444 Mr R. G. Menzies, Prime Minister, to Commonwealth Government

Cablegram M100 LONDON, 2 May 1941, 11.10 p.m.


1. With further reference to your 252. [1] There have been meetings of the Defence Committee presided over by the Prime Minister [2] followed by a meeting of the Chiefs of Staff [3] and myself 2. The following is an extract from covering letter by the Chiefs of Staff on the memorandum dealing with telegram [4]:

After very careful consideration of the Commonwealth Government's telegram we find ourselves unable to answer, in isolation, the hypothetical proposals put to us. To attempt to do so would not only be unhelpful but possibly dangerous. Without minimizing our difficulties we cannot regard the situation postulated by the Commonwealth Government as being ['reasonably Proximate']. [5]

A full appreciation of the situation in the Mediterranean and the Middle East and its effect on the other theatres is in course of preparation and we hope that it will answer some of the problems put forward by the Commonwealth Government. In the meantime we have prepared the attached survey of the situation which may be of some value to the Commonwealth Government.

We wish to point out that this survey represents our views but has not yet been approved by the Prime Minister.

3. Churchill's attitude might be summarised by stating that he is so determined that the defence of Egypt must be made secure that the prospect of any alternative cannot be contemplated. To do so would in his opinion undermine the morale if it were known that plans were being prepared.

4. Whilst fully agreeing with this resolution of determination and appreciating certain energetic measures in hand to improve the position, I pointed out that it was essential to be prepared for all eventualities and he agreed to my proceeding to a conference with the Chiefs of Staff. At the latter meeting I was informed that the Middle East headquarters had a skeleton plan prepared and they are being instructed to see to its completion. We had a frank discussion and I can elaborate the position on my return.

5. The following is extract of the essential part of the survey referred to in paragraph 2:

Our main object in the Mediterranean is to secure our position in Egypt. To do this we must first interrupt effectively the enemy's long and vulnerable lines of communication by attacking with the greatest vigour his sea communications, large ports and extended land routes from Tripoli. Ultimately we hope to re-establish our position at Benghazi and so keep German Air Forces at a distance from the main fleet base at Alexandria.

In order to operate against the enemy's sea communication it is most important to retain the use of Malta as a base for air and naval forces and for this purpose to retain there a comparatively large fighter force.

We intend to hold Crete and as soon as possible build up our defences with a view to using it as an operational base for naval and air forces. In the meanwhile Crete will undoubtedly be subjected to a very heavy scale of air attack and may, in addition, be attacked by airborne or possibly seaborne forces.

Our policy in Iraq is to increase forces that we have already sent to Basrah with a view to stabilising the situation in that theatre and keeping out Axis influence. The forces that we send to Iraq will also add security to our oil interests and our air merchant route. At Basrah we intend to establish a large assembly base for American aircraft reinforcements to the Middle East.

To sum up, the Middle East is short of necessary requirements to provide adequate security to meet the increased German threat, particularly of armoured fighting vehicles, anti-tank and anti- aircraft guns. These are the very weapons of which there is a general shortage. There is also a shortage of aircraft in the Middle East because capacity of all possible reinforcements routes has been insufficient to meet recent heavy wastage in Greece and North Africa.

Our problems are complicated by the vast distances which our reinforcements normally have to travel. The delivery route is approximately four times as long as the route from Germany to Egypt and the Cape route six times as long.

Anything that can be done to bring relief to our sea routes via the Cape and the Red Sea, and to speed up shipment of aircraft to the Middle East will have a profound effect on the issue.

Finally in considering the extent to which we can afford to reinforce the Middle East, we must at all times bear in mind the fact that the war can only be won or lost in and around the United Kingdom. During the period in which we are building up our resources with which to win the war, we must ensure that we do not lose it at home, by taking too great risks in strengthening our forces overseas.


1 Document 424.

2 Winston S. Churchill.

3 General Sir John Dill, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Dudley Pound and Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal.

4 Copies of the U.K. Chiefs of Staff's letter C.O.S.(41) 271 of 29 April and attached memorandum are on file Defence: Special Collection 1, Box 626, Prime Minister's Visit to United Kingdom, 1941 Strategic Situation in Middle East. Discussions with Defence Committee.

5 Inserted from the letter cited in note 4.

[AA: A981, WAR 57, i]