moyenne puissance au XXème siècle
UNITED KINGDOM'S CAPABILITY
Si l'impréparation militaire britannique pour une opération continentale contre l'Allemagne était notoire en 1938, elle ne relève pas du déclin de la puissance, mais d'une conjoncture : le Royaume-Uni était alors une Grande Puissance sur la défensive, gardant toutes les potentialités d'un déploiement économique et militaire offensif, comme le montrera, du reste, la guerre mondiale.
En 1956, l'échec provient de la nature du conflit ; le Royaume-Uni n'est pas préparé pour une guerre rapide et limitée, mais pour une guerre du type de la dernière, longue et limitée, mais pour une guerre du type de la dernière, longue et lourde, et dont il a conservé une bonne partie de l'équipement logistique. La possession de la bombe atomique ne lui est pas d'un réel secours. Cette inadéquation n'est cependant pas plus qu'en 1938 un signe de déclin : pourtant, si la guerre de Suez n'était pas décidée pour le prestige mais pour la défense d'intérêts considérés comme vitaux (la voie du pétrole), elle montre néanmoins que le niveau de Grande Puissance historique est perdu et que le rang de Puissance Moyenne, disposant d'une marge d'initiative limitée, est devenu réalité pour le Royaume-Uni.
powers in decline often turn into medium powers but there is nothing
inevitable about the process. Despite diminishing resources and formidable
external threats much depends on the responses of small groups of
decision-makers. The study of British policy in two crises – Munich
1938 and Suez 1956 – illustrates the complexities of the issues and
the danger of facile generalisation. Britain's capability for external
intervention in 1938 was negligible. Unlike 1914 there was no substantial
Field Force ready for continental warfare. After Hitler's Rhineland
reoccupation in March 1936 Britain made her first peacetime military
commitment to France, pledging two divisions, subject to the decision of the
government of the day. But in 1938 the two divisions of the projected Field
Force lacked essential equipment. From March to September 1938 the Chiefs of
Staff did not waver in their opinion that no pressure that we or our
possible allies can bring to bear, either by sea or land, or in the air,
could prevent Germany from invading or overrunning Bohemia and from
inflicting a decisive defeat on Czechoslovakia .
Britain was a great power on the defensive, her rulers all too conscious of
world-wide commitments and over-stretched resources. Yet it would be wrong
to conclude that Britain's inability to intervene in Europe was a necessary
consequence of declining power. Not so. Diminishing power imposed a choice
of priorities and produced a defence policy that excluded a continental
commitment. However British governments could have decided otherwise and the
provision of a Field Force in 1938 might have saved Britain and her main
continental ally, France, from decline and defeat.
preoccupations shaped British policy in 1938 : the desire to avoid a
repetition of the First World War and the loss of British lives in France ;
the determination to preserve Britain's world-wide interests in the face of
mounting perils. The solution adopted was limited liability. It was agreed
that Britain should give first priority to her home base, husbanding scarce
resources to maintain economic stability. Only economic and financial
strength, it was believed, would make prolonged resistance possible. The
perils confronting ministers were daunting. By the mid-1930s the challenge
of Nazi Germany and Japan was recognised. We cannot, wrote Neville
Chamberlain, Chancellor of the Exchequer, in 1934, provide simultaneously
for hostilities with Japan and Germany .
The Abyssinian conflict of 1935-36 added Italy to the number of potentially
hostile states. By the summer of 1937 Italian submarines were attacking
British and French ships trading with Spanish Republican ports. Japan's
departure from the second London naval conference in 1936, followed by her
attack on China in July 1937, increased the threat to British power in the
Far East. There were limits to our resources both physical and financial,
Chamberlain now prime minister told the Committee of Imperial Defence on 5
July 1937, and it was vain to contemplate fighting singlehanded the three
strongest powers in combination .
Although there was as yet no military alliance between Germany, Japan and
Italy, it was widely assumed at the time that the three would act together.
Mussolini's visit to Berlin in September 1937 and his adhesion to the
Anti-Comintern Pact seemed to set the seal on the Axis.
defence was an added anxiety. Britain's main anxieties were Egypt, India and
Palestine. After 1929 unrest in India tied down substantial forces. In the
same year an Arab revolt against Jewish immigrants broke out in Palestine,
then under British Mandate. The
bulk of the Regular army was posted to Palestine. At the 1937 Imperial
Conference an undertaking was given to New Zealand and Australia that in the
event of a crisis a British fleet would be sent to the Far East. Since
Britain did not have the naval strength to send fleets both to the Far East
and to the Mediterranean it was argued that efforts must be made to reach
agreement with Germany and Italy. Hopes that American help might be enlisted
in stopping Japan were dashed by the failure of the Nine Power Brussels
Conference on the Far East in November 1937. Over-stretched imperial
defences induced caution and compromise in Europe. In 1938 a senior Foreign
Office official defended Munich on the grounds that the risks of war were so
much greater for Britain and France than for Germany : If we lose,
the whole Empire gœs, if Germany loses, she can recover .
solutions did the Chamberlain cabinet envisage ? In the prime
minister's view Britain's allies were no armour against the dictators.
France was deemed politically and militarily unreliable. Though the French
army was acknowledged the finest in Europe, Chamberlain and his advisors had
serious misgivings about the French air force. The United States offered no
extension of the Neutrality Act in February 1936 confirmed American
isolationism and made it impossible for the United States to supply arms
even to League members combatting an aggressor. The dominions were more a
hindrance than a help. Attempts to persuade them to share the burden of
imperial defence failed. The 1937 Imperial Conference revealed Canadian and
South African suspicions of European affairs. The one common factor in
imperial foreign policy – recognition of the League – was
destroyed. The Soviet Union was a potential ally, but Chamberlain was deeply
suspicious of Stalin's motives. The aim of Soviet intervention in Spain, it
was thought, was to stir up a general war in Europe. It was known that the
purges had taken a heavy toll of the Soviet military leadership.
armaments were rejected on financial and political grounds. An arms race, it
was held, would be self-defeating, acting not as a deterrent but as a cause
of war. The
assumption that war with Germany would be a long war made it seem axiomatic
that financial reserves should be saved, not squandered on great armaments.
In 1917 the United States had served as an arsenal for the two western
democraties but the neutrality legislation of 1935-1936 meant that Britain
and France would have to be self-supporting. For Chamberlain financial and
economic strength was the fourth arm of defence. Nothing, Sir Thomas
Inskip, minister for the coordination of defence, wrote in February 1938, operates
more strongly to deter a political aggressor from attacking this country
than our (economic) stability .
The government was haunted by the spectre of the financial and economic
collapse of 1931. Revulsion from war re-inforced these arguments. Preparing
a force for continental intervention seemed to invite a repetition of the
senseless slaughter of 1914-1918.
much for official perceptions of Britain's world position. The situation was
fraught with exceptional difficulty and menace yet the government's
assessment of international perils and its choice of strategy can be
criticised on several counts. The way in which the issues were perceived and
tackled reflected a priori principles and choices. Pessimistic
assessments were selected to justify a preconceived policy. Optimism about
the prospects of detente with Germany and Italy contrasted with the gloomy
opinions about Britain's principal allies, France and the United States.
France certainly had her troubles but the Chamberlain cabinet's thinly
veiled contempt and refusal to hold full staff talks strengthened the hand
of those in France who wanted to withdraw from eastern Europe. Both
countries had common ideals and interests. Full partnership might have
solved their dilemmas. Anglo-French military co-operation, though exiguous
before 1939, could produce decisive results. For example the Nyon Conference
in September 1937 instituted joint Anglo-French destroyer patrols which soon
stopped Italian submarines attacking ships trading whith Republican Spain.
Indeed, Italy's strength was over-estimated in 1938. Much was made at the
time of American isolationism but the progress in Anglo-American naval
co-operation in 1938-1939 suggests that more might have been achieved.
intense distrust of the Soviet Union meant the cold-shouldering of what may
have been genuine initiatives – for example the Soviet appeal in
March 1938 for a four-power conference to consider measures against
aggression. In conversations with French ministers British ministers
stressed the lack of Dominion support for military intervention to stop
Germany invading Czechoslovakia. Now although the Dominion high
commissioners in London were almost wholly against a commitment for
Czechoslovakia, it is significant that when the Dominions followed the same
line in 1939 – only Australia supported the Polish guarantee –
British policy was not deflected. In short Dominion attitudes were not a
major contraint. Indeed Dominion opinion only confirmed Chamberlain on a
course of action on which he had already decided .
Whether different handling would have won greater American and Soviet
involvement is debatable but it is highly likely that different handling
would have strengthened France and helped to save Czechoslovakia. On final
assumed that it was necessary to play for time because Britain was best
fitted to wage a long war. However in July 1939 the Chancellor of the
Exchequer, Sir John Simon, told the Cabinet that the effect of rearmament on
the balance of payments andon the level of taxation would be such that the
war for which they were preparing would be lost before it began. Thus Simon
sawed up one of the main planks of appeasement. The fact that by late 1940
the gold and dollar reserves were almost exhausted confirms the soundness of
Anschluss should have prompted a reappraisal of the doctrine of
limited liability since Czechoslovakia was obviously Hitler's next target.
But the Chiefs of Staff assumed that nothing could be done to save
Czechoslovakia. They advised against staff talks with France partly because
they were afraid of being ensnared into a military alliance and partly
because they were afraid of being ensnared into a military alliance and
partly because they were reluctant to admit how little Britain could do by
way of intervention. A maximum of only four divisions with considerable
deficiencies of equipment was the most that could be envisaged by April
1939. But the idea of leaving the French in no doubt as to how little
Britain could offer appealed to ministers and restricted staff talks were
sum up : Britain's inability to intervene in 1938 was the outcome of
political choice, not military necessity. The prime minister had the army of
his choice. As Chancellor from 1932-37 Chamberlain had done most to shape
defence policy. He preached the importance of value for money by
concentrating on air and sea power to make Britain an impregnable island
fortress. With a secure home base Britain could intervene diplomatically to
seek a modus vivendi with the dictators. Thus in 1938 the strategic
factors received amazingly little attention : At no time during the
crisis did either the Cabinet or the Chiefs of Staff try to draw up a
balance sheet on… whether it was better to fight Germany in 1938 in order
to gain the considerable asset of the Czech Army (35 well-equiped divisions
and Air Force .
also ignored unpalatable advice. Witness its treatment of the reports of the
British military attache in Prague, Brigadier Stronge. The Czech crisis
revealed a sharp dichotomy between policy and strategy. Diplomatically
Britain intervened vigorously in central Europe while seeking to avoid
military intervention. But this semi-detached stance was a snare and
delusion. Logically there were only two possible options-full commitment and
delusion. Logically there were only two possible options-full commitment and
military intervention or isolation.
contrast in 1956 the British government from the outset of the crisis
decided to intervene by force to retake the Suez Canal. Again, however,
Britain lacked the ability to intervene quickly. The governing factor in the
outcome of events was military unpreparedness. Of course other elements
contributed to the final failure – divided domestic opinion, hostile
international opinion, Soviet threats, above all American pressure on the
pound sterling – but these factors only came into play because
Britain could not deliver a rapid riposte to President Nasser's seizure of
the Canal. Nuri es-Said, prime minister of Iraq, was in London on 26 July
when news came of the nationalisation. He
advised the British prime minister Sir Anthony Eden, Hit him but hit him
quickly and hard.
the beginning of August, Eden enjoyed the support of colleagues and the bulk
of opinion. The national mood was warlike. In 1938 external danger had
induced caution and compromise ; in 1956 the mood was bellicose. If
Nasser wins, Alan Lennox-Boyd, Minister of Defence, wrote to Eden, or
even appears to win, we might as well as a government (and indeed a country)
go out of business .
Rapid intervention at this stage would have had overwhelming support.
American and international opinion would have faced a fait accompli.
However two considerations imposed delays which proved fatal to the
enterprise. Firstly there was no rapid intervention capability. On paper
Britain was a great military power – 750 000 men under arms, a
powerful navy and air force plus nuclear weapons. Sadly
much of the equipment was Second World War or even pre-1939 vintage. The
1956 Defence White Paper had stressed the need to be prepared for limited
wars and to have forces which were flexible, mobile, well-trained and
This was a statement of intent. Despite high spending on defence (10 %
of the GNP) such forces did not exist in July 1956. The second consideration
which imposed delay was the government's wish not merely to reoccupy the
Canal but to destroy Nasser. This meant that considerable forces would be
needed and their preparation required months rather than weeks. The
resulting three month delay was disastrous in two ways. It forced the
British and French governments to enter into international negotiations
thereby creating a gulf between what was said and what actually was being
planned. Secondly the diplomatic moves which occupied the summer softened
opinion and allowed domestic and international criticism to build up.
1938 ministers and their advisors had been at one opposing British
intervention in defence of Czechoslovakia ; in 1956 the Chiefs of Staff
were divided about the threat posed by Nasser and how to cope with it. Lord
Mountbatten, First Sea Lord, expressed doubts in mid-August. On 14 August in
the Chiefs of Staff Committee he :
question of what steps were being taken to ensure that in the event of a
successful operation against Egypt and the downfall of the present
Government, a new Government could be formed which would not only support
our policy for the operation of the Canal but which would also have the
support of the Egyptian people. He feared that the Egyptian people were now
so solidly behind Nasser that it might be impossible to find such a
for the plan for an Anglo-French landing at Alexandria and an advance
through Cairo, Operation Musketeer, Mountbatten said he felt that
there was a very real danger that the Operation would cause serious
and continuing disorders in the Middle East… and necessitate the long-term
retention of considerable forces in the area. Mountbatten's doubts
hardened into dissent and culminated in his letter to Eden after the
launching of the Anglo-French invasion force :
am writing to appeal to you to accept the resolution of the overwhelming
majority of the United Nations to cease military operations, and to beg you
to turn back the assault convoy before it is to late, as I feel that the
actual landing of troops can only spread the war with untold misery and
world-wide repercussions .
The depth of the cleavage between Eden's military advisors can be gauged from a letter written by Sir Gerald Templer, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, to his minister, the Secretary of State for War, after the ceasefire had ended Anglo-French intervention :
this country was politically right in taking the action it did is obviously
not for me to say. But I can at least have my personal opinion on the
matter. Of course we were right-plumb right. And I say it with certainty on
Some people in
England today say that what we've done in the Middle East will have terrible
effects in the future… The reality is that we've checked a drift. With a
bit of luck we've not only stopped quite a big war in the Middle East, but
we've halted the march of Russia through the Middle East and on into the
African continent .
In conclusion two points can be made. Firstly it would be wrong to conclude that British military unpreparedness in 1938 and 1956 was the inevitable consequence of decline. It also reflected unwise political choices. An essential element in the survival of all states is skilful leadership. This was patently lacking in 1938 and 1956. Secondly Suez is often seen as the shattering of the illusion that Britain was still a great power. This is too simplistic. In truth policy-makers since 1945 had painfully adjusted to the realities of declining power. The decision to use force against Egypt originated not in folie de grandeur but in the conviction that a vital national interest-oil, was at stake. The two crises, Munich and Suez, underline the fluidity of international relations. Britain's possession of a rapid response capability might well have changed the course of European history.
 Université de Salford (Royaume-Uni).
 Quoted in Brian Bond, British Military Policy between the Two World Wars (Oxford, 1980), p. 280.
 Quoted in Anthony Adamthwaite, The Making of the Second World War (London, 1977), p. 63.
 Ibid., 63-4.
 Ibid., 32.
 Ibid., 65.
 Ibid., 70.
 Bond., op. cit., 280.
 Quoted in Peter Hennessy and Mark Laity, Suez-What the Papers say, Contemporary Record, April 1987, 2.
 Quoted in Roy Fullick and Geoffrey Powell, Suez : The Double War (London, 1979), p. 30.
 Hennessy and Laity, op. cit., 3.
 Ibid., 2.
 Ibid., 3.
Copyright www.stratisc.org - 2005 - Conception - Bertrand Degoy, Alain De Neve, Joseph Henrotin