Britain’s War in the Middle East: Strategy and Diplomacy, 1936–42


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WWI and British Entry in the Region

It could hardly be otherwise; before the war, Britain grew no more than half her food, still depended upon overseas investments to avoid an adverse balance of trade, had to import almost all raw materials except coal, and relied on exports to finance the process. It is a mark of the professional expertise in the Diplomatic Service that appointments to Embassies from outside were relatively rare. Paris and Washington were recognised as providing some exception to the rule. In Paris, a Conservative politician in the shape of Lord Derby occupied the Embassy for two years from to , and a Liberal in the person of the Marquess of Crewe from to Otherwise the Ambassador was a professional diplomat until Duff Cooper, Lord Norwich, went there in the wake of the liberation in Washington was held by Sir Auckland Geddes, who in his varied life had previously been a professor of anatomy, Director of Military Recruiting at the War Office and head of the Department of National Service; and then by career diplomats until Lord Lothian was appointed on the eve of war, after Ministers had considered a number of other candidates17, including Admiral Lord Chatfield First Sea Lord, , Lord Lyt- ton Governor of Bengal, , Sir E.

Berlin was held throughout by a professional diplomat except in the time of Lord D'Abernon; Rome by a diplomat for the whole period, and Tokyo likewise; the same was true with one brief exception for the Embassy at Moscow, until the arrival of Sir S. Cripps in The post was not always regarded as the pinnacle of a career.

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Those who had served extensively abroad sometimes wished to return to an Embassy; for example, Lord Hardinge went to Paris after his spell as Permanent Under-Secretary; Lord Tyrrell also went to Paris; and Sir Ronald Lindsay to the Embassy at Washington for the abnormally long tenure of nine years.

Sojourns of three or four years, often interrupted by substantial leave, which have been normal in more recent times, were. To hold a post for five or six years was not unusual; and when an envoy made a special mark, like Sir Ronald Graham in Rome, he might be left in the same post for a decade. Vansittart and Cadogan each held this most onerous post for eight years. Cadogan was the more calm and competent administrator, though he troubled little about the machinery of the Office so long as it worked. No Permanent Under-Secretary had a greater influence on its structure or its collective thinking than Crowe; an official of the first rank coming from a background not usual in the higher reaches of the Foreign Office, for he was born in Germany, educated there, and married a German.

He held views then thought unorthodox :. Although the old division between the staff of the Foreign Office and the diplomats was breaking down between the wars, it had by no means disappeared; nor was it unknown for a diplomat of distinction, serving in a post of high sensitivity, to find his advice rejected and his conduct criticised. Sir Robert Craigie, Ambassador in Tokyo from , is a case in point. The work of the Office was concentrated in departments, according to geography; thus, the Southern Department dealt with Italy, the Central Department with Germany, the Northern Department with Russia.

Strategy and Diplomacy, 1936–42

Above each group of departments would be a superintending Under-Secretary; and above them the Permanent Under-Secretary. In short, the structure resembled a pyramid, at the apex of which stood the Secretary of State. In the s, virtually all the Ministerial work was done by one man. Even in the s, the complement normally consisted of the Secretary of State, and one or two Parliamentary Under-Secretaries. There was a brief unhappy phase from June to December, , when two Cabinet Ministers, Hoare and Eden, shared a responsibility for foreign affairs, though the.

Only once was there any disturbance of the normal arrangements at the level of the Permanent Under-Secretary, when Vansittart was appointed in to the newly-created post of Chief Diplomatic Adviser.

New Middle Eastern Studies

Upon his own insistence, he retained the room hitherto given to the permanent head of the Office. He made an equally determined, but less successful, attempt to retain control of the Secret Intelligence Service, which had traditionally worked under the direction of the Permanent Under-Secretary. Since Vansittart's successor Cadogan argued, with the support of two Secretaries of State, Eden and Halifax, that he must execute all the duties normally attached to his post, the experiment was doomed to be unsatisfactory. Vansittart found himself with a grand title, but deprived of any opportunity to shape policy continuously; the papers did not normally pass through his hands until action had been decided.

It need hardly be added that the days in which the Secretary of State could exercise a continuous detailed control over policy, and even write many of his own despatches, were past.


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The role of the Permanent Under-Secretary and of other civil servants within the Office therefore increased; and despite all that has been written about the diminished influence of ambassadors in the era of swift communications, an ambassador highly estemed in the Foreign Office could affect not only the handling and execution of policy, but its framing, to a marked degree. From the turn of the century British governments had experimented with means of co-ordinating strategic and foreign policies.

Beyond occasional ad hoc committees of Ministers, the government had no machinery for this purpose, unbelievable as it now seems, until Bal- four began to develop the Committee of Imperial Defence from It continued to work between the wars, spawning a multitude of subcommittees; but the C. In practice, this meant that the decisions were sometimes made by the full Cabinet after a discussion in that forum, and sometimes by the Cabinet on the recommendation of a Ministerial committee.

In the conditions of the middle and later s, these expedients were plainly inade-.

The Foreign Affairs Committee of the Cabinet was instituted in Baldwin's last phase as Prime Minister, and met intermittently in his time and Chamberlain's. As the threat of war became more obvious, two committees of special importance, Defence Plans Policy , and the Strategical Appreciation sub-Committee of the C. In matters of strategy, the Foreign Office and Secretaries of State there had to depend largely upon the advice of the service departments; and that advice in its turn was bound to influence the nature and conduct of foreign policy deeply.

As Vansittart used to remark, time was the commodity which the Foreign Office was expected to supply The Office had little expertise in economic questions, though one of its more distinguished Under-Secretaries, Sir Victor Wellesley, averred that the root trouble in most international problems lay in economic causes The proposal that the Office should develop a substantial economic section of its own was never fully realised during the s.


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Unquestionably, this was a serious gap in the Foreign Office's armoury. Broad questions of international and economic relations, and especially movements of capital and reparations, could not sensibly be detached from other questions of foreign policy. Co-ordination with the Treasury often left a good deal to be desired. In the second Labour government, Snowden did not collaborate happily with the Foreign Secretary Henderson, and insisted upon taking his own line in the conference at The Hague. When the effective suspension of reparations was upon in , the negotiations for that purpose took place at Lausanne, while the Disarmament Conference was meeting a few miles away in Geneva.

Most business for the Disarmament Conference fell upon the Foreign Office, though there were frequent differences of policy with the service departments, especially the Air Ministry; the issue of reparations was handled with very little reference to the Foreign Office by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Neville Chamberlain, who went straight from that negotiation to the long awaited conference between Britain, the Dominions and India, held at Ottawa. Nevertheless, the British delegation at Ottawa included no minister or senior civil servant from the Foreign Office.

On several occasions in MacDonald's time as Prime Minister, protests were uttered against the late circulation of papers from the Foreign Office to ministers. The unfortunate Hoare, who had a considerable experience of other departments and a keen interest in administrative efficiency, was, five years later, translated to the turbulent atmosphere of the British Embassy at Madrid. The young men there imagine that everything goes along normally as it does in Whitehall, whereas in a place like this, everything is completely abnormal and upside-down20". Hoare's own experience at the Foreign Office had ended abruptly in an episode which did the Office, and its Permanent Under-Secretary, much damage.

The economic blizzard

Ministers rightly believed that Vansittart had played a large role, and by no means a passive one, in the framing of the Hoare-Laval terms. In many respects, they followed the line of three conversations between Grandi, the Italian ambassador, and Vansittart in the preceding week The notion, propagated by Vansittart himself, that his presence in Paris was fortuitous has no foundation. After the debacle, Vansittart's dismissal was seriously considered by ministers. The new Foreign Secretary, Eden, decided that this step would be improper; responsibility for policy must remain with ministers At intervals thereafter, Baldwin and Eden tried to persuade Vansittart to leave his post as Permanent.

Under-Secretary in favour of the Embassy at Paris or some other post abroad. He declined; they felt they could not insist. A picture has come down to history of Vansittart as an unbending opponent of concessions to dictators. In fact, he not only advocated large concessions to Italy in , but also concessions to Germany, including the return of some of her colonies. This was one of the Foreign Office's unhappier periods; and to say, as the official history of British foreign policy in the Second World War is apt to do, that "The Foreign Office believed this It is hard to imagine that even a comparatively small senior staff would be solidly united on large and contentious issues.

At the official level, the principal responsibility rested with the Permanent Under-Secretary; but since the Foreign Secretary, answerable to his colleagues and Parliament, could give orders even if they contradicted the advice tendered by his officials, and expect them to be loyally obeyed, it was also just that he should bear the responsibility for the advice tendered. As the risks grew and the penalties for failures of foreign policy became more obvious, disagreements among the officials multiplied.

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Some felt a powerful emotional or intellectual attachment to the Co- benant and the League; in the Abyssinian crisis, they therefore believed that Britain should go to all lengths, the blocking of the Suez Canal or even war, to thwart Italy. Oppressed by the greater power of Germany, Vansittart felt that Britain could not afford the luxury of an enemy straddling the short route from Europe to the Indian Ocean and Australasia. After Mussolini had taken Addis Ababa, some of the officials judged that Britain must regard the sad episode as closed, and mend her bridges with Italy.

This was the policy openly favoured by Chamberlain, and accepted only in part and reluctantly by the new Secretary of State, Eden. Sir Alexander Cadogan, brought back from China after only two years to become the senior Deputy Under-Secretary, followed neither Vansittart's judgement of German intentions nor his recommendations about tactics. The Foreign Secretary, sharing with many of his generation a powerful attachment to the League as the exemplar.

Moreover, though a staunch defender of non-intervention in the Spanish Civil War, Eden became increasingly incensed at the cynical violations by Germany and Italy of their agreements; and since the violations by Italy were the larger and more blatant, the effect was to concentrate his attention, and that of many others, upon Italy to a degree unwarranted by that country's power.

Even the Ambassador in Rome, Lord Perth, had to admit in the summer of that Mussolini might intend to go to war with Britain. Chamberlain's accession as Prime Minister gave an edge to questions which had been smoothed over or left unresolved; but events would have done that within a few months anway. There was no concealment about Chamberlain's opinion that Britain must seek Italian goodwill actively.

The service departments, especially the Admiralty, had no intention of becoming embroiled in the Spanish Civil War; equally, their gaze fixed upon Japan as well as Germany, and conscious of the lag in British rearmament, they pressed hard for a reduction in the number of actual or potential enemies. They had a powerful ally in the Secretary of the Cabinet and of the Committee of Imperial Defence, Sir Maurice Hankey, who never hesitated to tender advice on strategic questions directly to his prime ministerial masters. Because Italy was the weaker partner in the Axis, and like Britain would presumably wish to preserve the independence of Austria, it seemed probable that terms could be more easily reached with her than with Germany or Japan.

To Eden, outraged by what Italy had done in Abyssinia and was doing in Spain, this message was by no means welcome. According to Hankey's account, which is open to dispute, every conceivable pretext was seized to delay coming to grips with Germany or Italy. He judged Chamberlain "incredibly patient - much too patient I thought - with Anthony" During this period Chamberlain decided Vansittart must be replaced, a resolution which Eden did not contest.

The Foreign Secretary had found Vansittart a relentless worker for his own views, with a wide circle of acquaintances in politics and journalism, "seldom an. He was himself a sincere, almost fanatical, crusader, and much more a Secretary of State in mentality than a permanent official. Van had the effect of multiplying the extent of Anthony's natural vibrations, and I am afraid his instincts were all against my policy, though he told me the other day that he had always been in favour of it but had been obstructed by others.

The origins of the Middle East mess

Whether the Foreign Secretary and his officials in the Foreign Office would have been able to handle Britain's external relations better, had there been a prime minister of a different disposition, remains a matter for speculation. Eden had not been persuaded by the view of the service ministers that Britain's foreign policy must be dictated by the state of her defences, and he contested vigorously the view that Britain's position in that respect, particularly at sea, was worse than that of Chamberlain replied tactfully that British foreign policy must be, if not dictated, at least limited, by the state of the national defences28; and Eden himself had to conclude in a Cabinet paper, only a few weeks later, that if Britain were too obviously outstripped in the race for material strength, the forces of diplomacy could not guarantee her safety except at the cost of deep national humiliation.

In sum, there were weighty issues at stake between Chamberlain and Eden, including their differing reactions to the initiative proposed by President Roosevelt in January, On most matters of sub-. For example, he was nearer to Chamberlain's position than Eden's on the Italian question, was wholly opposed to any attempt to thwart Germany in Austria, and advised firmly amidst argument in the Foreign Office against a guarantee to Czechoslovakia.

Eden's replacement as Foreign Secretary, Halifax, was no cipher. He had long dwelt in agreement with Chamberlain on the main issues of foreign policy.

Britain’s War in the Middle East: Strategy and Diplomacy, 1936–42 Britain’s War in the Middle East: Strategy and Diplomacy, 1936–42
Britain’s War in the Middle East: Strategy and Diplomacy, 1936–42 Britain’s War in the Middle East: Strategy and Diplomacy, 1936–42
Britain’s War in the Middle East: Strategy and Diplomacy, 1936–42 Britain’s War in the Middle East: Strategy and Diplomacy, 1936–42
Britain’s War in the Middle East: Strategy and Diplomacy, 1936–42 Britain’s War in the Middle East: Strategy and Diplomacy, 1936–42
Britain’s War in the Middle East: Strategy and Diplomacy, 1936–42 Britain’s War in the Middle East: Strategy and Diplomacy, 1936–42
Britain’s War in the Middle East: Strategy and Diplomacy, 1936–42 Britain’s War in the Middle East: Strategy and Diplomacy, 1936–42
Britain’s War in the Middle East: Strategy and Diplomacy, 1936–42 Britain’s War in the Middle East: Strategy and Diplomacy, 1936–42
Britain’s War in the Middle East: Strategy and Diplomacy, 1936–42 Britain’s War in the Middle East: Strategy and Diplomacy, 1936–42

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