Eighty years ago, Neville Chamberlain tries to show he means business, but apologises to Hitler in advance




The British government followed up the announcement in late March that the volunteer Territorial Army was to be doubled in size, with another move intended to show that the country was undertaking serious military preparations to confront Nazi Germany. For over a year the government had been resisting calls to create a Ministry of Supply, a euphemism for a ministry of munitions like the one established in the First World War to direct the national economy in Britain’s first total war. Neville Chamberlain finally bowed to these calls, but the detail of the measure suggested that he was, at most, half-hearted about it. The new ministry would only concern itself with the needs of the army; the other armed services would fend for themselves. Moreover, the new minister was to be Leslie Burgin, who was moved from the Ministry of Transport. No-one doubted his competence, but he was a low-key administrator. The most powerful voice advocating a Ministry of Supply had been that of Winston Churchill, who had been Minister of Munitions in the First World War. Appointing Churchill would have sent a very clear signal to Germany. Doubling the Territorial Army had been well received in the House of commons, the attenuated Ministry of Supply was not.

Similar levels of apathy greeted Chamberlain’s second Budget as Prime Minister. Revenue was to be increased by £37m in a full year to fund higher military spending, but this involved no very headline grabbing measures. The only rises in direct taxation were on surtax and estate duties, which affected only the wealthy. Mainstream income tax was unchanged. Similarly, higher duty on motor cars, was of interest mainly to the better off. Smokers were penalised with higher tobacco duties, but drinkers were spared. A soporific presentation by the Chancellor, Sir John Simon in the persona of a solicitor reading a will rather than his more accustomed performance as an aggressive prosecuting barrister, ensured a very calm House of Commons indeed.

The British ambassador to Germany, Sir Nevile Henderson, had been recalled “for consultations” in the wake of Hitler’s seizure of  Bohemia and Moravia, the remainder of Czechoslovakia after the Sudetenland had been taken at the Munich conference in September 1938, in mid-March. He now returned to Berlin with the pro-appeasement press implying that the German foreign minister, von Ribbentrop, would eagerly welcome him the day after his arrival. In the event von Ribbentrop was too busy seeing  the Finnish Minister of Culture (no jokes please) and the Yugoslavian foreign minister to spare the time. What was not disclosed, was that Henderson's recall had not been terminated merely to signal that British annoyance over Bohemia and Moravia had run its course. He had been sent back to apologise for Chamberlain’s next concession to the forces pushing for firm measures towards Germany.

Under pressure, notably from the French, the British government announcement that it would introduce conscription, under the euphemism of “compulsory military training”. This was the first time that Britain had had such a thing in peacetime. It also broke a promise Chamberlain had given publicly. Conscription was relatively limited in scope, applying only to 20 and 21 year olds, and would only bring in 200,000 new soldiers. This was minmal compared to the millions in the German and French armies.

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