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Friday, 30 March 2018

In their different ways Britain and France fail to match German autarky




Leon Blum’s second and final Front Populaire government was embattled from the start. Gentle proposals to intervene in the Spanish civil war were emphatically rejected by the parties of the right and just as loudly trumpeted by the Communists. Blum remained committed to rearmament and finally took the plunge that he had avoided during his first government: announcing the introduction  of exchange controls so as to cope with the inflationary pressures of a debt-financed weapons programme. The Senate rejected Blum’s finance bill and withheld powers to government by decree. Mass strikes in the engineering industry added to his woes.

The Anschluß had pushed Britain too in the direction of accelerating rearmament. But even though the government enjoyed a solid and dependable majority coupled with an ineffectual and divided opposition, it was not going to go to the lengths of sacrificing conservative financial policy. A sound, market economy was considered to be the fourth arm of defence. Instead the representatives of the engineering and other employers most likely to be involved in the programme and the Trades Union congress were summoned separately to Downing Street to be told to behave nicely together because it was important for national security. No-one was savage enough to mention the dread term “dilution”, the expansion of the available labour force by bringing in relatively unskilled workers to perform tasks reserved for highly paid skilled (or more efficiently unionized) workers. 

The Japanese invasion of China began to lose steam. The city of Xuzhou was taken from the Chinese but the key purpose of the operation failed. The Chinese army units broke out of the thin crust of Japanese troops around the city and regrouped in safety on the far side of the Grand Canal. In itself the city had no strategic value; only the full elimination of the Chinese troops would have made a serious contribution to further progress. The Chinese army was still far too weak to expel the Japanese but Japan was now facing a stalemate in which it could hold major cities but had too few men to destroy all Chinese resistance.

Friday, 23 March 2018

Eighty years ago: the British government flounders to defend its performance on air rearmament whilst Mussolini provides a grim example of what air power could do



The government’s opponents, most notably Winston Churchill, made a successful start of their criticism of the pace of air rearmament in a House of commons debate. The government was hamstrung by the promise by the previous Prime Minister to establish “parity” with Germany. It was a concept that was impossible to define in any meaningful way given the host of technical, operational and industrial considerations. At one extreme lay a crude hankering to have the same number of warplanes as Germany but the government and the Air Staff understood full well the playing a simplistic numbers game was militarily senseless. The complexity of the underlying problem meant that progress would inevitably fall short of targets. Accusations by a Welsh and presumably temperance influenced MP that the RAF suffered from excessively heavy drinking in officers’ messes provided modest comic relief.

As Franco’s Nationalist army continued its drive into Catalonia, his ally Mussolini decided apparently without reference to him to launch a series of devastating bombing attacks on the Catalan capital, Barcelona, which was practically defenceless. Mussolini’s goal was to damage Republican (or “Red” in his eyes) morale. The new Leon Blum government in France had just recommenced supplying arms to the Republic and Mussolini may also have seen the raids as a riposte. There was no pretence of any military goal. The bombers were based in Mallorca and flown in Spanish markings. Over three days they inflicted about 3,000 casualties, about one third were fatal. The attacks drew widespread criticism from abroad but this was not backed by any practical measures.

The latest phase of operations in the Sino-Japanese saw the Japanese army trying to bottle up a large number of Chinese troops in the city of Xuzhou. The Chinese armies were no longer in headlong retreat and they were putting up stout resistance but they were still rather outclassed. They were conducting a defence along the banks of the Grand Canal in a series of ferocious close-range engagements.

Friday, 16 March 2018

Eighty years ago Austria joins the Reich, Leon Blum attempts the impossible (again) and Spanish Republicans demonstrate their particular version of solidarity




Hitler’s response to the decision by the Austrian government to hold a referendum on its policy of maintain Austrian independence. He threatened military invasion and the Austrians crumbled. Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg was replaced by Seyss-Inquart, the Nazi nominee. Schuschnigg was imprisoned and President Miklas detained for having hesitated to appoint Seyss-Inquart. Hitler drove to Vienna, receiving a rapturous welcome from what appears to have been the majority of Austrians. Austria was immediately integrated into the German Reich: the Anschluß. Germany’s anti-Jewish legislation was applied in the new province and the local population gave Jews an unofficial foretaste of their new destiny in spontaneous acts of criminal violence. The union of Germany and Austria had been forbidden by the Versailles treaty but so many of its clauses had been broken by Hitler with impunity that there was no appetite internationally to protest in any serious fashion.

What faint prospect there might ever have been of intervention was negated by the ongoing political crisis in France. Just months after the failure of his Front Populaire government Leon Blum set out again to attempt to square the circle of funding rearmament. His Radical predecessor had abandoned the effort in a huff after barely three months. In order to finance rearmament he needed a solid parliamentary majority, but the right-wing parties were not willing. The only alterantive was quasi autarky and currency control.

Franco’s Nationalists swiftly followed up the failure of the ill-begotten Republican offensive with a large-scale counter-attack in Aragon. Material superiority and better generalship led to an almost immediate collapse in the Republican defence. The two main Republican leaders, Andre Marty and Enrique Lister, displayed a dismaying lack of solidarity, either Communist or Republican, and proved to be far more adept at blaming the other for treasonous failure than organizing any kind of military defence. Wholesale executions of Republican troops for supposed desertion or cowardice did not improve morale.