Churchill – the power of the English speaking peoples

Would it be presumptuous for me to say that it symbolizes something even more majestic, namely, the marshalling of the good forces of the world against the evil forces which are now so formidable and triumphant and which have cast their cruel spell over the whole of Europe and a large part of Asia?

U.S Marines had arrived on Iceland to relieve British troops of garrison duties during July 1941.

In Britain there was something of an anti-climax after the return of Churchill from the [permalink id=13160 text=”Atlantic Conference”]. There was no dramatic breakthrough, the United States was not about to join the war. The ever growing practical support that Britain was receiving from America was only just beginning to make itself felt. Churchill went on the radio to persuade people of the importance of the meeting:

President Roosevelt is the thrice-chosen head of the most powerful State and community in the world. I am the servant of King and Parliament, at present charged with the principal direction of our affairs in these fateful times. And it is my duty also to make sure, as I have made sure, that anything I say or do in the exercise of my office is approved and sustained by the whole British Commonwealth of Nations.

Therefore this meeting was bound to be important because of the enormous forces, at present only partially mobilized, but steadily mobilizing, which are at the disposal of these two major groupings of the human family, the British Empire and the United States, who, fortunately for the progress of mankind, happen to speak the same language and very largely think the same thoughts, or anyhow, think a lot of the same thoughts.

The meeting was, therefore, symbolic. That is its prime importance. It symbolizes, in a form and manner which every one can understand in every land and in every clime, the deep underlying unities which stir and, at decisive moments, rule the English-speaking peoples throughout the world.

Would it be presumptuous for me to say that it symbolizes something even more majestic, namely, the marshalling of the good forces of the world against the evil forces which are now so formidable and triumphant and which have cast their cruel spell over the whole of Europe and a large part of Asia?

This was a meeting which marks forever in the pages of history the taking up by the English-speaking nations, amid all this peril, tumult and confusion, of the guidance of the fortunes of the broad toiling masses in all the continents, and our loyal effort, without any clog of selfish interest, to lead them forward out of the miseries into which they have been plunged, back to broad high road of freedom and justice.

This is the highest honour and the most glorious opportunity which could ever have come to any branch of the human race.

Churchill and Roosevelt pray together

This service was felt by us all to be a deeply moving expression of the unity of faith of our two peoples, and none who took part in it will forget the spectacle presented that sunlit morning on the crowded quarterdeck – the symbolism of the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes draped side by side on the pulpit

Conference leaders during Church services on the after deck of HMS Prince of Wales, in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland, during the Atlantic Charter Conference. President Franklin D. Roosevelt (left) and Prime Minister Winston Churchill are seated in the foreground. Standing directly behind them are Admiral Ernest J. King, USN; General George C. Marshall, U.S. Army; General Sir John Dill, British Army; Admiral Harold R. Stark, USN; and Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, RN. At far left is Harry Hopkins, talking with W. Averell Harriman.

Winston Churchill attached great symbolic significance to his first wartime meeting with the United States President. From the very beginning of the war he had been in correspondence with Roosevelt, keeping him abreast of developments and seeking his support. After the war he was to describe the historic meeting with characteristic emotion:

On Sunday morning, August 10, Mr. Roosevelt came aboard H.M.S. Prince of Wales and, with his Staff officers and several hundred representatives of all ranks of the United States Navy and Marines, attended Divine Service on the quarterdeck.

This service was felt by us all to be a deeply moving expression of the unity of faith of our two peoples, and none who took part in it will forget the spectacle presented that sunlit morning on the crowded quarterdeck – the symbolism of the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes draped side by side on the pulpit; the American and British chaplains sharing in the reading of the prayers; the highest naval, military, and air officers of Britain and the United States grouped in one body behind the President and me; the close-packed ranks of British and American sailors, completely intermingled, sharing the same books and joining fervently together in the prayers and hymns familiar to both.

I chose the hymns myself – “For Those in Peril on the Sea” and “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” We ended with “O God, Our Help in Ages Past,” which Macaulay reminds us the Ironsides had chanted as they bore John Hampden’s body to the grave.

Every word seemed to stir the heart. It was a great hour to live. Nearly half those who sang were soon to die.

See Winston Churchill – The Second World War, Volume 3: The Grand Alliance

‘V for Victory’ widespread across Europe

Use of fingers is a good idea – and on the 6 p.m. news they gave us a vivid account of how it is being exploited in thousands of ways . . . Morse code signals can be used on typewriters, trains etc. What an annoyance for the Germans.

Churchill enthusiastically adopted the 'V sign' apparently unaware that this version had different connotations to some people.
Later he adopted the fingers out version.

The director of the Belgian French-speaking broadcasts on the BBC, Victor de Laveleye, first suggested that Belgians use a V for victoire (French: “victory”) and vrijheid (Dutch: “freedom”) as a rallying emblem during World War II.

the occupier, by seeing this sign, always the same, infinitely repeated, [would] understand that he is surrounded, encircled by an immense crowd of citizens eagerly awaiting his first moment of weakness, watching for his first failure.

The sign was taken up by the Belgians and the Dutch, with chalked up V signs appearing everywhere. The BBC then started to promote the sign in other broadcasts to occupied Europe and the use of the morse ‘V’ was used in broadcasts. It soon became recognised across Europe. Victor Klemperer, a professor of linguistics living in Dresden, eastern Germany, noted its use in the former Czechoslovakia in his diary on 21st July 1941. Churchill mentioned it during a broadcast on 19th July.

Vere Hodgson, living in central London, was recording in her diary people’s attitudes to the war generally:

20th JULY 1941

We are all anxiously watching the Russians. They have that mixture of ruthlessness and fatalism which makes them a hard nut to crack.

When I read of the peasants calmly burning their homes and setting off on the tramp, leaving everything behind them as a matter of course, I am astonished. The French would not do it! It takes a high degree of courage and resolution.

We hear of a Town the Germans entered the other day. Regular soldiers had left. The Townsfolk defended themselves for two days. When the Germans entered the place was empty – except for seven men hiding under the bridge. They blew up the German tanks as they passed over – and themselves as well.

Nothing but the V Symbol these days. Where did it originate? With the unfortunate people who cannot say what they think? Or did Colonel Britton give them the idea?

Use of fingers is a good idea – and on the 6 p.m. news they gave us a vivid account of how it is being exploited in thousands of ways . . . Morse code signals can be used on typewriters, trains etc. What an annoyance for the Germans.

See Vere Hodgson: Few Eggs and No Oranges

The ‘Battle of the Atlantic’ begins

We must take the offensive against the U-boat and the Focke-Wulf wherever we can and whenever we can. The U-boat at sea must be hunted, the U-boat in the building yard or in dock must be bombed. The Focke-Wulf and other bombers employed against our shipping must be attacked in the air and in their nests.

An aerial view of a convoy in the Atlantic. Two escorts can be seen in the foreground. During the course of the war 366,852 tons of Allied Merchant shipping were sunk in the Atlantic.
An aerial view of a convoy in the Atlantic. Two escorts can be seen in the foreground. During the course of the war 366,852 tons of Allied Merchant shipping were sunk in the Atlantic [original caption]. U Boat Net suggests “During the war the U-boats sank about 2,779 ships for a total of 14.1 million tons GRT”.
An escort vessel, in peacetime a fishing trawler, making heavy weather in mid-Atlantic.
An escort vessel, in peacetime a fishing trawler, making heavy weather in mid-Atlantic.
Officers on the bridge of a destroyer, escorting a large convoy of ships keep a sharp look out for attacking enemy submarines during the Battle of the Atlantic.
Officers on the bridge of a destroyer, escorting a large convoy of ships keep a sharp look out for attacking enemy submarines during the Battle of the Atlantic.

The battle for control of the seas, with both Britain and Germany seeking to blockade each other had begun on the very first day of war. In Britain, the tonnage of shipping lost and the amount of goods entering the country were closely monitored and the subject of weekly review at Cabinet level. The U-Boat menace was now of increasing [permalink id=10039 text=”concern to Churchill”].

Unless more effective action was taken to protect convoys of merchant ships coming to Britain then the ability to continue the war, even to feed the population, would be threatened. Churchill, as Minister of Defence, set out his priorities for action in his famous memorandum of 6th March. From now on the the overall campaign had a name – ‘The Battle of the Atlantic’ – and a range of measures to step up the fight were pressed forward by Churchill:

THE BATTLE OF THE ATLANTIC

Directive by the Minister of Defence, March 6, 1941

In view of various German statements, we must assume that the Battle of the Atlantic has begun.

The next four months should enable us to defeat the attempt to strangle our food supplies and our connection with the United States.

For this purpose –

1. We must take the offensive against the U-boat and the Focke-Wulf wherever we can and whenever we can. The U-boat at sea must be hunted, the U-boat in the building yard or in dock must be bombed. The Focke-Wulf and other bombers employed against our shipping must be attacked in the air and in their nests.

2. Extreme priority will be given to fitting out ships to catapult or otherwise launch fighter aircraft against bombers attacking our shipping. Proposals should be made within a week.

3. All the measures approved and now in train for the concentration of the main strength of the Coastal Command upon the northwestern approaches, and their assistance on the East Coast by Fighter and Bomber Commands, will be pressed forward. It may be hoped that, with the growing daylight and the new routes to be followed, the U-boat menace will soon be reduced. All the more important is it that the Focke- Wulf, and, if it comes, the Junkers 88, should be effectively grappled with.

A destroyer escort steaming through heavy seas while escorting a convoy.
A destroyer escort steaming through heavy seas while escorting a convoy.
A depth charge attack under way in the Atlantic, as seen from one of the destroyers supplied to Britain by the USA.

‘Give us the tools to finish the job’

With every month that passes the many proud and once happy countries he is now holding down by brute force and vile intrigue are learning to hate the Prussian yoke and the Nazi name, as nothing has ever been hated so fiercely and so widely among men before. And all the time, masters of the sea and air, the British Empire – nay, in a certain sense, the whole English-speaking world will be on his track bearing with them the swords of Justice.

Winston Churchill raises his hat in salute during an inspection of the 1st American Squadron of the Home Guard at Horse Guards Parade in London, 9 January 1941. Behind, Mrs Churchill chats to a Guards officer. Lieutenant General Sir Bertram N Sergison-Brooke (GOC London Area) is standing on the right.
Winston Churchill raises his hat in salute during an inspection of the 1st American Squadron of the Home Guard at Horse Guards Parade in London, 9 January 1941. Behind, Mrs Churchill chats to a Guards officer. Lieutenant General Sir Bertram N Sergison-Brooke (GOC London Area) is standing on the right.

Winston Churchill’s radio broadcast of the 9th February 1941 was a particularly rousing affair. It was partly designed for his domestic audience, including British forces stationed around the world. Privately he considered the threat of invasion to Britain to be much diminished but he could not allow this perspective any publicity.

The speech was also an international appeal. He made clear the Nazi threat to the Balkans and to Russia itself, even while plans for these actual operations were closely guarded German secrets. By June Churchill would be passing definite intelligence on the German intention to invade Russia to Stalin.

It is not an easy military operation to invade an island like Great Britain without the command of the sea and without the command of the air, and then to face what will be waiting for the invader here.

But I must drop one word of caution, for next to cowardice and to treachery, overconfidence leading to neglect or slothfulness is the worst of martial crimes. Therefore, I drop one word of caution: A Nazi invasion of Great Britain last Autumn would have been a more or less improvised affair. Hitler took it for granted that when France gave in we should give in. But we did not give in. And he had to think again. An invasion now will be supported by a much more carefully prepared tackle and equipment for landing craft and other apparatus, all of which will have been planned and manufactured during the Winter months. We must all be prepared to meet gas attacks, parachute attacks and glider attacks, with constancy, forethought and practiced skill.

I must again emphasize what General Dill has said and what I pointed out myself last year: In order to win the war, Hitler must destroy Great Britain. He may carry havoc into the Balkan States; he may tear great provinces out of Russia; he may march to the Caspian; he may march to the gates of India. All this will avail him nothing. He may spread his curse more widely throughout Europe and Asia, but it will not avert his doom.

With every month that passes the many proud and once happy countries he is now holding down by brute force and vile intrigue are learning to hate the Prussian yoke and the Nazi name, as nothing has ever been hated so fiercely and so widely among men before. And all the time, masters of the sea and air, the British Empire – nay, in a certain sense, the whole English-speaking world will be on his track bearing with them the swords of Justice.

The United States administration was in the process of approving the Lend Lease Act, which would provide military assistance to Britain and China. Churchill was not going to miss an opportunity to aid that process of approval. He concluded by making a direct appeal to the United States.

Put your confidence in us. Give us your faith and your blessing, and under Providence all will be well. We shall not fail or falter; we shall not weaken or tire. Neither the sudden shock of battle nor the long-drawn trials of vigilance and exertion will wear us down. Give us the tools and we will finish the job.

Read the whole speech at iBiblio.

The Battlship HMS Barham which operated in the Mediterranean in 1941.

There are numerous accounts of how well the speech was received by those who heard it. Surgeon-Commander E.R.Sorley, RN, heard it on HMS Barham and recounted his reaction in a letter written to his wife the next day:

I thought of you very frequently when I was listening to Winston Churchill’s broadcast last night. It came through to us exceedingly well and as it co-incided with our weekly cinema show special arrangements were made to have the address relayed through the cinema amplifier between parts of the film.

Believe me, a very novel and interesting entr’acte; all of us, including Admiral and Captain, listened with craning ears, and laughed with the Prime Minister as he scourged the Dictators with his tongue. Thank God for Winston Churchill at this time. I think that was the predominant feeling amongst us at the end of his most moving speech.

There is no other man on earth, I believe, who can inspire us with the spirit of dogged resolution and fierce desire to strike our enemies; who can so combine the art of moving oratory with the bite of ferocious justified invective. There is something of the boy in Winston Churchill; he loves to tease and anger his opponents; one can almost see him chuckling and licking his lips as he rolls out his blistering phrases about the Nazis and the “black-hearted” Mussolini. Yet none of his opponents can compete with him in reply; even if they could, he would be quite unmoved.

How Hitler and Mussolini must hate him. Last night’s oration was a masterpiece and to my mind should take a place in history alongside his inspired words after France had fallen. You remember “Let us brace ourselves to our duty …. if the British Commonwealth shall last for a thousand years, men will still say, “This was their finest hour.”

The continuance of the cinema film after the broadcast came as a bit of an anti-climax. To be translated from the atmosphere of an inspired Churchill to that of Mickey Rooney portraying the adventures of the boy Edison detracted from the entertainment value of the latter.

This and other letters from Surgeon-Commander Sorley can be read at BBC People’s War.

On board the battleship HMS Barham - sponging out the 15" guns after being in action.
On board the battleship HMS Barham – sponging out the 15″ guns after being in action.
On board HMS Barham 1941 - Taking on board 15" shells.
On board HMS Barham 1941 – Taking on board 15″ shells.

Goebbels on Churchill

England will one day pay a heavy price for this man. When the great catastrophe breaks over the island kingdom, the British people will have him to thank. He has long been the spokesman for the plutocratic caste that wanted war to destroy Germany. He distinguishes himself from the men behind the scenes only through his obvious cynicism and his unscrupulous contempt for humankind.

German Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels in late January 1941, during a course on propaganda for military leaders.

Josef Goebbels the Nazi Propaganda Minister continued to portray Britain as the main enemy, partly as a smokescreen for the build up of arms for the invasion of Russia. In early February 1941 he published an article about Winston Churchill himself:

England will one day pay a heavy price for this man. When the great catastrophe breaks over the island kingdom, the British people will have him to thank. He has long been the spokesman for the plutocratic caste that wanted war to destroy Germany. He distinguishes himself from the men behind the scenes only through his obvious cynicism and his unscrupulous contempt for humankind.

He wants war for war’s sake. War is an end in itself to him. He wished it, pushed for it, and prepared for it out of a stupid, destructive drive. He is one of those characters of the political underworld who rise through chaos, who announce chaos, who cause chaos. For countless people the war brings vast suffering, for countless children hunger and disease, for countless mothers and women streams of tears. For him, it is no more than a big horse race that he wants to take part in.

He now has what he wanted. England is in the middle of the gravest struggle in its history, from which it will be lucky to emerge with its mere existence.

Churchill ‘We need to import more’

It is reckoned that the minimum food import required to maintain efficiency is about 16 million tons, 70 per cent, of the 23 million tons imported before the war. This involves cutting animal feeding-stuffs by about 4 million tons, which will reduce our stock of meat on the hoof, the safest kind of stock in case of air attacks. It will, of course, also reduce our supplies of bacon, eggs and dairy produce, already greatly depleted by the collapse of the Continent, but every effort is being made to maintain the children’s milk supply which depends upon imported oil cake.

The cold bleak Battle of the Atlantic was also a battle of tonnages and other statistics, which were closely monitored by the Royal Navy and at the highest levels of Government. Britain's ability to keep fighting was at stake.

Churchill circulated a memorandum to the War Cabinet detailing the impact of enemy sinkings of merchant shipping. It was part of the analysis that he was giving to [permalink id=10077 text=”Harry Hopkins”] to take back to the United States to discuss with President Roosevelt. The U-boats were having particular success during this period as the Royal Navy struggled to develop the technology and the capacity to counter them.

Since the outbreak of war we have lost about 2 million gross tons more shipping than we have built or captured. This has been approximately made good by bringing home British ships normally trading abroad and by buying and chartering Allied and neutral ships, which now work for us full-time instead of part-time as formerly. Thus the total shipping effectively at our disposal is about the same as in peace time.

Formerly nearly half our imports came from European countries and the north coast of Africa. These sources no longer being available, and the Mediterranean being practically closed to merchant shipping, we are forced to import from more distant sources and the average haul is increased by about half. In addition, the time of turnaround in port has been increased by blackout and other war time difficulties and by the concentration of unloading in the Western ports. These two causes together with convoy delays make the average round voyage last about one and a half times as long as formerly. Hence if nothing else intervened we should be able to import some two thirds of the normal amount.

In addition, however, it has been necessary to divert about one sixth of our importing capacity to the fighting services, a factor which has been increased by the campaign in the Middle East. Thus it seems likely that we shall not be able to import even two thirds of the normal amount. Indeed, if sinkings continue at their present level our merchant fleet, which has been maintained largely by windfalls in the shape of French, Norwegian, Danish ships, etc will diminish and our importing capacity will be even further reduced. This would gravely imperil our war effort.

He then went on to consider particular requirements, including ‘Food’:

It is reckoned that the minimum food import required to maintain efficiency is about 16 million tons, 70 per cent, of the 23 million tons imported before the war. This involves cutting animal feeding-stuffs by about 4 million tons, which will reduce our stock of meat on the hoof, the safest kind of stock in case of air attacks.

It will, of course, also reduce our supplies of bacon, eggs and dairy produce, already greatly depleted by the collapse of the Continent, but every effort is being made to maintain the children’s milk supply which depends upon imported oil cake. It also implies increased imports of fertilisers essential to augment our home food production.

We plan to reduce fruit and vegetable imports from two and a half million to half a million tons, and to cut one million tons of other foods, such as sugar, meat, butter, eggs, etc

The consumption per head in December compared with pre war rates is shown below for a few food-stuffs :—

Butter 29% of pre-war.
All fats 81%
Tea 83%
Sugar 76%
Bacon and ham 82%
Other meat 86%

It is evident that we cannot cut much further without reducing the stamina and morale of the people.

See TNA CAB 66/14/39

Many Americans ready for war

The important element in the situation was the boldness of the President, who would lead opinion and not follow it, who was convinced that if England lost, America, too, would be encircled and beaten. He would use his powers if necessary; he would not scruple to interpret existing laws for the furtherance of his aim; he would make people gape with surprise, as the British Foreign Office must have gaped when it saw the terms of the Lease and Lend Bill.

Harry Hopkins on his way to visit Britain, January 1941, where he became even more convinced of the need for support for Britain. He was highly influential in developing the Lend Lease policy which enabled Britain to keep fighting.

Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt’s closest personal aide, was in Britain to discover the war situation and report back. A late night conversation with Winston Churchill ranged far and wide around the international situation but also covered the domestic outlook of the United States. The whole candid discussion was recorded in the private diaries of John Colville, Private Secretary to Churchill:

As far as the present was concerned, there were four divisions of public opinion in America: a small group of Nazis and Communists, sheltering behind Lindbergh, who declared for a negotiated peace and wanted a German victory; a group, represented by Joe Kennedy, which said “Help Britain, but make damn sure you don’t get into any danger of war”; a majority group which supported the President’s determination to send the maximum assistance at whatever risk; and about ten per cent or fifteen per cent of the country, including [Frank] Knox [Secretary of the Navy] and [Henry L.] Stimson [Secretary of the Army] and most of the armed forces, who were in favour of immediate war.

The important element in the situation was the boldness of the President, who would lead opinion and not follow it, who was convinced that if England lost, America, too, would be encircled and beaten. He would use his powers if necessary; he would not scruple to interpret existing laws for the furtherance of his aim; he would make people gape with surprise, as the British Foreign Office must have gaped when it saw the terms of the Lease and Lend Bill.

The boldness of the President was a striking factor in the situation. He did not want war, indeed he looked upon America as an arsenal which should provide the weapons for the conflict and not count the cost; but he would not shrink from war.

See John Colville: The Fringes of Power: Downing Street Diaries 1939-1955

Churchill broadcasts to the Italian people

Your aviators have tried to cast their bombs upon London. Our armies are tearing – and will tear – your African empire to shreds and tatters. We are now only at the beginning of this sombre tale. Who can say where it will end? Presently, we shall be forced to come to much closer grips. How has all this come about, and what is it all for?

The Italian Offensive 1940 - 1941: British troops, sitting on captured Italian motorcycles, read copies of the congratulatory telegram sent to all units after their victory by the Secretary of State for War, Mr Anthony Eden.

On the 23rd December 1940 Churchill broadcast a speech directed at the Italian people. Various sources, not least interrogation of prisoners of war, made it clear that many Italians were ambivalent about the war and the direction that the dictatorship was taking them. This was all part of a longer campaign to turn the loyalties of the country:

We have never been your foes till now. In the last war against the barbarous Huns we were your comrades. For fifteen years after that war, we were your friends. Although the institutions which you adopted after that war were not akin to ours and diverged, as we think, from the sovereign impulses which had commanded the unity of Italy, we could still walk together in peace and good-will. Many thousands of your people dwelt with ours in England; many of our people dwelt with you in Italy.

We liked each other. We got on well together. There were reciprocal services, there was amity, there was esteem. And now we are at war – now we are condemned to work each other’s ruin.

Your aviators have tried to cast their bombs upon London. Our armies are tearing – and will tear – your African empire to shreds and tatters. We are now only at the beginning of this sombre tale. Who can say where it will end? Presently, we shall be forced to come to much closer grips. How has all this come about, and what is it all for?

Italians, I will tell you the truth.

It is all because of one man – one man and one man alone has ranged the Italian people in deadly struggle against the British Empire and has deprived Italy of the sympathy and intimacy of the United States of America.

That he is a great man I do not deny. But that after eighteen years of unbridled power he has led your country to the horrid verge of ruin – that can be denied by none.

It is all one man – one man, who, against the crown and royal family of Italy, against the Pope and all the authority of the Vatican and of the Roman Catholic Church, against the wishes of the Italian people who had no lust for this war; one man has arrayed the trustees and inheritors of ancient Rome upon the side of the ferocious pagan barbarians.

On the very same day in Italy Mussolini is despondent about the quality of Italian troops, who have been forced out of both Greece and Egypt within the last month. He tells his Foreign Minister, Count Ciano:

I must nevertheless recognise that the Italians of 1914 were better than these. It is not very flattering for the regime, but that’s the way it is.

Churchill seeks support from Roosevelt

We can endure the shattering of our dwellings, and the slaughter of our civil population by indiscriminate air attacks, and we hope to parry these increasingly as our science develops, and to repay them upon military objectives in Germany as our Air Force more nearly approaches the strength of the enemy.
The decision for 1941 lies upon the seas.

The lookout maintains a constant vigil from a Destroyer escorting a convoy.

On 8th December 1940, in a wide ranging letter to President Roosevelt, Winston Churchill reviewed the state of the war. Now isolated from continental Europe, Britain’s main source of supply, for food as well as all manner of war munitions, lay across the Atlantic. The Germans had recently had a series of successes, as their [permalink id=8950 text=”Surface raiders”] and [permalink id=8537 text=”U-Boat wolfpack”] tactics paid off. British countermeasures were constantly being developed but convoy escorts were not yet well co-ordinated, and there was still no answer to the long range [permalink id=9212 text=”Condor planes”] being used to spot shipping for the U-Boats.

This letter was copied to the War Cabinet and might well have been intended for a wider audience given the characteristic language employed:

The danger of Great Britain being destroyed by a swift, overwhelming blow, has for the time being very greatly receded. In its place, there is a long, gradually-maturing danger, less sudden and less spectacular, but equally deadly. This mortal danger is the steady and increasing diminution of sea tonnage.

We can endure the shattering of our dwellings, and the slaughter of our civil population by indiscriminate air attacks, and we hope to parry these increasingly as our science develops, and to repay them upon military objectives in Germany as our Air Force more nearly approaches the strength of the enemy.

The decision for 1941 lies upon the seas. Unless we can establish our ability to feed this Island, to import the munitions of all kinds which we need, unless we can move our armies to the various theatres where Hitler and his confederate, Mussolini, must be met, and maintain them there, and do all this with the asurance of being able to carry it on till the spirit of the Continental Dictators is broken, we may fall by the way, and the time needed by the United States to complete her defensive preparations may not be forthcoming.

It is therefore in shipping and in the power to transport across the oceans, particularly the Atlantic Ocean, that in 1941 the crunch of the whole war will be found. If, on the other hand, we are able to move the necessary tonnage to and fro across salt water indefinitely, it may well be that the application of superior air power to the German homeland and the rising anger of the German and other Nazi-gripped populations, will bring the agony of civilization to a merciful and glorious end.

But do not let us underrate the task.

However, there was one crucial factor that he had to spell out.

The moment approaches [he said] when we shall no longer be able to pay cash for shipping and other supplies. While we will do our utmost, and shrink from no proper sacrifice to make payments across the Exchange, I believe you will agree that it would be wrong in principle and mutually disadvantageous in effect, if at the height of this struggle, Great Britain were to be divested of all salable assets, so that after the victory was won with our blood, civilisation saved, and the time gained for the United States to be fully armed against all eventualities, we should stand stripped to the bone. Such a course would not be in the moral or the economic interests of either of our countries.

See TNA CAB/66/13/46

The number of ships sunk and the rate of supplies entering Britain was given close attention at the highest level. The weekly Naval Situation report to the War Cabinet would give a broad overview, as well as listing all the individual ships sunk. The general summary for this week gives an indication of the scale of the resources involved:

25. 19 ships totalling 78,234 tons have been reported lost by enemy action, and of these 16 ships (52,668 tons) were British. Nine British ships (44,042 tons) were sunk by U-Boats and one large Norwegian ship (18,673 tons), 3 British ships (2,392 tons) and a Belgian Trawler were sunk by mine. One British ship and a Trawler were sunk by aircraft. Thirteen ships are reported damaged by enemy action.

Protection of Seaborne Trade.

26. During the week ending noon Wednesday, the 11th December, 795 ships, including 130 allied and 12 neutral, were convoyed, and of these three are reported lost by enemy action. One battleship, one cruiser, eleven armed merchant cruisers, 43 destroyers and 30 sloops and corvettes were employed on escort duty. Since the commencement of hostilities 46,610 ships have been convoyed, of which 200 have been lost.

See TNA CAB/66/14/8