Chapter 7: The Stocktaking, (May 1940)
WITHIN a fortnight of the opening of the German attack on France and the Low Countries, the British Government had to reckon with the possibility that France might be defeated. Besides the immediate problems discussed in the last chapter, they had therefore to consider wider issues. On their instructions the Chiefs of Staff drew up, towards the end of May, an estimate of the country’s ability to carry on the war alone.
Assuming that Italy would intervene against us, that Japan would be at least potentially unfriendly, and that the United States would give ‘full economic and financial support’, the Chiefs of Staff came to the conclusion that much would turn on the air defences.1 It was, they said, ‘impossible to say whether or not the United Kingdom could hold out in all circumstances’; but whether the enemy’s attempt to enforce surrender took the form of blockade, invasion or a ‘knock-out blow’, his opening move would probably be air attack. If the air defences proved effective, and if the gravity of the threat were brought home to the nation, we should stand a good chance of survival. ‘The crux of the whole problem’, said the Chiefs of Staff, ‘is the air defence of this country.’ Meanwhile the country must be ‘organised as a fortress on totalitarian lines’; in particular, potential ‘fifth columnists’ must be rendered harmless, and the public must be told of the dangers that confronted them.
On 22nd May, while the Chiefs of Staff were preparing their report, the Government assumed wide powers over the persons and property of British subjects resident in the United Kingdom, under the United Kingdom Emergency Powers (Defence) Act. On the following day a number of more or less prominent persons suspected of sympathy with the Germans were arrested, although all men or women colourably suspected of traffic with the enemy had, of course, been either apprehended or closely watched since the beginning of the war in accordance with ordinary procedure. Thereafter drastic steps were taken to guard against unfriendly acts by alien refugees who had applied in recent years for asylum in this country.
However necessary, these Draconian measures did little to dispel anxieties created by the news from France and rumours of the sore
plight of the British Army; but on the morrow of the withdrawal from Dunkirk, the national spirit was uplifted by a fighting speech from the Prime Minister, which turned doubt and confusion to determination. So profound were the effects of Mr. Churchill’s words that their delivery can be reckoned a major step towards the better defence of the United Kingdom.
Since invasion was, of all measures open to the enemy, the most likely to be assisted by moral unpreparedness—and doubtless also for other reasons—Mr. Churchill’s speech put much stress on that danger and on the Government’s determination to resist it. The Chiefs of Staff had indeed urged that the public should be left in no doubt ‘what they are required to do, and what not to do, if the country is invaded’.2 But they themselves were chiefly preoccupied, as we have seen, with the air offensive which seemed likely to come first. With the Air Component back in England, the air defences mustered rather more than seven hundred first-line fighters, of which about six hundred were Hurricanes and Spitfires. The Germans were thought to have at least twice that number of fighters and about three thousand bombers and dive-bombers.*3 Radar and a well-planned system of dispersal should enable the fighter force to escape the swift annihilation which had overtaken the Norwegian and Dutch air forces; but casualties across the Channel had been heavy—in three weeks’ fighting about 430 fighters had been lost4—and immediate reserves numbered only about a third of first-line strength.5 Anti-Aircraft Command was still weak, Balloon Command by no means strong. The Civil Defences, too, though the fruit of fifteen years of patient planning, envisaged attack from German bases, and needed drastic overhaul if they were to meet the heavier and perhaps more widespread offensive possible from aerodromes in newly-conquered countries, especially if it were accompanied by subversive measures designed to amplify the moral effects of air bombardment.
Hence the fighter force was likely to be the crucial weapon; and since reserves were scanty, its ability to sustain the struggle would almost certainly depend on fresh supplies of aircraft. The vital question, therefore, was whether the aircraft industry could turn out Hurricanes and Spitfires fast enough to meet losses. Pilots would of course be needed too; but for some time to come, machines would remain the deciding factor.
When the Chiefs of Staff completed their review, the outlook in this respect was far from promising. In the first six months of war,
* On paper the Germans had, in fact, about 1,800 fighters, and 2,000 bombers and dive-bombers, on all fronts. At the end of the French campaign a fortnight later the strength of their fighter units was, however, down to about 1,400 aircraft, of which 1,064 were serviceable. See also pp. 112-13.
747 fighter aircraft had been delivered, the monthly output rising from an average of 110 in the whole of 1939 to 177 in March 1940, and 256 in April.6 The figure for May was expected to reach 261, or roughly five-eighths of the number lost in the last three weeks. Between June and October a monthly average of 344 machines was predicted. By concentrating on existing at the expense of newer types, the factories might be able to improve a little on these figures; on the other hand, a few successful attacks by German bombers might well upset their plans, especially as two factories made all the engines for the fighter force.7
Accordingly the Chiefs of Staff urged the Government to do their utmost ‘to persuade the United States of America to provide aircraft, particularly fighters, as soon as possible and in large numbers, including those from stocks now held by the United States Army and Navy.’8 Ultimately this suggestion—though not carried out on quite the lines proposed—brought useful additions to the country’s stocks of certain categories of aircraft.* But the crucial problem of the fighters needed in 1940 was solved by the efforts of British factories. Under the stimulus of the emergency vividly depicted by Mr. Churchill in his speeches, and urged on by Lord Beaverbrook at the head of a new Ministry of Aircraft Production—which assumed the general responsibility for co-ordination of production hitherto exercised by the Air Ministry—the British aircraft industry strove successfully to prove better than its word. In May, deliveries of fighters exceeded the estimated figure by more than sixty aircraft; in the next five months they were about one-third higher than the Chiefs of Staff expected.† Meanwhile a brief respite helped Fighter Command to build up its strength a little, so that by the middle of July the losses suffered in France had been made good. For the moment, however, the breathing space which made this outcome possible could not be foreseen.
But in any case, avoidance of defeat in the air would not alone ensure survival. Invasion by an enemy who had not gained air
* Before the war orders had been placed in the United States for Hudson reconnaissance aircraft and Harvard trainers; later a number of other types were ordered, notably Fortress heavy bombers, Maryland, Baltimore and Boston medium bombers, Catalina flying-boats and Tomahawk and Kittyhawk fighters. Aircraft ordered in the Dominions before the war included Hampden bombers from Canada and Beauforts (designed as torpedo-bombers) from Australia. No Tomahawks or Kittyhawks were used in the Battle of Britain.
† The figures were:
superiority was perhaps unlikely; attempts to starve the country out by cutting off supplies of food and raw materials, on the other hand, would certainly be made and might perhaps succeed. On the whole, however, the country’s chances of avoiding such a fate seemed fairly good. Ten battleships—the Rodney, Nelson, Ramillies, Resolution, Royal Sovereign, Revenge, Malaya, Valiant, Barham and War spite—and three battle-cruisers—the Hood, Renown and Repulse—were in commission.9 Admittedly only three of the thirteen had been completed since the end of the First World War, and generally not more than four or five effective ships were available in home waters at one time.10 Even so, since Germany and Italy had between them only four capital ships—a number which might be slightly more than doubled within the next few months—the navy could hope to enforce a powerful sanction against surface raiders. At the same time, cruisers, escort vessels and destroyers were all scarce; the threat of Italian intervention had already compelled the Admiralty to base a substantial fleet on Alexandria; the collapse of France would bring fresh burdens in the western Mediterranean; and if Japan came into the war against us the long-cherished plan which envisaged a big fleet at Singapore would have to be discarded in favour of reliance on the United States to protect our interests in that quarter. Yet, all things considered, the Chiefs of Staff were confident that the naval strength available at home when other essential needs had been met would suffice to outmatch any surface effort that the enemy could bring to bear in the home theatre.11 By cutting out luxuries the country could manage with sixty per cent, of its normal imports, and the merchant navy had enough ships to ensure that rate of supply. The risk of underwater attack, which might upset these calculations, appeared less threatening than it might have done if a temporary shortage of German submarines—soon to be made good—had not prolonged the winter’s respite. On the other hand, the Chiefs of Staff foresaw the risk that heavy air attacks on East and South Coast ports might deny them to merchant vessels, and urged accordingly that the complex problems which would arise if West Coast ports alone were so used should be faced. They recommended, too, that the country’s system of intelligence should be strengthened in order to ensure good warning of the enemy’s intentions and that, besides aircraft, destroyers and light naval craft should be sought in the United States.
Thus all paths led the Chiefs of Staff to the conclusion that efficient air defences were the primary requisite for survival. If they were strong, a ‘knock-out blow’ could very probably be resisted; the West Coast ports at least could be kept open to trade protected by the maritime defences; and invasion across an uncommanded sea would, at the worst, be made more difficult by the enemy’s inability to use his air force as he pleased.
In any case, for reasons already noted—namely, the enemy’s preoccupation with events in France and the time needed to assemble shipping—invasion proper was not likely to come for several weeks. On the other hand, the dangers which had seemed so alarming when the fall of Holland was imminent would not be less so if France too collapsed. The Air Staff calculated that fewer than 5,000 parachutists, temporarily paralysing the air defences by attacking seven vital aerodromes in south-east England, might pave the way for bomber raids and landings from troop-carriers, which in turn would carry the enemy well along the road to more ambitious projects.12 At the same time up to 20,000 troops, accompanied by armoured fighting vehicles carried in special landing-craft from which they could be put ashore on open beaches, might be rushed across the southern part of the North Sea and descend upon us with little or no warning.13 To keep them out of the country would be difficult, perhaps impossible; for the navy had not nearly enough destroyers or patrol vessels to cover the whole coast from the Wash to Sussex, the local seaward defences of our estuaries and harbours were not proof against fast light surface craft, and the fixed defences were still weak.14 In favourable weather—or alternatively if German air superiority stifled air reconnaissance—they would have a good chance of getting ashore without effective interference. And if the enemy did gain air superiority, he might conceivably be able to protect their communications in face of our naval power, thus employing a mere raiding force to gain a bridgehead through which invasion proper might be launched.
If the enemy could not be kept out of the country, what were the chances of defeating him once he was in? On the eve of the Dunkirk withdrawal, and while it was in progress, they seemed very slender. The JULIUS CAESAR plan had been overhauled in recent weeks; but on the whole Home Forces were neither equipped nor trained to deal with an enemy well supplied with armour. General Sir Edmund Ironside, succeeding to the command on the day when the withdrawal started, was hampered just as General Kirke had been by scanty physical resources, inadequate mobility, and the legacy of tactical and strategic doctrines which the German success in Europe had already shown to be outmoded. The Local Defence Volunteers, 300,000 strong, were not yet an effective force. With the seven divisions previously training or assigned to special tasks, General Ironside had at the end of May fifteen infantry divisions and the incomplete 2nd Armoured Division.15 The infantry division? averaged less than half their establishment of 15,500 men apiece.16 Owing to the preference given to the Expeditionary Force they had only about a sixth of the field guns and anti-tank guns to which they were entitled; and many of the field guns, instead of being modern
25-pounders, were older 18-pounders or 4.5-inch. howitzers. Their deficiency in machine-guns was still greater;17 but of all these shortcomings perhaps the worst from the point of view of a commander who might be confronted by German armour was the lack of antitank guns. It was complemented by a grave shortage of the armour which he himself would need if a counter-attack designed to smash the spearhead of the invading force was to stand a good chance of success. The departure of the 1st Armoured Division had left Home Forces with some 160 light tanks,18 armed solely with machine-guns and therefore of little value for the purpose; and although there were in the country hundreds of other tanks of various classes (and in various states of repair), they would be of no use until they had been taken up by effective fighting units.* Furthermore, the standard of mobility in General Ironside’s command was far below that which now seemed necessary. In general, transport was provided only for supplies and certain details; the bulk of the troops, if ordered to move faster than they could march, would do so in hired motor-coaches driven by civilians unprepared for the conditions which might await them in the event of a German landing.19 Arrangements had been made to assemble these vehicles and their drivers at ‘short notice’; but ‘short notice’ meant that at least eight hours, and in some instances a whole day and night, would elapse before the troops could start.20 Thus quite small landing-parties bringing armoured vehicles—if indeed they got ashore—might do incalculable harm before they could be rounded up.
In face of these handicaps General Ironside, like Air Chief Marshal Dowding anxious lest such resources as were left to him should be dissipated in vain attempts to postpone defeat in France, not unreasonably disclaimed responsibility for security on land unless ‘all available forces’ were put at his disposal.21 At best he faced a double threat from seaborne troops who might land anywhere along four hundred miles of coastline—and conceivably elsewhere on the coast—and from airborne troops who might descend a long way to the rear of forces guarding the most likely stretches. His dispositions reflected these twin preoccupations. Eight of his fifteen infantry divisions were devoted primarily to coast defence, ‘with their rear elements disposed to deal with airborne attack.’22 One corps of three
* According to a statement furnished by the War Office in May 1947, the numbers of armoured fighting vehicles held by units in the United Kingdom (including depots and training units) on 1st June 1940, were as follows:23
|Old ‘medium’ tanks (obsolete or obsolescent)||132|
divisions—the 43rd, the 52nd and the 1st Canadian—he held in G.H.Q,. Reserve on the line Northampton-North London-Alder-shot, ‘suitably disposed to move rapidly by brigade groups to any threatened area’; the 2nd Armoured Division, also in reserve, was in Lincolnshire.
These dispositions left the vulnerable stretch from the Wash to Sussex only relatively well guarded. (See Map 6.) In Eastern Command, whose troops would take the first shock of a seaborne landing anywhere within those limits, there were six infantry divisions with less than half their approved establishment of field guns and with only a handful of anti-tank guns; though the 43rd Division, which was rather better off for field guns, was close at hand.* The vital sector from Sheppey to Rye was manned by the 1st London Division, with 23 field guns towards an establishment of 72, no anti-tank guns, no armoured cars, no armoured fighting vehicles, no medium machine-guns, and about a sixth of the anti-tank rifles to which it was entitled.24
Thus at the end of May there seemed good ground for the opinion, expressed some time before by Dowding, that ‘the continued existence of the nation, and all its services, depends upon the Royal Navy and the Fighter Command’. Indeed, the Chiefs of Staff admitted that, ‘should the Germans succeed in establishing a force with its vehicles in this country, our army forces have not got the offensive power to drive it out’.25
* The numbers of field guns, anti-tank guns and anti-tank rifles nominally held by units in Eastern Command and by the 43rd Division on 31st May 1940 (with divisional establishments for comparison), were as follows. Brackets denote that some or all of the weapons in question had not yet arrived.
|2nd London Division||–||4||8||2||(47)|
|1st London Division||11||4||8||–||(47)|
|12th Division Artillery and Details||8||24||16||–|