Introduction

British defence policy in the inter-war years may be divided into two phases: 1919 to 1932, when economic problems and the absence of pressing dangers to national security led to reductions in the armed forces; and 1932 to 1939, when the darkening international situation gave defence preparedness increasing political priority. However, many of the strategic problems encountered during the later 1930s were rooted in the earlier phase, and this chapter analyses the period 1919-39 as a whole. There is a danger in this approach, since policies in the 1920s may be judged unfairly in the light of later events, but that is true even of the 1930s, when British defence policy was designed to deter aggression over an indefinite period even if the Chiefs of Staff were planning from 1934 on the basis of being ready for war by 1939.

In August 1919 the Cabinet decided that the defence departments should revise their estimates of expenditure for the coming year on the assumption that 'the British Empire will not be engaged in any great war during the next ten years, and that no Expeditionary Force is required for this purpose'.1 The purpose of this 'Ten Year Rule', as it came to be called, was to assist the chancellor of the exchequer in securing the cuts in expenditure required to balance his budget and, in one form or another, the rule remained the guiding principle of defence policy until 1932. At the time it did not seem to the Foreign Office to be unreasonable. Under the Treaty of Versailles signed on 28 June 1919 the Rhineland was to be occupied by Allied forces for up to fifteen years and demilitarised permanently; Germany's army was limited to 104,000 long-service volunteers (thereby restricting its ability to train reserves), and denied tanks or heavy guns; her navy was limited to six pre-dreadnoughts (or replacements of no more than 10,000 tons) and six light cruisers, and was forbidden to have submarines; and she was to

1 War Cabinet 'A' minutes, 15 Aug. 1919, cited in N. H. Gibbs, Grand Strategy, vol. I: Rearmament Policy (London: HMSO, 1976), p. 3.

have no air force. Britain thus faced no immediate major armed threat in Europe and, although it was known that Germany was not abiding strictly by the disarmament clauses of the peace treaty, Allied troops were withdrawn from the Rhineland in 1930.

Relations between Britain, Japan and the United States were influenced by the weakness of China, which was prone to civil war and had difficulty in resisting Japanese encroachments that threatened British and American markets there. The Americans hoped that Japanese policy would be less assertive if the Anglo-Japanese alliance, which was due for renewal, were allowed to lapse, and it was agreed in December 1921 at the Washington conference to replace the alliance with a rather nebulous four-power treaty, whereby Britain, France, Japan and the United States were to discuss jointly any threat to peace in the Pacific region. In February 1922, at the same conference, the leading naval powers agreed to limit their strengths in capital ships and aircraft carriers in the ratios: British Empire and United States 5; Japan 3, France and Italy 1.67; plus a ten-year moratorium (with certain exceptions) on building new capital ships and (again with certain exceptions) limits to the maximum tonnages of capital ships (35,000 tons), aircraft carriers (27,000 tons) and cruisers (10,000 tons). Japanese acceptance of a ratio of 60 per cent of American and British capital ships was balanced by a non-fortification agreement covering the western Pacific which, in effect, meant that Britain would not possess a major base closer to Japan than Singapore, or the United States one closer than Hawaii.2

Meanwhile, in June 1921, the Standing Defence Sub-Committee of the Cabinet had approved the building at Singapore of a naval base capable of maintaining the main fleet, to show that Britain could fulfil its commitments in the Far East. The Labour government of 1924 cancelled the scheme, but the Conservatives, who returned to office later that year, restarted the work. Churchill supported the decision to build the base, but nevertheless told the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, that he did not believe that there was the slightest chance of war with Japan 'in our lifetime' and that Singapore's defences need not be completed for another fifteen to twenty years. Churchill was chancellor of the exchequer at the time, and trying to limit the naval estimates, but the Foreign Secretary, Austen Chamberlain, also took the view that the prospect of war with Japan was 'very remote'.3 What no one could predict in the 1920s was the extent to which the world depression of the

2 Erik Goldstein and John Maurer (eds.), The Washington Conference, 1921-22: Naval Rivalry, East Asian Stability and the Road to Pearl Harbor (Ilford: Frank Cass, 1994).

3 Churchill to Baldwin, 15 Dec. 1924, printed in Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, vol. V, companion, part 1, pp. 303-7, at p. 306; CID minutes, 5 Jan. 1925, CAB 2/4, TNA. For early 1930s would drive Japan to try to deal with overpopulation, unemployment and popular unrest through territorial expansion. The Japanese army used the Mukden Incident in September 1931 to seize Manchuria from China, and in January 1932 there was further fighting in Shanghai, where about three-quarters of British investments in China were concentrated. In these circumstances, the Cabinet accepted in March 1932 the recommendation of the Chiefs of Staff that the Ten Year Rule should be ended, while also recognising the Treasury's advice that this decision must not be taken to justify an increase in defence expenditure without regard to the country's serious financial and economic situation.4 Britain had been forced to suspend the gold standard in September 1931 and unemployment peaked in 1932. A further reason for delay was the opening of the World Disarmament Conference at Geneva in February 1932; the government had no plans to disarm but had to take account of public opinion, which could be expected to be hostile to an increase in defence expenditure.5

For most of the inter-war period the immediate problems facing the armed forces related to local resistance to British rule or influence. Following disturbances beginning in 1919, Egypt was granted nominal independence in 1922, but Britain retained effective control over foreign relations and defence, her right to station her armed forces to defend the Suez Canal and the naval base at Alexandria being confirmed by the Anglo-Egyptian treaty of 1936. The decision to convert the Royal Navy from coal to oil had greatly increased British interest in the Middle East. The British army was engaged in maintaining security in the newly acquired mandates of Iraq and Palestine and was so hard pressed in Iraq that aircraft were used to control hostile tribesmen by bombing them, a practice euphemistically known as 'air policing'. This policy proved to be so economical in terms of manpower and money that it was extended to the North-West Frontier of India, where insurgency continued to be a periodic problem into the 1930s. Air policing was not used where its effects would be visible to the media and an Arab uprising in Palestine from 1936 to 1939, in protest against Jewish immigration, required the equivalent of two British army divisions to maintain order.6

the origins of the base, see James Neidpath, The Singapore Naval Base and the Defence of Britain's Eastern Empire, 1919-1941 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981), pp. 15, 34-54.

4 Cabinet conclusions, 10 Feb. 1932 and 23 Mar. 1932, CAB23/70, TNA.

5 See Dick Richardson and Carolyn Kitching, 'Britain and the World Disarmament Conference', in Peter Catterall and C.J. Morris (eds.), Britain and the Threat to Stability in Europe, 1918-45 (Leicester University Press, 1993), pp. 35-56.

6 See Anthony Clayton, The British Empire as Superpower, 1919-39 (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1986); Keith Jeffrey, The British Army and the Crisis of Empire 1918-22

It is not surprising, notwithstanding the appointment of Hitler as chancellor of Germany on 30 January 1933, that the annual review by the Chiefs of Staff in October that year took a broad view of British commitments. The three most important were listed as: (i) defence of British possessions and interests in the Far East; (ii) European commitments; and (iii) the defence of India against Soviet aggression.7 A Defence Requirements Sub-Committee of the CID, known to history as the DRC, and comprising the Cabinet Secretary, Hankey, the official heads of the Foreign Office and the Treasury, Sir Robert Vansittart and Sir Warren Fisher, and the Chiefs of Staff, met between November 1933 and February 1934 to review the deficiencies of the armed forces, an exercise that inevitably led them to review commitments, present and prospective. Although the First Sea Lord, Sir Ernle Chatfield, and Hankey, were mainly concerned with the Far East, Vansittart and Fisher believed that Germany, not Japan, represented the prime danger. The committee's report, drafted by Hankey, represented both points of view. Ministers were advised that Japan would respect strength and that a policy of 'showing a tooth' by completing the Singapore base should be combined with efforts to improve Anglo-Japanese relations. However, Germany must be taken to be the 'ultimate potential enemy' against whom 'long range' defence policy must be directed. Germany was not expected to be ready for war before 1939, and therefore there was 'time, though not too much time, to make defensive preparations'. Despite this warning, it took almost five months of ministerial discussions before the Cabinet agreed in July 1934 on a programme 'for meeting our worst deficiencies'.8

Fisher and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Neville Chamberlain, were strong advocates of better relations with Japan. They believed that if Britain did not combine with the United States to insist on Japan continuing to accept a lower ratio at the forthcoming London naval conference in 1935, the way would be cleared for an Anglo-Japanese non-aggression pact. Greg Kennedy and Keith Neilson have strongly criticised the Treasury's anti-American sentiments and optimistic views regarding Japan.9 However, after the Treasury's attempts between 1934

(Manchester University Press, 1984); David E. Omissi, Air Power and Colonial Control: The Royal Air Force, 1919-1939 (Manchester University Press, 1990).

7 'Annual review of the Chiefs of Staff Sub-Committee', COS 310, 12 Oct. 1933, CAB 53/23, TNA.

8 'Report of the Defence Requirements Sub-Committee', DRC 14, 28 Feb. 1934, CAB 16/109, and 'Defence Requirements: report by Ministerial Committee', CP 205 (34), CAB 24/250, TNA.

9 Greg Kennedy, Anglo-American Strategic Relations and the Far East, 1933-1939 (London: Frank Cass, 2002), pp. 123-5, 136-7, 145-6; Keith Neilson, 'The Defence Requirements Sub-Committee', English Historical Review, 118 (2003), 651-84.

and 1936 to use trade and financial discussions to reach an understanding with the Japanese had failed, and Japan had launched a full-scale invasion of China in July 1937, Fisher endorsed the Foreign Office's view that Japan's future actions were incalculable, owing to doubts about the ability of politicians in Tokyo to control their armed forces.10 Moreover, despite Chamberlain's distrust of American reliability, it was while he was prime minister that Anglo-American naval staff talks began in January 1938. At first there was no more than an exchange of information on strategy and technical matters, and the Americans were non-committal, but the talks were essential first steps in creating an Anglo-American alliance.11

The time in which to make defensive preparations against Germany began to seem much shorter by late 1934 than Hankey had assumed when drafting the DRC report in February. There was increasing concern in London about German rearmament and, in November, Baldwin, responding to Churchill's prediction that Germany would have an air force at least as strong as Britain's in twelve months, pledged the National Government 'in no conditions to accept any position of inferiority with regard to whatever air force may be raised in Ger-many'.12 In March 1935 Hitler announced the re-creation of a German air force and the restoration of conscription for the German armed forces. An accelerated expansion scheme for the RAF was approved by the Ministerial Committee on Defence Requirements two months later with a view to keeping pace with Hitler's stated intention of achieving air parity with France. There was some discussion in the committee about whether Japan should still be regarded as the near menace and Germany as the long-range one. The First Lord of the Admiralty, Sir Bolton Eyres-Monsell, and the CIGS, Sir Archibald Montgomery-Massingberd, held to the DRC opinion that Germany would not be ready in a military sense until 1939, whereas they thought that Japan would be a threat in 1936. Chamberlain doubted whether there was any near danger from either Japan or Germany, but supported the policy of expanding the RAF to deter the latter from making a surprise attack by

10 Note by Edward Bridges (head of the Treasury division dealing with defence and foreign policy issues), 1 Dec. 1937, T 161/779/S.41815, and comment by Fisher on note by Bridges, 12 Jan. 1938, T 161/849/S.42779, TNA. For Treasury attempts to influence policy towards Japan, see Gill Bennett, 'British policy in the Far East 1933-1936: Treasury and Foreign Office', Modern Asian Studies, 26 (1992), 545-68.

11 David Reynolds, The Creation of the Anglo-American Alliance 1937-41: A Study in Competitive Co-operation (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1981), pp. 16-17, 60-2.

air.13 The Admiralty was glad to accept Hitler's 35 per cent offer as the basis of the Anglo-German Naval Agreement of June 1935, as that ratio would allow 60 per cent of the Royal Navy's capital ships to be deployed in the Far East, if necessary.14 Sixty per cent would have given Britain parity with the Japanese under the ratio agreed at Washington and extended at the London Naval Conference of 1930, but the Japanese refused in 1935 to agree to anything less than parity with the Americans and British, and did not sign another treaty.

Nineteen-thirty-five also saw the unexpected emergence of a third threat. Italy had been listed in the DRC report in February 1934 as one of the countries against which no additional defence measures were necessary, and in April 1935 the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini had hosted a conference at Stresa where he had appeared to favour a diplomatic 'front' with Britain and France against German aggression. However, his intention, which became increasingly apparent during 1935, to invade Abyssinia, placed the British government in a dilemma: whether to appease Mussolini, with a view to securing his support in Europe, or to support collective security through the League of Nations, as British public opinion expected. The attempt to find a compromise between these positions, by offering Mussolini Abyssinian territory while the League imposed half-hearted sanctions, was unsuccessful, and the possibility that sanctions would lead to war forced Britain to make defensive preparations in the Mediterranean and Egypt. Subsequent attempts to improve relations with Italy failed and Britain thus found herself in a position in which, if she became involved in a war with any one of Germany, Italy or Japan, the other two would probably join in against Britain when it suited them. To make matters worse, there seemed to be little prospect of reconstructing a coalition comparable to the one that had been victorious in 1918. The United States had become increasingly isolationist, with Congress passing the Neutrality Acts of 1935 and 1937, which were designed to keep America out of war by banning the sale of arms and the provision of credits to belligerents. The Soviet Union, distrusted in any case on account of Communism, weakened its armed forces through purges of the officer corps in 1937-8. France was affected later than other countries by the economic depression of the 1930s, and was characterised by domestic political instability.

13 Ministerial Committee on Defence Requirements minutes, 27 May 1935, CAB 27/508, TNA.

14 JosephA. Maiolo, The Royal Navy and Nazi Germany, 1933-39: A Study in Appeasement and the Origins of the Second World War (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1998), pp. 26-37.

A rearmament programme covering the financial years 1936/7 to 1941/2 was approved by the British Cabinet in February 1936, with Germany now clearly seen as the major threat.15 The remilitarisation of the Rhineland by Germany in the following month led to a series of Anglo-French staff talks, but prior to 1939 the British were unwilling to enter into firm commitments.16 Indeed, in the winter of 1937-8, in an effort to keep defence expenditure within limits that the Treasury said the country could afford, the Cabinet decided that the army should not be made ready for European operations at the outbreak of a war until the United Kingdom and its trade routes, and Britain's overseas territories, had been made secure. This decision has been condemned by military historians, notably Howard, Bond and Barnett, who blame it for the British army's deficiencies in 1939-40. Part of the purpose of this chapter is to explain why British grand strategy took the turn it did in 1938, and why Britain none the less made a firm commitment early in 1939 to support France by sending an expeditionary force at the outbreak of war. Why did the Treasury appear to be so influential in defence policy? What technical developments led ministers to reassess the relative importance of air, sea and land warfare? Did Britain keep abreast with other countries in these developments, or was she as militarily backward as Barnett has claimed?18

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