91: The Approach of War


During 1939 British rearmament efforts would escalate rapidly, but was it going to be enough?


  • Air Power and Colonial Control: The Royal Air Force 1919-1939 by David E. Omissi
  • Anglo-American Strategic Relations and the Far East 1933-1939: Imperial Crossroads by Greg Kennedy
  • The History of Anglo-Japanese Relations, 1600-2000 Volume III: The Military Dimension Edited by Ian Gow and Yoichi Hirama with John Chapman
  • ‘A Fearful Concatenation of Circumstances’: The Anglo-Soviet Rapprochement, 1934-6 by Michael Jabara Carley
  • Brave New World: Imperial and Democratic Nation-building in Britain Between the Wars Edited by Laura Beers and Geraint Thomas
  • Britain at Bay by Alan Allport
  • The British Defence of Egypt 1935-1940: Conflict and Crisis in the Eastern Mediterranean by Steven Morewood
  • British Establishment Perspectives on France, 1936-1940 by Michael Dockrill
  • The British General Election of 1935 by James C. Robertson
  • Patters of the Future? British Mediterranean Strategy and the Choice Between Alexandria and Syprus 1935-8 by Manolis Koumas
  • ‘Living the Blackshirt Life’: Culture, Community and the British Union of Fascists, 1932-1940 by Michael A. Spurr
  • Economics, Rearmament, and Foreign Policy: The United Kingdom before 1939 - A Preliminary Study by R.A.C. Parker
  • Fascism, Communism, and the Foreign Office, 1937-1939 by Donald Lammers
  • Fighting the People’s War: The British Commonwealth Armies and the Second World War by Jonathan Fennell
  • Forgotten Armies by Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper
  • Franco-British Relations and the Question of Conscription in Britain, 1938-1939 by Daniel Hucker
  • The Battle for Britain: Interservice Rivalry between the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy; 1909-40 by Anthony J. Cumming
  • Malta and British Strategic Policy 1925-1943 by Douglas Austin
  • Pacifism and Politics in Britain, 1931-1935 by Michael Pugh
  • The Royal Air Force, Air Power and British Foreign Policy, 1932-37 by Malcolm Smith
  • British Rearmament in the 1930s: A Chronology and REview by J.P.D. Dunbabin
  • The Royal Air Force - Volume 2: An Encyclopedia of the Inter-War Years 1930-1939: v. 2 by Ian Philpott
  • British Seapower and Procurement Between the Wars: A Reappraisal of Rearmament by G.A.H. Gordon
  • The British Government and the South African Neutrality Crisis, 1938-39 by Andrew Stewart
  • Strategy versus Finance in Twentieth-Century Great Britain by Paul M. Kennedy
  • The British General Staff: Reform and Innovation, 1890-1939 Edited by David French and Brian Holden Reid
  • Deterrence and the European Balance of Power: the Field Force and British Grand Strategy, 1934-1938 by B.J.C. McKercher
  • The Tradition of Appeasement in British Foreign Policy 1865-1939 by Paul M. Kennedy
  • British Rearmament 1936-39: Treasury, Trade Unions and Skilled Labour by R.A.C. Parker
  • Winston Churchill’s Parliamentary Commentary on British Foreign Policy, 1935-1938 by Richard Howard Powers
  • British Rearmament and the ‘Merchants of Death’: The 1935-36 Royal Commission on the Manufacture of and Trade in Armaments by David G. Anderson
  • Whitehall and the Control of Prices and Profits in a Major War, 1919-1939 by Neil Rollings
  • Thinking the Unthinkable: British and American Naval Strategies for an Anglo-American War, 1918-1931 by Chistopher M. Bell
  • Britain’s War: into Battle, 1937-1941 by Daniel Todman
  • British Armour Theory and the Rise of the Panzer Arm: Revising the Revisionists by Azar Gat


Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 91 - The British Empire Part 6 - The Approach of War. This week I would like to remind everyone that one of the best ways to support the show is by leaving a review on your podcast platform of choice. It is a great way to help more people find out about the podcast, and you would have my eternal gratitude. As the lead actor in the push for the appeasement policies of 1938, it is generally impossible to discuss British rearmament in the last 2 years before the war without including at least some level of evaluation of the period between the Munich Agreement and the start of the war. This is because British appeasement and rearmament efforts failed in one very obvious way: they failed to prevent war. That is an easy place to start. The more complicated issue to discuss is whether or not the British were in a better position to go to war in September 1939 than they would have been in September 1938. The analysis of this question forces us to start looking at not just British efforts, but how they related to German rearmament efforts in the year before the war. On the British side of the equation the spending on rearmament would continue to escalate at an incredible pace. During the period between 1933 and 1938 the annual defense spending by the British government roughly tripled, from 107 million pounds to 383 million pounds, but then during 1939 due to constantly expanding programs in the nine months before the start of the war the estimate jumped up to 730 million pounds, doubling year over year. In the months before the start of the war the government would be spending more than it had during much of the First World War. This put the entire country on as close to a war footing as possible, without actually being at war. Today we will discuss some of these shifts over 1939, including government reactions to German actions in Eastern Europe. The second half of this episode will then attempt to answer the question of whether or not the idea that appeasement successfully bought time for British military preparations has any truth in it.

The period of time between when Chamberlain took over the office of Prime Minister and when Germany invaded what was left of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 was a period of constant discussion and compromise about British rearmament efforts and British foreign policy. Chamberlain had from the very beginning taken a keen interest and wanted to retain firm control over British foreign policy. There would disagreements between Chamberlain and Anthony Eden, the Foreign Secretary until he resigned in February 1938. The core disagreement that caused this resignation was the position that the British government should take towards Mussolini and his expansionist efforts in Africa. But this was just one of several different areas in which Chamberlain would seek to influence foreign policy, influence that culminated in the Munich Agreement. Throughout all of these moves Chamberlain was attempting to maintain peace through the application of British political influence. But at the same time there was growing support, and increasing demand for the British government to add to that political influence by increasing the spending on the British military. The British military would frequently during the mid 1930s try to square the resources they had available with the growing commitments of those resources as other nations began large rearmament programs. This would prompt the military to ask for greater and greater budgets to try and match some of that expansion. During 1937 and 1938, while the purse strings were loosened considerably, there were still tight restrictions placed on spending. The civilian leaders would also try to influence how this money was spent, and would funnel money one way or another based on the general feelings of where it would be best spent. The best example of this in practice was the Inskip report, which we discussed at the end of the last episode. But even the Inskip report would advocate for much larger rearmament budgets, with the goal of trying to make it clear to all possible enemies that British would not just stand by and be caught unprepared. During 1939 the rapid deterioration of relations in Europe would force whatever constraints that had been placed on spending to slowly be removed. Chamberlain and other British leaders never gave up trying to maintain peace, but with diplomatic resolution appearing and more and more remote possibility, the only recourse was to gain continued peace through military might. This could come in one of two ways, the sheer weight of British military power being able to daunt any foes, or through the application of the concepts of collective security. Collective security had been a feature of British foreign policy since the end of the First World War, and during 1939 the ties that Britain would have to collective security arrangements would have to be solidified, especially after the events of March 1939.

Of all of the event that led from peace to war in 1939 would would be more impactful than the decision of Germany to occupy what was left of Czechoslovakia in March 1939. The final invasion of Bohemia and Moravia came at the end of a lengthy series of events in which Germany had robbed the Czechoslovak government of what autonomy it had retained after the Munich settlement. In Prague the government, under the threat of invasion, had been forced to leave the League of Nations, drastically reduce its military, allow Slovakian nationalists to declare independence, and to cede territory over to Hungary. Finally, the President Emil Hacha had been taken to Berlin and forced to agree to Germany making the remaining Czech territories into a German protectorate. This gave the German military the official sanction to move in and occupy. Germany would gain not just some additional territory, but also the valuable resources that came with it, both natural resources as well as the industrial resources which had made Czechoslovakia an important source of industrial products before 1938. For the Czechs it was the sad end to a long saga of German aggression, for the British it was a disappointing result for all of the efforts thad had been made over the previous year which had resulted in the Munich Agreement, which had contained so many German guarantees that this exact sequence of events would not occur. On March 15th in a speech before the House of Commons Chamberlain would say “Hitherto the German Government in extending the area of their military control have defended their action by the contention that they were only incorporating in the Reich neighbouring masses of people of German race. Now for the first time they are effecting a military occupation of territory inhabited by people with whom they have no racial connection. These events cannot fail to be a cause of disturbance to the international situation. They are bound to administer a shock to confidence, all the more regrettable because confidence was beginning to revive and to offer a prospect of concrete measures which would be of general benefit.” But did also reiterate his desire for peace: “Let us remember that the desire of all the peoples of the world still remains concentrated on the hopes of peace and a return to the atmosphere of understanding and good will which has so often been disturbed. The aim of this Government is now, as it has always been, to promote that desire and to substitute the method of discussion for the method of force in the settlement of differences. Though we may have to suffer checks and disappointments, from time to time, the object that we have in mind is of too great significance to the happiness of mankind for us lightly to give it up or set it on one side.” While peace was still to be sought, what was also clear was that firmer measures would have to be taken if peace was to be gained, which is where Germany’s likely next target, Poland comes into play.

In the second half of March 1939 a few different things happened that would result in Britain’s guarantee of Poland. The first was simply the German invasion of Czechoslovakia, the second was the growing belief among British political leaders that the public was more firmly in support of a stronger stand against Germany, and the third was a shift in the overall outlook of the British military. In previous years the evaluations done by British military leaders made for grim reading about their ability to fight and win a war against Germany. But this had changed, and by spring 1939 they were far more optimistic, and they felt that the trends were going in the correct direction. While these changes allowed the government to contemplate the Polish guarantee, the reason that the guarantee was given was due to how Germany had reacted to previous international agreements. The verbal agreements of the early meetings between Hitler and Chamberlain had fallen apart, the very clear written agreements of the Munich Conference had also been discarded, all that was left was to ensure that Germany knew that the next time something happened force would be met with force. It is well documented that Chamberlain and others within the British government did not really care that much about the problem of Danzig and the Polish corridor. Much like the Sudetenland it was just an area of Eastern Europe that just happened to be in a different nation while having large number of ethnic German citizens. The corridor had been created after the First World War primarily as a way of providing the new Polish nation with access to the Baltic sea. The guarantee of Poland’s borders that was given in March 1939 did not mean that further Munich-like conferences, and the transfer of territory between nations, were completely ruled out. Further agreements could have been reached, the agreement was simply to make it clear that German could not decide to make changes on its own like it had with its invasion of Czechoslovakia. Or as ambassador Henderson would say in Berlin it tried to prevent Germany from making ‘brute force the sole arbiter in international affairs’. The goal was to convince Hitler that attacking Poland would absolutely, without a doubt, result in war between Britain, France, and Germany. This message was not really received the same way in Berlin, where Hitler believed that at the 11th hour he could force the British and French to back down from their commitments to Poland, just as the French had to Czechoslovakia in 1938. This would end up being one of Hitler’s great miscalculations, after his frankly great run of gambles during 1938.

While the government was getting ready to make a guarantee of Polish borders, the British military was attempting to make itself ready to enforce those guarantees. Of course part of that preparation was around just spending money on military equipment and rearmament activities, the other piece of these preparations was around manpower. The first major change around the simple matter of how many men were in the British Army would come on March 29th, 1939 when the Territorial Army was doubled in size. This expansion was seen as an easy way to both show domestically that the government was taking the situation seriously while also proving to continental allies that the British army would increase its ability to go into action on the continent. The one group of people that were not quite as thrilled with this expansion was, believe it or not, the Army General Staff. The Army leadership felt that the sudden large expansion of the Territorials would merely dilute the resources that they had, making funding for critical rearmament activities like equipment updates and modernizations even more problematic. Budgets for the Territorial units were already felt to be too small, and suddenly there would be twice as many of them. These funding problems became even worse during April, with another important decision. During the First World War the introduction of conscription in Britain had been a hotly debated topic. British society was proud of the fact that it had not used conscription during previous wars, and instead had been able to rely on a tradition of volunteerism, but when met with the greatly increased demands of the First World War the limitations of that volunteer spirit was found, and conscription had to be introduced. In April 1939 another very new step would be taken, with conscription introduced not during the height of war, but in a time of peace. British political leaders had been split on whether or not to introduce conscription, but the pressure was growing on the government to do something, pressure that originated both within certain domestic political groups and from Britain’s allies. Initially this round of conscription was limited, with 35,000 men being conscripted to take part in a six month training program, but it represented an important mental shift. The introduction of conscription drew harsh criticism from some, for example from the Labour Party, but they were certainly in the minority. Once again the Army General Staff were not among the voices strongly pushing for a large increase in manpower, due to concerns yet again that budgets would be spread even further. Bringing on 35,000 fresh recruits also caused all kinds of administrative problems. While the army was expanding, there were new and continued discussions with the French about how they would be used. In March 1939, the French had been informed that the British were only in a position to send 2 division to France in the first month of a conflict, with more not available for another 3 months. This would shift over the course of the summer as the British Army became more prepared, but the ability of the British to put troops in France at the beginning of the conflict would never be able to match the numbers that the French wanted.

While the Army was going through its forced expansion, other areas of the British military would rapidly expand during 1939. Nowhere would this expansion be more strongly felt than in the Royal Air force. The threat posed by the German Air Force had been an important driver of early rearmament, and their continued threat would result in a massive expansion of those efforts in 1939. The number one concern was strategic bombing of British cities, with the most pessimistic scenarios predicting that all of Germany’s bombers would focus in on British cities in an attempt to deliver a ‘knock-out blow’. In 1936 the assumptions made about the power of a possible German air attack were grim, with up to 150,000 civilian casualties within a single week. With hindsight we know that these estimates greatly overestimated the capabilities of the German Luftwaffe, and really overestimated the capabilities of strategic bombing as it was possible in the mid 1930s, but they believed it to be true and that is what pushed rearmament forward. By early 1939 the RAFs rearmament efforts were really coming to fruition. Aircraft factories had been built and had been updated to begin pumping out a new general of aircraft, the workforce had been expanded especially in the area of skilled workers. These long term investments meant that during the first half of 1939 the aircraft factories would build a staggering four times more aircraft than they had during the first half of 1938, a figure that also represented more than the sum total of 1936 and 1937 combined. There had also been a concerted effort to grow the number of airfields that the RAF could use, with the number tripling from 1934 to 1939. These airfields were critical, and are the oft-forgotten area of preparing for war, with each one being a large construction project on its own. All of this would culminate in the fact that in September 1939 the British would produce more aircraft than the Germans. This was due to the massive expansion of British industry, but also the the growing problems that the Germans were having in continuing to expand their own efforts. For the Germans the will was always there, but the raw materials were becoming a problem, causing crucial shortages in specific hard to source items.

That is probably a good lead in to how we should view British rearmament efforts before the war, and the role that appeasement, and particularly the delay of the war that was made possible at Munich by appeasement. We will attack this question in two ways: 1. by looking at the decisions around Appeasement, particularly those at Munich that resulted in the Munich agreement; 2. by looking at British military preparations and how they used the time available; When looking at the decisions around appeasement, there were two inputs into the thought process that led to Munich. The first was a genuine desire to maintain peace. This continued desire for peace was a very popular policy in Britain during the 1930s, and Chamberlain shared those views. The second was the general evaluation of the military situation in both Britain and France leading up to September 1938. Both the British and French military intelligence staffs greatly overestimated German military strength during 1938. For British interests the most important overestimation was in the strength of the Luftwaffe, which they believed could and would open the war with a devastating bombardment of British cities. This fear, and just a general misreading of German military preparations in 1938 would cause British military leaders to be incredibly pessimistic about what would happen should a war begin. Chamberlin was advised, clearly and unambiguously that the Western Democracies were not prepared for war, and that it must be avoided. Could he have pushed back against this? Sure, he was the leader of Britain and he had very solid backing within the government. But he didn’t, partially because it reaffirmed that he was already on the right course in his search for peace. I also can’t help but think of what this episode would be like if the advise of the British military had been ignored, and war had started and went against the British, I would probably be talking to you now about how that idiot Chamberlain, who listened not to the advise of those around him, those experts in their fields. But seriously, I think Chamberlain gets blamed for appeasement and its eventual failure as if he was the lone advocate for the policy, which was absolutely not the case. We also know today that the apogee of appeasement at Munich would delay the start of war by only a year, and for that we judge it harshly But what if it had been 5 years? 10? We do know that at the point of defeat in April 1945, Hitler wished the war had started earlier, when it was possible that the German military was better prepared. Hard to read too much into that though, Hitler is not known for his great judgement by April 1945.

In the year that was gained the British military greatly increased its preparations for war. The Royal Navy progressed its building programs towards a greatly increased fleet, the Royal Air Force continued to build up its forces, and the Army expanded first the Territorials and then absorbed large numbers of conscripts. But given the events after 1939 there is some cause to question these efforts, were they pushing in the correct direction? The answer to that is that it is complicated, of course. Military innovation is not a straight line, it is a wandering path that has no set end and no way to judge if the current path is the correct one. When trying to judge the decisions made around military innovation this is crucial to keep in mind. Even among thought leaders there was never any certainties, just assumptions and guesses. I like the example of Lidell Hart, who had been a worldwide thought leader around armored warfare during the first 15 years of the interwar period. Hart’s views on the future of armored warfare were widely read, including by many other military leaders in other nations. But during the last half of the 1930s he tempered his arguments and cautioned against placing too much faith in the armored breakthrough. This shift was due to his growing belief that defenses were becoming stronger and through the use of anti-tank guns and other new technologies the impact of armor would be reduced. He also feared that he was looking back at the First world War and perhaps drawing the wrong lessons, which was completely possible. One of the favorite talking points of people who enjoy history is about mistakes that are made, and often in the realm of military innovation it comes down to trying to apply the wrong lessons from the past to the future. Hart was concerned that he was thinking too optimistically about how the new armored mobility could be used, not properly considering its weaknesses or how it altered the balance of forces. There are almost more incidents of this type of mistake being made than the opposite. For example, and quite famously, the French army before the First World war completely misread the impact that the increases in firepower before 1914 would have on the next conflict. They believed it would benefit the attacker, and that it could be used to suppress the enemy while infantry launched into an attack. This belief, when coupled with the belief that an offensive spirit was an essential element to military planning, resulted in the catastrophic disaster that was the French attacks in the early weeks of the First world War. The complete disaster of the Battle of the Frontiers would impact generations of French military planners, and it would be just one of many examples that could be referenced in the 1930s to show that one incorrect assumption could result in disaster. Which military assumptions were incorrect in 1939? We could probably make a perfect rundown in this episode, but at the time it was impossible to tell into which category they fell.

I guess at some point I should stop ending every paragraph with further questions and get around to answering the question about the effects of the one year delay in the start of the war, which is a question based on the idea that Hitler would have ordered the invasion of Czechoslovakia even if it clearly meant war with the other European nations. The easy answer would be that, yes Britain and France were better prepared for war in the autumn of 1939 than they were in the autumn of 1938, they had used the intervening year to invest a collossal amount of money into their preparations, and it allowed some of their long term efforts from the mid-1930s to complete. Germany also used that year to increase its own rearmament efforts, but from a percentage perspective Britain and France expanded much more than did Germany. But even with this being taken into account, I think from a military perspective it would have been better to go to war with Germany in September 1938. Most of this is based on the size, strength, and morale of the Czechoslovak army, which had a reasonable chance of at least some success against a German invasion based on what they were capable of at the time. This would have had a variety of other follow on effects around how the war might have developed, but I will end my counterfactual there. But, here is the problem, regardless of what was better from an analysis fueled by hindsight, at the time, based on the information present in London and Paris, I find it difficult to say that they made the incorrect decision. Was bargaining away a piece of another nation a callus and cold hearted thing to do? Absolutely. Was it also the time honored tradition of the European great powers to use other nation’s territories as a bargaining chip in political agreements? Absolutely. Or for one final time to quote from Britain at Bay by Allan Allport: “Appeasement, when stripped of all the lazy pejorative connotations of the last seventy years, was – and remains – simply a traditional method, employed by every state in history at some time or another, of trying to deal with a dangerous and unpredictable rival in circumstances in which going to war appeared to be either impossible or at least highly undesirable.” At the end of the day the policy of appeasement was a guess, a gamble, which had, in the minds of Chamberlain and other appeasement supporters two possible outcomes. Peace might be preserved for a lengthy period of time, saving the world and the British Empire from another devastating war which it might not survive. Or war might still throw its ghastly shadow over Europe, but if it did things would not appear to be as dire as they were in September 1938. And of course all of this is complicated by how incredibly poorly the opening 18 months of the war would go for Britain and France, but the challenges of those months were probably unavoidable, and would have occurred regardless of when the war started. I guess my final conclusion: there is a reason this topic is constantly discussed, there are more than enough variables to make analysis difficult, and it will always rely on how you evaluate events that never happened, and in that way lies madness.