Follow by Email

Friday, 29 June 2018

Eighty years ago, two forgotten rearmers step up, anti-appeasement shows its family firm weaknesses and the democracies play arms control make-believe

With little fanfare the Air Ministry made two key appointments that were to shape the performance of the aircraft manufacturing industry into the Second World War. Air Marshal Sir Wilfrid Freeman was given the production remit in addition to his existing job as the air member for research and development. He was to be assisted by Ernest Lemon as Director-General of Production. Lemon came from railway company L.M.S. where he had modernized the depot, repair and engineering infrastructure. He did not know the aircraft industry but he understood how to organize industrial units. Now almost unknown, Freeman and Lemon were responsible for the transformation of the British aircraft industry into a powerful and efficient entity, capable of far more rational efforts than the German air industry at that stage. Sadly the appointment of Lord Beaverbrook as Minister of Aircraft Production in 1940 began the legend that the industry had been in dire need of reform up till then and that Beaverbrook had transformed it single-handed thus winning the Battle of Britain. In reality Beaverbrook’s crude, headline figures driven methods almost destroyed the patient, structured work of Freeman and Lemon.

Duncan Sandys had married Winston Churchill’s daughter and been elected as an MP in 1935; he was an officer in a Territorial Army anti-aircraft unit. He gave notice of a detailed Parliamentary question on anti-aircraft defences and found himself threatened with prosecution for revealing military secrets. Presented with a perfect opportunity to hammer home the government’s desire to hide the inadequacy of anti-aircraft defences behind excessive secrecy, Sandys with Churchill’s support over-played his hand by bringing the matter before the Committee of Privileges as an infringement on the constitutional rights of an MP. An easy presentational win was transformed into a procedural slogging contest, incomprehensible to the public and which played to the government’s built-in strengths. The episode was emblematic of the weaknesses in Churchill’s campaign against appeasement. But for his father-in-law Sandys would barely have counted as an MP. He was a considerably more impressive figure than Randolph Churchill, the other family member of Winston's parliamentary group, but that is not saying very much. Sandys's marriage was not a success either.

In a sad, faint echo of international control of naval armaments Britain, France and the USA agreed to lift the permissible tonnage for battleships to 45,000 tons from 35,000 tons. Gun sizes were to held at 16 inches. The hope was expressed that the Soviet Union would accept these limits, tantamount to a public declaration that neither Germany not Japan was going to pay the slightest attention having withdrawn from the old system. To add a further layer of irrelevance, the USA was preparing to fit 18 inch guns in contravention of the new agreement to counter a Japanese move in this direction.

Friday, 22 June 2018

Eighty years ago, the horrors in China reach Biblical proportions, France moves on some embarassing visitors and transport safety rockets up the agenda in Britain and Germany

The already grim conditions on the battlefield in China became even worse when the defending Chinese armies breached the dykes containing the Yellow River to hold back the advancing Japanese in what has been described as “the largest act of environmental warfare in history.” Tens of thousands of square kilometres were flooded for minimal military gain. Perhaps 400,000 civilians were drowned and a further 5m were made homeless. Elsewhere epidemics were becoming a notable feature with cholera and typhoid attacking even the relatively privileged European population.

At the northern end of the Pyrenees 10,000 soldiers of the Republic 43rd division retreated across the mountains after a prolonged rear-guard action. They were practically the last remaining formed units of the Republic army in the North. The French authorities speedily evacuated them across the country into Catalonia which remained in Republican hands. Despite the efforts of Francoist propagandists who were allowed access to the men, only a handful asked to be sent to areas under Nationalist control. 

Britain’s semi-state-owned airline Imperial Airways had come in for severe criticism on a number of scores, most notably its perennial financial deficits. Somewhat surprisingly the government announced that the new Chairman was to be Sir John Reith, Director general of the BBC, who had no experience of aviation or running a commercial business of any kind. Hidden from public view Reith had been lobbying his patrons at the top of the Civil Service for a more responsible job as a stepping stone to higher things. The man the civil servants really wanted in the job had spotted a disaster in the making and declined, leaving them to make do with Reith as a docile and obedient “safe pair of hands” despite his lack of qualifications.

The British and German governments were united in their desire for road safety. Leslie Burgin, Britain’s junior transport minister in pale imitation of his more rumbustious senior, Leslie Hore-Belisha (he of the beacons with whom he shared a given name and an affiliation to the fading National Liberal party) launched a campaign to improve safety for bicyclists, calling for cycles to bear disks identifying the rider, rear lights and not to ride more than two abreast. Only one of these made it into law, providing occupation for the Cambridge constabulary for many years, prosecuting undergraduates caught riding lightless at night. By contrast Hitler no less ordered the National Socialist Motor Corps to test the fitness of coach drivers after a series of fatal accidents.