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.

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