32 Minutes of Seventh Meeting of Principal Delegates to Imperial Conference
E (PD) (37) 7 (extract) LONDON, 26 May 1937
IMPERIAL DEFENCE: DEPENDENCE ON SEA POWER
SIR SAMUEL HOARE expressed his regret at having been unable to
attend the two previous Meetings at which defence matters were
discussed. He then proceeded to make the following statement.
'1. The Minister for Co-ordination  has dealt in his opening
with the more general aspects of the problems of Imperial defence
and the Chiefs of Staff have circulated a full and detailed
appreciation of our position to the members of the Conference. 
2. I need not, therefore, return to the ground that they have
covered. Rather is it my task, as First Lord of the Admiralty, to
concentrate upon the naval questions at issue.
3. To obtain a clear perspective it is necessary to say once again
that the British Commonwealth of Nations is a world-wide Empire
which was founded by sea power and is, to this day, dependent on
sea power for its existence.
4. I cannot put this aspect of Imperial defence more clearly than
by quoting the words of Sir Archdale Parkhill, Minister of Defence
in Australia, if he will forgive my quoting him in his presence.
The speech was made on the Australian Defence Estimates, 1936-37.
He said, "The backbone of the defence of the British Commonwealth
is still essentially naval, and will remain so as long as oceans
link the shores of its members. "
5. Just so long as we are in a position to control the sea
communications of the world, so long is every member of the
British Commonwealth of Nations assured of safety and security
6. If we ceased to be in a position to control sea communications
in any part of the world, then those parts of the British Empire
where our control is successfully resisted become open to
invasion, and our Imperial highways would be cut.
7. I state this basic fact at the beginning of my speech. I do so
on purpose, for, during the past months, doubts have been
expressed, and have been expressed publicly, as to our ability, in
the face of our European commitments, to despatch a fleet to the
Far East if Japan determined to force matters to a trial of
strength with us.
8. Let me assume for one moment that these doubts are well-
founded, and that Japan, determined on aggression, is free to
exercise her sea power in the Far East unopposed by the British
Fleet. Let me assume that, in these circumstances, Japan decides
to invade Australia and launches an expedition covered by the full
strength of her naval forces and her naval air forces.
9. I am convinced that, if this act of aggression took place, no
measures of local defence, no Army and no Air Force which the
Commonwealth of Australia could conceivably maintain could save
her from invasion and defeat at the hands of the Japanese. The
Dominion of New Zealand would be exposed to exactly the same
danger, and every word I have said about Australia is equally
applicable to New Zealand.
10. With Australia and New Zealand dominated by the Japanese and
the Indian Ocean under the control of Japanese sea power, where
would be the security of the Union of South Africa and of the
India Empire? Or let me suppose that Japan casts her eyes eastward
across the Pacific, what is to deter her from action against the
Dominion of Canada?
11. Finally, what of the United Kingdom interests in the Far East,
the British Colonial possessions, our immense trade in the Pacific
and Indian Oceans? All these would lie at the mercy of the
12. I have said enough to make it clear that we believe that the
very existence of the British Commonwealth of Nations as now
constituted rests on our ability to send our fleet to the Far
East, should the need arise.
13. Moreover, by our action in building, developing and equipping
the Naval Base at Singapore, we have advertised to the world
generally and to Japan in particular our intention to maintain
Imperial interests in the Pacific. This great project undertaken
at a time when our financial resources were restricted by the
years of the depression is now happily approaching the date of
14. It may, therefore, be said that our intentions are obvious. I
must now turn to the question of our ability to put our intentions
This involves the consideration of our naval strength and the
ultimate factor in naval strength, it should be remembered, is the
15. We can appreciate the situation as it exists at the present
time, and, since a capital ship takes some three to four years to
build in this and all other countries, we can forecast the
situation up to a period some four years ahead.
16. At the present moment we are satisfied that our naval strength
would allow us to despatch an adequate fleet to the Far East
whilst retaining sufficient strength in Home Waters to cover our
17. Looking ahead we appreciate that there will be a period, from
the Spring of 1938 to the Summer of 1939, when we could only
retain forces in Home Waters barely adequate to meet the naval
forces of Germany and must rely on being assisted by the French
Navy, We could still send to the Far East a Fleet, but it would
be, from a purely material point of view, slightly inferior to the
full Japanese naval strength. By the adoption of a defensive
policy and, relying on the superior fighting qualities of the
British race, this Fleet should achieve its object of assuring the
Dominions from serious aggression.
18. But let us look further ahead and contemplate the time when
the battleships now building in other European countries have been
completed. A study of comparative numbers at once shows that after
1940, or thereabouts, from the standpoint of Capital ships alone,
the despatch of a fleet to the Far East would be a most hazardous
undertaking unless our battleship strength is increased above the
number of 15 ships. The problem of maintaining the standard
necessary in the years beyond 1940 is one therefore that will call
for effort and expenditure of unprecedented magnitude.
19. These forecasts are based on our own new construction
programmes and on the present known intentions of Germany. Thanks
to the Anglo-German Naval Agreement of 1935, whereby Germany
voluntarily restricted herself to a limit of 35 per cent. of
British naval strength, we can face the future, as far as the
German Navy is concerned, with equanimity. Japanese intentions
are, on the other hand, still shrouded in oriental mystery.
NAVAL CONSTRUCTION PROGRAMMES
20. In our 1936 and 1937 programmes we have 5 capital ships, 4
aircraft carriers, 7 large cruisers and 7 fleet cruisers under
construction. Our 1937 Naval Estimates reached the enormous figure
of 105,000,000. This colossal burden has been imposed on us by the
needs of the situation as it exists to-day.
21. For the future the one thing that can be prophesied with some
assurance is that Japan will undertake the construction of new
capital ships. This will demand further capital ship construction
by the British Commonwealth of Nations. When all the other burdens
on the taxpayer of the United Kingdom, involved in our rearmament
programme, are taken into account it is impossible to foretell
whether we, in the United Kingdom, will be able to face, almost
single-handed, the immense financial strain that will be involved.
Let me put to you this question in a single sentence. Shall we in
the United Kingdom in peace time be able to support on the top of
our huge expenditure upon the social services and the other
branches of defence a permanent charge of more than 100 millions a
year for the new required Fleet?
22. I must emphasise again that a large proportion of this
expenditure is required to meet our Imperial obligations in the
Far East and that the safety and security of all the Dominions is
dependent on our ability to meet these obligations. In these
circumstances I feel sure that the Dominions will appreciate the
dangers with which the whole of the British Commonwealth of
Nations is now faced.
DOMINION CONTRIBUTION TO IMPERIAL NAVAL DEFENCE
23. I turn now to the question of the best form which Dominion
contribution to Imperial Naval Defence can take. And here I would
draw your attention to the Naval Appendix to the Chiefs of Staff
This paper has been prepared in the Admiralty for the information
of the Delegates attending the Conference.
24. The Appendix starts by quoting the advice formerly given and
agreed to in previous Imperial Conferences. This advice culminated
in the recommendation that Dominion Naval building programmes
should comprise the construction of cruisers and sloops, the
latter now being known as "Escort Vessels."
25. With the lapse of the treaties of quantitative limitation the
opportunity has been taken to review this advice in the light of
the situation as it exists to-day and in Part II of the Appendix
will be found the Admiralty's recommendations for Dominion naval
construction to-day. It will be seen that the Admiralty now
recommends to the Dominions that they should consider carefully
whether they are in a position to build and maintain capital
26. Before making such a recommendation the Admiralty have fully
weighed its financial implications. It has been found that, taking
every calculable factor into consideration, the total over-all
cost of a capital ship only slightly exceeds the cost of 2 modem
large cruisers. The value of one capital ship, as a contribution
to Imperial Defence, greatly exceeds the value of two cruisers.
27. The construction of cruisers is also recommended. It can
safely be said that we can never have too many cruisers. Finally,
the review concludes with a recommendation that destroyers should
be built. The latter recommendation is a departure from Admiralty
advice during the Treaty period. The factors justifying this
change of policy are fully discussed in the Appendix. Briefly, the
Admiralty consider that whilst destroyers are primarily fleet
units and, as such, should be employed whenever possible in
flotillas working with a Main Fleet, yet their value, both in the
training they afford and in their benefit to morale, outweighs
other considerations and justifies their construction.
28. I hope I have made it abundantly clear that in my opinion it
is upon our Imperial sea power in both hemispheres that the
security of the British Commonwealth of Nations primarily depends.
I am fully aware that there is a school of thought in the world
to-day which believes that the advent of air power has rendered
Navies obsolete. The truth is, of course, that air power and sea
power are complementary parts of a single defence problem. But so
long as we are dependent on sea-borne trade and our sea
communications, I am convinced that we are as dependent on sea
power to-day as we have always been in the past.
36. In conclusion, allow me to summarise the situation as I see it
to-day. The Royal Navy is undergoing a process of modernisation
and expansion from which, when the programme is completed, it
should emerge as well fitted to deal with possible enemies in any
part of the world as ever before throughout its long history. This
result, however, can only be achieved at immense cost, which,
taken in conjunction with other essentials of our national re-
armament, is placing on the taxpayer of the United Kingdom an
almost intolerable burden.
37. A great proportion of the expenditure on Naval defence is
required to meet our Imperial, as distinct from our United
Kingdom, obligations. The question must occur to all of us whether
this small island can continue to shoulder the financial strain
involved in maintaining to so great an extent, the requisite
standard of naval strength to ensure our Imperial security. It may
well be that the safety of the British Commonwealth of Nations
will depend on increased naval support from the Dominions.
38. I have no wish to propose, far less to dictate a programme or
a policy to our sister States. They are as free as we are to make
their choice, and to make it without lectures from us or anyone
else. I am conscious of the increased efforts that they are making
to play their part. I am grateful for them. I ask rather the
representatives here present to consider carefully and
dispassionately the facts that I have put before them, and to give
us their advice and their help in securing the vital high roads
without which our Commonwealth cannot maintain its corporate
VIEWS OF THE AUSTRALIAN DELEGATION
SIR ARCHDALE PARKHILL said he had intended to make some
observations on the Review of the Chiefs of Staff, but in view of
the very important statement by Sir Samuel Hoare and the fact that
further discussions on defence questions were to be held later, he
did not propose now to say very much. He was sure that all present
were most grateful to Sir Thomas Inskip and the three Service
Ministers for their statements.
The Australian Government had been very glad to see that the
Chiefs of Staff in their Review referred to the vital importance
in Imperial defence of the despatch of the Fleet to Singapore.
This question had been a matter of great controversy in Australia,
where one school of thought opposed naval expenditure on the
grounds that it was doubtful whether, in fact, the British Navy
would move out to the Far East to assist the Dominions in the
Pacific within a reasonable time. He quoted from paragraphs 79 to
81 of the Chiefs of Staff Review, where it is expressly stated
that 'in a world war the security of the United Kingdom and the
security of Singapore would be the keystone on which the survival
of the British Commonwealth of Nations would depend'; and 'this
situation demands the recognition of the principle that no
anxieties or risks connected with our interests in the
Mediterranean can be allowed to interfere with the despatch of a
fleet to the Far East.'
The Chiefs of Staff had suggested that one of the ways in which
Dominions might co-operate in Imperial defence was by contributing
land and air forces as part of the garrison of Singapore. The
Australian Delegation would like to have time to consider the very
important statement made by Sir Samuel Hoare before making any
reply to this suggestion. He remarked that in this connection
there was still much to be done on the large-scale programme for
the modernisation of the coast defences of Australia. The defences
proposed for Darwin alone, in order to make it fit for an
operational naval base, were estimated to cost over 5,000,000.
With regard to naval construction in Australia, his Government had
received much varied advice in the past. He would prefer, however,
to discuss this matter in detail at a later stage.
He would say no more for the present. Sir Samuel Hoare's statement
had been most impressive and it was impossible to discuss it
without deep consideration.
[FA : IMP. CONF. 1937, MEETINGS]