24 Mr A. Eden, U.K. Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs, to Mr R. G. Menzies, Prime Minister
Circular cablegram D38 LONDON, 24 January 1940, 1 a.m.
MOST SECRET AND PERSONAL FOLLOWING FOR THE PRIME MINISTER
Attention has recently been called to the extent to which German operations against shipping have recently tended to fall with increasing severity on the shipping of neutral countries.
The figures of shipping of the three Scandinavian countries Norway, Sweden and Denmark show that during the first three months of the war the total number of ships sunk was 213 of a total tonnage of 63,000 tons. The number of reported deaths was 50.
During the month of December 28 Scandinavian ships were sunk of a total tonnage of 51,000 with 133 reported deaths. In the present month up to date 12 ships have been sunk of a total tonnage of 23,000 and reported casualties 53.
In earlier stages, German operations were limited to vessels trading with this country but more recently indiscriminate Warfare has been practised not only as a result of mine-laying but also by submarine attacks on merchant vessels trading between neutral ports. Germany's violations of international law and of the rights of neutrals on the high seas are thus becoming steadily more numerous and more flagrant while at the same time she continues to derive great benefit from our scrupulous observance of international law in the matter of iron ore shipments from Narvik.
By so doing it seems to us that Germany is piling up a fresh case against herself which is quite distinct from the case we have previously made out to show that she violated Norwegian territorial waters.
These violations by Germany of international law on the high seas may well be held to justify us in maintaining that we too should be liberated from the strict letter of the law in those cases where our vital interests are concerned, so long as our action does not endanger the interests of any neutral state or its citizens.
The attitude of the smaller neutrals is we know to hold us to the strict application of international law as regards neutral rights, while they themselves perforce acquiesce in Germany's illegalities as practised against themselves. This may be suspected in view of the terror which Germany's threat inspired in most of them. But the smaller neutral States themselves should realize as indeed they probably do, though fear prevents them from acting upon it, that their security depends upon our victory, and that, should we go under, Germany will show no respect for property or rights of the weak neutrals.
We have never contemplated taking any action in Norwegian waters which would cost a single Norwegian life. At the same time many Scandinavian sailors have been killed by German action in flagrant violation of international law. Yet we are prohibited from even a technical infringement of that law and thus compelled to allow quantities of iron ore to reach Germany which provide her with raw material necessary to create more armaments to be used against ourselves and neutrals alike.
We have, as you know, decided not to proceed at present with the decision to send British warships into Norwegian territorial waters to intercept the shipment of iron ore. At present the position is that we have told the Norwegian and Swedish Governments that we have in response to their request delayed the execution of this decision, while making it plain to them that we consider ourselves entitled to expect them to submit proposals to us for achieving this object by other means. If, as is probable, they do not come forward with adequate proposals we will be careful to consider the situation thus created and examine, inter alia, whether violations by Germany of international law on the high seas are or are not sufficiently flagrant to liberate us from the restrictions to which we are at present submitting in the case of transit of iron ore from Narvik to Germany through Norwegian territorial waters.
In case we should decide on a review of all relevant considerations to take action we are studying whether instead of patrolling Norwegian waters we might not preferably lay mines in Norwegian territorial waters and declare the minefield. The object of such a step would be to force ships carrying iron ore out into the open sea, where they could be intercepted. If the Norwegians were to sweep up the field another could be laid at a different point and this also declared. An advantage of this proposal is that there should be less risk of damage to Norwegian or other shipping in Norwegian waters and less likelihood of incidents with Norwegian forces.
While no detailed proposal has as yet been put before the War Cabinet we are anxious to give you earliest information of the problem which we expect to be considered in the course of the next few days.