after 1941 came from America and, according to statistics, by 1944 the U.S. was producing about 60 percent of all munitions used by her overseas Allies. Moreover, it wasn't just guns and ammunition. During the war, American workers cranked out no less than 400,000 jeeps and trucks and 15 million pairs of boots for the Soviet army. While the Russians may have been first into Berlin, they got there on Yankee shoe leather and Detroit muscle.
How did the Tommys use M1911s?
The British, along with their Australian and Canadian cousins, had at least a passing affinity with the M1911 platform going back to the days of the Great War. Canadian troops carried the hardy John Browning-designed pistols on the Western Front as early as 1914 and the "daring young men and their flying machines" of the RAF often had .455-caliber M1911s along for their fight against the Red Baron and his Flying Circus, ordered on a special contract.
Fast forward to WWII and the M1911 was commonly issued to elite Commando and Parachute units. For example, Lt. Col. Augustus Newman, who earned Britain’s highest military honor for a Commando raid on German-occupied St. Nazaire, France in 1942, preferred the gun.
Guns shipped to Britain ranged from Colt's prewar commercial stock pistols, which went first, to dedicated wartime production guns from Remington Rand, Ithaca, and others. In fact, the Brits were so hungry for 1911-style pistols that they ordered another 8,000 .45 caliber Ballester Molinas from Argentina for use by the covert Special Operations Executive, which is a whole 'nother story.
It wasn't just the British who got crates of shiny new .45s. Lend-Lease reports in the National Archives detail deliveries of M1911A1s to Moscow as well.
While some M1911s remained in Commonwealth use well into the Cold War, the British government liquidated their supplies in the 1950s, with many shipped back to the U.S. as surplus. Most of these guns will carry marks to the effect of "Released British Govt. 1952." Although the pistols are not exceedingly rare, they are sought after by collectors as many of them remain in fantastic, almost mint, condition, suggesting that a lot of the wartime stock never made it to the field before being struck off the King's ledger.
British Lend Lease M1911s are typically lathered in inspection and proof marks from the Birmingham or London Proof Houses in addition to the manufacturer’s rollmarks and, especially for war-production guns, U.S. Army inspection marks. It is not uncommon to find upwards of a half-dozen assorted post-production stamps on a Lend-Lease .45.
Regardless, these well-traveled guns carry with them a unique story. One of helping an overseas ally at a time when the U.S. stood as an "arsenal of democracy."