112 Record of Meeting held in U.K. Prime Minister's Room at House of Commons

LONDON, 28 June 1939

SECRET

THE SITUATION IN THE FAR EAST

The Committee of Imperial Defence at its 362nd Meeting held on 26th June, 1939, had under consideration a Memorandum by the Deputy Chief of Naval Staff [1] on the subject of the communication to the Dominions of the policy recently approved by the Committee of Imperial Defence regarding the despatch of a fleet to the Far East (Paper No. D.P.(P) 55). [2]

2. In the course of the discussion the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs [3] suggested that he might see Mr Bruce [4] and Mr Nash [5] and explain to them how matters stood in regard to the Tientsin affair, and also the general position in regard to the despatch of a fleet to the Far East.

3. The Prime Minister [6] agreed, and added that, in the circumstances, it might be desirable for him also (the Prime Minister) to see Mr Bruce and Mr Nash.

4. Accordingly, a meeting was held in the Prime Minister's Room in the House of Commons at 5 p.m. on Wednesday, the 28th June, at which the following were present:-

The Prime Minister.

The Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs.

The Minister for Co-ordination of Defence. [7]

The High Commissioner for Australia.

The High Commissioner for New Zealand. [8]

Major-General H.L. Ismay-Secretary.

5. THE PRIME MINISTER said that he thought that it would be helpful to have a discussion on the situation that had arisen in the Far East, more particularly in view of the telegram which had been received from the Prime Minister of Australia, as recently as the 24th June, asking for an assurance 'that Australia is entitled to assume that, in the event of war with Japan, the United Kingdom Government would send a fleet to Singapore within appropriate time capable of containing the Japanese Fleet to a degree sufficient to prevent a major act of aggression against Australia'. [9] The Prime Minister then read out the reply which he had sent to Mr Menzies (see Annex to this record [10]).

6. The Prime Minister continuing said that the contingency which now confronted us was in a sense different from that which we had previously contemplated. In the past, it had been thought that the probability was that we should find ourselves involved in a war with the Axis Powers, and that subsequently Japan might intervene on their side. Now it looked as though it might be the other way round: for, if we sent our fleet to Singapore to deal with Japan, the temptation to the Axis Powers to take advantage of the situation would be almost irresistible. Our position would then be rendered extremely difficult in view of the engagements we had recently undertaken in Europe. On the one hand, we had only a limited number of battleships, and it was obviously essential to retain a sufficiency in Home waters: on the other hand, it was useless to send a fleet to Singapore unless it was sufficiently strong to accept battle with the Japanese Fleet, and to achieve the three main objects set out in his recent telegram to Mr Menzies (Annex). Of course, Singapore itself was now much stronger in the matter of defences and reserves. Nevertheless, the exhaustive examination of the whole problem which had recently been undertaken led to the conclusion that hostilities with Japan would place us in such an awkward dilemma that they should be avoided, if it was in any way possible to do so. We had now succeeded in arranging negotiations in the calmer atmosphere of Tokyo, and there were grounds for hoping for a satisfactory settlement of the Tientsin affair. If, on the other hand, the Japanese proved intransigent, it might be impossible to avoid hostilities with them. He himself, however, did not think it likely that the Japanese would wish to push matters to extremes:

they had their 'plate full' in China, and did not want war with us. Nor were they unmindful of the fact that they might have to reckon with the United States of America as well as ourselves. The Prime Minister added that His Majesty's Government were keeping in close touch with the United States of America over this business.

Their attitude might be described as wary but helpful.

7. THE HIGH COMMISSIONER FOR AUSTRALIA said that he could not say for certain how the Australian Government would react to the march of events, but it might be helpful to the Meeting if he were to give his own personal estimate of what their reactions would be.

In the first place, he could say quite frankly that the Australian Government felt that the United Kingdom Government had gone into this business 'on the wrong leg'. They felt that in the dangerous circumstances of the present time, the Foreign Office had taken a somewhat too precise and exacting view of technicalities, and that they would have been wiser to follow the advice of the Consul General at Tientsin [11], and the Ambassador at Tokyo [12], rather than that of the Ambassador in China. [13] The Australian Government felt, in fact, that it was a pity that the business had started in the way it had. He (Mr Bruce) thought that they would cordially agree with His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom that every possibility of resolving the trouble ought to be exploredshort of accepting intolerable humiliation. If it came to that, the Australian Government would agree that some sort of retaliation was essential; and the form of retaliation that would most appeal to them would be increased assistance to China.

Further, if His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom came to the conclusion that the imposition of some form of sanctions on Japan was the only way of maintaining the position, the Australian Government would probably raise no objection, and would co- operate. If finally, it came to armed conflict, the Australian Government would wish to have more specific information on a number of points. What size of fleet would be sent to Singapore? When would it be sent? How soon was the investment of Singapore likely to commence? 8. Mr Bruce, continuing, gave an account of various conversations which he had had during his recent visit to the United States of America, all of which led him to believe that American opinion was decidedly pro-Chinese, and not disinclined to take an interest in Far Eastern affairs. Any question of intervention in Europe was always connected with the despatch of Expeditionary forces and prodigious losses, with the result that the isolationist spirit was uppermost. Far Eastern affairs on the other hand, were a naval business, and there was nothing like the same objection to intervention, particularly as there was a feeling that the American Navy cost a great deal and might as well 'earn its keep'.

9. THE PRIME MINISTER agreed that the United States were more forthcoming as regards Far Eastern affairs than anything else, and MR JORDAN said that Mr Wellington Koo [14] had told him at Geneva that the supply of war material from America to Japan had entirely ceased.

10. MR BRUCE said that as far back as 1938 he had doubted whether it would be possible for the United Kingdom Government to send a fleet to Singapore if, as even then seemed possible, they got involved with Germany, Italy and Japan simultaneously. But he had been assured by the Admiralty that it was the firm intention to send seven battleships-two modern and five Royal Sovereign class.

He had therefore been surprised when he saw the Prime Minister's telegram of the 20th March, 1939, to the late Mr Lyons. [15]

11. LORD CHATFIELD said that the position was different in respect of the sequence of events. Previously, it had been hoped that it might be possible to deal with Italy before being obliged to send a fleet to Singapore. Now it looked as though the latter might be the first move. Continuing, he explained that the British Navy could no more stop the Japanese Army overrunning China than they could stop the German Army overrunning France, All that the Navy could do was to secure the objects set out in the Prime Minister's telegram (Annex) and to support economic pressure by force. If the Japanese wished to engage our fleet, they would have to come down and fight in our waters. This would not be easy for them.

12. MR BRUCE, in conclusion, said that while he was in America, he had asked the President what he would do if the Japanese were to send naval forces south of the Equator. Mr Roosevelt had replied:

'You need not worry'. [16]

1 Rear Admiral T.S.V. Phillips.

2 Not printed (see PRO: CAB 16//183A).

3 Sir Thomas Inskip.

4 S.M. Bruce, High Commissioner in London.

5 Walter Nash, New Zealand Minister for Finance, then in London for financial negotiations.

6 Neville Chamberlain.

7 Lord Chatfield.

8 W.J. Jordan.

9 Document 111.

10 Printed as Document 113. The reply was not in fact sent until 29 June 1939.

11 E.G. Jamieson.

12 Sir Robert Craigie.

13 Sir Archibald Clark Kerr.

14 Dr V.K. Wellington Koo, Chinese Ambassador to France and delegate to the League of Nations.

15 Document 46.

16 For a further record of Bruce's conversation with Roosevelt see Document 82 and its Attachment II.

[PRO: CAB 21/893]