Empire

THE SUEZ CRISIS (OPERATION MUSKETEER) 1956 (MH 23509) Smoke rises from oil tanks beside the Suez Canal hit during the initial Anglo-French assault on Port Said, 5 November 1956. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205022435

The Significance of Suez 1956: A Reference Point and Turning Point?

This is the third in a series of posts drawn from an event to mark the 60th anniversary of the Suez Crisis which the Defence Studies Department Strategy and Defence Policy Research Centre hosted on November 7th, 2016. Recordings of the papers will be posted shortly to the Department soundcloud.

DR KATE UTTING

From a British perspective 60 years after the crisis, Suez has an almost iconic status, often used as a short hand for everything ‘wrong’ in foreign policy and decision making. It is said to be the moment when Britain’s status and reputation as a global power ended and with it a decline of British moral power and prestige, the ultimate exemplar of Albion’s perfidy. In this way ‘Suez’ evokes a specific response which intends to tap into a shared meaning that is still used today.

For example, in the context of the Brexit debate, Matthew Parris wrote in The Times on 15 0ctober: ‘As in a bad dream, I have the sensation of falling. We British are on our way to making the biggest screw-up since Suez and, somewhere deep down, the new governing class know it. We are heading for national humiliation, nobody’s in charge, and nobody knows what to do. This Brexit thing is out of control’.

In Britain and the Suez Crisis, the historian David Carlton argued that ‘No event in the post-war period has so divided the nation as the Suez crisis; in none has the government so adamantly obscured the truth, and there has been much controversy as to its effect on Britain’s standing in the world. In consequence, many will see 1956 as one of the turning points in Britain’s post-war history’.

In these ways then Suez is both a reference point and a turning point.

 

Background to the Suez Crisis

So what was the crisis about? What was at stake that produced what Enoch Powell later called ‘a national nervous breakdown’?

First of all, it was not about the Canal Zone or the Suez Canal Company and if it had been it could have been solved peacefully, through the UN. Instead it was a multi-crisis at the international, regional and state levels, and only Nasser’s removal would resolve the crises because he was perceived to be at the centre of them all.

But was it really mainly about prestige? We are used to arguments that suggest Britain’s interests in the Middle East and the maintenance of her informal empire was linked primarily to the control of important resources and the security of essential military facilities. Britain did not seek to retain its military presence in the Middle East to protect oil. In 1956 there were 16 plans for unilateral British action in the region. Fifteen plans were for national evacuation operations and only one was for a conventional war: to support Jordan against Israel. Neither did Britain seek to remain in Egypt because of the importance of her military facilities. This may have been the case in the Second World War and the early post-war period, but by 1956 the Suez base was considered to be of no military importance in peacetime. Yet the British still refused to meet Egyptian demands for evacuation because, significantly, they feared this would be seen as being forced out and, therefore, as damaging to their prestige and influence in the rest of the Middle East.

Traditional accounts of Britain and the causes of Suez highlight British defence of her longstanding interests and influence in the Middle East dating back to the 1870s to protect the vital trade and communications route through the Suez Canal to the remainder of the British Empire in the Far East. In these versions, the main threats to British influence were the lack of resolution to Arab-Israeli dispute, the rise of Arab nationalism and the threat of communism.

When Nasser became President of Egypt he seen as positive and treated as a client of the west and key to a number of British and American policies in the Middle East. For example, Egypt was central to Anglo-American Cold War strategy in the Middle East which aimed to create a Middle East defence organisation along the lines of NATO. For the United States this would act as a bulwark against Soviet penetration in the region. For Britain it would have the added advantage of formalising Britain’s bi-lateral arrangements in the region and become an umbrella collective defence organisation of existing British defence interests with Egypt, Jordan and Iraq. Britain and the United States also sought a resolution to the Arab-Israeli dispute, through plan ALPHA, essentially an early version of a land for peace deal: territorial compromises and an agreement to recognise borders.

But in 1953 American policy was re-evaluated. John Foster Dulles, President Eisenhower’s Secretary of State toured the region and concluded that the British role in Middle East defence and Anglo-Egyptian relations hindered rather than served Western interests. He believed that the lack of settlement on the Suez Canal base undermined potential Arab unity and alignment with the west.

Nasser was increasingly perceived to be a threat to western interests. While the 1954 Anglo-Egyptian agreement gave Britain 20 months to withdraw their troops from the Canal zone and the right to reactivate the base if the freedom of the Canal was threatened by external powers seemed to indicate a resolution to the problem of the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian treaty, Nasser undermined the British sponsored Middle East defence organisation the Baghdad Pact, by pressuring Jordan not to join.

Nasser’s opposition to Israel threatened to renew the armed conflict in the Middle East. As a result his requests for military equipment from the west were refused. In July 1955 he turned instead to the Eastern bloc with an agreement with Czechoslovakia. Crucially, however, while there was western agreement that Nasser had to go, it was for very different reasons. For the United States it was because Nasser stood in the way of Middle Eastern unity in opposition to the USSR and Britain because Nasser was undermining Britain’s position in the region and the rest of the British empire. Opposition to Nasser’s policies led to Britain and the US withdrawing their promised finances of the Aswan High Dam in mid-July 1956. Nasser found an alternative source of income in his nationalisation of the Suez Canal Company on 26 July.

That evening when the news came in Eden was having dinner with the King and Prime Minister of Iraq and said Nasser had to go because he could not be allowed to ‘have his hand on our windpipe’ and ‘knock him off his perch’. But this was not going to happen quickly or decisively due to problems with military capabilities and readiness.

In private preparations were made for the use of force, including collusion with Israel and France for a pretext for the use of force which led to the Sevres Protocol on 22 October. In public, however, Britain pursued a diplomatic settlement thorough negotiation: a Maritime Conference of 22 Nations in August and the American sponsored Suez Canal Users’ Association in September.

The military operation ended abruptly when the UN called for a cease-fire on 2 November. The conflict led to a run on the pound and a sudden decline in Britain’s gold reserves. Although loans from the IMF would have eased the pressure, American backing for this was essential and so Britain had to bow to Washington’s demand for a ceasefire. The British had miscalculated, holding faulty perceptions of US policy: believed they would support or at least be indifferent, hoping at least for benign neutrality. Eisenhower summed up when he addressed the National Security Council on 1 November “How could we possibly support Britain and France and in doing so we lose the whole Arab world?”

 

Results of the Suez Crisis: a Turning Point?

The crisis led to a change to the regional balance of power for while the Egyptian air force destroyed, Nasser emerged as the only Arab leader capable of challenging the west. Israel gained for although did not depose Nasser, the UNEF guaranteed freedom of shipping in the Gulf of Aqaba and this gave Israel a Red Sea port. France applied her lessons when de Gaulle became President 18 months later with a European focus to French foreign policy. Part of de Gaulle’s veto British entry into the EEC can be explained by the Suez experience, not allowing Britain to be a Trojan horse of American interests. France withdrew from the military structure of NATO and refused to support American policy in Lebanon and Vietnam.

Globally it can be argued that the crisis formalised the dominance of the two superpowers and established a balance of power that remained effective until the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

Some see Suez as confirmation that Britain was hopelessly overstretched, that if a global role was to be retained it would have to be subordinate to superpower interests. The limits of post-war British power were demonstrated and the further British decline as an imperial power in Middle East, Africa and South East Asia was presaged. Others look at the relationship between Suez and the British decision to join the EEC, as if that decision was a result of Britain acknowledging and adjusting to a new reality – where it had lost an empire and was seeking a new role.

Margaret Thatcher certainly saw Suez as both a turning point and reference point. She believed the impact of Suez on British policy making thereafter, a “Suez syndrome”, was negative: ‘having previously exaggerated our power, we now exaggerated our impotence’. And she drew on Suez to enhance her foreign policy achievements: “The significance of the Falklands War was enormous, both for Britain’s self-confidence and for our standing in the world. Since the Suez fiasco in 1956, British foreign policy had been one long retreat”. (The Downing Street Years).

It is also important to remember that at the time British policy assumptions remained the same. Britain still saw itself as a great power and still aimed to maintain global influence. And while Britain continued to exercise influence globally, on decisive issues it would do so only in close consultation with the US. In this way Britain continued to exercise its influence and remained active in the Middle East. British power may have diminished, but her interests remained the same. Britain remained concerned about Arab nationalism, communism and the Arab-Israeli dispute. Britain used military force in 1958 to intervene in support of Jordan and Kuwait in 1961, counterinsurgency campaigns were fought in Aden and Dhofar and Britain remained active and engaged even after the East Suez decision down to 1991 and beyond.

Whether or not Suez is a turning point or a reference point, it magnified British unpreparedness to undertake a limited war and the incoherency of British ends, ways and means. The fear that a failure to tackle Nasser would be disastrous for British prestige ended in disaster and ignominy. And in this way Antony Nutting was surely right to suggest that enduring significance of the crisis is its No End of a Lesson.

Image: Smoke rises from oil tanks beside the Suez Canal hit during the initial Anglo-French assault on Port Said, 5 November 1956, via the Imperial War Museum.

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SUEZ SIXTY YEARS ON: THE LAND WAR

This is the first in a series of posts drawn from an event to mark the 60th anniversary of the Suez Crisis which the Defence Studies Department Strategy and Defence Policy Research Centre hosted on November 7th, 2016. Recordings of the papers will be posted shortly to the Department soundcloud.

DR GERAINT HUGHES

An analysis of land operations for both Operations Kadesh (the Israeli Defence Force’s onslaught into the Sinai from 29th October 1956) and Musketeer (the Anglo-French invasion from 5th November) needs firstly to recognise the significance of joint operations, not least because of the use of airborne and amphibious forces. Secondly, it is worth bearing in mind that only one of the campaigns – Kadesh – actually succeeded, as the Anglo-French assault on Port Said was halted by international diplomatic opposition (and more importantly, American financial pressure on the UK). This blog post will summarise key points about the land war from the perspectives of the four belligerents concerned.

A fair assessment of the Egyptian performance should acknowledge that Egypt was a victim of aggression, and was the subject of an unprovoked attack (certainly as far as Britain and France was concerned). The sense of shock felt by its President and military commanders is reflected in Jamal Abdel Nasser’s telephone conversation to his confidante Mohammed Heikal on 29th October, in which the former exclaimed: ‘Something very strange is happening. The Israelis are in the Sinai and they seem to be fighting the sands’. In combat against the IDF (notably with the battles of Abu Agheila and Rafah) and the British and French in Port Said Egyptian soldiers and volunteers fought with considerable courage and tenacity (as was the case in 1967 and 1973), but they were poorly served by a command structure presided over by Nasser’s crony, Field Marshal Hakim Amer. Amer’s utter unsuitability for high command was exposed by Suez, but he remained as Commander-in-Chief of the Egyptian armed forces until the catastrophe of the Six Day War of June 1967.

The assault on the Sinai was a test for the manoeuvrist (to use an anachronistic term) doctrine the Israeli armed forces developed after 1948. The War of Independence (or the Nabka, depending on your perspective) had been an existential struggle for the nascent state. Egypt’s acquisition of Soviet bloc arms, Nasser’s belligerent rhetoric, the blockade of the Straits of Tiran, and Cairo’s support for the Palestinian fedayeen were all necessary and sufficient causes of a pre-emptive attack as far as the Israelis were concerned. As was the case with the Six Day and Yom Kippur Wars the mobilisation of the citizen soldiers of the IDF was a headache for the country’s civilian and military leaders. 60% of the vehicles requisitioned for the IDF’s use were found to be unserviceable, and the 1956 conflict was as much of a ‘come as you are’ war as the 1948 war.

Nonetheless, the IDF benefited from a war-fighting concept which emphasised initiative and audacity, as exemplified by the seizure of the Mitla Pass by Ariel Sharon’s force of 395 paratroopers, and indeed the overrunning of the Sinai by its armoured columns over the course of eight days. The IDF took heavy casualties in the process, with 231 soldiers killed and 899 wounded in action, but Kadesh was nonetheless a precursor to the more crushing victory won against Egypt in 1967.

The French had extensive experience of expeditionary operations in Indochina, and were also involved in the struggle against the ALN in Algeria. With Musketeer Guy Mollet’s government and France’s high command accepted subordination to the British, but in a striking parallel with Anglo-American tensions over Normandy in 1944 commanders like Generals Andre Beaufre (the deputy to the Land Force commander General Hugh Stockwell) and Jean Gilles felt that their British counterparts were too cautious and timid in the planning and execution of Musketeer. General Jacques Massu’s proposals for airborne landings on Ismailia and Kantara were vetoed by Stockwell, and Gilles – a salty para of Indochina fame – never concealed his disdain for any of his peers who weren’t (a) French and/or (b) wearing airborne wings. A contrast between British and French air drops on 5th November showed that les Paras had better kit and weaponry, and were also more practiced in the intricacies of command and control, as demonstrated by Gilles’ use of a Nordatlas transport plane as an aerial command post.

The British were hampered by the fact that the Army in particular was positioning itself for a nuclear conflict alongside NATO allies against the Soviet bloc, while also fighting insurgencies in a shrinking overseas empire. The UK’s involvement in the Korean War (1950-1953) was treated by the Chiefs of Staff as an anomaly, and in the aftermath of Normandy and Walcheren the expertise in and capabilities for amphibious operations so painstakingly acquired in WWII was simply forgotten. The late 1940s and early 1950s saw the Royal Marines’ (RM) 3 Commando Brigade (3 Cdo) chasing Communist guerrillas in Malaya, while at the time Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal (26th July 1956) the Parachute Regiment was on anti-EOKA duties in Cyprus. To use the analogy Field-Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery employed a year after Suez, the British armed forces were prepared for a ‘test match’ (WWIII), but were unprepared for ‘village cricket’ (intervention operations against state-based adversaries).

At the time of Suez the UK’s armed forces had a Strategic Reserve set aside from NATO that nominally consisted of 3 Cdo, the 16th Independent Airborne Brigade (16AB) and the 3rd Infantry Division (3 Div). However, as early as the Abadan Crisis of 1951 it became clear that Britain lacked the capability for a combat air assault involving 16AB; the RAF lacked the transport aircraft needed for another Arnhem, and by the autumn of 1956 it only had sufficient capacity to drop a battalion of paratroopers into battle (with 3PARA on Gamil Airfield on the night of the 5th November). It also took time for the British to muster the air and maritime assets needed to position forces for intervention following Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal, which meant that a military fait accompli (which the Americans may have tacitly accepted) was impossible to achieve.

The mobilisation of 27,000 reservists and the retention of 6,200 national servicemen also contributed to a morale crisis within the Army, albeit not one as grave as that suffered by the French in Algeria or the Americans over Vietnam. In this respect, the decision to abolish National Service taken with the Sandys Review of 1957 represented a pragmatic recognition by Harold Macmillan’s government that overseas interventions could only be conducted with an all-volunteer force.

With Musketeer the original plan was to seize Alexandria on 15th September 1956 with the Special Boat Service in the vanguard of an air and amphibious assault, conducted by 3 Div, 10th Armoured Division, the 7th Light Armoured Division (French) and the 2nd Infantry Division. The use of the latter formation required its transferral from the British Army of the Rhine, and it was also politically impossible to use the 10th Armoured Division which was stationed in Libya, thanks to basing rights agreed with the regime of King Idris (subsequently overthrown by Colonel Muammar Qaddafi’s coup in 1969). Musketeer Revise made Port Said the focus of the Anglo-French landing, which would be Phase 3 in an operation preceded by Phases 1 (the destruction of the Egyptian Air Force) and 2 (the ‘aero-psychological campaign’).

The air drop of 600 British and 487 French paratroopers on the night of the 5th was followed by the landing of 40 and 42 RM Cdo at 0615 on the 6th. One important innovation involved the heliborne landing of 500 marines from 45 Cdo from HMS Ocean and Theseus in Port Said, and British marines and paratroopers also relied on improvised close air support with the RAF in the fighting that followed. By the time of the ceasefire at 0000 on 6th November 2PARA and the 6th Royal Tank Regiment were at El Cap, 23 miles from Port Said. The British had lost 20 dead and 65 wounded, while the French had 8 killed and 65 injured. Egypt’s loses are estimated as 1,600-3,000 military fatalities on both fronts, and 1,000 civilians.

Operations ended due to international pressure for a ceasefire, and in order to ensure Anglo-French and Israeli disengagement the UN deployed its first ‘blue helmet’ peacekeeping mission, the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF). For the belligerents, the outcome of the war had varying effects on the evolution of their land forces. The Egyptian armed forces remained under Amer’s command despite the fact that he was a liability, and its rank and file paid a high price for this in June 1967. Kadesh epitomised the Israeli trait of employing military force pre-emptively to offset the lack of strategic depth, regional isolation, and the political and economic impossibility of mobilising the IDF over a prolonged period of time.

The French refined the use of heliborne manoeuvre in Algeria (1954-1962), and also conducted a parachute drop under combat conditions during the Kolwezi crisis in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) in 1978. In this respect, France maintained a two-tier land forces that consisted of crack units capable of expeditionary operations (paratroopers, Troupes de Marine and the Foreign Legion) and a conscript mass confined to France and Germany, although the mixed performance of French units sent to Bosnia in the early 1990s contributed to the adoption of an all-volunteer military after 1997.

In Britain’s case, Suez led the Army and Royal Marines to prepare for ‘village cricket’, most notably with the ‘Commando Carriers’ which would provide the UK with a quick means of intervention ‘East of Suez’, to be backed by sea-borne armoured/mechanised units if necessary. In reality, interventions like Operation Vantage in Kuwait in 1961 and conflicts like the Falklands War of 1982 turned out to be ‘close-run things’. With Kuwait there was a critical week where British troops lacked the anti-tank weapons needed to resist any Iraqi invasion, while with Operation Corporate their counterparts fighting at Goose Green, Longdon and Tumbledown found themselves faced by incompetently-led and demoralised draftees. British land forces avoided a Dien Bien Phu because they were lucky with the enemies they confronted.

With Operation Telic in 2003 – another politically-contentious and internationally unpopular Middle Eastern intervention – 1st UK Armoured Division and 3 Cdo were hampered by equipment shortages and kit failures just as their counterparts were with Musketeer, and the requirement of soldiers and Royal Marines to beg or scavenge to make up deficiencies led their American allies to nickname them ‘the borrowers’. The men of 3PARA cursing stoppages in their Stens and their faulty radios during the firefight for Gamil airfield would perhaps have seen some grim humour in the similarities between their plight, and those of their future counterparts sent into battle in Iraq in March 2003.

Above the tactical level, however, the enforced halt of Musketeer and the deployment of UNEF arguably saved British and French land forces the quagmire that would in all likelihood have ensued had Nasser been overthrown. The war-fighting phase of Telic/Operation Iraqi Freedom was the easy part; it was the replacement of Baathist totalitarianism with a new order that led to the prolonged occupation which cost the USA 4,491 lives, 318 Coalition fatalities (including 179 British lives lost), and over 100,000 estimated Iraqi dead. Breaking the historian’s rules about counter-factual speculation, it is hard to imagine a pro-Western successor to Nasser being able to survive in power in Egypt without British and French bayonets and tanks to back him up, with all the consequences that would have entailed.

Image courtesy of the Department of History, United States Military Academy.

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1940-1942: THE FULCRUM OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY? Missing in History: Britain’s offer of Irish unity in 1940

This is the fourth in a series of posts connected to the King’s College Second World War Research Group’s ‘1940-1942: Fulcrum of the Twentieth Century Conference’, held at the JSCSC on June 1st. 

DR KEVIN MATTHEWS

Sifting through the voluminous histories of Britain’s 1940 stand against Nazi Germany, it is remarkable that, with a few notable exceptions, one story often is left untold: the secret Anglo-Irish negotiations to reunify Ireland and bring the south, or Éire as it was then known, into the war. This oversight may be explained in part by the fact that few of the main actors come out of this episode looking very good. Their biographers have tended to downplay or to ignore the negotiations; in one official biography, a wholly inaccurate, not to say misleading summary dismisses this story in less than a page.

Unlike all of the other self-governing Dominions, Éire refused to join Britain when the latter declared on Germany in 1939. Southern Ireland’s neutrality had been made possible by a decision taken less than a year earlier. In an attempt to smooth relations between London and Dublin, Neville Chamberlain returned three military installations that had been retained by the British in the Treaty granting Ireland’s independence in 1921. Chamberlain believed he had an assurance from his counterpart, Eamon de Valera, that the Irish would allow British forces access to these ‘Treaty ports’ during any future conflict. According to Robert Fisk’s In Time of War, use of the bases could have extended the protective cover to Allied convoys across 500 miles of the Atlantic Ocean. But, crucially, the assurance Chamberlain relied on was never put in writing. When war came, de Valera, by denying the British access to the bases, was able to maneuver his country away from taking part in the conflict.

Crucial as the Treaty ports were, they were only one of several reasons for believing that Ireland would be targeted by Adolf Hitler after the fall of France. Even before then, Fisk claims that from May 1940 ‘the security of Ireland . . . began to dominate proceedings at Downing Street’. Yet, these discussions are wholly missing from accounts such as Five Days in London: May 1940, by John Lukacs. Archival documents in London, Dublin, and Belfast tell a different story. All three governments were convinced the Nazis had a network of spies throughout Ireland which was working closely with the outlawed Irish Republican Army. Other reports indicated that German U-boats were being supplied by villagers on Ireland’s west coast. Most worrying was the prospect that the Germans might stage a landing in southern Ireland to mount a backdoor invasion of mainland Britain. Taken together, these concerns prompted the British government, now led by Winston Churchill, to broach the idea of creating a framework for Irish unity in return for an Irish declaration of war. What is perhaps most surprising is that the driving force behind this proposal was not the new prime minister, but his predecessor – Chamberlain.

Chamberlain’s willingness to guarantee Irish unity in return for an Irish alliance is evident in the letters he wrote to his two sisters, Hilda and Ida, during the remaining months of his life. So, too, is his frustration with de Valera. Despite repeated warnings that having British forces in Ireland was necessary to ward off the expected German invasion, the Irish prime minister refused even to consider the idea. ‘I am still at him’, Chamberlain confided in one letter, ‘but fear he wont [sic] be moved till the Germans are in Dublin’. Robert Self, the editor of Chamberlain’s four-volume Diary Letters, followed up this massive work with a biography of the controversial British leader. Unfortunately, he deals with what might be called Chamberlain’s last major foreign policy battle in an epilogue, and then only briefly. It is also is wholly absent from Graham Stewart’s account of the Churchill-Chamberlain rivalry, Burying Caesar.

One of Chamberlain’s unlikely allies in this cause was Labour’s Ernest Bevin, another member of Churchill’s War Cabinet. According to Paul Canning’s comprehensive British Policy Towards Ireland, Bevin’s ‘first-hand knowledge of Ireland exceeded that of any other man in the Government’. The problem that neither Bevin, Chamberlain, nor any of their colleagues could ignore was that de Valera’s stance on neutrality was not the main hurdle blocking an Anglo-Irish front against the Nazis. As Chamberlain plainly stated at one War Cabinet meeting, ‘the main, and perhaps the sole, obstacle to such collaboration was the partition question’.

While the Ulster dimension of this story is ably told by both Canning and Fisk, it is given surprisingly short shrift elsewhere. There are tantalizing hints that at least two leading members of Northern Ireland’s Cabinet were prepared to accept an accommodation with the southern Irish if the latter were willing to join the Allied cause. ‘[L]oyalty to King and empire and the defeat of the Axis powers’, the historian Brian Barton has written, ‘transcended their commitment to the maintenance of the Union’. But in his chapter for The Northern Ireland Question in British Politics, edited by Peter Catterall and Sean McDougall, Barton did not pursue this angle. In any case, when it came to setting policy in Northern Ireland, only one man’s opinion really counted: its prime minister, James Craig.

Even with the course of the war hanging in the balance, Craig was as stubborn in his dealings with the British as was de Valera. By ruling out tripartite talks between the London, Dublin, and Belfast governments unless the southern Irish, first, joined the Allied cause and, second, dropped their goal of reunification, he foreclosed any chance of wartime cooperation. After the war, his official biographer, St John Ervine wrote that ‘Ulster was the bribe’ used in the attempt to win over de Valera and that responsibility for this treachery rested on one man’s shoulders: Chamberlain, who by then conveniently was dead. It is true that Chamberlain was prepared to force the Ulster Unionists to make concessions, while Churchill drew the line at persuasion.

Thanks to his own memoir of the war, Churchill’s part in this story largely has been obscured. According to David Reynolds, when Churchill wrote his multi-volume Second World War the Foreign Office advised that some wartime diplomatic issues ‘were still sensitive’; Ireland was one of them. This explains why Churchill did not even mention the Cabinet’s discussions about partition in his drafts of Their Finest Hour although, Reynolds points out, a reference to the issue is buried deep in a letter to Franklin Roosevelt quoted in the volume. Harder to explain is Martin Gilbert’s treatment of this story in Churchill’s official biography. Inexplicably, Gilbert suggests that Bevin alone was responsible for suggesting that partition be abandoned in exchange for the south’s declaration of war on Germany.

De Valera’s refusal to consider the British offer to end partition has been the subject of intense debate among historians. Characteristically, his authorized biographers are sympathetic to de Valera’s claim that abandoning neutrality would have sparked a second Irish civil war in the south. Others, notably John Bowman, Tim Pat Coogan, and T. Ryle Dwyer, are harsher when assessing de Valera’s motives. ‘Staying out of the war’, Dwyer writes, was ‘more important to de Valera than ending partition’. All three agree that in the summer of 1940, the Irish prime minister was sure that Britain was defeated. If that were so, why not wait to make terms with the winner in Berlin?

On the night of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Churchill was in touch with the leaders of only two other governments. The first, unsurprisingly, was Franklin Roosevelt. The other was de Valera. ‘Now is your chance’, his telegram to the Irish prime minister began. ‘Now or never. A Nation once again.’ Yet even America’s imminent entry into the war was not enough to entice de Valera to join the Allies. Earlier that same year, Churchill predicted that if de Valera persisted with neutrality to the end of the war ‘a gulf will have opened between Northern and Southern Ireland, which it will be impossible to bridge in this generation’. Churchill, not for the last time, was better at predicting the future than de Valera.

Image: Vickers machine-gun team of 2/8th Battalion, Middlesex Regiment, man their weapon on a clifftop in Northern Ireland, 15 July 1941, via the Imperial War Museum.

 

 

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Conference Report: 1940-1942: The Fulcrum of the Twentieth Century?

DR RICHARD HAMMOND

On 1 June, the Second World War Research Group held a highly successful day-long event hosted by the Defence Studies Department at the JSCSC. It was inspired in a broad sense by the desire to examine the largest war the world has ever seen and to place it within its broader context. More directly, the conference theme drew from concepts advanced by several senior modern historians about the place the war occupies in terms of the century as a whole. In a 1990 article, David Reynolds termed the fall of France in 1940 as the ‘fulcrum of the twentieth century’. Taking a similar yet subtly different view, John Darwin has claimed that the events of 1940-1942 represented the ‘great crisis of empire’ specifically for Britain, and exposed its vulnerabilities in such a manner that it was never able to recover fully after the war. For Darwin, such events thus caused a fundamental change in the international system.

The event was designed to bring together scholars to critically examine these ideas, as well as to focus in on more specialised areas of the war to assess whether or not such ‘fulcrums’, ‘turning points’ or similar concepts can legitimately be identified. We were extremely fortunate to receive a fantastic set of highly stimulating papers in this regard. Themes that were covered included tactical and operational failures by the BEF in France 1940, case studies in resistance and irregular warfare, propaganda, morale in and relations between the British and Commonwealth armies, and the Chinese response to the German invasion of the USSR, among others. Delegates were also treated to a keynote address from Niall Barr, examining Anglo-American alliance warfare during the conflict, and placing it within the broader context of twentieth century relations between the two states. The day closed with an engaging roundtable discussion on the subject of whether the retrospective identification of a ‘fulcrum’ is a legitimate exercise for historians, or if it simply represents the instrumentalisation of history to fit a desired theory.

Several presenters from the conference have graciously agreed to write posts for this blog based on their papers, and these will be published over the coming weeks. Podcasts of many of the papers from the event will also soon be made available on the Group website. This event was the second such one held by the Group, as part of its aim to bring together scholars in annual events focused on aspects of the war and its legacy. It also holds regular research seminars from individual speakers. If you would like to be involved in the Group in some manner, please use the contact form on the website, and also follow it on twitter (@SWWresearch). In the meantime, enjoy the coming posts!

Image: Stocks of rubber, held by a factory on a rubber plantation in Malaya, are burnt during the British retreat to Singapore, via the Imperial War Museum.