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Friday, 18 January 2019

Eighty years ago, the first IRA mainland bombing campaign begins, the Labour Party fights off an extreme left hijack attempt and Chamberlain takes "peace for our time" on tour

After years of inactivity the IRA launched a bombing campaign in mainland Britain. A more militant faction had recently taken control of the organization and wrote to Lord Halifax, the Foreign Secretary, “declaring war” on Britain. The grandly named “S Plan” was intended to damage vital infrastructure but the manpower and technical skill available to the IRA were not up to the job. The campaign started with five near simultaneous explosions in London and Manchester. One man was killed and two were injured, all civilians. There was extensive damage. One of the targets was bridge on the Liverpool and Leeds Canal.

The extreme left wing Labour MP Sir Stafford Cripps launched a one man bid to drive the party into a “popular front” with the Communist Party, supposedly to provide more effective opposition to Chamberlain’s government. After his proposal to the National Executive was soundly defeated, he appealed to branches directly in defiance of the rules. His only notable supporter on the National Executive was Ellen Wilkinson MP. Neither he nor she was controlled by the Communist Party but they naively imagined that it was motivated by the same high-minded considerations as themselves. The party set in train the mechanism to censure Cripps formally.

Chamberlain and Halifax held their long heralded talks in Rome with Mussolini and the other Fascist leaders. Quite what Chamberlain hoped for beyond generally improving relations and promoting appeasement is unclear. Nothing concrete was achieved but Chamberlain basked in his genuine popularity. The conversations were considerably more agree able than those Chamberlain had had with the German leaders, but afterwards Mussolini privately expressed his poor opinion of his visitors, “These men are not made of the same stuff as the Francis Drakes and the other magnificent adventurers who created the Empire. These are after all the tired sons of a long line of rich men and they will lose the Empire.” Hardly had the British party left Rome when the Italian press resumed its clamour for France to cede territory in North Africa to Italy. The British had avoided Italian attempts to secure their "mediation" in these claims, which would have given them the appearance of legitimacy, which they lacked entirely but neither did they offer the kind of vocal support which might have sent a clear signal to the Fascist powers. Chamberlain did not want to put at any risk his dream of appeasement.

Friday, 11 January 2019

Eighty years ago, Poland Feels Its Way In the Post-Munich World, the Vice Closes on Catalonia, the Japanese Old Guard Fades Away and a Machine Speaks

The Polish Foreign Minister Colonel Beck paid an official visit to Munich for talks with the Nazi leadership including Hitler and Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop. Poland was still in process of finding its place in a Europe that had been reshaped by the Czech crisis in September. Poland had been happy to seize Teschen from Czechoslovakia whilst it was helpless in the face of German aggression but had not entered into any long term deal. Poland had its usual quota of Balkan territorial claims in which Germany might provide further support. Germany for its part would have liked Poland to join the Anti-Comintern pact, more as a loose alliance of non-democratic states than out of any particular fear of the USSR. But Poland as a Versailles creation had been granted much old German territory which the Reich ultimately wanted back.

The vice was closing on what remained of Republican Catalonia. In the north it was mainly Franco’s own forces and in the south the attackers were predominantly Italian. The Italian advance stalled until Spanish troops were detached to help them make the key breakthrough. The Littorio division, then an infantry formation but later to become famous as an armoured division in North Africa, took Borjas Blancas a key route centre which left the Republican army a single axis along which to retreat to Barcelona. Never was the pretence that the Italians fighting in Spain were volunteers more hollow.

The last of the conservative old guard faded away in Japan as Prince Konoe resigned as prime minister, making way for the overtly nationalistic Hiranuma. Debate on foreign policy was dominated by the question of how far Japan should ally itself with Nazi Germany. For all his nationalist background, Hiranuma recognised that Japan was already over-stretched in China took a conservative stance on the narrow question. The drift towards uncontrolled expansionism, though, faced one less obstacle.

The Bell Laboratories displayed in Philadelphia one of the precursors of the age of electronics. The Voder could – just – synthesize human speech electromechanically. From breaking speech into discrete component sounds, Bell had moved to reproduce and combine these at will. It did not have an authentic human accent and its first phrase as was – fittingly – “patience is necessary.” It was the first step to digitizing speech.

Friday, 4 January 2019

Eighty years ago: first shot in the Battle of the Atlantic, gongs for the worthies of appeasement Pt.1 and appeasement Pt.2 begins

Germany gave notice that it intended to exercise its rights under the 1935 Anglo-German Naval Treaty to increase its strength towards the limits set by the treaty. Of most interest was what the Kriegsmarine might do about its U Boot force. Under the treaty it was allowed full parity with Britain in submarine strength but had accepted that it would not exceed 45% of Royal Navy submarine tonnage unless “exceptional” circumstances arose. A Royal Navy delegation flew to Berlin at short notice to clarify the position. Germany claimed that it wanted to increase its U Boot fleet by a maximum of 10%. Applying this to the Germans' own figures for the to navies’ respective submarine strengths this implied a rise to 47% of the British total. A discreet silence was maintained as to what exceptional circumstances might have prompted the move.

The New Year’s Honours list provided a handy guide to who was well in with the Chamberlain government, in particular the men who were deemed to have had a “good” Munich crisis. Top scorer was Sir Nevile Henderson, Britain’s enthusiastically appeasement minded ambassador to Grmany, who was promoted from KCMG (“Kindly Call Me God”) to the top rank of that order of chivalry, GCMG (“God Calls Me God”).  Two more junior Foreign Office officials received the unusually high distinction of promotion to Commander of the Bath: William Strang, who had accompanied Chamberlain on his first mission to the Berghof and drafted the “Peace for our time” declaration and Frank Ashton-Gwatkin, who had steered Lord Runciman’s mediation mission in a solidly pro-German direction. The former First Sea Lord, Lord Chatfield, a consistent advocate of appeasing Mussolini, received the Order of Merit.

The Governor the Bank of England set off for Berlin on what was supposedly a private visit to his German counterpart, Hjalmar Schacht President of the Reichsbank. It was a threadbare pretence. He had seen Schacht in London a couple of weeks before. Even though he had no appointments with anyone else, it was widely recognised that he would be discussing political as well as economic matters. Norman was deep in the confidence of Downing Street, notably Sir Horace Wilson. After the unseemly interruption of Kristalnacht, high level contact between was set to resume between Britain and Germany.