During the last half of the 1930s the British needed to get serious about rearmament, but they had some problems to solve first.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second world War Episode 89, The British Empire Pt. 4 - Rearmament. This week a big thank you goes out to Zackary, Evan, Brian, Maarten, and Eric for choosing to support the podcast by becoming a member. All members get ad free versions of all of the podcast’s episodes plus special member only episodes roughly once a month. Head on over to historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members to find out more. When discussing British actions before the Second World War, there are two topics that are exceptionally difficult to analyze due to how they interact with later events. The policy of appeasement is of course of of these, and the questions of if the correct decisions were made and what effect those decisions had on the future course of events seem to get a new book written about them every other year. The other is around rearmament. To add to the confusing soup in need of analysis the two topics then intertwine together: was the appeasement path pursued to allow time for rearmament? did belief in appeasement prevent rearmament from happening sooner? Over the next three episodes we will discuss the British rearmament efforts in the last half of the 1930s to try and get some kind of handle on these questions. During this episode we will discuss some of the economics of rearmament, some policy decisions that were made around war profiteering, and then how early rearmament efforts effected the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force. Then next episode we will look at the far less discussed British Army, before the third episode takes a wider view of Britain’s preparations for war. the three key questions to keep in mind during these episodes are: Did Britain make good choices around what to spend rearmament funds and effort on? Was rearmament started soon enough? Did appeasement meaningfully contribute to rearmament delays? It has also been a few episodes, so I will reiterate my warning that I know I have repeated a few times throughout the show. Nobody knew when, or if, a war would start. Nobody knew where, or if, a war would start. This was particularly true during the early phases of rearmament during the mid 1930s. It would be during those early years that so many important decisions would be made that would impact the state of the British preparations in September 1939. And in those early years there was no looming threat of imminent war, there was no European state that had already expanded its borders by conquest, and instead all of the conversations and decisions around rearmament had to make sense in the peace time economic and political context. So, with those disclaimers out of the war, we have to dive into the most important topic around rearmament: economics.
In the immediate aftermath of the First World War, there were very quick and large reductions in overall military spending both in Britain and in almost every other country involved in the conflict. It was of course expected after fighting such a long and exhausting war. But for the British, given their large imperial commitments there were some limitations on how much the military budgets could be reduced while still being able to control and administer the large areas of the world under British control. This, along with just a general reluctance to cut military spending too much meant that for most of the 1920s the overall defense budget was not that much different than it had been in the years before the First World War. It would still be a challenging time economic time for the British government. In a reversal of most of modern history, the British government would also find itself deeply in debt to another nation, the United States. This would become more important after 1929 when there was a growing insistence that the debt be repaid in the depths of the worldwide financial crisis. These payments would eventually end in 1934, even though there was still a large outstanding balance. Moving off of the Gold Standard in 1931 solved many of the issues experienced by the British economy during the Great Slump, and when it was combined with various forms of imperial economic preference it allowed for a sizable economic recovery to begin. Defense spending would also begin to rise in the mid 1930s, especially after 1934. It was during that year that serious discussions began both about rearmament in general, but also the best areas that money should be spent to achieve the greatest benefit. This would be a hotly debated topic, as it always was, with the various military branches jockeying for funds, and political leaders having their own preferences. For example, Nivelle Chamberlain, who was Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time, strongly favored the Royal Air Force. These types of disagreements would happen in every nation during the 1930s, as each military branch thought they were the one that needed more resources, and they would lobby political leaders for their support. While the discussions about what the money should be psent on would ever evolving, the one thing that remained constant was the overall growth in defense spending. In 1935 it would reach the levels that it had been at in the early 1920s, ending over a decade of steady contraction. It was also in these mid 1930s years that you start seeing the really large rearmament programs defined and debated. Rearmament is, was, and probably will always be a long game, demanding years and years of spending, and the way to gain the most benefit is to plan that spending years in advance so that the industrial resources can be adjusted accordingly. At the start of 1936 is when you start seeing plans like the 1 billion pound rearmament program that would span the next 5 to 6 years. These were very large numbers in the context of overall government spending, and almost inevitably the Treasury began to push back. In these early years there was certainly some pushback on the total spending, but nothing like what would come later. Instead during the mid 1930s most of the discussions involving the treasury would tie back to not how much, but simply how the money would be spent, and if it was being spent efficiently. The Treasury would also become involved in trying to make sure that the rearmament efforts could be paid for. Paying for rearmament was important given how quickly spending was expanding. For example, the British army would move from a budget of 44 million in 1935 all the way up to 121.4 million in 1938, before doubling again the very next year. This type of growth demanded that government loans be taken out, which would be a major way to finance some of these activities, with the defense spending rapidly relaying on larger and larger loans. More loans reduced, but in no way halted the reductions in the British gold reserves which were used to finance additional government spending. There were also some adjustments to government income, with one instance of this being an increase in the income tax rate in April 1936. But increasing taxes was always a tricky business, because the worst thing for rearmament in peace time was for the economy to begin to stall. This also tied into larger concerns among the Treasury and some British economic leaders: the ability of the nation to wage war once it started. Similar conversations would also occur in France, in that there would be some level of concern that if Britain spent too much on rearmament before a war began, then it would compromise the ability of the nation to finance a war once it started. This setup an tricky situation in which every month that rearmament continued the British military grew strong, which was really good, but British financial resources to continue rearmament were reduced, causing great concern.
Beyond the budgetary aspects of rearmament, there were also many other decisions that would have to be made along the way. Some of these decisions revolved around trying to utilize the available workers, and especially those individuals in skilled trades, in an optimal way. During rearmament there would very quickly become a shortage in many trades that were most necessary for rearmament. This required conversations and negotiations between the government, industrial leaders, and the workers themselves. In the government the conversations were around how to shift production from civilian industries to rearmament industries. The easiest method of reconfiguring production would have been through increased government control that would shift workers from one industry to another, but that was generally avoided during the early years of rearmament. Instead money was used, with rearmament contracts generally costing more due to employers paying more for their labor to ensure maximum supply. But this brought with it a new set of problems around inflation and downsides of trying to reduce civilian production. Here is a note from the Annual report of the National Federation of Building Trade Employers “higher wages cannot create a larger supply of skilled labour and that a governmental policy which encouraged overbidding for such labour would result merely in forcing up costs, disorganizing the industry and jeopardizing the normal trade upon which the prosperity of the country so much depends.” You might, quite logically, expect that workers would like this new flow of money, especially if it translated to higher wages, but it was a bit more complicated than that. The concerns from the unions were all based around control, the agreements made between the unions and the employers were all based on negotiations and balancing. Then the government comes in and starts purposefully altering that balance and influencing where and how money was being spent. At the same time the government was also trying to expand the skilled workforce as well as change what had previously been considered skilled positions to unskilled positions. While some of this concern was simply protectionism, with union members wanting to protect their own relatively privileged position within industry, there were also other concerns about the long term consequences of the changes the government was pushing for. Doubling the number of bricklayers to meet current demand was probably fine, but were they guaranteed to have work in the future? Many industries had already went through the boom and bust cycle of the First World War, with industries massively expanding during the war and then contracting after it was over. These concerns would then require negotiations, which would occur throughout the time before the start of the war, as rearmament demands changed, and that resulted in increased demands on industrialists and workers.
Another side of all of the new money being pumped into rearmament was on the side of the employers, because it prompted renewed conversations about who was getting that money, how much they were profiting from it, and whether or not they were taking advantage of the public. This had been a major point of friction during the First World War, when so much of British economic and industrial output had been reconfigured for armament production. While more and more money had been spent from the government, the workers had been asked to work longer hours and more shifts, and it was felt that the industrialists had been allowed to keep their own costs under control through a suppression in wage increases. This created some animosity as there were feelings that the business owners were reaping large profits, while workers were both not getting compensated fairly while also being asked to support war bonds and bear higher taxes to pay for the war effort. These concerns then very quickly resurfaced in the early 1930s, with the general assumption being that wages would be under some level of control, but it was hoped that the government would take action to prevent excess profits. From the side of the working public this issue became wrapped around the ‘Merchants of Death’ concept, which was basically that too many businesses were benefitting from the suffering of men at the front and the increased sacrificed made by society on the homefront. To try and cut off these concerns, the Royal Commission on Private Manufacture of and Trade in Arms was created and would host 22 public sessions. But this was almost entirely just for show, and when the commission did finally release its report, which recommended greater government control of industry, it was entirely ignored. Unfortunately for workers, the leaders within the government felt that they needed the support of business leaders if rearmament was going to be successful. To do anything else would require a drastic reworking of business and government relations in 1930s Britain and this was, quick frankly, never going to happen. This meant that all of the early rearmament work would be done in close cooperation with business owners, with no real controls placed on them until May 1939. Because of this lack of tight controls in the 1930s it was a really good time to be a business owner in armament, or armament adjacent industries. There were still benefits that would be felt by workers, and wages for some workers would increase over the last half of the 1930s, but there were limits on those increases for all of the reasons we have previously discussed.
While British rearmament efforts were ramping up after 1936 there would of course always be some British political leaders that did not feel that it was progressing fast enough, or even some that felt it was going too quickly and in fact appeasement should be coupled with renewed disarmament discussions. On the not-fast-enough side of complaints you have men like Winston Churchill who would spend most of the early 1930s criticizing the lack of preparedness among the British military. On the other side there were many individuals for their own reasons that pushed for greater efforts for peace. The stereotypical person in this group might be somebody who strongly supported the peace movement, or was a pacifist, but this was not always the case. n his book Britain at Bay Alan Allport points out that some of the people who supported appeasement did so not out of support for peace, but out of concern for what another world war might mean for British society: ‘When we consider why [Some Britons] were attracted to the National Government’s Appeasement policy in the late 1930s, it’s important to remember that, as far as many of them were concerned, it was not just the international balance of power that was at stake. The cost of another world war would be measured not just in lives, terrible though that would be. War would also accelerate the rise of a new kind of egalitarian democracy, which they thought would be coarse, unprincipled – and irreversible. They knew that any such conflict would be a ‘People’s War’. And they hated the idea.’ During the early years of growing rearmament, so say 1936 until the Munich Criiss, both of these groups had their own set of arguments on why the government should take their preferred action based on at least semi-reasonable analysis. Unfortunately, when we look at them today it is almost impossible to evaluate them without that analysis being tainted by what comes later. Those who supported faster and larger rearmament would point to events like the Japanese expansion in Manchuria, Italian expansion in Abyssinia, or the Spanish Civil War as reasons that Britain needed to put more resources into defense. In retrospect this evaluation is probably correct, there is after all a reason we have covered all of those events on this very podcast. But in 1936 or early 1937 that conclusion had far less evidence, especially in the case of Manchuria and Abyssinia. It is one of those situations where if a particular person guesses correctly on the future course of events, they look like a genius for predicting what would happen. In this case they would have been trumpeting that they had been predicting for years that a war was going to start. But it was impossible for them to predict when it was going to happen, and when it came to rearmament the when really mattered.
Of course all of this economic and political disagreement was all about how, when, and why to spend money on the British military, and that primarily meant the Army, Royal Navy, and Royal Air Force. Among the three the most complicated path through rearmament belong to the Army, which would have many problems throughout the entire interwar period in getting and maintaining a funding level that would allow it to keep up with its worldwide commitments. The story of the British Army is complicated enough that we will actually be spending all of the next episode on it, and so instead we will focus on the royal Navy and the RAF for the rest of this episode. When considering the Royal Navy, it is important to remember that in September 1939, when Germany invaded Poland, the Royal Navy was the most powerful navy in the world. The problem was that it had a vast array of commitments that constantly pulled its resources all over the world. like this quote from British Seapower and Procurement Between the Wars: A Reappraisal of Rearmament by G.A.H. Gordon “The Second World War, as it happened, was an extraordinarily unlikely strategic nightmare. Britain’s whole defence planning presupposed the active participation of France in a major European war. Had the Chiefs of Staff or the Joint Planning Committee been asked to allow for her defeat they would have replied that to sustain hostilities in such circumstances was simply not a viable proposition.” Having the war develop as it did, with Germany, then Italy, the Japan joining the ranks of Britain’s enemies was almost a worst case scenario. The only thing that could really have made it worse would have been a war with the United States, which fortunately for the Royal Navy was never really a possibility. Even before the war started, the first 30 years of the 20th century had been a period when British power at sea had been challenged like it had not been since the Napoleonic wars. The Anglo-German Naval Arms race before the First World War, and then the threat of another Naval Arms Race after 1918 had caused the great naval powers of the world to come together and sign the Washington Naval Treaty which limited the size of all major naval powers. The drastic naval budget cuts that followed then caused a large contraction within the British shipbuilding industry, which was followed by the Great Slump, both of which left British shipbuilding in a much worse place that it had been in many years. Within the navy itself there were also challenges, with events like the Invergordon Mutiny pointing to internal challenges that the Navy was having as its budgets continued to decrease. By the mid 1930s the British fleet was also aging with most of its large capital ships being pre-First World War vintage, with the Revenge and Queen Elizabeth classes, both of which had not had a major modernization since the mid 1920s. While the list of challenges faced by the Royal Navy could occupy an entire episode, it is worth mentioning that many other nations were facing the same economic and ship building problems. And that is without considering the changes in naval technology that everyone would have to deal with in a future war, changing that all navies were reacting to differently. Nowhere was this evolution more important than in the sphere of naval aviation. The relationship between the Royal Navy and the Fleet Air Arm were very complicated, and this was caused by the fact that for most of the interwar period the Fleet Air Arm was actually under the control of the Royal Air Force. This caused administrative challenges, but most importantly it caused Naval Aviation to be ranked against other Royal Air Force concerns when it came to budget allocation. This made it difficult for the Admiralty to get the resources that it thought it needed. This arrangement would eventually change in the years before the war, but it would take time for the Royal Navy to take full control and to shift the Fleet Air Arm to be fully under the control of the Royal Navy.
One thing that would not be lacking in anyway in the years before the war was the funds or willingness to begin a massive expansion of the Royal Navy. Was the Royal Navy capable of protecting Britain from all overseas threats? No, it had lost that status with the advent of strategic bombing, but there was no denying its general importance to the survival of Britain and the Empire. It would be based on this fact, along with the tradition and prestige of the Royal Navy, that there would be an absolutely massive construction effort that would begin in 1937. Large numbers of destroyers, frigates, and anti-submarine ships would be built for the protection of British commerce. 23 Cruisers would also start construction. Five King George V class battleships would begin construction, with their successors, the Lion Class, in planning, with two laid down before the war started. Along with this construction there would be efforts to modernize some of the older battleships, starting with the Queen Elizabeth class, and effort that would eventually be interrupted by the war. There would also be six aircraft carriers under construction. All of this represented the largest naval construction effort anywhere in the world before the war. I think at times the efforts of the Royal Navy get unfairly criticized for a few reasons, mostly because they exist within the context of the naval construction programs in the United States that would occur in the years that followed. But of course the entire theme of these pre-war episodes is to try and judge things based on their own time, not based on what was happen later, and based on those metrics what the Royal Nave created before the war was quite impressive and innovative compared to what was happening elsewhere. One area that I would point to as an example of this would be in the area of aircraft carrier design. One of the decisions that comes under some criticism is the choice that was made to have armored flight decks, and enclosed hangers, on British carriers. This had huge upsides when it came to the survivability of the ships, but it also had drastic downsides when it came to how many aircraft each carrier to operate. This was a serious downside, and in some cases British carriers would have only half the complement of American or Japanese carriers that were constructed at the same time. But the choice was made for a very good reason, the British carriers would almost certainly be operating in the North Sea and the Mediterranean. In the vast expanses of the Pacific, where the other major carrier fleets would plan to operate, there were vast expanses of oceans with only small areas of land spread throughout on which to base aircraft. Even if you included all of an enemy’s carriers there was a very finite number of planes that could be launched against any particular fleet just due to the lack of airfields within the operational range of aircraft, and many of those planes came from carriers that could themselves be put out of action. this was completely reversed in the tighter confines of European waters, there were any number of airfields that were all within striking distance of any carrier, and this meant that survivability was quite important. It also says something that both the Japanese and American navies would shift to armored carriers during the war.
Now even that statement needs to be qualified a bit, just because a decision made later in the war by the Americans or Japanese matched what the British had chosen before the war does not mean that the decision to make armored carriers was the correct one in those pre-war years. That is why it is still a question that can be an area of lively debates. Of course all of the massive construction plans put in place by the Royal Navy would be derailed by the start of the war, and many of the larger ships would have their construction shut down to allow for a complete refocus onto smaller ships, especially those that could be used for commerce defense. There is a lot more I could say about the Royal Navy’s preparations, but I think some of that should be held until we start discussing the opening moves of the Naval War sometime next year.
While the area of naval warfare saw its share of innovation, and then massive expansion, in the years before the Second World War, a similar process would occur in the Royal Air Force. On April 1, 1918 the Royal Air Force was created, making the air force its own independent military arms, and one not tied to any other service. Then when the war was over, in an attempt to justify its funding and expansion, the RAF would begin to push into the area of imperial policing. The theory was that the RAF could maintain control of areas around the world that hd previously been under the protection of the British Army, but Air power could accomplish the same thing at much lower costs. In the decade after 1918 a majority of the RAF was focused on this role. Then of course during the 1930s concerns about the air defense plans and capabilities of the home islands began to exert greater influence, primarily due to concerns about strategic combing. It would be in 1932 that Stanley Baldwin would use his famous phrase “the bomber will always get through” during a speech advocating for disarmament. Over the course of the 1930s, the threat of Germany launching a strategic bombing campaign against British was a concern that would drive a lot of planning and preparations. The desire to be able to launch a similar campaign in return, or even to prevent one from happening at all due to first strike capabilities, would also then alter the course of RAF rearmament. I am going to kind of stop here with the RAF, obviously there is a massive amount more to say on the topic of air power and strategic bombing, but I will save that until episode 92, where we will start a dedicated series on air power theory and application during the interwar years and how nations around Europe and the World prepared for a future air war. A big part of those episodes will be about the choices made by the RAF and how it manifested in the planes they were building during rearmament.