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189 Lt Col W. R. Hodgson, Secretary of Department of External Affairs, to Mr F. Strahan, Secretary of Prime Minister's Department

Memorandum 19 April 1938,


At the meeting of the Committee of Imperial Defence held on March 4th, one of the major questions discussed was the provision of reserves for Singapore.

The High Commissioner for Australia, Mr Bruce, submitted certain views on this question, in so far as he thought it affected Australia. A copy of the discussion is attached for information.



Report of Discussion by Committee of Imperial Defence

LONDON, 4 March 1938



The Committee had under consideration the following papers on the subject of the 'period before relief' for Malaya:-

(i) A Memorandum by the Chiefs of the Staff [sic] Sub-committee (C.I.D. Paper No. 444-C) [1]

(ii) A Memorandum by the Oversea Defence Committee (C.I.D. Paper No. 463-C) [2]

Sir Cosmo Parkinson [3], introducing the Memorandum of the Oversea Defence Committee, explained that it had been submitted in accordance with the Conclusions of the Committee of Imperial Defence at their 292nd Meeting, when the Memorandum by the Chiefs of Staff (C.I.D. Paper No. 444-C) had been discussed. The Chiefs of Staff had recommended, on purely technical considerations, a 'period before relief' for Malaya of 70 days, but they had asked the Committee of Imperial Defence to consider whether this period should not be increased in order to allow for possible delays in the issue of orders to the Main Fleet to sail to the Far East. The Oversea Defence Committee had then been asked to report on the financial and other implications which would be involved in fixing the 'period before relief' for Malaya at 50, 70 and go days respectively. They had found themselves unable to comply literally with these instructions, since they did not know what assumptions they should take as lying behind a 'period before relief' of 50 days or 90 days. The underlying assumptions on which a 'period before relief' of 70 days was based were, however, set out in the Memorandum by the Chiefs of Staff. In these circumstances the Oversea Defence Committee in the first part of their Memorandum were reporting the implications of maintaining the reserves required for 50, 70 and go days' consumption. It must be realised, however, that these figures did not exactly correspond to the reserves which are required to cover a 'period before relief' of 50, 70 and go days respectively. In the second part of their Memorandum the Oversea Defence Committee dealt with the reserves required to cover a 'period before relief' of 70 days, based on the assumptions taken by the Chiefs of Staff in C.I.D. Paper No.

444-C. It would be seen that on these assumptions it was necessary to make allowance for go days' reserves of most commodities, the most important exception being the food supplies of the civil population. As soon as the British Fleet on its arrival drove off the enemy on the 70th day, local imports of food for the civil population would be resumed. But in the case of other commodities, which had to be drawn from this country, it would be necessary to maintain 90 days' reserves, since supply ships would not arrive until 20 days after the Main Fleet. The estimated cost of reserves on the scale recommended by the Oversea Defence Committee for a 'period before relief' of 70 days amounted to nearly 3 millions, but of this some 1 1/4 millions was in respect of the reserves required for the civil population, and this expenditure would have to be borne by the Colony.

Mr Bruce said that the security of Singapore was of vital interest to the Commonwealth of Australia, and he asked for information as to the reserves which now existed in Singapore and as to the time which Singapore might be expected to last out if invested now.

Mr Hore-Belisha [4] pointed out that it was stated in paragraph 11 of the Memorandum by the Oversea Defence Committee that 60 days' rations were now maintained in Malaya for the military and air forces, and the same amount of reserves of Army stores.

Lord Chatfield [5] said that the Chiefs of Staff in their Memorandum had stated that, allowing for delays, the Fleet could be expected to arrive at latest in 70 days. Corresponding reserves of stores would therefore have to be built up. If, however, there was any delay in the initial despatch of the Main Fleet, these reserves of stores might be inadequate. It was in order to gauge whether any further allowance should be made on top of the 70 days recommended by the Chiefs of Staff, that the Committee of Imperial Defence had asked to be informed as to the cost of reserves for periods other than 70 days. The Oversea, Defence Committee, on reasoning which he felt sure his colleagues on the Chiefs of Staff Sub-committee would accept as sound, recommended certain reserves for a 70-day 'period before relief', at an estimated cost of 2,941,000. If the 'period before relief' were fixed at go days, the cost of the corresponding reserves would probably be some figure rather more than 3,179,000, which was only the cost of reserves sufficient for 90 days' consumption. There seemed to be two alternatives, either to decide now that nothing must be allowed to stand in the way of the despatch of the Main Fleet on the outbreak of war, in which case a 'period before relief' of 70 days would be correct; alternatively, if it were thought impossible to guarantee in advance the immediate despatch of the Fleet, to decide that Singapore should be stocked up with six months' supplies of all natures. The latter alternative would leave the date of sailing of the Fleet quite open, since there would be an ample margin of reserves in the Colony.

Mr Bruce stressed the importance of ensuring that the full reserves necessary were, in fact, available at Singapore without delay. If the decision were taken now to fix the 'period before relief' at 70 days, it would be realised if war came, that the immediate despatch of the fleet was essential, since, as the Chiefs of Staff had pointed out, any delay in its arrival at Singapore after the end of the 'period before relief' might jeopardise the whole security of the Empire by the loss of the port. Ms Government would, he felt sure, like to have as large reserves as possible in Singapore, but they were hardly in a position to press too hard in this matter, since it was not they who had to face the expense. If the Committee now accepted a 'period before relief' of 70 days, his Government would be keenly interested to know when action would be taken to implement this decision by the actual building up of the reserves in Singapore.

He observed that a delay of some eleven months had already taken place since the Chiefs of Staff had submitted their original Memorandum, and he hoped that there would be no further long delays in this matter.

Sir Thomas Inskip [6] said that it would be for the three Service Departments to build up the necessary reserves. Although he fully appreciated Mr Bruce's desire for early action in the matter, provision of these reserves would have to take its turn among the other commitments of the three Defence Services. There was only a limited amount of money available, and the date when provision would be made would have to depend on the priority accorded to it.

Sir Maurice Hankey [7] observed that Singapore had always received a high priority in the past and would no doubt continue to do so in the future.

Mr Bruce said that he felt in duty bound to press, on behalf of his Government, for the very highest priority to be accorded to the provision of these reserves. The whole basis of Empire defence rested on the security of Singapore. Many millions of pounds had been spent already on the base, and it would be appalling to contemplate its loss through a failure to provide it with the necessary reserves.

Mr Hore-Belisha said he was glad to hear from Mr Bruce of the very keen interest which the Australian Government took in the security of the Singapore base. As Mr Bruce no doubt knew, there was a proposal to initiate conversations with the Australian Government, with a view to exploring the possibility of the provision of Australian troops to form part of the garrison of the port.

Mr Bruce said that the provision of Australian troops for Singapore would raise political questions which might present considerable difficulty. He wished to make the position of Australia with regard to the defence of Singapore quite clear, since in answer to his strong representations for ample reserves to be provided at Singapore it was open to the United Kingdom Government to say, with very good reason, that Australia was not bearing the cost and should not therefore try to dictate what should be done at Singapore. He recalled that when the question of the construction of the base was first raised, in about 1923, some parts of the Empire made actual contributions in cash towards its cost. Australia had made no such contribution, but she had taken on the responsibility for providing two first-class cruisers and carrying out a five-year programme of naval expansion during the years 1923-1928. She was now engaged in carrying out another defence programme, but the Australian Government would be quite prepared to discuss whether the contributions which they were now making towards Imperial Defence as a whole were sufficient.

Sir Thomas Inskip said that he felt sure that the Committee fully appreciated the point of view which had been put forward by Mr Bruce. The United Kingdom Government realised that the naval contributions of Australia were a contribution towards Imperial Defence as a whole. He welcomed the suggestion of Mr Bruce for discussions on the present scale of Australian defence programmes.

Mr Bruce said that three Ministers of his Government [8] would be in the country in about a month's time, and that would provide a very convenient opportunity for such discussions.

The Committee agreed- (a) That the 'period before relief' for Malaya should be fixed at 70 days, the underlying assumptions on which this period is based being those set out in paragraph 9 of the Memorandum by the Chiefs of Staff Sub-committee (C.I.D. Paper No. 444-C).

(b) That Service Departments should be authorised to build up reserves of stores to the levels recommended by the Oversea Defence Committee in paragraph 20 of their Memorandum (C.I.D.

Paper No. 463-C), subject to the usual arrangements for obtaining Treasury sanction to the expenditure involved.

(c) To recommend that the provision referred to in (b) above should be accorded a very high priority in the programmes of the three Defence Services.

(d) To ask the Secretary of State for the Colonies [9] to take the necessary steps to ensure that the reserves recommended for the civil population of Malaya by the Oversea Defence Committee in paragraph 20 of C.I.D. Paper No. 463-C were provided as early as possible.

(e) To take note of the anxiety of the Government of Australia that the reserves referred to in Conclusions (b) and (d) above should be built up at Singapore with the least possible delay, and to welcome the suggestion put forward by the High Commissioner for Australia that Australia's contribution towards Imperial Defence as a whole should be the subject of discussion at the first convenient opportunity between representatives of the United Kingdom and Australian Governments.

[AA : A1608, C51/1/10]

1 Not printed.

2 Not printed. The Oversea Defence Committee, a standing sub- committee of the Committee of Imperial Defence, was responsible for advice on all matters concerning the defence of Britain's colonies, protectorates and dependencies, other than technical matters of coastal and Port defences. During the inter-war period, it comprised representatives of the Admiralty, the War Office, the Air Ministry, the India Office, the Burma Office, the Dominions Office, the Foreign Office and the Treasury, with the Permanent Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies as the chairman. Its membership was entirely at the official rather than the ministerial level.

3 U.K. Permanent Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies.

4 U.K. Secretary of State for War.

5 U.K. First Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Staff.

6 U.K. Minister for Co-ordination of Defence.

7 Secretary of Committee of Imperial Defence.

8 Sir Earle Page (Minister for Commerce), R. G. Menzies (Attorney- General) and T. W. White (Minister for Trade and Customs) who were to discuss revision of the Ottawa Agreement of 1932.

9 W. G. A. Ormsby-Gore.

[AA : A1608, C51/1/10]
Last Updated: 11 September 2013

Category: International relations

Topic: History