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Sunday, 27 August 2017

France Decides to Create a National Institution

The fact that China and Japan were now fully at war was rammed home to Britain when its ambassador to China Sir Hughe Knatchbull-Hugessen was severely wounded when Japanese aircraft attacked his car. The incident was taken as proof of Japan’s dubious and aggressive motives. It is improbable that the tack was intentional but the car was flying a Union Jack but to a public unschooled in the realities of a modern battlefield (as most were) this was presented as a deliberate provocation.

The collapse of the Spanish Republican position in the Basque country continued apace as the city of Santander surrendered to the Nationalists. The Nationalists had overwhelming military superiority but Franco accepted the advice of Mussolini that a negotiated surrender would be a greater propaganda victory. It would also avoid – Mussolini hoped – a repetition of the savage reprisals that had followed the fall of Malaga. Franco promptly reneged on his promises and Republican prisoners were slaughtered wholesale after sham judicial procedure.

The Camille Chautemps government in France is often seen as a return to capitalist normality after the collapse of the bold experiment of Leon Blum’s Front Populaire but it did nationalize the country’s railway system, by bringing together a clutch of private regional companies to create the SNCF (Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer). Initially the state held 51% but it soon became the emblem of France’s state-controlled economy, a status it retains to this day.

Friday, 18 August 2017

The Nazi way, the British way

Hans Frick, the Nazi German interior minister, made a speech that practically issued a prospectus for the Sudetenland crisis of the following year that was to lead to the Munich agreements. He stated that the time had come to settle the question of German speaking minorities in eastern European countries, in particular the large Sudeten minority in Czechoslovakia. Ominously he asserted that their future was tied up with Germans of the Reich itself. The German minorities were described as deserving special treatment because they were  “factors of order, constructiveness and loyalty”, which rather begged the question of where their loyalty lay. It also contained the suggestion that they were somehow superior to the majority, essentially Slavic populations.

British policy in Palestine was subjected to detailed questioning by the League of Nations Mandates Commission in Geneva. When it was put to William Ormsby-Gore, the British Colonial Secretary, that there was no clear policy as to the future, he elegantly played back the flimsy justification for British involvement, in practice rule: the mandate of the League itself. This, he claimed, meant that the League had to bear part of the responsibility. A British Royal Commission had advised partition into Jewish and Arab states and Orsmby-Gore rather thought that this would be the ultimate outcome, ignoring the fact that the World Zionist congress, also meeting in Geneva, had just voted against the proposal.

Dubious share offerings were costing British investors an estimated £5m per year and the Government set out its plans to act. The “share pushers” forerunners of today’s Boiler-room operatives were to be curbed by insisting that only specially registered businesses were to be allowed to sell shares to the public. The threat of removal from the register alone was supposed to provide a sufficient deterrent against misconduct. Sceptics noted that the report did not cover the City of London, home to "reputable issuing houses" and concentrated on the Provinces. It was well received in mainstream financial circles.

Friday, 11 August 2017

The House of Windsor Returns to Business as Usual in its Scottish Heartland

The arrival of King George VI and the rest of his family, including the highly photogenic "little princesses", for a two month summer holiday at Balmoral Castle marked an emphatic return to business as usual for the House of Windsor. At almost every turn there was a glaring contrast with the brief unhappy reign of Edward VIII. The holiday was to last two months and not a perfunctory couple of weeks. It would embrace the glorious twelfth with its proper dedication to the slaughter of game birds. In a sly variation of normal practice, the Royal family drove from Aberdeen to Balmoral, rather than catching the train all the way to Ballater. This gave the population along the way the opportunity to turn out and show its adulation; it also retraced the furtive journey from Aberdeen station that his brother made having collected Mrs. Simpson from the train, whilst his brother opened the new Aberdeen Infirmary, a duty Edward VIII claimed that Court mourning prevented his undertaking. There was another reminder of the ex-King’s delinquency when the Lord Provost of Aberdeen welcomed the royal couple at the station and the conversation had turned to, yes, the opening of the Infirmary the previous year. The list of guests invited to Balmoral that year was not published in advance but few expected it to include any American divorcees.

In a massive and well-publicized exercise the RAF staged a series of air raids on London and the surrounding area over two successive evenings, aimed in part at testing the effectiveness of air defence measures. It is unlikely that the population was reassured. The oil depots at Thameshaven were attacked no fewer than six times. The attackers had the better equipment, notably Bristol Blenheim light bombers capable of 240 mph and faster than most of the defending fighters. The latter were mainly obsolescent biplanes; the modern Hurricane fighters just entering service do not appear to have been used. The part-time spotters of the Royal Observer Corps detected the attackers but only once they were nearby. It all seemed to bear out the dictum so memorably quoted by the former Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin that “the bomber will always get through.” The near-certainty that London could be almost obliterated by air-attack in a matter of hours was to dog British policy for the next three years until the Battle of Britain showed just how wildly exaggerated these fears were.

British diplomacy had not quite switched to full appeasement mode and the government felt able to order the expulsion of three German newspaper journalists from London. Perversely the move played into the hands of the appeasers as the Germans retaliated by expelling the long-standing Times correspondent Norman Ebbutt from Berlin. Ebbutt was an acute observer and hostile to the Nazi regime. He was already having difficulty getting his reports published by The Times’s pro-appeasement editor Geoffrey Dawson and his removal ensured that the paper’s policy of avoiding any risk of provoking the Nazi regime was even more deeply entrenched.

Friday, 4 August 2017

Full-Scale War Breaks Out in China

After years of brutal infighting the government finally delivered a sensible ruling on the question of whether the Royal Air Force or the Royal Navy should control naval aviation. Control had devolved on the RAF when it was formed from the Army’s RFC and the Navy’s RNAS in 1918 but compared to the service’s obsession with “strategic” bombing, it had been treated as only a trivial responsibility. The government overrode the anguished complaints of the RAF and its backers to give control of ship-borne aircraft to the Royal Navy. Land based aircraft involved in naval warfare remained under the RAF’s control, in the eventual guise of Coastal Command. The decision was long overdue but it meant that the Fleet Air Arm went into WWII with obsolete or ill-designed aircraft. Mercifully the US Navy had jealously guarded its own aviation and US designed carrier aircraft were available to make good the woeful inadequacy of British designs.

The Sino-Japanese war which is generally considered to have been a few weeks before with the “incident” at the Marco Polo bridge turned into a full-scale conflict with a large mutiny by Chinese troops who turned on Japanese garrisons inflicting heavy casualties. In turn, the Japanese launched an all-out offensive to take control of Peking and its port city. This was the first and the longest-lasting of the various armed conflicts that was to coalesce into WWII.

Belgrade was rocked by large-scale protests triggered by the death of the Orthodox Patriarch Varnava. He had resolutely resisted government plans to grant greater powers to Yugoslavia’s minority Roman Catholic church, which was especially strong  in Croatia. It was widely suspected that the Patriarch had been poisoned. His death was declared to be from natural causes but the matter has never been settled conclusively.