Military history

6

The Combat Deepens

Peace Suggestions — The Anglo-French Rejection — Soviet Absorption of the Baltic States — My Views on British Military Preparations — Possible Détente with Italy in the Mediterranean — The Home Front — The Sinking of the “Royal Oak” — My Second Visit to Scapa Flow, October 31 — Decision About the Main Fleet Base — Mr. and Mrs. Chamberlain Dine at Admiralty House — The Loss of the “Rawalpindi” — A False Alarm.

HITLER TOOK ADVANTAGE of his successes to propose his peace plan to the Allies. One of the unhappy consequences of our appeasement policy, and generally of our attitude in the face of his rise to power, had been to convince him that neither we nor France were capable of fighting a war. He had been unpleasantly surprised by the declarations of Great Britain and France on September 3; but he firmly believed that the spectacle of the swift and crashing destruction of Poland would make the decadent democracies realise that the day when they could exercise influence over the fate of Eastern and Central Europe was gone for ever. He felt very sure at this time of the Russians, gorged as they were with Polish territory and the Baltic States. Indeed, during this month of October he was able to send the captured American merchantman City of Flint into the Soviet port of Murmansk under a German prize crew. He had no wish at this stage to continue a war with France and Britain. He felt sure His Majesty’s Government would be very glad to accept the decision reached by him in Poland, and that a peace offer would enable Mr. Chamberlain and his old colleagues, having vindicated their honour by a declaration of war, to get out of the scrape into which they had been forced by the warmongering elements in Parliament. It never occurred to him for a moment that Mr. Chamberlain and the rest of the British Empire and Commonwealth of Nations now meant to have his blood or perish in the attempt.

The next step taken by Russia after partitioning Poland with Germany was to make three “Mutual Assistance Pacts” with Esthonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. These Baltic States were the most vehemently anti-Bolshevist regions in Europe. They had all broken themselves free from the Soviet Government in the civil war of 1918 and 1920, and had built up, in the harsh manner in which revolutions are conducted in those regions, a type of society and government of which the main principle was hostility to Communism and to Russia. From Riga in particular for twenty years a stream of violently anti-Bolshevik propaganda had flowed daily by radio and all other channels to the world. With the exception of Latvia, they had not, however, associated themselves with the Hitlerite Germany. The Germans had been content to throw them into their Russian deal, and the Soviet Government now advanced with pent-up hate and eager appetite upon their prey. These three states had formed a part of the Tsarist Empire, and were the old conquests of Peter the Great. They were immediately occupied by strong Russian forces against which they had no means of effectual resistance. A ferocious liquidation of all anti-Communist and anti-Russian elements was carried through by the usual methods. Great numbers of people who for twenty years had lived in freedom in their native land and had represented the dominant majority of its people disappeared. A large proportion of these were transported to Siberia. The rest went farther. This process was described as “Mutual Assistance Pacts.”

* * * * *

At home we busied ourselves with the expansion of the Army and the air force and with all the necessary measures to strengthen our naval power. I continued to submit my ideas to the Prime Minister, and pressed them upon other colleagues as might be acceptable.

First Lord to Prime Minister.

1.X.39.

This week-end I venture to write to you about several large issues.

1. When the peace offensive opens upon us, it will be necessary to sustain the French. Although we have nearly a million men under arms, our contribution is, and must for many months remain, petty. We should tell the French that we are making as great a war effort, though in a different form, as in 1918; that we are constructing an army of fifty-five divisions, which will be brought into action wherever needed, as fast as it can be trained and supplied, having regard to our great contribution in the air.

At present we have our Regular Army, which produces four or five divisions probably superior to anything in the field. But do not imagine that Territorial divisions will be able, after six months’ training or so, to take their part without needless losses and bad results against German regular troops with at least two years’ service and better equipment; or stand at the side of French troops many of whom have had three years’ service. The only way in which our forces in France can be rapidly expanded is by bringing the professional troops from India, and using them as the cadre upon which the Territorials and conscripts will form. I do not attempt to go into details now, but in principle, 60,000 Territorials should be sent to India to maintain internal security and complete their training, and 40,000 or 45,000 Regular troops should pari passu be brought back to Europe. These troops should go into camps in the South of France, where the winter weather is more favourable to training than here, and where there are many military facilities, and become the nucleus and framework of eight or ten good field divisions. The texture of these troops would, by the late spring, be equal to those they will have to meet or stand beside. The fact of this force developing in France during the winter months would be a great encouragement and satisfaction to the French.

2. I was much concerned at the figures put forward by the Air Ministry of their fighting strength. They had a hundred and twenty squadrons at the outbreak of war, but this actually boiled down to ninety-six, or barely three-quarters, able to go into action. One usually expects that on mobilisation there will be a large expansion. In this case there has been a severe contraction. What has happened is that a large number of squadrons have had to be gutted of trained air personnel, of mechanics, or spare parts, etc., in order to produce a fighting force, and that the debris of these squadrons has been thrown into a big pool called the reserve. Into this pool will also flow, if the winter months pass without heavy attack, a great mass of new machines and large numbers of trained pilots. Even after making every deduction which is reasonable, we ought to be able to form at least six squadrons a month. It is much better to form squadrons which are held back in reserve than merely to have a large pool of spare pilots, spare machines, and spare parts. This disparity at the present time with Germany is shocking. I am sure this expansion could be achieved if you gave the word.

3. The A.R.P. (Air Raid Precautions) defences and expense are founded upon a wholly fallacious view of the degree of danger to each part of the country which they cover. Schedules should be made of the target areas and of the paths of flight by which they may be approached. In these areas there must be a large proportion of whole-time employees. London is, of course, the chief [target], and others will readily occur. In these target areas the street-lighting should be made so that it can be controlled by the air wardens on the alarm signal being given; and while shelters should be hurried on with and strengthened, night and day, the people’s spirits should be kept up by theatres and cinemas until the actual attack begins. Over a great part of the countryside, modified lighting should be at once allowed, and places of entertainment opened. No paid A.R.P. personnel should be allowed in these [areas]. All should be on a voluntary basis, the Government contenting itself with giving advice, and leaving the rest to local effort. In these areas, which comprise at least seven-eighths of the United Kingdom, gas-masks should be kept at home and only carried in the target areas as scheduled. There is really no reason why orders to this effect should not be given during the coming week.

* * * * *

The disasters which had occurred in Poland and the Baltic States made me all the more anxious to keep Italy out of the war, and to build up by every possible means some common interest between us. In the meantime the war went on, and I was busy over a number of administrative matters.

First Lord to Home Secretary.

7.X.39.

In spite of having a full day’s work usually here, I cannot help feeling anxious about the Home Front. You know my views about the needless, and in most parts of the country senseless, severities of these black-outs, entertainment restrictions and the rest. But what about petrol? Have the Navy failed to bring in the supplies? Are there not more supplies on the water approaching and probably arriving than would have been ordered had peace remained unbroken? I am told that very large numbers of people and a large part of the business of the country is hampered by the stinting. Surely the proper way to deal with this is to have a ration at the standard price, and allow free purchasing, subject to a heavy tax, beyond it. People will pay for locomotion, the revenue will benefit by the tax, more cars will come out with registration fees, and the business of the country can go forward.

Then look at these rations, all devised by the Ministry of Food to win the war. By all means have rations, but I am told that the meat ration, for instance, is very little better than that of Germany. Is there any need of this when the seas are open?

If we have a heavy set-back from air attack or surface attack, it might be necessary to inflict these severities. Up to the present there is no reason to suppose that the Navy has failed in bringing in the supplies, or that it will fail.

Then what about all these people of middle age, many of whom served in the last war, who are full of vigour and experience, and who are being told by tens of thousands that they are not wanted, and that there is nothing for them except to register at the local Labour Exchange? Surely this is very foolish. Why do we not form a Home Guard of half a million men over forty (if they like to volunteer), and put all our elderly stars at the head and in the structure of these new formations? Let these five hundred thousand men come along and push the young and active out of all the home billets. If uniforms are lacking, a brassard would suffice, and I am assured there are plenty of rifles at any rate. I thought from what you said to me the other day that you liked this idea. If so, let us make it work.

I hear continual complaints from every quarter of the lack of organisation on the Home Front. Can’t we get at it?

* * * * *

Amidst all these preoccupations there burst upon us suddenly an event which touched the Admiralty in a most sensitive spot.

I have mentioned the alarm that a U-boat was inside Scapa Flow, which had driven the Grand Fleet to sea on the night of October 17, 1914. That alarm was premature. Now, after exactly a quarter of a century almost to a day, it came true. At 1.30 A.M. on October 14, 1939, a German U-boat braved the tides and currents, penetrated our defences, and sank the battleship Royal Oak as she lay at anchor. At first, out of a salvo of torpedoes, only one hit the bow and caused a muffled explosion. So incredible was it to the Admiral and Captain on board that a torpedo could have struck them, safe in Scapa Flow, that they attributed the explosions to some internal cause. Twenty minutes passed before the U-boat, for such she was, had reloaded her tubes and fired a second salvo. Then three or four torpedoes striking in quick succession ripped the bottom out of the ship. In less than two minutes, she capsized and sank. Most of the men were at action stations, but the rate at which the ship turned over made it almost impossible for anyone below to escape.

An account based on a German report written at the time may be recorded:

At 01.30 on October 14, 1939, H.M.S. Royal Oak, lying at anchor in Scapa Flow, was torpedoed by U 47 (Lieutenant Prien). The operation had been carefully planned by Admiral Doenitz himself, the Flag Officer [submarines]. Prien left Kiel on October 8, a clear bright autumn day, and passed through Kiel Canal – course N.N.W., Scapa Flow. On October 13, at 4 A.M., the boat was lying off the Orkneys. At 7 P.M. – Surface; a fresh breeze blowing, nothing in sight; looming in the half darkness the line of the distant coast; long streamers of Northern Lights flashing blue wisps across the sky. Course West. The boat crept steadily closer to Holm Sound, the eastern approach to Scapa Flow. Unfortunate it was that these channels had not been completely blocked. A narrow passage lay open between two sunken ships. With great skill Prien steered through the swirling waters. The shore was close. A man on a bicycle could be seen going home along the coast road. Then suddenly the whole bay opened out. Kirk Sound was passed. They were in. There under the land to the north could be seen the great shadow of a battleship lying on the water, with the great mast rising above it like a piece of filigree on a black cloth. Near, nearer – all tubes clear – no alarm, no sound but the lap of the water, the low hiss of air pressure and the sharp click of a tube lever. Los! [Fire!] – five seconds – ten seconds – twenty seconds. Then came a shattering explosion, and a great pillar of water rose in the darkness. Prien waited some minutes to fire another salvo. Tubes ready. Fire. The torpedoes hit amidships, and there followed a series of crashing explosions. H.M.S. Royal Oak sank, with the loss of 786 officers and men, including Rear-Admiral H. E. C. Blagrove [Rear-Admiral Second Battle Squadron]. U 47 crept quietly away back through the gap. A blockship arrived twenty-four hours later.

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This episode, which must be regarded as a feat of arms on the part of the German U-boat commander, gave a shock to public opinion. It might well have been politically fatal to any Minister who had been responsible for the pre-war precautions. Being a newcomer I was immune from such reproaches in these early months, and moreover, the Opposition did not attempt to make capital out of the misfortune. On the contrary, Mr. A. V. Alexander was restrained and sympathetic. I promised the strictest inquiry.

On this occasion the Prime Minister also gave the House an account of the German air raids which had been made on October 16 upon the Firth of Forth. This was the first attempt the Germans had made to strike by air at our Fleet. Twelve or more machines in flights of two or three at a time had bombed our cruisers lying in the Firth. Slight damage was done to the cruisers Southampton and Edinburgh and to the destroyer Mohawk. Twenty-five officers and sailors were killed or wounded; but four enemy bombers were brought down, three by our fighter squadrons and one by the anti-aircraft fire. It might well be that only half the bombers had got home safely. This was an effective deterrent.

The following morning, the seventeenth, Scapa Flow was raided, and the old Iron Duke, now a demilitarised and disarmoured hulk used as a depot ship, was injured by near misses. She settled on the bottom in shallow water and continued to do her work throughout the war. Another enemy aircraft was shot down in flames. The Fleet was happily absent from the harbour. These events showed how necessary it was to perfect the defences of Scapa against all forms of attack before allowing it to be used. It was nearly six months before we were able to enjoy its commanding advantages.

* * * * *

The attack on Scapa Flow and the loss of the Royal Oak provoked instant reactions in the Admiralty. On October 31, accompanied by the First Sea Lord, I went to Scapa to hold a second conference on these matters in Admiral Forbes’ flagship. The scale of defence for Scapa upon which we now agreed included reinforcement of the booms and additional blockships in the exposed eastern channels, as well as controlled minefields and other devices. These formidable deterrents would be reinforced by further patrol craft and guns sited to cover all approaches. Against air attack it was planned to mount eighty-eight heavy and forty light A.A. guns, together with numerous searchlights and increased barrage-balloon defences. Substantial fighter protection was organised both in the Orkneys and at Wick on the mainland. It was hoped that all these arrangements could be completed, or at least sufficiently advanced, to justify the return of the Fleet by March, 1940. Meanwhile, Scapa could be used as a destroyer-refuelling base; but other accommodation had to be found for the heavy ships.

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Experts differed on the rival claims of the possible alternative bases. Admiralty opinion favoured the Clyde, but Admiral Forbes demurred on the ground that this would involve an extra day’s steaming each way to his main operational area. This in turn would require an increase in his destroyer forces and would necessitate the heavy ships working in two divisions. The other alternative was Rosyth, which had been our main base in the latter part of the previous war. It was more suitably placed geographically, but was more vulnerable to air attack. The decisions eventually reached at this conference were summed up in a minute which I prepared on my return to London.1

* * * * *

On Friday, November 13, my relations with Mr. Chamberlain had so far ripened that he and Mrs. Chamberlain came to dine with us at Admiralty House, where we had a comfortable flat in the attics. We were a party of four. Although we had been colleagues under Mr. Baldwin for five years, my wife and I had never met the Chamberlains in such circumstances before. By happy chance I turned the conversation onto his life in the Bahamas, and I was delighted to find my guest expand in personal reminiscence to a degree I had not noticed before. He told us the whole story, of which I knew only the barest outline, of his six years’ struggle to grow sisal on a barren West Indian islet near Nassau. His father, the great “Joe,” was firmly convinced that here was an opportunity at once to develop an Empire industry and fortify the family fortunes. His father and Austen had summoned him in 1890 from Birmingham to Canada, where they had long examined the project. About forty miles from Nassau in the Caribbean Gulf there was a small desert island, almost uninhabited, where the soil was reported suitable for growing sisal. After careful reconnaissance by his two sons, Mr. Joseph Chamberlain had acquired a tract on the island of Andros and assigned the capital required to develop it. All that remained to grow was the sisal. Austen was dedicated to the House of Commons. The task, therefore, fell to Neville.

Not only in filial duty but with conviction and alacrity he obeyed, and the next six years of his life were spent in trying to grow sisal in this lonely spot, swept by hurricanes from time to time, living nearly naked, struggling with labour difficulties and every other kind of obstacle, and with the town of Nassau as the only gleam of civilisation. He had insisted, he told us, on three months’ leave in England each year. He built a small harbour and landing-stage and a short railroad or tramway. He used all the processes of fertilisation which were judged suitable to the soil, and generally led a completely primitive open-air existence. But no sisal! Or at any rate no sisal that would face the market. At the end of six years he was convinced that the plan could not succeed. He came home and faced his formidable parent, who was by no means contented with the result. I gathered that in the family the feeling was that though they loved him dearly they were sorry to have lost fifty thousand pounds.

I was fascinated by the way Mr. Chamberlain warmed as he talked, and by the tale itself, which was one of gallant endeavour. I thought to myself, “What a pity Hitler did not know when he met this sober English politician with his umbrella at Berchtesgaden, Godesberg, and Munich, that he was actually talking to a hard-bitten pioneer from the outer marches of the British Empire!” This was really the only intimate social conversation that I can remember with Neville Chamberlain amid all the business we did together over nearly twenty years.

During dinner the war went on and things happened. With the soup an officer came up from the War Room below to report that a U-boat had been sunk. With the sweet he came again and reported that a second U-boat had been sunk; and just before the ladies left the dining-room he came a third time reporting that a third U-boat had been sunk. Nothing like this had ever happened before in a single day, and it was more than a year before such a record was repeated. As the ladies left us, Mrs. Chamberlain, with a naïve and charming glance, said to me, “Did you arrange all this on purpose?” I assured her that if she would come again we would produce a similar result.2

* * * * *

Our long, tenuous blockade-line north of the Orkneys, largely composed of armed merchant-cruisers with supporting warships at intervals, was of course always liable to a sudden attack by German capital ships, and particularly by their two fast and most powerful battle cruisers, the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau. We could not prevent such a stroke being made. Our hope was to bring the intruders to decisive action.

Late in the afternoon of November 23, the armed merchant cruiser Rawalpindi, on patrol between Iceland and the Faroes, sighted an enemy warship which closed her rapidly. She believed the stranger to be the pocket battleship Deutschland and reported accordingly. Her commanding officer, Captain Kennedy, could have had no illusions about the outcome of such an encounter. His ship was but a converted passenger liner with a broadside of four old six-inch guns, and his presumed antagonist mounted six eleven-inch guns besides a powerful secondary armament. Nevertheless, he accepted the odds, determined to fight his ship to the last. The enemy opened fire at ten thousand yards and the Rawalpindi struck back. Such a onesided action could not last long, but the fight continued until, with all her guns out of action, the Rawalpindi was reduced to a blazing wreck. She sank some time after dark with the loss of her captain and two hundred and seventy of her gailant crew. Only thirty-eight survived, twenty-seven of whom were made prisoners by the Germans, the remaining eleven being picked up alive after thirty-six hours in icy water by another British ship.

In fact it was not the Deutschland, but the battle cruiser Scharnhorst which was engaged. This ship, together with the Gneisenau, had left Germany two days before to attack our Atlantic convoys, but having encountered and sunk the Rawalpindi and fearing the consequences of the exposure, they abandoned the rest of their mission and returned at once to Germany. The Rawalpindi’s heroic fight was not therefore in vain. The cruiser Newcastle, near-by on patrol, saw the gun-flashes, and responded to the Rawalpindi’s first report, arriving on the scene with the cruiser Delhi to find the burning ship still afloat. She pursued the enemy and at 6.15 P.M. sighted two ships in gathering darkness and heavy rain. One of these she recognised as a battle cruiser, but lost contact in the gloom, and the enemy made good his escape.

The hope of bringing these two vital German ships to battle dominated all concerned, and the Commander-in-Chief put to sea at once with his whole fleet. When last seen the enemy was retiring to the eastward, and strong forces, including submarines, were promptly organised to intercept him in the North Sea. However, we could not ignore the possibility that having shaken off the pursuit the enemy might renew his advance to the westward and enter the Atlantic. We feared for our convoys, and the situation called for the use of all available forces. Sea and air patrols were established to watch all the exits from the North Sea, and a powerful force of cruisers extended this watch to the coast of Norway. In the Atlantic the battleship Warspite left her convoy to search the Denmark Strait and, finding nothing, continued round the north of Iceland to link up with the watchers in the North Sea. The Hood, the French battle cruiser Dunkerque, and two French cruisers were dispatched to Icelandic waters, and the Repulse and Furious sailed from Halifax for the same destination. By the twenty-fifth fourteen British cruisers were combing the North Sea with destroyers and submarines co-operating and with the battle-fleet in support. But fortune was adverse, nothing was found, nor was there any indication of an enemy move to the west. Despite very severe weather, the arduous search was maintained for seven days.

On the fifth day, while we were waiting anxiously in the Admiralty and still cherishing the hope that this splendid prize would not be denied us, a German U-boat was heard by our D.F. stations making a report. We judged from this that an attack had been made on one of our warships in the North Sea. Soon the German broadcast claimed that Captain Prien, the sinker of the Royal Oak, had sunk an eight-inch cruiser to the eastward of the Shetlands. Admiral Pound and I were together when this news came in. British public opinion is extremely sensitive when British ships are sunk, and the loss of the Rawalpindi, with its gallant fight and heavy toll in life, would tell heavily against the Admiralty if it remained unavenged. “Why,” it would be demanded, “was so weak a ship exposed without effective support? Could the German cruisers range at will even the blockade zone in which our main forces were employed? Were the raiders to escape unscathed?”

We made a signal at once to clear up the mystery. When we met again an hour later without any reply, we passed through a very bad moment. I recall it because it marked the strong comradeship that had grown up between us and with Admiral Tom Phillips, who was also there. “I take full responsibility,” I said, as was my duty. “No, it is mine,” said Pound. We wrung each other’s hands in lively distress. Hardened as we both were in war, it is not possible to sustain such blows without the most bitter pangs.

But it proved to be nobody’s fault. Eight hours later, it appeared that the Norfolk was the ship involved and that she was undamaged. She had not encountered any U-boats, but said that an air bomb had fallen close astern. However, Captain Prien was no braggart.3What the Norfolk thought to be an air bomb from a clouded sky was in fact a German torpedo which had narrowly missed its target and exploded in the ship’s wake. Peering through the periscope, Prien had seen the great upheaval of water, blotting out the ship from his gaze. He dived to avoid an expected salvo. When, after half an hour, he rose for another peep, the visibility was poor and no cruiser was to be seen. Hence his report. Our relief after the pain we had suffered took some of the sting out of the news that the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau had safely re-entered the Baltic. It is now known that the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau passed through our cruiser line, patrolling near the Norwegian coast, on the morning of November 26. The weather was thick and neither side saw the other. Modern radar would have ensured contact, but then it was not available. Public impressions were unfavourable to the Admiralty. We could not bring home to the outside world the vastness of the seas or the intense exertions which the Navy was making in so many areas. After more than two months of war and several serious losses, we had nothing to show on the other side. Nor could we yet answer the question, “What is the Navy doing?”

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