Showing posts from March, 2016

Shifts In The Machine Of Government

Tuesday 31st March 1936

The appointment of Sir Thomas Inskip as Minister for the Coordination of Defence had its first, and by some standards, only material effect. Lord Eustace Percy, who had hankered after the job, resigned from his Cabinet job as Minister Without Portfolio. The defence post might have been a non-job, and the choice of Inskip was ample proof that it was so intended, but it had more substance than his token and futile occupation. He knew that his political career was over.
Percy later complained that the lack of a permanent staff held him back from doing anything but the truth was that he was politically negligible. Tom Jones, the permanent Whitehall insider, detected reason why he had become "all the more superfluous." Sir Horace Wilson, the Prime Minister's senior civil service adviser who had arrived at Downing Street when the government changed the previous year, was there to absorb the kind of stray tasks that a Minister Without Portfolio can often…

Tentative Step Towards Military Cooperation On Rhineland Crisis

Monday 30th March 1936

Any attempt at a firm response to Hitler's remilitarization was compromised by fear of war in both Britain and France and immense confusion amongst the various competing French political factions, which made it almost impossible to establish a coherent line of policy. As the negotiations dragged on Baldwin accepted that some hint of resolution should be given. It was decided to initiate conversations between the army general staffs of Belgium, Britain and France to agree ways in which they would cooperate in the event of hostilities. This was not likely but the Staff Talks sent a public signal.
Even this modest step was hedged about by fears. It was proposed to impose strict limits on what the soldiers might talk about - they were given strict instructions to obtain Cabinet approval for decisions - and there was even hesitation over fixing a date for them to start.

Fascist Italian Air Force Bombs Defenceless Abyssinian City

Sunday 29th March 1936

37 aircraft of the Fascist Italian air force bombed the ancient Abyssinian city Harar and left it in flames. The Coptic Christian Cathedral was destroyed. The hospital was also hit despite being clearly marked. The city was quite undefended.  Abyssinia had practically no air force of its own.
The large but primitive and ill-equipped Abyssinian armies had been almost destroyed in a series of attacks by Mussolini's modern army under the command of Marshal Badoglio. The attempts by the democratic powers to halt the invasion through the League of Nations had been completely ineffectual. The Abyssinians fought bravely sustaining vast casualties but defeat was a foregone conclusion.

Austerity Extreme In Paris

Saturday 28th March 1936

Between 1932 and 1935 the French government ran a large deficit and national debt rose from 266 milliard francs to 333 milliard. This was regarded as a national calamity but it failed to stimulate the economy because it was offset by the flight of capital abroad and simple hoarding. The government became fixated on building and maintaining large stocks of gold bullion which worsened the problem.  The government struggled to issue bonds to cover the deficit and maintaining the value of the franc became something of an obsession to give investors the illusion of security.

In 1935 the Laval government made huge cuts in government spending although it failed to achieve outright falls in consumer prices because political pressures prevented it from allowing farmers' incomes to suffer. Inevitably food price inflation hit the poorest worst. The franc came under pressure during the Rhineland crisis with the impending election adding another layer of uncertainty. A…

Quackery Stays Unchained

Friday 27th March 1936

The House of Commons debated a private member's bill which sought to tighten the controls on the marketing of patent non-prescription medicines. It was an area where the government had a slightly ambiguous attitude. The vast bulk of respectable medical opinion was that the public was still being offered products of almost no value, but there were still large commercial interests supporting the manufacturers and the Treasury garnered very large sums in Stamp Duty which was payable on remedies. Over the years measures such as the Dangerous Drugs Act had imposed greater controls but it was not a priority for government.

On product in particular was mentioned: Umckoloabo, supposedly a natural cure for tuberculous from Africa which was vigorously promoted by a decorated pilot, Major Francis Stevenson. He and the British Medical Association had waged a long war against each other involving three separate actions for libel which had begun before the First World War.…

Another Ingredient Goes Into The Devil's Brew Of Spanish Politics

Thursday 26th March 1936

One indirect result of the Spanish general election was the formal re-opening of the Catalonian Corts regional assembly which had been suspended in 1934 following an attempt at a separatist coup d'etat led by Lluis Companys, the President of the Catalan Generalitat, semi-autonomous region. Companys had been sentenced to thirty years in prison but had been freed by the new government.
The Corts was the name of the national parliament that had begun in 1283. It was a powerful symbol of the struggle to secure Catalan national identity, which added a further layer of complexity and bitterness to the many conflicts that would soon cause civil war. Not only did Catalans aspire to independence but the movement embraced anarchist and far left elements which were anathema to the reactionary forces hostile to the young Republic.

Aristocracy And Nazism

Wednesday 25th March 1936

Lord Redesdale, the father of the Mitford girls, spoke in the House of Lords in favour of returning to Germany colonies taken in the First World War. He also insisted that the hand of friendship be extended to Germany and complained of the "tremendous amount of anti-Nazi propaganda", which he implied overstated the maltreatment of the Jews. He did admit that Jews did not enjoy full civil rights but claimed that they had caused "trouble of various sorts in Germany." He praised Herr Hitler for having prevented Germany from going Red. The speech appears to have aroused no particular comment. When war came he dropped his support for Germany although his wife persisted and they separated.
Two of his daughters were enthusiastic Fascists, Diana married Sir Oswald Mosley and Unity, was infatuated with Hitler. Their sister Nancy had mocked British Fascism in her early novel Wigs On The Green which had caused something of a family rift when it was p…

Queen Mary Sets Sail On A Sea Of Smugness

Tuesday 24th March 1936

The pride of the British passenger shipping fleet the new Cunarder Queen Mary, which the King had inspected a few weeks before, took to the sea for the first time. It was a tricky passage from the fitting out dock at the John Brown yard in Glasgow to the open water. The vast vessel had to navigate the narrow turns through the mudbanks of the River Clyde in front of thousands of spectators. 
To the relief of all the journey passed smoothly. The British newspapers noted with more than a touch of smugness that she sailed close by the burned out hulk of the huge French liner, L'Atlantique, which had been towed to the Clyde to be broken up following a catastrophic fire three years before.

Zeppelin Demonstrates German Power

Monday 23rd March 1936

The German  Zeppelin LZ-129 airship made her inaugural passenger flight carrying dignitaries and journalists along the River Rhine for six hours. At that point she was referred to by her serial number only would soon be publicly christened as the Hindenburg in honour of the senile war lord who had given the Nazi regime a cloak of respectability in its first few months. Passengers enjoyed a comfortable, quiet flight, excellent views from large windows and a well-prepared lunch.
Passenger airships had become something of a German monopoly and the Zeppelins offered the only way for paying passengers to cross the Atlantic by air. Britain had abandoned airships in 1930 following the R-101 disaster. It seemed to be another respect in which Britain was falling behind in the air. Their vast size gave an impression of power and strength quite out of proportion to their true capacities.

Huge Fascist Rally At Albert Hall

Sunday 22nd March 1936

Sir Oswald Mosley addressed a huge meeting of the British Union of Fascists, who crowded the Albert Hall. In some ways it was a rerun of the notorious Olympia rally two years before. He spoke for two hours mainly about the international situation, accusing the government of having taken Britain to the brink of a war for which it was not prepared and appealed for friendship with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Provided that Japan agreed not to flood British markets with cheap goods, it should be allowed to invade Manchuria. He also stated that it was the intention of British Fascism to challenge and break the power of Jews in Britain. It was one of his most unambiguously anti-Semitic statements.
There were extensive protest both inside and outside the Hall, notably from Communist groups, but the police cordon held. There were many arrests. The Blackshirt stewards beat up  protesters and threw out a group which had unfurled a hostile banner from the top gallery.

The Long Farewell To George V

Saturday 21st March 1936

Even though almost two months had passed since the Royal funeral several thousand people turned out on Woolwich common to witness another link in the ceremonial chain that bade farewell to George V. It was a display of respect for a King who had been such a symbol of national stability in the turbulent quarter century for which he reigned. 
The 13-pounder artillery piece used at his funeral was formally handed over by F "Sphinx" Battery of the Royal Horse Artillery to the Royal Artillery Depot at Woolwich where it was to be preserved for future generations. It was not purely an army affair. Men of the Royal Navy who taken part in the funeral were also present with their salute being taken by the Admiral in command at Chatham.

King Edward Receives Nazi Diplomat And Wine Salesman

Friday 20th March 1936

The King received a number of the delegates to the League of Nations discussions in London on the Rhineland crisis: Joachim von Ribbentrop from Germany, Paul Boncour from France and Jospeh Avenol, Secretary General of the League itself. The King had lent St. James's Palace for the talks, which were part of the increasingly futile attempts to deal with Germany's unilateral remilitarization of the Rhineland. The reluctance of France and Britain to take any kind of strong line meant that Germany only needed to bide its time and utter the odd platitude until everyone else lost interest and the fait accompli was tacitly accepted.
Ribbentrop had already been in London for the Anglo-German naval treaty the previous year. He had made great efforts to cultivate the then Prince of Wales and Mrs. Simpson, working under the delusion that Edward would try to swing British policy in favour of Nazi Germany. Hitler shared this belief. Ribbentrop passed as the Nazi exper…

Electroral Warning From Scotland

Thursday 19th March 1936

The results of the Dumbartonshire by-election came as an unpleasant surprise to the National Government. The Labour party overturned a comfortable Conservative majority of 4,000 at the previous general election less than a year before even though there were no strong local influences at work. After the government's comfortable win in the high profile contest for the Ross and Cromarty poll a few weeks before, it was an unhappy wake-up call that and a further reason - if one had been required - not to take an aggressive stance on the Rhineland.

RAF Proudly Presents A Disaster

Wednesday 18th March 1936
With considerable publicity the RAF presented the Fairey Battle light bomber, one of its latest aircraft, to the public only a week after its maiden flight. This was in marked contrast to the absence of publicity surrounding the Supermarine Spitfire fighter, whose maiden flight had been a few weeks before. In the growing debate over the pace of rearmament to counter the growing threat of the Nazi Luftwaffe it was inevitable that the RAF should wish to showcase the progress it was making. Bombing was also closer to the heart of the service's leadership as its war-winning offensive role. Fighters still had a unseemly and defensive image.
Both Battle and Spitfire embodied the key advances in technology that made for a quantum leap in aircraft design: monoplane, retractable undercarriage, enclosed cockpits and metal construction. Both used the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine. The Battle was presented as a huge success for RAF innovativeness and daring. It was suppo…

Pending Election In France Gives Another Reason For Careful Handling Of Rhineland

Tuesday 17th March

It was denied in Paris that the Legislative elections due in the spring according to the usual four year cycle would be postponed or cancelled. It had been rumoured that the Rhineland crisis might have forced a change. In part the denial was a reassuring proof that normality reigned, as doubtless it was intended to. But the pending elections also gave the ruling politicians another reason to be cautious in their handling of the crisis. Public sentiment in France was every bit as anti-war as it was in Germany. The Socialist Party had officially advocated a negotiated settlement a week before and the government would have faced internal challenges to any resolute action.
The political situation in fragile was delicate. In 1934 huge riots provoked by the Stavisky affair had shaken the country. The forced resignation of Laval had weakened the government and political violence bubbled everywhere especially in extreme right wing circles. Sarraut's government had only …

Television And More Money For the BBC But Reith Still Unhappy

Monday 16th March 1936

The report of the Ullswater Committee on the future of broadcasting was finally published. It went a long way towards endorsing the wishes of the BBC, which had mainly been shaped by its ambitious and autocratic Director-General, Sir John Reith. The report's recommendations included an extension of the BBC's charter to ten years, an increase in the proportion of the license fee that went directly to the corporation to 75%, transfer of political responsibility to a more senior Cabinet minister and that the BBC should control programmes broadcast over wireless exchanges, a form of rediffusion. Television broadcasting, which had begun on an experimental basis was to be given full authorization.
Reith was not satisfied with even this large measure of success and fulminated against the "miserable Ullswater report", briefing the Labour opposition against it. To some extent Reith was right to be concerned. The government ultimately disregarded the Ull…

Archbishop's Megalomania And Vandalism Meet Royal Resistance

Sunday March 15th 1936

Cosmo Gordon Lang, the ambitious Archbishop of Canterbury, was working hard to promote a grandiose scheme, ostensibly a memorial to King George V, with whom he had been very friendly. In reality it was a naked attempt to seize turf for the Church, which Lang barely disguised in his pitch for the scheme, "If there is one place in London which can be described as very-specially a centre of our national and Imperial life it is surely the great area which contains Westminster Abbey, the sacred shrine of its history and the glories of Parliament, the scene of its Government." The plan was to demolish a group of houses, creating a vast esplanade which would act as an obviously symbolic link between the Abbey and the House of Parliament. This aspect was obfuscated in the artist's impression of the scheme, which merely showed the new, open vista on the Abbey. The memorial statue of the King was to be next to the Abbey.

The Archbishop had already annoyed the…

Diplomatic Wisdom From A Taxi-Driver

Saturday 14 March 1936

On his way to one of the many Cabinet meetings called to discuss the Rhineland crisis Anthony Eden, the Foreign Secretary, asked his taxi-driver what he thought of Hitler's actions. According to the memoirs that he wrote long afterwards, he was told, "I suppose Jerry can do what he likes in his own back garden, can't he?" Unscientific though his opinion polling method was, Eden concluded that this was fully representative of British public opinion.
By the time that he was writing Eden, of course, had an inflated reputation as an opponent of appeasement  to protect, but there is little to suggest that he was exaggerating much. German sovereignty over the Rhineland had never been questioned and unless there was an obvious threat to France, it mattered little whether there were troops there. The horrific memories of the First World War were still too strong for all but a handful of people to be willing to risk was over so slight an issue It is onl…

Baldwin As Caligula

Friday 13th March 1936

Political appointments are routinely described by those who dislike them as "being the most astounding/cynical/foolish since Caligula made his horse, Incitatus, a Consul" but the comment was more than usually justified when Baldwin chose Sir Thomas Inskip the Attorney-General to be the Minister for the Coordination of Defence. Coming as it did in the midst of the Rhineland crisis a more high profile choice could have appeared to Germany as a move designed to signal that war was felt to be more likely. Choosing Churchill, who was admittedly never better than an outside candidate, certainly would have been. The German ambassador believed that it would have meant war. Sam Hoare was a less contentious candidate but his seniority and political ambitions would have lent the job far greater weight than Baldwin wished or wanted to risk diplomatically.
Inskip's selection was entirely unexpected and it caused considerable surprise. He had a distinguished leg…

Threat Of Abdication Averts War?

Thursday 12 March 1936

Stanley Baldwin would doubtless have been astounded to hear a conversation that supposedly took place between the King and the German ambassador, Leopold von Hoesch, on the subject of the Rhineland crisis. The only account comes from Fritz Hesse, who had arrived in London, the previous year as press counsellor to the German embassy. According to Hesse von Hoesch had received news of an impending British mobilization and had interceded with the King, an old-school professional diplomat who was an old personal friend. The King had obligingly told Baldwin that he would abdicate if war were declared and followed this up with a lurid phone call to von Hoesch to which Hesse was allowed to listen, Can you hear me? This is David speaking. Please don’t address me with my name. Well, I saw that damned bastard. Gave him a nice brush down. Told him, I would resign in case of war. There will be no war. Don’t worry any longer. Bye, Bye! Hope to see you again…… This story st…

Cabinet Terrified That France Will Drag Britain Into War

Wednesday 11th March 1936

Anthony Eden, the Foreign Secretary, and Lord Halifax had hoped to fly back from the talks in Paris but bad weather forced them to use train and boat so it was only at 6pm that the Cabinet could meet to hear their report and discuss it. They had received a nasty shock in Paris when it became clear that France did not intend to fall in with the British idea of "condemning the German action and then developing a constructive policy to re-establish the European situation" in other words doing nothing and hoping things would get back to normal. At least to the British the French expressed the view that it would be better to get Germany out of the Rhineland then rather than in two years time.
If the French stood firm, the League ordered a German withdrawal and then Germany refused, the Cabinet was petrified of being dragged into war.  All three service ministers had reported that Britain was at a military disadvantage and public opinion was opposed to mi…

Government Tokenism And Opposition Feebleness Laid Bare

Tuesday 10th December 1936

The debate on the rearmament programme continued and gave observers a fair clue as to some of the factors which would condition the British response to the Rhineland coup. The deputy leader of the Labour Party managed nothing more than a routine personal attack on Baldwin and a hardly relevant claim that government MPs were not wholehearted in their support of the League of Nations. On a personal level Greenwood struggled with drink and on a political level with the tension between the outright pacifism of many Labour members and opposition to Fascism. His speech was greeted with laughter.
For the government Sir John Simon contributed an explanation of the functions of the still unappointed minister for the coordination of defence which was every bit as arid and unhelpful as its initial announcement. It opened a flank for Winston Churchill to ask the obvious question as to why rearmament in general and the appointment of a minister to coordinate it in particul…

Even Gentler Response From Britain

Monday 9th March 1936

The British government delivered its immediate public response to the remilitarization of the Rhineland by way of speeches in the House of Commons by the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary. It was, if anything, even less confrontational than the French response. Baldwin  deplored the suspicions between France and Germany and said that Britain should work to bring them together in a "friendship." Eden went a little further by saying that Hitler's action had "shaken confidence" but, in contrast to the French government, stated that Germany's proposals should be examined to see if the they offered  a way of rebuilding a better peace system. He was especially taken by the idea of Germany returning to the League of Nations. The only jarring note in the debate from the government side was struck by by Sir Austen Chamberlain who pointed out that the German proposals included nothing about Austria, the obvious next target for German expa…

France Blinks

Sunday 8th March 1936

Confronted by Hitler's fait accompli in remilitarizing the Rhineland, the French government responded extremely weakly. Crucially, a meeting of ministers with General Gamelin, the army Chief of Staff, decided against even partial mobilization on the tortuously expressed and barely credible grounds that France wanted to avoid any action that might smack of trying to force the hand of League of Nations Council members. All that France did was appeal to the League. As Germany was not a member and the League had amply demonstrated its impotence over Italy's invasion of Abyssinia, this was not a formidable move.
Albert Sarraut, the French Prime Minister, did publicly reject the placatory proposals with which Hitler had accompanied his denunciation of the  Locarno Treaty as extinct. These included Germany returning to the League of Nations, from which it had withdrawn in 1933 on the pretext that disarmament talks had failed to give parity with France. Hitler ha…

Hitler Remilitarizes The Rhineland

Saturday 7th March 1936

Adolf Hitler took the first step in his policy of external aggression when he remilitarized the Rhineland. Demilitarization had initially been imposed under the Versailles Treaty but Germany had accepted its continuation when it signed the Locarno Treaty in 1925. France had viewed demilitarization as crucial for its security at the time of Versailles but had withdrawn its own troops in 1930 although under Locarno this was not due until 1935. German sovereignty over the area had never been questioned.
There had been some speculation that Germany might attempt something but there had been no preliminary discussion or negotiation. The move is often cited as an example of Hitler's preference for brutal, unilateral action as a way of imposing his will on other nations although the operation was conducted in a fairly tentative fashion. The German forces deployed were relatively weak (19 infantry battalions) and Hitler would have been prepared to retreat if the F…

Home Secretary Battles Menace Of Demon Drink

Friday 6th March 1936

The House of Commons was treated to what used to be a regular exhibition of social conservatism, futile belief in over-regulation and all-round po-facedness: a discussion on the supply of alcohol in the form of a debate on the second reading of Licensing Amendment Bill. The particular aim of the legislation was to prevent bogus members clubs being used as commercial drinking establishments without having to obtain a tightly regulated drinks license. The position was complicated by the existence of thousands of genuine unregulated clubs notably working men's clubs and gold clubs. Inevitably MPs contributed a litany of tales of the evil of drink quite unrelated to the topic of the debate.

A. P. Herbert, the barrister and comic writer, had a field day at the expense of his conservative colleagues. After making the serious point that bar staff worked in difficult conditions and deserved legislative protection, he got down to business with an assault on the report o…

Royal Visit To Contrasting Queens In Glasgow

Thursday 5th March 1936

The King's visit to Glasgow took in both ends of the social spectrum. In the morning under torrential rain  he visited the new Cunard liner Queen Mary during her final fitting out at the John Brown shipyard prior to her maiden voyage. The engines were tested to demonstrate how little vibration there was. Indeed throughout her service it was quietness which gave her a special cachet. The King was warmly received by the workers, who called him "Good Old Teddy," but police crowd control was inadequate and the cordon was broken forcing the King to elbow his way through.
In the afternoon the King demonstrated his sympathy for his badly deprived subjects by visiting one of the city's notorious tenements. He called on one of the residents, a Mr. Thomas Queen, who had been blind for 30 years. When the King approached him asked who he was and was told "I am your King."  He showed great interest in the welfare of the people who lived there and…

The Inept Face Of German Espionage

Wednesday 4th March 1936

The trial opened at the Old Bailey of Dr Hermann Goertz, a German lawyer and novelist, on charges of espionage. It was widely reported in an early echo of the spy fever that swept the country before the First World War. There is little doubt that Goertz attempted to obtain sensitive information about RAF airfields, but it is less clear whether he was actually working for German intelligence. He had tried to join the service and his letter of application was among the compromising documents including plans of Manston aerodrome found at his house as was correspondence showing that he had been unsuccessful.
His activities had come to light by accident rather than the efficiency of MI5. He had asked his landlady to look after his motorcycle "combination" whilst he was back in Germany. He meant his one piece overall, but she thought he meant his Zuendapp motorcycle combination. When she found it missing from the outhouse, she reported it to the polic…

Incongruous Dress And An Unintended Slight At Royal Review

Tuesday 3rd March 1936

The King reviewed the second battalion of the Grenadier Guards at Chelsea Barracks prior to their departure for Egypt. As the senior infantry regiment in the British army they had entertained legitimate expectations of the being the first one to be favoured with a review by the new King. It was also the regiment in which he had served in the First World War. With somewhat characteristic thoughtlessness he had deprived the Grenadiers of the honour when he reviewed the Welsh Guards two days before.
There was an incongruous aspect to the event as well. The troops wore a curious combination of sun helmets in anticipation of their service in Egypt and the grey greatcoats, more suited to the English winter. The contrast was all the more striking as the day was notably dull and smoggy so that the ceremony was barely visible to the officers' wives and other spectators. The battalion's commanding officer, Lt.-Col. Frederick "Boy" Browning was married to…

Censure Debate Has Government On Back Foot

Monday 2nd March 1936

A Labour motion of censure for the government's Special Areas policy was heavily and inevitably defeated given the government majority, but the opposition had the best the of the debate. Hugh Dalton, MP for Bishop Auckland, one of the hardest hit constituencies, led for the motion and could make the telling point that the Special Areas held only 7% of the population but 20% of the unemployed. Red tape was a major handicap to achieving anything.
Bravely rather than wisely, the government put Ramsay MacDonald up to oppose the motion and he faced sustained heckling from his one-time Labour party colleagues. His speech was not hugely convincing with its emphasis on plans yet to be realised and measures that had brought "hope" (but no more). He had to admit that appeals to business to migrate jobs to the areas had failed. Perhaps most worrying for the government a number of their own MPs spoke in favour of the motion, notably Lord Wolmer, who accused it …

First Broadcast By New King

Sunday 1st March 1936
The new King made his first radio broadcast (and as it happened his only one as King) to the people of the Empire over the BBC, in those days the only direct mass media available. He had made a number of broadcasts as Prince of Wales and his father had begun the tradition of Royal broadcasts by the monarch so it was no great innovation in itself. His father's broadcasts had served as the culmination of elaborate programmes combining material from all over the Empire but he received only a simple introduction. He spoke slowly in a rather high voice, in marked contrast to his father's deep tone. The King had asked Sir John Reith, Director General of the BBC whether he should address his audience as "Ladies and Gentleman" - much as an ordinary broadcaster would have done - but Reith had firmly advised him against it. Royal reserve had to be maintained.
It was Saint David's day which may have prompted the King to make a curiously defensive remar…