Chapter Eleven

Armed Forces, Strategy, and Foreign Policy (1): France and Britain

Foreign Policy and War

War has long been regarded as an instrument of policy. If certain aims are considered vital and cannot be attained by diplomatic, economic, or other means, then at some stage force must be used to secure them. It is a less familiar idea that peace, as well as war, is linked with power and the presence of force. Raymond Aron has described peace as

the more or less lasting suspension of violent modes of rivalry between political units. Peace is said to prevail when the relations between nations do not involve the military forms of struggle. But since these peaceful relations occur within the shadow of past battles and in the fear or the expectation of future ones, the principle of peace … is not different in nature from that of wars: peace is based upon power….1

These concepts were still soundly based in the 1920s and 1930s and were indeed particularly relevant in the period between 1938 and 1940, when the borderline between peace and war was blurred and the two merged into one another. But in many minds they had ceased to carry conviction. People were indeed in the shadow of past battles; and it was reasonable to ask whether warfare of the 1914–18 kind was entirely serviceable as an instrument of policy. Were the costs and potential dangers of war — the mobilisation of manpower and the economy, the casualties both military and civilian, the possibility of total disruption in politics and society — commensurate with the aims of policy? Frequently, it did not seem so. If the interest at stake was not immediately crucial, then the price likely to be demanded by war was hard to equate with the objects of policy. What was the use, for example, of fighting another war like that of 1914–18 to prevent the frontier between Czechoslovakia and Germany being moved from one line to another? The idea of war as an instrument of policy was in such circumstances unconvincing.

At the same time, the idea of war and peace as a continuum, and that peace as much as war was dependent on military power, was repugnant to many minds. The First World War appeared as a gigantic aberration, the nemesis which followed the granting of too much power and too many resources to military men. Peace was seen as entirely different from war, in legal, practical, political, and perhaps above all in moral terms. There was a strong belief that peace, far from being based on power, could only be secured by the limitation or even elimination of military force.

Such views were at their strongest in France and Britain, the principal European victors of 1918. In both countries, the predominant weight of both opinion and sentiment was opposed to the sterner views of the relation between war and policy, and the dependence of peace upon power. Peace was assumed to be the natural relationship between states; there was a strong hope that it could somehow be made self-sustaining; and the idea of war as a means of policy was rejected as both irrational and repugnant. Professional military men had lost much of their prestige and influence. The two great civilian leaders of the First World War, Clemenceau and Lloyd George, had little respect for generals, as Lloyd George made clear in his widely read war memoirs. It was true that the French and British armies had emerged victorious, and their leaders enjoyed a moment of glory at the victory parades of 1919; but the conviction grew that they had not waged the war efficiently, imaginatively, or with sufficient regard for the lives of their men. They had been surprised by the problems of modern warfare, and had failed to master them. Even when they had won, there was no agreement as to how victory had been achieved. Was it a victory for attrition, wearing down the German Army, as the orthodox western-front generals advocated? Was it the result of the naval blockade and economic warfare? Was it a success for new weapons and techniques, notably the tank? Was it simply a victory for the Americans? What were the lessons of the Great War?

In the post-war period, generals and admirals were uneasily aware that they were in an era of new machines and new techniques, whose full significance had not emerged. The German submarine campaign of 1917 had inflicted devastating losses on merchant shipping. But had the submarine then been mastered by the convoy system? It was not fully clear. The tank had made its appearance, with sometimes startling effects; yet it was a primitive weapon, slow, cumbersome, and much subject to mechanical failure. Some theorists were willing to make great claims for it as the weapon of the future, round which armies should be built; but others were sceptical, and thought in terms of infantry, guns, and a balanced force. As for air power, the most dramatic new development of the First World War, sweeping prophecies were made by its advocates. The Italian writer Giulio Douhet, in a book published in 1921, claimed that aircraft would decide the next war in a few days, by bombing attacks on both civilian and military targets. Governments would be compelled by their peoples to sue for peace.2 In Britain, Hugh Trenchard, founder of the Royal Air Force and Chief of the Air Staff 1919–29, made equally strong claims, both out of genuine belief and out of the need to promote his new service. Yet the evidence on which these vast claims were based was limited and fragile. The British Independent Air Force, set up in 1918 as a bomber force, dropped only 550 tonnes of bombs in 239 raids between June and November 1918, with results which could be described as no more than a nuisance to the enemy. In German raids on London by Zeppelins and aircraft, only 1,127 people were killed, though the psychological and political effects were far greater than such numbers might imply.3 Projections made from such evidence were of dubious value. Uncertainty prevailed, and fear of the new weapon often had free rein.

Technical uncertainty was accompanied by a new political and economic climate. Disarmament was the watchword of the day. Even the Royal Navy, the embodiment of British power and the focus of national pride, was subjected to international disarmament agreements, the Treaty of Washington (1922) for capital ships, and the Treaty of London (1930) for cruisers. While the Geneva Disarmament Conference of 1932–34 was in session, neither the British nor the French government felt that it could increase any of its service estimates. The whole position of the armed forces in a political climate dominated by the idea of disarmament was one of considerable difficulty. The same was true of the economic climate. Even in the comparative prosperity of the late 1920s the services, in both France and Britain, were subjected to strict budgetary limitations; and in the period of the depression controls were very tight. The service departments were well accustomed to the struggle between themselves, as spenders of public funds, and the Ministry of Finance and the Treasury, as the keepers of the purse. At no time had the services been accustomed to a free hand in financial terms; but in the 1920s and most of the 1930s they were subjected to far tighter restrictions than before 1914, when their prestige was higher and views of their role and value were firmer and clearer.

Yet among all these uncertainties and difficulties, the armed forces were still expected by their governments to fulfil traditional roles. They had to ensure the safety of the national territory; protect and keep order in the empire; and secure the sea-lanes that linked the two and carried sea-borne trade. These tasks assumed different proportions for France and Britain. For the French, the defence of the homeland was by far the greatest demand on resources, and the French Army had to plan for a Continental war before all else. The empire, important as it was, came second, and sea-borne trade third. For the British, the homeland had to be defended, which was the task of the navy and air defence. The sea-lanes were equally crucial, because without them industry would run down and the population starve. The army's major task was the imperial commitment, notably in India and the Middle East. (It is a striking fact that in 1938 there were more British troops deployed in Palestine to cope with an Arab revolt than were available to be despatched to France if war arose out of the Czechoslovakian crisis.) No government proposed that these tasks should be abandoned; only that they should be performed with limited resources and in an atmosphere of scepticism about the effectiveness and morality of the use of force.

All these considerations affected the development of the French and British armed forces, their strategic doctrines, and their influence on foreign policy. The services (with the exception of the new air arm) were much shaken in their self-confidence by the experience of 1914–18. Their strategic doctrines had to cope with changes in weaponry and techniques of war whose effects were uncertain and little understood, in political circumstances which demanded simultaneous obeisance to the new concepts of disarmament and to the old demands of domestic and imperial security. In these circumstances, it is not surprising, or even remarkable, that the advice given by French and British service chiefs to their governments tended to err on the side of caution.


The French armed forces

These problems were much in evidence in the development of the French armed forces between the wars. The basis of French military power remained the army, which was mainly raised by a system of compulsory service, with contingents of conscripts passing through a period of training with the army and then going into the reserve, to be mobilised in case of need. There was also a force of regular soldiers, including the officer corps and most of the non-commissioned officers. Like nearly all armies based on conscription, the French Army was therefore made up of three elements: the regulars, conscripts serving their time with the colours, and reservists, back in civilian life but liable to recall.

During the 1920s, the period of military service in France was progressively reduced. Immediately after the victory of 1918 it stood at three years; in 1921 it was reduced to two years; in 1923 to eighteen months; and in 1928 to one year. At that time, the annual contingent of conscripts was 240,000, and the regular element was fixed at 106,000. Because of the shortfall in the birth-rate during the First World War, it was easily predictable that in 1936 and for four years to come, the annual contingent would amount on average to only 120,000 — half the number provided for by the military law of 1928.4 In March 1935 the Chamber of Deputies therefore amended the law to extend the period of service to two years, starting with the class to be called up in October. By October 1937, the conscript contingent would again reach 240,000.

To bring the army up to its full strength required the mobilisation of the reserves, which took millions of men out of their civilian employment, with all the economic and social disruption that that entailed. This process did not at once produce a fully effective fighting force, for many of the reservists required a prolonged period of training, and the whole army had to undergo a difficult adjustment. All this must be remembered when we consider the crises of 1936, 1938, and 1939, when the French either contemplated or carried out general mobilisation. It was a process which on the one hand disrupted the social and economic life of the country, and on the other produced for a time an army which was in the throes of reorganisation and retraining. It was not an easy course to take; and in some circumstances it might not prove effective.

The total mobilised strength of the French Army in September 1939 was 110 divisions, of several kinds - infantry, Alpine, fortress, cavalry, light mechanised, armoured, North African and colonial. This army was in the process of being re-equipped. In September 1936, the Popular Front government, despite its strong anti-militarist tendencies, judged the position of the country to be so serious as to demand a substantial armaments programme. A scheme was accepted for the ordering of 6,600 anti-tank guns (mostly the small 25 millimetre gun, but some 600 larger); and 3,200 tanks, mostly light, but including over 400 heavy tanks (Type B), and over 300 mediums (Somua), which were both very good, well-armed vehicles. There was at this stage little problem with finance — some 31 billion francs were spent on rearmament between September 1936 and September 1939; but there were problems in French industry, which could not immediately cope with a flood of orders. There were also many difficulties within the army itself: for example, it took four years to move from a first proposal to modify the Somua medium tank to the actual placing of an order. But both army and industry made great efforts, and in September 1939 the French had a total strength of just over 4,500 tanks, including many of good quality.5

What was this force intended to do, and what strategic doctrines did it profess? From the end of the First World War, it was the working assumption of the French high command that they would at some time have to fight another war with Germany. They recognised that in such a war France would be at a disadvantage in terms of numbers and industrial capacity. France therefore would need allies, and must think in terms of a long war, in which the German economy could be undermined by blockade and outmatched in production as it had been in 1914–18. At the start of a war, France would have to stand on the defensive, with no repetition of the disastrous assault of 1914 in Alsace-Lorraine. Offensive operations could be considered only in the long term, when Germany would be overcome by the forces of a great coalition.

The necessity for a prolonged defensive found physical expression in the Maginot Line, a great system of fortifications on the Franco-German border, which was discussed from 1925 onwards and decided upon in 1929. It was not strictly speaking a continuous line, but a system of fortified zones, the strongest of which faced northwards from the Rhine to Luxemburg and the southernmost corner of Belgium. A series of forts and blockhouses ran along the Rhine, south to the Swiss border. The fortifications were not extended along the Franco-Belgian border to the sea, partly because the terrain was difficult and the cost would have been very great, but also because until 1936 France was allied to Belgium, and could scarcely fortify their common frontier, with the clear implication that in the event of war the Belgians would be left to their fate.

After the disaster of 1940, the Maginot Line was much criticised; but at the time its main purposes were entirely sensible. Psychologically, it offered the promise of using steel and concrete to save lives — an appealing prospect after the blood-letting of 1914–18. Economically, it protected Alsace and Lorraine, with their deposits of iron ore. Strategically, it was intended to act as a ‘force mulitiplier’, in that it could be held by comparatively small forces, leaving most of the French Army free for operations elsewhere, and particularly for an advance into Belgium. On the debit side, the Maginot Line was a very expensive undertaking, which consumed an increasing share of the defence budget in the early 1930s. But on balance the case for the Maginot Line was strong.6

In principle, the need for mobility and a concept of offensive warfare was appreciated in the French Army in the 1930s. In 1930 General Weygand, the Chief of Staff, began to mechanise a number of divisions, and set out to form a light armoured division. In 1933 he insisted that the army must have manoeuvrable forces as well as fortress troops. In 1936 a new set of strategic instructions for the army emphasised the importance of taking the offensive, and laid down that tanks should be used in independent units as well as in conjunction with the infantry. The creation of armoured divisions was under discussion in 1937, though only one such formation was in existence by September 1939. The ideas of attack and manoeuvre were alive in the manuals and in terms of theory. In practice, they were heavily outweighed by commitment to the defensive. The investment made in the Maginot Line, and the public attention that was focused upon it, created a weight of assumptions from which the army could not escape. The whole force of French emotions, more powerful than theory, was concentrated upon defence. Moreover, the sort of army produced by the one-year service of the early 1930s was inadequately trained for rapid offensive operations. Despite the theories and the manuals, the French Army was in practice committed to the defensive. The consequences for French foreign policy were far-reaching.

What of the new air arm? An Air Ministry was created in 1928 to administer the air forces, but for operational purposes they remained under the control of the army and navy; and an independent air force was set up only in 1933. At that stage, it possessed just over 1,000 first-line aircraft, with a similar number in reserve, but its planes dated from the 1920s. Efforts at re-equipment began in 1933 with a scheme (Plan I) to produce just over 1,000 new aircraft. From 1936 onwards, other schemes followed with bewildering rapidity. Plan II (November 1936) aimed at the delivery of 2,400 aircraft by June 1940. By January 1938 the Air Ministry had already reached Plan V, which set a target of 2,600 first-line aircraft, plus reserves, by April 1941.

Targets were one thing, production quite another. Official figures for annual deliveries of aircraft to the French Air Force oscillated round the 500 mark between 1935 and 1938, before attaining over 2,000 in 1939. The air force came low in the government's order of priorities, receiving only a small proportion of the defence budget up to 1938.7 The aircraft industry was still in many ways craft-based, with a multiplicity of small firms. (There were twenty separate firms making cockpits, for example.) The Popular Front nationalised the industry, with improvements which were marginal at best. A change to mass production was begun in 1938, but was slow to get under way.

The Air Ministry programmes, therefore, produced only small results up to 1939. In September 1939 the French Air Force had about 700 fighters in squadron service, with another 450 in reserve; but only just over 300 were of modern type, and these were of poorer quality than their German or British counterparts. The bomber force was in even worse condition: 125 in squadron service, with another 50 in reserve, all slow and obsolescent. No modern bomber was in sight, and effectively the French had no bombing capacity.8

No clear doctrine had been developed on whether the main role of the air force was to act as an auxiliary to the army and navy, or whether it was to operate independently. A bomber manual of 1939 referred both to intervention in a land battle and to attacks behind enemy lines; but since the aircraft necessary for either sort of operation did not yet exist, this was of slight significance.

The late 1930s thus saw the French Air Force at its lowest ebb. It was in the first years of existence as an independent service, and without a coherent strategic doctrine. Its programmes of re-equipment had yet to produce results. For a few years, which could scarcely have come at a worse time, French air power virtually ceased to exist.

The navy, on the other hand, was strong and of high quality. Its five battleships were elderly, but most of the other ships were modern and powerful, including two new battle-cruisers, an aircraft-carrier, 18 cruisers, over 50 destroyers, and over 70 submarines. The main fleet was designed to match Italy in the Mediterranean; and in the 1930s the French battle-cruisers were also designed to be crushingly superior to the German ‘pocket battleships’. The navy was the best of the three French armed ser-vices. Assuming co-operation with the Royal Navy, the prospect of war at sea presented France with the least of its problems in the 1930s; though it was far from certain that there would be enough strength to cope with a simultaneous threat from Japan in the Far East, Italy in the Mediterranean, and Germany in the North Sea and Atlantic.

French strategy and foreign policy

In the late 1930s, then, the French had a strong navy, a very weak air force, and an army which was strong in numbers but was essentially limited to a defensive role. The consequences which followed from this situation for French foreign policy were profound, though they were not always faced with honesty or clarity. Much of French foreign policy between the wars was in principle based on a network of alliance with east European states -Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Rumania. The hope was that these allies would help to protect France against Germany; but in practice it was more likely that France would have to protect them. To help Poland or Czechoslovakia against a German attack, France's only move would be an offensive across the German border in the west — yet how could this be done with an army which was defensive in its nature, and how did it fit in with a concept of war based on a long conflict, not a sharp attack? In fact, it could not be done unless the French Army was completely reorganised. Foreign policy and strategy were completely out of step, as was painfully clear in the crises over Czechoslovakia in 1938 and Poland in 1939. The problem of bringing them into step was beyond the capacity of French governments to solve. To reorganise the army to provide a force capable of rapid offensive action was impossible on social and political grounds. (De Gaulle's suggestion for a professional élite armoured force would have put too much power into the hands of the officer corps and was politically unacceptable.) To scrap the east European alliances, once made, and resign all influence in that area, was almost impossible in terms of French prestige and self-respect, though they came very close to this drastic step in autumn 1938. This problem was fundamental, insoluble, and fatal.

The French tried to improve their parlous strategic position by seeking new allies against Germany. An Italian alliance appeared to offer advantages. Italy's military strength and geographical position were of great importance to France: General Gamelin said repeatedly during 1935 that it depended on the attitude of Italy whether or not fifteen French divisions could be stationed on the German rather than the Italian border. There were also common frontiers between the two countries' colonies in Africa, where Italian friendship or hostility could affect French interests. The Franco-Italian military agreement of June 1935 was thus seen as a great coup. The three French Chiefs of Staff went to Rome to conclude this agreement, which provided for a mutual guarantee of common frontiers in the Alps and Africa, and in the event of war with Germany the despatch by Italy of nine divisions to France, and by France of a corps to the Italian-Yugoslav border. There was also a separate agreement between the air staffs, made in May and supplemented by further conversations in Paris in September, providing for co-operation in the event of German air attack on either country.

The satisfaction with which the French staffs greeted these agreements was matched by their chagrin when the Ethiopian crisis of 1935-36, and in particular the British insistence on sanctions against Italy, virtually destroyed them. For some time the French hoped that something might be salvaged, and some part of the agreements revived (Mussolini at least referred to them as being still in existence); but this proved vain. In 1936 Gamelin reflected grimly that fifteen French divisions which might have faced Germany must now be deployed in the Alps: would the British, he wondered, make up the difference?

French views of the importance of Italy were to some extent based on overestimates of the strength of the Italian services, and especially the air force; but even so, considerable strategic advantages had been lost as the price of maintaining good relations with Britain. A British alliance was the crucial element in the French scenario of a long war to be won by an economically superior coalition. In these expectations, British sea power and economic potential played vital roles, outweighing the paucity and uncertainty of a British military intervention on the Continent. In April 1936 the French Deputy Chief of Staff, General Schweisguth, on a visit to London, reported that, if the British decided to intervene in a Continental war at all, which was not certain, they might be able to send two divisions to the Continent, without air support. There would be a two-week delay between the decision to send them and their actual departure; and then another week or two before they could be operational.

The British Army was therefore a very doubtful asset. But in 1938 and 1939, as the French became acutely conscious of their weakness in the air, they began to place increasing reliance on the support of the RAF. In Air Staff talks from November 1938 onwards, the French sought promises of the rapid despatch of British aircraft to France in the event of war. The British, through their own weakness, had less to offer than the French wanted; but the French need was so great that they were thankful for small mercies.

Strategic considerations played less part than might have been expected in French relations with other allies or potential allies. Military contacts with Poland languished from 1934 until the eve of war in spring 1939; and the French Air Staff did not speak to their Polish opposite numbers between September 1937 and May 1939, when the French made a hollow promise to base five bomber groups in Poland in the event of war. Military contacts with the Soviet Union were inhibited by ideological considerations, by service reluctance to give the Soviets any information, and by the purges, which cast doubt on the effectiveness of the Red Army. The French Army had conflicting reports on the fighting capacity of the Red Army after the purges; the air staff retained a good opinion of the Soviet Air Force; but in any case close co-operation was not pursued.

In all these matters, the dominant features were France's need for allies, and the considerations forced upon her by the concept of a long war starting with a defensive phase. Britain was the key ally, because of her economic strength, sea power, and long-term military potential. In French eyes, the British were exasperatingly short-sighted about European affairs; they had to be cajoled, threatened, or deceived into a Continental commitment; but as long as Germany was the enemy, they could not be dispensed with. When it appeared (as it often did) that in the late 1930s France yielded too much of the initiative to Britain, and appeared to follow the British even though it was a case of the blind leading the sighted, we must remember this fundamental strategic background.

All this presupposed that Germany was the enemy; and the other great influence of strategic thinking upon French policy came from French estimates of German power. In the late 1930s, these tended to be pessimistic, exaggerating German strength. This was particularly the case in March 1936, at the time of the German occupation of the demilitarised zone in the Rhineland. The Deuxième Bureau (French military intelligence) produced what proved to be generally accurate information on the German Army as a whole, and on the forces which entered the Rhineland — seven divisions and a total of about 60,000 men, including some armed police units. But when the Army General Staff reported to the government, it added to these figures about 235,000 from paramilitary formations (SA, SS, Labour Front), saying that these constituted another fifteen divisions, though the Deuxième Bureau had specifically mentioned these men and considered their military value practically nil. It is not clear why this was done — it may well have been simply a ‘worst case’ appreciation to be on the safe side; or it may have been designed to discourage any pressure for an attack on the Rhineland, for which the army had no plans ready. In any case, it produced an extremely pessimistic estimate of German strength.

By 1937 the Deuxième Bureau had grasped the developing German conception of a war of movement, using tanks and close air support. After the German occupation of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, French military intelligence reported that the Germans had made a great haul of equipment, including 600 very good tanks and 4,000 guns.9 (In the campaign of 1940, when France was defeated, three of the ten German Panzer divisions were mainly equipped with Czech-built tanks.) Another report of March 1939 assessed that Germany could concentrate 30 divisions in the west in three to four days, and could overrun Holland and Belgium in a day or two. The events of 1940 were to show such estimates to be a shade pessimistic, but not too wide of the mark. In July 1939 the French General Staff put the number of German divisions on general mobilisation at 120 to 130. The actual figure was 103. The French could muster 86 divisions, so the estimate made the disproportion of strength rather greater than it actually was.10

As to the air, from 1937 onwards French Air Force Intelligence had a strong tendency to overestimate the strength of the Luftwaffe. In that year, French intelligence reports were roughly correct on German aircraft production, but too high on aircraft in squadron service. In summer 1938 the French estimated German operational strength at 2,760 aircraft, mostly of recent design, which was certainly an exaggeration. But even though the French overrated German strength, they knew their own weakness only too well. Peter Jackson, in his detailed study of the subject, writes starkly that: ‘Unbelievable as it may seem, in September of 1938 the French air force possessed less than 50 modern warplanes.’11 Such a figure spoke for itself.

It might have been expected from all this that the French military leaders would advise their government against a war with Germany, on the grounds that it would invite disaster. But in 1939 this was not the case. The French General Staff continued to believe in the superiority of the defence over the attack, and advised the government that the army was prepared to protect the country, sustained by the fortifications of the Maginot Line, by recent progress in rearmament, and by the hope of British assistance, which became steadily more likely as the year went on. The German Army was technically excellent, but its morale was thought to be dubious. Daladier received reports on German public opinion daily, and built up misleading hopes of unrest and disaffection among the people. The Poles were expected to hold out for some months; and if Italy came in on Germany's side, France could take the offensive against her. When ministers met military leaders for a review of the situation on 23 August 1939, with the Polish crisis boiling up, the Air Minister estimated that French and British fighter strength was roughly equal to that of Germany and Italy (which, surprisingly enough, was correct); though the commander of Home Air Defence said bluntly that he was not ready for war. Gamelin estimated that Polish resistance would keep Germany occupied until spring 1940, by which time British forces would begin to arrive in strength. On the whole, it was a confident review, and there was no hesitation on military grounds in supporting a declaration of war on behalf of Poland.

There was considerable inconsistency between these views and the earlier pessimistic trend of French estimates of German strength. When put on the spot, the French military leaders were naturally reluctant to say that they had failed in their duty and the country could not be defended. But the key element in the advice tendered by the French soldiers was that they were ready for defence. This was what they had been preparing for, and they believed that their preparations were adequate. They recognised that they were open to air attack; but with British help, and if the process of mobilisation could be safely completed, German bombing was not likely to prove fatal. At the end of August 1939 therefore, French military opinion was sufficiently confident to accept war, though it was by no means eager for it. It was a somewhat surprising conclusion to a decade of weakness and self-doubt; but when it came to the point the soldiers believed they could do the defensive part of their job. To take the offensive would be another matter; but they did not intend to do that for a long time.

Great Britain

The British armed forces

Britain was, by long tradition and in accordance with her interests as an island state, primarily a maritime power. During the 1920s and 1930s, the Royal Navy remained one of the strongest fleets in the world, roughly comparable with that of the USA. It had serious problems: financial restrictions; the terms of various naval agreements, which affected the numbers, tonnage, and design of warships; the unresolved question of the role of air power in maritime war; and world-wide commitments to protect trade and empire, which had grown beyond the unaided strength of the navy even in its palmiest days. New construction of warships was limited, and the fleet was impressive in size but ageing in composition.

In September 1939, the Royal Navy consisted of 12 battleships and 3 battle-cruisers, the newest of which dated from 1927, and most from the First World War. There were 6 aircraft-carriers, only one of them new; 68 cruisers and 201 destroyers and sloops including a larger proportion of newer ships; and 69 submarines. Substantial programmes for the expansion of the fleet were adopted in 1936 and following years; so that at the outbreak of war 5 battleships, 6 carriers, 21 cruisers, and 50 destroyers were being built.12

The British Army was the only European army made up entirely of regular soldiers, with no conscripted element. (Conscription had been introduced in 1916, but abandoned in 1920.) This produced a force 197,000 strong in January 1938, including the British component of the Indian Army; to which should be added another 190,000 Indian troops. The total strength was thus 387,000, which at first sight compared favourably with the size of the French Army actually with the colours. But there were none of the reserves which were automatically produced by a system of conscription (some were provided by the Territorial Army); and the army was widely dispersed, its major tasks being imperial defence and policing. In January 1938 its distribution was as in Table 11.1.13

TABLE 11.1 Distribution of the British Army, 1938


Approx. total

Infantry battalions




India and Burma



plus Indian Army


Middle East and Mediterranean



Far East



West Indies



Source: Brian Bond, British Military Policy between Two World Wars (Oxford 1980), pp. 118–19. OUP.

In the crisis of September 1938 Britain was in a position to send only two divisions to France in the event of war. When war came in 1939, four divisions were sent as the basis of the new British Expeditionary Force, fewer in number and less well trained than its predecessor of 1914. The French put 84 divisions into the field, and the Germans 103; which puts the British military contribution into perspective.

In February 1939, under the pressure of events in Europe, the British government decided in principle to create a field force of thirty-two divisions twelve months after the outbreak of a war in Europe. This was, of course, a decision which would take a very long time to implement, in terms both of manpower and equipment; and it had little immediate effect on British armed strength. The same was true of the decision, announced in April 1939 and put into legislation in May, to introduce conscription in peacetime, for the first time in British history. It was a very limited measure: full-time service was to be for six months only, and 80,000 out of the 200,000 conscripts expected each year were to go into anti-aircraft units; conscripts were not to serve abroad unless war broke out. The first contingent was not called up until August 1939, so the measure had little practical effect before war broke out.

The Royal Air Force was the newest of the three services, but in the 1930s, with the acute fear of bombing which prevailed in both civilian and military circles, it attained a position of priority, so that in 1938 and 1939 expenditure by the Air Ministry was greater than that by either the Admiralty or the War Office.14 The size of the RAF was kept down in the 1920s, and no increase was embarked on until 1934, when it became clear that the Geneva Disarmament Conference had failed. There then followed, in rapid succession, a series of plans for expansion, each setting a new and higher target. The actual growth in numbers was less than that aspired to, but still considerable. In March 1934 the first-line strength of the RAF at home was 605 aircraft. At the end of September 1938, at the time of the Munich crisis, it had reached 1,102; and at the beginning of September 1939, 1,377. (Aircraft stationed overseas, and with the Fleet Air Arm, raised these totals to 977, 1,642, and 1,996 respectively.)15 This increase in numbers was accompanied by an improvement in quality, so that by September 1939 most of the fighters were new Hurricanes and Spitfires, though the bomber force was still largely made up of older types.

The considerations governing the strength of the British armed forces were partly the tasks they were expected to perform and the strategic doctrines professed by the different services; but still more decisive were the constraints of finance and economics. The first question was one of budgeting: how much of the government's resources were to go to the armed forces, and how were those sums to be divided between them? In August 1919, the Cabinet laid down that the service departments, in preparing their estimates of expenditure, should assume that there would be no major war for ten years — the ‘Ten-Year Rule’. In 1928, while Churchill was Chancellor of the Exchequer, it was agreed that subject to review once a year, the ten-year period should be extended on a day-to-day basis. In March 1932 the Chiefs of Staff recommended that, as a result of the Japanese occupation of Manchuria in 1931–32, the ten-year assumption should be abandoned. The Cabinet accepted this in principle, but there was no actual increase in expenditure until the Disarmament Conference broke down in 1934. A five-year rearmament programme was agreed on in February 1936; and in 1937 the Treasury imposed a system of financial ‘rationing’ to settle priorities between the three services. In April 1938 the Royal Air Force was allowed to order as many aircraft as industry would build, without financial rationing; and after the Munich crisis of September 1938 rationing went into abeyance for the other two services as well.

Budgetary restrictions were only part of the constraints on rearmament. Small armaments industries faced problems of manpower, factory space, and machine tools if they were to expand rapidly. Such problems might have been dealt with more effectively if the government had been willing to impose its political will and transfer to a command economy, but this it would not do. Both in accordance with its own economic ideas and in deference to the wishes of industrialists, the British government tried to avoid controls and direction, even when civilian demand impeded the process of rearmament. The government also moved very carefully in relation to the trade unions, whose restrictive practices obstructed change, particularly in the aircraft industry. Above all, the government believed that the demands of rearmament had to be kept in balance with the normal needs of the economy. It was necessary to avoid inflation, and so to limit borrowings; to maintain a satisfactory balance of trade, and so to keep up exports; and to be prepared to sustain the effort of rearmament for a long period. Even in the event of war, the accepted wisdom was that victory would go to the country with the strongest economy and the greatest staying power. A stable economy was therefore seen as the fourth arm in warfare, which might actually be weakened by over-hasty rearmament.

In all these calculations, the position of the USA loomed ominously in the background. In the previous war, only heavy borrowing had enabled the British to sustain their imports from America, but this was now excluded under the American neutrality legislation. To sustain a great war without imports from the USA was impossible; but in the late 1930s it was equally impossible to borrow dollars to pay for those imports. The British faced an impasse.

Economic restraints did much to decide the size of the armed forces Britain possessed. What were these forces intended to do, and what strategic doctrines informed their development? Long tradition laid three tasks upon the navy: to bring the enemy's fleet to battle; to protect the country's sea-borne trade; and to strangle the enemy's economy by means of blockade. In a war against Germany, the enemy's surface fleet was not expected in the late 1930s to pose a serious problem. Sea-borne trade was crucial, and it was hoped that convoys would succeed in protecting it. Blockade (recently given the more elevated name of economic warfare) was expected to be a crippling, if slow-acting, offensive weapon, cutting off German supplies of vital raw materials, and so opening the way to victory. The problem with all these tasks was that there might be two or three enemies — Germany, Italy, and Japan were likely opponents; and the fleet's strength would then be stretched far too thinly over the globe.

The role of the army was mainly imperial, as its dispositions bore witness. If Britain were to be involved in a European war, there was a powerful school of thought that she should proceed on a policy of ‘limited liability’, and engage only small land forces on the Continent, putting her main effort into sea and air warfare and into the economic sustenance of a coalition. This was seen as a return to traditional British strategy after the costly and largely fruitless aberration of the First World War. A classic statement of this view was put to the Cabinet by Neville Chamberlain on 5 May 1937, just before he became Prime Minister: ‘He did not believe that we could, or ought, or, in the event, would be allowed by the country, to enter a Continental war with the intention of fighting on the same lines as in the last.’16 A paper by Thomas Inskip, Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence, accepted by the Cabinet in December 1937, placed British strategic objectives in order of priority: (1) the protection of the home country against air attack; (2) the safety of the trade routes; (3) the defence of British territories overseas; and (4) co-operation in the defence of the territories of any allies we may have in war.17

The attraction of such a strategy from a British point of view is clear enough. For the French, however, who were to be assisted on a basis of limited liability, the prospect was far from attractive. They would be expected to sustain the battle on land, and to pay the price in blood. In December 1938, an officer on General Gamelin's staff told the British military attaché in Paris that France needed from Britain ‘un effort du sang’, an effort of blood — an ominous phrase, which grated unhappily on British ears.18

The doctrine of limited liability undermined French confidence in Britain, and helps to explain their sense of grievance against the British at this time. But it was also highly questionable whether it had any true advantage for the British themselves. In a reappraisal of the strategic position on 20 February 1939, when the threat posed by German power had become more immediate, the Chiefs of Staff pointed out that it was hard to say how the security of the British Isles could be maintained if France was forced to surrender, and therefore even self-defence ‘may have to include a share in the land defence of French territory’.19 It was at this point that the Cabinet decided in principle to create a large army of thirty-two divisions in the event of war on the Continent. They recognised, doubtless belatedly, that even in terms of British security and self-interest there was no alternative. A Continental commitment, not limited liability, was the only realistic military policy.

The Royal Air Force, like the army, had an important imperial role, as a cheap and effective method of imposing order and conducting frontier warfare. In European affairs in the 1930s, its main function was linked to a theory of deterrence: that the existence of a bomber force would deter another country (i.e. Germany) from attacking Britain. This theory was not backed by the possession of adequate aircraft, or reliable means of bombing accurately; but it was clung to for want of anything better to replace it. The expansion schemes of 1934–38 provided for a greater proportion of bombers than fighters, and this began to be changed in 1938 mainly because fighters were cheaper to produce than bombers. The government was also able to claim that, by building up a fighter force, it was doing something to protect the civilian population against air attack; though it could not mention the development of radar, which for the first time held out the possibility of intercepting the enemy bomber in flight.

The Air Staff's emphasis on the power of the bomber coincided with and reinforced a widespread popular fear of bombing attack. In October 1936 the Joint Planning Committee of the Chiefs of Staff (on which the RAF representative was Group Captain Arthur Harris, later the head of Bomber Command during the war) submitted a report which argued that by 1939 Germany would be able to deliver a series of knock-out air attacks on Britain from the first day of a war. It estimated that there might be 20,000 casualties in London in the first 24 hours, rising to 150,000 within a week. (In the event civilian casualties in Britain during the whole of the Second World War, from bombing and other bombardment, amounted to just under 147,000.) This was a ‘worst case’ scenario, and of course the Chiefs of Staff were not averse to giving the government a jolt which might produce more funds; but even so they broadly accepted the picture of danger from the air.20 Naturally enough, politicians who saw the report were much impressed. Earlier, in 1934, Stanley Baldwin had said in the House of Commons that ‘the bomber will always get through’ — a simple phrase which was never forgotten. The impression on the public mind was reinforced by popular literature and films, and by the newsreels of the Spanish Civil War. The result was that both the government and large sections of the public were thoroughly alarmed at the prospect of air attack.

British strategy and foreign policy

The effects on foreign policy of the state of British armaments and strategic thinking were far-reaching. The fundamental problem was the disparity between Britain's commitments and her resources. The commitments were almost literally world-wide. The British Empire was at its greatest extent. The Dominions, though asserting their independence of the mother country, still relied on her for protection. Australia and New Zealand, Malaya and Singapore, the Middle East and Mediterranean, western Europe and the British Isles were all under some kind of threat as the 1930s went on. In 1937 the Chiefs of Staff produced a gloomy review of Britain's enemies:

‘The bomber will always get through' (Baldwin, 1934). It did — German bomber over London, September 1940. Fear of air attack was a powerful element in appeasement.

Source: Corbis

Japan in the Pacific, Italy in the Mediterranean, and Germany in western Europe. Their conclusion was that until rearmament was further advanced, it should be the first task of foreign policy to diminish the number of Britain's enemies. The policy of ‘appeasement’ should never be appraised without recalling this sternly realistic recommendation. To reach an accommodation with Italy in the Mediterranean; to avoid confrontation with the Axis powers over the Spanish Civil War; to find the basis of a settlement with Germany; to make only the most cautious response to Japanese aggression in China — all this followed in large part from the need to diminish the number of one's enemies.

What of Britain's friends? The almost inevitable result of the concept of ‘limited liability’ was at best an ambiguous attitude to France. On the one hand, the British took the link with France almost for granted — if there was to be another war, Britain and France would be allies. But, on the other, for a long time the British refused to translate this assumption into any form of specific commitment. There were no staff talks between the two countries until the end of 1935, when the British suddenly pressed for conversations in the crisis over Italy and Ethiopia; and these were dropped by January 1936. There were staff meetings after the German occupation of the Rhineland, but they could make little headway when British strategic priorities put help to allies last in the line. As late as November 1938 the Chiefs of Staff were opposed to pursuing talks with the French in too much detail, for fear of being committed to a French war plan over which they had no control. A note from the Air Staff for RAF representatives in talks with French officers (15 June 1938) laid down that the words ‘ally’ or ‘allies’ should never be used, either verbally or in writing. It was a fair summing up of the British attitude; and if the British would not treat the French as allies, they had no reason to expect anything better in return.

Next, what were British views of their most dangerous enemy? Estimates of German strength moved rapidly in the 1930s from complacency to excessive pessimism. In the early stages of open German rearmament, from 1935 onwards, the War Office tended to be sceptical of reports of the rate of growth of the German Army, largely on the ground that it could not envisage the British Army growing at such speed. Between 1936 and 1938, however, military intelligence changed tack, and produced inflated estimates of German strength. In July 1938, in the midst of the Czechoslovakian crisis, the War Office estimated that the Germans could mobilise 88–90 divisions, when the actual figure was 75. In July 1939, military intelligence put the number of German divisions available for immediate mobilisation at 99; in deference to French information this was raised to 120–130; the actual figure was 103. The number of German tanks was put in September 1939 at 5,000, including 1,400 medium tanks; the actual figure was 3,000 including only 300 mediums, the rest being light tanks.21

Land warfare was not seen as primarily a British problem; and estimates of the German Air Force were of more immediate significance. Early estimates tended to be low. In 1934, when the German Air Force had a total of 550 aircraft, the Air Ministry put the figure at 350, and thought it would reach 480 in 1935. The Air Staff could not believe that the Germans, notoriously efficient by their very nature, would accept anything less than the highest standards of training, support services, and reserves; and therefore their progress was bound to be slow. Hitler's public announcement in March 1935 of the existence of the Luftwaffe came as no surprise; but his claim in April 1935 that Germany had already achieved parity with Britain in air strength was regarded with scepticism.22

At that time, the Air Staff was right about current German strength, but wrong about future expansion. At the end of 1936 and the beginning of 1937, this complacency came to a sudden end, and estimates of German strength rose rapidly, until they became substantially exaggerated. It is possible to compare actual German strength in August 1938 with RAF estimates in September, the month of the Munich crisis (Table 11.2).23 The overestimate of the combat-ready bomber force was almost twofold, and fed the fear of air bombardment which profoundly affected British policy at the time of Munich. At the time this fear was almost entirely misplaced. In September 1938 the commander of Luftwaffe Fleet 2, General Felmy, reported to the German Air Staff that bombing operations against England without advanced airfields in the Low Countries were impossible. The Luftwaffe had no aircraft with sufficient range, nor crews with adequate training, for the purpose. The Ju88 was only adopted as a suitable aircraft for bombing operations against Britain in the course of 1938, and after a series of design problems a mere 18 of this type had been produced by September that year.24 But, as is often the case, beliefs were more important than facts.

TABLE 11.2 German air strength and British estimates, 1938

German air strength August 1938

British estimates September 1938




















Source: Edward L. Homze, Arming the Luftwaffe: the Reich Air Ministry and the German Aircraft Industry, 1919–39 (Lincoln, Nebraska 1976), p. 241. Nebraska University Press.

It is easy to see why the British government preferred to avoid war in 1938. It faced too many enemies; its resources were overstretched; it shrank from a Continental commitment on land; and it was afraid of sudden bombing attack from the air. What is less easy to see is why the same government, only the next year, went to war, not with a light heart, certainly, but with a modest confidence that they could win.

The answer appears to lie in various estimates that were current in 1939. The first was a steady confidence in the French Army. The Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Lord Gort, thought highly of the fortifications of the Maginot Line, the fighting capacity of the troops, and the talents of the high command; and it seems that the British did not look too closely for possible weaknesses.25 Second, there was a belief that Britain was turning the corner in the matter of air power. Desmond Morton, who ran the Industrial Intelligence Committee, predicted in February 1939 that British aircraft production would overtake German by the autumn — which proved to be correct; and the air attaché in Berlin reported in the same month that he thought Germany had reached the peak of its rearmament — which proved incorrect. At the same time, radar stations were coming into operation, and Hurricane and Spitfire fighters were reaching the squadrons, raising hopes for the first time that the bomber might not always get through. The third was the estimate by British economic intelligence that the German economy could not sustain a long war. Reports made by the British embassy in Berlin, from 1936 to 1939, all indicated an economy under strain, with the iron and steel industry working at full capacity and a shortage of skilled labour. Reports from German opposition sources in September 1938 and January 1939 pointed in the same direction: the financial position was desperate, manpower and transport were under strain, and Schacht knew that chaos lay ahead. This information led to two conclusions. First, it was likely to mean further adventures in foreign policy. As the Berlin embassy put it in May 1939: ‘Sooner or later further territorial expansion will be necessary’, because Hitler would have either to accept limitations on self-sufficiency or go to war. But second, if Germany went to war she would do so with her economy already fully stretched; and unless she made great gains in resources in the first twelve or eighteen months, she must run into serious difficulties. A Chiefs of Staff strategic assessment of 20 February 1939 held, on the economic side, that ‘Germany, if favoured by fortune, might maintain her industrial resistance for about a year’.26 This optimism was not universal. The Industrial Intelligence Committee indicated that Germany had substantial stocks of raw materials; and a Treasury paper in July 1939 pointed out that Germany had established power over neighbouring countries, so that payment for her imports in case of war was unlikely to pose serious problems. The Chancellor of the Exchequer (Simon) told the Cabinet on 5 July that Germany was betterprepared for a long war than Britain.27

None the less, the favourable reports were strong enough to encourage those who were ready to believe them. Intelligence reports, like other sources of information, tend to be believed when they tell the listener what he wants to hear. Up to February and March 1939, intelligence about German strength gave ample support to a policy of seeking a settlement with that country. At that time, for reasons which were only partially related to the military balance, British policy changed; and there were enough indications in the intelligence material to give the change of policy some backing. In part the indicators proved correct — the corner had been turned in the air, though only just; in part they were quite wrong — the German economy, with the help of all the loot of 1940, had plenty of life in it, and was to show more staying power than anyone predicted. At the time, there seemed to be enough good news to sustain the spirits of those who, however reluctantly, decided that they had taken enough from the Germans. Notably, Neville Chamberlain came to feel, as he wrote to one of his sisters on 5 February 1939, that ‘they [the Germans] could not make nearly such a mess of us now as they could have done, while we could make much more of a mess of them…’.28 This was crudely put, and proved to be well wide of the mark, but it was a clear sign that there was a new confidence in the air.


1. Raymond Aron, Peace and War (London 1966), p. 151.

2. Guilio Douhet, Il Dominio dell'aria; English trans., The Command of the Air (London 1943).

3. H. Montgomery Hyde, British Air Policy between the Wars, 1918–1939 (London 1976), p. 46; E. L. Woodward, Great Britain and the War of 1914–1918 (London 1967), pp. 370–3.

4. John Gooch, Armies in Europe (London 1980), pp. 191–195; Guy Chapman, Why France Collapsed (London 1968), p. 21.

5. The most recent figures for French tank strength are in Ernest R. May, Strange Victory: Hitler's Conquest of France (New York 2000), p. 476; for quality comparisons with German tanks, p. 478. See also Robert J. Young, In Command of France: French foreign policy and military planning, 1933–1940 (Harvard 1979), pp. 166–73, 185–90; J. A. Gunsburg, Divided and Conquered: the French High Command and the defeat of the West, 1940 (London 1980), pp. 39–40; Chapman, Why France Collapsed, pp. 66–8 and Appendix A. There is a valuable brief analysis of French strategic thought in Robert A. Doughty, ‘The illusion of security: France 1919–1940’, in Williamson Murray, MacGregor Knox and Alvin Bernstein (eds), The Making of Strategy (Cambridge 1994), pp. 466–97. Martin Alexander, The Republic in Danger: General Maurice Gamelin and the politics of French defence, 1933–1940 (Cambridge 1992) gives a large-scale survey.

6. See Martin Alexander, ‘In Defence of the Maginot Line’, in Robert Boyce (ed.), French Foreign and Defence Policy, 1918–1940 (London 1998), pp. 164–94; May, Strange Victory, pp. 120–1.

7. Deliveries of aircraft to French Air Force: 1934–197; 1935–494; 1936–570; 1937–422; 1938–533; 1939–2,227. Air force expenditure as a percentage of the defence budget: 1934–12.3; 1935–18.8; 1936–18.0; 1937–18.0; 1938–23.0. Patrick Fridenson and Jean Lecuir, La France et la Grande-Bretagne face aux problèmes aériens, 1935-mai 1940 (Vincennes 1976), pp. 31, 43.

8. The assessment of the size of the French Air Force in 1939–40 is a notorious quagmire — Robert Young has rightly remarked that counting aeroplanes is an art form rather than an exact science. See Gunsberg, Divided and Conquered, p. 75; Fridenson et Lecuir, La France et la Grande-Bretagne, passim; Young, In Command of France, p. 163. By May 1940 the French Air Force mustered a total of some 2,400 fighters and 1,160 bombers, though very large numbers were held in the rear and never got into action during the Battle of France. See Kale-Heinz Frieser, The Blitzkrieg Legend: The 1940 Campaign in the West(Annapolis, Md 2005), p. 45.

9. Robert J. Young, ‘French military intelligence and Nazi Germany, 1938–1939’, in Ernest R. May (ed.), Knowing One's Enemies. Intelligence assessment before the two World Wars (Princeton 1984), pp. 288–9; Young, In Command of France, p. 228. The most recent analysis is in Peter Jackson, France and the Nazi Menace: Intelligence and Policy Making, 1933–39 (Oxford 2000), p. 184.

10. F. H. Hinsley, British Intelligence in the Second World War, vol. I (London 1979), pp. 75–76.

11. See Jackson, France and the Nazi Menace, Chapters 7 and 8, pp. 207–97; the quotation is from p. 275. Cf. Gunsburg, Divided and Conquered, pp. 53, 76.0 For actual German strength, see below, pp. 218–19, 282.

12. S. W. Roskill, The War at Sea 1939–1945, vol. I (London 1954), p. 50 and Appendix E; the building programmes are detailed in S. W. Roskill, Naval Policy between the Wars, vol. I (London 1968), Appendix C. The figures include the Dominion navies.

13. Brian Bond, British Military Policy between Two World Wars (Oxford 1980), p. 98, map and table, pp. 118–119.


TABLE 11.3 British defence expenditure, 1938–39

Admiralty (Acual expenditure; in thousands of £)

Air Ministry

War Office









Source: G. C. Peden, British Rearmament and the Treasury 1932–1939 (Edinburgh 1979), Appendix III, p. 205. Scottish Academic Press.

15. Sir Peter Masefield, ‘The Royal Air Force and British military aircraft production, 1934–1940’, published in French translation in Comité d'Histoire de la 2e Guerre Mondiale, Français et Britanniques dans la Drôle de Guerre(Paris 1979), pp. 411–456, table on p. 426. Note that the definition used is the strictest definition of first-line aircraft: serviceable aircraft in operational squadrons with trained crews. It is an excellent definition, but it makes comparison with other statistics and other countries difficult.

16. Quoted in P. J. Dennis, Decision by Default: peacetime conscription and British defence, 1919–1939 (London 1972), p. 98.

17. Quoted in Peden, British Rearmament and the Treasury, pp. 134–135.

18. Quoted in Michael Howard, The Continental Commitment (London: Pelican Books 1974), p. 128.

19. Quoted in ibid., p. 129.

20. Uri Bialer, The Shadow of the Bomber (London 1980), pp. 128–132.

21. Hinsley, British Intelligence, vol. I, pp. 62, 76; Wesley K. Wark, The Ultimate Enemy. British intelligence and Nazi Germany, 1933–1939 (Oxford 1986), p. 101.

22. Wesley K. Wark, ‘British intelligence on the German Air Force and aircraft industry, 1933–1939’, Historical Journal, 25 (3) (Sept. 1982), 627–648.

23. Edward L. Homze, Arming the Luftwaffe: the Reich Air Ministry and the German aircraft industry, 1919–39 (Lincoln, Nebraska 1976), p. 241.

24. Militärgeschichtliches Forschungsamt, Germany and the Second World War, vol. I, The Build-up of German Aggression (Oxford 1990), pp. 497–498.

25. Martin Alexander and William Philpott, ‘The Entente Cordiale and the Next War’, Intelligence and National Security, vol. 13, No. 1, Spring 1998, pp. 72–73.

26. Hinsley, British Intelligence, vol. I, pp. 67–68, 70–1.

27. For a review of intelligence assessments in Britain, France and Germany on the eve of war, see below, p. 311.

28. The varying British assessments of German strength in 1939 may be followed in Wark, The Ultimate Enemy, pp. 70–73, 122, 183–4, 211–22. Chamberlain's letter is quoted in John Charmley, Chamberlain and the Lost Peace (London 1989), p. 159.

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