War Again

Throughout much of the inter-war period little serious consideration was given to how the Dominions might respond to another European conflict. The established view was that as far as foreign policy was concerned their governments, with their undermanned, under-funded or as yet non-existent External Affairs departments, seemed content to remain dependent on London's resources.1 Indeed, with the Union of South Africa and Canada both often preoccupied by distracting internal issues and New Zealand, and to a lesser but still significant degree Australia, captivated by the Imperial concept, public criticism of the British approach to international affairs was a rare phenomenon.2 There had been a post-Statute of Westminster study of the question produced within Whitehall, but the resulting written memorandum focused on questions of formal procedure connected to any future declaration of war and not what form the contribution might actually take.3 A report had also been prepared by Colonel Sir Maurice Hankey, secretary to the Cabinet and the CID, following his Dominions tour made between September and December 1934; this noted a worrying paucity of military preparations.4 The Abyssinian Crisis had precipitated some further essentially half-hearted examination of the question the following year, but interest once again faded long before Italian troops finally marched into Addis Ababa. In February 1937 Sir Grattan Bushe, the DO's long-serving legal adviser, finally instigated a serious review when he approached the FO and told his colleagues of his concerns about how the Dominions viewed 'common belligerency'.5 For many within Whitehall the long-held principle that the indivisibility of the King bound together each Dominion remained standard policy. There had in fact been ample evidence during recent years that this was now something of a fanciful ideal and even though it was mortified that they should be discussing such a possibility, the FO agreed that some form of contingency planning would be sensible.

Overwhelmed with arrangements for the forthcoming Imperial Conference, at this stage nothing more was done.6 By the time the visiting Dominion ministers had left London and those government officials who had been involved had taken their summer leave, Bushe's question was more urgent. European tensions were worsening and Sir Edward Harding, the DO's most senior official, believed that the British government's most important objective was to ensure the Dominions' active support in the event of any future war.7 In the last month of the year he therefore instructed Sir Harry Batterbee, who was both his deputy and brother-in-law, to prepare a comprehensive assessment of the Dominions' military and political state of readiness. Another senior department member, whose focus was monitoring foreign policy and defence matters, contributed to the review and shortly before Christmas a draft memorandum entitled 'Probable Attitude and Preparedness of the Dominions in the Event of War' was complete. This, the authors confirmed, was still based broadly on the earlier documents, but details had been updated and individual studies of each of the Dominions and new conclusions had been added. With Batterbee having included his final flourishes, the findings were passed to the FO for further comments and then on to Malcolm MacDonald. The Dominions secretary was also given an additional paper, prepared entirely by Dixon and reserved solely for internal DO distribution, which looked in more detail at the question of 'common belligerency'.8

The two documents totalled some 15 pages. A lengthy introduction made it clear that a truly definitive answer to the question was not possible at this stage. Following this was an idea about the kind of conflict that could be expected along with some thoughts on how Britain might become involved. The conclusion was stark; a war in defence of European commitments but without any direct attack on Britain in the first instance would very likely place considerable strains on the Anglo-Dominion relationship. These would be worsened if there had been no international effort to find a peaceful solution involving Britain and the Dominions beforehand. Even at this first drafting stage the authors already had few doubts that, whatever situation might develop, New Zealand and Australia would offer their support but the role that might be played by Canada and South Africa was a cause for real concern. Dixon's internal report advised his colleagues that they needed to retain 'a certain fluidity of conception' when thinking about how the Commonwealth relationship worked. Long-accepted norms did not now apply and this would need to be recognized if Britain was still to gain maximum advantage from the revised position.9 Batterbee, however, remained more optimistic, telling the secretary of state that he believed it would be 'alright on the night'.10 As it was impossible to say with conviction what was going to happen, he also agreed that to not make provision accordingly would be foolish. This was 'the policy of the ostrich' and the reports were therefore a sensible precaution. MacDonald clearly listened to this advice and, having no desire to be 'caught napping on this point', he asked that further work be carried out as quickly as possible on these 'important documents'.

Despite the Dominions secretary's instructions and a second meeting with the FO in just the first month of the year, throughout the remainder of 1938 little further progress was actually made towards settling on a policy.11 It has been suggested that this was because of continuing disagreements within Whitehall over the memorandum's content and even its wording, a debate over form that Harding had been so anxious to avoid.12 The issue was certainly a contentious one; further complication came with the Admiralty's interest in the question and what it might mean for the various agreements that granted wartime access to Dominion port facilities. The main barrier to progress though must surely have been international events themselves as Germany pushed its claims more and more forcefully during the course of the year. Following Austria's incorporation into the expanding Nazi Reich in March 1938, MacDonald warned the foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, that his department was struggling under the pressure of the work it was handling. His staff found themselves in 'perpetual, non-stop touch with all [of the Dominions] on all international questions', leaving little spare time for other tasks.13 Although the DO had doubled from its initial size, by 1938's conclusion the total available manpower was still fewer than 70 people. Germany's claim to Czechoslovakia's Sudeten areas later that year, and the crisis it provoked, brought still more distraction. The role played by the Dominions in helping shape British policy during this period has been well-explored.14 According to some contemporary commentators this was the nearest they had come since 1919 to sharing a common foreign policy with Britain. Reviewing the evidence as the war drew to an end, the renowned Cambridge Don Professor E. L. Woodward, in preparing the wartime diplomatic history, concluded that the Dominions' attitude had, in fact, rarely proved decisive in helping sway the policy of the London government.15 Certainly at the time the key DO staff concluded that only New Zealand still clung to the idea of the League of Nation's 'collective security' banner and it alone could be counted on for military support. For the others it was a policy based upon the offer of concessions to the German leadership. Australia would probably have fought, but only reluctantly, Canada after some consideration would have decided not to, the Union of South Africa would have almost certainly remained neutral.

In the face of this, Whitehall's lack of enthusiasm for a memorandum that carried with it potentially critical ramifications was quite clear and there continued to be little real progress made in its preparation. The Attorney-General finally gave his approval in late September 1938 for the British high commissioners in their respective capitals to be sent a preliminary summary of the previous year's findings. The first major development in months, even this only outlined a few of the more general thoughts that had been put forward.16 Batterbee was certainly partly to blame. After several months of rumours, in July 1938 it was confirmed that he was being sent to New Zealand to become the first British high commissioner.17 His personal correspondence clearly reveals the degree to which, following the announcement, his attention seems to have often subsequently been preoccupied. There were numerous arrangements to be made for the considerable relocation he and his wife were facing and the work he was required to undertake prior to his departure was significant.18 Making matters worse was Hankey who, with his extensive knowledge of Anglo-Dominion affairs, had been asked to generally help move things forward. He singularly failed in this task and his appointment in fact served only to aggravate an already complicated process.19 Not until the beginning of 1939 was there finally some substantive improvement in the position. Batterbee had cleared his desk and gone, and at the first meeting held without him at the beginning of January a much greater sense of urgency could be seen. Representatives from the DO and FO, joined by colleagues from the Cabinet Office and Admiralty, debated the main question: could there be 'a half-way house between neutrality and participation' if Britain was at war.20Harding was in the chair and stressed the need for discretion; the Dominion governments were not to know that such a possibility was even being considered. He was worried at what the future held, wondering whether the Royal Navy might even find itself forced to seize South African ports in order to guarantee unhindered wartime access to them. His Cabinet Office counterpart was much less concerned; Sir Edward Bridges was certain that even the least enthusiastic Dominions would merely mark time before joining Britain. The FO appeared generally uninterested about the issue, as had been the case during the previous 12 months, and its recommendations were few.21 Batterbee's departmental responsibilities had been assumed by another long-serving civil servant, John Stephenson, and he fortunately appeared a more dynamic force.22 The high commissioners in the Union of South Africa and Canada were now provided with the complete draft memorandum and asked for any relevant comments.23 It would take six weeks before the last of these arrived but they only served to emphasize the potential for disaster that appeared to exist.24

The level of cooperation from within Whitehall was still, however, at this stage far from encouraging. While the War Office and Air Ministry were 'probably willing to fall in line' with the DO strategy, the same was not true of the Admiralty which, having contemplated what it had heard at the previous meeting, now 'tended in the direction of attempting to force the hand of the Dominions'. This confrontational approach ran entirely counter to the advice of the DO but political niceties appeared not to be a concern for the First Sea Lord's department, who warned it would take its case to the CID where it clearly believed it would be treated sympathetically. In exchanges such as these it was obvious that, despite the DO's awareness and its long-running efforts to better educate its colleagues, there were few within Whitehall who recognized the true position of the Anglo-Dominion relationship. 'Common belligerency' had long since become a concept that could not be taken for granted, but few seemed to understand this fact. To echo the point, Sir Thomas Inskip, who had replaced MacDonald in January 1939, was told by Halifax that the Dominions should be expected to 'trust us to draw a just conclusion from the reports we receive'.25 Bridges also still remained generally optimistic about the future position. Only after repeated reminders, at the beginning of March the Cabinet Office had finally submitted a formal statement and this argued that the Dominions would surely recognize that 'supreme control can only be exercised by those at the centre' if war broke out.26 Further evidence of such thinking came with Neville Chamberlain's dramatic policy shift mid-March following the German seizure of the rump Czech state. The strategy the British leader now adopted had been decided upon without any prior discussion with the Dominions and was almost entirely at odds with what the DO thought they might have best received.27

The lack of any advance warning of this new approach caused considerable rancour amongst Dominions' politicians, and the high commissioners in London were the most visibly petulant. They believed their role during the Sudeten crisis had been decisive, despite there being little evidence to support such a view, and this, consequently, had led them to develop a much higher opinion of their own importance.28 Six years previously the South African member of the group, Charles te Water, had bluntly informed the then secretary of state that if there was another war 'none of the Dominions would follow' Britain.29 He had not altered his opinion since and buoyed by his self-perceived value, and with his Canadian counterpart Vincent Massey to support him, he now angrily urged that Germany should be given one more 'chance of saving face'.30 Perhaps as a result of this verbal assault delivered to the unfortunate Inskip, te Water and the other high commissioners were given some degree of advance warning at the end of March that a security guarantee was to be offered to Poland. They were also told about British thinking on the future of Danzig. None of this helped mollify them.31 When the news was made public, no formal comments came from the Dominion capitals but privately there was deep unhappiness. Jan Smuts, in his role as South Africa's deputy prime minister, was 'staggered' and felt that the decision was 'mere surrender to panic' and made war 'inevitable'. William Mackenzie King, the Canadian leader, also thought the decision amounted to 'a conditional declaration of war' but seemed more upset that it had been reached without prior consultation with Canada or any of the Dominions.32

At this point efforts to finalize the memorandum were once again renewed and with the Admiralty's concerns appearing to have been resolved, towards the end of April a final draft document was at last ready to be issued to the principal Whitehall departments involved.33 Forty pages long, it still made little reference to New Zealand and Australia, the focus remained the likely reactions of Canada and the Union of South Africa but the earlier conclusions had changed.34 Telegrams sent from mid-February onwards by the British high commissioners in Ottawa and Cape Town were said to have become progressively more optimistic in tone. 'Force of circumstances' would now dictate the Dominions response; in the Canadian case this meant almost certain participation, South Africa would 'probably' offer its support. In arriving at this new assessment any of the high commissioners' comments which could have been seen to offer cause for concern were overlooked. The clearest example of this were those warnings from Sir William Clark about almost inevitable 'delays' and 'confusion' in the Union that would follow any British declaration of war.35 The report also chose to ignore the advice being offered by the Dominions' high commissioners in London that their respective prime ministers still held some significant anxieties. The news that a possible alliance was being considered with the Soviet Union did little to improve their mood.36

With the Dominion governments showing little enthusiasm to make any public declaration of support for London's increasingly aggressive stance and the high commissioners still insisting on the need for further diplomacy, at the end of May the memorandum was finally published.37 So sensitive were its contents that distribution was restricted to those ministers who would be most concerned with the war's conduct.38 At the same time, in the various Dominion capitals, the British representatives were also warned to make no mention of the document's existence until such time as it was necessary. Inskip appears to have had only the faintest awareness that it was being prepared; Harding sent him a copy but attached a much more optimistic view about its conclusions than he had done before. There was certainly a visible and most genuine desire amongst the senior DO staff to avoid war hence, perhaps, his hope that there would 'never be occasion' to test the findings and, if there was, those difficulties that were anticipated would 'not, in practice, prove unduly serious'.39 The Secretary of State, by way of response to this new information, did little more than commend the quality of the work.40

Some of the final conclusions that were put forward made a good deal of sense. There was little reason to doubt that the governments in Canberra and Wellington would offer their support. Considerable emotional ties still existed between the two countries and Britain, which helped to guarantee that there was significant public support for British policy. Their security—there had been an almost total neglect of defence expenditure during the inter-war period—and economic welfare—neither Dominion held significant gold or foreign currency reserves—also helped safeguard their connection to Britain. This financial aspect was most critical and New Zealand's position was especially dire. The 1938 global financial depression had brought with it severe balance of payments constraints and the requirements for borrowing were consequently heavy. On the last day of March 1939 the Dominion's public debt stood at NZ£304 million, of which over half was held in Britain. Despite having pledged publicly not to do so, the socialist New Zealand government turned to London for help and Walter Nash, finance minister, was sent to negotiate directly for an agreement leaving behind him 'a tattered utopia'. He found both Whitehall and the City's financial institutions disinclined to help; the loan was eventually agreed, as much because of the coming war than any real sense of British willingness to help, but it was on stringent terms.41 There was also a compelling argument to be made that, despite its much greater measure of economic independence and the uncertainties that accompanied Mackenzie King's leadership, Canada could most likely be counted on to fight alongside Britain. King George VI's visit to Canada earlier in 1939 had been a great success, regenerating a great deal of popular support both for the British monarchy and the 'Imperial Idea'. With the recognition, albeit tacitly in some circles, of the degree to which Canada now lay within the United States' sphere of influence, further helping the position was the hardening American attitude towards the Axis powers.42

By far the greatest problem, despite what the memorandum had to say, was trying to say what would happen in South Africa. There were similar economic, defensive and emotional factors to those which had influenced Australia and New Zealand. As with Canada, there was also a substantial Nationalist group to be considered which counted amongst its ranks the South African leader, General J. B. M. Hertzog. This largely Afrikaans section of the population was similar to the Quebecois of French-Canada in having no great love for the government in London.43 The DO's fears about what all of this might mean had, however, finally spread. Within the FO there existed the 'Dominions Intelligence Department' (DID), established in 1926 to prepare information on foreign affairs to be passed to the Dominion governments. It had a small staff comprising a head supported by an assistant and three juniors who produced daily 'Intels' surveying the international situation. With the worsening European position this service had been substantially stepped up, so that by 1939 huge numbers of documents were being generated for Dominion consumption.44 Sir Alexander Cadogan was listed as being in charge but operating at the centre of British foreign affairs he had many other more important responsibilities, and much of the daily work fell to Robert Hadow. He and the South African high commissioner's private secretary had discussed what might happen in April, and this had left him sufficiently confident to declare afterwards that South Africa would 'most certainly come in should we be involved in war'. Similar statements had been made by a number of his FO colleagues during the previous months but, following the announcement that negotiations would take place with the Soviets, Hadow began to receive information from the Dominions that made his earlier confidence evaporate.45 He warned Cadogan that there was a risk of South African neutrality at the outset of war, 'perhaps only for a while but with dangerous possibilities'. This was dismissed as being overly dramatic and nothing more was said within the FO of the Dominion and its likely stance.46

The reality was that the memorandum had been broadly accepted within Whitehall as being accurate in its conclusions and an ominous lack of any discussion about what the near future might hold now settled upon the corridors of British power. During the summer months, aside from a few messages from the Tasman governments, the Dominions also had little to say about the deteriorating international situation.47 The high commissioners working in London were similarly restrained and appeared to have run out of angry observations to make.48 The volume of communications passing between London and the Dominion capitals had not slowed, it was just that it had little to do with how this political alliance might function if the worst happened and the newly agreed security guarantees were tested. As the 'July rush' abated many officials in the DO went on leave but the lull was quickly shattered by the surprise announcement that Germany and the Soviet Union had concluded their non-aggression pact.49 With the notable exception of the New Zealand representative Bill Jordan, the Dominion high commissioners found this news difficult to accept, and they were roused once again to demand that every effort be made to hold further negotiations with the German leader Adolf Hitler.50 Even the mention of 'appeasement' remains a source of intense emotion to some historians, but in these daily meetings there was no shortage of support for the idea that the Führer should be given whatever was needed to induce him not to go to war. Any chance of securing support for this was destroyed by Stanley Bruce, and his clumsy attempts orchestrated from Australia House to apply pressure on the Polish authorities and make them accept Germany's demands. All this did was to much reduce the British prime minister's confidence in the Australian, something which was apparently 'never very high' to begin with.51

South Africa's support was, however, now at last a subject of very real discussion and there were serious doubts. Fortunately Clark had not shared in the general sense of stupor that had blighted the spring and summer's consideration of this potentially calamitous matter. Since the memorandum's publication his comments made to London had actually given little reason to suppose that it could be assumed automatically that the government in the Union would blithely follow the British lead. In a telegram sent during the last week of August, the DO was again warned, only now even more urgently, that this was most definitely the case, particularly as support for the Nationalists had gained ground in the preceding weeks. The Nazi-Soviet pact, it was reported, could also have a considerable impact, creating the feeling that there had been 'mismanagement' on the part of the British government, and encouraging people into the arms of those who favoured neutrality.52 Clark's information had been consistently clear; under Hertzog's leadership there was no sense of 'common belligerency' among sizeable elements of local opinion. Many within the large Nationalist Afrikaans-speaking minority, of which the South African leader was one of the more moderate members, were openly sympathetic to German actions in Europe.53 Hertzog had stated his position publicly at the 1937 Imperial Conference and afterwards when he had rejected the idea of his country's involvement in any future European war but such warnings had not been heeded in London. Even in the hitherto all-confident FO, there were now those willing to admit that the situation had 'suddenly' become worrying.54

As Smuts remained a firm supporter of the need to oppose Hitler all was not lost, however, and he quickly became the central figure in events that unfolded in Cape Town during the first days of September. Despite considerable tensions and even the apparent risk of civil war, he was able to force a parliamentary debate to resolve the impasse that had formed between him and Hertzog. Subsequently he would be criticized by the country's Nationalists for what they described as his ambiguity; he had actually been just as consistent as Hertzog in saying, from at least mid-1938 onwards, that it would be in the South African parliament where the matter would be decided, whether there would be war or neutrality. This view, as quickly became clear, was entirely at odds with that held by the prime minister, who believed that he did not need to consult parliament if he decided not to go to war.55 The English-speaking section of the population in any case strongly supported Smuts and his endorsement of Britain's new warnings to Germany and Hitler's obvious coveting of South West Africa, the neighbouring former German colony which South Africa had administered since 1915, helped weaken the Nationalists a little.56 What proved critical though was an administrative oversight whereby the South African Senate's life had inadvertently expired and a formal assembly was required for it to be renewed.

Clark also supported and encouraged Smuts as much as he could but this essentially took the form of moral support and the message that Britain would back him all the way. Immediately following Britain's declaration of war he had received an urgent telegram listing the minimum British requirements from South Africa. This asked that there should be no declaration of neutrality and for an expression of general readiness to cooperate in practical measures and was an indication of just how worried Chamberlain was that Hertzog would keep out of the fight.57 Had this happened it would have been a huge propaganda victory for Hitler, one which could have had a potentially enormous adverse effect not just on the other Dominions and France but also on the United States and neutrals in general. Smuts neatly summed up the dilemma that faced him writing to a close friend afterwards: 'With us there is no enthusiasm for Poland, and less for Danzig and the corridor. Moreover neutrality is even more firmly held as faith than in the Middle West of USA. And on the other side (which happens to be my own) there is the difficulty to understand how in the long run we could possibly keep out of the fight.'58 Hadow had noted that 'in the end—with some hesitation—I expect Smuts' view to prevail', and events ultimately proved him to be correct.59 It was not moral ties that mattered, so much as strength of character and political experience and the South African was not found wanting when it counted most.60 In the highly charged atmosphere that surrounded the parliament building in Cape Town, it was Hertzog who made the critical mistake. Having failed to secure a majority in favour of remaining neutral he approached the Governor-General, Sir Patrick Duncan, himself a former leading South Africa politician, and asked that he dissolve parliament. This Duncan refused to do as he believed Smuts had a majority of support still and he asked that he form a new government which he did.61 Although pleased that he had prevailed, the newly appointed South African prime minister was clearly also saddened by the outcome of the crisis and the implications it had for the country at large. For on the other side of the political spectrum, there remained an equally entrenched view that Smuts had betrayed the country and this meant the support he could offer Britain, at least in the opening stages of the war, would be of a highly limited nature.62

Thus the Imperial coalition was complete once more and the Dominions again went to war in support of the British Empire and the policies of the government in London. None had been signatories to the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty or to the renewed guarantee of Belgian neutrality in the same year. Nor were any of them directly involved in the negotiations at Munich two years later. Still more recently, it has been seen that no Dominion minister had put his name to the Polish guarantee in March 1939 or to those given to Roumania and Greece in April 1939 and the later alliance with Turkey. Despite this the Dominions chose to fight and at the forefront was New Zealand.63 Because of the time difference the war telegram from the British government did not arrive until 11.45 pm, as a result of which confirmation of its support was not announced publicly until the early hours of the following day. It was therefore decided by the Cabinet in Wellington to time the proclamation so that retrospectively it should be deemed to have had effect from the exact moment when Britain had declared war. When it reached the House of Representatives, the motion approving and confirming the declaration of a state of war was passed without a dissenting voice and immediately afterwards everybody rose to sing the national anthem. In a public address the New Zealand Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage famously confirmed that, 'we range ourselves without fear besides Britain. Where she goes, we go; where she stands, we stand.' Robert Menzies, the Australian prime minister, also pledged his unconditional support in similarly jingoistic fashion: 'one King, one cause, one flag' was the cry from Canberra. Canada followed a few days later after having discussed the matter within the parliament in Ottawa, although Mackenzie King had formally guaranteed Canada's support even before the British declaration of war. It is alleged Hitler burst out laughing when he heard South Africa had declared war against him and if he had known the full facts about political tensions in Cape Town he may well have laughed a little harder.64 Nonetheless it was an important fillip, and allowed for the creation of what could now be termed the Anglo-Dominion alliance.

Despite its bland and often non-urgent tone, the conclusions of the often overlooked review of the Dominion's probable reaction to another European war were, in the event, almost entirely correct. The politicians and civil servants within Whitehall could therefore offer public expressions of relief that the sanctity of the Empire had remained intact in spite of the fact that, in many cases and only up until a few weeks beforehand, they had never anticipated the level of tension that would actually occur. Probably typical of the reaction of many was that of Batterbee, now ensconced in his official role in New Zealand. When he heard the announcement that war had been declared, one of those in the room with him described how he 'slumped sideways in his armchair, with his head bent and his hand over his eyes ... a broken man overwhelmed by the tragedy'.65 Like many of those in Whitehall, also hearing the news that British policy had failed, he had apparently remained hopeful to the last that there would not be another European war. Walking home at three in the morning in the knowledge that the British Empire was once again at war, he recalled how, at the outbreak of the First World War, it had been his responsibility to send the telegram to the Dominions advising them that the King had declared war on their behalf.66 They were all in the fight again but the manner in which the self-governing members had shown their support had in some cases been very different to how it had been done 25 years beforehand. Although Batterbee did not say so, the omens for the alliance's future unity already did not appear entirely optimistic.

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