Military history

13

Germany Armed, 1936–1938

The “Over-all Strategic Objective” — German Expenditure on Armaments — Independent Inquiries — The Conservative Deputation to the Prime Minister, July 28, 1936 — My Statement of the Case — General Conclusions — My Fear — Our Second Meeting, November 23, 1936 — Lord Swinton Leaves the Air Ministry, May 12, 1938 — Debate in Parliament — Lindemann Rejoins the Air Defence Research Committee — My Correspondence with M. Daladier — The French Estimate of German Air Strength, 1938 — My Estimate of the German Army, June, 1938 — M. Daladier Concurs — The Decay of the French Air Force — The Careless Islanders.

ADVANTAGE IS GAINED in war and also in foreign policy and other things by selecting from many attractive or unpleasant alternatives the dominating point. American military thought had coined the expression “Over-all Strategic Objective.” When our officers first heard this, they laughed; but later on its wisdom became apparent and accepted. Evidently this should be the rule, and other great business be set in subordinate relationship to it. Failure to adhere to this simple principle produces confusion and futility of action, and nearly always makes things much worse later on.

Personally I had no difficulty in conforming to the rule long before I heard it proclaimed. My mind was obsessed by the impression of the terrific Germany I had seen and felt in action during the years of 1914 to 1918 suddenly becoming again possessed of all her martial power, while the Allies, who had so narrowly survived, gaped idle and bewildered. Therefore, I continued by every means and on every occasion to use what influence I had with the House of Commons and also with individual Ministers to urge forward our military preparations and to procure allies and associates for what would before long become again the Common Cause.

One day a friend of mine in a high confidential position under the Government came over to Chartwell to swim with me in my pool when the sun shone bright and the water was fairly warm. We talked of nothing but the coming war, of the certainty of which he was not entirely convinced. As I saw him off, he suddenly on an impulse turned and said to me, “The Germans are spending a thousand million pounds sterling a year on their armaments.” I thought Parliament and the British public ought to know the facts. I, therefore, set to work to examine German finance. Budgets were produced and still published every year in Germany; but from their wealth of figures it was very difficult to tell what was happening. However, in April, 1936, I privately instituted two separate lines of scrutiny. The first rested upon two German refugees of high ability and inflexible purpose. They understood all the details of the presentment of German budgets, the value of the mark, and so forth. At the same time I asked my friend, Sir Henry Strakosch, whether he could not find out what was actually happening. Strakosch was the head of the firm called “Union Corporation,” with great resources, and a highly skilled, devoted personnel. The brains of this City company were turned for several weeks onto the problem. Presently they reported with precise and lengthy detail that the German war expenditure was certainly round about a thousand million pounds sterling a year. At the same time the German refugees, by a totally different series of arguments, arrived independently at the same conclusion. One thousand million pounds sterling per annum at the money values of 1936!

I had, therefore, two separate structures of fact on which to base a public assertion. So I accosted Mr. Neville Chamberlain, still Chancellor of the Exchequer, in the lobby the day before a debate and said to him, “Tomorrow I shall ask you whether it is not a fact that the Germans are spending a thousand million pounds a year on warlike preparations, and I shall ask you to confirm or deny.” Chamberlain said: “I cannot deny it, and if you put the point I shall confirm it.” I must quote my words:

Taking the figures from German official sources, the expenditure on capital account, from the end of March, 1933, to the end of June, 1935, has been as follows: in 1933 nearly five milliards of marks; in 1934 nearly eight milliards; and in 1935 nearly eleven milliards – a total of twenty-four milliards, or roughly two thousand million pounds. Look at these figures, five, eight, and eleven for the three years. They give you exactly the kind of progression which a properly developing munitions industry would make.

Specifically I asked the Chancellor:

Whether he is aware that the expenditure by Germany upon purposes directly and indirectly concerned with military preparations, including strategic roads, may well have amounted to the equivalent of eight hundred million pounds, during the calendar year 1935; and whether this rate of expenditure seems to be continuing in the current calendar year.

Mr. Chamberlain: The Government have no official figures, but from such information as they have, I see no reason to think that the figure mentioned in my right hon. friend’s question is necessarily excessive as applied to either year, although, as he himself would agree, there are elements of conjecture.

I substituted the figure of eight hundred million for one thousand million pounds to cover my secret information, and also to be on the safe side.

* * * * *

I sought by several means to bring the relative state of British and German armaments to a clear-cut issue. I asked for a debate in secret session. This was refused. “It would cause needless alarm.” I got little support. All secret sessions are unpopular with the press. Then on July 20, 1936, I asked the Prime Minister whether he would receive a deputation of Privy Councillors and a few others who would lay before him the facts so far as they knew them. Lord Salisbury requested that a similar deputation from the House of Lords should also come. This was agreed. Although I made personal appeals both to Mr. Atlee and Sir Archibald Sinclair, the Labour and Liberal Parties declined to be represented. Accordingly on July 28, we were received in the Prime Minister’s House of Commons room by Mr. Baldwin, Lord Halifax, and Sir Thomas Inskip. The following Conservative and non-party notables came with me. Sir Austen Chamberlain introduced us.

THE DEPUTATION

House of Commons

House of Lords

Sir Austen Chamberlain

The Marquess of Salisbury

Mr. Churchill

Viscount FitzAlan

Sir Robert Horne

Viscount Trenchard

Mr. Amery

Lord Lloyd

Sir John Gilmour

Lord Milne

Captain Guest

 

Admiral Sir Roger Keyes

 

Earl Winterton

 

Sir Henry Croft

 

Sir Edward Grigg

 

Viscount Wolmer

 

Lieut.-Col. Moore-Brabazon

 

Sir Hugh O’Neill

 

This was a great occasion. I cannot recall anything like it in what I have seen of British public life. The group of eminent men, with no thought of personal advantage, but whose lives had been centred upon public affairs, represented a weight of Conservative opinion which could not easily be disregarded. If the leaders of the Labour and Liberal Oppositions had come with us, there might have been a political situation so tense as to enforce remedial action. The proceedings occupied three or four hours on each of two successive days. I have always said Mr. Baldwin was a good listener. He certainly seemed to listen with the greatest interest and attention. With him were various members of the staff of the Committee of Imperial Defence. On the first day I opened the case in a statement of an hour and a quarter, of which some extracts, given in Appendix D, Book I, throw a fairly true light on the scene.

I ended as follows:

First, we are facing the greatest danger and emergency of our history. Secondly, we have no hope of solving our problem except in conjunction with the French Republic. The union of the British Fleet and the French Army, together with their combined air forces operating from close behind the French and Belgian frontiers, together with all that Britain and France stand for, constitutes a deterrent in which salvation may reside. Anyhow, it is the best hope. Coming down to detail, we must lay aside every impediment in raising our own strength. We cannot possibly provide against all possible dangers. We must concentrate upon what is vital and take our punishment elsewhere…. Coming to still more definite propositions, we must increase the development of our air power in priority over every other consideration. At all costs we must draw the flower of our youth into piloting airplanes. Never mind what inducements must be offered, we must draw from every source, by every means. We must accelerate and simplify our aeroplane production and push it to the largest scale, and not hesitate to make contracts with the United States and elsewhere for the largest possible quantities of aviation material and equipment of all kinds. We are in danger, as we have never been in danger before – no, not even at the height of the submarine campaign [1917]….

This thought preys upon me: The months slip by rapidly. If we delay too long in repairing our defences, we may be forbidden by superior power to complete the process.

* * * * *

We were much disappointed that the Chancellor of the Exchequer could not be present. It was evident that Mr. Baldwin’s health was failing, and it was well known that he would soon seek rest from his burdens. There could be no doubt who would be his successor. Unhappily, Mr. Neville Chamberlain was absent upon a well-deserved holiday, and did not have the opportunity of this direct confrontation with the facts from members of the Conservative Party who included his brother and so many of his most valued personal friends.

Most earnest consideration was given by Ministers to our formidable representations, but it was not till after the recess, on November 23, 1936, that we were all invited by Mr. Baldwin to receive a more fully considered statement on the whole position. Sir Thomas Inskip then gave a frank and able account, in which he did not conceal from us the gravity of the plight into which we had come. In substance this was to the effect that our estimates and, in particular, my statements took a too gloomy view of our prospects; that great efforts were being made (as indeed they were) to recover the lost ground; but that no case existed which would justify the Government in adopting emergency measures; that these would necessarily be of a character to upset the whole industrial life of this country, would cause widespread alarm, and advertise any deficiencies that existed, and that within these limits everything possible was being done. On this Sir Austen Chamberlain recorded our general impression that our anxieties were not relieved and that we were by no means satisfied. Thus we took our leave.

I cannot contend that at this date, the end of 1936, the position could have been retrieved. Much more, however, could and ought to have been done by an intense conclusive effort. And of course the fact and proof of this effort must have had its immeasurable effect on Germany, if not on Hitler. But the paramount fact remained that the Germans had the lead of us in the air, and also over the whole field of munitions production, even making allowance for our smaller military needs, and for the fact that we had a right also to count upon France and the French Army and air force. It was no longer in our power to forestall Hitler or to regain air parity. Nothing could now prevent the German Army and the German air force from becoming the strongest in Europe. By extraordinary and disturbing exertions we could improve our position. We could not cure it.

These sombre conclusions, which were not seriously disputed by the Government, no doubt influenced their foreign policy; and full account must be taken of them when we try to form a judgment upon the decisions which Mr. Chamberlain, when he became Prime Minister, took before and during the Munich crisis. I was at this time only a private Member of Parliament, and I bore no official responsibility. I strove my utmost to galvanise the Government into vehement and extraordinary preparation, even at the cost of world alarm. In these endeavours no doubt I painted the picture even darker than it was. The emphasis which I had put upon the two years’ lag which afflicted us may well be judged inconsistent with my desire to come to grips with Hitler in October, 1938. I remain convinced, however, that it was right to spur the Government by every means, and that it would have been better in all the circumstances, which will presently be described, to fight Hitler in 1938 than it was when we finally had to do so in September, 1939. Of this more later.

* * * * *

Presently Mr. Baldwin, as we have seen, gave place to Mr. Neville Chamberlain; and we must now move on to 1938. Lord Swinton was a very keen and efficient Air Minister, and for a long time had great influence in the Cabinet in procuring the necessary facilities and funds. The anxiety about our air defences continued to grow, and reached its climax in May. The many great and valuable expansions and improvements which Lord Swinton had made could not become apparent quickly, and in any case the whole policy of the Government lacked both magnitude and urgency. I continued to press for an inquiry into the state of our air programme and found increasing support. Swinton had made the mistake of accepting a peerage. He was not, therefore, able to defend himself and his department in the House of Commons. The spokesman who was chosen from the Government Front Bench was utterly unable to stem the rising tide of alarm and dissatisfaction. After one most unfortunate debate, it became obvious that the Air Minister should be in the House of Commons.

One morning (May 12) at the Air Defence Research Committee we were all busily engaged – scientists, politicians, and officials – on technical problems, when a note was brought in to the Air Minister asking him to go to Downing Street. He desired us to continue our discussions, and left at once. He never returned. He had been dismissed by Mr. Chamberlain.

In the agitated debate which followed on the twenty-fifth, I tried to distinguish between the exertions and capacity of the fallen Minister and the general complaint against the Government:

The credit of Government statements has been compromised by what has occurred. The House has been consistently misled about the air position. The Prime Minister himself has been misled. He was misled right up to the last moment, apparently. Look at the statement which he made in March, when he spoke about our armaments: “The sight of this enormous, this almost terrifying, power which Britain is building up has a sobering effect, a steadying effect, on the opinion of the world.”

I have often warned the House that the air programmes were falling into arrear. But I have never attacked Lord Swinton. I have never thought that he was the one to blame – certainly not the only one to blame. It is usual for the critics of a Government to discover hitherto unnoticed virtues in any Minister who is forced to resign. But perhaps I may quote what I said three months ago: “It would be unfair to throw the blame on any one Minister, or upon Lord Swinton, for our deficiency. He certainly represents an extremely able and wholehearted effort to do the best he possibly could to expand our air power, and the results which he achieved would be bright, if they were not darkened by the time-table, and if they were not outshone by other relative facts occurring elsewhere.”

* * * * *

The hard responsibility for the failure to fulfil the promises made to us rests upon those who have governed and guided this island for the last five years, that is to say, from the date when German rearmament in real earnest became apparent and known. I certainly did not attempt to join in a man-hunt of Lord Swinton. I was very glad today to hear the Prime Minister’s tribute to him. Certainly he deserves our sympathy. He had the confidence and friendship of the Prime Minister, he had the support of an enormous parliamentary majority; yet he has been taken from his post at what, I think, is the worst moment in the story of air expansion. It may be that in a few months there will be a considerable flow of aircraft arriving; yet he has had to answer for his record at this particularly dark moment for him. I was reading the other day a letter of the great Duke of Marlborough, in which he said: “To remove a General in the midst of a campaign – that is the mortal stroke.”

I turned to other aspects of our defences:

We are now in the third year of openly avowed rearmament. Why is it, if all is going well, there are so many deficiencies? Why, for instance, are the Guards drilling with flags instead of machine-guns? Why is it that our small Territorial Army is in a rudimentary condition? Is that all according to schedule? Why, when you consider how small are our forces, should it be impossible to equip the Territorial Army simultaneously with the Regular Army? It would have been a paltry task for British industry, which is more flexible and more fertile than German industry in every sphere except munitions.

* * * * *

The other day the Secretary of State for War was asked about the anti-aircraft artillery. The old three-inch guns of the Great War, he said, had been modernised, and deliveries of the newer guns – and there is more than one type of newer gun – were proceeding “in advance of schedule.” But what is the schedule? If your schedule prescribes a delivery of half a dozen, ten, a dozen, twenty, or whatever it may be, guns per month, no doubt that may easily be up to schedule, and easily be in advance of it. But what is the adequacy of such a schedule to our needs? A year ago I reminded the House of the published progress of Germany in anti-aircraft artillery – thirty regiments of twelve batteries each of mobile artillery alone, aggregating something between twelve and thirteen hundred guns, in addition to three or four thousand guns in fixed positions. These are all modern guns, not guns of 1915, but all guns made since the year 1933.

Does not that give the House an idea of the tremendous scale of these transactions? We do not need to have a gigantic army like Continental countries; but in the matter of anti-aircraft defence we are on equal terms. We are just as vulnerable, and perhaps more vulnerable. Here is the government thinking of anti-aircraft artillery in terms of hundreds where the Germans have it today in terms of thousands.

* * * * *

We are thinking at the present time in terms of production for three separate armed forces. In fact and in truth, the supply of arms for all fighting forces resolves itself into a common problem of the provision and distribution of skilled labour, raw materials, plant, machinery, and technical appliances. That problem can only be dealt with comprehensively, harmoniously, and economically through one central dominating control. At the present time there is inefficiency and overlapping, and there is certainly waste. Why is it that this skilful aircraft industry of Britain requires ninety thousand men, and that it produces only one-half to one-third of what is being produced by about one hundred and ten thousand men in Germany? Is that not an extraordinary fact? It is incredible that we have not been able to produce a greater supply of aeroplanes at this time. Given a plain office table, an empty field, money and labour, we should receive a flow of aeroplanes by eighteen months; yet this is the thirty-fourth month since Lord Baldwin decided that the air force must be tripled.

* * * * *

The new Secretary of State for Air, Sir Kingsley Wood, invited me to remain on the Air Defence Research Committee. The skies had now grown much darker, and I felt keenly the need of Lindemann’s interpretation of the technical aspects and of his advice and aid. I, therefore, wrote to him, saying that, unless he was associated with me, I would not continue. After some tussling behind the scenes, Lindemann was placed on the main Committee, and we resumed our joint work.

* * * * *

Always, up till the Armistice of June, 1940, whether in peace or war, in a private station or as head of the Government, I enjoyed confidential relations with the often-changing Premiers of the French Republic and with many of its leading Ministers. I was most anxious to find out the truth about German rearmament and to cross-check my own calculations by theirs. I therefore wrote to M. Daladier, with whom I was personally acquainted:

Mr. Churchill to M. Daladier.

May 3, 1938.

Your predecessors, M.M. Blum and Flandin, were both kind enough to give me the French estimates of the German air strength at particular periods in recent years. I should be much obliged if you could let me know what your view is now. I have several sources of information which have proved accurate in the past, but am anxious to have a cross-check from an independent source.

I am so glad that your visit here was so successful, and I hope now that all those staff arrangements will be made, the need for which I have pressed upon our Ministers.

In response M. Daladier sent me a document of seventeen pages dated May 11, 1938, which “had been deeply thought out by the French Air Staff.” I showed this important paper to my friends in the British departments concerned, who examined it searchingly and reported that “it agreed in every essential with the independent opinions formed by the British Air Staff on the basis of their own information.” The French estimate of the size of the German air force was slightly higher than that of the British. Early in June I was in a position to write to M. Daladier with a considerable amount of authoritative opinion behind me.

Mr. Churchill to M. Daladier.

June 6, 1938.

I am very much obliged to you for the invaluable information which I have received through the French Military Attaché. You may be sure I shall use it only with the greatest discretion, and in our common interests.

The general estimate of the German air force at the present time agrees with the private views I have been able to form. I am inclined to think, however, that the German aircraft industry is turning out aircraft at a somewhat higher rate than is allowed, and that the figure given is that for the actual deliveries of aircraft of military types to the German air force, excluding deliveries for export, and to General Franco. It is probable that the German air force will consist of three hundred squadrons by April 1, 1939, and four hundred squadrons by April 1, 1940.

I was also most anxious to cross-check my own estimates of the German Army with those which I had been able to form from English sources. Accordingly I added the following:

I venture to enclose a very short note of the information I have been able to gather from various sources about the present and prospective strength of the German Army. It would be a convenience to me to know whether this agrees broadly with your estimates. It would be quite sufficient if the figures, as you understand them, could be pencilled in in any case where you think I am in error.

NOTE

The German Army at this date, June 1, consists of thirty-six regular divisions, and four armoured divisions, the whole at full war-strength. The non-armoured divisions are rapidly acquiring the power to triple themselves, and can at the present time be doubled. The artillery beyond seventy divisions is markedly incomplete. The officer corps is thin over the whole force. Nevertheless, by October 1, 1938, we cannot expect less than fifty-six plus four armoured, equals sixty fully equipped and armed divisional formations. Behind these will stand a reservoir of trained men equal in man-power to about another thirty-six divisions, for which skeleton formations have been devised and for which armaments, small arms and a very low complement of artillery, would be available if a lower standard were accepted for part of the active army. This takes no account of the man-power of Austria, which at the extreme computation could provide twelve divisions without arms but ready to draw on the general pool of German munitions industry. In addition there are a number of men and formations of an unbrigaded nature – frontier defence force, Landwehr divisions, and so on, who are relatively unarmed.

On June 18, 1938, M. Daladier wrote:

I am particularly pleased to learn that the information enclosed in my letter of May 16 corresponds to yours.

I am entirely in accord with you in the facts relating to the German Army contained in the note annexed to your letter of June 6. It should be pointed out, however, that of the thirty-six ordinary divisions of which Germany actually disposes, four are entirely motorised and two are in the course of becoming so soon.

In fact, according to our post-war information from German sources, this epitome of the German Army in the summer of 1938 was remarkably accurate, considering that it was produced by a private person. It shows that in my long series of campaigns for British rearmament I was by no means ill-informed.

* * * * *

References have been made at various points in this tale to the French air power. At one time it was double our own and Germany was not supposed to have an air force at all. Until 1933, France had held a high place among the air fleets of Europe. But in the very year in which Hitler came into power, a fateful lack of interest and support began to be displayed. Money was grudged; the productive capacity of the factories was allowed to dwindle; modern types were not developed. The French forty-hour week could not rival the output of a Germany working harsh hours under wartime conditions. All this happened about the same time as the loss of air parity in Britain which has been so fully described. In fact the Western Allies, who had the right to create whatever air forces they thought necessary for their safety, neglected this vital weapon, while the Germans, who were prohibited by treaty from touching it, made it the spear-point of their diplomacy and eventual attack.

The French “Popular Front” Government of 1936 and later took many substantial measures to prepare the French Army and Navy for war. No corresponding exertion was made in the air. There is an ugly graph 1 which shows in a decisive fashion the downward streak of French air power and its intersection in 1935 by the line of ever-rising German achievement. It was not until the summer of 1938, when M. Guy La Chambre became Air Minister, that vigorous steps were taken to revive the French air force. But then only eighteen months remained. Nothing that the French could do could prevent the German Army growing and ripening as each year passed and thus overtaking their own army. But it is astonishing that their air power should have been allowed to fall by the wayside. It is not for me to apportion responsibility and blame to the Ministers of friendly and Allied foreign countries. But when in France they are looking out for “guilty men,” it would seem that here is a field which might well be searchingly explored.

* * * * *

The spirit of the British nation and of the Parliament they had newly elected gradually rose as consciousness of the German, and soon of the German-Italian, menace slowly and fitfully dawned upon them. They became willing, and even eager, for all kinds of steps which, taken two or three years earlier, would have prevented their troubles. But as their mood improved, the power of their opponents and also the difficulty of their task increased. Many say that nothing except war could have stopped Hitler after we had submitted to the seizure of the Rhineland. This may indeed be the verdict of future generations. Much, however, could have been done to make us better prepared and thus lessen our hazards. And who shall say what could not have happened?

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