Introduction: A Special Relationship

'Walk about Sion, and go round about her: and tell the towers thereof—mark well her bulwarks, consider her houses; that ye may tell them that come after'1

In 1958 Nicholas Mansergh finally finished a project that he had started 11 years before, a monumental survey of the British Commonwealth of Nations. He had been elected by the Royal Institute of International Affairs to the newly established chair of British Commonwealth relations, and one of the duties he assumed was the continuation of the Survey of British Commonwealth Affairs. From 1953 onwards, Mansergh would split his time labouring to finish his research and writing at the renowned think-tank based at Chatham House in the heart of London while also serving as Smuts Professor of the History of the British Commonwealth at Cambridge University. The result was two volumes of the Survey with three supporting volumes of Documents and Speeches. His initial volume, Problems of External Policy, 1931-39, offered an exhaustive study of the circumstances that had led, what at this point was still then generally termed as 'the British Empire', into its final titanic military struggle. The publication of the accompanying documents followed before Mansergh's second volume, Problems of Wartime Cooperation and Post-War Change, 1939-1952, was released to considerable acclaim. One reviewer described it as 'an extraordinary arrangement', a book of 'scholarship and insight, illuminated with flashes of wit'. Another, himself a great historian of the Empire and Australian by birth, viewed it as 'the most valuable contribution to the understanding of the Commonwealth of yesterday, today and tomorrow'. This noted scholar Professor Keith Hancock who pre-war had begun the task of recording the Survey's assessment of the British Empire's progress, believed it to be an 'immense addition to organized knowledge' which explained fully the British Commonwealth's evolution. The story told was on a colossal scale drawn from Mansergh's wide pre-war academic studies, supplemented by his own wartime experiences. From 1941 onwards he was first the Irish expert, and then later the Director of the Empire Division within the Ministry of Information. At the war's end he moved to the Dominions Office (DO) as an assistant secretary for a short period before returning to academia. From his wartime offices in Malet Street—in peacetime the heart of the University of London—he watched the progress of the global conflict and its effect on an alliance that in 1939 had re-forged an historic bond to defeat a common foe. Now he would tell the tale of how in the process of its greatest victory, Britain had lost its Empire. In between there would be further volumes, largely on his other great passion India, and in 1969 The Commonwealth Experience was published, 'the centrepiece of his oeuvre' and still rightly acknowledged as the finest single book on the British Empire's progression.2

In 1939 there were six fully self-governing member states of the Empire: Canada, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, Eire and Britain. Attempts to define what is now sometimes referred to as the Dominion 'concept' or 'idea', the link that bound them all together, have offered an enduring source of fascination both at the time and long after they became no more than an historical footnote.3 A typical view was that of one post-war writer who claimed that Dominion status was something which 'white men had invented in the 1920s for other white men, in the style and practice of a gentlemen's club'.4 This is as good a definition as any, the difficulty was though that the members were loathe to pay their contributions; during the inter-war years spending on defence made by each of them was far from proportionate to their wealth or population size and when war returned to Europe in 1939—and two years later the Pacific—they were unprepared. In fairness much the same could also be said about the central tenet of this organization. British foreign policy during the inter-war period can rightly be said to have been 'bedevilled by illusion, naïveté, unreality and folie de grandeur', with successive leaders at the mother of parliaments in Westminster failing to recognize that the world was changing and British power was no longer guaranteed; as one historian has put it 'the policy-makers behaved likes ostriches in sand dunes'.5 As a consequence, just three years after German forces had marched into Poland 'the British Empire appeared to be tottering on the edge of an unimaginably deep precipice'.6 The danger was ultimately evaded and the alliance held fast. With the critical support it received from a former member of the original Imperial club, the United States, and the other allies fighting the twin Nazi and Japanese peril, in due course this British Commonwealth alliance triumphed. In victory, however, there followed defeat. Despite the assertions of celebrated post-war British writers, it is actually difficult to argue that the Second World War did not in fact speed up the erosion of the Empire's unity. The very thing which the political leadership in London had claimed it was most seeking to safeguard against, it actually helped precipitate.7

This book considers this 'alliance within an alliance', examining what has been an oft disregarded strand of the vast system that was the British Empire. In one of the many wartime debates that focused on Imperial themes it was said of the Dominions that they were 'not conscripted allies like the satellites of Germany', but had come into the war of their own free will and could have left at any time. The idea that they had chosen 'the nobler part of sacrifice and determined to be what Wordsworth called "the bulwark in the cause of man"' made for excellent wartime propaganda.8 It was also typical of the florid, often overly romantic prose delivered by a generation brought up on Kipling-centric ideals. For all this it was undeniably true that this was a functioning alliance, one that prevailed over determined and ruthless foes. It is the manner in which it operated throughout the Second World War and the pressures and challenges that it faced that will be the focus of this study. Or as Lord Balfour, who played such an important evolutionary role, put it in words found on his desk after his death in 1936, 'Whence comes the cohesion of the Brit[ish] Empire?' His view was that it had drawn its basis on various factors, patriotism, loyalty, custom, religion and race being but a few.9 What this book will question is whether such an assessment remained true in the climatic years that followed his death. In so doing it does not attempt to add directly to the undoubtedly significant debate about 'Britishness' which has developed in recent years. Bookshelves and magazine racks carry the weight of polemic—some convincing in its tone and evidence, others less so—about the British national character and the relationship with Empire. How it had developed, what it meant to live in the vast territory it covered, to what degree it was not just a nation but a society that drew its very being from the idea of Empire, each of these has been subjected to reinvigorated scrutiny. As one of these texts has effectively argued, Britain was actually never 'a convincing Imperial society' and this seemed particularly true during the inter-war years.10 Even within this the role and place of the Dominions only occasionally feature; the references are extremely scarce, and when they do appear, they are of an almost entirely secondary nature.

This study makes no specific reference to Eire and its position within the alliance. Britain's wartime relationship with its neighbour is a complicated issue, one that has merited an ever-expanding literature of its own as more information becomes available about the relationship that existed during the war years.11 In December 1936, the Irish government passed the External Affairs Act and, thus, only recognized the British monarch for certain limited purposes in external affairs. The following year a referendum accepted the proposal of a new constitution and a new country came into existence. The effect of the Eire Constitution of 1937 and earlier pieces of legislation was to remove all mention of the king and to abolish the office of governor-general, substituting as head of the state an elected leader. That same year the other Dominions declared that they did not regard the new Constitution as affecting the position of Eire as a member of the British Commonwealth, and this attitude was maintained, for all intents and purposes, throughout the war.12 Even so, with this the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 ceased to have any real meaning. The governor-general was duly replaced with a president elected by national suffrage, while the British high commissioner in Dublin's title also changed. However the government of Eire, headed by Eamon de Valera, neither acknowledged any allegiance to the Crown nor would it accept the Dominion conception of the unity of the Commonwealth.13

Neutrality was emphatically reiterated by de Valera at the earliest opportunity. A number of contemporary observers pointed to the decision not to support the rest of the Dominions in September 1939 as the most conclusive evidence that this equated fully with independent status in action. The memorandum handed to the British government by Eire's high commissioner in London less than ten days after the war had begun setting out his country's position could not be criticized by the secretary of state for Dominion affairs. He hoped that some effort could still be made to see it modified so that it was less embarrassing to the British Empire, but most other neutral countries had released similar documents clarifying their respective positions. What would not be done, however, was for any formal recognition of neutrality to be offered, an act that would formally dissolve the idea of the indivisibility of the Crown. Nor would it be accepted in London that Eire was no longer a member of the British Commonwealth.14 Winston Churchill, as the First Lord of the Admiralty up until May 1940, was at the forefront of those who went further and questioned Eire's neutrality and the strategic limitations it placed on the British Empire. The denial of the deep-water ports of Berehaven, Lough Swilly and Queenstown could play a critical role in the coming war against the German U-boats and was pointed to as justification for a possible military response. Dublin's decision was actually of uncertain value as was made clear to the American readership of Timemagazine with the report of an official who had released the crew of a British seaplane forced down in a remote harbour. As he said to the correspondent, 'sure, we're neutral, but who are we neutral against?'15 At the end of war aside from Portugal, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland, Eire had managed to remain an officially recognized and respected non-belligerent yet up to 200,000 Irish citizens had actually contributed to the Allied war effort. Britain refrained from mounting an invasion although the idea was often touted and, with the American entry into the war, the Irish state became increasingly isolated and ignored.16

There is also no mention of India or Newfoundland. Along with Burma the first of these had been promised eventual Dominion status by the 1935 Government of India Act which followed on from the Irwin Declaration and its first offer of 'the glittering prize' for Indian nationalists. The country had been treated as 'a proto-Dominion' since the latter stages of the First World War; the war that followed would ultimately and finally remove the historic link.17 The latter was actually a Dominion, Britain's oldest colony, and a member of the original club. It was, however, badly hit by the global economic Depression and the fall in international fish prices, and in 1933 the government was unable to pay the interest charges on its national debt. In place of responsible government it was instead administered by a 'Commission of Government', appointed by a Royal Commission and consisting of a mixture of British and Newfoundland civil servants, technically making it no longer a Dominion.18

Finally there will be no attempt made to specifically explore the actual events of the military campaigns fought by Britain and its Dominion allies during the war in any chronological fashion. There is already an exhaustive literature examining in vast detail every aspect of the war; the numerous Official History volumes that were produced by all of those involved on the Anglo-Dominion side in the post-war years represent an obvious and comprehensive starting point for anybody so minded. Reference is only made to them where they are directly relevant to the struggles that were contested between the Dominion capitals and what were sometimes viewed from these distant vantage points as the twin terrors of Whitehall and Westminster. Such reference is, however, kept to a deliberate minimum; the emphasis instead is, wherever possible, on the political and diplomatic machinations that sometimes tormented the alliance and proved decisive in determining both its operation and effect.

With so little previously published material focusing on this particular Imperial theme, the records stored at the National Archives in London inevitably proved invaluable. Although there are over 40,000 listed files for the DO, the Whitehall department that was most closely involved, with the passage of the Public Records Act in 1958 a widespread destruction of documents followed. Despite the suggestions of some Dominion historians that there was a deliberate pattern in this, the intention being to hide a variety of alleged intrigues, no evidence has emerged to support such claims.19 While a 1941 defence regulation allowed for the early destruction of sensitive documents, what instead seems to have happened is that owing to constraints of time and space the procedures for reviewing records allowed the individuals involved a great deal of autonomy in the way they conducted their review.20 As a result certain subject areas are well covered with files copied in triplicate; in others there is virtually no saved material. The result is that in some categories and for certain years there are considerable omissions. Although it is impossible to say with any real degree of accuracy just how many files were destroyed, a cursory examination would place the figure in excess of 50 per cent. It should be remembered that many of these could have been of little or no historical value, while some were undoubtedly copies which have been saved elsewhere. Whatever gaps there were in the narrative have been circumvented by examining other government records held in London, along with a wide variety of overseas archives. A large number of personal archives both in Britain and overseas have also been examined and provided an excellent source of information. Together these largely hitherto unexplored wartime records have allowed for a comprehensive reconstruction of events.

I would like to thank the staff of the following archives and libraries for their assistance with my research: the National Archives, London; the Imperial War Museum, London; the Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives, King's College London; the Churchill Archives Centre, Churchill College, Cambridge University; Special Collections, Birmingham University; Special Collections, Durham University; the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth; Special Collections, University of Nottingham; Special Collections, Cape Town University; Manuscripts and Special Collections, Victoria University, Wellington, New Zealand; National Library of New Zealand (Alexander Turnbull Library and Archives), Wellington; the National Archives, Wellington; the National Archives, Pretoria, South Africa; Special Collections, Toronto University; the Rhodes House Library, Oxford University; Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa; the British Library, London; the Australian Archives, Canberra; the National Library of Australia, Canberra; the Bodleian Library (Department of Western Manuscripts), Oxford; Senate House Library, University of London; the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, London; and finally both the King's College London Library and the Joint Services Command and Staff College Library. Lord Cranborne kindly allowed me to inspect the papers of his grandfather, the Fifth Marquess of Salisbury; in connection with this Robin Harcourt-Williams, the archivist at Hatfield House was most helpful in identifying areas of investigation. Where relevant and appropriate I must thank the trustees or similar of those archives above that have kindly granted permission for the use of selected brief quotations taken from source material within their collections. Such assistance has been gratefully welcomed and is of considerable benefit to the study.

My overseas research would not have been possible without financial assistance received from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Irwin Fund (University of London), the Scouloudi Foundation (Institute of Historical Research, London), the University of London Central Research Fund and the Defence Studies Department Central Research Fund. For the support offered by each of these I would like to offer my sincere thanks. Ms Anne Davies assisted me in collecting various papers in Canberra while Mr Cameron Bayliss carried out a similar invaluable service in Wellington, New Zealand, and I am grateful to both. Stephen Harwood at the National Archives and Vicki Perry at Hatfield House provided valuable assistance in locating relevant pictures for inclusion. Anya Wilson and John Cox both offered editorial and proofing support which helped remove many an error from within the text.

I am indebted to Mr David Steeds who kindly read various draft versions of this work and his exhaustive historical knowledge produced many illuminating and incisive comments and much welcomed advice. Dr Robert Foley, Dr Helen McCartney, Dr Ashley Jackson, Dr Chris Baxter and Dr Kent Fedorowich gave much-needed encouragement when spirits flagged. I am of course thankful to Professor Mike Dockrill, Professor Andrew Lambert, Professor Saki Dockrill,

Professor Sir Lawrence Freedman, Professor Brian Bond and Dr Tim Moreman in the Department of War Studies and Professor Matt Uttley and Dr Stuart Griffin in the Defence Studies Department, both part of King's College London, for their support during my undergraduate studies, doctoral study and subsequent academic career. Thanks also to James Burkes, Chris Roe, Adam Simmons, Daniel Alford and Dr Mark Skidmore whose friendship has been much appreciated. There were many other friends and acquaintances that have kindly 'lent an ear' on occasion and to them I am also grateful. Bob and Joy Wilson provided the most convivial surroundings in East Hanney, Oxfordshire in which to write this book. Ben Hayes, senior editor at Hambledon Continuum, provided inspiration and advice when it was needed—my sincere thanks. Penelope Whitson oversaw the final progress of the manuscript to its culmination.

My fiancée Joanne endured the writing of this book and sacrificed a great deal to support its completion—thank you always. This book is, however, dedicated to my parents. They have supported my scholarly endeavours throughout these many years always without hesitation despite the sometimes less obvious path that I chose to follow. None of this would have been possible without them.

The analysis, opinions and conclusions expressed or implied are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Joint Services Command and Staff College, the UK Ministry of Defence or any other government agency. Any errors of fact are the responsibility of the author.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!
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