Category: British Foreign Policy

The Eclipse of the Ottoman Empire – The End of a Medieval Reality

Many see the First World War as the end of the Prussian monarchy, or the birth of Communist Russia, but overlook the eclipse of one of the world’s greatest empires, that of the Ottomans.  Since the defeat of Christian Byzantium at the sack of Constantinople, Europe’s south-eastern flank would be dominated by the world of Islam.  This reality – born in the middle-ages – would persist until 1918.  The First World War marked the end of an age and the beginning of another in many respects, but perhaps the defeat of the Ottoman Empire is the most drastic example of this historic watershed.   

view-of-constantinople-and-the-bosporus

While Europe was trapped in centuries of dark ages, the world of Islam had been culturally and technologically ahead.  Muslim cities in the medieval period possessed advanced infrastructure and architecture, the accomplishments of their universities and libraries meant they were the world’s best in many areas of science and industry.  Once North Africa and much of the Middle East had belonged to the Romans, but by the Medieval period these lands had fallen to the Caliphate.  Byzantium was the Medieval continuation of the Eastern Roman Empire.  The Western Roman Empire had been overrun by barbarian hordes, its title reused by the first Holy Roman Emperor, the Frankish King Charlemagne.  To medieval Europe, the Muslim threat was embodied by the Ottoman Turks, a reality which continued into the Renaissance and the Age of Discovery, and indeed until the Great War.  The Turks were the face of Islam from the defeat of the Byzantines at Battle of Manzikert in 1071 until 1918; only recently have the Arabs been recognised as the head of Muslim civilization.

ottoman_map

The Ottoman Empire at its height and before, 1481-1683

Constantinople had at one point been the greatest city in Europe.  It had been the capital of Byzantium, which had remained a Christian entity since the Eastern Roman Emperor Constantine ruled from its seat.  But the city fell to the Turks in 1453.  If this caused anxiety for the Christian monarchs of eastern and southern Europe, the next century would cause considerably more.

Seige of Vienna, 1683

The second siege of Vienna

Following Turkish conquest of Damascus in 1516 and their subsequent advances on Egypt and Arabia, the janissary armies of the Ottomans turned on Hungary, which had become the great eastern christian bastion after the fall of Constantinople.  Following the Battle of Mohacs in 1526, Hungary was overrun.  The Ottoman Empire was now at its height, and covered more territory than that of Rome.  One could hardly blame scholars at the time for concluding that the future would belong to the Islamic world, and much of the continent would inevitably belong to the Sultan.  This inclination nearly became reality when the Ottomans besieged Vienna in 1529, and when they did so again in 1683.

The capitulation of the Ottomans: a drawn-out affair

Yet the Ottoman Empire would inevitably falter and collapse.  Its armies and navies, however formidable, were overextended – needing to maintain frontiers in Central Europe, the Crimean, the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, and the Near East where the Ottomans were challenged by the Persians.  This geographic challenge of the area is one I explore further in The Geopolitical Realities of Eurasia.  Its challenges were not insurmountable, but as a single entity the Ottoman Empire was overly centralised.  Whereas European division was in many ways the continent’s strength, as competing states would challenge one-another to explore and expand, one foolish Sultan could do more damage to the Ottoman Empire that any lone European monarch or pope could ever hope to accomplish.  From 1566 on, there reigned thirteen incompetent sultans in succession, sealing the empire’s doom.

It was the slow retreat of the Turks that caused the European powers to look towards the Balkans and consider who would benefit from the Turkish collapse.  It was this power struggle, known as the ‘Eastern Question,’ that among other things motivated a Habsburg Archduke to parade himself and his nation’s power in Sarajevo, whose death in turn triggered the Great War that would divide the lands that still remained under Turkish control.

A modern historic figure steeped in myth: TE Lawrence

A modern historic figure steeped in myth: TE Lawrence

The First World War severed the Arab provinces from the sultan’s grip.  Ironically, early twentieth-century Arabian warfare was remarkably similar to that of fourteenth-century Europe, allowing the medieval-military historian Thomas Edward Lawrence to exploit the Arabic advantages.  Of course, this legendary figure did not engineer the Arabic revolt on his own, his own account of the events in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, was admitted to be part myth.  Furthermore, the Arabs would not get what they had fought for, as the ever imperialist states of Britain and France would divide the Middle East between themselves.  This, after-all, was inadvertently why the whole war had begun.

Lawrence’s companion, Prince Feisal, spoke to the delegation in the Paris Peace Conference while Lawrence translated.  They must have looked an odd pair, especially the Englishman who had donned the white robes and gold sashing normally reserved for a senior sheik.  Feisal said that the Arabs wanted self-determination, and while he was prepared to exempt Lebanon and Palestine from this demand, the rest of the Arab world should be given independence as the British and French had promised.  When the French reminded Lawrence that their forces had fought in Syria during the crusades, Lawrence replied: “Yes, but the Crusaders had been defeated and the Crusades had failed.”  Against the wishes of Lawrence and the Arabs, Britain was also determined to get a piece of the Middle East.  Forced to prevent the non-colonial aspirations of the American President Woodrow Wilson by co-operating, the two imperial rivals came to a quick compromise; Britain would get Mesopotamia (Iraq) and Palestine, while France would get Syria and Lebanon.  The Arabian Peninsula did not concern the imperial powers much, probably because all those ‘miles of sand’ were not of much value at the time.

The Middle East after World War 1 - from Paris 1919

The Middle East after World War 1 – from Margaret Macmillan’s Paris 1919

The British motives were clear.  For long they had supported the Ottoman Empire to keep the eastern end of the Mediterranean safe for their shipping, but now they needed an alternate hold in the area.  This motivation highlights the geopolitical value of the area.  Where once the Muslims had dominated the Silk Road which provided medieval Europe with eastern riches, now the British needed to protect its trade route to India.  Of course, the Industrial Revolution had created new interests in the area’s oil, but the old geopolitical motives persisted as well.

Constantinople was promised to the Russian Czar at one point in the war, but the concessions made by the Bolsheviks cancelled that agreement.  While the once-great Ottoman Empire was divided, Constantinople would remain in the hands of its owners since 1453.  It was occupied by the allied powers (unofficially at first), but this would not survive the determination of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.  Remarking at the presence of allied warships in Constantinople’s harbour, he proclaimed: “As they have come, so they shall go.”

A modern Turkey would rise from the ashes

Ataturk, 1916

Ataturk, 1916

As a young officer in the Turkish military, Atatürk oversaw Austria’s annexation of Bosnia, and Bulgaria secession from Turkish influence.  The Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913 result in the Ottomans loss of Albania and Macedonia, and Libya had been lost to the Italians.  By 1914, the European portion of the Ottoman Empire, which had once stretched far into Hungary, was almost wholly gone – all that remained was an enclave in Thrace.  Throughout the Great War, Atatürk remained the only undefeated Ottoman general.  His reputation was made at Gallipoli, the same battle where many allied reputations were destroyed.  In his eyes Turkey was defeated not by greater armies, but by greater civilization.  Henceforth, he would ensure Turkey would adopt European-style culture and politics.  Indeed, Turkey remains a secular state to this day.

Atatürk sent Inonu Ismet, a trusted general, to the Paris Peace Conference to negotiate.  He was instructed to achieve an independent Turkey, and as a good soldier he intended to achieve just this by any means.  Turkey’s new borders included almost all the Turkish speaking territories of their former Ottoman Empire, but the fact was the empire had ended and a new very different state had been birthed.  It was truly the end of an age.

900px-Ottoman_empire.svg

Works Cited

Anderson, Scott. Lawrence in Arabia. New York: Random House, 2013.

Kaplan, Robert D. The Revenge of Geography. New York: Random House, 2012.

MacMillan, Margaret. Paris 1919. New York: Random House, 2002.

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Attacking First: Lessons from Copenhagen 1807 and Iraq 2003

The classic example of a preventive strike is the 1807 Battle of Copenhagen.  Since this battle was used as a precedent for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, it only seems right to compare the two preventive attacks. A US or Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities would also be a preventive strike.  Granted, it is difficult to compare events that occurred across over 200 years, the world’s international norms are indeed almost incomparable. Despite this some broad lessons can be drawn.   

Algiers bombardment

First a note on definitions.  A pre-emptive strike occurs when a state fears real foreign aggression, and thus attacks to gain the advantage in an impeding conflict.  A preventative strike occurs when a state fears another state may change the balance of power against itself, and attacks to counter this.   

The failure of appeasement is often falsely used to justify preventive attacks 

Since the 1939 Munich agreement, which gave the Sudetenland to Germany, ‘appeasement’ has been labelled as a bad strategy.  If only the allies had pre-emptively attacked Hitler, the devastation of World War 2 would have been prevented.  Often this example is cited as a reason to attack preventivey to prevent radical states from acting aggressively.  This argument is flawed because it does not argue for a preventive attack, but rather a pre-emptive attack, since it was clear Nazi Germany was preparing for war.   Furthermore it does not even cite a pre-emptive attack working, but rather the lack of a pre-emptive attack failing.  A more accurate example of a preventive attack being used with success occurred during the Napoleonic wars: Copenhagen 1807.

Battle of Copenhagen 1807: Brutal but effective

Napoleon at Friedland

Napoleon at Friedland

Never was Napoleon Bonaparte able to muster enough ships to rival the British Royal Navy on the high seas.  He was thus never able to directly threaten the British mainland.  He instead attempted to starve Great Britain of European trade by imposing the continental system wherein the continental European states were forbid to trade with England.  Both the Peninsular War which resulted in what would soon be coined as the ‘Spanish ulcer’ and Napoleon’s disastrous Russia-campaign were caused by Napoleon attempting to impose this trade-regime.  Thus these developments were caused by Napoleon’s lack of a significant Navy.1807 Europe

1807 Europe – the apex of Napoleon’s control
Arthur Wellesley aka The Duke of Wellington

Arthur Wellesley aka The Duke of Wellington

Napoleon’s lack of a significant Navy – and thus his inability to impose the continental system – was in turn at least partially caused by a preventive strike by England.  In June of 1807 Napoleon had crushed Russian forces at Friedland.  In July he had made peace with Czar Alexander I of Russia at Tilsit.  This treaty created the Duchy of Warsaw, a new state allied to Napoleonic France.  Previously, the newly formed Confederation of the Rhine had also joined forces with Napoleon after the Battle of Austerlitz.  The Baltic was quickly becoming a French controlled lake, and a significant battle-fleet based in Copenhagen was at risk of falling into French hands.  To prevent this from happening, in August of 1807 British troops led by Sir Arthur Wellesley landed and surrounded the city, while the British Navy set to bombard the capital from sea.  When the Danish commander, General Ernst Peymann, refused to surrender the city and subsequently the Danish fleet, the bombardment began.  On September 7, 1807, the Danish fleet was surrendered to England.

The modern view of pre-emptive and preventive war

Today both pre-emptive and preventive attacks are considered aggression, and both are considered illegal by international law unless approved of by the United Nations Security Council.  Despite this preventive attacks still occur, from the Six Days War in 1967 (which actually can be considered both preventive and pre-emptive) to Operation Iraqi Freedom. Furthermore, the Battle of Copenhagen has been criticized heavily, being called one of the first terror attacks on civilian population in warfare.  2,000 civilians were killed causing US President Thomas Jefferson to memorably brand the British action as being “signalized by the total extinction of national morality.”  Although there is little doubt the bombardment of Copenhagen was brutal, it is fallacy to hold military actions of the early-1800s to today’s moral standards.  What must be remembered is that the Battle of Copenhagen was successful in preventing Napoleon from mustering a significant fleet, and thus Britain was never rivalled on the high seas.  As such this preventive strike was thus used as a precedent for other preventive strikes, from the British bombardment of the French fleet at the Algerian coast at Mers el-Kebir in 1940 (to ensure the French fleet would not fall into Hitler’s hands) to the United States invading Iraq in 2003.

Iraq Helicpter

Iraq 2003: Going too far

If a preventive war is to ever be justified in the modern world, it must neutralize a legitimate threat, and must limit cost and loss of life.  The United States launched a preventive attack in 2003 against Iraq.  In the wake of September 11, the United States believed invading Iraq would tip the balance of power in its favour and against Islamic terrorism.  But, as I argue in The Utility of the War on Terror the invasion of Iraq worked against the Bush administration’s interests because it did not understand the nature of Islamic terrorism.

Perhaps Iraq can be seen as a pre-emptive attack because the Bush administration believed attacking Iraq would be an effective way to maintain US security (despite being mistaken) and it believed Iraq possessed WMD (as I argue in The Weapons Weren’t There – The Intelligence Failure that was Iraq).  I believe it is preventive because it did not fear an immediate Iraqi attack, but rather Iraq’s influence.  It thus attempted to make Iraq an example to states and networks that worked to threaten American security in the wake of 9/11.

Lessons from Copenhagen and Iraq applied to Iran

Despite Iraq, preventive war comes with its proponents.  I can see the value of a surgical airstrike of Iran’s nuclear facilities should all other tactics of prevention fail.  Doing so would be less dangerous than allowing Iran to develop nuclear weapons and triggering a nuclear arms race in the Middle East (I explore this further in A New Strategy on Iran).  Thus we must examine the recent and classic history of preventive war.  When comparing Copenhagen’s legacy with that of Iraq, three broad lessons can be drawn.  These lessons can be loosely applied to Iran.

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A precision attack

First, the goal is not to defeat and occupy the enemy state itself, the goal is to prevent it from causing a threat.  This is a lesson that seems to have been forgotten by the Bush administration when it attacked Iraq in 2003.  English forces did not work to occupy Denmark in 1807, they simply nullified the threat the Danish fleet posed.  To truly prevent Saddam from harbouring and/or using WMD in 2003 (the stated goal of the invasion) the Bush Administration should have targeted individual sites and facilities.  Instead it embarked on a long and costly occupation of Iraq.  Granted, the true political goal of the Bush administration was to make an example of Saddam to enemies of the United States – one can only wonder if there was a less heavy-handed way of accomplishing this.  Concerning Iran, America and/or Israel must surgically destroy nuclear sites and facilities with as little loss of civilian life as possible.  Only by targeting the specific threat can the political goal of the preventive attack be achieved.

In it for the long hall, occupation of Iraq

Second, the goal of a preventive attack must be clear and easily achievable.  The invasion of Iraq occurred in the wake of 9/11 and was thus used loosely meant to combat foreign Islamic terrorism.  The Bush administration believed by invading Iraq it could intimidate other international actors by displaying the fact that America was prepared to use force first.  Changing the willingness of international jihadist networks to prevent a terrorist attack through the invasion of a unrelated state is not clearly achievable.  As such the attack failed.  In 1807 it was clear Napoleonic France could use the Danish Navy to its advantage, and it was clear capturing the fleet would prevent this from occurring.  As such the attack succeeded.  Concerning Iran the goal is clear, to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.  It is also easily achievable, by destroying Iran’s nuclear facilities .  Whether Iran decides to continue developing nuclear weapons after this setback is an unrelated matter.  Napoleon could have decided to invest in ship-building after 1807’s setback, but decided not to.  Like Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007, Iran may give up after such a setback.

Third, a pre-emptive strike must always be used as a last resort.  To avoid being branded an aggressor all other options must first be explored.  In 1807 the British first requested that the Danish fleet be willingly surrendered.  One wonders if the Bush administration could have implemented a more long-term strategy.

A final reminder

One thing not learned from Copenhagen but integral for Iran’s success is the precision of the attack.  The world is not like it was in 1807, and the death of civilians is exponentially more undesirable.  The United States and/or Israel must be extremely careful when limiting the the death of innocents.  In fact any collateral damage would work against the United States and Israel by turning the Iranian population against foreign influence.

Works Cited

Davies, Peter. Copenhagen’s Second Battle Remembered, The Times. London: 2007.

Markham, David J and Cameron Reilly. Napoleon 101 Podcast.

Record, Jeffrey. Wanting War. Washington D.C.: Potomac Books Inc., 2010.

Simms, Brendan. “Castlereagh’s Catechism,” Foreign Affairs vol. 92 no. 2 March/April 2013.

Taming American Power, Stephen M. Walt, 2005.

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.