Chapter 3: At War with Germany: Uneasy Calm in the Mediterranean (September 1939–February 1940)
See Map 2 and Map 3 and Chronology on page 58
ON 30th AUGUST the Commanders-in-Chief received from the Chiefs of Staff an instruction to the effect that should they receive a formal telegram warning them to adopt a state of instant readiness for war, and should this telegram specify both Germany and Italy as possible enemies, the defensive precautions taken against attack by Italy were to be as far as possible non-provocative. By this time a number of moves had already been completed or were in progress. On 23rd August the air reinforcement scheme was put into operation in a slightly modified form: three bomber squadrons and one bomber transport squadron moved to Egypt from Iraq and Palestine; the flying-boat squadron from Iraq moved to Aden; and in Kenya a squadron of the Southern Rhodesian Air Force relieved a bomber squadron of the Royal Air Force for service in the Sudan. By 28th August these moves were practically complete, bringing the bomber strength in Egypt to a total of 90 first-line aircraft. The total fighter strength of 75 included one Egyptian Gladiator squadron, which it was hoped would acquit itself well if Cairo were attacked. No aircraft were called forward from India, where rearmament was in progress; one bomber squadron was accordingly retained in Iraq for the time being.
The Italian air forces in Libya were not thought to have any great superiority in numbers over the Royal Air Force in Egypt, and many of them would no doubt remain on the Tunisian front, but their proximity to the metropolitan air bases made it an easy matter for either front, or even both, to be reinforced. The aim of the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief was to reduce this potential superi ority at the outset by an immediate offensive against aircraft, fuel, supplies, air bases, and maintenance facilities.
Meanwhile the British and Egyptian army units were moving into position. By 28th August the Armoured Division was disposed in the
area Matruh—Maaten Baggush; the Cairo Brigade had taken over the defence of Matruh itself; troops for the defence of Alexandria and of the Canal area were in position; while the 18th Infantry Brigade and attached troops were in Command reserve at Abbassia. The 11th Indian Infantry Brigade was continuing its training at Fayid, and there was still one infantry brigade in Palestine, in general reserve.
Egyptian army units assumed the dispositions agreed upon by the G.O.C. British Troops in Egypt, Lieut.-General H. Maitland Wilson, with the Minister of National Defence.1 Two squadrons of the Frontier Force were at Siwa and Sollum for reporting movements of hostile land or air forces. One armoured car squadron of the 11th Hussars was at Sidi Barrani, with a detachment temporarily at Sollum; thus the patrolling of the Egyptian frontier was almost entirely in the hands of Egyptian troops, which the Italians could hardly look upon as a provocative arrangement.
British intentions in the Western Desert were governed by the probability that the initiative would be with the enemy. The most important task was the defeat of any attempt to capture Matruh, but if the enemy’s advance should prove to be more formidable than expected it might be necessary to allow Matruh to be invested, or even to evacuate it, and fall back to the vicinity of El Daba. In this event the force of five battalions which the French had agreed to make available in emergency for the defence of Egypt would be called upon. If, on the other hand, the enemy did not attack on land, a forward movement to the vicinity of the frontier was contemplated; alternatively, this might be the sequel to a successful defensive engagement. The administrative aspects of these plans were of great importance and are considered in the following chapter.
The Navy, also, had made its preparations. At this time there were concentrated at Alexandria three battleships, one aircraft carrier, one anti-aircraft cruiser, three 8-inch and three 6-inch cruisers, 26 destroyers and a number of auxiliaries. From 10th August steps had been taken to prepare for war and to guard against sudden attack. On 23rd August the Admiralty assumed control of merchant ships and requisitioned a number for naval service. Dawn and dusk air patrols by the Fleet Air Arm were instituted off Alexandria, and the channels were swept for mines.
On 31st August the British Ambassador in Rome was informed by Count Ciano that Italy would not fight against England or France ‘whatever Berlin says’. The next day Germany attacked Poland, and the Italian Government announced that Italy would not take the initiative in military operations, which was regarded as tantamount
to a declaration of neutrality. The same day the Commanders-in-Chief received a formal warning telegram, in which both Germany and Italy were named as possible enemies.
A start was at once made in laying the first minefield off Malta. Next day a patrol was set up between Crete and Cape Matapan to intercept German shipping from the Aegean and to cover our own. On 3rd September the 3rd Destroyer Flotilla was ordered to Gibraltar on instructions from the Admiralty to prevent the entry of German U-boats into the Mediterranean. It thus passed out of Admiral Cunningham’s command.
During the days which preceded the statement of Italy’s attitude it was of course necessary to reduce the risks to which British merchant shipping might be exposed. On 26th August there were no less than 270 of these vessels in the Mediterranean, at sea or in port. The Admiralty therefore ordered those in the Mediterranean to continue their voyages, while any others entering were to be held at the terminal ports. As a large volume of British shipping was also to be found at any time in the Red Sea, orders were issued on 26th August that ships making for the Red Sea from the Indian Ocean were to be held at Aden. Eight destroyers from the Mediterranean were sent into the Red Sea, and all available warships on the East Indies Station were ordered to proceed to Aden.
Ships could not be held at the terminal ports indefinitely, however, and by 31st August the congestion had become serious. It was therefore decided that ships on government charter, and those with a speed of 15 knots, should be allowed through the Mediterranean; all other traffic was to be diverted round the Cape. On 1st September the tension was eased by the Italian announcement of non-belligerency, and the declaration of war with Germany on the 3rd evoked no sign that Italy had changed her mind. Diversions round the Cape were accordingly cancelled, though certain ships whose first or last port of call lay east of Rangoon would continue to use the Cape route. Convoys began to assemble at Gibraltar and Port Said for escort through the Mediterranean; these were a British responsibility, but air reconnaissance off the North African coast was provided for them by the French, who also assumed responsibility for the Algiers—Marseilles convoys instituted at the same time.
The only danger to shipping in the Mediterranean would now be from German U-boats, for it was feared that the heavy losses sustained from this cause during the First World War might be repeated. It was later learned that the Italians did not accede to German requests for submarine supply stations in the Mediterranean, and that in fact only one German submarine paid a short visit to the Mediterranean in November 1939. As nothing happened, precautions
were relaxed. Independent sailings were resumed on 16th October, although ships bound for the United Kingdom from Port Said continued to sail in convoy until 2nd December. In order to reduce the risk of unfortunate incidents with Italian submarines, of which the consequences might have been very dangerous, escort vessels were only to be allowed to attack a submerged submarine (except within British or Allied territorial waters) if it committed a hostile act or ‘was in a position to do so’—a restriction which greatly increased the difficulty of providing adequate protection to shipping. It was therefore a matter for satisfaction when on 21st September the Italian Government agreed that any of their submarines when outside their own exercise areas (which were to be notified), would remain on the surface and under escort.
On the outbreak of war there were some 45 German merchant vessels dispersed among neutral ports in the Mediterranean. Most of them happened to be in Italian waters, where they remained until Italy entered the war. Some succeeded in making the passage to the Dardanelles, almost entirely through neutral territorial waters, and so filtered through to the Black Sea, where, by the Montreux Convention of 1936, warships of a belligerent could not follow. All of them were later to be of considerable value to the Axis. In the meantime, those that remained in the Mediterranean were prevented from moving by the French Fleet in the western basin and by the British in the eastern.
The agreed Allied policy for the conduct of the war against Germany and Italy aimed at reducing the enemies’ powers of resistance by the steady and rigorous application of economic pressure from the outset, and plans had been made accordingly. They included measures for controlling contraband traffic bound directly or indirectly for the enemy under a neutral flag, in furtherance of the right of a belligerent to proclaim as contraband any commodity or article which is of use for the prosecution of the war. By the outbreak of war with Germany the British contraband control bases at Gibraltar, Malta, Haifa, and Port Said were ready to function, though they were not fully staffed. The French had established similar bases at Algiers, Oran, and Marseilles. Vessels intercepted at sea and suspected of carrying goods destined for Germany were to be brought to these bases under armed guards found by the intercepting ships; after examination, their cargoes were liable to be confiscated. British naval officers had been posted to Algiers, Salonika, Volos, Istanbul, Piraeus, Smyrna, Famagusta and Suez, where they gave advice to shippers on contraband procedure and helped with the issue of navicerts—a form of certificate introduced in December 1939,
enabling a ship carrying no contraband to be passed quickly by the intercepting control vessels.
It was obviously a matter of great importance that contraband should be prevented from reaching Germany; this was in fact the only means of bringing pressure to bear upon her at the time. But the interruption of her sea-borne imports would, force her to try to increase her trade wherever she could—with Italy, for example. It was the policy of the British Government to secure as much Italian trade as possible, and negotiations were set on foot in Rome for a comprehensive war trade agreement between the two countries, which was to include the provision by Italy of a certain amount of aircraft and armaments. Meanwhile, the strong desire to see Italy remain neutral was reflected in a number of attempts to minimize the inconvenience to the Italians caused by the enforcement of contraband control. Although the Allies had every intention of respecting the rights of all neutrals, and of inflicting no unnecessary hardships, a certain amount of dissatisfaction was inevitable. In the circumstances it was obvious that special care would be required not to present Mussolini, who had never forgotten the economic sanctions of 1935, with a very plausible excuse for taking offence. It is not surprising that this aim came into frequent conflict with the policy of making the economic pressure on Germany as severe as possible.
The Chiefs of Staff had made it clear to the Commanders-in-Chief that no action was to be initiated against Italy that would be likely to bring her in against us. Admiral Cunningham therefore gave orders that Italian shipping in the Eastern Mediterranean was not to be molested. In reporting this action to the Admiralty on 3rd September he expressed the view that Italy’s attitude required to be more clearly defined before the risk of offending her by contraband control could be taken. As it was undesirable to discriminate between Italy and other neutrals, the order meant that there was practically no control in this area; neutral ships were to be boarded only if their identity was in doubt. This attitude could obviously not be maintained for long without resulting in considerable benefit to Germany, and on 6th September the Admiralty gave orders that contraband control was to be applied to all neutral flags without discrimination; they made the special proviso, however, that ships in the Mediterranean, the Straits of Gibraltar, and the Suez Canal should not be sent in for examination unless found to be openly carrying contraband consigned to Germany, or unless they were suspected of un-neutral service. Copies of ships’ manifests were to be obtained whenever possible, subject to the overriding consideration of not provoking incidents with Italian ships. Two days later these orders were put into effect, and patrols were established in the
Aegean, in the approaches to the Adriatic, and to the south of the Messina Straits. Operations connected with the imposition of contraband control were placed under Vice-Admiral J. C. Tovey, who at the time was Vice-Admiral, Destroyers.
It seemed that individual Italians did not really object to the restrictions imposed, but they were anxious to avoid giving any appearance of voluntary submission. The difficulty was that at Port Said submission could not be made compulsory, because the exercise of belligerent rights in the Canal area was expressly forbidden by the Suez Canal Convention. Egypt was, moreover, strictly speaking a neutral country, as she had broken off diplomatic relations with Germany without declaring war. Consequently, if ships refused examination, the alternative was to board them outside the three-mile limit, place a guard on board if the cargo was suspect, and steam to Haifa. This procedure commended itself to the Italians as being preferable to voluntary submission, but it caused a great deal of delay which gave rise to further complaints. To placate them on this point a control base was eventually established at Aden to deal with ships making for the Mediterranean from the east.
Another concession was that only in special circumstances were vessels plying between Italy and her colonies to be diverted for examination. Again, Italian ships outward bound from the Mediterranean were to be boarded only for identification. Nevertheless causes for complaint arose; for instance, dual examination sometimes occurred although examination by either a French or a British authority was supposed to exempt a ship from any further control. Another difficulty arose from the different interpretations of the term ‘territorial waters’; the Italians recognized a six mile limit, the British only three; in the Aegean it often happened that Italian ships were boarded between three and six miles from shore.
In November 186 ships were intercepted in the Aegean alone and 83 of them were boarded and sent to the nearest control base for examination. There were no bases in the Aegean, since neutral territory could not be used for the purpose; those that were available were so far away that patrols in the Aegean could not be maintained at full efficiency. Moreover, a large volume of shipping was able to move long distances within territorial waters, which the existence of a control base in the Aegean could not have prevented.
It soon became apparent that the controls were far from achieving their full purpose. There was evidence that Piraeus was being used as an entrepôt for German imports and that the Salonika railway was being used for forwarding them, but there was little doubt that the principal leakages were through Italy. It was known in October that the Germans were making efforts to obtain goods through Italian ports, and several large contraband cargoes were believed to have
reached the free port of Trieste. Other ports were used also, notably Genoa, where a trade in Spanish and Portuguese products had sprung up. Italian firms, as well as others in Greece and Yugoslavia, were found to be helping German imports on their way by various ingenious methods.
Even so, the exercise of contraband control did not justify the retention of a large fleet in the Mediterranean. The battleships and modern cruisers were accordingly withdrawn for service elsewhere, to provide raider-hunting groups and additional cover for convoys in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans and to supply a force of cruisers for the North Sea. Relations with Italy were reasonably good at this moment, and the reduction of the Mediterranean Fleet may incidentally have done something to improve them. The intention was, of course, notified to the Italians in accordance with the agreement, still in force, to exchange information on major military movements. On instructions from the Admiralty Admiral Cunningham transferred his flag ashore at Malta on 1st November, and in the middle of the month the battleships Barham and Warspite returned to the United Kingdom, followed later by destroyers, depot and repair ships, and MTBs; the Malaya and Glorious had been sent to operate from Aden against enemy raiders in the Indian Ocean, and the 1st Cruiser Squadron (Devonshire, Suffolk, Norfolk) had joined the Home Fleet. By the end of December the Mediterranean Fleet was reduced to four small cruisers (Arethusa, Penelope, Galatea, Capetown),one Australian flotilla leader (Stuart), four Australian destroyers (Vampire, Vendetta, Voyager, Waterhen) and two submarines. In the absence of any naval reserves, armed guards for ships brought in under contraband control were supplied by the Malta garrison, and from time to time a French squadron co-operated in sweeps of the Aegean.
For the first twelve weeks of the war German exports sailing under neutral flags passed unmolested. On 28th November the Germans played straight into British hands by laying magnetic mines without providing for the safety of peaceful navigation, as required by the Hague Convention of 1907, either by declaring dangerous areas or by arranging for the mines, if drifting, to become harmless. On 21st November the War Cabinet decided that German exports would be seized as a reprisal for this serious breach of international law. This was a measure that would hit Italy particularly hard in respect of the deliveries of German sea-borne coal, and in order to soften the blow the British Government offered to make good the loss with British coal, as an item in the trade agreement. Wishing to be reasonable, they would allow German coal to continue to sail to Italy while the trade agreement was still under negotiation.
Mussolini had, on several previous occasions, shown himself to be
extremely irritated by contraband control. The embargo on German coal imports was the signal for a particularly violent outburst by the Italian press: they spoke of Britain’s provocative gesture; of the interruption of Italy’s imperial communications; of being threatened with strangulation; and of having to tighten their belts so that the British could resume their five meals a day in the interests of humanity. Although by the end of January the Ambassador was able to report that the situation was not quite as bad as it appeared, the trade negotiations were nevertheless becoming increasingly difficult. On 8th February Mussolini put an end to all immediate hope of securing a comprehensive agreement by declining to discuss further the suggestion that Italy should sell certain armaments to the United Kingdom. Nor would he give any guarantee as to the destination of raw material imported by Italy from the British Empire. For some time the Italian negotiators persisted in their attempts to find a basis for a more limited economic agreement, but the breakdown of the formal negotiations meant the withdrawal of the steadying influence which had been felt while they lasted—largely because they provided a means of settling disputes arising from the incidence of contraband control.
The strategic situation in the Mediterranean and Middle East had for the past few years been conditioned largely by the attitude of Italy. The German invasion of Poland now disclosed a danger from a different direction. In little more than a month from the signing of the Soviet-German Pact of Non-Aggression on 23rd August 1939 Poland had been overrun and partitioned, and it was the turn of Rumania to feel anxious. She had good reason: Germany would derive great advantages from possession of the Rumanian oilfields; Russia was known to covet her lost province of Bessarabia; Bulgaria wished to regain the southern Dobrudja; and Hungary had her eyes on Transylvania. Nor was there anything effective that the Allies could do to help.
The full implications of this strange association of Nazi Germany with Bolshevik Russia were extremely difficult to assess. To Italy it must have come as an unpleasant surprise, and she might take a little time to recover her bearings. Russia would be sure to view with disfavour the prospect of German penetration to the Black Sea and the Straits, and although she might give her new partner some economic assistance, thus retarding the effect of the Allies’ pressure, she would be most unlikely to co-operate to an extent that might restrict her own military activities. On the whole it seemed probable that she would take the opportunity to increase her own influence, while incidentally helping the Germans, by embarrassing the Allies
– and especially the British—in secondary theatres. She might confine herself to a campaign of propaganda, which would require vigorous counter-action. Or she might penetrate into Persia; if so, the British would have to provide for the internal security and air defence of the Anglo-Iranian oilfields and the port of Basra. Or she might decide to annex the northern provinces of Afghanistan, for which there were ample Russian forces on the spot. This would bring the cities of northern India within range of Russian bombers and would lead to demands for fighters and anti-aircraft guns, as India was virtually defenceless against air attack. It might lead also to a call for troops to help to deal with the disturbances likely to occur in the tribal territory of the North-West Frontier and in India herself. Unless Italian neutrality was assured there would be no possibility of meeting these demands.
It had been the British policy to encourage the neutrality not only of Italy but also of the Balkan Entente. It was now evident that there existed a threat of penetration into the Balkans by Germany and possibly Russia. Germany in particular, with her central position and her ample resources on land and in the air, would be able to operate in the Balkans at comparatively short notice. Such a disturbance would be likely to implicate Italy—who was so sensitive to events in the Balkans—but it was impossible to predict exactly what her attitude would be. One thing, however, was quite clear: Rumania was likely to be Germany’s next objective, but she might not be the final one, and a threat to British strategic interests in the Middle East might well be about to develop from the direction of the Balkans.
Herein lay the military importance of Turkey and Iraq, for their territories were capable of providing depth for the defence of the Suez Canal, the Anglo-Iranian oilfields, and the route between Basra and Palestine. The British had consistently held the view that in Turkey lay the key to the security of the whole Allied position; as the first line of defence against aggression from the north she would be invaluable. She alone of the Balkan Powers was capable of offering serious resistance to Germany, though she had by no means all the arms and equipment that she would need. The more she could be helped in this respect, the greater would be her chances of holding on in Thrace; but even if the Turkish forces were thrown back to Anatolia they should be able to make an effective barrier of the Straits, for by the time the Germans had advanced as far as this they “would have behind them a long and probably insecure line of supply. It was to Turkey, therefore, that war material should be sent; and, provided that Italy’s neutrality made it possible to reduce the British forces in Egypt, consideration might be given to supporting Turkey if she were attacked. The significance of her geographical position
had of course been recognized at the time of the Anglo-Turkish Declaration in May, but in the light of the Pact between Germany and Russia it stood out with greater clarity than ever.
The Declaration itself had taken some time to negotiate, and it was the signal for further activity, especially in the financial and economic fields, with the object of concluding a definite agreement. A Turkish technical mission came to London to support the demands for war material, while a British delegation in Turkey sought to elicit the Turkish views on strategical questions. If greater progress was made towards the establishment of friendly relations than in reaching agreement on specific matters, it was due to a certain caution on both sides. The British had no armaments to waste and were interested in the use that would be made of any they might supply; the Turks, on the other hand, wanted to know what benefits would accrue from an alliance before they disclosed their own plans. All this time the French approaches to Turkey were proceeding independently, with a somewhat similar exchange of missions. The atmosphere was friendly, and when in August HMS Warspite paid an official visit to Istanbul, Admiral Cunningham was invited to Ankara for a discussion with the Turkish Chief of Staff.
This insistence upon the importance of Turkey did not mean that the Allies regarded an attack upon her as inevitable. They realized that much would depend upon the attitude of Bulgaria, who was making no secret of her territorial claims against the Balkan Entente, but their main concern was how to prevent any form of German domination of the Balkans. Could these countries be induced to sink their many differences and present a united front pledged to neutrality? Past history offered little encouragement, but if no attempt were made it was unlikely that anything would be done. The French considered that some visible token of support would be required in order to strengthen the will of the Balkan states to resist aggression; an Allied force should therefore be installed at Salonika before the crisis occurred. Naturally, the consent of Greece would first be necessary. The British view was that the suggested action would involve a most undesirable diversion of effort and that in any case the arrival of military forces would be regarded as a breach of neutrality; therefore far from calming and unifying the Balkans it might have the opposite effect. Salonika was anyhow most unsuitable as a base for operations; the communications with the interior were indifferent; the climate was bad, and malaria was rampant. The force which could be spared and maintained there was likely to be so small that it was hard to see what advantages there would be to offset the many drawbacks.
The two governments had not reached agreement on this point before the Commanders-in-Chief in Cairo were visited on 31st
August by General Weygand, who had just been appointed to command the French forces in the Eastern Mediterranean in the event of war.2 The arrival of such a distinguished colleague, of proved ability and of wide experience in the field of allied co-operation, was most welcome, although it soon became clear that in him the Salonika project had a spirited advocate. He did not question the need for Egypt to be secure, and a force would accordingly be held in Syria to move to Egypt if the situation demanded. He also appreciated the importance of Turkey, but he considered that Salonika might well be the key point and that its defence would be vital to the conduct of the war. He therefore intended to build up in Syria two divisions, which, he hoped, would not be depleted by the needs of Egypt, but which would be, available to be sent to Salonika by sea: the problem of transporting the force was one for the British. At this juncture the attitude of Italy was of course uncertain, and Admiral Cunningham could not accept this heavy additional commitment, even if Smyrna and not Beirut were used as the port of embarkation, because there would be great risks from the air and from, submarines. In the early days of hostilities with the Italians he could not agree to tie up his forces on escort duties; their task was to seek out the enemy. If troops had to be moved, he thought they had better go overland. Thus attention was focused back on Turkey.
Early in October a definite stage was reached when the War Cabinet was informed that, following an examination by the two staffs, the French were convinced that the proposals they had made for Salonika were not practicable. An Allied force might be sent there only if Greece was in danger of being overrun, and if she made a request, and if Italy agreed. On 11th October the Commanders-in-Chief were told that as a result of study of the various combinations of possibilities it had been decided to give the utmost support to Turkey, and build up an Allied reserve to be available to meet whichever of the threats arose. It would be based on Egypt and the Levant.
On 19th October, after a period of uncertainty while the Turkish Foreign Minister paid a visit to Moscow, the Treaty of Mutual Assistance between the United Kingdom, France, and Turkey was signed. Briefly, it required the signatories to collaborate effectively and to lend all the aid and assistance in their power if they should
become involved in war in the Mediterranean area as a result of aggression by a European Power or in consequence of the guarantees to Greece and Rumania. A suspensive clause absolved Turkey from fulfilling her obligations until certain loan and credit conditions had been complied with, and until supplies of war material for the effective defence of her Thracian frontier had been provided for her. A protocol stipulated that Turkey could not be compelled to take any action which would involve her in armed conflict with the USSR.
The questions of supply, which were clearly of such importance, were handled not by the Commanders-in-Chief but by the Allied governments, for they had to be viewed in the light of other rearmament programmes and the needs of the western front and the defence of Great Britain. General Wavell, who was at Ankara for the signing of the Treaty, reported to the War Office that questions of material were uppermost in the minds of the Turks; and in his opinion the sooner we could see Turkey well equipped and confident, the better. In order to decide what was to constitute the effective collaboration required by the Treaty it would of course be necessary for staff talks and meetings between the Commanders to be held. The Turks were in no hurry to begin, but a great deal of exploratory work was done by the British, involving much detailed reconnaissance, to examine the possible ways in which the Middle East forces could, in various circumstances, move to the help of the Turks. These studies took eventual shape as plans, known from their code-names as the ‘Jungle’ plans, worked out in great detail, for sending contingents varying from a few special units to a large force of all arms, and strong air forces, to various destinations in Thrace and Anatolia. The issues turned largely upon such essential preliminaries as the improvement and defence of the ports, the development of communications, and the construction of airfields.
The broad statement of policy given to the Commanders-in-Chief on 11th October had by no means left them clear as to what might be required of them. Towards the end of November Admiral Cunningham represented to the Admiralty that he and his colleagues were feeling the need of guidance as to the ways in which the war was likely to develop. He wanted to know which theatres the Allies were expecting to fight in, and with what forces. Without this information he could not have a workable plan ready for the rapid assembly of shipping of the right quantity and types. General Wavell had been called home apparently to discuss preparations for the expansion of the army, and the Admiral wanted to be able to give the earliest possible attention to the naval aspects of any strategy that was being contemplated. In particular, he commented on the fact that according to the Montreux Convention Allied ships could not enter the Dardanelles until an act of aggression had taken place,
which might well be too late. An instance occurred a few months later when Turkish permission was sought for the passage of two British gunboats through the Straits. The intention was for them to enter the Danube in furtherance of preparations being made to interfere with Germany’s oil supplies from Rumania, and also to withdraw a large number of tugs, tankers and other valuable craft of the Allied river transport fleet. The Turks adhered to the Convention, and, as a non-belligerent, refused the request.
Towards the end of December it seemed to the Allied governments that the time might be propitious for offering encouragement to the Balkan Powers, as there was some reason for supposing that a determination among them to resist attack by Germany or Russia was taking shape. It was essential that Italy should not regard such an offer as a move against herself; she was therefore to be consulted in advance, after which the approaches would be made through Turkey. However, the Italian reaction was not encouraging, and there was no apparent likelihood of her committing herself. Allied efforts thereupon became directed towards co-operation with Turkey, a course which the British had favoured all along.
The Commanders-in-Chief were accordingly authorized to begin discussions with the Turkish staff on the clear understanding that Italy was presumed neutral, but it not was until March that the many preliminaries were satisfactorily settled. The British and French met beforehand at Cairo to review the state of the ‘Jungle’ plans and to draw up a concerted report for use as a basis of discussion with the Turks. Finally, on 15th March, senior officers of all three countries met at Aleppo, the British being represented by the chief staff officers of each Service.
The conference nearly foundered at the outset, as the Turks wanted particularly to consider the defence of Thrace with Italy hostile, a situation which the British and French delegates were not empowered to discuss. However, by the exercise of much patience, the conference was kept in being for the full seven days, and some useful exchanges of information and views took place, during which it became evident that the Turks had some exaggerated ideas of the scale of attack they might have to meet and of the help that the Allies might be able to provide. The situation was eased by the arrival of authority from London and Paris ‘to discuss in general terms the hypothesis of a hostile Italy, with a view to holding a meeting on this basis at the Commanders-in-Chiefs’ level at a later date.
The outbreak of war found Egypt recovering from a major political crisis. After six months of ceaseless bitter criticism by the Wafdist
opposition, Mohamed Mahmoud Pasha had resigned and had been replaced by the Chief of the Royal Household, Aly Maher Pasha. This was an indication that the Government might not fully represent the undoubtedly anti-German feeling of the people. Diplomatic relations with Germany were broken off, but war was not declared. Etat de siège was proclaimed, but its confirmation by Parliament was not sought until a month later, a delay which naturally gave rise to indecision and doubts, for état de siège was the authority for the nomination of British commanders in the Alexandria, Canal, and Western Desert areas, enabling them to issue orders to Egyptian troops; it was also the legal basis of the regulations for censorship, and of the requisitioning of civilian property, labour, buildings, land, and transport. Disquieting tendencies soon showed themselves : the Wafd increased its anti-British activities, making much play with the difficult economic situation; bitterness was engendered over British political intentions in Palestine; and in circles close to the Throne there were some obvious pro-Axis leanings. The attitude of the forces, by contrast, was co-operative and correct, and on 28th August General Wilson wrote to the Minister of National Defence expressing his appreciation of the speed and smoothness with which the Egyptian Army had carried out its moves, and of the arrangements made by the Egyptian State Railways in connexion with the despatch of the British troops to their war stations.
As September and October went by with no signs of any aggressive intentions on the part of the Italians, it became possible to relax the state of readiness in Egypt and to withdraw a proportion of units into more congenial surroundings. Training exercises and artillery practice camps began to be held in the desert, and at the end of November the Armoured Division was withdrawn to Abbassia and there continued to train intensively. Matruh remained fully garrisoned.
If there was much necessary training to be carried out there was also plenty of thinking to be done. General Waxen had been struck, as soon as he took over his command, by the defensive outlook that the policy of non-provocation and the general shortages had brought about. Within a week of the outbreak of war he ordered his subordinate commanders to work out their requirements six months ahead on the supposition that we should be at war with Italy. In Egypt, General Wilson was to plan operations for the capture of Jarabub and Bardia, for which he could assume a corps of two divisions and an armoured division available. He was to examine the possibility of using a small body of specially trained men transported by air, or even of parachute troops. At the same time he was to be prepared to receive in Egypt six divisions of a possible general reserve.
General Barker was to estimate his minimum requirements for the internal security of Palestine, based on certain assumptions as to the state of affairs in the neighbouring countries. He was not to consider a major threat to Palestine from the north, but he was to be prepared to send a brigade to reinforce the Iraqi army.
The commanders in Kenya and the Sudan were to begin to examine operations to destroy and disperse Italian forces and to support local risings, in order to assist the main Allied effort which would be made from French Somaliland. From the Sudan, too, General Platt was to consider an operation towards the Italian post at the oasis of Kufra, with the object of assisting a French effort against southern Libya from the Chad region.
Reporting these steps to the War Office General Wavell pointed out that it was important for him to be told what the policy was to be. If defensive, the forces that he expected to have ought to be just about sufficient, when a few of the worst shortages, notably antiaircraft units, were made good. But if the policy was to be offensive, then apart from the requirements in land forces the Air Force would have to be capable of establishing local air superiority in the Western Desert, and extensive administrative developments would be necessary, which would take much time and material. He recalled that the French at Rabat in May had referred to their intended offensive against Tripolitania. If Spain were neutral and if the Spanish forces in Morocco were at least partially demobilized, the French had agreed to use six divisions in this offensive, which was all that could be maintained in southern Tunisia. If Egypt were seriously attacked, however, the French had said they would undertake an offensive with two divisions, whatever the situation in Morocco might be. General Wavell’s latest information was that the whole question of an offensive was in abeyance until the French could be reinforced with air forces and heavy artillery. This was confirmed when, in December, he paid a personal visit to General Noguès, the Commander-in-Chief in French North Africa.
On 14th October General Wavell received the reply that a defensive policy was to be maintained in the Western Desert and that his demands for forces and for administrative developments were to be based on that assumption. This did not rule out such offensive operations as could be carried out within the limit of these resources. In the Sudan, military operations were to be confined to what was necessary to assist the main immediate object of reopening the Red Sea route. They would be primarily defensive, but it was also intended, when the time was ripe, to foster rebellion in Ethiopia and support it by the operation of small columns. General Platt was accordingly told to keep a close watch on the rebel activities then in progress, and to be prepared to help the active chiefs with arms and
money. Rebel activity had revived during the previous rainy season and, if the Italians found themselves at war with us before they had stamped it out, it should be capable of extension.
The inability of the French to mount their intended offensive into Tripolitania was emphasized by the changes taking place in their air forces. It had been agreed in May that it would be to the advantage of both Allies if the French air forces in Tunisia could be increased, so that strong attacks could be made upon Italian air bases, especially in Sicily, and upon the terminal ports used by shipping on the Libyan run. The Royal Air Force in the Middle East was too weak to make any contribution, even for this worthy purpose. However, the overriding aim of both Governments had been to build up their home defences against the German threat, and the more modern French bombers had been withdrawn to France and were being replaced by obsolescent types. After this there would be a period of rearming and training with American aircraft, which would not be completed before April 1940, at the earliest; meanwhile the French would have little or nothing with which to counter the Italians effectively. This would of course have its effect on the ability of the Air Force in Egypt to carry out its tasks of neutralizing the enemy air forces, of attacking ports, bases, and supply centres, and of supporting the Army and Navy. Unfortunately there was at this time no prospect of any increase in the strength of the Air Force in the Middle East, while the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief had to report in January that his general administrative situation was ‘becoming worse than ever’.
On land, however, the winter of 1939–40 saw some additions to the British strength. A second Indian infantry brigade arrived early in October to join the 4th Indian Division, a formation which, being on the Indian establishment, had yet to receive much of the equipment necessary for fighting a European enemy in desert conditions.3 From the United Kingdom the only formation that could be spared was the 1st Cavalry Division, comprised of horsed Yeomanry units, and this was sent to Palestine by March 1940, to release some regular units from internal security duties and to continue its training. Here again the low standard of equipment severely limited the roles for which the reinforcing troops were fitted. The fact was that the output of the United Kingdom had not reached a size even approximating to the many demands upon it. This caused delay in the equipping and training not only of British and Indian troops but also of the various contingents from countries which could provide willing men but no weapons; it was a handicap in the negotiations with Turkey, and it was a ruling factor in the availability of Dominion formations for service in the Middle East.
Australia and New Zealand both declared war on the same day as Great Britain, and began at once to expand their defence forces. They both wished to send contingents overseas to wherever they were needed most, provided always that the situation in the Far East allowed this to be done with safety. But although they could raise troops, their ability to equip them was very limited. Australia could supply many of the simpler items, but New Zealand could produce little more than rifles. Australian arsenals were well adapted for expansion, but it would take time. The principle was quickly adopted that the troops of these Dominions should do their elementary training in their own countries and then move to the Middle East, where modern equipment on a suitable scale for training would come to them from the United Kingdom, to be followed later by a full provision as for British troops. This could only be done by giving them a higher priority in the existing armaments programme than that of some of the British units. It was a commitment for which no provision had been made, as no Dominion was prepared to commit itself in advance.
In December 1939 General Wavell was told that he might expect one Australian division by April 1940, and one New Zealand division by the following August. In February the first units began to arrive—one brigade from each country—accompanied by a proportion of their divisional troops and a few base units. Mr. Eden, the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs, flew out to Suez to greet them, and they moved to their training areas—the Australians to Palestine and the New Zealanders to Maadi near Cairo.
The position in the Union of South Africa was somewhat different: the armed forces could be required to serve in defence of the Union outside its borders, but only within ‘South Africa’—a term which was undefined. The Union declared war on Germany on 6th September, and shortly afterwards General Smuts, the new Prime Minister, notified London of his government’s intention to expand their land and air forces and asked whether weapons and aircraft could be supplied by the United Kingdom. Nothing approaching the full demand could be met. The outcome was an offer in December of a brigade group for service in Kenya, and the question whether this could correctly be treated as service within South Africa was answered by the decision to send none but volunteers. The offer was not immediately accepted, partly because the necessary equipment was not yet available and partly because of the policy of giving Italy no grounds for provocation. In March 1940, General Wavell visited General Smuts, who shortly afterwards informed the British Government that the brigade group, to be equipped and maintained by the Union, would be ready to leave by the end of June. In addition, an anti-aircraft brigade and up to
three air force squadrons would be made available if the United Kingdom could equip them.
Thus by March 1940, a start had been made on the immense task of assembling, equipping, and training an Empire and Commonwealth army in the Middle East. The early arrivals were welcome indeed, and of a quality that held out high promise of excellence. But in immediate fighting value they did little to offset the reputed strengthening of the Italians in Libya or the weakening of the French in North Africa. It remained to be seen whether they would be in all respects fit for war and whether their numbers could be added to before war came: how long, in fact, the uneasy calm in the Mediterranean and Middle East was destined to last.
Chronology: September 1939-March 1940
|1939||1st||September||Germany invades Poland|
|3rd||September||Great Britain and France declare war on Germany. Australia and New Zealand declare war on Germany|
|6th||September||South Africa declares war on Germany|
|10th||September||Canada declares war on Germany|
|17th||September||Russia invades Poland|
|27th||September||Polish resistance ends. Poland is partitioned between Russia and Germany on 29th September|
|19th||October||Anglo-French-Turkish Treaty of Mutual Assistance signed|
|4th||November||President Roosevelt signs Neutrality Act inaugurating the Cash and Carry Scheme and proclaiming Combat Areas|
|30th||November||Russia invades Finland|
|1940||12th||February||First Australian and New Zealand contingents reach Egypt|
|15th||March||Franco-British Staff Conference with Turks at Aleppo|