Beverley Baxter's LONDON LETTER

Blunders of Unawareness

January 15 1942

Beverley Baxter's LONDON LETTER

Blunders of Unawareness

January 15 1942

Beverley Baxter's LONDON LETTER


Blunders of Unawareness

LONDON, Dec. l9 (By Cable). Of all the strange things that have happened in this strangest of all wars, the strangest is the fact that both sides are feeling an intense chagrin at the same moment. Churchill, Roosevelt and Hitler have drunk deep of the arid waters of mortification. The bitterness of exasperation adds to the evil flavor, for each of them must be saying over and over again, “If only, if only ” At tin1 present moment the German armies are reeling back from Moscow, pursued by Cossacks, wolves and bitter cold, even as was the case with Napoleon’s army of 1812. The pincer movement for once has failed. The capture of Rostov by the Germans, which was to have been the prelude to the Caucasus and the rich reserves of oil, was the beginning of the end of Hitler’s dream of a winter victory.

When the Russian battle began, the Luftwaffe was fifty per cent stronger than the Russian Air Force. What is more, the Germans were far better equipped with detector devices, of which the Russians had practically none. Yet the Soviet fliers fought with such daring, aided by their knowledge of the terrain and familiarity with air conditions, that today the Russian Air Force has achieved parity with the Germans.

Another thing, which I foreshadowed in Maclean’s recently in my article on the psychological training of the German Army, has come to pass. The “Victory-in-fifteen-days” slogan had so inflamed the Reichswehr with the inevitability of swift conquest that it could not adapt itself to the psychology of defense. This, added to their lack of clothing for the bitter winter campaign, has made the German withdrawal take on some aspects of a rout. No one doubts they will be able to form a line and dig themselves in. This is not the complete destruction that overwhelmed Napoleon’s Grand Army of the Republic, but it is a disaster to German arms and the shattering of German hopes. If only Japan had not entered the war, Churchill would have been able to qpme to the House and say, “I have good news. The Germans are in retreat in Libya and Russia. The war is going badly for Hitler.” And no doubt he would have mentioned the dawn. Instead, he has had to face a House of Commons more grim that I have ever seen it and say, “I have bad news.”

Japan’s Strategy

A CURIOUS aspect of Japan’s intervention is that it did not happen as Japan intended. Ribbentrop, that pale-eyed offspring of Machiavelli, was advising Tokyo as to strategy. His plan was to “try to provoke the British into attacking you. Move your ships and land forces wherever it threatens British safety. Do anything and everything to make them open fire. Keep Kurusu talking in Washington. Then, when the British attack, produce documents showing you were going to come to terms with Roosevelt and accuse the British of torpedoing the negotiations so as to force the U S. into the war.”

All this was known in London. Ribbentrop’s

policy was a skilful one. He hoped by its use or misuse to keef) the U.S. debat ing what it should do, and thus concentrate the full blast of Japan’s attack on Britain. It was the old game of attack your enemies separately, and who imagines the isolationists would not have risen to the bait? As it was, the British held their fire. The cheese was inviting but the trap was too evident.

As for Washington, engrossed in conversations with the Japanese delegates, no apparent attempt was made to move the American fleet toward Singapore to join the British and straddle the Japanese line of advance. So abhorrentis war to a democracy, so deep is the hope that hostilities can be averted by nonprovocation, that the U.S. allowed the enemy the immense advantage of surprise, just as the democracies of Europe did with Germany.

Then why did Japan change her plan? The reasons seem complicated, but actually they make a perfect pattern. The German reverses in Libya meant a possible sealing up of the Mediterranean by the British, and early release of many fighting ships to the Pacific. Secondly, the German retreat in Russia meant the possible transferring of reinforcements to Russia’s Siberian Army, which threatens the Japanese position. Thirdly, there was the danger, a remote one but not completely to be ignored, that Roosevelt might have given an ultimatum to Japan and moved his fleet to a battle position with the British. So Japan struck, just as she did many years ago in Russia, without warning or declaration of war, and, in spite of her record of infamy, she caught the Americans unready.

I do not write these words in reproach for we ourselves are in no position to reproach anyonebut in astonishment that such a thing could happen. There is an old superstition, probably created by diamond merchants, that pearls are unlucky. Certainly the disaster at Pearl Harbor was a most unfortunate one. Roosevelt, that great friend of civilization, rose like a lion and met the challenge of the little yellow monkeys.

Churchill, no doubt with an instinct for the effect on Moscow as well as on Washington, declared war on Japan as soon as the first bomb fell upon Pearl Harbor. But Stalin held his hand. In fairness it may be that Stalin could not afford to do otherwise at this moment. The army of Siberia might have been weakened by drafts drawn for the defense of Moscow. From the Siberian bases of Russia the wickerpaper cities of Japan could be turned into an inferno by our bombers. Strategically, Russia held the answer to Pearl Harbor and the threat to Singapore. For reasons which we have no right to criticize, Russia did not throw those bases into the common pool.

We in Britain rejoiced to have the mighty republic of the U.S.A. by our side in the fight.. We felt that no matter how badly the American Navy had been mauled we at least were ready and would hold the line until the Americans could bring their full strength to bear upon the enemy. Churchill quite rightly spokeof theforesight of the Admiralty

which had caused the Prince of Wales and Repulse to reach the Pacific “at a convenient moment.”

The Lesson of Malaya

IT IS tragic irony of events that at the very moment he was speaking these goodly ships were sailing out to their doom. Pearl Harbor was a blunder of unawareness. The loss of the Prince of Wales and Repulse was worse. It was either a gamble with weather, which was too risky to take, or it was a stubborn belief that a battleship could protect itself against air attack. Whichever it was, it was a disaster of the first magnitude. Had the American fleet been intact the whole affair would have been too grave to risk, but with American battleship supremacy virtually wiped out the role of increased caution was imperative.

We need not now discuss the wisdom or unwisdom of sending out as commander in chief of the Eastern Navy an Admiral who had never hoisted his flag of that rank at sea. Poor Sir Tom Phillips paid for his blunder with his life and cannot here defend himself. What must interest us more deeply is the background of tragedy. Were the lessons of Crete not learned? Didn’t we know that warships cannot operate near land without an adequate umbrella of airplanes? What many of us had foreseen has come to pass. Instead of one Air Force there should have been three from the beginning of the war —the Army’s Air Force, the Navy’s Air Force and the R.A.F. It is true the Navy has its fleet air arm, principally comprising aircraft carriers. It also is true that the Navy at last secured control of the Coastal Command after many costly lessons. The Empress of Britain would not have been sunk if the coastal command at that t ime had been under the Navy. But the Navy has never had the heavy bombers it needed except by arrangement with the R.A.F. As for flying torpedo boats, which is virtually what the Japanese have been using, they could only come from designers whose sole concern was aerial warfare at sea.

The vested interests of the R.A.F. were too strong. Today, from Cairo there comes a communique from the commander in chief of the forces in the field. A little later we get a communique from R.A.F. headquarters, as il it were a different engagement altogether. You might just as well have a separate service for destroyers or artillery as to deny the Navy and Army absolute control over airplanes of every kind necessary to their operations. The German communique is issued by the High Command. They call it a High Command because that is exactly what it is. Certainly the Air Force is a separate service, both for defense and offense, but the airplane is not solely a weapon for an Air Force any more than guns or explosives are for a Navy or an Army. This has been pointed out over and over again, but the Ministry of Air has withstood all onslaughts, and the only men who could have pierced that defense, Churchill and Chamberlain, did not do so.

Continued on page 33

London Letter

Continued from page 8

No one, in writing letters like this, enjoys seeing his material outdated by events, but I would rejoice without stint if these words should constitute the flogging of a dead horse. If only Churchill will announce the creation of a separate Air Force for the Army and Navy the whole nation will be cheered and reinvigorated. Certainly the matter will be strongly raised when the House next meets.

Need Supreme War Command

TWO more things should happen, and again one prays that you will read of them before this letter appears. There must be a Supreme War Council, and if Washington is chosen as the centre, so much the better. The other change is a small War Cabinet in Britain. At the present moment we have a bloated War Cabinet consisting of ministers who feel that full time should be given to their departments. If it is a team, then there are too many on the team. If it is just ten men and a man called Churchill, then in my opinion we cannot afford a one-man government, no matter how brilliant that individual may be. Russia is completely run by three men. That is the right size for a War Cabinet. It is a thousand pities that the plan for an Imperial War Cabinet was not carried through. We could have secured the services of Mr. Menzies before he

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fell by the wayside in the brawl of local politics. General McNaughton would have brought an invaluable independence of judgment to the cabinet table. Probably General Smuts could not have been spared, but someone who has his confidence and knows the working of his mind could be of outstanding service. If those newspapers in Canada which sneered so contemptuously at the absurdity of the Dominions having a constant voice in the supreme direction of the war would see the Dominions in their true stature, and not cling so amorously to the parish pump, they would do greater service to Canada and the Empire. There is no reason for the British Government to have sole direction of a war affecting the entire empire. True, the British Prime Minister should be chairman, but his colleagues ought to be drawn from the outer empire and not be in the position of ministers holding office by the authority of Britain’s Premier. This is not a criticism of Winston Churchill, who is a great leader of a nation at war. It is a criticism of a system. The odd thing is that the idea of an Empire War Cabinet should receive so much more support here than in the Dominions.

Now I must leave off, but let me return to the opening theme. Churchill, Roosevelt and Hitler are worried men. For each of them the war would have taken such a favorable turn if it had not been for the perversity of imponderables. If there had been no German defeat in Russia to mar the effect of Japan’s victories in the Pacific, how Hitler could have screamed his joy! And if there had been no Japanese victories to mar the effect of the German defeat in Russia, how Roosevelt and Churchill could have proclaimed the pattern of victory.

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