204 Appreciation by Chiefs of Staff for War Cabinet

Agendum 97/1940 2 May 1940


The Chiefs of Staff are not in a position to lay before the War Cabinet an appreciation of the situation which the advent of Italy in support of the Germans would create. The necessary data as to strength and disposition of the forces concerned and the political and other intelligence needful for the purpose are not available to them.

2. The seriousness of the augmentation of enemy forces and the extension of the flanks of the areas of operation, firstly to Norway and secondly to north and east Africa, is self-evident and needs no stressing, nor is it necessary to emphasize the danger of dispersing our forces.

3. To the Empire the Suez Canal and the passage of the Red Sea have always been of immense strategical importance. Their complete safety is dependent upon our control of the Mediterranean and of the Red Sea. We are not in a position to make any estimate of the length of time which would be involved in regaining control of the Mediterranean. Nor are we able to speak with any certainty of an early clearance of the Red Sea. Doubtless, effort would early be concentrated on this latter task, as it is of first importance that the Empire should be able to support the forces about Egypt and Palestine and so to isolate Abyssinia and be able to thwart any Italian action from Libya.

4. The advent of Italy into the war is unlikely seriously to affect the Naval situation in areas outside those discussed in paragraph 3 above. The main Italian Naval forces are contained in the Mediterranean, and the only small units disposed elsewhere are in the Red Sea. Apart from this area, there are no Italian forces in the Indian or Pacific Oceans. The Italians have made little preparation for arming their merchant vessels, and the menace from this source is very small.

5. Taking these factors into consideration and the other most important factor, that Germany's Naval strength has been drastically reduced in the Norwegian venture, it is considered that the prospective threat to Allied sea communications in the Pacific and Indian Oceans is very small.

6. The Cape route to the United Kingdom (which is only 10% longer than the Suez route) becomes of greater importance, and there should be no difficulty in adequately safeguarding it. Convoys proceeding via Capetown could be routed from that port through the Red Sea if and when this route was reopened.

7. Until the Red Sea route is opened, there may be difficulty in getting supplies to our forces in the Suez Canal area, but this problem is one which the United Kingdom Government must have under review. It is clear, however, that the clearance of the Red Sea route is one of the urgent and major necessities.

8. From the air point of view there can be no question that British shipping in the Red Sea would be open to air attack in considerable force.

9. From latest reports, which admittedly are not up to date, the Italians have in Italian East Africa (Eritrea and Abyssinia) some 230 bombers and some 45 fighters, including reserves. The majority of these aircraft could be transferred from one area to another without much difficulty if petrol facilities allowed. Shipping could come under Italian air attack from the entrance to the Gulf of Aden to as far north as Port Sudan. Our air forces at Aden consist of some 24 bombers and 6 fighters with reserves. We have one squadron of bombers at Nairobi, one squadron of 18 bombers at Khartoum. In the Middle East there are some five squadrons of bombers and three squadrons of fighters. The French have at Djibouti one squadron of bombers and one flight of fighters.

10. Air reinforcements could be sent from Iraq, India, Singapore and South Africa provided the situation allows.

11. Finally, we consider that if the intervention of Italy occurs, the need is emphasized of Australian assistance in the main theatre as fully and promptly as possible.

[AA: A2671, 96 AND 97/1940]