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Historical documents

134 Mr N. Chamberlain, U.K. Prime Minister, to Mr J. A. Lyons, Prime Minister

Cablegram unnumbered LONDON, 11 March 1938, 8.25 p.m. [1]


Your telegram 10th March. [2]

The text of passage in my speech referred to in your telegram was
as follows:-

'The question arises now, what is the policy for which these
programmes are designed? I will try to put that in the form of a
general statement. The corner-stone of our defence policy must be
the security of the United Kingdom. Our main strength lies in
resources of man power, productiveness, capacity and endurance of
this country, and unless these can be maintained not only in peace
but in the early stages of war, when they will be the subject of
continuous attack, our defeat will be certain whatever might be
the fate in secondary sphere elsewhere. Therefore our first main
effort must have two main objectives: we must protect this country
and we must preserve trade routes upon which we depend for our
food and raw material.

Our third objective is defence of British territory overseas from
attack, whether by sea, land or air. I would remind the house that
our position is different from that of many continental countries
in that we have the necessity at all times of maintaining
garrisons overseas in naval bases and strategic points in
different parts of the world. That makes it necessary for us to
have available forces which can be despatched on what may be
called Imperial Police Duty. In war time there would undoubtedly
be substantial demands for reinforcement to be sent to these
strategic points, but, taking them in order of priority, they are
not as vital as the defence of our own country, because as long as
we are undefeated at home, although we sustained losses overseas,
we might have an opportunity of making them good hereafter. The
fourth and last objective which I will mention can be stated quite
shortly, namely, co-operation in defence of territories of any
allies we might have in case of war. These objectives have been
before us in the preparation of each of the service programmes. We
have endeavoured to give to each service means adequate to the
role it is expected to play. Taken as a whole the programmes
represent a careful balance struck after due account has been
taken of the considerations I have mentioned, and when they are
added together I think they form an impressive picture of armed
power and economic might of this country'.

The task of reconditioning our defence forces and defences
involves a stupendous effort from the point of view not only of
finance but also of man power and industrial resources. It was not
physically possible to undertake the whole task simultaneously
here any more than it has been possible in Australia, where I
understand you have your own priorities of defence expenditure.

The extract from my speech merely sets forth in very general terms
the system of priorities which we have been working. It would be
quite wrong to deduce that the protection of overseas possessions,
because it appears third on my list, is not regarded as of first
rate importance.

In this connection you will notice that the first category
mentioned in my speech includes not only the protection of this
country, but the preservation of trade routes upon which we depend
for food and raw materials. The protection of trade routes is
carried out in the main by the naval forces (supplemented by
military and air forces) which at the same time provide the
principal protection for British territory all over the world. The
bases of those forces must be rendered secure. Thus Singapore, as
the pivotal point of the whole system of naval defence of the
Empire east of Suez, is being provided not only with docks, but
also with the most powerful gun and air defences of any port in
the Empire, and continues to receive high priority. Similarly a
good deal has been and is being done for the security of our
communications with Australia and the Far East.

To sum up, we are merely doing what every other country is
compelled to do, and, while strengthening our defences as a whole
are adopting a general system of priorities which provides first
for our most threatened and most essential points, but is applied
with care and discrimination. The idea that in the event of war we
may not depend on our overseas possessions is entirely false. [3]

As a result progress in rearmament, including Singapore, we are in
fact in a better position in this respect than we were three years

I hope that the information contained in this telegram will enable
you to dissipate any erroneous impressions.

For your own information, and not for public use, what I have in
mind in reference to 'the security of our communications with
Australia and the Far East' are firstly measures recently taken to
strengthen military and air forces available in Egypt and
Palestine for the defence of the Suez Canal, and secondly, to
strengthen the defences and air forces at the ports East of Suez
several of which measures are in hand and some well advanced
towards completion.

In the course of next week I hope to despatch for your
confidential information a full account of our future programme of
defence expenditure resulting from a comprehensive examination of
the whole situation. [4] This was already being prepared when your
telegram arrived.


1 This cablegram was dispatched in two parts. Part one was sent at
8.25 p.m.; Part two, which began 'The task of reconditioning ....

was sent at midnight.

2 Document 132.

3 On this passage see Documents 137 and 144.

4 This was not sent because it was subsequently outdated by the
decision to accelerate rearmament.

[AA : A1608, 051/1/1]
Last Updated: 11 September 2013
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