Protect and Survive
- Sep 3, 2008
Chapter 26, Chequers, 20 June 1936
It was a Saturday, Baldwin realised with a start; in truth, excepting Sunday (Church, of course) every day of his retreat had been much like the last. Lucy, who had kept up her philanthropic pursuits with a circumspection and discretion that had contributed, rather than detracted, from her husband’s relaxation, had already risen and was no doubt reading, or advising the gardener. Some of the children were due to arrive that evening for a relaxing family Sunday with the family. Baldwin panted hard as he rose from his bed, took a moment to recover, and then, putting on his dressing gown, checked the time; it was almost eight o’clock, practically a ‘lie-in’ for a Prime Minister used to six am starts. Walking over to gaze over the tranquil English countryside, he noticed, with a glance, that his red box awaited his attention.
He sighed and, ringing the service bell, opened the box and pulled out the papers with trepidation. Hankey had been as good as his word, reducing the volume of papers sent to the Prime Minister by well over a half, curtailing (with the help of Chamberlain) most of the Party correspondence and (with the help of Eden) removing virtually all Foreign Office briefings. What remained was, for the first time in a long time, both interesting and in sufficiently controlled quantity that Baldwin could study it at leisure. And what he read was increasingly alarming.
“Prime Minister,” one of the housekeepers entered, with a tray of tea and toast. “There are kippers, Sir.”
Baldwin smiled. “Yes, lets. Where is…”
“…in the garden.”
Baldwin nodded in acknowledgment as the housekeeper retreated. Sipping on a piping hot, very rich tea, he took his phosphorus tablets and read the latest on the developments in the Simpson crisis. Except, to Baldwin’s increasing dismay, there weren’t any.
He crunched on some blackened, sooty toast (he had always liked his tea quite strong and bitter, and his toast crudely smoky) and read, in growing shock, at the inaction of his colleagues. Perhaps it was his fault, he wondered. Perhaps it was the lack of him writing a detailed set of instructions (but, he wondered, what guidance should Cabinet members need?), perhaps it was the distance that he had indifferently allowed to grow between the Cabinet members. Perhaps it was the splitting of responsibilities between two politicians who could not be less alike and could not dislike one another more intensely. Baldwin knew that he had erred, but was furious that the Cabinet, so active in supporting a negotiation of the Turkish Straits, so keen to faff over tweaking at the economics, had singularly, palpably, failed to do anything about a constitutional crisis that was being tacitly permitted to fester quietly in a corner.
He closed his slowly recovering eyes as he weighed up what to do. To hurry back would be to invite panic and to question the competence of both or either of Eden or Chamberlain (Baldwin suspected the latter; absence had not made the heart grow fonder). But he realised, with a sinking heart, that his rush to leave had been inefficient and panicked. But what to do? His first instinct was to send a note to Hankey, or to the Cabinet; in truth he had diminishing faith in the Cabinet Secretary or the MPs that he supported in their ability to follow a note. No, he realised, he needed to explain the note in a face to face meeting. He rang the service bell again.
Another member of the staff, another matronly type, quietly entered.
“Could you please get the duty typist to put a call through to Downing Street. I’d like Lord Hankey to attend at his earliest convenience.”
“On a Saturday?” The lady’s stern expression and shocked response to Baldwin’s suggestion made it difficult to not smile.
“Where is my wife?” He decided to seek refuge in a question.
“She’s holding a gardening lesson in the grounds,” the old dragon snapped.
Not for the first time, Baldwin wondered if the frostiness of the Chequers staff was the British version of the slave that used to ride beside Roman Generals. “Respice post te! Hominem te memento,” he quipped.
“Ay, I’ll bet,” the housekeeper said as she retreated.
Having used his Tertullian to good effect, he dressed, scribbled some notes for Hankey, and went for a stroll.
“June is absolutely,” Lucy Baldwin said grandly, “the best time to plant sweet potatoes, mint, marjoram, basil, chives, oregano, and dill. The quality of the soil and regular watering are of course, key.”
“And a little fairy dust!” Baldwin joked, sneaking up behind his wife.
“How are you? You slept like the dead.”
“I’m grateful for you leaving me to wake up in my own time. What time are the children descending?”
She frowned. “Just before dinner, I believe. Diana said six.”
“A ha,” he said, preparing to deliver the bad news. “I fear that we may have a guest for lunch.”
“Neville? Or Eden?”
Baldwin was intrigued that Chamberlain received the familiarity of a first name, while Eden most clearly did not. But he didn’t have time to discuss this. “Hankey,” he said simply.
“It is time to rejoin Whitehall?”
“It is time,” he corrected, “to give some direction.” He looked at the motley collection of servants and villagers who were listening to Lucy’s gardening tutorial. “Could you all excuse, things to discuss y’see.”
They walked through the grounds, acknowledging a gardener and waving to the butcher as he made a delivery to the kitchen.
Lucy Baldwin shook her head. “I ordered Spring lamb.”
He looked impressed, before he remembered what it was that he had to discuss. “D’you think I’m better,” he asked with real interest in his wife’s opinion.
She looked, as in appraisal, at her husband. “Yes, I do,” she said quietly. “You have unwound in a way that few of us still thought possible. The question, dear one, is this,” she said in a commanding tone. “Do you want to return to Westminster, to take up the reins again, or has this retreat cured you of the sense of duty.”
“Not personal ambition?”
“I know you,” she said softy, “better than that.”
“It’s him,” Baldwin said bitterly.
“Aye,” Baldwin said sadly. “I’m wrapped up in this,” he added, not choosing to add that this was of his making. “We’ll go back,” he said with finality, not inviting further discussion. “But not yet.”
For a man dragged from his own weekend retreat, given seconds to dress and indecorously bundled into a car, Hankey seemed remarkably composed. His reunion with Baldwin was much more heartfelt than either man seemed to be anticipating.
“Prime Minister,” the Cabinet Secretary began, with real warmth in his voice. “It is very good to see you again.”
“Maurice, take a seat,” they were sat in one of the smaller gardens, one that was brilliantly lit by the late morning light. “Cook has rustled up some sandwiches if you’d like some lunch.”
Hankey was surprised; while Baldwin lacked the meanness of Chamberlain, the tightness of Halifax or the nervy indifference of Eden, he was nevertheless haphazard in generosity. Hankey nodded and, as a grim reminder of why he was there, placed two red boxes on the table.
“I hope that’s for show,” Baldwin said gruffly.
Hankey smiled, “some of it,” he admitted, pausing as a tray of sandwiches, together with a tumbler of some type of cordial was placed next to the red boxes.
“Well then. Red boxes, sandwiches and elderflower cordial. I think that we’re ready.” He jerked a fat thumb at Hankey. “You want to know why you’re here.”
“I am curious, Prime Minister.”
“Maurice, I am going to return to Whitehall in a month, give or take a few days. It is clear from your papers that the Cabinet has done nothing to deal with the King’s matter. Is that fair?”
Hankey paused, thinking carefully. “Yes, Prime Minister, it is fair. The only real progress is by the Royals themselves. Halifax is meeting with the Duke of York next week, and the Queen has invited His Majesty to dinner in a few weeks’ time.”
“No clarification on the marriage?”
“Fisher and Chamberlain sent a rather tone-deaf letter to the Palace asking for a meeting; the King played his delaying tactic, with a hint that as the Prime Minister had not resigned, it was the Prime Minister who should be calling.”
Baldwin sighed, and, pointing his face in the direction of the sun, closed his eyes for a few moments. “Trooping the Colour,” he said, “I’ll come back for that, and we can have a call in the margins. Has the King done anything on the Simpson front?”
Hankey grimaced and shook his head. “It has all slowed down. Having declared to you and some advisors that he wants her on the throne, it’s seemingly frozen.”
“Care to speculate?”
Hankey frowned. “I suspect that the King wishes to understand the how of arranging a divorce and then a marriage,” he said carefully. “I wonder if he’s taking advice on the machinery of this.”
Baldwin nodded. “Alright, then. So we allow him a few weeks. My health is better, but I’m not sure that I could the pounding of a summer of endless flitting between Parliament and Palace.” He shook his head. “If he renounces her…”
Hankey, normally so diplomatic, looked, fleetingly, angry. “Sir, this has dragged on for weeks and…”
“…I’m not Neville, Maurice,” Baldwin said tiredly. “I’m keen to not see the King publicly embarrassed by losing the love of his life, or his crown. These attacks in Truth on ‘holders of loose morals,’ they’re from Neville aren’t they?”
“Well, more precisely…”
“…his trained attack dog. That stops. Now.” He handed Hankey a letter. “Orders to Neville and Lang to stop the campaigning on public decency.”
“Can we order His Grace?”
Baldwin shot a knowing look. “I intend to bloody well try. They’re good letters, Maurice, the recipients should take heed of them.”
“I’m sure that they…”
“…I’ve also told Neville not to call on His Majesty, I will do it upon my return. Neville has taken too much on, and has delivered nothing. Neither, on that score, has Anthony,” he handed Hankey a third letter. “Anthony can be let off the leash. Let him go to France, let him negotiate away. Perhaps some good foreign news could serve as a distraction.”
Hankey scribbled some notes and, tidying up the papers, had a question of his own. “Prime Minister, you remember that you approved a meeting of some key chaps to, er, cohere our…”
“…oh, you mean the spy thing.”
“In a way, Prime Minister, in a way.” Hankey had forgotten about the sandwiches and so quickly took a chunk out of a pork and mustard sandwich. “Given that we are seeing increased foreign interest in His Majesty, do I have your permission to, shall we say, give it more clout?”
Baldwin thought, as he nibbled on a sandwich of his own, and then nodded. “Yes please, Maurice. The intelligence apparatus might be important. If our own side,” he pointed at the tatty copy of Truth, “isn’t helping us, then God knows what our rivals are doing.”
There was a slightly awkward silence, as both men swiftly finished their lunch. Finally Hankey broke the silence.
“Prime Minister, while I am here I may as well get other business done,” he nodded towards the red boxes, “it will save you from having to read about it.”
Baldwin nodded, “good idea, Maurice.”
Hankey pulled out some more papers. “Let’s see,” he frowned, “nearly all military. The Navy has pushed its plan for the Mediterranean basing to Inskip, and the RAF is reorganising its commands.”
Baldwin grimaced, he was not the master of military detail. “Go steady, Maurice,” he said wearily.
“It’s relevant, Prime Minister,” Hankey persisted. “The Navy is pressing for Cyprus again. The Admiralty estimates that the construction of a base at Famagusta has outstanding advantages. First, Cyprus is British territory and therefore we have a free hand to develop its military installations. Second, its geographical position renders the island suitable for use, provided that Turkey is not hostile. Cyprus’ position rules the possibility of any threat from a land advance such as the Italians might develop against Alexandria. Moreover, we believe that Cyprus offers advantages in the way of accommodation and climate, which do not appear to exist elsewhere.”
“A good example, Prime Minister,” Hankey explained, “is that there is a considerable area in which aerodromes could be constructed. Aircraft bases on the island could counterattack any Italian forces in the Dodecanese, while at the same time being within easy flying range of Egypt if required to concentrate in that area.”
“But,” Baldwin said softly, but insightfully.
“The Army believes that there are disadvantages. Firstly, a naval base in Cyprus entails further military engagement for the protection of the site.” Seeing Baldwin look confused, he elaborated. “The need to provide a garrison would strain our military capabilities. “The Air Force points out that Cyprus is only seventy miles from the coast of East Asia. If Turkey ever became hostile, it would render the base in Cyprus vulnerable to air attack, just like we saw that Malta was during the Ethiopian Crisis.”
“It would also,” Baldwin added, in conjecture, “permanently affect political relations between Britain and Turkey. I cannot imagine that young Anthony would like it! What about the money?”
“Alexandria is cheaper,” Hankey allowed, “three million pounds.”
“It depends,” Hankey began. “Scheme A, our most ambitious scheme, designed to provide the fleet with full operational as well as docking and repair facilities. This scheme would cost approximately twenty five million pounds and would involve an annual maintenance cost of eight hundred thousand pounds. The two other schemes are much cheaper. Scheme B would cost fifteen million pounds with an annual cost of seven hundred thousand pounds. Scheme C is even cheaper, costs four million pounds and with a similar annual cost. Both of the cheaper schemes embrace modified maintenance and repair facilities in Cyprus, with Alexandria envisaged as the operational base for the fleet.”
“Alright, I want Anthony in on this, I agree with it going to Cabinet. When I return it can go on the agenda. What’s next?”
“The RAF Commands, Prime Minister. A note endorsed by the Air Ministry from Air Marshal Courtney. He explains that we will have four Commands. Now, we looked at organising them along regional lines, in a similar fashion to ADGB and its areas, but initially, at this level, they will be functionally arranged.”
Baldwin raised a hand. “AD whatever it was?”
“Air Defence of Great Britain,” Hankey responded immediately. “Of the new ones the obvious ones are Bomber and Fighter Commands. Bomber Command will control, as its name suggests, the Bomber forces, while Fighter Command controls the Fighters, as well as the Army cooperation forces, and the Royal Observer Corps.” Baldwin looked far from convinced. “They are the main frontline forces. We then have Coastal Command, based in the Solent near our Naval seniors, controlling the flying boats, coastal reconnaissance and patrol aircraft. Finally, from the wreckage of the old Inland Area, we have Training Command, running the training units and Reserves.”
“Sounds sensible,” Baldwin grudgingly admitted, “what’s next.”
“Frankly, Sir, we need to work out how we fight the Commands. We’ve put two of the stars, Dowding and Steel, in Fighter and Bomber Commands. The next element, and one for COS and probably Cabinet endorsement, is the replacement of Scheme ‘C’ with Scheme ‘F’. The Abyssinian imbroglio revealed some telling deficiencies. Scheme F sees us increasing our strength to one hundred and twenty four squadrons, around seventeen hundred aircraft.”
“Can the factories provide for that,” Baldwin, understanding ‘the ask’, asked insightfully.
“No, not with existing plant, and that’s why we need the imprimatur of the Cabinet and COS Committee. Inskip proposes to bring into operation plants in Birmingham and Coventry.”
Baldwin nodded. “Tell Neville to get on with it,” he huffed. “But thank you, Maurice, for the update.”
This is, really, a continuation of the 5 June Admiralty and the ‘Baldwin goes on holiday’ updates. The choice of retreat is Chequers, and here the official country residence makes its first appearance. I’ve based the surly staff members on those at my Inn of Court, who are wonderfully helpful, even if they give the appearance of hating the members.
For those convinced that I am too ‘seized’ by the Med basing argument, I have actually truncated a huuuuuuge argument in the Admiralty and varying committees to get this into something approaching readable. The words used by Hankey are from the varying reports and briefings of the time and I think that the argument is an interesting one; none of the proposed options was perfect and I ultimately agree with the Committee that the cost of a “bells and whistles” facility at Famagusta would be prohibitive; I am not sure I agree with the Army that the garrisoning requirement would be too great, as Cyprus would always need a garrison regardless of the Naval ‘footprint’.
I have also deliberately not specified the Committee forwarding this material to Baldwin; it is probably closest, in scope and attention, to the Joint Planning Committee (who did have the Cyprus / Alexandria / Haifa decision from the services chiefs). The Joint Planning Committee was appointed by the Committee of Imperial Defence in 1927 and supported the Chiefs of Staff Committee (the oft mentioned COS), in theory allowing the Chiefs of Staff to exercise properly their joint responsibility for advising on defence policy as a whole. The members of the Joint Planning Committee were the directors of plans of the three services, reinforced by officers drawn from the Navy, Army and Air Force. The minutes and memoranda were circulated to members of the Committee, to members of the COS, to the Prime Minister, and to other ministers and officials as required. I have, as I wanted to mention the RAF ‘Commands’ system, probably drifted slightly into the Defence Requirements Committee (DRC) work from late 1935; thankfully they wouldn’t necessarily be separated in the PM’s red box!
The Commands were, in my view, one of the many ways in which the RAF just ‘got it right’ in 1936, and we will look at these (Fighter Command in particular) as their story develops through to what’s-coming-over-the-horizon. The varying RAF schemes were a mixed bag; Scheme F was actually approved slightly earlier than portrayed but again I wanted to show some of the Whitehall machinery trying to get s**t done. It was one of the few that delivered/got close to delivering its target, largely because of the use of shadow resources to surge production.
And so with military matters reflected upon, we still have Baldwin, wearily plotting his return. The latin is of course the famous ‘Look behind you. Remember you are a man’; I love it that even this is not agreed (I have gone for my A Level in Classics version, but others are evidently available). What, I hope, has come across is that a couple of weeks away from Whitehall have done wonders for the PM’s health; that this sadly at the expense of clear governance ‘back at the ranch’ is not a surprise given our other updates. Nothing has been done about the King, and we’re approaching the storm…
@DensleyBlair: Everything is, as you say, up for grabs, as this departs further from reality.
@Specialist290: You’d have hated Hoare – he was old money oddly posing as new, and was another member of the anti-American Tories.
@TheButterflyComposer: The Army was weirdly gripped by the RN basing debate, and its senior echelons (Newall and Dill in particular) paid it a great deal of attention. You’re right though – for the RN to sod off in the midst of tense negotiations with the Egyptians would be an interesting decision.
@stnylan: He was quick – and that’s about as positive I can be.
@Cromwell: That’s an interesting point about Spain, and perhaps I am unconsciously sliding it in. Spain plays an important role later on, and I’ve tried to avoid the clichés…
@Bullfilter: Hopefully the other commentators (and this update) have helped on the basing issue, but it occupied an extraordinary amount of Government time in ’36. Astonishing really.
@Captured Joe: I actually think that he’d better in something dull and domestic (Treasury, Health) where his sharp mind would be outweigh his slipperiness of character (I also keep having mad ideas of making him DG of MI5 or MI6).
@El Pip: It is fascinating, and it does I think offer a sense of an Admiralty (almost) using the last war to fight the next. The naval base plans were chaotically scheduled, incoherently assessed and kicked out of the long grass (as with much of 30s defence planning).
@BBBD316: Welcome Sir, and thank you for your very kind words. All are welcome here in our mythical 1930s Whitehall club, just pull up a chair, throw away the outdated copies of the newspapers, have a tea (or something stronger) and wait for the chaos to erupt.
@El Pip: Fascinating stuff – the Duff-Cooper bits are the most interesting as he played both sides and all throughout the crisis. He was one of the leading Royalists in the Government.