118 Record of Meeting held at Dominions Office

LONDON, 11 July 1939 SECRET

THE SITUATION IN THE FAR EAST

A meeting was held in the Room of the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs at 10.30 a.m. on Tuesday, the 11th July, at which the following were present- The Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs. [1]

The Minister for Co-ordination of Defence. [2]

The First Lord of the Admiralty. [3]

The Chief of Naval Staff. [4]

The High Commissioner for Australia. [5]

Major-General H.L. Ismay-Secretary.

THE HIGH COMMISSIONER FOR AUSTRALIA said that the discussion which had recently taken place in the Prime Minister's room at the House of Commons on the 28th June [6] had been confined to the question of the general attitude of His Majesty's Governments in the United Kingdom and in Australia towards the situation which had developed in the Far East, and had not touched the problem of the size of Fleet that would be despatched to Singapore, or the time at which it would be despatched. The Australian Government were keenly anxious to have some information on these points. Mr Bruce recalled the conversations that he had had at the Admiralty last November [7], in the course of which he had been given an unqualified assurance that in the event of trouble with Japan, seven capital ships would be sent to Singapore. In point of fact, he himself had been responsible for the only doubt that had been expressed as to whether His Majesty's Government would, in fact, be allowed by public opinion at Home, to send this number of ships so far afield, in view of the possibility of the German pocket battleships breaking out on to the Atlantic routes. Consequently, on his arrival in Australia, he had told his Government that His Majesty's Government contemplated despatching seven ships to Singapore in the event of trouble with Japan, but that he himself thought that there might be some delay in the despatch of this fleet owing to the position in the Atlantic. The receipt in Australia of the Prime Minister's telegram of March 20th [8] came as a bombshell to the Australian Government, who were at a loss to understand what was meant by the phrase 'a combination never envisaged in our earlier plans.' The possibility of having to fight Germany, Italy and Japan at the same time had been clearly envisaged in his conversations at the Admiralty last November, and he had been given to understand that no anxieties in regard to the Mediterranean would interfere with the despatch of a fleet to Singapore.

THE SECRETARY OF STATE FOR DOMINION AFFAIRS invited attention to the telegram which the late Mr Lyons had addressed to the Prime Minister on the 10th March, 1938, and to the Prime Minister's reply (see Annex I and II to C.I.D. Minutes, 362nd Meeting). [9] Mr Lyons had appeared perfectly satisfied with the latter.

THE HIGH COMMISSIONER FOR AUSTRALIA said that the telegram in question was highly encouraging as compared with the subsequent telegram of the 20th March, 1939.

THE MINISTER FOP CO-ORDINATION OF DEFENCE pointed out that the situation at the time when the Prime Minister sent his first telegram, i.e. 1938, was very different from that which had arisen when he sent his telegram of March 1939. In March 1938, a war with Germany, Italy and Japan simultaneously had not been regarded as highly probable, in view of the fact that it had been hoped to detach Italy from the Axis. Subsequent events-notably the German seizure of Czechoslovakia, the Italian coup in Albania, the conclusion of the Italo-German alliance and our consequential guarantees to certain States in Eastern and South Eastern Europe had profoundly altered the situation. There now seemed little chance of detaching Italy from the German orbit. On the other hand, it seemed until quite recently that a war was more likely to start in the West, and that Japan might not intervene on the side of the Axis for some time. In that event, it might prove a sounder strategy to try to knock out Italy first, with a view to being then able to release the bulk of our Naval Forces to proceed to the Far East if the intervention of Japan rendered this necessary.

Within the last month, however, the situation had again diametrically changed, in that there seemed to be a distinct possibility that a war might start with Japan and subsequently spread to Europe.

THE HIGH COMMISSIONER FOR AUSTRALIA said that, supposing events moved on the lines suggested by Lord Chatfield and we found ourselves at war with Japan, what did His Majesty's Government propose to do? Did they, or did they not, intend to send a fleet to the Far East, and if so, of what size? Had a decision already been taken on this point and was it being kept secret? Or alternatively, had no decision been reached? THE SECRETARY OF STATE FOR DOMINION AFFAIRS assured Mr Bruce that no decision was being kept secret from the Australian Government.

The fact of the matter was that no definite decision had been reached, and no definite plan formulated, in view of the fact that the position was still indeterminate. Nevertheless, the assurance given by the Prime Minister in his telegram of the 9th June [10] to Mr Menzies still held good. He added that as a result of a recent examination of the problem, it had been decided that a minimum of six capital ships must be retained in Home Waters.

THE MINISTER FOR CO-ORDINATION OF DEFENCE explained some of the consequences that would flow if we abandoned the Eastern Mediterranean. The French might insist on withdrawing their two battle cruisers from the Atlantic in order to protect the Western Mediterranean against the two Italian battleships which were faster than their own; and our new Allies would be very upset at the withdrawal of all capital ships from the Eastern Mediterranean. In his own view the conclusion to be drawn was that we ought not to abandon the Eastern Mediterranean until the very last moment. A possible plan would be to concentrate the whole of the fleet destined for the Far East at Alexandria. This would keep our enemies guessing, and would enable us to postpone a definite decision as to its employment until we saw how matters developed.

He emphasised, in conclusion, that although the plan was indeterminate, there was no question that in the event of war with Japan, we would abdicate our position in the Far East without fighting.

THE CHIEF OF NAVAL STAFF said that there were two military steps which might be taken forthwith to meet the contingency of war with Japan. The first was to send military reinforcements to Singapore at once; and the second was to reinforce Egypt by a brigade from India at once. These would relieve the Navy of the necessity of providing escorts; and in addition, there would be less outcry from Greece and Turkey at the withdrawal of our fleet from the Mediterranean if Egypt itself was strongly held.

THE HIGH COMMISSIONER FOR AUSTRALIA asked for information about the position at Singapore. For how long was the fortress stocked, and were the necessary reserves of ammunition etc. in situ? THE MINISTER FOR CO-ORDINATION OF DEFENCE said that the present reserves at Singapore were based on a 'period before relief' of 70 days, and on a 'period before re-provisioning' of go days. At the last meeting of the Committee of Imperial Defence, it had been decided to extend the period before relief to go days, and the Services had been authorised to increase their reserves accordingly. In addition, the Civil Administration of Malaya had been instructed to examine the implications of holding a six months' reserve of food at Singapore.

THE HIGH COMMISSIONER FOR AUSTRALIA said that he was now clear as to what His Majesty's Government would do in the event of the trouble starting in Europe and subsequently spreading to the Far East. But he was still in the dark as to what would happen if trouble were to start in the East in the first place.

THE SECRETARY OF STATE FOR DOMINION AFFAIRS reiterated that no definite decision had as yet been taken on this point, and undertook to inform the Prime Minister of the desire which the High Commissioner for Australia had expressed to receive definite information as soon as it was available.

1 Sir Thomas Inskip.

2 Lord Chatfield.

3 Lord Stanhope.

4 Admiral Sir Dudley Pound.

5 S.M. Bruce.

6 Document 112.

7 Documents on Australian Foreign Policy 1937-49, vol. I, Document 315.

8 Document 46.

9 See Documents on Australian Foreign Policy 1937-49, vol. I, Documents 132 and 134.

10 This is probably a misprint for 29th June; see Document 113.

[PRO: CAB 21/893]