Lord Chatfield and his critique of British Defence Policy making

First published: 22nd October 2012 | Prof. Eric Grove FRHistS

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N.B. All references are from Admiral of the Fleet Lord Chatfield’s Autobiography ‘It Might Happen Again, Volume II. The Navy and Defence’, Heinemann, London, 1947.

Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Making of an Admiral

3. A Key Figure at the Admiralty

4. Rearmament

5. Lessons of the Past

 

Introduction

Although his name is nowadays largely forgotten, Admiral of the Fleet Lord Chatfield has a claim to be the most significant Naval Officer of the Twentieth Century. Less of a self-publicist than Fisher, Chatfield, after an extended period as First Sea Lord masterminding rearmament, became a cabinet minister, succeeding Inskip as Minister for the Coordination of Defence in Chamberlain’s cabinet in 1939. He remained in office as a member of the War Cabinet and Chairman of its Military Co-ordination Committee. First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill saw himself as the leading member of this body and eventually he manoeuvred Chatfield out of office.

Chatfield was effectively rusticated for the rest of the war. If Halifax had possessed the stomach to replace Chamberlain, Chatfield might well have been Minister of Defence, but Churchill combined the posts and saw Chatfield as a threat. No one else combined such political status and undoubted defence expertise. When Churchill was in political trouble in 1942 and in danger of being forced to relinquish the defence portfolio, Chatfield, a critic of the Prime Minister’s serious mistakes, such as the loss of the Prince of Wales and Repulse, was an obvious candidate. He was therefore kept as far away from power as possible, being placed in charge of a Civil Defence awards committee. His prestige within the Navy remained high, however. First Sea Lord Sir Dudley Pound drove down to see him to ask whether he should receive a peerage offered by the Prime Minister. Chatfield said no, given feelings in the Fleet about the Prince of Wales fiasco and Pound’s complicity in the disaster. Pound took Chatfield’s advice.1

As time went by and the actors in the drama of the war took centre stage, Chatfield was forgotten, although he lived to the ripe old age of 93 as a Naval elder statesman, remembered more within the service than without it. Mountbatten, who had served under his command, was always careful to keep Chatfield informed of events when he was guiding naval and defence policy. On leaving office Chatfield wrote his memoirs ‘The Navy and Defence’ part of which (the sections on higher policy) were censored until Churchill was safely out of the way in opposition in 1947. It came out as a second volume, under the title ‘It Might Happen Again’ with the frankly didactic purpose of making sure that what Chatfield regarded as the errors of the inter war period, were not repeated. As he concluded in his new foreword: – ‘If we do not mend our ways: if we fail to construct a better way of ensuring the country’s safety: if we allow defence to remain a matter of party controversy, and are unwilling to pay an adequate insurance premium, we may live more comfortably, but we shall live dangerously, and one day it will all happen again.‘2

The Cold War prevented this dire prediction coming true for half a century, but the current financial climate has caused British governments to revert to type. The so called Strategic Security and Defence Review with its savage cuts to naval and air capabilities and the resulting grotesquely ill balanced defence posture, have shown that it has indeed happened again. It is effectively a new ‘Ten Year Rule’ promising ready forces in a decade’s time. Chatfield would find such things only too familiar. It is useful therefore, to examine the recent disastrous policy errors through the lens of Chatfield’s critique of his contemporaries. This will demonstrate that the structural problems of the first half of the Twentieth Century still remain in the second decade of the Twenty First. Once again Chatfield has been a prophet without honour in his own country. Those who ignore the errors of the past are compelled to repeat them.

 

The Making of an Admiral

Ernle Chatfield came from a naval family. Immediately after Ernle’s birth his father was placed in command of both the corvette Amethystand the South America Station. Moved to the Pacific Station, together with the frigate Shah, Chatfield senior fought the rebel Peruvian turret ship Huascar in 1876. Reunited the following year, Ernle’s family moved to Malta when his father was appointed to the turret ship Thunderer. The boy acquired a deep love of both the service and the sea as he followed him to Devonport and Pembroke Dock. It was only natural that he should join the officer training ship Britannia in 1886. His father’s influence obtained good midshipmen’s appointments, the armour-plated ship Iron Duke closely followed by the corvette Cleopatra bound for South America. Both ships relied on sails for long distance cruising and the latter almost had a disaster on passage that did much to reinforce Chatfield’s recognition of the dangers of sailing ships, even with experienced crews. One of his first decisions when he became First Sea Lord in 1932 was to abandon plans for sail training ships.

Rear Admiral Chatfield retired from the Royal Navy in 1886 to run the Royal Mail Shipping Company. His son moved to the Pacific in its flagship, the new first class cruiser Warspite, whose absence of sails prevented traditional skills in seamanship being maintained. Having taken his promotion examination, which did not go as well as he had hoped, Chatfield returned to England for sub lieutenants courses at the end of which, as a lieutenant, he joined the battleship Royal Sovereign, flagship of the Channel Fleet. He was anxious to specialise in gunnery and, after pleading his case with the captain of HMS Excellent, the gunnery school, became the junior member of the gunnery course that began in 1895 at Greenwich and then moved on to Whale Island.

Chatfield’s first appointment as a gunnery lieutenant was to the Mediterranean Fleet battleship Caesar, where he made the acquaintance of both gunnery reformer Percy Scott, whose techniques he adopted and Fisher, the C-in-C who recognised Chatfield’s qualities and used him as a command gunnery adviser and inspector. This led in 1901 to an appointment at Sheerness Gunnery School that was cut short so that he could join the brand new armoured cruiser Good Hope. Although she would soon become obsolete and come to a sad end in 1914 at Coronel,Good Hope was one of the finest capital ships in the fleet in 1902. Chatfield carried out long-range gunnery experiments. Promoted Commander, he next became executive officer of the battleshipVenerable to improve the efficiency of the ship. This he did as the ship was involved in important gunnery trials in the Mediterranean that established the techniques of centralised fire control.

The same officer, who had allowed Venerable’s efficiency to lapse, had done the same at Whale Island and Chatfield, in 1906, was once again called in to clear up the mess as executive officer. This he did with great success and was rewarded by promotion to captain in 1909, aged only thirty-five. As one of the most capable officers in the service, Chatfield had got the attention of Admiral Colin Keppel, who appointed him his flag captain, first in the battleship Albemarle and then HMS London. He was then appointed Keppel’s flag captain in the P & O liner Medina, commissioned as a royal yacht to take the King Emperor and the Queen Empress to the Delhi Durbar in 1911. After a brief period bringing the light cruiser Southampton into service, Chatfield was appointed flag captain to Admiral Beatty in the battle cruiser Lion, commanding the First Battle Cruiser Squadron.

This began a close association with the charismatic but erratic admiral that would last for many years. Chatfield provided the quiet competence and stability that Beatty needed in a right hand man. He could not overcome the lackadaisical way the Squadron, later the Battle Cruiser Fleet (BCF) was run. Although Chatfield listened to his Warrant Officer Gunner and altered the way the flagship’s ammunition was handled before the Battle of Jutland, in the process saving Beatty’s and his own life, these procedures were not spread round the fleet, leading to the loss of a third of the Battle Cruiser Fleet’s strength. As the BCF’s senior gunnery officer, he also cannot escape criticism for its generally bad shooting.

Nevertheless important lessons were learned about the need for improved gunnery practices and equipment, notably better projectiles for use at longer ranges (a factor that Chatfield seized upon to excuse the poor performance of Beatty’s ships). When Beatty moved to replace Jellicoe as Commander in Chief, Chatfield moved with him as flag captain, first to Iron Duke and next to Queen Elizabeth, on condition he would be senior fleet gunnery officer ensuring improved practices on a fleet wide basis. He was thus at the heart of the major improvements in Grand Fleet efficiency that took place in the last two years of the war. He also developed the conviction that pre-war the views of the ‘skilled user’ of weapons had not been taken sufficiently into account.

To achieve this, it was planned that Chatfield would accompany Beatty to the Admiralty when he became First Sea Lord in order to reconstruct the Naval Staff, but Beatty’s appointment was delayed and Captain Chatfield preceded his senior to the Admiralty as Fourth Sea Lord in charge of pay and logistics. He took his naval officer Secretary with him from the flagship, as part of the process of undermining Treasury control of policy via civilian Sea Lord secretaries. Chatfield administered the implementation of the new and generous 1919 pay rates and when the Second Sea Lord went sick, was in charge of personnel for three months.

 

A Key Figure at the Admiralty

His time as Fourth Sea Lord provided excellent preparation for Chatfield’s appointment as Assistant Chief of Naval Staff in 1920. He was promoted Rear Admiral in September. As well as achieving his major aims of unified doctrine and ‘skilled user’ control, he was particularly anxious about the problems for naval aviation created by the formation of the Royal Air Force. Chatfield created an Air Section of the Naval Staff and a corps of specialised Naval observers to be carried in RAF aircraft. This was however unfinished business.

The most important matters of this period in Chatfield’s career were, however, the negotiations for the Washington Treaty of 1922. He assisted Beatty as the conference opened and then headed the naval delegation after the First Sea Lord went home to ensure too many concessions were not granted in London. It was Chatfield who insisted that Britain build two 16-in gun capital ships to match Japan’s and America’s ships with similar armament and that the tonnage used to govern both their displacement and the agreed limits be ‘standard displacement’ that favoured British interests. Chatfield thought that as ‘war was unlikely to recur for many years, some limitation on navies was reasonable.’ 3 The problem was how long this happy situation would last and the speed at which the navy’s political masters would or could respond to future challenges.

The immediate crisis was with resurgent Turkey, whose new Nationalist government was opposing the draconian Treaty of Sevres. Chatfield now found himself at the centre of this at the beginning of 1923, when he was appointed to command the Third Cruiser Squadron deployed to Constantinople. The dangerous period of the ‘Chanak’ crisis had passed, but as the negotiations for a new treaty at Lausanne proceeded Chatfield was left in charge of the British naval presence, his assets attempting to prevent arms shipments to the Nationalists. Chatfield’s squadron covered the British withdrawal once the new treaty was signed and then settled down to a more normal peacetime routine of visits and exercises. Its commander was informed that his next post would be back at the Admiralty in 1925 as Third Sea Lord and Controller in charge of the navy’s materiel.

Chatfield found the Admiralty under a ‘shadow'; as he later wrote ‘It was the Treasury that cast its shadow on the defence shield. It was consequential on the feeling of peace and security that filled the country. The statesmen had shackled themselves to the chariot of the League of Nations. Collective security (whatever that might involve) was the watchword. Fighting services were no longer wanted……Meanwhile, the Government anxious to spend money in other ways, bade the Treasury take advantage of the atmosphere to bleed the Fighting Services further. On the Chancellor lay the responsibility for carrying out the spirit of the Government and Parliament.” 4

In 1925 that Chancellor was Winston Churchill who Baldwin had pulled out of the political gutter after the fall of the Lloyd George coalition in 1922. Appointed to the Treasury in 1924, Churchill opposed the Admiralty’s building plans and suggested they be amended to deny the likelihood of war in the next twenty years.5 The Committee of Imperial Defence (CID) decided in April 1925, that there would be no naval war with Japan until 1935.

The most important issue of this period was the cruiser question. The Washington Treaty had encouraged the construction of cruisers larger and more heavily armed than previously, 10,000 tons and 8 in guns. Churchill, convinced there would never be a war with Japan, the most likely opponent, in his lifetime, used the new form of the Ten Year Rule to oppose continuing the Admiralty’s programme of these ships. The First Lord and First Sea Lord dug in their heels and threatened resignation. Beatty asked the other Sea Lords to consider their positions. Chatfield coordinated this process. They decided they would not continue, unless a memorandum was presented to Baldwin saying they could not remain in office, ‘unless Parliament was fully informed of Admiralty views on the danger to the safety of the Empire of continuing to neglect our ship-building. If parliament supported the Government, and it seemed inconceivable that they could do so, it would be our duty to continue in office. I had already drafted a document and read it to my colleagues. They all agreed that this attitude was constitutional and correct. We then broke up and awaited events.’ In July 1925, the emollient Baldwin suggested a compromise acceptable to the Admiralty. Chatfield covered this in some detail in his memoirs and said that he mentioned ‘this action for the consideration of future Boards of Sea Lords in similar circumstances. History repeats itself.’ 6 Indeed it does, but not perhaps in Sea Lords’ political strength.

The Colwyn Committee had been set up in 1925 ‘to bleed the three Services a good deal whiter.’ The Committee duly reported that further cuts were possible and necessary in order to balance the budget and to provide ‘for more vital services’. 7 Shades of the recent SDSR! Another echo, this time of the BAE letter that saved the second carrier Prince of Wales in order to keep a naval shipbuilding industry in being, was Chatfield’s description of the challenge facing the Admiralty in the mid-1920s: –

‘Confident in its permanent value to the country and Empire, the Admiralty knew well that great navies cannot be built in a night. Sea power is like an oak of slow growth. Once the tree is grown and sea superiority is attained, a nation’s position is assured, secure from challenge. But if it is allowed to fail, its roots to wither it cannot rapidly recover…The power of the Treasury; acting for the cabinet was being used not only to pollard the branches, but also to injure the very roots on which the future of the tree depended. The Admiralty, powerless to save the branches, endeavoured to save these roots: the dockyards, the great private firms on whom in emergency our guns, our armour and our naval instruments depended, our highly skilled labour in vital factories.’8

It was not possible to save all the nation’s industrial potential. ‘But what did it matter?’ As Chatfield later wrote in irony, ‘War was not on the horizon. This was a time to think how to spend our money in more popular ways; there is always an election on the horizon!’ The old Admiral realised there was an alternative view to his critique, that ‘the decade after the war, with a vast war debt on our hands, was an anxious financial time’. His counter argument was that ‘after the great demobilisation and reasonable disarmament, a halt should have been called and wise preparation for the future planned. Indeed the millions scraped out of the services were not really saved. They were spent in other ways; useful ways no doubt, from which the citizens of this country have greatly benefited but at an unjustifiable risk.’

Chatfield argued that all this was not the fault of the Treasury itself that was only doing its job but of successive governments who used the powerful and effective Treasury to achieve their objectives against the armed services. Chatfield successfully fought a Treasury led attempt to civilianise the Naval dockyards, although improvements in their management were brought in. Self-maintenance was also adopted for warships and provision made to keep old destroyers in reserve for anti-submarine duties. All these policies were vindicated by later events. It took personal negotiations with Churchill, however, to obtain a limited number of multiple two pounder anti-aircraft mountings for the fleet.

Another example of Chatfield’s resolution – and power- was shown during the negotiations for the Geneva Naval Conference in 1927. He and Beatty strongly opposed making concessions on cruiser strength. The Americans, who saw cruisers as adjuncts of the battle fleet, wanted parity with the British Empire on principle. Beatty and Chatfield argued that the Empire’s greater dependence on maritime trade meant larger numbers of such ships were necessary for security. Beatty delegated to Chatfield the task of guarding ‘the Home Front’ and it was well that he did so. He was given access to the telegrams concerning the conference and read one from the Ambassador in Washington that he had information that we had conceded cruiser parity. Beatty was absent collecting his sick wife in Germany and Chatfield sent the newly appointed ACNS, Dudley Pound, to catch the First Sea Lord at Victoria station for his reaction to the telegram. Beatty told Pound to inform Chatfield that he had the First Sea Lord’s full authority to act. Chatfield gained access to the Prime Minister that very afternoon.

Baldwin was persuaded not to send to Washington the telegram already drafted on his desk signalling approval of the key concession. As Chatfield later wrote in triumph: – ‘Parity in cruiser strength was not conceded and the unfortunate Geneva Conference broke up, having completely failed. The Admiralty was able to breathe freely again.’ 9

But not for long, Churchill wanted more. In disagreeing with Chatfield’s assertion in discussion over the 1928 Estimates that the new version of the Ten Year Rule had been fixed and would expire in 1935, the Chancellor insisted that the end of the ten year period ‘was continually receding.’ 10 In July, the CID endorsed Churchill’s view as to any major war with anyone.

As Chatfield put it: – ‘So the Cabinet decided that the Ten-Year rule should commence afresh each year, so that when it was revoked the three services would always be at “ten years notice.” Protest was unavailing. Gagged and bound hand and foot, they were handed over to the Treasury Gestapo. Never has there been such a successful attempt to hamstring the security of an Empire.’

A worried Chatfield left for sea to command first the Atlantic and then the Mediterranean Fleets. These important rites of passage for a future First Sea Lord left weaker spirits in Whitehall, It was no coincidence that the cruiser programme was cut and the Admiralty accepted both the London Treaty of 1930, which delayed capital ship replacement and conceded cruiser parity, and the unfair pay cuts that led to the Invergordon Mutiny in 1931. Typically, Chatfield was able to prevent serious unrest in the Mediterranean. When, with Japan already on the march in the Far East and days before Hitler came to power in Germany, Chatfield returned to the Admiralty as First Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Staff at the beginning of 1933, there was much to be done. What he achieved over the next five and a half years was remarkable. Ably assisted by his colleagues, Chatfield rebuilt the Royal Navy for war.

 

Rearamament

Chatfield’s first task was to cancel an expensive and ill-advised plan to re-introduce sail training. To improve morale, he and other service members of the Board of Admiralty began to wear uniform when they visited the Fleet and the civilian Board members adopted a complementary yachting rig. The London Treaty of 1930 had encouraged the Americans and Japanese to build large ‘light’ cruisers armed with almost twice the number of guns of existing British 6-in cruisers. Chatfield persuaded both Treasury and Board of Admiralty to adopt similar large ships for trade defence. Design work began in mid-1933 and the first, HMS Southampton, was commissioned less than four years later, in March 1937. One wonders how long a modern programme would have taken!

Chatfield’s priorities were to return total British Empire cruiser numbers to seventy, a mix of large trade defence and smaller fleet units, to rebuild the battle fleet and to assert full Admiralty control of the Fleet Air Arm. In direct face-to-face contacts, Chatfield tried hard to convert the pacifically minded Coalition Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald to his views on the cruiser and battleship questions.

‘Gradually Mr MacDonald came round. He invariably gave me the impression of feeling a great defence responsibility as Prime Minister; one could feel it in his questions and answer, and I had a conviction that I had only to stick to my guns and he would be willing to be convinced. He undoubtedly was. When we later met the other powers in secret conclave, I was astounded by the courageous and determined manner in which he supported the views on cruisers and battleships that I had urged in the past few months.’ 11 Again this kind of interaction between service chief and Prime Minister belongs to another world.

To begin his case for new battleships, and for a more general higher national priority for defence, he made a speech at the Cutler’s Feast in Sheffield, whose steel would be vital for the new fleet, battleships especially, and where the Navy then maintained permanent inspection facilities. Chatfield had a capacity for homely comparisons. As the following shows: –

‘The three Services are each part of a team on which the Empire depends. No one can say, if we ever again have the misfortune of war, which of them will take the position of forward, half-back or goal-keeper. But remember this: that as far as the Navy is concerned, the battle-fleet is the backbone of our defence or, as it has been called, the full-back of the Fleet. The full-back is now getting past his prime and when a new one is constructed it must be built without flaw. That responsibility and that trust will be upheld in the future as it has in the past by Sheffield and her men.’ 12

As he later wrote this ‘created a mild sensation. I was surprised and interested to find it very well reported in papers all over the country with large headlines and leading articles. By some it was accepted as a wise and timely warning, by others I was severely censured for venturing to criticise national policy. Hostile questions were asked about it in the House of Commons. It was the first salvo of a new open attack on the national complacency towards our defences. Perhaps I exceeded the customary discretion of the leaders of the Services, but the speech was perfectly constitutional. Like all sailors I hate public speaking, but you can accomplish nothing without it. I took every opportunity; however unpopular my task; but it was a lonely battle.’ 13 Modern service chiefs might take note.

Chatfield became Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Sub Committee of the CID in a context where the Ten Year Rule had been abandoned in 1932, but there were still many pressures against increased defence expenditure, not least the continuing economic crisis and its concomitant financial austerity. Chatfield got his colleagues to accept a very strongly worded 1933 Annual Report that asserted that the Empire could not be defended with the forces in being. He presented this to the CID, which recommended the establishment of a Defence Requirements Sub Committee (DRC), which reported in 1934. Despite the deteriorating international situation there was still much pressure to limit the defence budget and the DRC’s report received only a ‘lukewarm’ reception.14 The situation was complicated by Lord Rothermere’s campaign in favour of the RAF, which slewed the eventual policy decisions against the other two services. Chatfield wanted a more even handed approach and obtained the support of the other Chiefs to call the DRC back into existence in the autumn of 1934. It was now to make recommendations without regard for financial considerations, and after submitting an interim report asking for further clarifications from the Government, submitted a final report in November 1935.

This called for major re-armament and a new two power standard of naval strength and further major expansion in the air. It reflected the main defence needs of a global Empire security of the home base and the defence of maritime communications. This led to some watering down of the proposals, whose costs ‘appalled the financial minds’ in the Cabinet who took the report in February 1936 15 The Treasury insisted the Economy was the fourth arm of defence and that ‘the financial dangers of the country were greater than the military ones. So long had the Treasury remained the real factor in the Government, in deciding what our armed strength was to be, that other influences only slowly became effective. The government seemed unable to face the fact that every million spent now reduced the danger of war, and that if war came, it would not be spent in time, while the cost would be much greater.’ 16

All this went on against the background of an increasingly cloudy international situation. The Italian invasion of Abyssinia in 1935 forced a fleet concentration in the Mediterranean. Much against its strategic better judgement, the Admiralty was forced to threaten war against a third power, a former ally, in circumstances when the Government was showing reluctance to provide it with the wherewithal to fight Germany and Japan. No other League power demonstrated serious support for action against Italy. Despite much empty rhetoric ‘collective security thus showed itself but a heavenly dream, as it was the British sailor’s nightmare.’ 17 Similarly the Spanish Civil War pitted the Admiralty against Eden’s Foreign Office, which insisted that Franco’s Navy that had command of the sea, be denied belligerent rights of blockade upon which Britain would rely in any war. This also led to difficult situations and incidents.

Chatfield and the Admiralty were anxious that international idealism not backed by sufficient defence expenditure, was a recipe for disaster. Nonetheless they saw the right kind of arms limitation to support the British Empire’s relative position as a most useful policy instrument. When Hitler made an offer of a thirty five per cent Anglo-German ratio in naval strength it was too good to refuse, as it gave some predictable ‘two power’ figures for British naval policy makers to plan against. This agreement caused a frisson in Anglo-French relations, as it was a pragmatic acceptance that Versailles was dead. France, however, had no intention of taking any action to maintain the discredited peace treaty and the agreement encouraged the Germans to build a balanced fleet in inferior strength rather than concentrate on commerce raiding super pocket battleships and U boats. This seriously weakened the German threat.

Chatfield summed up his and the Admiralty’s thinking on a treaty, which came for a great deal of superficial criticism later. ‘It was a unique treaty, this voluntary acceptance of armed inferiority on the seas, advantageous on balance to this country and the Empire, and from practical considerations equally so to France and Italy. It might of course be said that Germany could not be trusted to keep her word, but at this time Hitler had not shown his treacherous mind, neither indeed had Japan, with whom by general international consent we were about to endeavour to make a naval treaty also.’ 18

The Second London naval Conference opened in November 1935. Japan, who had already announced her withdrawal from the former Treaty system, demanded a common upper limit in strength, which neither the British Empire nor the USA was willing to concede. The Japanese went home and the Conference moved on to qualitative limitation, which Chatfield thought to be in Britain’s interest, as it potentially limited the cost of rearmament. The Admiralty would ‘soon be free to build, at long last, what was vital to the Empire’s safety, a right long denied us.’ 19

The Admiralty planned to lay down new capital ships the very day the old Treaty system expired in 1 January 1937, but there was a final challenge to be overcome. There was considerable public debate over the relative merits of sea power and air power, symbolised by the bomber and the battleship. There was also public criticism of supposed inter-service haggling and for the creation of a Minister of Defence to obtain a better distribution of funds. Chatfield saw this as a campaign to divert even more funds to the Air Ministry and a measure that would create more inter service problems, as the pressure for voluntary compromise in the Chiefs of Staff Committee was removed (a good prophesy given the record of the unified Ministry of Defence). However he welcomed the appointment of Sir Thomas Inskip with his legal background as Minister for the Coordination of Defence as an independent arbiter on certain issues of continued inter service conflict.

One was the bomber v battleship controversy. A ‘Vulnerability of Capital Ships’ committee chaired by the new minister was set up and met in June and July 1936. Again Chatfield exploited his position with ministers to get his way. He travelled with Lord Halifax, the Foreign Secretary to Epsom to see the Derby before an evening meeting of the committee. Asked to sum up the Admiralty’s position he put it this way: -‘If we rebuild the battle fleet and spend many millions in doing so and then war comes and the airmen are right, and all our battleships are rapidly destroyed by air attack, our money will have been largely thrown away. But if we do not rebuild it and the airman is wrong and our airmen cannot destroy the enemy’s capital ships, and they are left to range with impunity on the world ocean and destroy our convoys, then we shall lose the British Empire.’ The Committee agreed with the Admiralty and the stage was set for the laying down of HMS King George V and HMS Prince of Wales on 1 January 1937, followed before the year was out, by three sister ships. These played key roles in the coming war, first damaging and then sinking Bismarck in the Atlantic, and then in sinking Scharnhorst in the Arctic. The true question was not battleships or bombers, but battleships and bombers.

Also laid down in 1937, were no less than four aircraft carriers. The vexed question of the control of the aircraft these would carry was decided the same year. Chatfield and the Admiralty were unwilling to accept the uneasy compromise of the ‘Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Air Force’ set up in 1924. Of all the problems he faced, this was the ‘only one which gave me real anxiety.’ 20 He considered the dual control of the FAA had been a failure. It had certainly created problems, not all of them the Air Ministry’s fault. Chatfield was undoubtedly correct, however, that the RAF, devoted to ‘strategic’ air warfare, was not the right context for a capability increasingly vital to the efficiency of the fleet, second only to its guns. As soon as he was in office, he had begun a campaign for complete naval control.

The first problem was getting the issue officially re-opened. In March 1935 quoting personnel problems, Chatfield and the First Lord produced a paper asking for an enquiry into the issues, but no progress was made. At the beginning of 1936, the Admiralty asked for an impartial enquiry into the workings of dual control, but again no progress was made before Inskip was appointed. The Minister for Coordination promised to help on specific issues, but then Monsell, the First Lord who had supported Chatfield, was replaced by Sir Samuel Hoare, a former Air Minister who thought he was in no position to take on his former department. The Sea Lords assisted in an investigation into the manning questions, but the Admiralty wanted more. Divided responsibility between two ministries led to delays, inflexibility, a confused chain of command, confusion, contention and ill-feeling. The current system was also not attracting enough recruits to sustain the proposed expansion of naval aviation.

Chatfield was concerned that if there was any failure in the air components of the fleet, it would be the navy not the RAF that would be held responsible (a consideration still valid with today’s carrier programme). He thought the navy should not have to take responsibility for this vital aspect of naval capability ‘without full and undivided powers in regard to all the forces which are normally required for its service. The Navy’s efficiency was being seriously and increasingly impaired…, which in my considered judgement, necessitated a complete and immediate change in the organisation, administration and control of the navy’s air services.’ 21

Chatfield threatened resignation, which brought a meeting with Baldwin who granted a ministerial investigative committee, but this was watered down to a preliminary Chiefs of Staff investigation chaired by Inskip. Its report was delayed and Hoare was replaced by Duff Cooper in June by the new Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, before any real progress had been made. Chatfield made it clear to the new minister that if a decision was not taken before the parliamentary recess he would resign. Inskip agreed to report on the question and Chatfield pushed hard to obtain a decision. On 11 July the Minister for the Coordination recommended that the Fleet Air Arm should come under the administrative control of the Admiralty. Shore based maritime aircraft and aircraft procurement remained with the Air Ministry. Chatfield accepted the compromise a little reluctantly, but it was the only offer available. ‘Time was urgent and the Navy could not wait.’ 22 The changeover actually occurred almost two years later in May 1939, just in time for the war.

This had been Chatfield’s greatest struggle and he had threatened resignation twice. His remarks on this threat are worth quoting: – ‘some people imagine that resignation is an easy and forceful step. This may or may not be so. It is no use resigning, unless your resignation is based on grounds the judgement of the country will support, nor can such a serious national step ever be taken light-heartedly. To leave your post and for another to step in who from inexperience, could not fight the battle so well, may not help your side. To resign, however, may be a duty and may bring things to a head, bearing in mind that it is the only check to delaying tactics by your opponents because it brings into play the public mind. In this case it was a proper indication of the serious view I took of our naval security, and I used the weapon in that spirit.’

Although rearmament proceeded after 1936 at a pace that in retrospect seems most impressive The Naval Estimates more than doubled between 1934 and 1938. A Defence Loan had been floated in 1936 and another in 1938, but in return for the latter the Treasury demanded a limit on overall expenditure, which would be rationed between the services. This meant reductions on agreed Naval programmes and the Admiralty was worried that the RAF would gobble up most of the ration given the immediacy and scale of the air threat. Chatfield, in direct negotiations with the Chancellor, obtained an increase in the Navy’s ration to safeguard vital programmes. Indeed, although the New Naval Standard was never formally approved, Chatfield and Sir Reginald Henderson, the highly able Third Sea Lord in charge of procurement, were able to obtain under the guise of ‘acceleration’ of agreed programmed scales of construction that could not have been exceeded either in terms of more ambitious programmes or shipbuilding capacity. This had the acquiescence, indeed the support of Neville Chamberlain, both as Chancellor and Prime Minister.

Lord Chatfield, as he had been since 1937, resigned as First Sea Lord in August 1938, but he was too important to be put out to grass. He chaired a committee to investigate the modernisation of India’s armed forces. . While in India, Chamberlain offered him the post of Minister for the Coordination of Defence to replace Inskip. Chatfield very much approved of Munich and the extra time it had granted the Empire to rearm and wanted to do what he could to help exploit this situation and valuable opportunity further to improve the Empire’s defences. Despite his complaints as First Sea Lord, Chatfield recognised that air and sea rearmament was proceeding satisfactorily with the Air Ministry and Admiralty more or less free of financial limitation.

Unlike today, the Chamberlain Government’s defence posture was an accurate reflection of the strategic situation of an island at the centre of a global Empire with sea and air threats the greatest menace to its security. The Army, that – most oddly – today stands as the centrepiece of Britain’s defence, was very much a poor third with anti-aircraft defence of the UK and colonial security its major concerns. The circumstances of 1939 dictated a change in policy to a greater emphasis on an expeditionary force to the Continent .The Army as it stood was bureaucratically incapable of absorbing the resources that were now suddenly being made available. So Chatfield ensured that a Ministry of Supply was formed to equip the sudden expansion of the Territorial Army and the introduction of conscription announced in something of a panic by the Prime Minister. He also created a sub-committee set up to discuss a new Strategic Appreciation carried out for the CID into a standing defence council, including the three service ministers and the chiefs of Staff plus a Foreign Office Representative. This morphed into the Military Coordination Committee on the outbreak of war.

 

The Lessons of the Past

As he reflected on his experiences following his resignation in 1940, Chatfield worried that after the war the same mistakes that had helped lead to the current conflict might happen again. He argued for a plan for national and imperial security that was above party politics. Neither the CID, the Service Ministers nor parliament had been effective in safeguarding national security from countervailing political pressures. He criticised the overwhelming, indeed tyrannical, power of the Treasury ‘to counter the demands of the fighting departments’ and in those departments ‘to employ’ familiars who could if they used their power, oppose or delay action involving the spending of money. It was a power that was greatly abused.’ 23 He argued for better informed ministers who would stay longer in post, even to the extent of those liable to being junior or senior defence ministers attending courses at the Imperial Defence College (now the Royal College of Defence Studies).

Before the publication of his book in 1947, he added an extra chapter with its title ‘It Might happen Again’ Here he gave an excellent summary of the United Kingdom’s true defence requirements, ‘Apart from the need of sufficient strength to obtain respect and play a proper part in a Security council, there are special reasons why the United Kingdom shall maintain an adequate military strength. Each nation has, by its geographical position, a liability to some form of attack by sea, land or air. It cannot unnecessarily trust to another great and friendly Power to save it from this special vulnerability, because that Power’s strength may be of the wrong type. The Bear cannot easily help the Whale, or vice versa. Despite world organisation for security, proper provision for national security is still therefore required.’ 24

After some sensible comments on Imperial Defence that sadly would all too soon be overcome by events, he then concluded with some recommendations on the administration of national defence. He did not trust the cabinet as a whole to take the right decisions. He argued for annual reviews of requirements by the CID or its equivalent and the Chiefs of Staff. This would then be agreed by the party leaders and become the first charge on the exchequer to maintain the services at the required strength and to provide a reserve for emergencies. He argued that the cabinet Committee chaired by the Minister of Defence would review the service estimates before they were presented to Cabinet and that the three services’ programmes should be adjusted into a coherent joint policy.

In a postscript he wrote approvingly of the Attlee Government’s proposals for the Central Organisation of Defence published in 1946 and implemented the following year. The new Defence Committee of the Cabinet corresponded with his recommendations, as did the newly constituted Minister of Defence. But he was still not satisfied that it removed defence from party politics, made defence the ‘first charge on national income’ or ensured the education of ‘future statesmen’ 25 ‘We are still without properly organised security, and unreadiness for war – which is in our blood – can happen again and bring us to the edge of the precipice…. To-day the Government is already struggling against uninformed opinion. Only by education, will defence expenditure cease to be unpopular and this dangerous democratic weakness be for the first time overcome.’

Over half a century later, the situation is not much improved, indeed, it has got worse. It can fairly be argued that some of Chatfield’s recommendations are politically unrealistic. They should not, however be totally dismissed. After all, Chatfield is worth respect; he did as much as anyone to give Britain the wherewithal to fight the Second World War. Politicians, especially those of the present generation, who know nothing else but Westminster, need education in defence and national security issues. Moreover, the best Defence Reviews are those that like of 1998, which self-consciously claimed political consensus and reflected the views of a broad swathe of informed opinion. I think Lord Chatfield would have approved.

The worst are like those of 2010, that threw the armed services to the Treasury wolves and made them fight for the programmes most important in their eyes, thus producing a completely incoherent and distorted defence posture that was totally out of synchronisation with declared national security policy. This ‘SDSR’ made the policy decisions of the inter-war period criticised by Chatfield look positively enlightened. Moreover, the disastrous Review was presented in grossly distorted party political terms.

It has ‘happened again’ and it is to be hoped that, although Whitehall has changed since the 1920s and 30s, – not necessarily for the better, – defence decision makers may learn something from the career, activities and advice of one of the greatest British defence policy makers of all time.



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