Chapter 2: 1939: Plans and Preparations in Case of War
See Chronology on page 40.
THE CONVERSATIONS between the French and British Staffs began in London at the end of March, just before the announcement of the guarantees to Poland. The first step was to formulate a common policy, and the general conclusion was that Anglo-French strategy should be adapted to a long war. The warlike preparations of Germany and Italy were well advanced, but these countries could not hope to add appreciably to their resources in the course of a war, and would therefore be likely to stake their chances on a knock-out blow. Great Britain and France, on the other hand, though less well prepared, were in a position to increase their war potential steadily, provided they could protect their war industries and sea communications from air and submarine attack. Germany would most probably attack on land via Belgium and Holland, combining this with air attacks on a large scale against France or Britain or both. Italy would be more likely to undertake major offensive operations by land from Libya and Ethiopia than across the barrier of the Alps. Widespread submarine and raider activity in the Atlantic and Mediterranean would aim at depriving the Allies of their sea-borne supplies.
The Allied staffs therefore envisaged a war in three phases. The first would be one of preserving as far as possible the integrity of Allied territory and of defending vital interests. The second would be one of holding Germany and dealing decisively with Italy; meanwhile, Allied military strength would be built up until such time as a major offensive strategy became possible. Command of the sea would enable economic pressure to be applied from the outset, and would later confer freedom of choice in striking at the enemy’s most vulnerable points. Italy was so obviously the weaker partner that counter-offensive operations against her in North Africa were expected early in the war. The final phase of the war would be the defeat of Germany. This policy was accorded ministerial approval and the agreed strategic objects in the Mediterranean and. Middle East were made the basis of meetings between French and
British Commanders in North Africa, Aden, and Palestine, at which the operational implications were examined.
The French and British staffs did not take many days to reach agreement on broad lines, but no sooner had they done so than a fresh crisis arose—this time in the Balkan quarter of the Mediterranean. On Good Friday, 7th April 1939, Italian troops disembarked at Durazzo and other ports on the Albanian coast. There was practically no opposition. By Easter Sunday they had occupied the capital, Tirana, and King Zog had fled to seek refuge in Greece. Within a few days King Victor Emmanuel had accepted the Albanian crown and Italy had assumed direction of Albania’s external affairs.
There had been indications that something of the sort was contemplated, but the British policy was to preserve normality, so much so that on 7th April the Commander-in-Chief and ships of the Mediterranean Fleet were paying routine visits to Italian ports. They were at once withdrawn and, when it was rumoured that the Greek island of Corfu was about to be attacked, the fleet at Malta was brought to instant readiness for war. On 8th April. Signor Mussolini gave a formal assurance that he had no designs on Greece and that he was anxious to maintain the Anglo-Italian Agreement. In spite of this the fleet was moved unostentatiously to Alexandria, where it began to establish itself.
It was a little difficult to reconcile the Duce’s assurances with his actions, for the invasion of Albania could hardly be regarded as a contribution to the general cause of peace, which was the declared object of the Agreement. Worse still, it obviously constituted a change in the status quo, which both parties had specifically undertaken to maintain. The attitude of His Majesty’s Government was conditioned by the hope that Italy might yet act as a brake on Germany. With the ‘Three Power Enemy’ warning still in mind they refrained from tearing up the Anglo-Italian Agreement but tried to make it clear that they would not accept any further forcible disturbances of the status quo in the Mediterranean or the Balkan peninsula. At this juncture the Germans took up the running and sent a naval force on a cruise in Spanish waters. Whatever the precise object of this gesture was—and it was no doubt intended to be provocative—the result was to produce a concentration of the British Fleet at the eastern end of the Mediterranean, while a strong French force went to Gibraltar to supplement the British units already there. Having evoked this display of allied unity the German force withdrew.
Within a week of the Italian landings in Albania, the British
and French Governments announced that they had promised to give all the help in their power if Greek or Rumanian independence were threatened and if the Greek or Rumanian Government considered it vital to resist. The rejoinder to this was the announcement on 7th May of a political and military pact between Italy and Germany, to be known as the Pact of Steel. Five days later a Joint Declaration was announced by Great Britain and Turkey—the outcome of long negotiations into which the sudden appearance of Italian forces on the Balkan mainland had no doubt infused a sense of urgency. Pending the conclusion of a definite agreement, the British and Turkish Governments would, in the event of an act of aggression leading to war in the Mediterranean area, co-operate effectively and lend each other all the aid and assistance in their power. After a further month of discussion about the cession of the Hatay (Alexandretta) to Turkey a similar declaration was made by the French and Turkish Governments. These were highly significant developments, for Turkey occupied a geographical position of great importance. Not only had she land frontiers with Iraq and Syria, but she commanded the third gateway to the Mediterranean—the Dardanelles. The closing of this route would be a severe blow to the Italian war effort. Largely self-sufficient in foodstuffs, Italy was deficient in raw materials; her petroleum products, in particular, would have to come mainly from the Black Sea. In addition, if Turkey were hostile, the Italian Dodecanese Islands, most of which lie within twenty-five miles of the Turkish coast, would become hostages to fortune. The naval and air base at Leros, in particular, would be a liability for defence instead of a vantage-point for the attack of shipping. And on a wider issue it was possible that Turkey as a prominent member of the Balkan Entente might succeed in promoting some measure of solidarity in the Balkans, in the face of which the usual Axis technique of piecemeal destruction might fail.1
The regional meetings between French and British Commanders in the Mediterranean and Middle East were held in May and June at Rabat, Aden, and Jerusalem. The general objects were to render the Italian position in Libya, and eventually in Ethiopia, untenable. Operations were to be designed to cut sea communications between Italy and Libya, and to retain control of the Red Sea and the entrances to the Mediterranean. In view of the importance of Tripoli to the Italians the French would undertake a large-scale
offensive from Tunisia into Tripolitania, provided that Spain were clearly neutral. If, however, Egypt were seriously attacked, the French would carry out an offensive on a reduced scale, whatever the situation in Morocco. Meanwhile, the British aim would be to defend Egypt and try to contain as many Italian forces as possible on the Egyptian front. The air forces would operate in defence of Egypt and join with the Royal Navy in attacking Italian communications with Cyrenaica.
In the East African area the agreed Allied object at sea would be to secure the Red Sea route and isolate Italian territories, so as to deprive their armed forces of reinforcements and supplies. The task of controlling the sea communications in the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea would clearly fall to the British, as the French had no naval forces and only one squadron of obsolete aircraft. The initial object on land would be to defend Allied territory and foster rebellion in Italian East Africa; later, when resources became available, the Allies would pass to the offensive. The part of Italian East Africa which it would then be necessary to occupy was the general area Eritrea—Harar—Addis Ababa, and by far the best base for an offensive against this area would be French Somaliland, with its port of Jibuti. In the early stages of the war, the security of French Somaliland would therefore be of great importance to the Allies.
In the Levant, where there were no adjoining Italian territories, the strategic objects would be to maintain the security of important Allied interests and, subject to this, to release forces from Syria and Palestine for service elsewhere. Syria, for which the French held the mandate, had great significance for the British largely because of its geographical position. It filled the gap between Iraq and the Mediterranean; its territory flanked and partially blocked the lines of advance from the north towards the Persian Gulf; and through it ran all the rail and road communications from Turkey towards Palestine and Egypt, as well as nearly 500 miles of the northern branch of the Iraq oil pipeline.
It was realized that the attitude of the Iraqi Government would have an important bearing on the military problems that were likely to arise. For instance, there would no doubt be some difficulty in dealing with the tribes on the eastern borders of Syria and Transjordan if the Iraqi Government did not adopt a genuinely friendly attitude. In particular there was the problem of protecting the oil pipelines. The oilfield area and much of the pipe itself were in Iraq, and therefore vulnerable, but it was hoped that the recent Anglo-Turkish Declaration would encourage the Iraqi Government to take action against anti-British influences in the country.
As regards the terminal oil ports of Haifa and Syrian Tripoli, the position in peace time was that France drew about three-quarters
of the combined output of these ports. The French now said that they did not intend to draw any Iraq oil in time of war. Interest therefore centred mainly on Haifa, where a refinery was under construction, due to be completed in June 1940. The crude oil, unrefined as delivered by the pipeline, was not suitable as naval fuel; the storage tanks at Haifa on the Bay of Acre offered a most conspicuous target for air or sea bombardment; and these factors coupled with a certain amount of anxiety as to the safety of the pipeline itself resulted in the Admiralty’s decision not to count for the present upon the output of Haifa in war time. Instead they would use part of the storage accommodation for a reserve stock of naval fuel oil, brought from elsewhere. Haifa was, however, to be used as a base for light naval forces in the eastern basin, though the seaward defences were incomplete and no anti-aircraft defences had as yet been installed.
The French were anxious to use Cyprus as an advanced base for aircraft on seaward patrols, especially towards the Italian Dodecanese Islands, and for giving depth to the air defences of Beirut. The British, on the other hand, did not wish Cyprus to grow into a defensive commitment involving forces that could ill be spared. They agreed, however, that the airfields at Nicosia and Larnaca. should be improved and that refuelling and rearming facilities should be installed and made available to the French. Nevertheless, for the purpose of attacking the Dodecanese Islands it seemed that sites in south-western Anatolia would be much more suitable, if the Turks would consent to their use.
Finally the French agreed that a small expeditionary force might be required to move from Syria through Palestine to Egypt.2 The British, too, were able to regard a proportion of their forces in Palestine as potential reinforcements for other areas, although the excitement that had greeted the announcement of His Majesty’s Government’s plan for the new Palestinian state had not entirely died down. Thus, a skeleton division of six battalions became the ‘Middle East reserve’, with the probable role of moving to Egypt; one of them was earmarked for the Sudan; and two for Habbaniya in case of local, necessity. The troops that would still be allotted to internal security duties amounted to the equivalent of a skeleton division of eight battalions. The Air Force squadrons in Palestine and Transjordan were regarded as available to reinforce Egypt.
Allied naval co-operation in the Mediterranean had hitherto been discussed between the staffs of the Admiralty and the Ministry of
Marine. French forces were to control the Western Mediterranean almost as far west as Gibraltar and British forces the eastern basin. The line of demarcation passed through the Strait of Messina and then curved to include Malta in the British area and the port of Tripoli in the French. The French were to protect British merchant ships (except when in convoy) as well as their own as far east as Algiers. Both naval forces would try to interrupt Italian communications with Libya in their respective areas. If Japan were to enter the war—and the possibility of this had to be taken into account—His Majesty’s Government intended to send a fleet to the Far East. The strength and composition would have to be decided in the light of events and would depend, among other factors, upon the progress of operations already in hand against Italy, since these would offer the best prospects of speedy results. There would also be the effect upon Egypt, Greece and Turkey to be considered. Nevertheless, it would be largely at the expense of the Mediterranean that a fleet for the Far East would be created; British naval forces would remain for the local defence of Malta, Egypt and the Canal, but the main task of restraining Italian naval activity would fall upon the French.
At the end of July 1939 Vice-Admiral Ollive, Commander-in-Chief, Flotte de Haute Mer, (Med.),3 paid a visit to Admiral Cunningham at Malta.4 The agreed naval objects were to cut all Italian sea communications; retain control of the entrances to the Mediterranean; and exert any other pressure on Italy that might be possible by naval means. One ally was to take advantage of any dispersion caused by the action of the other. Plans of action on the outbreak of war were exchanged. They included plans for air reconnaissance, and the action of submarines. Provisional plans had been made for the bombardment by sea or air of several ports and harbours in North Africa, Sicily and Italy. The intention was to be ready to deliver some of these attacks directly war began, but the French and British Governments had by now agreed to restrict bombardment to purely military objectives in the narrowest sense of the word, and as far as possible to avoid making any attacks which would involve
loss of civil life.5 This meant that the intended plans could not be carried out, and that the initial operations by the Fleet would have to be limited to anti-submarine operations and sweeps—a very tame alternative.
The small historic island of Malta, the headquarters of the Mediterranean Fleet in peace, was to play a vital part in Mediterranean strategy. Its importance was due mainly to its geographical position, for it contained the only British harbour between the eastern and western entrances to the Mediterranean—just midway between the two. It possessed dock and repair facilities, reserves, and resources, which had been built up at great cost over many years. It was also an important air base, both as a stepping stone on the air route and as a centre for air reconnaissance over the Central Mediterranean. There were therefore strong reasons for wishing the island to be secure.
Unfortunately the size and proximity of the Italian Metropolitan Air Force made the air defence of Malta extremely difficult. The island is less than half the size of the Isle of Man and the most important objectives were crowded together in an area round the harbour. They made ideal targets for air attack, which, delivered by strong air forces working from well-established shore bases only half an hour’s flight away, could be both heavy and sustained. There was no effective warning system prior to March 1939, and the radar then installed gave only limited cover. There was no possibility of adding any depth to the warning system, and in consequence the defending fighters would be severely handicapped. But the number of airfields that could be made would not permit the use of more than a very few squadrons, and the protection of the grounded aircraft—a vitally important matter under these conditions—would involve a large dispersal project with the possible alternative of an elaborate programme of tunnelling. Then again, ground taken over for airfields would be lost for growing food, and as it was the island imported nearly three-quarters of its needs. Other essential imports were fuel, machinery and most war materials. Since the expenditure of resources, especially ammunition, in conducting an active defence would entail a heavy commitment for replacements, the whole problem of keeping the island supplied would be a serious one. However desirable it might be, for reasons of prestige and strategy, not only to prevent the island’s capture but also to retain the ability to use it for offensive purposes, it was clearly going to be no easy
matter to do so. In 1935 the weak state of the anti-aircraft defences had made it advisable to withdraw the Mediterranean Fleet to a safer anchorage. But although the Royal Navy accepted this at the time, they had no intention of being permanently deprived of the use of Malta without the fullest investigation into the possibilities of providing adequate defence.
It was in July 1937, when Italy ceased to be regarded as a reliable friend, that the Cabinet decided to make a start with modernizing the defences of ports in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. No very large expenditure was to be incurred, and nothing was to be done which could be construed by the Italians as provocative. So far as this decision affected Malta, it meant that a great deal of work could be done that was essential for security, such as boom defence, underground storage, work on splinter- and gas-proofing and air raid precautions generally, cable burying, and work on the new Luqa airfield.
In the summer of 1939 the broad policy for Malta was still undecided. The Admiralty urged that everything possible should be done to ensure its effective use in war. Without it the Fleet might be unable to fulfil its object of severing Italian sea communications and even the position in the Eastern Mediterranean might be endangered. There would be great advantages in being able to work in combination with the French without having to make the goo mile passage from Alexandria, and the consequent saving would mean that naval forces could, if required, be more readily made available for despatch to the Far East. Finally, the naval facilities at Malta could not be transferred elsewhere, and neither Bizerta nor Toulon offered a satisfactory alternative. The Admiralty therefore wanted to see Malta so strong that it would not be worth attacking. The Air Ministry, on the other hand, were convinced that whatever scale of defence was provided could not prevent the Italian Air Force from rendering Malta unusable as a Fleet base. As an alternative plan they were greatly attracted by the idea of basing a strong bomber force in Tunisia, with the particular object of reducing the effectiveness of Italian attacks on Malta, but this could not be done for some time. A thorough technical investigation of the anti-aircraft problem of Malta was carried out, after which the Committee of Imperial Defence decided to approve increases of guns and searchlights, together with the addition of four fighter squadrons. The new total was to be 112 heavy guns; 60 light guns; 24 searchlights. By way of comparison, the numbers actually present in Malta on the eve of Italy’s entry into the war were 34 heavy guns; 8 light; 24 searchlights; and, no fighter squadrons. But it had to be recognized that it would be a long time before the anti-aircraft equipments and the men to man them could be available, and perhaps longer still before
the fighter squadrons could be found. Half measures would be of no avail. A small consignment of anti-aircraft guns already on, its way to Malta was accordingly diverted, 8 heavy guns to Alexandria and 8 light to Aden, for it was now fully realized that the Fleet would have to be based initially at Alexandria.
By the summer of 1939 there seethed to be a distinct possibility that Italy might be contemplating a challenge to Allied interests in the Mediterranean and in North and North-East Africa. This possibility, coupled with the difficulties arising from the Palestine problem, meant that the British sea and air communications to India and the Far East were to some extent threatened. Moreover, our guarantees to Greece and Rumania and our agreement with Turkey had added to our commitments in the Eastern Mediterranean. The defence of British interests in the Mediterranean and Middle East was clearly one strategic problem; it was important therefore to make some central British authority responsible for the co-ordination of war plans in the whole area, and for collaborating with the French Commanders and possibly with those of the Greek and Turkish forces as well. To see what was involved it is necessary to review briefly the situation of each Service.
The Royal Air Force had had a ‘Middle East Command’ since the First World War. It comprised Egypt, the Sudan, and Kenya, with administrative (but not operational) responsibility for Palestine and Transjordan. There were independent Air Commands in Iraq, Aden, and Malta—the last being known as the Mediterranean Command—all directly under the Air Ministry. In April 1938, it was decided that the A.O.C. Middle East should in war time exercise higher control and direction over all the air forces in the Palestine-Transjordan, Iraq, Aden, and Malta Commands in addition to those in the ‘Middle East Command’ proper. In peace he was to co-ordinate the preparations for the reinforcement of Egypt, the Sudan, Kenya, and Aden. This therefore was a step towards ensuring the best use of the forces available, dispersed as they necessarily were In March 1939 the status of the post was raised, and Air Marshal Sir William Mitchell became Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief.6
The position of the army was more complicated. There were three separate Commands: Egypt, the Sudan, and Palestine-Transjordan. Control over the forces of the East African territories—notably the King’s African Rifles—was, exercised by an Inspector-General responsible to the Colonial Office. In peace this officer was also
Inspector-General of the Royal West African Frontier Force; in war he was to command the troops in East Africa. Then there were army garrisons at the naval and air bases of Malta and Aden. It was realized that it would be necessary to centralize the control of most of the army forces in the area under one Commander in war, but there were objections to doing so in peace. The question was when to install him. At the time of Munich a senior General had been sent to Cairo in readiness to assume the post of General Officer Commanding-in-Chief Middle East, but after a few weeks he was withdrawn to Gibraltar, where he became Governor and Commander-in-Chief. For a time it was hoped that he might again be available to go to Cairo in an emergency. But the ominous events of April and May 1939 suggested that war might not be very far off. In fact, the time had come to appoint a General Officer Commanding-in-Chief so that he might start at once to study the situation in conjunction with his colleagues in the other Services. The post was accordingly created in June, and Lieut.-General Sir Archibald Wavell was selected to fill it.7 Briefly, he was to take command forthwith of the troops in Egypt, the Sudan, Palestine, Transjordan, and Cyprus. He was to prepare plans for them and for any troops in Iraq, Aden, British Somaliland, and the Persian Gulf. He was to collaborate as necessary with the French, the Egyptians and any other allies.8 Thus, two ‘Middle East’ Commands—army and air—now existed; not identical, but very similar in scope.
The position of the Royal Navy was different. The naval Commanders-in-Chief of the Mediterranean and East Indies Stations were both concerned in Middle East affairs. In peace the East Indies Station included the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea as far north as the port of Suez, and it was intended that this should be the same in war. There were good reasons. In conducting the war at sea against Italy, in conjunction with the French, the Commander-in-Chief Mediterranean was likely to have his hands full; it was therefore not practicable to place the other naval Commander-in-Chief under his orders. But the main reason was geographical. The security of trade and the protection of convoys in the Indian Ocean were the responsibility of the Commander-in-Chief East Indies and must obviously remain so. The timing, routeing, and escorting of convoys were all matters for him to decide: they would depend—as would any naval support for operations in East Africa—largely upon the raider situation in the Indian Ocean, in which connexion it must be remembered that Japan was a potential enemy. Thus there were grounds at this time for leaving the important base and convoy-assembly-port
of Aden in the charge of the Commander-in-Chief East Indies, and although the army and air Chiefs viewed the security of the Suez Canal and Red Sea as one problem and would have preferred to deal with only one naval Chief, the Admiralty could not see its way to agree.
On 22nd June the Committee of Imperial Defence, when creating the post of General Officer Commanding-in-Chief, took the decision that the Commanders-in-Chief of the three Services should be responsible for co-ordinating the defence policy in the Middle East. Both naval Commanders-in-Chief were mentioned in this connexion, but the Commander-in-Chief Mediterranean became in effect the third member of the triumvirate, while a permanent representative in Cairo acted for the Commander-in-Chief East Indies in the tatter’s absence. This triumvirate formed the High Command. Each Commander-in-Chief was to remain responsible to his Ministry for matters affecting his own Service; jointly they would be answerable to the Chiefs of Staff.9 They were to take as a basis for their consultations the Chiefs of Staff’s latest appreciation. Their decisions would have to be reached by discussion, since no member of the triumvirate was supreme; none was even primus inter pares. This was not an entirely haphazard arrangement, but was thought to be the best in the circumstances. Indeed, in no theatre of the war was a Supreme Commander appointed over the three British Services only. The term came into being shortly after the entry of the United States into the war; it involved command over allied forces and was finally replaced by the title ‘Supreme Allied Commander’.
The weakness of the triumvirate arrangement was that the three Commanders-in-Chief were unable to form a combined headquarters in which constant contacts at all levels would be possible. The Commander-in-Chief Middle East and the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief felt obliged to place their headquarters in the capital, Cairo, the centre of communications with their vast geographical commands and of their political responsibilities. The naval Commander-in-Chief, however, felt the need to be at Alexandria, in order to keep in close touch with his Fleet, which naval tradition demanded that he should lead in action. In his opinion this outweighed the obvious advantages to be derived from the close association of the three headquarters. But it meant that for meetings either he and his staff had to go to Cairo or the other two Chiefs and their staffs to Alexandria. Moreover, the gap between formal meetings could not be bridged by frequent, if informal personal contacts.
To lessen these difficulties and to represent the naval point of view, an additional. Naval Chief of Staff was appointed with an office in the same building as the Army and Air Headquarters in Cairo.
To serve the Commanders-in-Chief in their joint capacity they were provided with a Joint Planning Staff and a Joint Intelligence Centre.10 The three senior members of the Joint Planning Staff also held operational positions in their own Service headquarters, for it was felt that plans should be made by people who would have to bear some of the responsibility for carrying them out. The main function of the Joint Intelligence Centre was to collate information from all sources about the countries of the Middle East, including Syria, East Africa, the Persian Gulf and Persia—some twenty countries in all. The sources that were to feed the Centre included the Ministries and Departments in London; H.M. Ambassadors, Ministers and Consuls; Colonial Governors and Residents; various Service Commanders, and so on. The Centre was to compile summaries and broad appreciations and disseminate them among some sixty addressees. Much of the subject-matter would inevitably be political and it was therefore proposed that the Centre should contain representatives of the Foreign and Colonial Offices; but this suggestion looked like causing so much delay that the Chiefs of Staff, in their anxiety to see a centre of some sort started as soon as possible, obtained approval for a joint Service Staff to be set up forthwith, its composition to be perhaps widened at a later date. In this way the Middle East Intelligence Centre was born on 1st August 1939. It was at first somewhat out of balance, for whereas the Navy and Air Force possessed their own Service operational intelligence staff; the newly created Middle East Headquarters of the Army had none, and had to rely largely upon the Centre, which had not been designed for the purpose.
Such were the origin and structure of the High Command It began to function formally on 18th August when the three Commanders-in-Chief met on board HMS Warspite to consider the strategical situation. They recorded that they felt the lack of a comprehensive plan to govern the action of the three Services. They were of course familiar with the broad policy for the conduct of the war which had been approved by the Allied Governments. They were also aware of the conclusions of the regional meetings with the French, but these had not yet been put together into the form of a broad plan. The Commanders-in-Chief decided to examine the possibilities of taking action against the Italians in Libya, but recognized that
before anything appreciable could be done in this respect the Red Sea passage might prove not to be sufficiently secure; if so, their first task must be to try to improve the situation in that area.
Three years had now elapsed since the signing of the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty, but in many respects the situation in Egypt was still far from satisfactory. Allowance must be made for the political instability of a country so recently freed from military occupation; the wish to be secure and the wish to be quit of the British were both understandable, but they would nevertheless continue to be incompatible until such time as Egypt should be strong enough to defend herself. It was easy to sympathize with those Egyptians who felt that for the present there could hardly be too many British troops at hand, but who, on a longer view, looked forward to a happy condition in which there would be none. There was indeed yet another possible choice, and that was to discount the decadent British and turn instead to the conquerors of Ethiopia and Albania. There was no lack of counsellors among King Farouk’s intimate circle ready to advocate this course. The Wafdists by the summer of 1939 had themselves been out of office for eighteen months; during this time they had lost no opportunity of decrying the treaty—which they themselves had negotiated—and of hampering its execution in every way. The Cabinet of Mohamed Mahmoud Pasha enjoyed little popular support, and their fear of the Wafdist opposition no doubt accounted for much of the procrastination and evasion that characterized their attitude to many of their commitments under the treaty. Anyhow, there was by now a long list of items on which progress had been very disappointing: the landing arrangements at Matruh; work on communications throughout the country generally; and improvements to the water supplies and camp sites in the desert Worst of all no work had been done on the promised graving dock at Alexandria; improvements to the harbour facilities were proceeding very slowly; and no dredging had been done to deepen the Great Pass.
All this was made worse by the anti-aircraft situation. Early in 1938, in response to strong representations, the War Office had sent out an anti-aircraft brigade to Egypt consisting, of twenty-four 3-inch guns and twenty-four searchlights. But trained men were urgently needed for the rapidly expanding air defences of Great Britain, and an agreement was therefore made with the Egyptian Government by which Egyptian troops should replace the British as soon as possible, consistent with a reasonably efficient state of anti-aircraft defence. The Egyptian target-practice showed considerable promise, but, as time went on, the British commanders in Egypt viewed the process of replacement with growing concern. The Naval Commander-in-Chief,
especially, was by no means content that the ground antiaircraft defence of his anchorage and base should be in other than British hands. Alexandria was also of importance in other respects. It was the second largest city in Egypt and the largest commercial port, with large stocks of coal, oil and petrol.11 It was the only Egyptian port equipped to handle heavy lifts of cargo. ‘The RAF Aircraft Depot was only a few miles away at Aboukir and through Alexandria passed the principal road and rail communications from the Delta to the west. A Flag Officer (Liaison), Rear-Admiral F. Elliott, had been appointed to co-ordinate matters of local defence, and he was already the Fortress Commander in all but name. In war he was to be responsible to the General Officer Commanding British Troops in Egypt for the security of the Fortress, but was to meet the requirements of the Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean, in every possible way.
The Chiefs of Staff were impressed by these considerations and proceeded to scrape up what they could to improve the anti-aircraft position.12 First, they tried unsuccessfully to coax a battery out of India. Then it was decided that four 3.7-inch guns, with their crews, from Gibraltar and eight earmarked for Malta should be sent to Alexandria, the latter to be manned by the Royal Marines. In addition, twelve light guns were allotted to Egypt and it was stipulated that six of them were to be deployed at Alexandria.
Over and above this local problem was the vital one of air defence generally. The total resources were still woefully small, it is true, but by the summer of 1939 the fighter strength had risen to three squadrons, besides one Egyptian squadron in being and another forming. At Alexandria there would be a number, varying from time to time, of disembarked fighters of the Fleet Air Arm. There were Egyptian-manned observer posts in the desert, and there was one mobile radar set, which gave limited cover to Alexandria. In June it was strongly represented by the Air Staff and agreed between the Services that the time had come to unify the control of all these resources on the general pattern of the Air Defence of Great Britain. Only in this way could the necessary flexibility be obtained for dealing with attacks that might develop at one or more points over a very wide area. This area comprised the zone of the forces in the desert and their communications; Alexandria; Cairo and the Delta; and the Canal with its terminal ports. Any scheme for collecting and broadcasting warnings and for centralizing the control of operations
naturally depended upon good telecommunications and these would take time to install. It also meant building up staffs for group and sector operation rooms and report centres. It was therefore important to make an early start and the Commanders were told to seek the collaboration of the appropriate Egyptian authorities.
The principal danger to the Suez Canal was thought to be that of blocking by specially prepared vessels, before or soon after the declaration of war. Or there might be sabotage or low-flying air attack. The local land defence was under the Commander of the Canal Brigade Area, while to keep touch with the Canal authorities over such matters as the control of shipping a Vice-Admiral was appointed as Naval Liaison Officer, later to be called Senior British Naval Officer, Canal Area. The question of mounting guns at the terminal ports had been under consideration for some months, but approval had been withheld in case the Italians should react unfavourably to what might be regarded as an infringement of the Canal Convention. Delay might mean locking up four destroyers at a critical moment, so the Chiefs of Staff returned to the charge and at the end of March 1939 the Cabinet agreed to invite the Egyptian Government to take the necessary steps. No objections were made; the guns were accordingly mounted. and were ready at both Suez and Port Said by 13th April.
The equipment of the Egyptian Army was of British pattern and in many respects it was better and more plentiful than in some of the British units. Training had made progress and officers and men had shown themselves keen to learn. The proposed- employment of the Egyptian Army, approved in August by the Minister of National Defence, was that it should provide the following: patrols for the western frontier, for reporting any hostile movements; a contribution (including field, medium, anti-aircraft and anti-tank artillery) to the Matruh garrison; a small mobile force to operate in the desert south-west of Cairo; detachments for the protection of the railway between Alexandria and Matruh; certain units for the defence of Alexandria; and nine battalions for anti-sabotage duties. There were also the anti-aircraft units already referred to, and certain coast defence units. It was thought that these tasks would strain the Egyptian Army to the utmost. Its value in war remained to be seen, but had it not been available at this moment the alternatives would have been to distribute the British troops among a large number of additional tasks, at the expense of the force available to strike at the enemy, or else leave many vulnerable points unguarded and run considerable risks in respect of internal security.
The British forces available for active operations consisted in the main of the Armoured Division (as the Mobile Division formed during the previous year was now called) and the Cairo Brigade.
Towards the end of July the situation in Palestine allowed of the move of one infantry brigade, the 18th, to the Abbassia area, and a second remained ready to follow when required. Finally, in the middle of August, the 11th Indian Infantry Brigade arrived in Egypt, the first of India’s invaluable contributions to the defence of the Middle East. In 1938 the Chatfield Committee had reported on India’s defence policy, recommending that Indian forces should contribute to the defence of certain strategic areas outside India; among these were Egypt and the Persian Gulf. Forces for these tasks would have to be suitably equipped according to modern standards. By August 1939 this state had not been reached, but India nevertheless began to despatch her External Defence Troops; the new equipment was to join them at their destination as soon as it could be provided from the United Kingdom. The 11th Indian Infantry Brigade accordingly moved to Fayid on the Great Bitter Lake, and began to train with its new weapons and vehicles.
In Europe the sands were running out. Herr Hitler had rejected President Roosevelt’s appeal to him and Signor Mussolini to give an assurance of their non-aggressive intentions; he had denounced the naval agreement with Great Britain and the Non-Aggression Pact with Poland. A measure of compulsory military training had been introduced in Great Britain. The situation in Danzig was being exploited along grimly familiar lines. On 21st August the Soviet-German Non-Aggression Pact was announced, and the next day Mr. Chamberlain made it clear beyond all doubt that Britain’s guarantee to Poland would be fulfilled by force if necessary. On 25th August the Anglo-Polish Treaty of mutual assistance was signed. War with Germany was thus becoming increasingly probable; and was not Italy bound to Germany by a Pact of Steel?
Italy, however, was engaged in a struggle against difficult economic conditions for which her government’s foreign policy was largely responsible. She had been living on a war basis since 1935. Her adverse trading balance was very large and the Budget for 1939–40 forecast a heavy deficit. It was difficult to see how she could be in any condition for war; a further armaments race at this juncture was likely to be disastrous.
In the Army a major reorganization was taking place, involving the reduction of the infantry of a division from three regiments to two; the process was still far from complete, and would be a serious handicap to operations of any size. It is true that between January and April there had been some spectacular calling up of conscripts and reservists; morale was thought to be high; and the Army had admittedly had some recent experience of campaigning. On the
other hand, there were known to be shortages of weapons and equipment, and of officers and instructors. The conclusion was that the Italian Army was not ready for war on a large scale.
The morale of the Fleet was known to have improved under the Fascist regime and Italian ships were well built, well armed, and fast. But in 1914–18 the Italian Navy had had only small running fights with the Austrians in the Adriatic, and since then the Fleet appeared to have carried out insufficient exercises for full efficiency. The submarine fleet, however, deserved respect by its very size.
The Air Force had probably reached the peak of its readiness for a major war at the end of 1936. Since then the war potential had been running down and reserves were now low. The deduction was that the Air Force was not fit to enter a war of the first magnitude with any hope of pursuing it successfully once the initial blow had spent itself.
So there were grounds for doubting whether Italy could be genuinely desirous of entering a war at all. But if she did decide to do so—and her policy would of course be determined by Signor Mussolini, and by him alone—her geographical position would enable her to cause the Allies considerable embarrassment. In the first place her naval and air forces, operating from their home bases, might close the Mediterranean to through shipping. The Suez Canal would therefore be the normal means by which reinforcements would reach the Mediterranean Fleet; it would be an essential internal waterway of the Middle East Base; and it would be the means of exit if the Mediterranean Fleet had to go to the Far East. Unfortunately, the Red Sea itself was liable to attack from bases in Italian East African territory, and the Italian naval and air units in this area would no doubt be encouraged to act with determination against Allied shipping in the narrow waters.
So, in the last week of August, on the eve of war with Germany, the Chiefs of Staff repeated once more their opinion that Italy’s neutrality would be decidedly preferable to her active hostility, and urged that no attempt should be made to compel her to declare her position if this would be likely to bring her in against us. Their estimate of Italian unreadiness to wage a serious war was quite correct, and, in the event, Italy entered the war only when it seemed to Mussolini that nothing but a little token fighting would be required. Indeed, during the negotiations for the Pact of Steel of May 1939 Mussolini informed Hitler that Italy could not take part in a European war before 1942. When suddenly told in August 1939 that Germany was about to invade Poland, he presented the Germans with a long list of requirements—in which coal, steel, oil, and wood were prominent—that would have to be provided before Italy could join in. On learning from Hitler that his demands could not
be met, Mussolini decided to adopt an attitude of neutrality favourable to Germany, and to move and deploy Italian troops in such a way as to pin down French and British forces. So began the period of nine months’ ‘non-belligerency’, during which the Italian capacity to wage war for any length of time increased but little. To the British Commonwealth, on the other hand, it afforded a most valuable breathing-space.
Chronology: March-August 1939
|15th||March||Germany invades Czechoslovakia|
|29th||March||Anglo-French Staff Conversations begin|
|31st||March||British and French guarantees to Poland announced|
|End of Spanish Civil War|
|7th||April||Italy invades Albania|
|12th||April||Anglo-Turkish Joint Declaration of Mutual Aid|
|13th||April||Announcement of British and French guarantees to Rumania and Greece|
|7th||May||Announcement of the ‘Pact of Steel’ between Germany and Italy|
|9th||May||End of the war in Ethiopia|
|23rd||June||Franco-Turkish Declaration of Mutual Aid|
|21st||August||Soviet-German Non-Aggression Pact announced; signed 23rd August|
|25th||August||Anglo-Polish Alliance signed|