Tag Archives: Royal Air Force

A Military Transformed? A New Book from Helion and Company

One of the chapters in this soon to be published book was written by myself. The blog entry above was written by Ross Mahoney, one of the editors, along with Michael LoCicero and Stuart Mitchell

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The Fall of Singapore – The Great Betrayal – BBC2

BBC2 recently broadcast a documentary titled The Fall of Singapore – The Great Betrayal. The synopsis from the BBC’s website says that:

Pearl Harbor and the Fall of Singapore: 70 years ago these huge military disasters shook both Britain and America, but they conceal a secret so shocking it has remained hidden ever since. This landmark film by Paul Elston tells the incredible story of how it was the British who gave the Japanese the knowhow to take out Pearl Harbor and capture Singapore. For 19 years before the fall of Singapore to the Japanese, British officers were spying for Japan. Worse still, the Japanese had infiltrated the very heart of the British establishment – through a mole who was a peer of the realm known to Churchill himself.

The main contributors to the programme were Prof. Richard Aldrich of Warwick University, a leading historian of the British intelligence services, and Dr Antony Best of the LSE, an expert on Anglo-Japanese relations. Many of the assertions made were justified by reference to primary documents in the UK National Archives.

At the end of the First World War, the Royal Navy led the world in naval aviation. Japan, which was then allied to Britain, attempted to obtain details of Britain’s new aircraft carriers. Ten requests for information were rejected, but Japan was allowed to recruit a civilian mission.

It was composed of former members of the Royal Naval Air Service, which had merged with the Royal Flying Corps to form the Royal Air Force in April 1918. The mission was led by an experienced naval aviator, William Forbes-Sempill, the Master of Sempill and the son of a Scottish peer. It was in Japan during 1921-23.

The programme argued that the British mission allowed Japan to develop the naval aviation that enabled it to attack Pearl Harbor and to sink Force Z, composed of HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse, off Malaya in December 1941. This is perhaps going too far; Stephen Roskill contended in his history of the RN between the wars that the Japanese would have caught up with the RN and USN eventually, but that the Sempill mission speeded up the process.[1]

The programme suggested that the Japanese needed British help in order to develop naval aviation. They were behind Britain and the USA, but not by as much as the programme suggested. The first deck landing on an aircraft carrier was on HMS Furious on 3 August 1917, which then had a short flight deck forward of her superstructure.

The first carrier with a full length deck was HMS Argus, which was converted from an incomplete liner and completed in September 1918. Britain began construction of the HMS Hermes, the world’s first purpose built carrier, on 15 January 1918. She was launched on 11 September 1919 but not completed until February 1924.

Japan, meanwhile, laid down its first carrier, IMS Hosho, on 16 December 1919. She was launched on 13 November 1921 and completed on 27 December 1922. The first take off from and landing on her deck took place on 22 February 1923. The first landing on a carrier that was underway was on the USS Langley in November 1922. Conversion of the Langley, the USN’s first carrier, from a collier had been completed on 20 March 1922.

The claim made by the programme that the Japanese needed British help to build a carrier would seem to be an exaggeration, since the Hosho was under construction before the Sempill Mission arrived in Japan, but the mission clearly helped the Japanese to develop carrier aviation quicker than they could have managed if starting from scratch.

The second in command of the base from which the mission operated was Yamamoto Isoruku, in 1941 commander of the Japanese Combined Fleet and mastermind of the attack on Pearl Harbor. By 1941 the IJN was well ahead of the RN and at least equal to the USN in carrier aviation, so the Japanese had taken the initial lessons taught to them by the Sempill Mission and built on them by their own efforts. One of Britain’s problems was that most of its naval aviators transferred to the RAF in 1918, so it had few senior officers with air experience in 1939.

Another former RNAS pilot, Frederick Rutland, was recruited by the Mitsubishi company and taught the Japanese deck landing techniques. He was the son of a labourer and was promoted from the ranks. He was known as Rutland of Jutland because he carried out a reconnaissance mission at the Battle of Jutland.

At this stage, Sempill and Rutland had provided an ally with information as part of officially sanctioned missions. The Anglo-Japanese Alliance was ended by the treaties signed at the 1921-22 Washington Naval Conference and the two countries became potential foes. Despite this, Sempill continued to supply information to Japan. He had asecret job that seemed to make him an international arms salesman for Britain. This gave him access to secret information and brought him into contact with foreign navies and air forces, including those of Chile, Brazil and Greece.

MI5 became suspicious of Sempill’s links with Japan and tapped his phone and intercepted his mail. This provided evidence that he was supplying Japan with secret information. Britain had broken some Japanese codes and intercepted Japanese diplomatic cables relaying some of these from London to Tokyo.

In 1926, Sempill visited the Blackburn aircraft factory, ostensibly to inspect a new single-seater aircraft. He managed to obtain plans of the top secret Blackburn Iris flying boat. Soon after this, he was interviewed by the Deputy Chief of the Air Staff, the Director of Public Prosecutions and a senior MI5 officer.

A meeting chaired by Sir Austen Chamberlain, the Foreign Secretary, decided not to prosecute Sempill. His position in society would make this embarrassing, but there was also the perennial problem with espionage cases that it would be hard to convict without revealing secrets, including the fact that Britain had broken Japanese codes. The relevant files are now publicly available in the National Archives, but were kept secret for many years.

There are no MI5 files on Sempill from the 1930s in the National Archives. One from the 1940s states that he was a paid consultant for Mitsubishi in 1931. He needed the money as he was overdrawn by £13,000; nearly £750,00o in 2012 terms.

During the 1930s Sempill became President of the Royal Aeronautical Society and succeeded his father as Lord Sempill, sitting in the House of Lords as a Conservative. He was a member of The Link, an organisation established in 1937 to promote Anglo-German friendship, and The Right Club, which aimed to rid the Conservative Party of Jewish influence.

Whether or not Sempill was involved, Japanese espionage against Britain continued during the 1930s. In 1931, Japan invaded Manchuria. This raised fears of an Angl0-Japanese war, and Britain re-started work on a large naval base at Singapore. The programme suggested that construction began in 1931; in fact, building started in 1923 but was suspended more than once during the 1920s due to changes in government and budgetary constraints.

During the 1930s Japanese businessmen bought up large amounts of property in Malaya. The programme argued that many of them were spies. Japan bought the plans for the Singapore base from a British serviceman called Roberts.

The Singapore base was heavily defended against attack from the sea. The British thought that it would be impossible to invade Malaya and then attack Singapore by land. In 1937 Joe Vinden (spelling?), a British Army intelligence officer, reconnoitred the Malayan coast and concluded that an invasion of Malaya followed by a land attack on Singapore was feasible.

Vinden correctly forecast that the Japanese would land at Kota Bharu in north-east Malaya during the November-February monsoon season; others thought that an amphibious landing at that time of year was impossible. His recommendation that funds allocated to coastal artillery be instead spent on aircraft was ignored.

Japan also had spies in Hawaii, one of whom was Rutland. He later told interrogators that he was ordered to report on the attitude of the population to the possibility of war and on the dispositions of the US fleet. The FBI soon became suspicious of his activities.

Sempill was brought back to the Admiralty when Winston Churchill was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty, the cabinet minister responsible for the navy, on the outbreak of war in 1939. Sempill gave an assurance that he would not discuss service matters with the Japanese. However, in August 1941 he intervened to secure the release of Satoru Makahara, manager of Mitsubishi’s London office, who had been arrested on suspicion of espionage.

At the same time Churchill and US President Roosevelt held secret talks at Placentia Bay. Shortly afterwards the British code breakers at Bletchley Park intercepted and decoded a signal from the Japanese Embassy in London to Tokyo that gave precise details of the talks. A report that was sent to Churchill about the intercept remained secret for 60 years; he noted that the Japanese version was ‘pretty accurate stuff.’ It had to have come from somebody close to him.

Richard Aldrich said that the most important Japanese source with access to Churchill was Sempill. A few days later MI5 told Churchill that the Japanese had information about his inner circle. He demanded proof and a month long surveillance operation produced the names of Sempill and Commander McGrath, who had been with Sempill in Japan.

Churchill stated that Sempill could not remain at the Admiralty. When Sempill was asked to resign his commission, however, Churchill said that he only wanted Sempill to leave his current job, not the RN. Antony Best pointed Sempill was a Conservative peer who would have had friends in the Conservative Party. Richard Aldrich argued that interning Sempill would look very bad for the government, which had employed him even though he had been under MI5 surveillance since 1925.

Rutland was deported to Britain by the Americans and interned. He was released near the end of the war and later committed suicide. Sempill was given a choice of either resigning his commission or taking up a post in northern Scotland; the programme did not make it clear that which he chose. He died in 1965.

It was argued that Sempill was not charged under the Official Secrets Act or interned under Defence Regulation 18B because he was a well connected aristocrat and his arrest would embarrass the government. Other members of the upper classes were interned, including Sir Oswald Moseley, founder of the British Union of Fascists and his wife Diana, one of the Mitford sisters, Admiral Sir Barry Domvile and Archibald Maule Ramsay, the Conservative MP who founded The Right Club.

However, none of them had held any government position during the war, whilst Sempill was close to the Prime Minister. This would suggest that embarrassment to the government in general and Churchill in particular for appointing a man previously suspected of supplying secrets to Japan to a sensitive post was a stronger reason for not taking action against him than his social position.

Another reason might be that a trial could have revealed that the British had broken Japanese codes. The programme mentioned this when discussing why he was not charged in 1925, but did not repeat the point when discussing his lack of punishment in 1941.

This was a very interesting programme. It should be noted that it was not as new a revelation as the BBC claimed. The relevant documents were released to public view at the National Archives in 1998, and The Independent newspaper reported on them, quoting Richard Aldrich. Nevertheless, the programme was well made, justified its claims with reference to primary documents and brought the story to a wider audience.


[1] Stephen Roskill, Naval Policy Between the Wars, vol. i (London: Collin, 1968), p. 529.

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Bullets, Bombs and Bandages: How to Really Win at War: BBC4 TV

BBC4 has recently broadcast a very interesting three part series titled Bullets, Bombs and Bandages: How to Really Win at War. It was introduced by Saul David, Professor of War Studies at the University of Buckingham and explained the importance of planning, supply and logistics in war. Wars are won by the side with more supplies and better equipment, It has now finished, but is available, for UK viewers only, on the BBC I-Player until 28 February.

The first episode, ‘Staying Alive’, discussed the difficulties of keeping an army supplied with food. Archaeological evidence shows that the Romans shipped some foodstuffs from Spain to Hadrian’s Wall. Wellington’s army in Portugal and Spain during the Napoleonic Wars had to take a herd of cattle with it. An army of 80,000 men had to slaughter 300 animals per day. The invention of canned food eased supply problems, but early tin cans had to be opened with bayonets because the tin can was invented several years before the tin opener.

The second episode, ‘Stealing a March’, covered the difficulties of moving armies. In 1066, King Harold of England faced two threats. He quickly moved his army north to defeat Harald Hadrada’s Vikings at Stamford Bridge, but then had to return south to face William the Conqueror’s well prepared Normans. Harold’s army was depleted and exhausted, and he should have followed his mother’s advice and delayed giving battle. Instead he fought and lost.

Marlborough’s victory at Blenheim was one of logistics. His army used two-wheeled spring carts to transport its supplies. They were twice as fast as the farm carts used by his French and Bavarian opponents. In 1812, Napoleon expected to defeat Russia before winter. His army was equipped for summer, including the wrong type of horse shoes. A farrier explained that horses have to have different shoes in winter; Napoleon’s had summer shoes so could not grip the ice going up and down hills.

Railways enabled armies to be deployed more quickly and in greater numbers than previously. Helmuth von Moltke was one of the first to realise this, and his meticulous planning allowed the Prussians to mobilise more quickly than the French and to defeat them in the Franco-Prussian War. Railways allowed huge armies to be mobilised in World War I, but horses remained crucial in World War II because they were the fastest way of crossing rough ground until the invention of the jeep. The use of tanks and other motor vehicles made petrol supply vital; modern petrol cans are called jerry cans in the English-speaking world because they are based on a German design, which was more robust and practical than the British version.

Modern armies require huge amounts of supplies. The Allies required a port to keep their troops supplied after D-Day. Rather than capture one, they brought an artificial one, code-named Mulberry, with them. It was designed to last for nine weeks, but remained in use for nine months. Camp Bastion, Britain’s main supply base in Afghanistan, is a busier airport than Stansted. Despite all the modern equipment, losses of helicopters meant that British soldiers had to march to fight in the Falklands War.

See the BBC website for more on episode 2:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-16929522

The final episode, ‘Raising Arms’, dealt with the importance of having the best equipment and being able to afford enough of it. The Bank of England was founded in the 1690s after England ran out of money following wars with France and Spain. Sound finances enabled wars to be fought as equipment became more sophisticated and thus expensive. The increasing importance of artillery meant greater casualties, requiring more attention to medical facilities. Armies became more professional and technical, requiring better training.

In the late 19th century the increasing range of rifles meant that armies had to abandon colourful clothing, such as the British red coat, which was replaced by khaki. By 1908, British soldiers wore equipment that was designed from scratch for efficiency rather than adapting what had been used before. The British Lee-Enfield rifle had a shorter range than the German Mauser but was otherwise superior. Its magazine held 10 rather than 5 bullets and it had a bent bolt that enable the British soldier to keep his eye on the target whilst operating it, unlike the Mauser’s straight bolt.

In 1915 British machine guns and artillery were firing ammunition more quickly than it could be manufactured. A Ministry of Munitions was established and new factories built. Shortage of acetone, imported before the war, created problems with the manufacture of cordite. Chaim Weizmann, a chemistry lecturer at Manchester University, discovered a method of fermenting grain to produce acetone. In 1917 the British Empire produced over 50 million shells and a billion bullets and the Allies were out-producing the Germans. In 1917-18 the war cost £20 million per day in 2012 money.

Since World War I military power has been measured by the means of destruction rather than by numbers of men and horses. The Allies dropped 3.4 million tons of bombs in World War II. The USA dropped 7 million tons in the Vietnam War. Equipment is now stockpiled in peace, but this leads to risks of its own. An accident at an RAF munitions depot at Fauld in Staffordshire on 27 November 1944 caused one of  the largest ever non-nuclear explosions and killed more than 70 people.

The cost of military equipment continues to rise. The USA fired 800 Tomahawk cruise missiles in 48 hours during its Shock and Awe attack on Baghdad in 2003. Each costs $0.5 million. A Typhoon Eurofighter costs £50 million and the Joint Strike Fighter is likely to be twice as expensive. NATO’s opponents in Afghanistan are armed with little more than AK47s and home-made bombs, but this conflict has cost the UK £18bn. The question is knowing who the next enemy will be. The problem is that tipping points in military technology are not apparent until after the event.

See the BBC website for more on episode 3:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-17011607

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Transformation and Innovation in the British Military

In April 2011 I presented a paper on ‘The Royal Navy’s Adoption of Oil Before the First World War’ at a conference on ‘Transformation and Innovation in the British Military from 1642 to 1945’, organised by the Centre for War Studies at the University of Birmingham. The conference was successful, and Helion are going to publish a book of the papers, which will be edited by Ross Mahoney, Stuart Mitchell and Michael LoCicero of the Birmingham Centre for War Studies . The book will concentrate on the period 1792 to 1945, which includes most of the papers presented.

See the links to ‘Birmingham “On War”‘, the blog of the Birmingham War Studies students for the book synopsis (first link) and table of contents (second link).

http://warstudies.wordpress.com/2011/12/17/from-symposium-to-book/

http://warstudies.wordpress.com/2011/12/20/a-military-transformed-table-of-contents/

Abstracts of the chapters will soon be published on ‘Birmingham “On War”‘.

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