How British Intelligence Influenced Chamberlain’s Prewar Foreign Policy

Although British Intelligence reports concerning the German navy, air force, and army were more or less accurate, they profoundly miscalculated the way in which Germany would use its navy, air force, and army.  Basically Britain expected Germany to launch a defensive war like it had in 1914, but Germany had lost the First World War, instead Germany would launch a highly offensive war.   Initial pessimism caused Chamberlain to postpone war through appeasement, but later optimism would cause him to declare war.   

London BlitzIn the years before the outbreak of the Second World War, it became apparent Nazi Germany was rearming and preparing for another European conflict. Once Adolf Hitler had taken control of the German government, he made it clear that his intention was to end the restriction imposed on Germany by the treaty of Versailles. Hitler accelerated the build up of armed forces already set in motion, and in 1936 embarked on a second stage of rearmament. Thus, in the 1930s, the British intelligence bodies began assessing the German military’s strengths and weaknesses in case Britain had to go to war. British intelligence estimates on the German ability to wage war and the British ability to defend against this were at first pessimistic, but due to misconceptions these views later became optimistic. These conclusions would influence its government and its Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, accordingly. At first the British government would attempt to postpone a war, then as optimism grew in early 1939, it would declare one. The misconceptions that influenced the British view of the German military’s strength were largely brought about because British intelligence reports did not realize the Wehrmacht’s capability in certain critical military campaigns.

German subBritish Intelligence on the German Navy
British intelligence estimates of the German navy remained optimistic throughout the pre-war period. These estimates failed to predict the way in which the German navy could attack Britain’s Atlantic Ocean trade routes. This misconception was in part due to the fact that the British government had preconceived notions involving naval strategy and in part due to an intelligence failure. Prior to the Second World War, a sound naval doctrine relied on the “Mahanite concept of preparation for the ‘one big battle’ to secure command of the sea.” Because naval rearmament was a slow, expensive, resource-intensive process, the German navy never enjoyed the same rearmament priority as did the Luftwaffe or the Wehrmacht. This lack of German investment in a navy convinced the British Admiralty’s Naval Intelligence Division (NID) that the German navy was not a threat. Furthermore, the Admiralty based much of its knowledge of the German navy on the Anglo-German Naval Agreement of June 1935. In this agreement Admiral Raeder of the German Navy “told the British naval attaché in Berlin that nobody in Germany dreamed of building a fleet against Britain.” Due to Germany’s lack of investment in a navy, and Raeder’s promise, the NID concluded that the new German warships were being built with a view of dominating the Baltic and that Germany had given up its ambition of challenging the Royal Navy’s command of the sea. This intelligence misconception would lead to naval optimism when the Admiralty considered war with Germany.

Hitler based much of his naval strategy on a book for which he expressed “unbound admiration” for. Seestrategie des Weltkrieges by Admiral Wolfgang Wegener was known as Hitler’s ‘naval bible,’ however the British Admiralty was unaware of it until ten years after its publishing, in 1939, by which time it was too late. The book not only “remarks on the folly of concentrating on ‘one big battle,’” but stressed the importance of “the acquisition of naval bases on the Norwegian coast to outflank Britain’s control of Germany’s North Sea ports to make possible a strategic offensive against Britain’s vital trade routes.” By not coming across this extremely valuable intelligence source, the NID was guilty of an intelligence failure. The NID never predicted the vulnerability of British Atlantic trade routes, instead choosing to believe the German navy was focused on securing the Baltic for eastward operations. Because of the British Admiralty’s traditional preconceptions that naval battles would be fought on the surface of the sea the NID never predicted that the German navy could instead be used to attack British sea lanes in the Atlantic. Furthermore, even when the possibility that the German navy might expand westward finally dawned on the Admiralty, its focus was on battle fleet actions, not on the German ability to use submarines to attack merchant ships. This strategy would prove extremely effective during the course of the Second World War. This intelligence failure meant the British government relied on traditionally held beliefs on naval doctrine, a misconception that would lead to optimism within the British government when considering war with Germany.

German air force

British Intelligence on the German Air Force
Like the Admiralty, the British Air Staff had preconceived notions of how Germany would use its air force. The British Air Staff felt much anxiety when coming to the realization in 1936 that Germany’s air force rearmament was surpassing their own predictions. Originally Air Marshall Ellington believed the Luftwaffe could only reach parity with RAF by 1945, however in March of 1935 Hitler announced just that. Much of the Air Staff’s anxiety was based around the preconceived notion that Germany would use long range bombers to execute a ‘knock-out blow.’ This logic was “predicted upon nothing more than the possession of a large number of bombers and a sufficiently vulnerable target,” for which the Luftwaffe had both. These original assumptions led to pessimistic thinking on the part of the British government. However this pessimism quickly changed to optimism at the beginning of 1939. Much of British intelligence on the German air force came from an individual positioned within the German Air Ministry, who was codenamed “X.” Long range bombing which could result in a ‘knock-out blow’ require four engine bombers capable of flying great distances. Even when X began reporting in 1936 that the Luftwaffe had abandoned the production of four engine bombers, British Air-Staff were slow to come to this reality. In actuality by 1938, the German ‘long range’ bombers consisted almost entirely of two engine planes. The longest ranged of these could barely reach the British Midlands from German bases. Thus in early 1939, the Air Staff came to the realisation that a ‘knock-out blow’ by the Luftwaffe was unlikely. This changed the British government’s view from one of pessimism to a more optimistic view when calculating the outcome of a war with Germany in the context of air operations. This change in viewpoint would shape the way in which the British government and Chamberlain reacted to the German threat.

The British Air Staff’s optimistic belief that because the Luftwaffe was unable to execute a ‘knock-out blow’ by using long range bombing was accurate, however this did not mean the Luftwaffe was no longer a threat. Instead of long-range bombing, the German air force was working towards an air force which would concentrate on the battlefield. German planes were being built for ground-attack and battlefield capabilities. Te RAF gave little consideration to the possibility that such forces might provide support on the battlefield. The German army would use the Luftwaffe for just that; to support its rapid invasion of Europe. This new highly offensive style of warfare would come to be known as blitzkrieg, and would prove to be a very successful strategy for the Wehrmacht up until its invasion of Russia.

german armyBritish Intelligence on the German Army
Like the British estimates concerning the German air force’s rearmament, predictions of the German army’s rearmament were initially understated. The British War Office accepted Hitler’s assurance that the German army would never exceed a peacetime strength of 36 divisions. In September of 1936, however, it was announced that the 36-division limit had been exceeded, and by the summer of 1938 intelligence reports indicated the German army had attained a size of 90 to 100 divisions, a size the War Office had originally thought could not be reached before 1943. This created a degree of pessimism within the British government when contemplating a possible war with Germany.

Like the British government’s views concerning the German air force, the British view concerning the German army would become more optimistic in 1939. This was not because of an intelligence misconception of the German army, instead it was a misconception based on the Industrial Intelligence Center’s (IIC) estimates of the German economy’s ability to support its own war effort. Britain did have much intelligence on the German raw materials situation, after all Germany did more trade with Great Britain and the British Empire than with any other. When looking at raw materials needed for war, Germany was ill-equipped for a massive European invasion. “Germany was not well endowed with oil, the loss of the Lorraine iron ore fields at the end of [the First World War] had made her heavily dependent on imports from Sweden, and in many other categories of raw materials essential for her arms industry, Germany was deficient.” The British Government was aware of this fact before 1939, however it realized in a short war (such as one with Czechoslovakia) Germany’s economic weaknesses would not hinder its military performance, and views remained pessimistic. By 1939 the British Government strongly believed Germany was not prepared for a long war, and in this way its thinking became more optimistic. In a February 1939 report, MI3, a British Intelligence body, reported that German rearmament had “taxed the endurance of the German people and the stability of the economic system to a point where any further effort can only be achieved at the risk of a breakdown of the whole structure.” This economic optimism on the part of the British government convinced Neville Chamberlain that Germany was unable to go to war. The IIC pushed for British economic restrictions to deter Hitler from War, and this caused Chamberlain to believe that even in a worst case scenario, a blockade could be used as a substitute to military action.

This new economic optimism was again based on intelligence misconceptions. The German army was in short supply of raw materials, however German military campaigns leading up to Barbarossa were short and consumed relatively little in the way of resources due to the nature of blitzkrieg. The belief that the Third Reich itself would collapse under economic pressure did not take into account the nature of the Nazi totalitarian state where the attitude of the populace had no influence over the policies of the Furher. Furthermore the IIC was unable to appreciate that Germany could expand its resource base significantly in Central Europe. So although British reports were correct in the fact that German raw material stocks were low, this would not effect its war effort.

British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain

British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain

Delaying War because of Intelligence
In the summer of 1938 it became clear to the British that the newly rearmed German army was preparing for a war with Czechoslovakia. The War Office’s response was pessimistic, it regarded the military outcome as an inevitable and swift victory for the German army. The British Director of Military Operations and Intelligence shared the Air Staff’s and War Office’s pessimism towards a potential war with Germany. He stated in a report written on September 27th that the situation in Czechoslovakia was “definitely in favour of postponement.” Initial pessimism in the British government’s intelligence reports involving the German air force and army led Neville Chamberlain towards a strategy of appeasement. This would result in the Munich Settlement in the fall of 1938. Effectively, this was an agreement to grant Hitler part of Czechoslovakia. It was an attempt by Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister, to appease Hitler and postpone war. However a few months later British officials’ views would become more optimistic, and this would cause the British government to declare war.

Declaring War because of Intelligence
However because of misconceptions in British intelligence reports concerning the German navy, air force, and economic support of the army, a surge of optimism occurred about three months after the Munich settlement. Whereas in 1938 the British government had assessed the military balance in terms of their own weaknesses, in 1939 they tended to judge the balance in terms of their own prospects. After the Prague coup in the spring on 1939, London began offering guarantees of military support to Poland, Greece, and Turkey. It was the new optimism in British intelligence reports that prompted the War Office to hastily construct this Eastern front, in the hope of encircling Germany. It was this guarantee to Poland that would draw Britain and France into war in September of 1939. Even during the Second World War’s outbreak optimism prevailed in the British government, Chamberlain stated “however much the Nazis may brag and threaten, I don’t believe they feel sufficient confidence to venture on the great war.” This optimistic thinking would survive during the “Phoney War,” and in many ways until the transformation of the conflict in the second half of 1941.

This change of view from that of pessimism to that of optimism within the British Government was due to reports by the British intelligence bodies, and more specifically because of misconceptions within these reports. Although overall intelligence was accurate, the British were unable to predict the outcome of certain German campaigns. Initial pessimism within the British government would cause Neville Chamberlain to attempt appeasement in late 1938. However, intelligence misconceptions would lead to optimism within the British government in early 1939. This optimism would change Chamberlain’s foreign policy, leading to a British guarantee to Poland, which ultimately would lead to war.

Works Cited

Andrew, Christopher and David Dilks. The Missing Dimension: Governments and Intelligence Communities in the Twentieth Century. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1984.

Boyce, Robert and Joseph A. Maiolo. The Origins of World War Two: The Debate Continues. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

Dutton, David. Neville Chamberlain. London: Arnold, 2001.

Kennedy, Paul. “‘Net Assessment’ and the Coming of the Second World War,” in Williamson Murray and Allan R. Millet. Calculations: Net Assessment and the Coming of World War Two. New York: Free Press, 1992.

May, Ernest R. Knowing One’s Enemies: Intelligence Assessment Before the Two World Wars. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984.

Murray, Williamson and Allan R. Millet. Calculations: Net Assessment and the Coming of World War Two. New York: Free Press, 1992.

Murray, Williamson. The Change in the European Balance of Power, 1938-1939. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984.

Richelson, Jeffery T. A Century of Spies: Intelligence in the Twentieth Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Self, Robert. Neville Chamberlain: A Biography. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006.

Wark, Wesley K. “British Military and Economic Intelligence Assessments of Nazi Germany Before the Second World War,” in Christopher Andrew and David Dilks. The Missing Dimension: Governments and Intelligence Communities in the Twentieth Century. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1984.

Wark, Wesley K. The Ultimate Enemy: British Intelligence and Nazi Germany 1933- 1939. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985.

Watt, Donald Cameron. “British Intelligence and the Coming of the Second World War in Europe,” in Ernest R. May. Knowing One’s Enemies: Intelligence Assessment Before the Two World Wars. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984.


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