472 Advisory War Council Minute

Minute 346 CANBERRA, 28 May 1941


The following is a summary of the main points of the statement made by the Prime Minister [1] to the Advisory War Council on his visit abroad:-

1. UNITED KINGDOM WAR CABINET The Prime Minister stated that he had attended meetings of the War Cabinet whilst he was in London and was somewhat disturbed at the manner in which this body worked. He did not consider that there was an effective Cabinet as ordinarily understood. This arose from several reasons. Mr. Churchill played a large part in the personal direction of the strategy of the war. The War Cabinet was not a critical body owing to the personal domination which had been established by the Prime Minister. The economic and financial aspects of war were of minor importance to the Prime Minister, who was solely concerned with the military operations. In the view of Mr. Menzies, the Australian organisation for the higher direction of the war is better than the corresponding machinery in the United Kingdom and the U.S.A. The Cabinet system, as it is understood in Australia, simply did not operate in the United Kingdom.

The Prime Minister explained that the War Cabinet comprises the following Ministers:-

Rt. Hon. Winston Churchill, C.H., M.P., Prime Minister and Minister of Defence.

Rt. Hon. C. R. Attlee, M.P., Lord Privy Seal.

Rt. Hen. Sir John Anderson, G.C.B., G.C.S.I., G.C.I.E., M.P., Lord President of the Council.

Rt. Hon. Anthony Eden, M.C., M.P., Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs.

Rt. Hen. Arthur Greenwood, M.P., Minister without Portfolio.

Rt. Hon. Lord Beaverbrook, Secretary of State.

Rt. Hon. Sir Kingsley Wood, M.P., Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Rt. Hon. Ernest Bevin, M.P., Minister of Labour and National Service.

The regular members are always supplemented at meetings by Service Ministers and their Advisers. In addition, the Secretary and Assistant Secretary to the War Cabinet and Minute Secretaries are also present. Other Ministers are co-opted when subjects in which they are interested are under consideration, and they may be accompanied by Advisers. The Prime Minister's impression was that meetings of the War Cabinet partook more of the nature of a public gathering and were too unwieldy.

The meetings of the War Cabinet are held about twice weekly and are of brief duration. The brevity is due to the procedure followed. After the Chiefs of Staff have given a short review of any matters of military interest since the last meeting, the Prime Minister generally expresses his opinions on policy and the course of the war in such terms that there is great reluctance on the part of the United Kingdom Ministers to offer any views to the contrary. In Mr. Menzies' experience nobody, apart from himself, had offered any criticism. Cabinet discussions are practically non-existent, and the only discussions on strategy that were originated by anyone other than Mr. Churchill arose from the Australian Prime Minister.

The really effective organ in the determination of military policy is the Defence Committee, which comprises the Prime Minister and the three Service Ministers. It is dominated, however, by the Prime Minister's strategical views. He proceeds to give effect to his opinions by the preparation and issue of a directive, and, if major considerations are involved, it is submitted to War Cabinet for confirmation.

2. UNITED KINGDOM MINISTERS Members of the War Cabinet- Mr. Churchill, Prime Minister and Minister of Defence-A man of great ability and a great leader, but he must be critically supported and not surrounded by 'yes-men'.

Mr. C. R. Attlee, Lord Privy Seal-Intelligent, not reluctant to offer an opinion, but not a man of real and forceful personality.

Sir John Anderson, Lord President of the Council-Previously a distinguished civil servant and a first-class administrator, a man of solid ability, but does not offer any views outside the field of his particular experience.

Mr. Anthony Eden, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs-A person of considerable knowledge and great industry, but a light weight who has not developed in recent years.

Mr. Arthur Greenwood, Minister without Portfolio-Included in the War Cabinet because of his position in the Labour Party, but does not exercise any great influence.

Lord Beaverbrook, former Minister of Aircraft Production, now Secretary of State-The one man able to stand up to Mr. Churchill, but disappointed with the manner in which the War Cabinet works, and does not attend unless specially interested in some particular subject.

Sir Kingsley Wood, Chancellor of the Exchequer-Has a good deal of ability but his heavy responsibilities as Chancellor do not give him any time for concentration on matters relating to the general conduct of the war.

Mr. Ernest Bevin, Minister of Labour and National Service-Has a mind of his own and does not hesitate to speak it. The responsibilities of his post are, however, all-absorbing.

Ministers not in the War Cabinet- Lord Cranborne, Dominions Secretary-An able Minister.

Mr. A. V. Alexander, First Lord of the Admiralty-A very good administrator and the best of the Service Ministers. Mr. David Margesson, Secretary of State for War-New to Ministerial responsibilities and promises to do well.

Sir Archibald Sinclair, Secretary of State for Air-Nice personality but holds his post as Leader of the Liberal Party. He carries little weight as a Minister.

Mr. Herbert Morrison, Home Secretary-A proved administrator from his experience as Chairman of the London County Council. He was originally appointed Minister of Supply, and was in an unfamiliar field, but he has made a good Home Secretary.

Chiefs of Staff- Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, First Sea Lord-Too old and past his job.

The Prime Minister illustrated this by reference to his own suggestions for measures to interrupt the enemy convoys reinforcing and supplying Tripoli, which the Royal Navy had been tardy in adopting.

Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal, Chief of the Air Staff-An able officer who did well in the Bomber Command, but, like other Chiefs of Staff, is being killed on his feet by late night meetings convened by the Prime Minister.

General Sir John Dill, Chief of the General Staff-Has a high reputation, very intelligent with great knowledge, but incapable of standing up to the Prime Minister.

3. THE IDEAL WAR CABINET In the Prime Minister's opinion, the ideal War Cabinet should consist of five or six Ministers without departmental responsibilities. This body should hold daily meetings and review the military situation with the Chiefs of Staff They would be able to devote their entire energies to the higher direction of the war. A War Cabinet constituted on these lines functioned in the later stages of the last war. Mr. Lloyd George [2] informed the Prime Minister that no War Cabinet can be effective which does not include a Dominion representative, and stated that he had received invitations to join the War Cabinet, but refused to become a member of a body which is a War Cabinet in name only.

The Prime Minister illustrated the importance of the need for Dominion representation in the War Cabinet by an incident relating to the campaign in Greece. The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and the Chief of the General Staff had recommended that military operations should be undertaken in Greece on a certain basis. The Dominions were consulted accordingly, and the Secretary of State had had discussions with the Turks and Yugo-Slavs. On his return to Athens, however, he found that General Papagos [3] had weakened in his attitude and had not moved troops to certain positions as originally contemplated. The Secretary of State, the Chief of the General Staff and the Commander-in-Chief, Middle East [4], agreed, however, with the Greek Government that the campaign should proceed, and the Chief of the General Staff had signed an agreement with the Greeks accordingly. In War Cabinet Mr. Menzies denied the right of a United Kingdom Minister to make a binding agreement on a matter so vitally affecting the Dominions. Mr.

Churchill agreed with his view and informed the Secretary of State accordingly, emphasizing that participation in military operations in Greece must be decided solely on military grounds. On reconsideration of the matter, the Secretary of State, the Chief of the General Staff and the Commander-in-Chief Middle East, again recommended that the campaign be approved in the light of the situation after this further review.

Mr. Menzies instanced this case as proof of an unsatisfactory attitude of mind towards questions in which Dominion interests are involved, and added that Mr. Churchill has no conception of the British Dominions as separate entities. Furthermore, the more distant the problem from the heart of the Empire, the less he thinks of it.

4. WAR FINANCE The Prime Minister is not interested in these questions and states that he 'never did understand sums.'

5. FOOD SUPPLIES There is a Ministry of Food which is ably directed by Lord Woolton, but its responsibility relates to the distribution of available food. The Department of Agriculture is separate, and the Ministry of Food has no say in agricultural policy relating to the production of food requirements. The quantity of imports of foodstuffs is determined by the tonnage that can be made available after providing for the requirements of the Ministry of Supply.

6. SHIPPING The construction and repair of ships is controlled by the Admiralty. Labour is controlled by the Department of Labour and National Service. Transport facilities at ports are under the direction of the Ministry of Transport. Quantity and types of imports are controlled by the Ministry of Supply, and the activities of the Ministry of Shipping are confined to the arrangement of charter agreements.

Mr. Menzies represented to the Prime Minister the importance of a more coordinated direction of shipping problems, but the Prime Minister regards these matters as subordinate to the general strategy and direction of the war.

7. FOREIGN POLICY Mr. Menzies stated that he had the lowest opinion of the efficiency of the Foreign Office, and illustrated this by an account of his discussions on foreign policy towards Japan. He had been amazed to discover that the Foreign Office views were utterly negative and had urged the need for a realistic approach by:-

(i) A frank discussion with Japan of the facts of the position;

(ii) Pointing out to Japan the effects which war with the British Empire and probably the U.S.A. would have upon her;

(iii) Abandoning an attitude of resignation to the inevitability of a conflict which the Foreign Office appeared to hold.

In regard to the Prime Minister's speech in London which had been the subject of some criticism in Australia, he observed that it had been based on the foregoing points, and, in fact, was entirely contrary to the impression which had been created in some quarters in Australia that he was advocating a policy of appeasement. He added that on the return of the Secretary of State from the Middle East he had been informed by Mr. Eden that he was in full agreement with the Prime Minister's views. The Prime Minister added that the absence of the effective working of the War Cabinet machinery no doubt contributed to the inability to formulate a satisfactory policy.

8. GERMAN STRATEGY The Prime Minister observed that the advisers of the United Kingdom Government have consistently under-estimated the German capacity for speedy movement, as indicated by the counter- offensive against Libya. He understood that the tanks lost at Dunkirk were of a. poor type and not comparable with the German machines. The latter had 40-mm. armour and a speed of 30 miles per hour, derived from 350-horsepower engines. The United Kingdom tanks had 20-mm. armour and a speed of 10 miles per hour from Ford engines. It was a matter of some satisfaction that the Germans, after reaching the Channel ports, had not gone on to invade England, for had they done so, they would probably have won the war early.

The Prime Minister emphasized the need for armoured fighting vehicles, mechanical transport, anti-tank guns and anti-aircraft guns, as the strength of modern armies is not to be gauged in terms of manpower but by the extent to which they possess fire power and mobility.

The Prime Minister observed that, on the outbreak of the war, the United States Army was in a parlous condition in regard to armoured fighting vehicles and effective measures were only now being taken to provide for the mass production of suitable types of tanks.

1 R. G. Menzies.

2 M.P. 1890-1945 and Prime Minister 1916-22.

3 Commander-in-Chief of the Greek Army.

4 General Sir Archibald Wavell.

[AA: A2682, VOL. 2]