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75 Note by Bruce of Conversation with Smuts

[LONDON], 14 November 1942

I went to see Smuts on Friday night. I told him that I had come to see him with regard to his statement, when receiving the Freedom of Plymouth, as to the necessity for a concentration upon the problem of the U-Boat menace and the danger to our communications.

I said this was the subject I had been more interested in than any other and I trusted before he went away he was going to insist upon something being done.

I then told him that I had started on this question in January last and had done what I could with individual members of the War Cabinet prior to my taking over the job of Australia's representative in the War Cabinet. I had, however, met with very little success. Accordingly when I became Australia's representative, I sent, in June, a Note to the Prime Minister giving him my views on the subject. [1]

I told Smuts I proposed to leave with him a copy of that Note. I then told him that, as a result of my Note, which at that stage was not distributed to the War Cabinet, a considerable flutter was caused and the Chiefs of Staff were given my Note and instructed to deal with the matter.

As a result, at the end of July, the Chiefs of Staff had put in a paper which I had regarded as utterly inadequate and hopelessly illogical. I had accordingly circulated a reply to the Chiefs of Staff Note [2] to the members of the War Cabinet, to which I had annexed the Note I had sent to the Prime Minister in June.

(The printed document embodying my reply to the Chiefs of Staff and my original Note to the Prime Minister as an Annex, I left with Smuts and he promised to read them.) I then gave him the history of the lack of results in the intervening period up to the point where the Sub-Committee of the Cabinet, with the Prime Minister as Chairman and Cripps as Vice- Chairman, had been appointed.

I told Smuts that this had appeared to me to be a solution at last, in that what had been done was exactly what I had suggested in my Note. I then told him that my confidence that a solution had been found had been shaken by a conversation which I had had with Cripps two nights ago. [3] In that conversation Cripps had told me that they had had one meeting of this Committee at which nothing had been done, but the time had been merely taken up by a dissertation on the subject by the Prime Minister.

Cripps had also told me that there was a further meeting of the Committee that day, Friday, but I had not yet heard what had happened.

Smuts then told me that he had spoken to the Prime Minister yesterday morning about this matter and as a result had been asked to the meeting that day. The meeting I gathered consisted of the Prime Minister and Cripps with Sinclair and Alexander representing the Air Force and the Navy.

Smuts told me that at the meeting he had urged the necessity of this question being dealt with specially and a further meeting was being held on Wednesday next when the answers to certain questions which had been posed to the Services were to be produced. I told Smuts that this was all in the right direction but he had to recognise that unless he insisted on something being done and done immediately the matter would drift on.

Smuts said that the Prime Minister had told him that he, the Prime Minister, had every confidence in the Navy being able to find the answer. I urged on Smuts that that was a most dangerous point of view as the Navy alone, owing to modern developments, could not find the answer. It had to be a combination of sea and air and I stressed to him that I did not think the matter was being looked at with sufficient vision. I told him of the Note I had sent to the Prime Minister urging that the Air was taking too small a view. [4]

Broadly I did everything I could to bring home to Smuts the importance of this question, emphasising that in my view now that the war had taken a more favourable turn this was the major issue that we were up against.

Smuts said that he entirely agreed and used the expression that his nose told him that this was where the real danger lay and he referred to Hitler's recent speech where he, Hitler, had laid such emphasis upon their U-Boat campaign.

I am hopeful that Smuts will pursue this question but I am a little afraid of his returning to South Africa before he has really pinned the Prime Minister down. My own view is that this matter should be dealt with as the outstanding problem and a special Commander with his own staff should be put in charge of what is an actual battle in the same way as Alexander was put to fight the Battle of Egypt, and Eisenhower the Battle of North Africa.


1 See Document 5, note 1.

2 See Document 13.

3 See Document 73.

4 Document 52, Second Enclosure.

[AA:M100, NOVEMBER 1942]
Last Updated: 11 September 2013

Category: International relations

Topic: History