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

"The Navy's here" – the Altmark boarded

The Altmark eventually sought to return to Germany by travelling through Norwegian territorial waters, to escape British attention. The ship was stopped and superficially searched by the Norwegians on three occasions. When the British finally located the ship they insisted that the Norwegians take it into port for a thorough search or allow them to board the ship themselves. There was a stand off with the Norwegian authorities whilst Captain Vian on HMS Cossack sought instructions on how to proceed whilst dealing with an enemy ship in neutral waters whilst being opposed by the neutral Norwegian navy.

The Altmark in Jossingfiord, spotted by RAF Coastal Command.

Following the Battle of the River Plate (originally referred to as the Battle off the River Plate, see [permalink id=2364 text=’13th December 1939′] ) the British knew that the merchant crews taken prisoner by the Graf Spee in the South Atlantic had been transferred to a support ship, the Altmark. The Altmark eventually sought to return to Germany by travelling through Norwegian territorial waters, to escape British attention. The ship was stopped and superficially searched by the Norwegians on three occasions. When the British finally located the ship they insisted that the Norwegians take it into port for a thorough search or allow them to board the ship themselves. There was a stand off with the Norwegian authorities whilst Captain Vian on HMS Cossack sought instructions on how to proceed whilst dealing with an enemy ship in neutral waters whilst being opposed by the neutral Norwegian navy. The matter was referred to Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, because of the political implications: Continue reading “"The Navy's here" – the Altmark boarded”

Churchill warns of the ‘criminal adventurers of Berlin’

Winston Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty when he made a Radio broadcast on Sunday 20th January 1940. He was clearly not going to be constrained to speak only of naval matters. After his assertion that in the war at sea ‘things are not going so badly after all’ he moved on to examine the position of the neutral countries. The speech was well received by the British public and was further confirmation that Churchill was the backbone of the Cabinet. It was less well received by the neutral countries and by the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax. Yet everything that he predicted was to come true, even his belief in a more united Europe after ultimate victory.

I have always, after long and hard experience, spoken with the utmost restraint and caution about the war at sea, and I am sure that many losses and misfortunes are lying ahead of us there; but in all humility and self questioning I feel able to declare that at the Admiralty, as at the French Ministry of Marine, things are not going so badly after all. Indeed, they have never gone so well in any naval war. …

Very different is the lot of the unfortunate neutrals. Whether on sea or on land they are the victims upon whom Hitler’s hate and spite descend. Look at the group of small but ancient and historic States which lie in the North. Or look again at that other group of anxious people in the Balkans or in the Danube Basin, behind whom stands the resolute Turk. Every one of them is wondering who will be the next victim on whom the criminal adventurers of Berlin will cast their rending stroke. A German major makes a forced landing in Belgium with plans for the invasion of that country whose neutrality Germany has so recently sworn to respect. …

But what would happen if all those neutral nations I have mentioned, and some others I have not mentioned, were with one spontaneous impulse to do their duty in accordance with the Covenants of the League and stand together with the British and French Empires against aggression and wrong? At present their plight is lamentable, and will become much worse. They bow humbly and in fear to German threats of violence, comforting themselves meanwhile with the thought that Britain and France will win, that they will strictly observe all the laws and conventions, and that breaches are only to be expected from the German side.

Each one hopes that if he feeds the crocodile enough the crocodile will eat him last. All of them hope that the storm will pass before their turn comes to be devoured. But the storm will not pass. It will rage and roar ever more loudly, ever more widely. It will spread to the South. It will spread to the North. There is no chance of a speedy end except through united action. And if at any time Britain and France, wearying of the struggle, were to make a shameful peace nothing would remain for the smaller States of Europe, with their shipping and their possessions, but to be divided between the opposite, though similar, barbarisms of Nazidom and Bolshevism. …

In the bitter and increasingly exacting conflict which lies before us we are resolved to keep nothing back and not to be outstripped by any in service to the common cause. Let the great cities of Warsaw, of Prague, of Vienna banish despair even in the midst of their agony. Their liberation is sure. The day will come when the joy-bells will ring again throughout Europe, and when victorious nations, masters not only of their foes, but of themselves, will plan and build in justice, in tradition, and in freedom a house of many mansions where there shall be room for all.

Churchill makes a rousing broadcast on the BBC

‘conscripts are being crowded in vast numbers upon the frontiers of Holland and Belgium. To both these States the Nazis have given most recent and solemn guarantees. No wonder anxiety is great. No one believes one word Hitler and the Nazi Party say’

Churchill was much more popular in the country than among the political classes at Westminster. His descriptions of Hitler … a “cornered maniac”, “this monstrous apparition”, “that evil man” were much more direct than the diplomatic language that people were accustomed to from the government before the war.

We have been agreeably surprised that ten weeks have been allotted to us to get into fighting trim. … We are far better prepared to endure the worst malice of Hitler and his Huns than we were at the beginning of September. …

They [the Nazis] have not chosen to molest the British Fleet, which has awaited their attack in the Firth of Forth during last week. They recoil from the steel front of the French Army along the Maginot Line. But their docile conscripts are being crowded in vast numbers upon the frontiers of Holland and Belgium. To both these States the Nazis have given most recent and solemn guarantees. No wonder anxiety is great. No one believes one word Hitler and the Nazi Party say and therefore we must regard that situation as grave. . . . If we are conquered, all will be enslaved and the United States will be left single-handed to guard the rights of man. If we are not destroyed, all these countries will be rescued and restored to life and freedom.”

It was a constant theme of his to mention the position of the United States, which he recognised from very start of the war as having a crucial role to play in any ultimate victory.

The great English speaking Republic across the Atlantic Ocean makes no secret of its sympathies or of its self questioning, and it translates these sentiments into action of a character which anyone may judge for himself.

The whole world is against Hitler and Hitlerism. Men of every race and clime feels that this monstrous apparition stands between them and the forward move which is their due, and to which the age and time are right.

Even in Germany itself there are millions who stand aloof from the seething mass of criminality and corruption constituted by the Nazi party machine. Let them, then, take courage amid perplexities and perils, for it may well be that the final extinction of a baleful domination will pave the way to a broader solidarity of all men in all the lands than we ever could have planned, if we had not marched together through the fire.

Hitler addresses the Reichstag

Mr. Churchill may be convinced that Great Britain will win. I do not doubt for a single moment that Germany will be victorious.
Destiny will decide who is right.

Hitler used the occasion to make a vague appeal for peace. He already identified Churchill as the main centre of resolve against Germany, even though Churchill was at this time only First Lord of the Admiralty.

Neither force of arms nor lapse of time will conquer Germany. There never will be another November 1918 in German history. It is infantile to hope for the disintegration of our people.

Mr. Churchill may be convinced that Great Britain will win. I do not doubt for a single moment that Germany will be victorious.

Destiny will decide who is right.

One thing only is certain. In the course of world history, there have never been two victors, but very often only losers. This seems to me to have been the case in the last war.

May those peoples and their leaders who are of the same mind now make their reply. And let those who consider war to be the better solution reject my outstretched hand.

As Fuehrer of the German people and Chancellor of the Reich, I can thank God at this moment that he has so wonderfully blessed us in our hard struggle for what is our right, and beg Him that we and all other nations may find the right way, so that not only the German people but all Europe may once more be granted the blessing of peace.

The full text of Hitler’s speeches are available at humanitas-international.

Churchill raises spirits in the Commons

The effect of Winston’s speech was infinitely greater than could be derived from any reading of the text. His delivery was really amazing and he sounded every note from deep preoccupation to flippancy, from resolution to sheer boyishness. One could feel the spirits of the House rising with every word. It was quite obvious afterwards that the Prime Minister’s inadequacy and lack of inspiration had been demonstrated even to his warmest supporters.

Harold Nicholson records in his diary the contrasting effects of two different addresses to the House of Commons. Winston Churchill was at this time First Lord of the Admiralty [Minister for the Navy], a position he had also held in the First World War:

The Prime Minister [Neville Chamberlain] gets to make his statement. He is dressed in deep mourning relieved only by a white handkerchief and a large gold watch-chain. One feels the confidence and spirits of the House dropping inch by inch. When he sits down there is scarcely any applause.

During the whole speech Winston Churchill had sat hunched beside him looking like the Chinese god of plenty suffering from acute indigestion. He just sits there, lowering, hunched and circular, and then he gets up. He is greeted by a loud cheer from all the benches and he starts to tell us about the Naval position. I notice that Hansard does not reproduce his opening phrases.

He began by saying how strange an experience it was for him after a quarter of a century to find himself once more in the same room in front of the same maps, fighting the same enemy and dealing with the same problems. His face then creases into an enormous grin and he adds, glancing down at the Prime Minister, ‘I have no conception how this curious change in my fortunes occurred: The whole House roared with laughter and Chamberlain had not the decency even to raise a sickly smile. He just looked sulky.

The effect of Winston’s speech was infinitely greater than could be derived from any reading of the text. His delivery was really amazing and he sounded every note from deep preoccupation to flippancy, from resolution to sheer boyishness. One could feel the spirits of the House rising with every word. It was quite obvious afterwards that the Prime Minister’s inadequacy and lack of inspiration had been demonstrated even to his warmest supporters.

In those twenty minutes Churchill brought himself nearer to the post of Prime Minister than he has ever been before. In the Lobbies afterwards even Chamberlainites were saying, ‘We have now found our leader: Old Parliamentary hands confessed that never in their experience had they seen a single speech so change the temper of the House.”

See HAROLD NICHOLSON, Diaries and Letters 1939-45

Athenia sinking "should have helpful effect" on US opinion

The First Lord of the Admiralty reported that steamship Athenia outward bound with 300 Americans on board had been sunk 200 miles north-west of Ireland at 2 PM on 3 September, 1939. It was understood that the passengers and crew were in the ship’s boats. Two destroyers were hastening to the rescue and should be near the scene. The occurrence should have a helpful effect as regards public opinion in the United States.

From the War Cabinet minutes of 4th September 1939:

6. The First Lord of the Admiralty reported that steamship Athenia outward bound with 300 Americans on board had been sunk 200 miles north-west of Ireland at 2 PM on 3 September, 1939. It was understood that the passengers and crew were in the ship’s boats. Two destroyers were hastening to the rescue and should be near the scene. The occurrence should have a helpful effect as regards public opinion in the United States.

The steamship Blairbeg had been sunk 70 miles north west of Ireland. H. M. S. Renown had detached her anti-submarine escort of two destroyers to the rescue.

The War Cabinet were informed that the routing of merchant ships was in force, but the convoy system had not yet started. Reference was made to the statement in the joint Anglo-French declaration that we should abide by the Submarine Protocol of 1936. Germany was one of the powers which had adhered to the protocol.

7. The Chief of the Imperial General Staff reported on the position as regards the air defences of Great Britain and the date of arrival in France of the Field Force. The Chief of the Imperial Gen staff gave the War Cabinet is a picture of the military situation in Poland as he saw it. The concentration of as many as 32 divisions in Slovakia had come as a surprise. The country between Slovakia and Poland was extremely difficult for military operations, and presented administrative problems of great magnitude. If the Germans were able to carry out their plan, the Poles would have to face an attack in enormous strength from the south.

The Chief of the Imperial General Staff expressed a personal view that the crushing of Poland by Germany in a few weeks with most improbable.

More on the sinking of SS Athenia.