The Fleet Returns to Scapa Flow — Our Voyage Through the Minches — “Mines Reported in the Fairway” — An Air Alarm — Improvements at Scapa — Hitler’s Plans as Now Known — Desperate Plight of Finland — M. Daladier’s Vain Efforts — The Russo-Finnish Armistice Terms — New Dangers in Scandinavia — “Operation Royal Marine” — The Fluvial Mines Ready — M. Daladier’s Opposition — The Fall of the Daladier Government — My Letter to the New Premier, M. Reynaud — Meeting of Supreme War Council, March 28 — Mr. Chamberlain’s Survey — Decision to Mine the Norwegian Leads at Last — Seven Months’ Delay — Various Offensive Proposals and Devices — Mr. Chamberlain’s Speech of April 5, 1940 — Signs of Impending German Action.
MARCH 12 was the long-desired date for the reoccupation and use of Scapa as the main base of the Home Fleet. I thought I would give myself the treat of being present on this occasion in our naval affairs, and embarked accordingly in Admiral Forbes’ flagship at the Clyde.
The Fleet comprised five capital ships, a cruiser squadron, and perhaps a score of destroyers. The twenty-hour voyage lay through the Minches. We were to pass the Northern Straits at dawn and reach Scapa about noon. The Hood and other ships from Rosyth, moving up the east coast, would be there some hours before us. The navigation of the Minches is intricate, and the northern exit barely a mile wide. On every side are rocky shores and reefs, and three U-boats were reported in these enclosed waters. We had to proceed at high speed and by zigzag. All the usual peace-time lights were out. This was, therefore, a task in navigation which the Navy keenly appreciated. However, just as we were about to start after luncheon, the Master of the Fleet, navigating officer of the flagship, on whom the prime direct responsibility lay, was suddenly stricken by influenza. So a very young-looking lieutenant who was his assistant came up onto the bridge to take charge of the movement of the Fleet. I was struck by this officer, who without any notice had to undertake so serious a task requiring such perfect science, accuracy, and judgment. His composure did not entirely conceal his satisfaction.
I had many things to discuss with the Commander-in-Chief, and it was not until after midnight that I went up onto the bridge. All was velvet black. The air was clear, but no stars were to be seen, and there was no moon. The great ship ploughed along at about sixteen knots. One could just see the dark mass astern of the following battleship. Here were nearly thirty vessels steaming in company and moving in order with no lights of any kind except their tiny stern-lights, and constantly changing course in accordance with the prescribed anti-U-boat ritual. It was five hours since they had had any observation of the land or the heavens. Presently the Admiral joined me, and I said to him: “Here is one of the things I should be very sorry to be made responsible for carrying out. How are you going to make sure you will hit the narrow exit from the Minches at daylight?” “What would you do, sir,” he said, “if you were at this moment the only person who could give an order?” I replied at once: “I should anchor and wait till morning. ‘Anchor, Hardy,’ as Nelson said.” But the Admiral answered: “We have nearly a hundred fathoms of water beneath us now.” I had, of course, complete confidence, gained over many years, in the Navy, and I only tell this tale to bring home to the general reader the marvellous skill and precision with which what seem to landsmen to be impossible feats of this kind are performed when necessary as a matter of course.
It was eight o’clock before I woke, and we were in the broad waters north of the Minches, steering round the western extremity of Scotland towards Scapa Flow. We were perhaps half an hour’s steaming from the entrance to Scapa when a signal reached us saying that several German aircraft had dropped mines in the main entrance we were about to use. Admiral Forbes thereupon decided that he must stand out to the westward for twenty-four hours until the channel had been reported clear, and on this the whole Fleet began to change its course. “I can easily put you ashore in a destroyer if you care to transship,” he said. “The Hood is already in harbour and can look after you.” As I had snatched these three days from London with difficulty, I accepted this offer. Our baggage was rapidly brought on deck; the flagship reduced her speed to three or four knots, and a cutter manned by twelve men in their life-belts was lowered from the davits. My small party was already in it, and I was taking leave of the Admiral when an air-raid alarm sounded, and the whole ship flashed into activity as all the ack-ack batteries were manned and other measures taken.
I was worried that the ship should have had to slow down in waters where we knew there were U-boats, but the Admiral said it was quite all right, and pointed to five destroyers which were circling round her at high speed, while a sixth waited for us. We were a quarter of an hour rowing across the mile that separated us from our destroyer. It was like in the olden times, except that the sailors had not so much practice with the oars. The flagship had already regained her speed and was steaming off after the rest of her Fleet before we climbed on board. All the officers were at their action stations on the destroyer, and we were welcomed by the surgeon, who took us into the wardroom, where all the instruments of his profession were laid out on the table ready for accidents. But no air raid occurred, and we immediately proceeded at high speed into Scapa. We entered through Switha Sound, which is a small and subsidiary channel and was not affected by the mine-dropping. “This is the tradesmen’s entrance,” said Thompson, my Flag Commander. It was in fact the one assigned to the storeships. “It’s the only one,” said the destroyer lieutenant stiffly, “that the flotillas are allowed to use.” To make everything go well, I asked him if he could remember Kipling’s poem about
“Mines reported in the fairway, warn all traffic and detain.
“Send up …’”
and here I let him carry on, which he did correctly:
Unity, Claribel, Assyrian, Stormcock, and Golden Gain.
We soon found our way to the Hood, where Admiral Whit-worth received us, having gathered most of his captains, and I passed a pleasant night on board before the long round of inspections which filled the next day. This was the last time I ever set foot upon the Hood, although she had nearly two years of war service to perform before her destruction by the Bismarck in 1941.
More than six months of constant exertion and the highest priorities had repaired the peace-time neglect. The three main entrances were defended with booms and mines, and three additional blockships among others had already been placed in Kirk Sound through which Prien’s U-boat had slipped to destroy the Royal Oak. Many more blockships were yet to come. A large garrison guarded the base and the still-growing batteries. We had planned for over one hundred and twenty ack-ack guns with numerous searchlights and a balloon barrage to command the air over the Fleet anchorage. Not all these measures were yet complete, but the air defences were already formidable. Many small craft patrolled the approaches in ceaseless activity, and two or three squadrons of Hurricane fighters from the airfields in Caithness could be guided to an assailant in darkness or daylight by one of the finest radar installations then in existence. At last the Home Fleet had a home. It was the famous home from which in the previous war the Royal Navy had ruled the seas.
* * * * *
Although, as we now know, May 10 was already chosen for the invasion of France and the Low Countries, Hitler had not yet fixed the actual date of the prior Norway onslaught. Much was to precede it. On March 14, Jodl wrote in his diary:
The English keep vigil in the North Sea with fifteen to sixteen submarines; doubtful whether reason to safeguard own operations or prevent operations by Germans. Fuehrer has not yet decided what reason to give for Weser Exercise.
There was a hum of activity in the planning sections of the German war machine. Preparations both for the attack on Norway and the invasion of France continued simultaneously and efficiently. On March 20, Falkenhorst reported that his side of the “Weser” operation plan was ready. The Fuehrer held a military conference on the afternoon of March 16, and D-Day was provisionally fixed, apparently for April 9. Admiral Raeder reported to the conference:
… In my opinion the danger of a British landing in Norway is no longer acute at present…. The question of what the British will do in the North in the near future can be answered as follows: They will make further attempts to disrupt German trade in neutral waters and to cause incidents in order perhaps to create a pretext for action against Norway. One object has been and still is to cut off Germany’s imports from Narvik. These will be cut off at least for a time, however, even if the Weser operation is carried out.
Sooner or later Germany will be faced with the necessity of carrying out the Weser operation. Therefore, it is advisable to do so as soon as possible, by April 15 at the latest, since after that date the nights are too short; there will be a new moon on April 7. The operational possibilities of the Navy will be restricted too much if the Weser operation is postponed any longer. The submarines can remain in position only for two to three weeks more. Weather of the type favourable for “Operation Gelb” [Yellow] is not to be waited for in the case of the Weser operation; overcast, foggy weather is more satisfactory for the latter. The general state of preparedness of the naval forces and ships is at present good.
* * * * *
From the beginning of the year, the Soviets had brought their main power to bear on the Finns. They redoubled their efforts to pierce the Mannerheim Line before the melting of the snows. Alas, this year the spring and its thaw, on which the hard-pressed Finns based their hopes, came nearly six weeks late. The great Soviet offensive on the Isthmus, which was to last forty-two days, opened on February 1, combined with heavy air-bombing of base depots and railway junctions behind the lines. Ten days of heavy bombardment from Soviet guns, massed wheel to wheel, heralded the main infantry attack. After a fortnight’s fighting, the line was breached. The air attacks on the key fort and base of Viipuri increased in intensity. By the end of the month, the Mannerheim defence system had been disorganised, and the Russians were able to concentrate against the Gulf of Viipuri. The Finns were short of ammunition and their troops exhausted.
The honourable correctitude which had deprived us of any strategic initiative equally hampered all effective measures for sending munitions to Finland. We had been able so far only to send from our own scanty store contributions insignificant to the Finns. In France, however, a warmer and deeper sentiment prevailed, and this was strongly fostered by M. Daladier. On March 2, without consulting the British Government, he agreed to send fifty thousand volunteers and a hundred bombers to Finland. We could certainly not act on this scale, and in view of the documents found on the German major in Belgium, and of the ceaseless Intelligence reports of the steady massing of German troops on the Western Front, it went far beyond what prudence would allow. However, it was agreed to send fifty British bombers. On March 12, the Cabinet again decided to revise the plans for military landings at Narvik and Trondheim, to be followed at Stavanger and Bergen, as a part of the extended help to Finland into which we had been drawn by the French. These plans were to be available for action on March 20, although the need of Norwegian and Swedish permission had not been met. Meanwhile, on March 7, Mr. Paasikivi had gone again to Moscow; this time to discuss armistice terms. On the twelfth, the Russian terms were accepted by the Finns. All our plans for military landings were again shelved, and the forces which were being collected were to some extent dispersed. The two divisions which had been held back in England were now allowed to proceed to France, and our striking power towards Norway was reduced to eleven battalions.
* * * * *
Meanwhile, “Operation Royal Marine” had ripened. Five months of intensive effort with Admiralty priorities behind it had brought its punctual fruition. Admiral Fitzgerald and his trained detachments of British naval officers and marines, each man aflame with the idea of a novel stroke in the war, were established on the upper reaches of the Rhine, ready to strike when permission could be obtained. My detailed explanation of the plan will be found in Appendix L, Book II. In March all preparations were perfected and I at length appealed both to my colleagues and to the French. The War Cabinet were very ready to let me begin this carefully prepared offensive plan, and left it to me, with Foreign Office support, to do what I could with the French. In all their wars and troubles in my lifetime I have been bound-up with the French, and I believed that they would do as much for me as for any other foreigner alive. But in this phase of “twilight war” I could not move them. When I pressed very hard, they used a method of refusal which I never met before or since. M. Daladier told me with an air of exceptional formality that “The President of the Republic himself had intervened, and that no aggressive action must be taken which might only draw reprisals upon France.” This idea of not irritating the enemy did not commend itself to me. Hitler had done his best to strangle our commerce by the indiscriminate mining of our harbours. We had beaten him by defensive means alone. Good, decent, civilised people, it appeared, must never strike themselves till after they have been struck dead. In these days the fearful German volcano and all its subterranean fires drew near to their explosion point. There were still months of pretended war. On the one side endless discussions about trivial points, no decisions taken, or if taken rescinded, and the rule “Don’t be unkind to the enemy, you will only make him angry.” On the other, doom preparing – a vast machine grinding forward ready to break upon us!
* * * * *
The military collapse of Finland led to further repercussions. On March 18, Hitler met Mussolini at the Brenner Pass. Hitler deliberately gave the impression to his Italian host that there was no question of Germany launching a land offensive in the West. On the nineteenth, Mr. Chamberlain spoke in the House of Commons. In view of growing criticism he revived in some detail the story of British aid to Finland. He rightly emphasised that our main consideration had been the desire to respect the neutrality of Norway and Sweden, and he also defended the Government for not being hustled into attempts to succour the Finns which had offered little chance of success. The defeat of Finland was fatal to the Daladier Government, whose chief had taken so marked, if tardy, action, and who had personally given disproportionate prominence to this part of our anxieties. On March 21, a new Cabinet was formed under M. Reynaud, pledged to an increasingly vigorous conduct of the war.
My relations with M. Reynaud stood on a different footing from any I had established with M. Daladier. Reynaud, Mandel, and I had felt the same emotions about Munich. Daladier had been on the other side. I therefore welcomed the change in the French Government, and I also hoped that my fluvial mines would now have a better chance of acceptance.
Mr. Churchill to M. Reynaud. March
I cannot tell you how glad I am that all has been accomplished so successfully and speedily, and especially that Daladier has been rallied to your Cabinet. This is much admired over here, and also Blum’s self-effacing behaviour.
I rejoice that you are at the helm, and that Mandel is with you, and I look forward to the very closest and most active co-operation between our two Governments. I share, as you know, all the anxieties you expressed to me the other night about the general course of the war, and the need for strenuous and drastic measures; but I little thought when we spoke that events would soon take a decisive turn for you. We have thought so much alike during the last three or four years that I am most hopeful that the closest understanding will prevail, and that I may contribute to it.
I now send you the letter which I wrote to Gamelin upon the business which brought me to Paris last week, and I beg you to give the project your immediate sympathetic consideration. Both the Prime Minister and Lord Halifax have become very keen upon this operation [“Royal Marine”], and we were all three about to press it strongly upon your predecessor. It seems a great pity to lose this valuable time. I have now upwards of six thousand mines ready and moving forward in an endless flow – alas, only on land – and of course there is always danger of secrecy being lost when delays occur.
I look forward to an early meeting of the Supreme Council, where I trust concerted action may be arranged between French and English colleagues – for that is what we are.
Pray give my kind regards to Mandel, and believe me, with the warmest wishes for your success, in which our common safety is deeply involved.
The French Ministers came to London for a meeting of the Supreme War Council on March 28. Mr. Chamberlain opened with a full and clear description of the scene as he saw it. To my great satisfaction he said his first proposal was that “a certain operation, generally known as the ‘Royal Marine,’ should be put into operation immediately.” He described how this project would be carried out and stated that stocks had been accumulated for effective and continuous execution. There would be complete surprise. The operation would take place in that part of the Rhine used almost exclusively for military purposes. No similar operation had ever been carried out before, nor had equipment previously been designed capable of taking advantage of river conditions and working successfully against the barrages and types of craft found in rivers. Finally, owing to the design of the weapon, neutral waters would not be affected. The British anticipated that this attack would create the utmost consternation and confusion. It was well known that no people were more thorough than the Germans in preparation and planning; but equally no people could be more completely upset when their plans miscarried. They could not improvise. Again, the war had found the German railways in a precarious state, and therefore their dependence on their inland waterways had increased. In addition to the floating mines, other weapons had been designed to be dropped from aircraft in canals within Germany itself, where there was no current. He urged that surprise depended upon speed. Secrecy would be endangered by delay, and the river conditions were about to be particularly favourable. As to German retaliation, if Germany thought it worth while to bomb French or British cities, she would not wait for a pretext. Everything was ready. It was only necessary for the French High Command to give the order.
He then said that Germany had two weaknesses: her supplies of iron ore and of oil. The main sources of supply of these were situated at the opposite ends of Europe. The iron ore came from the North. He unfolded with precision the case for intercepting the German iron-ore supplies from Sweden. He dealt also with the Rumanian and Baku oilfields, which ought to be denied to Germany, if possible by diplomacy. I listened to this powerful argument with increasing pleasure. I had not realised how fully Mr. Chamberlain and I were agreed.
M. Reynaud spoke of the impact of German propaganda upon French morale. The German radio blared each night that the Reich had no quarrel with France; that the origin of the war was to be found in the blank cheque given by Britain to Poland; that France had been dragged into war at the heels of the British; and even that she was not in a position to sustain the struggle. Goebbels’ policy towards France seemed to be to let the war run on at the present reduced tempo, counting upon growing discouragement among the five million Frenchmen now called-up and upon the emergence of a French Government willing to come to compromise terms with Germany at the expense of Great Britain.
The question, he said, was widely asked in France, “How can the Allies win the war?” The number of divisions, “despite British efforts,” was increasing faster on the German side than on ours. When, therefore, could we hope to secure that superiority in man-power required for successful action in the West? We had no knowledge of what was going on in Germany in material equipment. There was a general feeling in France that the war had reached a deadlock, and that Germany had only to wait. Unless some action were taken to cut the enemy’s supply of oil and other raw material, “the feeling might grow that blockade was not a weapon strong enough to secure victory for the Allied cause.” About the operation “Royal Marine,” he said that, though good in itself, it could not be decisive, and that any reprisals would fall upon France. However, if other things were settled, he would make a special effort to secure French concurrence. He was far more responsive about cutting off supplies of Swedish iron ore, and he stated that there was an exact relation between the supplies of Swedish iron ore to Germany and the output of the German iron and steel industry. His conclusion was that the Allies should lay mines in the territorial waters along the Norwegian coast and later obstruct by similar action ore being carried from the port of Lulea to Germany. He emphasised the importance of hampering German supplies of Rumanian oil.
It was at last decided that, after addressing communications in general terms to Norway and Sweden, we should lay minefields in Norwegian territorial waters on April 5, and that, subject to the concurrence of the French War Committee, “Royal Marine” should be begun by launching the fluvial mines in the Rhine on April 4, and on April 15 upon the German canals from the air. It was also agreed that if Germany invaded Belgium the Allies should immediately move into that country without waiting for a formal invitation; and that if Germany invaded Holland, and Belgium did not go to her assistance, the Allies should consider themselves free to enter Belgium for the purpose of helping Holland.
Finally, as an obvious point on which all were at one, the communiqué stated that the British and French Governments had agreed on the following solemn declaration:
That during the present war they would neither negotiate nor conclude an armistice or treaty of peace except by mutual agreement.
This pact later acquired high importance.
* * * * *
On April 3, the British Cabinet implemented the resolve of the Supreme War Council, and the Admiralty was authorised to mine the Norwegian Leads on April 8. I called the actual mining operation “Wilfred,” because by itself it was so small and innocent. As our mining of Norwegian waters might provoke a German retort, it was also agreed that a British brigade and a French contingent should be sent to Narvik to clear the port and advance to the Swedish frontier. Other forces should be dispatched to Stavanger, Bergen, and Trondheim, in order to deny these bases to the enemy.
It is worth while looking back on the stages by which at last the decision to mine the Leads was reached.1 I had asked for it on September 29, 1939. Nothing relevant had altered in the meanwhile. The moral and technical objections on the score of neutrality, the possibility of German retaliation against Norway, the importance of stopping the flow of iron ore from Narvik to Germany, the effect on neutral and world-wide opinion – all were exactly the same. But at last the Supreme War Council was convinced, and at last the War Cabinet were reconciled to the scheme, and indeed resolved upon it. Once had they given consent and withdrawn it. Then their minds had been overlaid by the complications of the Finnish War. On sixty days “Aid to Finland” had been part of the Cabinet agenda. Nothing had come of it all. Finland had been crushed into submission by Russia. Now after all this vain boggling, hesitation, changes of policy, arguments between good and worthy people unending, we had at last reached the simple point on which action had been demanded seven months before. But in war seven months is a long time. Now Hitler was ready, and ready with a far more powerful and well-prepared plan. One can hardly find a more perfect example of the impotence and fatuity of waging war by committee or rather by groups of committees. It fell to my lot in the weeks which followed to bear much of the burden and some of the odium of the ill-starred Norwegian campaign, the course of which will presently be described. Had I been allowed to act with freedom and design when I first demanded permission, a far more agreeable conclusion might have been reached in this key theatre, with favourable consequences in every direction. But now all was to be disaster.
He who will not when he may,
When he will, he shall have Nay.
* * * * *
It may here be right to set forth the various offensive proposals and devices which in my subordinate position I put forward during the “Twilight War.” The first was the entry and domination of the Baltic, which was the sovereign plan if it were possible. It was vetoed by the growing realisation of the air power. The second was the creation of a close-action squadron of naval tortoises not too much afraid of the air-bomb or torpedo, by the reconstruction of the Royal Sovereign class of battleships. This fell by the way through the movement of the war and the priorities which had to be given to aircraft carriers. The third was the simple tactical operation of laying mines in the Norwegian Leads to cut off the vital German iron-ore supplies. Fourthly comes “Cultivator Number 6”: 2 namely, a long-term means for breaking a deadlock on the French Front without a repetition of the slaughter of the previous war. This was superseded by the onrush of German armour turning our own invention of tanks to our undoing, and proving the ascendancy of the offensive in this new war. The fifth was the “Operation Royal Marine,” namely, the paralysing of traffic on the Rhine by the dropping and discharge of fluvial mines. This played its limited part and proved its virtue from the moment when it was permitted. It was, however, swept away in the general collapse of the French resistance. In any case it required prolonged application to cause major injury to the enemy.
To sum up: in the war of armies on the ground I was under the thrall of defensive fire-power. On the sea I strove persistently within my sphere to assert the initiative against the enemy as a relief from the terrible ordeal of presenting our enormous target of sea commerce to his attack. But in this prolonged trance of the “Twilight” or “Phoney” war, as it was commonly called in the United States, neither France nor Britain was capable of meeting the German vengeance thrust. It was only after France had been flattened out that Britain, thanks to her island advantage, developed out of the pangs of defeat and the menace of annihilation a national resolve equal to that of Germany.
* * * * *
Ominous items of news of varied credibility now began to come in. At the meeting of the War Cabinet on April 3, the Secretary of State for War told us that a report had been received at the War Office that the Germans had been collecting strong forces of troops at Rostock with the intention of taking Scandinavia if necessary. The Foreign Secretary said that the news from Stockholm tended to confirm this report. According to the Swedish Legation in Berlin, two hundred thousand tons of German shipping were now concentrated at Stettin and Swinemunde with troops on board which rumour placed at four hundred thousand. It was suggested that these forces were in readiness to deliver a counter-stroke against a possible attack by us upon Narvik or other Norwegian ports, about which the Germans were said to be still nervous.
Soon we learnt that the French War Committee would not agree to the launching of “Royal Marine.” They were in favour of mining the Norwegian Leads, but opposed to anything that might draw retaliation on France. Through the French Ambassador Reynaud expressed his regret. Mr. Chamberlain, who was much inclined to aggressive action of some kind at this stage, was vexed at this refusal, and in a conversation with M. Corbin he linked the two operations together. The British would cut off the ore supplies of Germany as the French desired, provided that at the same time the French allowed us to retaliate by means of “Royal Marine” for all the injuries we had suffered and were enduring from the magnetic mine. Keen as I was on “Royal Marine,” I had not expected him to go so far as this. Both operations were methods of making offensive war upon the enemy, and bringing to an end the twilight period from the prolongation of which I now believed Germany was the gainer. However, if a few days would enable us to bring the French into agreement upon the punctual execution of the two projects, I was agreeable to postponing “Wilfred” for a few days.
The Prime Minister was so favourable to my views at this juncture that we seemed almost to think as one. He asked me to go over to Paris and see what I could do to persuade M. Daladier, who was evidently the stumbling-block. I met M. Reynaud and several others of his Ministers at dinner on the night of the fourth at the British Embassy, and we seemed in pretty good agreement. Daladier had been invited to attend, but professed a previous engagement. It was arranged that I should see him the next morning. While meaning to do my utmost to persuade Daladier, I asked permission from the Cabinet, to make it clear that we would go forward with “Wilfred” even if “Royal Marine” was vetoed.
I visited Daladier at the Rue St. Dominique at noon on the fifth, and had a serious talk with him. I commented on his absence from our dinner the night before. He pleaded his previous engagement. It was evident to me that a considerable gulf existed between the new and the former Premier. Daladier argued that in three months’ time the French aviation would be sufficiently improved for the necessary measures to be taken to meet German reactions to “Royal Marine.” For this he was prepared to give a firm date in writing. He made a strong case about the defenceless French factories. Finally he assured me that the period of political crises in France was over, and that he would work in harmony with M. Reynaud. On this we parted.
I reported by telephone to the War Cabinet, who were agreed that “Wilfred” should go forward notwithstanding the French refusal of “Royal Marine,” but wished this to be the subject of a formal communication. At their meeting on April 5, the Foreign Secretary was instructed to inform the French Government that notwithstanding the great importance we had throughout attached to carrying out the “Royal Marine” operation at an early date, and simultaneously with the proposed operation in Norwegian territorial waters, we were nevertheless prepared as a concession to their wishes to proceed with the latter alone. The date was thus finally fixed for April 8.
* * * * *
On Friday, April 5, 1940, the Prime Minister addressed the Central Council of the National Union of Conservative and Unionist Associations in a spirit of unusual optimism:
After seven months of war I feel ten times as confident of victory as I did at the beginning…. I feel that during the seven months our relative position towards the enemy has become a great deal stronger than it was.
Consider the difference between the ways of a country like Germany and our own. Long before the war Germany was making preparations for it. She was increasing her armed forces on land and in the air with feverish haste; she was devoting all her resources to turning out arms and equipment and to building up huge reserves of stocks; in fact, she was turning herself into a fully armed camp. On the other hand, we, a peaceful nation, were carrying on with our peaceful pursuits. It is true that we had been driven by what was going on in Germany to begin to build up again those defences which we had so long left in abeyance, but we postponed as long as any hope of peace remained – we continually postponed – those drastic measures which were necessary if we were to put the country onto a war footing.
The result was that when war did break out, German preparations were far ahead of our own, and it was natural then to expect that the enemy would take advantage of his initial superiority to make an endeavor to overwhelm us and France before we had time to make good our deficiencies. Is it not a very extraordinary thing that no such attempt was made? Whatever may be the reason – whether it was that Hitler thought he might get away with what he had got without fighting for it, or whether it was that after all the preparations were not sufficiently complete – however, one thing is certain: he missed the bus.
And so the seven months that we have had have enabled us to make good and remove our weaknesses, to consolidate, and to tune up every arm, offensive and defensive, and so enormously to add to our fighting strength that we can face the future with a calm and steady mind whatever it brings.
Perhaps you may say, “Yes, but has not the enemy, too, been busy?” I have not the slightest doubt he has. I would be the last to underrate the [his] strength or determination to use that strength without scruple and without mercy if he thinks he can do so without getting his blows returned with interest. I grant that. But I say this too: the very completeness of his preparations has left him very little margin of strength still to call upon.
This proved an ill-judged utterance. Its main assumption that we and the French were relatively stronger than at the beginning of the war was not reasonable. As has been previously explained, the Germans were now in the fourth year of vehement munition manufacture, whereas we were at a much earlier stage, probably comparable in fruitfulness to the second year. Moreover, with every month that had passed, the German Army, now four years old, was becoming a mature and perfected weapon, and the former advantage of the French Army in training and cohesion was steadily passing away. The Prime Minister showed no premonition that we were on the eve of great events, whereas it seemed almost certain to me that the land war was about to begin. Above all, the expression “Hitler missed the bus” was unlucky.
All lay in suspense. The various minor expedients I had been able to suggest had gained acceptance; but nothing of a major character had been done by either side. Our plans, such as they were, rested upon enforcing the blockade by the mining of the Norwegian corridor in the North, and by hampering German oil supplies from the Southeast. Complete immobility and silence reigned behind the German Front. Suddenly, the passive or small-scale policy of the Allies was swept away by a cataract of violent surprises. We were to learn what total war means.