The Munich Crisis
A new epoch in the history of rearmament began in September 1938 and ended in the summer of 1940. During the Munich crisis the gaps in British defences and equipment revealed themselves to the naked eye of the public. Even the uninitiated understood to what extent Mr. Chamberlain’s concessions to the Führer were due to Britain’s military weakness. The Government was certainly under no illusions. Early in October the Cabinet called for a thorough survey of the deficiencies disclosed by the crisis, an the replies received from the Services showed wide gaps. By the spring of 1939 the new attitudes were reflected in revised and further accelerated Service programmes.
In view of the general preoccupation with the danger in the air, it is perhaps not very surprising to find that the deficiencies which impressed the Prime Minister and Parliament most were that of anti-aircraft defences. Of the 352 3.7-inch guns approved under the current programme only 44 were available, and the medium anti-aircraft artillery consisted largely of refurbished 3-inch guns, of which 298 (out of a planned number of 320) could be deployed in a crisis. Supplies of other anti-aircraft equipment were even scarcer: 50 two-pounder barrels out of a programme of 992; 1,430 searchlights out of a programme of 4,128; 140 barrage balloons out of 450. The War Office moreover estimated that even by April 1939 only fifty percent of the anti-aircraft guns and sixty percent of the searchlights under the current programme would be available.
The resources of Fighter Command, which was an even more crucial component of the air defence system, also appeared insufficient. The Air Ministry reported that it was 6 squadrons short of requirements; that its satellite airfields were not ready (16 out of 63 were available); that the defence of airfields was insufficient. Delays in the development and production of new aircraft types, by which so much store was set, were severe. In September 1938, out of 30 operational fighter squadrons, only one was partially equipped with Spitfires and five were in process of being equipped with Hurricanes. The sense of Britain being utterly unprepared was exaggerated by the obvious fact that the so badly needed L programme of 12,000 aircraft was only five months old and experiencing serious delays as described previously. The bulk of its output, as much as 90%, had to materialize quickly if Britain was to meet the German threat on anywhere near comparable terms.
To understand the sense of emergency prevailing after Munich it is necessary to consider the attitudes of the time. There was an inevitable tendency in the Government and among the public to magnify the terror of air attack and to expect immense destruction and decisive military results from the first ‘knock-out’ blow from the air. Indeed, the idea that a campaign, if not the war, could be won solely by means of a sudden and decisive air attack was very common. Added to this, contemporary estimates German strength in the air were also exaggerated, in the order between 15 and 25 percent. This was enough in the autumn of 1938 to give the impression that German Luftwaffe was twice as strong numerically as the RAF and was expected to retain that lead. The opinions prevailing among the better informed critics in Parliament were even more unfavourable. Sir Hugh Seely, who initiated the great debate in the House of Commons on air strength on 12th May 1938 and Lord Lothian, who took part in the debate in the House of Lords, appeared to assume that Germany might within a year possess a frontline strength of 8,000 aircraft. No wonder all political and military calculations were built on the assumption that Britain was not prepared to face the devastating power of German attack in the air. An immediate consequence of the Munich crisis was therefore that the view that the ‘country could not afford it’ and the corresponding budgetary limitations were swept aside in favour of an all-out rearmament effort.
Contrary to the political debate, the reaction of the Air Ministry to the Munich crisis was rather calm. It has already been shown that the RAF shook itself free of financial limitations early in 1938 and was the first Service to rearm more or less regardless of cost. A concerted drive to speed up the rate of production which had been going on since the summer months of 1938 was now beginning to show results, and the actual output under the current programmes was now fulfilling expectations. It in fact rose from a monthly average of slightly under 200 in the first six months of 1938 to about 630 in the first six months of 1939 and to about 780 in September 1939. This output already stretched the resources of the aircraft industry to the furthest limit possible in peacetime, and the Air Ministry did not try to force through a further change in the current scale of orders. On the other hand, a great deal still remained to be done to prepare for the expansion of production under wartime conditions; and it is towards these objectives that the Air Ministry now turned its attention.
In the first six months of 1939 the actual deliveries, compared with programmes, were as shown in the following table.
The diagram shows cumulative number of aircraft programmed and delivered during the period.
In the late summer of 1938 the production departments gave much thought to the various hypothetical estimates of aircraft production in war. The Production Department of the Air Ministry estimated that if war were to break out in October of the following year the war potential than in existence or in the course of construction would be sufficient to produce 2,000 aircraft per month within eighteen months of the beginning of hostilities. At that level the war potential was, in the opinion of the Air Staff, sufficient to meet operational losses until the peak of production was reached.
In January 1939, however, it also became clear that by March and April 1940 the wartime demand for aircraft would outrun the maximum supply of alloy sheet, extrusions and forgings which the existing capacity could provide. Immediate instructions went out from the Air Ministry to increase fabricating capacity for light alloys from the 40,000 tons under the existing plans to 63,000 tons.
Tighter still was the prospective supply of engines and of certain other main components. The manufacturing capacity of engine manufacturers had not expanded quite as quickly as that of airframe manufacturers, and in addition, the general trend of requirements of engines could be expected to rise faster than that of airframes owing to the coming introduction of four-engined bombers. Unfortunately, mobilising the war potential of the engine firms in the short term was very difficult. So complicated were their requirements of certain special machine tools and equipment and so greatly did they vary with the type of engine, that only small increases could be brought about by working the existing production lines all round the clock.
Yet on the whole the measures then taken were neither wholesale nor drastic. Indeed, at about that time the Air Ministry assured the Secretary of State that the existing potential, if working at full capacity, could produce nearly 2,000 airframes a months and that there was, therefore, little need for more airframe factories.