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Defense Policy - Between the Wars

Britain ended the First World War with massive and highly skilled armed forces, but inter-war cuts in defence spending had a long-term and detrimental effect once rearmament started - an effect lasting into the Second World War. At the end of the First World War Britain had the largest navy in the world, a brand new Royal Air Force (RAF) and an army that had enormously extended its technical, tactical and operational adroitness in warfare. Sir Auckland Geddes was appointed to chair the Committee on National Expenditure. It examined all government departments, but the biggest spenders of the period - the armed forces - naturally came under the closest scrutiny.

With peace seemingly assured, in 1919 it was decided that for planning purposes the armed forces should abide by the ten-year rule and not plan on fighting a major war for ten years. Cuts in expenditure had to be made if Britain's external economic relations were to return to their pre-war range and extent, and it was deemed highly unlikely that there would be a serious threat to peace within ten years. The concept was also supposed to allow equipment programmes to be smoothed out over the medium-term, with an aim of having the armed forces ready in ten years. Winston Churchill, now Chancellor of the Exchequer, made the rule permanent in 1928, with the result that each year the ten-year clock would be reset back to year one; the armed forces would never get any closer to the ten-year target, so therefore there was no need to spend money on modernising them. The Treasury was satisfied - but the armed forces were deeply worried.

With no need to plan for a major global or European conflict for ten years, the armed forces concentrated on imperial policing roles. For the Royal Navy, cruisers were vital for this role, as well as for the defence of trade; for the army, imperial policing was a reversion to a pre-war posture, although the Army made concerted efforts (within tight financial constraints) to develop the tanks and mechanisation of the infantry and artillery. It had mixed success.

The newly formed Royal Air Force (RAF) also embarked on securing an imperial defence role in order to help secure its own future. Of all the services, the RAF was the most vulnerable during the cuts - except from France and the Low Countries, bomber aircraft in the 1920s were too short-ranged to threaten Britain. The idea of France, Holland or Belgium becoming the next European aggressor was not realistic, and without a European enemy the arguments for strategic bombing were unconvincing. The RAF embarked on an aggressive imperial policing role using fighters and light bombers to carry out punitive raids against rebellious tribes and local populations in Palestine, the Middle East and the North West Frontier of India. The central premise of the RAF's involvement was that policing by bomber was cheaper than a retaliatory army operation. The RAF's air control operations were also used as the basis for some of the planks of strategic bombing - the 'morale' effect of air warfare. Air control often included strikes against non-combatants, and although it faced comments from the other services on moral grounds, they were ignored.

During the 1920s the limited funds for defence, coupled with the resentment felt by the Army and the Royal Navy in thinking the Royal Air Force had more than its fair share of funds, caused inter-service bureaucratic infighting. The Navy in particular took the loss of its own air service very badly and continually attempted to regain control of naval aviation. The deep cuts in defence spending and the resulting contraction of defence industries had a long-term effect on rearmament. The legacy of limited finance and concentration on the barest of essentials in material and defence thinking would reverberate through the 1930s and into the Second World War.

The rise of potential aggressors in the early- to mid-1930s caused the government to reassess its policy of disarmament and defence spending. A rearmament program was put in place to prepare the armed forces for war in the Far East or Europe. As conflict with Japan became a possibility, events in the Far East caused a reassessment of disarmament policy. Due to the decreasing sense of security and the abandonment of the ten-year rule in 1932, an assessment of the armed forces was needed. Britain's problems were made worse by the addition of Germany and Italy to the list of potential aggressors.

The Defence Requirements sub-Committee (DRC) was formed in November 1933. The committee produced three reports for the Cabinet, which amended the recommendations to take account of other issues (such as political or financial considerations). The DRC's first report was submitted in February 1934. It recommended a series of programmes, which by 1939 would make improvements to the worst problems in the services. As a result of political decisions by the Cabinet, and the desire to respond to widespread concerns about air warfare, the Royal Air Force (RAF)'s deficiency programmes were accelerated and expanded irrespective of the priorities in the DRC report. The Army and Navy then asked for their programmes to be revised, and in July 1935 the DRC re-examined defence problems. Their second report was an interim one which asked the Cabinet for clearer guidance.

The third and final report of the DRC was submitted to the Cabinet towards the end of November 1935. After considering the report, a ministerial committee reported to the Cabinet in February 1936. The Cabinet generally approved the recommendations of the ministerial committee. Despite this there were both unavoidable and self-imposed constraints on rearmament.

Between 1933 and 1936 the worsening situation of British foreign policy greatly hindered initial attempts to rectify the worst deficiencies of the armed forces. Attention was focused on the Far East, but even before the Defence Requirements sub-Committee had submitted its first report, events in Europe made the ever-increasing threat from Germany more real. The actions of Italy against Abyssinia made the Stresa Front untenable, changing Italy from a potential ally against Germany to a potential enemy. The Anglo-German Naval Treaty in 1935 seriously upset France, and in 1936 Germany reoccupied the de-militarised Rhineland. In a few years, Britain had gone from facing one potential enemy to facing three.

Furthermore, political and financial considerations forced changes in rearmament programs away from those envisaged by the DRC. Widespread fears over attack from the air during the early and mid-1930s caused a panic that required the Cabinet to devote more resources to the RAF in search of 'parity' with Germany. From the very start the Treasury had a strong say in the rearmament process, limiting the funds available and requiring as little interference as possible with normal trade and industry. It was concerned with the fourth arm of British defence - finance.

Closely linked to financial matters was the problem that the industrial base (on which rearmament relied) was small and difficult to expand. The years of low levels of defence spending and limitation of armaments by international treaty had reduced the capacity of defence companies. The shortage of skilled labour was now a serious problem. One method of addressing the shortage of plant and labor was the shadow factory scheme, which allowed rapid expansion of the aircraft industry by effectively piggybacking it onto the new, and expanding, motor industry. In the war ahead the new motor manufacturing sites would rapidly swap to the production of aircraft.

Between 1933 and 1939 the Royal Air Force (RAF) was given higher priority in terms of rearmament plans than the other services. The policy was driven by the pursuit of parity with Germany more than by defence and strike needs (there was no fixed ratio of bombers to fighter aircraft to guide procurement). Of all the RAF expansion schemes between 1934 and 1939, only scheme F was actually completed. Importantly, this scheme included realistic numbers of reserve aircraft and personnel, something that the earlier schemes had failed to do. The RAF also issued requirements for modern fighters in 1935, and heavy bombers in 1936. In November 1938 the emphasis moved from bombers to fighter defence, but delays meant that modern aircraft were in short supply.

Re-armament constraints and the priority given to the Navy and RAF meant that the Army's schemes had the lowest priority. Before spring 1939 policy towards land rearmament was that of 'limited liability' and stated that sending an expeditionary to Europe was unnecessary. Instead the emphasis was on imperial defence - providing coastal defence and anti-aircraft guns in the United Kingdom. Modern weapons and suitable mechanised equipment were in short supply, a particular problem for Territorial Army units that desperately needed the equipment to train with.

In the spring of 1939 the Cabinet agreed that a modern British force would have to fight on the continent. In March the decision was taken to double the size of the Territorial Army and in April, it introduced conscription. This massive expansion, plus the fact that many of the Army's programs had not been completed, meant there was considerable period before the Army was ready for war.

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Page last modified: 29-01-2017 16:58:42 ZULU