Date range
Open the calendar popup.
Open the calendar popup.

52 Bruce to Churchill

Letter LONDON, 25 September 1942

I am hopeful that in our conversation on Monday night [1] I convinced you that my one desire is to render you all the assistance in my power. That I believe I can best do by the most complete frankness. In that belief I am enclosing a Note which I made some three weeks ago. I would have hesitated, prior to our conversation, to have sent you this Note in the form in which I originally dictated it lest it might have given you a wrong impression of my attitude towards yourself. Now I have no such apprehension however little you may agree with the views I express.

I also enclose a short Note amplifying the view I expressed to you in our conversation that the Air Ministry is taking too narrow a view.

I am afraid with the two outbursts I enclose and our conversation on Monday you have had rather a dose of me this week. I am going to Scotland tonight to visit some of our men. After seeing them I propose to stay on for a few days holiday. This will ensure you a brief respite from my importunity.


1 See Document 51.


2 September 1942

The question of my position in the War Cabinet and the wider question as to how the War Cabinet is functioning has been giving me a considerable amount of thought during the past few weeks.

On the 28th July I sent to the Prime Minister, following on our conversation of the previous evening, a Note setting out, at considerable length, the position of the Australian Representative in the War Cabinet as I saw it. [1]

On the 31st July as a result of that Note I had a talk with Attlee who the Prime Minister had asked to deal with the matter. This conversation resulted in the agreement which is embodied in my letter to Attlee of the 1st August. [2] The arrangement which Attlee and I arrived at will probably work out satisfactorily so far as my obligation to keep the Australian Government reasonably well informed as to developments here is concerned.

I am doubtful, however, whether it will resolve the problem of my own position in relation to the War Cabinet, as to which I feel a certain uneasiness. The impression has been created by the public statements of the Prime Minister here and the Prime Minister in Australia that I am a Member of the War Cabinet. Owing to that impression I am regarded in many quarters as sharing responsibility for decisions taken by the War Cabinet and for the way in which the War Cabinet functions. It is asking a good deal to expect me to accept this responsibility when I am given so little information and am consulted so little.

In view, however, of the necessity of avoiding rows I clearly must stomach it and, unless my position becomes quite intolerable, carry on trying to make the present arrangement work.

With regard to the functioning of the War Cabinet the position, as far as I can judge, of the United Kingdom Members is not greatly different from my own. This, however, is not my business. In any event it does not cause me great concern because I believe in one man having supreme authority in running the war provided he uses those working under him in the way that will give him the maximum assistance in his almost superhuman task.

The Prime Minister stands so far above all his colleagues that he is obviously the man in whom the supreme authority should be vested. The trouble is that while the Prime Minister is assuming that supreme authority he is not utilising his colleagues in the War Cabinet in a way calculated to provide him with the maximum assistance they can render. This constitutes a serious defect in the higher direction of the war but up to date the consequences have not been as serious as might have been expected. If continued, however, the consequences will be disastrous.

In considering what can be done to remedy the present position the Prime Minister's unrivalled services must never be overlooked. The debt due to him for his inspired leadership and undaunted courage in face of all the reverses we have suffered since Dunkirk can never be repaid.

During this period which I would describe as the 'emotional' period of the war, the Prime Minister was a gift from God. Now, however, that 'emotional' period has passed and what is required is not inspiration for the people but organisation and planning by a central thinking machine which is in constant touch with every aspect of the higher direction of the war.

This machine should be the War Cabinet but as it is at present operating it is not fulfilling its functions and the Prime Minister is not getting the help he should. Too much of the burden is being borne by the Prime Minister. It is true, as many people would contend, that this is due to the Prime Minister's temperament. The Prime Minister's temperament, however, is no justification for failure to act if action is necessary.

Although my relations with the Members of the War Cabinet are admirable, I have felt it would not be quite playing the game to discuss this matter with them behind the Prime Minister's back. I therefore cannot speak from actual knowledge but I am convinced that all the Prime Minister's colleagues in the War Cabinet, if they would give their opinions frankly, hold the view that alterations in the present system are imperative. If this is so it is surely their duty to tell the Prime Minister and to suggest to him what they consider should be done. They are, however, apparently not prepared to do so.

The reason I imagine that would be given for this reluctance would be that if a Minister tenders advice to the Prime Minister on a matter which he regards as of vital importance and the Prime Minister refuses to accept that advice, the only course open to the Minister is to resign. This course it would be argued can quite properly be taken in peace time but that in war time the resignation of a Member of the War Cabinet involves consequences so serious that such action can only be taken under the most exceptional circumstances.

I also feel that the attitude of the Members of the War Cabinet is influenced by the recognition by them of the Prime Minister's outstanding position and prestige in the United States of America and Russia. Because of this they are reluctant to take any action which might precipitate a crisis which would weaken the Prime Minister's position.

This latter consideration does not appear to me to make an approach to the Prime Minister more difficult, but easier. In ordinary circumstances a Minister's approach to the Prime Minister on a question of fundamental importance carries with it the possibility of the Minister's resignation if his view is not accepted. Under the war circumstances of to-day the possibility of resignation would imply a threat. I know of no one who would react more violently against a threat, or even a suggestion of a threat, than the Prime Minister. No such implication need, however, arise if in an approach to the Prime Minister he was told at the outset

how essential his services were considered and the whole position was put to him in the frankest way. It seems to me the matter could be thrashed out without the Minister concerned placing himself in the position of his having to resign if the Prime Minister was not prepared to accept his views.

Everything of course depends upon how the conversation was handled. Personally I am convinced that if there is anyone in the War Cabinet big enough to put the whole position to the Prime Minister in the right way the Prime Minister would respond and satisfactory results would be achieved.

The case which should be put to the Prime Minister should not, in my view, be directed to any question of detail but should be broadly based upon the necessity of improving the central thinking machine, i.e. the War Cabinet.

The way in which that improvement could be brought about would, in my view, be by regular daily meetings of the War Cabinet. These meetings would keep under continuous review all questions concerning the war and would provide a central thinking machine. I recognise that it would be impossible for the Prime Minister, with the great burden he is carrying and his many preoccupations, to attend these meetings continuously. The measure of his attendance would depend on how the arrangement worked. I also recognise that members of the War Cabinet who are administering Departments, e.g.

the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, the Minister of Production and the Minister for Labour, might find difficulty in attending regularly and continuously. This fact, it might be argued, suggests the desirability of the War Cabinet being composed of Ministers without Departmental responsibilities. This point it is not for me to pursue. Taking the position as it is, I am convinced that regular daily meetings of the War Cabinet would be valuable and that Ministers with Departmental responsibilities would find them most helpful in relation to their own problems.

As a practical method of giving effect to the proposal made above I would suggest the following- 1. The members of the War Cabinet, other than the Prime Minister, should meet every day at 10 o'clock under the Chairmanship of the Deputy Prime Minister to deal with matters other than strategical or operational questions.

At these meetings matters referred by the Prime Minister or raised by individual Members of the War Cabinet would be dealt with. Such matters would be subject of a preliminary exchange of views from which it would be determined what action should be taken with regard to them, e.g. preparation of a report by a Member of the War Cabinet, or by the Department, or Departments, concerned. To these meetings of the War Cabinet other Ministers, not Members of the War Cabinet, would from time to time be summoned.

The meetings under the Deputy Prime Minister would be of such duration as was necessary. Where little had to be dealt with they might be of short duration. Where a complicated and difficult question had to be handled they might be of practically continuous duration until the matter was disposed of.

2. A further meeting of the War Cabinet, presided over by the Prime Minister, should be held at a later hour daily or at less frequent intervals if daily meetings were found to be unnecessary.

At these meetings a report of the proceedings at the earlier meeting would be made and the Prime Minister's endorsement of decisions arrived at sought.

These meetings would also afford the Prime Minister an opportunity of consulting his colleagues with regard to matters he was handling, particularly Defence questions, and where necessary of obtaining their endorsement of any action he contemplated taking.

3 The Chiefs of Staff would make their weekly report at the ordinary Monday meeting of the War Cabinet which should continue to be held. Apart from this meeting the Chiefs of Staff should not attend War Cabinet meetings save where specific questions requiring their presence were under discussion.

Such a system as I have outlined above would ensure a practical method of carrying on the central direction of the war without imposing too great a burden on the Prime Minister. It might be objected that the method proposed would tend towards Members of the War Cabinet arriving at decisions without the Prime Minister having taken part in the discussions with the result that if the Prime Minister found himself in disagreement with a decision of his colleagues he might have difficulty in reversing it owing to his colleagues having already been formed into a united front.

Having controlled a Cabinet for just on seven years this objection does not disturb me.

The position of a Prime Minister, and this is particularly so in the case of the present Prime Minister here, is so strong that he can ensure that in respect to any questions which he regards as of vital importance his view will prevail.


1 See Documents 14 and 15.

2 See Document 14.


25 September 1942

The experience of the past three years has demonstrated that Air strength is going to be a, if not the, determining factor of the war. This is extremely fortunate for us.

In my Note of June 16th [1], I said-

'In the Air ... we have the resources to enable us to create an overwhelming and decisive strength. During 1942 the combined production of the United States of America, the British Empire and Russia may well be twice that of the Axis Powers, and in 1943 four times. This strength properly employed should enable us to defeat the enemy. If we are so to employ it, however, there must be fundamental reconsideration of our strategic and production policies.'

The three months that have passed since the above was written have not altered the position save that the indications now are that in 1943 our production is likely to be five, if not six, times that of the Axis Powers.

The main question is how are we going to use that power. As I see

it, it will be employed directly, i.e. by bombing Germany and Italy and probably, in view of the developments that are taking place, Japan also, and indirectly by co-operation with our Sea and Land Forces.

In the Chiefs of Staff report of the 18th July (W.P.(42)302) [2] the Chiefs of Staff laid down in their terms of reference to the Naval Staff-Air Staff Committee the following order of priority for the utilisation of our Air resources- (a) Minimum necessary fighter defence of the United Kingdom (b) Minimum necessary allocation for securing our vital communications and interrupting those of the enemy (c) Maximum possible provision for the offensive both direct and in support of land operations.

I have never heard this order of priority challenged and at the meeting of the War Cabinet on the 12th August [3], at which this matter was discussed, I was under the impression that it was confirmed.

If, in fact, it does stand, we should be giving effect to it by providing, in the approved priority, for the security of our vital communications. This, however, we are not doing as is shown by the Chiefs of Staff report above referred to. This appears to me a most extraordinary and illogical position and I can only explain it by attributing to the Air Ministry a too narrow vision of the paramount importance of the Air in modern warfare. Its vital contribution towards victory is not only going to be its directly offensive power of bombing the enemy, although this may be its major contribution, but its co-operation in making it possible for our sea and land forces to carry out their respective functions.

The attitude of the Air Ministry appears to be, however, that the safeguarding of our communications is a task for the Navy and that any utilisation of our Air resources in this task is a diversion of the Air from its legitimate function of bombing Germany. This, to my mind, is taking far too narrow a view as each of the three Services has responsibilities and an essential role to fulfil in the exercise of sea power. In certain areas, whether we like it or not, modern developments have made the Air the predominant arm and, unless it plays its part, the approved strategy cannot be given effect to.

That strategy gives a priority to the securing of our vital communications and to interrupting those of the enemy and the Air must make its contribution to that end. In any event all the pother and friction that has been caused with regard to the air allocation for securing our sea communications seems to me absurd as whatever decision was taken would not affect our bombing capacity of Germany to the extent of more than four or five Squadrons and then only for a limited period.

The issue involved in connection with our bombing offensive against Germany is not one of whether four or five Squadrons will be available a few months earlier or later. It is a question of framing our strategic and production policies so as to provide at the earliest possible date the maximum number of Bomber aircraft that our bases can handle and that it is practical to operate in the air.

If that is our policy it is not a question of fighting about a few aeroplanes for ensuring our vital communications, it is a question of determining a reasonable limit to the land forces we are going to bring into being so as to prevent our capacity for production of directly offensive aircraft being diverted to the building of an unnecessary number of Army co-operation planes.

On this point I am convinced that we should not think in terms of more than 30 to 50 Divisions for the European theatre. My reason for this view is that if the circumstances are favourable this number of Divisions will be ample for cleaning up Germany. If the circumstances are unfavourable no number of Divisions that we could provide and transport would be adequate. With a sound Air policy the number of Divisions necessary for the North American Continent would be relatively small.


[PRO:PREM 4/50/11]

1 See Document 5, note 1.

2 For Bruce's earlier comments on this report see Document 13, note 2.

3 For Bruce's record of this meeting see Document 21.

Last Updated: 11 September 2013

Category: International relations

Topic: History