Friday, December 3, 2010

Fall of France, 8: Money

Last time I suggested that the real problem for the BEF on 10/05/40 was that not enough money had been spent on it. Or there would have been more of this.

(Check out the divisional cavalry moving through the outskirts of Bruxelles at the end of the clip.)

Sure, you say. It's not for nothing that we talk about Neville Chamberlain and the Guilty Men.
Let's understand the absolute, rock bottom point here. British (and Canadian) governments had been supporting enough infantry, cavalry and support services to equip more troops than were in France on that date. In particular, two armoured divisions, one entire infantry corps, and 6 armoured regiments (1 Army, 5 divisional) existed, had existed, had been paid and quartered and fed year in and year out for 70 years, and were in France at the equivalent date after mobilisation in 1915. These units existed in 1940. Some, notably the first armoured division and the infantry corps were to come over within the next two months. So the gap in mobilisation is very, very small. And the reason for that is

Maybe not. British politics are a tangled web in these years, but it goes like this. In 1929, Labour won a plurality of seats in the House of Commons and Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald became prime minister. MacDonald was a noted pacifistic internationalist, and set a new direction for defence policies in many directions. In 1931, the financial collapse caught up with Britain, and the budget showed a major deficit. I'm not going to say anything too judgmental here with Paul Krugman and Brad Delong's jeremiads ringing in my ears, but MacDonald was persuaded that there needed to be major spending cuts, which the Labour bench would not support. So MacDonald formed a National Government mainly with the Conservatives, and such Labour MPs as would follow him. An election followed, and MacDonald's coalition won. (There was a brief-lived scandal over whether or not the RAF was shuttling MacDonald between London and his Scottish riding so that he could campaign more effectively. Hitler wasn't the first politician to exploit the glamour of the air!) Chamberlain became finance minister and implemented the budget reductions, which included swinging defence cuts. As part of this, the government stepped up its existing search for international arms reduction: more peace, less spending on guns.

As we know, in the long run this mostly failed. The same cannot be said for Chamberlain's austerity budgets. By 1933, he congratulated himself for bringing the country out of the woods, but, as we know, an equally serious threat was looming: Nazi Germany. And, of course, Chamberlain ignored it, despite warnings from that Cassandra of British politics, Winston Churchill. Right?

Wrong? If you go back far enough, you'll find criticisms of the extravagance of Chamberlain's rearmament.

(If I ever find it, I'll put an old David Low cartoon here. It's so hilarious it made milk come out my nose.)

What happened is this. In the November 1935 national election, Chamberlain took ownership of a plank in the National Government election platform calling for major increases in defence spending! The government won, massively, and promptly afterwards, was pleased to receive a report of the Defence Requirements Committee, which called for more money now. This wasn't actually the beginning of rearmament, because there had already been some respectable-by-the-penny-pinching-standards-of-the-time increases in the RAF budget, but it was taken on board quite responsibly. Chamberlain asked for £394 million/year over 5 years. Sir Warren Fisher over at Treasury thought it ought to be faster, but Chamberlain didn’t want to “interfere with trade.” (cf. John Ruggiero, Neville Chamberlain and British rearmament : pride, prejudice, and politics [Westport, Conn. : Greenwood, 1999]: 54ff for additional detail.)
A 1936 White Paper on Defence followed, then the Rhineland remilitarisation, then alarming reports. On the one hand, the army couldn't send more than two partially-equipped divisions into the field. The Admiralty would have to give 3 million back to Treasury that it couldn't spend, due to the enfeebled state of the industrial base. Duff Cooper, Secretary of War, perhaps not surprisingly, argued for more money for the army. A lot of money. And was turned down.
Why? Not because of lack of money. On the contrary, the Estimates for 1937, as they were finally passed, spent the first year of a five year,  1.5 billion spending programme! How could the government afford that? By borrowing 1.2 billion. But that didn't mean that there was money for the army. On the contrary, almost every penny had to go to the Admiralty and the Air Ministry, or there would be inflation. This was just exactly as much money as the government could spend, and it could be proven, with equations and graphs, even. Science!
And so, once the government was committed to spending like drunken sailors on a particular sector of the economy, all afterwards was probity and good sense. Or not: the point of all of this spending was to deter Hitler from starting a war, not to fight one. So the more Hitler acted up, the higher spending rose. The 1939 budget alone was over 500 million, and by that time the War Ministry had its nose in the trough, too. Although the RAF managed to spend just under half, at 220 million, the army still got a respectable 148. Not bad for a service that was pulling in 41 million at the depths of the depression, and this on top of some additional money extracted from the Government of India (which, don't forget, covered nearly a third of army salaries and living costs.)

So, what was Chamberlain really worried about that the army had to be the "Cinderella service"? (A caution to people who read British military history of the Second World War: every service, every branch, described itself as the "Cinderella" branch. But it seems more apropos here.) B. H. Liddell Hart (did you wonder when his name would reappear in this series?) used to flatter himself that he had successfully persuaded the PM of the validity of a "British way of war," in which the army would swan about off the coast of Europe in boats. The idea being that if Britain didn't get snookered into sending an expeditionary force to France in, say, 1940, lives would be saved and the war would be won(ner) by superior strategy.

It's this kind of thinking that makes it hard for me to give Hart the respect many others have given him as a serious military thinker. And, as it happens, I think that he's wrong. I think Chamberlain was smart enough to see that Hart gave him some political cover  for what he believed to be the correct defence policy. So what is Chamberlain really worried about?

Manpower. But that's not to say that Hart didn't manage to have a disastrous impact on manpower. Because he (and his fellow pundits) did. But we're going to have to think outside the box to get to the next step in my indefinitely extended "Why wasn't BEF Fourth Corps and 1st and 2nd Armoured Division in France on 10 May 1940" inquiry.

No comments:

Post a Comment