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134 Mr N. Chamberlain, U.K. Prime Minister, to Mr J. A. Lyons, Prime Minister

Cablegram unnumbered LONDON, 11 March 1938, 8.25 p.m. [1]


Your telegram 10th March. [2]

The text of passage in my speech referred to in your telegram was as follows:-

'The question arises now, what is the policy for which these programmes are designed? I will try to put that in the form of a general statement. The corner-stone of our defence policy must be the security of the United Kingdom. Our main strength lies in resources of man power, productiveness, capacity and endurance of this country, and unless these can be maintained not only in peace but in the early stages of war, when they will be the subject of continuous attack, our defeat will be certain whatever might be the fate in secondary sphere elsewhere. Therefore our first main effort must have two main objectives: we must protect this country and we must preserve trade routes upon which we depend for our food and raw material.

Our third objective is defence of British territory overseas from attack, whether by sea, land or air. I would remind the house that our position is different from that of many continental countries in that we have the necessity at all times of maintaining garrisons overseas in naval bases and strategic points in different parts of the world. That makes it necessary for us to have available forces which can be despatched on what may be called Imperial Police Duty. In war time there would undoubtedly be substantial demands for reinforcement to be sent to these strategic points, but, taking them in order of priority, they are not as vital as the defence of our own country, because as long as we are undefeated at home, although we sustained losses overseas, we might have an opportunity of making them good hereafter. The fourth and last objective which I will mention can be stated quite shortly, namely, co-operation in defence of territories of any allies we might have in case of war. These objectives have been before us in the preparation of each of the service programmes. We have endeavoured to give to each service means adequate to the role it is expected to play. Taken as a whole the programmes represent a careful balance struck after due account has been taken of the considerations I have mentioned, and when they are added together I think they form an impressive picture of armed power and economic might of this country'.

The task of reconditioning our defence forces and defences involves a stupendous effort from the point of view not only of finance but also of man power and industrial resources. It was not physically possible to undertake the whole task simultaneously here any more than it has been possible in Australia, where I understand you have your own priorities of defence expenditure.

The extract from my speech merely sets forth in very general terms the system of priorities which we have been working. It would be quite wrong to deduce that the protection of overseas possessions, because it appears third on my list, is not regarded as of first rate importance.

In this connection you will notice that the first category mentioned in my speech includes not only the protection of this country, but the preservation of trade routes upon which we depend for food and raw materials. The protection of trade routes is carried out in the main by the naval forces (supplemented by military and air forces) which at the same time provide the principal protection for British territory all over the world. The bases of those forces must be rendered secure. Thus Singapore, as the pivotal point of the whole system of naval defence of the Empire east of Suez, is being provided not only with docks, but also with the most powerful gun and air defences of any port in the Empire, and continues to receive high priority. Similarly a good deal has been and is being done for the security of our communications with Australia and the Far East.

To sum up, we are merely doing what every other country is compelled to do, and, while strengthening our defences as a whole are adopting a general system of priorities which provides first for our most threatened and most essential points, but is applied with care and discrimination. The idea that in the event of war we may not depend on our overseas possessions is entirely false. [3]

As a result progress in rearmament, including Singapore, we are in fact in a better position in this respect than we were three years ago.

I hope that the information contained in this telegram will enable you to dissipate any erroneous impressions.

For your own information, and not for public use, what I have in mind in reference to 'the security of our communications with Australia and the Far East' are firstly measures recently taken to strengthen military and air forces available in Egypt and Palestine for the defence of the Suez Canal, and secondly, to strengthen the defences and air forces at the ports East of Suez several of which measures are in hand and some well advanced towards completion.

In the course of next week I hope to despatch for your confidential information a full account of our future programme of defence expenditure resulting from a comprehensive examination of the whole situation. [4] This was already being prepared when your telegram arrived.


1 This cablegram was dispatched in two parts. Part one was sent at 8.25 p.m.; Part two, which began 'The task of reconditioning ....

was sent at midnight.

2 Document 132.

3 On this passage see Documents 137 and 144.

4 This was not sent because it was subsequently outdated by the decision to accelerate rearmament.

[AA : A1608, 051/1/1]
Last Updated: 11 September 2013

Category: International relations

Topic: History