468 Commonwealth Government to Lord Cranborne, U.K. Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs

Cablegram 315 23 May 1941,


Your 357 of 21st May regarding hospital ships. [1] Germany has shown such little regard for the security of our hospital ships in the past that we fear she would use the occasion to impose reprisals of a more drastic nature, and would also make the maximum use of a breach of the Geneva Convention for propaganda purposes against the British Empire. In Commonwealth H. C's cablegram No. 2331 [2] regarding prisoners-of-war, it is indicated that Germany has generally met her obligations under the Convention in relation to prisoners-of-war and the continued observance by the British Government of the Convention in relation to such matters and its adherence to the Geneva Convention has, we feel sure, resulted in observance, if not completely, at least to some valuable extent by the enemy.

Australia's interest in this question lies in the possibility of Japan as an enemy. We hope that in such circumstances, she would observe the Geneva Convention, but if proposed breach by the United Kingdom occurs, fear she might not hesitate to act similarly, should the occasion arise, on pretext that action justified by precedent so established.

Realise your Government has given this question full consideration, but hesitate to acquiesce in proposals, for fear the good name of our nation becomes sullied by vicious propaganda used by unscrupulous enemy. Suggest, however, that if such action essential, it be taken after due warning to Germany that if further attacks made our hospital ships must take immediate steps to counteract.

1 AA: A3195, 1941, 1.8147. It reported that in view of persistent German air attacks on U.K. hospital ships the Royal Navy proposed to capture two or three German hospital ships to be held as hostages unfit attacks on U.K. hospital ships ceased.

2 S. M. Bruce's cablegram was dispatched on 19 May. See AA: A3195, 1941, 1.8039.

[AA: A3196, 1941, 0.6805]