The British Empire spanned the entire globe, which was great…except for the fact that it meant defending the entire globe.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 87 - Great Britain Part 2 - The Otherside of the World. This week a big thank you goes out to Nicholas and Nycole for choosing to support this podcast by becoming members. They now get access to ad free versions of the podcast and member only episodes, like the most recent episode on War Plan Orange, America’s plan for a war with Japan. You can head on over to historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members to find out more information. During the interwar years the British Empire had a serious problem. The empire was larger in land mass than it had ever been, stretching across Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Australia, Canada, and many smaller places in between. For many of these areas the exact relationship between the imperial possession and London was different than it would have been in previous centuries, with mandates and commonwealths making an appearance. But defending that Empire had never been a more challenging task, especially in the economic desolation that would at times occur during the interwar period. The additional complication which we will focus on in this episode is the threat posed by the growing antagonism of Japan, which had been an ally of Britain before and during the First World War. Japanese aggression presented a very real problem for the British military, and most of all the Royal Navy, and it posed a real and meaningful threat to the continuance of the empire in the case of a war in Europe. This was the view of many British leaders during the 1930s, and one of the reasons that the policy of appeasement was so popular, if there was another world war, it was very likely that the outcome would be bad for British imperial power even if they won the war. Chamberlain would sahre this view, and it was due in part to his concerns for the future of British power that he continued to try and find a way to keep Europe away from the war. Or as he would later write ‘never forget that the ultimate decision, the Yes or No which may decide the fate not only of all this generation, but of the British Empire itself, rests with me.’ Today we are going to take a look at both the threats that the British Empire faced in the Pacific, before discussing some of the interactions it had with other nations who had similar concerns, namely France, the Soviet Union, and the United States. Each of these nations would be important in their own way to British strategies in Asia and the Pacific.
The primary problems that the British faced were all wrapped around the increasing needs for imperial protection due to the increasing military strength of Japan. After the First World War the British and Japanese alliance which had been signed in 1905 was allowed to expire, and the two nations quickly found themselves at odds. The rising military strength and aggressiveness of the Japanese during the 1920s and 1930s would continue to increase the threat to British possessions in the area, especially as the Japanese Army continued to increase its comments and objectives in China. How the British planned to approach this problem was deeply enmeshed with their estimations of Japanese objectives and their ability to meet those objectives. The British certainly underestimated Japanese strength in the same way that European military leaders had underestimated foreign militaries for centuries, it was almost tradition. Part of that tradition was rooted in racism, they believed that the Japanese were nto capable of matching up to the British in technology, engineering, and military acumen. Part of it was also just a lack of information about what the Japanese were building and the capabilities of that military hardware. There is also the problem of how military technology evolved during the interwar period. This would effect how the war was pursued in all theatres, but in the Pacific it completely shifted how the war was fought in ways that were not present in other theaters. How air power would interplay with the naval war is probably the best example of this, and the ability to project that air power over long distances was critical to success in the Pacific, and it would take time for planning in London to fully appreciate the dangers it posed. But these technological shifts cannot hide the fact that British estimations of Japanese military strength were out of touch with reality. John Ferris in The History of Anglo-Japanese Relations, 1600-2000 Volume III discusses one of the errors made, “British observers judged the IJA by its ability to ﬁght in Europe, not by their own in Asia and hence fell prey to two fallacies of a military ethnocentric nature: those of the ‘paper standard’ and the ‘ﬁrst-class power’. By 1941, they measured Japanese and British quality by the standard of Western Europe rather than eastern Asia; and assumed that this standard and these rankings would prevail in a third environment, that of South East Asia.” I like that quote because it encapsulates both the underestimation of Japanese combat ability and also just a complete misunderstanding of what a war with Japan would look like, especially for British troops trying to defend far flung imperial possessions. Another factor in British estimations were the events in China. The Japanese army had also been doing quite well in China, but had also experienced some setbacks against troops that the British ranked far below even the Japanese. These challenges made it appear, at least to British observers, that the Japanese army was far less formidable than European armies. Also, just to reiterate a previous point, racism was a very important factor in all of these assumptions. One Royal Air Force assessment would claim that their pilots were ‘slower witted’ due to ‘national tendency to slow thinking’. Little tidbits like that litter military evaluations of the Japanese from the interwar years, and it caused consistent underestimations of what the Japanese soldier,s pilots, and sailors could accomplish.
While British leaders were trying to determine exactly what the Japanese would do, and if they could then be successful at it, in Japan the pressures for economic expansion would do nothing but increase during the 1930s. Expansion in Manchuria were driven by economic concerns, and as relations detriorated with other nations pressures for further expansion for greater economic security continued to gain support. This expansion could only come in Southeast Asia, where there was oil and other critical resources that Japan had no other access to. Even before the Japanese military expansion campaigns, they had already begun to expand their influence in these regions through economic advancements. During the 1930s Japanese companies would pour money into various areas of Southeast Asia, with British possessions like Malaya also being on that list. To try and determine what the best military course of action would be the Imperial Japanese Navy formed the South Seas Plan Committee in 1935 with the goal of determining what would be the bets method for military expansion to the south. The Committee had to deal with the fact that this expansion would bring Britain into a war, there was really no way around it, unless they assumed that the British would just hand over their imperial possessions, which seemed very unlikely. It was also well known in the second half of the 1930s that the situation in Europe was shifting and could provide opportunities in the future, or to pull from Japanese National Policy Guidelines from March 1936: “Careful caution must be paid to possible action by Britain to use another foreign power, in particular the United States, the Soviet Union or China, to apply pressure on Japan, and we must take advantage, whenever possible, of the delicate political situation in Europe and the political situation in the British colonies in order to expand our national power into the cracks among British interests in East Asia. Furthermore, economic and cultural ties with British possessions shall be intensiﬁed, in order to check their anti-Japanese policies”. The position of Britain firmly as an adversary was formalized in 1936 when the British were listed as hypothetical enemies in the Imperial National Defense Policy. This was just making things official though, because already during these years, Japanese planning was firmly offensive minded in Southeast Asia, a shift from previous years when it was viewed as defensive expansion during a war with the United States.
Even if the British underestimated Japanese abilities, they did still believe that than attack was very likely, and the areas that would be under threat were very important to the Empire. Focusing again on Malaya, the governor of Singapore would estimate that annual exports of over 131 million pounds, with 93 million of those being to foreign countries, would originate in Malaya. Some of these areas also had growing nationalist movements, and were controlled by force, with any attempts by workers or citizens to organize resistance to colonial control being handled by the police and the military. It was impossible to completely suppress the growing voices for more autonomy in these areas, and even though there was not a lot of formal power given to local people, there were calls for reforms which were rising in volume. Further to the south Australia and New Zealand would also make it well known that they were concerned about their safety. The question was, how would the British military, and especially the Royal Navy, react to a Japanese attack halfway across the globe. Well, there were some problems that would have to solved. The primary problem was that most of British military power would always have to be kept in Europe, and this just became more true with the growing power of Germany during the 1930s, which demanded a greater concentration of air and naval resources in Europe. But defense in the Pacific could not be completely ignored so it was arranged around 2 pillars: the defense of Singapore and the quick repositioning of the Fleet to Singapore. There were two major British controlle dcities that could be the anchors for the defense of the Pacific: Hong Kong and Singapore. Hong Kong was considered to be too far north and likely to fall to early Japanese aggression, with Singapore appearing to be far more defensible. But to ensure that this defense was successful large amounts of money would need to be invested in defenses, both from a naval attack as well as against the possibility of a land based attack. The funds for these defenses then got tied up in all of the economic problems of the 1920s and 1930s, and then in the overall prioritization of rearmament funds when more money was available it was challenging to make the case that it should take priority over other needs. Defending a city was just really expensive, and it was also a city that was half a world away, and so it was hard to argue that the defenses around Singapore were more important than equipment and infrastructure in Europe. But even with these challenges, Singapore woul dbe a critical point of defense because it would be to Singapore that the Fleet would come a sailing. The core of the Royal Navy’s plan for a war with Japan, and it was well understood that in a war with Japan the Royal Navy would be key, was to send a large enough fleet to Singapore to deal with the Japanese threat. The problem was that Singapore was, again, half a world away, and it would take time to gater the fleet in European water and then sail it through the Mediterranean, Indian Ocean, and then to Singapore. In 1937 the estimated time from the point when it was ordered and when the fleet would arrive in Singapore was around 50 days, Singapore had to hold out that long, and then it would be transformed into the Royal Navy’s main base in the pacific. The number of ships that would be required for this move to Singapore varied throughout the yars, especially as Japanese naval strength continued to grow. There was also the problem of Germany and its growing naval strength, and the fact that it appeared more and more likely that the Italians would enter the war against Britain which would make the Mediterranean very dangerous. This all meant that by 1939, planning stll officially listed moving the Fleet to Singapore as the response to Japanese aggression, but other concerns were taking precedence. Would the fleet have actually been moved to Singapore in say the summer of 1939 if the Japanese attacked Malaya at that moment? I personally find it very hard to believe that at a point of great threat in Europe a large portion of the Royal Navy would have put on its best summer uniforms and sailed for Singapore.
If Britain and the Royal Navy were having issues with the amount of military strength they had available, especially strength that was required at various points around the globe, then allies at various points around that globe became more important. In Europe no ally was more important than France, because so much of British calculations were based on assumptions about how much of a war with Germany France could shoulder, and how much British support would be needed. During the 1930s relations with France were not always perfect, both nations knew that their interests lay together, but there were many disagreements about the best path to ensure that those interests were met. For example, during the Rhineland crisis which we discussed back in Episode 33, the French were pushing for a stronger response to German military moves, which the British urged caution. This resulted in a rejection by the British cabinet of sanctions on Germany during March 1936 due to concerns that this would simply antagonize the Germans. There were also powerful voices with the British government during this time that could be described as Francophobes, and certainly did not like or appreciate what the French were trying to do, especially after the change in situation in the Rhineland. “Without the Demilitarized Zone, France cannot in fact effectively fulfill her obligations in Central and Eastern Europe. We should merely be bolstering up a position which cannot be maintained. […] It is frequently said that France is beocming a second-rate Power. Taht is not true. What give scolour to the suggestion is that France is at present biting off more than she can chew. If her sphere of influence was limited to Western Europe and Northern Africa, she would remain a great and powerful nation. But she cannot effectively spread her influence further. The great Power of Central Europe must inevitably be Germany.” The Rhineland Crisis would in some ways mark the zenith of the anti-French position, because over the next several years the relationship between the two nations would solidify due primarily to the actions of other nations. France would choose to retreat from multiple other commitments almost solely due to relations with Britain, against Italy during the Abyssinian crisis and then during the Munich Crisis. Meanwhile, in the aftermath of Munich, and with War appearing more likely almost by the day, steps were taken in Britain to bolster both the real and moral support provided to France. Conscription, which for the first time was setup during peace time in April 1939, was an important part of British military preparation for war, but was also something that the French had been advocating for over the previous months. When it was implemented the British commitment to the continent appeared to have increased, as it was the likely destination for those new troops in the time of war. This was an important counterweight to the growing public and official opinion in France during late 1938, which to quote from the British ambassador in Paris was that France could only rely on Great Britain to ‘fight to the last Frenchman’. Beyond actions there were also official statements by Chamberlain and the govenrment to back up their commitment to France. As Chamberlain would say in the Commons on February 6th 1939 “It is impossible to examine in detail all the hypothetical cases which may arise, but I feel bound to make plain that the solidarity of interest, by which France and this country are united, is such that any threat to the vital interests of France from whatever quarter it came must evoke the immediate co-operation of this country.” This commitment was great if you were in Paris, but if you were in Singapore, or any of Britain’s Pacific possessions, it should have been a cause for worry because every additional commitment of resources to France and Europe, meant less available elsewhere. With Europe obviously coming first in a World War, Britain might also rely on allies to assist against Japan. The two largest of which could have been Russia or the United States.
The British had re-established economic relations with the Soviet Union during the 1920s, and then over the years the general view of the British Foreign Office was that interactions with Russia should not be viewed through an ideologial lens. This would cause some problems when planning for the actions of others, especially in more dictatorial regimes, but in the case of the Soviet Union it removed an impediment that could have prevented good relations from developing between the nations. The full history of those relations are a bit larger of a discussion than what we will have in this episode, but broadly ther was a policy of general concern between the two nations. On the Soviet side they were at turns concerned about the British aligning themselves with Germany, or of pulling the Soviet Union into a European war with the goal of destroying the Soviet Union and Germany at the same time. The British saw relations with Russia as a great counterweight to the increasing power of Germany, but there were also many political leaders who were concerned about the expansion of Soviet power into Europe. In all cases the situation when it came to the Soviet Union in Asia and against Japan, the concerns were different. Soviet and Japanese relations were very tense in the last years of the 1930s. There was constant hostility between the two nations as their territorial spheres met and overlapped in Northern China. This would eventually result in open fighting near the village of Nomonhan in the summer of 1939. This could have been an opportunity for the British to foster relations with the Soviet Union targeted specifically against Japan, but there was concern that any official agreements would simply antagonize the Japanese due to their fears of encirclement. In the years before the start of the war this was very possible, because it was the Soviet Union, and the threat of Soviet invasion from the north which was used as one of the primary reasons that the Japanese Army had to neutralize China. In a future war with the Soviet Union Japanese army leaders believed that China would need to be exploited for resources, and removed as a military power that could attack the Japanese from the south. The British foreign office saw the situation as a balancing act, between managing Japanese fear which might prompt quick qction, and concerns that a China dominated by the Soviet Union, and likely under a Communist governemtn, was not really much preferable to one created by the Japanese. The general British reluctance to form firm agreements with Moscow would be a constant frustration for the Soviets, and the inability of the two sides to come to agreements either in the 1930s or indeed just before the start of the war, would result in the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and the alignment of the Soviet Union with Germany, at least for a period of time.
The most valuable possible ally in a war with Japan would be the United States. Relations with the United States were generally good, but due to the fact that there was no official agreement between the two nations it was also impossible to really count on any commitment from Washington. As President Roosevelt would say in 1934: “even if an individual president like himself entered into an informal understanding which might be effective during his tenur eof power, no one could guarantee that the successor would take the same view. The cooperation between the United States and Great Britain would have to rest on the fundamental identity of their interests and ideals.” There was also the possiblity, however remote, of war between the two nations, something that both nations had to at least consider. On the American side this manifested in War Plan Red, which was the plan for a war with Great Britain. On the British side the Royal Navy did not have formal plans for the conflict, because trying to determine how to win a war with the United States was an almost impossible challenge. A land invasion was seen as impossible due to the size of the United States and its population, and so the only real course of action that was available was to enact some kind of blockade and then jus thope that the American people grew tired of the war. There were great concerns that the American Navy would instead be strong enough to enact their own blockade of the British isles, which would have forced the Royal Navy to concentrated around the home islands. These plans, based almost entirely on information from 1921, made it clear that a war with America should be avoided at all costs, and in general an open conflict between the two nations never became a real possibility. Instead the interwar period would be full of instances where the two nations worked together in both of their best interests, especially in the naval sphere around the naval conferences and the naval limitation treaties. This cooperation would grow deeper during the 1930s, although it was slow going, at least in the view of the British foreign office. Most importantly for British plans for the Pacific, was the fact that the Americans were just as concerned about Japanese aggression as the British were. They were also stuck in a poor position to respond to it, with tiem and distance being against a quick American reaction in defense of their own Pacific possessions, most importantly the Philippines. There were even concerns in the mid-1930s in Washington that the British were likely to sign a non-aggression pact with Japan to protect their own interests. Events before the Second London Naval Conference showcased how the two nations could easily work together in both their interests. Before the conference even started the two nations got together to discuss how they were going to approach the conference, especially as it related to Japan. The most important piece of the agreement was around both nations agreeing that they would pursue a joint policy around any adjustments to the naval force ratios that had been setup at the Washington Naval Conference, with Japan provided with 60% of the naval tonnage of the United States or Britain. They would also both share information that they gained from conversations with Japan before and during the conference. Eventually the Japanese would leave the conference as they were very unhappy when it was clear that a fundamental revision of the framework of the treaty was not going to happen. This was a known risk before the conference began, and with the Japanese exit the 15 years of limited naval building would very quickly come to an end.
After the end of the conference, the general spirit of cooperation between the two nations continued. With the continued rise in Japanese antagonism, war seemed more likely than ever. This cooperation would never result in any kind of formal treaty, which was not really politically possible in the United States at the time, instead it would just be present in all kinds of informal agreements and actions. For example, both sides provided the other with unprecedented access to its ships and facilities around the world. There would also be efforts to ensure that the two navies could work closely together when required. In early 1938 agreements were made that would allow for the sharing of communication codes and some cross training of communication personnel. I am not sure I can think of an action that could be taken that more clearly stated that both nations planned to work closely together in a future conflict. This was also the assumption made by the Japanese government, as summarized here by US Foreign Secretary Hull: “the predominant view in the Japanese Foreign Office is that the US and GB must be considered for all practical purposes in connection with the Far Eastern istuation as one unit and that Japan cannot take aggressive measures against the interests of eithe rnation without eventually becoming involved with the other”. While better relations with the United States was an important step towards facing Japan, it in no way solved the problems inherent with geographic positioning, but by 1938 and 1939 the growing threats in Europe required imperial interests around the globe to a secondary concern. Next episode we will look at the evolving British plans for the Mediterranean as they reacted not just to changing relations with Italy, but the growth of air power.