General Lord Gort, commander of the BEF, with General Alphonse Georges, commander of the French Ninth Army.
Crews of 13/18th Royal Hussars work on their Light Tanks Mk VI in a farmyard near Arras, October 1939.
At the start of September, five divisions of regular British troops moved to France where they made up the first tranche of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). This was a significant achievement given that, when the first formal commitment of their presence was made at the start of 1939, the War Office had lacked not only any transport plans, but even the maps of France necessary to create them. By mid-October, 160,000 British troops had arrived, and that number doubled over the winter of 1939–40 as a further eight divisions, composed of Territorial Army units, moved across the Channel. This military contribution was still, however, extremely small relative to that of France, which by 1940 had deployed 104 divisions along the Western Front. Although the BEF’s commander had a right of appeal to London, he was formally placed under French command.
The British army in 1939 was a curious mix of innovation and conservatism, hindered by recent changes in strategic policy and unable to live up to its dreams of modernity. For most of the inter-war period, its senior officers presumed that it would have to send some form of force to mainland Europe in a future conflict. Drawing on the lessons of the last war, they developed a doctrine on paper that would allow the army to fight a modern all-arms battle. This was not, however, what it actually got to practise in peace. Scattered in imperial garrisons and short of training areas at home, the army undertook large-scale manoeuvres only once every ten years. Budget restrictions undermined the early British lead in armoured warfare. The slow pace of inter-war promotion and a tradition of unquestioning obedience inhibited the intellectual development of the officer corps, and the army struggled to fill its annual quota of recruits. During the years of rearmament, equipping a field force had come a distant fourth behind the needs of the RAF, anti-aircraft defence at home and the Royal Navy. The sudden acceptance of a continental commitment in the last months of peace had brought rapid expansion, but only at the cost of disruption and confusion.
The aspirations for the new fifty-five-division army were Herculean. Never to be realized production plans called for it to be supplied with 66,000 artillery pieces, 192 million rounds of artillery ammunition and 31,000 tanks in the first two years of the war – per annum figures much higher than those achieved in 1918, and for weapons that had in the meantime become more complicated. As these numbers indicated, the army aspired to fight a land war of massive technological intensity. Machines were meant to provide the means to mitigate the heavy casualties of 1914–18.
When the fighting actually began, however, few British units were fully equipped. Some had no experience with the new weapons they were expected to use. The BEF was the only one of the armies on the Western Front that could claim to be fully motorized. It had only been able to make up the number of trucks it needed, however, by extensive requisitioning of civilian vehicles. Many of them quickly broke down for lack of servicing and spares.
The British planned to put proportionately many more tanks into the field than any other combatant, but for the moment, their armoured units were still afflicted by the relatively low priority they had received during the years of rearmament. The Vickers Light Tank Mark VI made up the majority of armoured vehicles available to the BEF in September 1939. It was the one really successful design of the mid-1930s but, designed primarily for reconnaissance, it was better suited to imperial policing duties than to going head-to-head with enemy tanks in the north-west European countryside. In 1932, the British had abandoned attempts to build a multi-purpose medium tank on grounds of cost. Since then, heavier tank designs had bifurcated between ‘cruisers’ – faster, lighter-armoured vehicles intended for rapid advances – and ‘infantry’ tanks – whose thick armour allowed them to provide close support for the slow-moving infantry during an assault. Cruiser tank designs were still being introduced when the war broke out. None deployed with the BEF until the arrival in France of Britain’s 1st Armoured Division in April 1940. Instead, the BEF’s heavier armoured component was made up of a single brigade of fifty infantry tanks. These were well protected, and some of them were equipped with a 2-pounder anti-tank gun that could knock out any of their German opponents, but like their cruiser counterparts, their mechanical reliability was poor.
Unlike the Germans, who had chosen to integrate their air forces closely with their army, the British did not have the aircraft, the experience or the communications to co-ordinate air support for their ground troops. The Advanced Air Striking Force had gone to France to put it in range of Germany, not to provide assistance on the battlefield to the BEF. The RAF thought that tying its planes to the army would represent a waste of valuable air resources.
The Expeditionary Force that spent the winter of 1939–40 digging fortifications in northern France was not, therefore, the mechanized elite favoured by British military theorists between the wars. With lots of infantrymen, it was closer to the army of civilian volunteers that had fought on the Somme in 1916 than to the high-tech, well-coordinated behemoth that had advanced to victory in 1918.
As secretary of state for war, Leslie Hore-Belisha had proved an eager and publicity-hungry reformer. Visibly influenced by his civilian advisor, the military ‘expert’ Basil Liddell Hart, Hore-Belisha had overhauled the upper ranks of the army in 1938. This brought to the fore two younger generals, Edmund ‘Tiny’ Ironside (who was a hulking six-foot four), and John ‘Tiger’ Gort (one of the most decorated soldiers in the army, having won the VC, DSO and MC with three bars). In summer 1939 Gort was chief of the imperial general staff, the professional head of the war, and everyone presumed that Ironside would command the BEF. Hore-Belisha, however, dissatisfied with Gort’s performance at the War Office, appointed them the other way around. Neither was temperamentally well suited for his job. Ironside lacked the political nous to function well at the interface between ministers and generals; Gort enjoyed the day-to-day detail of soldiering too much to revel in the diplomatic drudgery of Allied command. He often gave the impression that he would rather have been running the regimental sports day, or storming a pillbox single-handed, than attending another staff conference.
Below Ironside and Gort was an army struggling to manage its new scale of operations. The number of qualified staff officers was too few to run the BEF, oversee the expansion of the army and man the War Office in London. British regular troops were relatively well trained and some had extensive experience in small unit actions on the edge of Empire, but many of the men in the army were military novices: at least half of the Territorials called to the colours in summer 1939 had been recruited since the start of the year and both regular and TA units had to be made up to full strength with new conscripts, none of whom had served before July. There was no problem with the flow of men, but turning them into effective soldiers would take time. As a frustrated Ironside explained to his diary, ‘You can only make war with actual trained divisions.’ Out in France, the commander of the BEF’s II Corps, General Sir Alan Brooke, thought that this was exactly what he didn’t have. At the end of November, he confided to his diary:
On arrival in this country and for the first two months the Corps was quite unfit for war, practically in every aspect. Even now our anti-tank gunners are untrained and a large proportion of our artillery have never fired either their equipment or type of smoke shell they are armed with. To send untrained troops into modern war is courting disaster such as befell the Poles.
Gort, a naturally more obedient soldier, thought Brooke was being too negative. The need to reassure the French meant that troops had to be sent across the Channel whether they were ready or not, and even poorly trained Territorial divisions could be employed on the construction of defences on the Franco-Belgian border. By the spring of 1940, however, three of these formations were still classified as fit only for labouring duties.
In practice, therefore, after eight months of war, the BEF had just ten divisions that were really capable of front-line service. As 1939 turned into 1940, most British troops were shivering in freezing billets or finding solace in the cafés of northern France. Chilblains, venereal disease and hangovers inflicted many more casualties than the enemy. When the German spring offensive came, British generals agreed, everything would depend on how well the French army fought.
French anxieties about whether they could actually win a long conflict had increased as the Phoney War went on. As French arms programmes faltered, ministers and officials became more and more concerned that their forces would be outmuscled by the German military. Chamberlain’s restrained approach to strategy and the slow expansion of the BEF did little to reassure the French about British intentions. They feared that economic warfare was having little effect, not least because of German access to Russian raw materials. French suspicions about the Soviet regime were heightened by the Finnish invasion. In France, the pressure on the government to aid the Finns was much stronger than in the UK, with right-wing politicians arguing loudly for military action to counter Communist, as well as Nazi, aggression. By the start of 1940, the French were frantic for a speedy victory, and primed to look for a new front in Northern Europe.
British strategists never suffered from quite the same sense of desperation, but in London too, questions were asked about whether more needed to be done to win the war. Short of information about what was actually happening in Germany, officials in the Ministry of Economic Warfare worried about the leakiness of the blockade. That encouraged calls to take more dramatic steps to knock out supplies of critical raw materials – iron ore and oil – in the hope of a quick fix to the problems of a long war.
Even before the USSR attacked Finland, that meant taking the conflict to Scandinavia. During the 1930s, economic warfare experts had identified the crucial importance of the high-phosphorous iron ore from the Gällivare mines in northern Sweden for German industry. Swedish ore was transported via two routes. During the summer, it went through the port of Luleå, at the top of the Gulf of Bothnia. During the winter, when Luleå was iced up, it passed over the Norwegian border to the port of Narvik, and thence through Norwegian coastal waters to the Baltic. Over the winter of 1939, ministers and senior officers spent a lot of time discussing how these routes might be cut.
At the Admiralty, Admiral Pound’s refusal to risk his battleships had stymied Churchill’s pursuit of naval operations in the Baltic. In early November, Churchill’s attention turned to Narvik. Britain was already planning to lay a ‘northern barrage’ of mines to control entry to the North Sea. If it were extended into neutral Norwegian waters, ore-carrying ships would be diverted into the open ocean, where they could be intercepted and impounded by the Royal Navy. Churchill’s plans were backed up by reports from the Ministry of Economic Warfare (MEW). Just shutting off the Narvik route over the winter would have ‘extremely serious’ consequences for German industry. As November ended, Churchill’s friend Desmond Morton, now director of intelligence at the MEW, asserted that ‘A complete stoppage of Swedish exports of iron ore to Germany now would, barring unpredictable developments, end the war in a few months.’
The Russo-Finnish War opened up new strategic questions about the future of the ‘neutral north’. Would Sweden and Norway be dragged into an anti-Soviet conflict? Would Germany respond with a Scandinavian invasion designed to secure its essential supplies of ore? Could the Allies intervene in neutral countries while still claiming a moral ascendancy over the dictatorships? The need to pre-empt possible Soviet or German action – and to be seen to act in support of the Finns – increased the pressure to open a Northern Front.
On 16 December, Churchill presented his plans for a Narvik operation to the War Cabinet. ‘No other measure is open to us for many months to come’, he explained, ‘which gives so good a chance of abridging the waste and destruction of the conflict, or of perhaps preventing the vast slaughters which will attend the grapple of the main armies.’ The violation of Norwegian neutrality was justified by the great rewards on offer. Norway’s scope for retaliation would be limited by the threat of a British naval blockade that would inflict ‘economic and industrial ruin’. Churchill insisted: ‘We are fighting to re-establish the reign of law and to protect the liberties of small countries … Small nations must not tie our hands when we are fighting for their rights and freedom.’
This was precisely the point on which Halifax disagreed. The foreign secretary persistently resisted military action to cut off Swedish ore. Blocking the Narvik winter route, he argued, would only antagonize the Scandinavians, driving them into the German camp, and upset international opinion, particularly in the United States. Besides, it would only work in the winter. He favoured diplomatic pressure to persuade the Swedes to reduce their exports all year round.
Rather than come to an immediate decision, the War Cabinet charged the chiefs of staff to investigate the military options more fully. There, Churchill had an ally in General Ironside. During the first months of the war, he had become convinced that the Allies ‘must start a vigorous policy of forcing the Germans to disperse. We must not sit supine, hoping that something in our favour will come to pass.’ To Ironside, in plans for a Scandinavian expedition, the British had ‘stumbled upon the one great stroke which is open to us to turn the tables upon the Russians and Germans’. Admiral Pound also gave his support to operations in Norway, not least because they seemed a better option than letting Churchill pursue the same objective through the Baltic.
On the last day of 1939, the chiefs suggested ‘a fundamental change in our policy’. They put forward plans for a full-scale military expedition that would land Allied troops and secure the ore field itself. Hitler would have to respond, tying up his military resources in an offensive campaign in difficult terrain and perhaps ruling out a German attack that year on the Western Front.
If the Soviet invasion of Finland presaged territorial ambitions further north, the ore-field expedition might lead to a military confrontation with the USSR. The chiefs were willing to accept this risk. They were confident of their ability to take on Soviet forces, particularly if the seizure of the ore mines knocked Germany out of the war. The chiefs hoped that the Scandinavians would acquiesce to the Allies occupying the mines because they wanted protection by them from the dictators. Such co-operation, they emphasized, was a precondition for the expedition to go ahead.
Churchill suspected that the service chiefs had laid down this proviso in order to scotch his plan, but during January, he and Ironside came round to each other’s schemes. Opinion in the War Cabinet, however, turned against any Scandinavian operation at all. Halifax sounded out the Norwegian and Swedish governments, but both opposed anything that might bring them into the war. The Dominions announced themselves against the violation of neutrality. Rather than pursue a military option, the War Cabinet opted for discussions with the Swedes about potential reductions in ore exports. They also agreed to set up a Finnish Aid Bureau to organize the provision of arms and volunteers. As a concession to Churchill, however, the chiefs of staff were allowed to consider plans for seizing the Swedish ore fields even against Scandinavian opposition. They increasingly came to favour this option as the only way to steal a march on Germany before it began an offensive in the west.
The French were similarly keen for action. In January, their navy came up with a plan to send troops to retake the Finnish Petsamo peninsula from the Soviets. The aim was to provoke a German response that would allow the Allies to intervene in Scandinavia, but the operation would also appease right-wing French politicians who were clamouring for a fight with Bolshevism. Daladier, desperate to try to keep his government together, promised planes and weapons to the Finns and pressurized the British to do the same. For the British, however, the Petsamo project was a distraction. Ironside concluded that it was ‘directed against Russia and not against Germany’. The British War Cabinet rejected it, but still felt that they ‘ought to do something, even if it were to divert from ourselves the odium of having allowed Finland to be crushed’.
When the Supreme War Council met in Paris on 5 February, the British and French agreed to use Finland as a cover to get what they wanted in Sweden. The Finns, now desperate for military assistance in the face of looming defeat, would be prevailed upon to make an appeal for Allied aid and to request publicly that the Swedes and Norwegians let Allied troops pass through their countries. The Allies, in turn, would promise to protect the Scandinavians if the Germans attacked. A large expeditionary force would then be despatched to safeguard key Norwegian ports and occupy the ore fields. This objective, rather than getting troops to Finland, was the point of the operation, but that meant accepting the risk of being dragged into a war with the USSR.
While the Allies waited for the Finnish appeal, Churchill worried that the Germans would strike first. When a German supply ship, the Altmark, carrying British prisoners taken by the Graf Spee, took shelter in Norwegian waters, he successfully demanded that British ships be allowed to violate Norwegian neutrality and capture the vessel. Although Halifax once more blocked naval attacks on the northern shipping route, Churchill also pressed for speedy action against Narvik, arguing that the Allies should prepare to occupy the port even if the Scandinavians rejected Finnish pleas for assistance. Chamberlain agreed that the Allies must not allow their offer of help to appear ‘a mere sham’. When it came to issuing orders to commanders who might have to open fire on the Norwegians, however, the War Cabinet prevaricated. Ironside described ministers as ‘a bewildered flock of sheep faced by a problem they have consistently refused to consider. Their favourite formula is that the case is hypothetical and then they shy off a decision.’ Eventually, however, Chamberlain accepted that the decision would have to be delegated to the commander on the ground. Despite his distaste for war, this prime minister knew when to stand back and leave things to the military.
The next day, Finland surrendered. Churchill attempted unsuccessfully to convince his colleagues to launch the Narvik operation anyway, but Chamberlain now joined Halifax in preferring diplomatic efforts to win over the Swedes. Much to Churchill’s frustration, after months of discussion, British strategy appeared to be back at square one.
On the far side of the Channel, however, the signing of the Finnish-Soviet armistice occasioned a political crisis. During a dramatic debate in the French parliament, an emotional Daladier was attacked both by anti-war politicians and by those who accused him of not fighting hard enough. On 20 March, he won a motion of confidence by 239 votes to 2, but there were 300 abstentions. Daladier resigned and was replaced by his minister of finance, Paul Reynaud. The French parliament remained furiously divided, however, and Reynaud feuded with his embittered predecessor, who remained in office as minister of defence. Reynaud proved even keener than Daladier on opening up new military fronts in the hope of winning the war before France went under. By the end of March, he was pressing the British not just to reconsider a Scandinavian expedition, but also to undertake operations even further afield.
From the start of 1940, French military planners, convinced that Soviet supplies were helping the Nazis, had pondered direct action to shut down the supply of oil from the Caucasus. They favoured bombing raids to set light to the oilfields round Baku. During the spring, the French sought ways to turn what had been vague plans into practical action. This went beyond the risks of intervention in Finland to encompass a direct attack on the Soviet Union.