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Chapter 1: Introductory: The Lean Years

(1) ‘No Major War’

British rearmament between 1934 and 1939 began and grew with the rising danger of war with Germany, but what set the scale of the problem was not only the magnitude of international dangers but also the low level of military equipment in the hands of the Forces in the early thirties. In dealing with the pace of rearmament it is, therefore, important to get the true measure of the deficiency which the rearmament sought to remedy.

The manner in which the deficiency arose is clear enough. In the twenties, war seemed remote, and the hopes of prolonged peace ran very high. It is, therefore, no wonder that throughout most of the inter-war period the programmes of the Services were governed by the assumption that no major was to be expected. The peace hypothesis since its first formulation in August 1919 had taken a somewhat different form from year to year and from Service to Service, but from July 1928 until March 1932 the approved formula, as agreed by the Committee of Imperial Defence, was ‘that it should be assumed for the purpose of framing the estimates of the fighting services that at any given date there will be no major war for ten years’.1 Acting on this ‘ten-year assumption’ the Government of the day allowed the establishment and the material equipment of the Forces to run down.

How small the national expenditure on armament was in the inter-war years will be seen from Table 1. The figures have not been compiled on a basis sufficiently uniform to allow an exact computation of the total expenditure on the armaments of the three Services taken together. But the margin of error in a total of this kind would not be very great—rather less than five percent—and the annual expenditure thus computed would give an approximately accurate estimate of what the nation spent on buying and maintaining the armaments of its Forces. The annual average for the ten years was about £23 millions.

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Table 1: Expenditure on armaments and warlike stores, 1924–332.

£ millions

Year ending 31st March


RAF Army
Column 1 2 3 4
1924 11.8 (5.0) 4.9 2.6
1925 13.0 (6.0) 6.9 2.6
1926 14.1 (5.4) 7.6 2.2
1927 16.0 (8.3) 7.4 1.8
1928 16.3 (9.0) 7.6 1.8
1929 15.0 (8.5) 7.1 2.0
1930 14.4 (7.7) 7.9 2.2
1931 10.7 (5.0) 8.9 1.5
1932 10.3 (4.8) 8.7 1.8
1933 10.7 (6.0) 7.8 1.6

(2) The Naval Standards

The table makes it clear that the sums were spread not only thinly but also unevenly, and there is also other evidence to show that deficiencies were not equally grave in each of the three Services. Even though naval construction was the one branch of British armaments subject to formal international disarmament treaties, the fighting strength of the Navy had not slumped as low as that of the other two Services. By the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 and the London Naval Treaty of 19304 Britain had accepted restrictions in the number and quality of capital ships,5 aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers and submarines. Judged by numbers alone, the Navy was not thereby greatly enfeebled. Cruiser strength suffered most, for the number of cruisers allowed under the London Treaty of 1930 fell well short of the seventy which the Admiralty considered necessary for trade protection. The treaty allowed, however, for a continuous programme of replacements at a rate of three cruisers a year, which was higher than the rate at which Great Britain had been building previously. What is more, the number of battleships and aircraft carriers retained

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under the treaties and the strength of the small ships were sufficient to provide a fleet at least equal to the demands of the so-called ‘one-power standard’; and this for the time being was thought to be sufficient. The doctrine was that naval strength should be great enough to enable the British fleet, wherever situated, to equal any other fleet, wherever situated. Since Japan was regarded as the only possible enemy, the ‘one-power standard’ in practice meant the maintenance of a naval force capable of meeting the Japanese Navy as its selected moment. Making allowance for the necessity of docking and refitting, the force needed to confront the Japanese in the far East was estimated at some twelve capital ships, five aircraft carriers, forty-six cruisers, nine flotillas of destroyers, fifty submarines and a proportionate number of small craft. In addition, three more capital ships and four more cruisers would have had to be left behind in Home Water and had also to be provided for in the programme.

These requirements were in fact met by the existing British fleet, and, in theory at least, very little new construction was needed to maintain British naval strength at the standard thus defined. The position, however, was not as satisfactory in practice as it appeared to be in theory. Adequate as the fleet might appear in numbers it was weakened by a great proportion of old ships. Under the 1930 Treaty the British Government accepted a rate of replacement under which it would take Britain about fifteen years to re-equip her fleet with modern ships. In actual fact the scale of new construction was even slower than that. The average annual cost of new construction from 1930 up to and included 1934 was some £6 millions;6 this sum covered three cruisers, nine destroyers and a small number of submarines and sloops. This meant that by the end of 1936, when 1930 Treaty was due for renewal, the full scale of replacement allowed under the treaty would be reached only for cruisers—some 91,000 new tons in all. The replacements for destroyers and submarines would still be below the treaty limits to the extent of 60,000 tons and 40,000 tons respectively. Moreover, in the prevailing conditions of financial stringency little could be done to provide out of the naval estimates for the modernising of battleships: a process in which Japan and the United States were them much more active than Great Britain. Nor was it possible to lay down reserves of ammunition and stores or to equip auxiliary vessels and bases that would be required in time of war.

The financial stringency was also affecting the quality of the ships built. Both the initial costs of construction and those of maintenance had to be pared down to the minimum, and for this purpose the size of cruisers was reduced from 10,000 tons to some 7,000 or 5,000

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tons, and that of destroyers was also for a long time kept very low.

So much for current construction. Potentially even more important was the growing weakness of the industrial reserves at home which was bound to result in a slowing down in the future rate of construction. In the past the Admiralty could, both in times of war and during period of increased naval construction in peacetime, rely on the vast shipbuilding resources of the country. These resources were declining between the two wars. As a result of a chronic depression in the shipbuilding industry specialised labour was drifting away from the main shipbuilding areas: slowly in the early twenties, much faster in the thirties. By 1935 the total insured labour force stood at about 157,000 or about one-half of what it had been in the early twenties. Even slip capacity, of which in theory there was a superabundance, was declining. In theory, the number of suitable berths, however much reduced (in 1939 it was only fifty percent of that of 1930), was fully sufficient for naval needs. But, in practice, much of the surviving commercial capacity had not gone through the crisis unscathed and was now showing signs of neglected re-equipment and maintenance. It was, of course, possible to argue that even at this reduced level Britain’s shipbuilding resources were greater than those of any other country and represented a reserve of specialised industrial capacity far great than that available to the Army or to the RAF. Nevertheless by 1935 the margin was much narrower than in the past and also narrower than the Admiralty had been in the habit of assuming in the discussions on the shipbuilding programmes.

For all these reasons the prevailing opinion in the early thirties in British naval circles was that British naval strength had been allowed to run down below the safety limit as set by the ‘one-power standard’ realistically interpreted; and before the ‘one-power standard’ itself came to be regarded as insufficient. Yet viewed in retrospect the position of the Navy, bad as it was, was relatively speaking no worse and from some point of view much better, than that of the other Services. Even though the strength of the fleet fell short of strategic requirements, the gap between present strength and future needs was not as wide as elsewhere.

(3) The Rations of the RAF

In most of these respects the RAF was somewhat worse off. In theory, it was expanding all through the late twenties and early thirties. By a Government decision in 1923 the Royal Air Force, then greatly reduced by demobilisation and economy campaigns, was to be raised to and maintained at a level of fifty-two squadrons for home

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defence with a first-line strength of 594 machines. This decision, however, was not back by sufficient financial appropriations and remained largely a dead letter. Aeroplanes for new formations were coming forward very slowly, sometimes not at all; 495 airframes were ordered in 1928, 573 in 1929, 855 in 1930, 728 in 1931, 445 in 1932 and 633 in 1933; but only seventy airframes were available for new formations in 1928, forty-nine in 1929, sixty-three in 1930, eighty-three in 1931 and none in 1932 and 1933. No wonder that by the beginning of 1934 the Home Force was still only forty-two squadrons strong or ten squadrons short of its minimum objective.

Production was devoted more to the re-equipment of some of the existing squadrons than to the building up of an air force to the minimum laid down in 1923. Yet even the re-equipment was little more than nominal. In the early thirties the bulk of the Air Force was still made up of aircraft types dating to the war of 1914–18. The types available for replacement, although more recent, were not only few in number, but as a rule were below the technical and operational standards of the day. As late as 1935 the principal ‘new’ fighter coming into services was the Gloster Gauntlet with a speed of 230 m.p.h., and the ‘new’ bombers were the Hind and Hendon with a load-carrying capacity of 500 lb. and 1,500 lb. at a range of 430 miles and 920 miles respectively. The general impression is that throughout these years the quality of RAF equipment was falling below the standards which in the early thirties were being established in foreign countries, such as Italy and the United States.

With financial provisions and new output at a very low level, the Air Ministry had great difficulty in maintaining its industrial reserves. The aircraft firms, including the principal engine firms, found themselves in a position of chronic penury and sometimes on the very verge of bankruptcy. Westland Aircraft Company at one time tried to keep alive by making stainless steel beer barrels. Not all the firms were in straits quite so desperate or were compelled to adopt expedients equally unusual, but very could have survived without the tutelage of the Air Ministry. In order to maintain a nucleus of an aircraft industry and to keep in existence facilities for aircraft design, the Air Ministry had to ration out all new work among some sixteen substantial aircraft firms. The system helped to consolidate the so-called ‘family’ of aircraft firms and to establish links between the Air Ministry and the aircraft industry which were to prove most valuable in future years. But for the time being the diet, though just sufficient to keep the bulk of the firms alive, was too meagre to enable them to keep pace with the aircraft industry abroad, especially in the United States, and to acquire the equipment and technique for quantity production. The Air Council and the Air Staff had thus every reason for thinking that their Service was being starved out.

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(4) The Disarmed Army

Lower still was the equipment of the field forces. The Army did not occupy a place in the traditional concepts of British power as important as that of the Navy and did not figure as prominently in the plans of Imperial defence. Nor could it match the RAF in its ability to impress the public and overawe the statesmen by its terrible and yet undisclosed potentialities for destruction. The field forces were therefore bound to be the main victims of the financial stringency. The annual allocation for the purchase and maintenance of army weapons and war-stores in the decade between 1923 and 1933 seldom exceeded £2.5 millions and averaged about £2 millions, or slightly less than nine percent of the small sums spent on armaments in an average year.7

The effects of the stringency were all but crippling. The official doctrine of the War Office in the late twenties and the early thirties was that of a highly-equipped small and mobile professional army. Small it indeed was—its regular nucleus in the twenties was only four divisions strong. To some extent it was also becoming mobile, for under the current scheme of mechanisation its entire transport, cavalry and artillery, was due to be motorised. But highly equipped it certainly was not.

Mechanisation was the largest and the best-advertised of the Army’s projects of modernisation, but in fact throughout the twenties and early thirties it was not carried beyond a merely experimental stage. The Royal Army Service Corps alone was completely mechanised by 1930. By 1929 some brigades of the Royal Artillery were equipped with tracked tractors, several Royal Engineer and Signal units were mechanised, and a few cavalry units had their first-line transport converted to lorries. Between 1930 and 1934 the artillery, the engineer and signal and RASC units of the Territorials were also supplied with lorries. It was not, however, until 1934 that the infantry began to be mechanised, and it was not until 1939 that the Regular Army obtained its peacetime complement of wheeled vehicles and as much as one-half of its complement of tracked vehicles, quite apart from tanks. Before 1934 the process appeared more impressive in lists of units than in terms of actual equipment ordered and supplied. The total number of all wheeled motor vehicles ordered in the ten years from 1923 to 1932 was little more than 5,000, or about 500 per annum. Of this six-wheeled lorries, the main element of mechanised equipment, formed somewhat less than half.

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Even that, however, was more than could be done for other types of equipment. Some weapons, e.g. rifles and field guns, survived in large numbers from the 1914–18 war and were held in store by the Army. Most of them, however, were out-of-date and indeed of modernisation and modification. In 1935 the field gun in service was the last war’s 18-pounder, with its barrels not yet re-lined and its carriage not yet mounted on pneumatic wheels. The anti-aircraft gun in service was the last war’s 3-inch 20-cwt: an inadequate gun on an antiquated mounting. The automatic infantry weapons were the Vickers machine gun designed in the eighties of the last century and the Lewis gun designed in 1912. It was not until 1933 that the War Office, in its search for a modern light machine gun, picked on the Zbrojowka 0.303 gun, the Bren of the future years; and the first batch of Brens made in this country were not delivered to the Army until the end of 1937. Although designs for a modern tank and anti-tank gun (the 2-pounder) were available in the early thirties, none were ordered till December 1935, and none delivered till April 1937. Until then the Army possessed no special anti-tank gun, while the obsolete 3-pounder and the heavy Vickers machine gun formed the standard armament of the armoured vehicles.

The tank itself was a British invention, yet the supply and design of tanks were allowed in the late twenties and thirties to dwindle almost to vanishing point. Organisation for tank design in the War Office was rudimentary in the extreme, and but for the solitary and pioneering efforts of the designers at Vickers-Armstrong the country would have possessed no facilities for the design and development of armoured vehicles. As late as 1936 the total equipment of tanks in the hands of the Army was 375, of which 209 were designated as light and 166 as medium. Of the total number, 304 were officially classed as obsolete, and these included all the medium tanks with the exception of two, both experimental. The rest, i.e. 164 out of 166, were the Marks I, Ia, and II which had been produced between 1925 and 1929 and were from every point of view out-of-date. The only ‘up-to-date’ equipment consisted of some sixty-nine light tanks (Marks V and VI), but these were not introduced until 1935 and 1936, and even they were armed with nothing more than machine guns. New tanks of heavier weight, armed and armoured for infantry function and conforming to contemporary ideas of tank design were not available even in project form. As late as 1937 wooden dummies took the place of heavier tanks in army manoeuvres.

So it was with many other weapons. New arms were neither ordered nor designed. It is then to be wondered at the industrial facilities at the disposal of the Army had declined to almost the lowest point since the Crimean War? The National Munition Factories of the First World War had all been closed down or otherwise disposed of

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by 1923; the Hereford factory alone remained in Government hands, and even that was kept only as a reserve plant on a ‘care and maintenance’ basis. The state-owned capacity for the production of army weapons came to be restricted to the three Royal Ordnance Factories—the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich, the Royal Small Arms Factory, Enfield Lock, and the Royal Gunpowder Factory, Waltham. In each of these output and employment were by 1933 reduced to the minimum: less than 7,000 were employed at Woolwich, largely on Admiralty work, compared with 65,000 in 1918; some 800 at Enfield Lock compared with some 9,5000 in 1939; and 354 at Waltham compared with some 5,730 in 1918. Privately-owned capacity dwindled even more. Whereas in 1913 there were in this country at least four great armament firms, by 1934 three of these had left the field or ceased to exist and only one full-fledged armament firm—Vickers-Armstrong—survived. Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) could of course be counted upon for a limited supply of explosives; some capacity for small arms ammunition at the Birmingham Small Arms Company (BSA) and at Vickers-Armstrongs, and there was a small nucleus of specialised firms making equipment for the Navy. But in all these firms the capacity actually engaged or immediately available for military production was very small indeed and could not be expanded at short notice. Elsewhere production of weapons would be impossible without a thorough industrial re-conversion and re-education.