Chapter Three: 1937 – A Reunited Kingdom?
7 Princess Julianna of the Netherlands married German Prince Bernhard
24 United Campaign for Spain launched at Manchester Free Trade Hall
26 Bombing of Basque town of Guernica by German aircraft
6 Germany’s Hindenburg airship blew up in New Jersey, USA
12 Coronation of King George VI
14 Imperial Conference in London (to 15th June)
Labour Party Distressed Areas Commission on South Wales published
28 Neville Chamberlain succeeded Stanley Baldwin as PM
1 Amelia Earhart’s last flight
4 Duke of Windsor married Wallis Simpson near Tours, France
7 Death of Hollywood actress, Jean Harlow
23 Germany and Italy left Non-Intervention Committee
5 Japan invades China
10 Harold Nicholson’s mission to Evreux
28 Japanese Bombing of Shanghai
17 Rioting in Sudetenland
Duke and Duchess’ Berchtesgarden meeting with Hitler
6 Italy joined Germany and Japan in Aniti-Comintern Pact
7 Death of Ramsay MacDonald
19 Lord Halifax visited Hitler
12 The Panay Incident, Yangtze River
More general events included the imposition of ARP (Air Raid Patrol) duties on local authorities and the passing of A P Herbert’s Divorce Bill extended the grounds for divorce. On the stage, new plays included Terence Rattigan’s French Without Tears and J B Priestley’s Time and the Conways. Flanagan and Allen also had a new hit show, Me and My Girl. Films included Show Boat with Paul Robeson, Oh, Mr Porter, with Will Hay, Lost Horizon, with Ronald Coleman and Camille with Greta Garbo. Among the most popular songs of the year were ‘Leaning on a Lamppost’ and ‘I’ve got you under my skin’.
A United Front?
Despite the non-interventionist position adopted by ‘official Labour’ in the previous autumn, Stafford Cripps had held behind-the-scenes discussions with the Communist leader Harry Pollitt and William Mellors on the possibility of united action in support of the Spanish Republic. In January 1937 the first issue of Tribune was published, with a controlling board that included Aneurin Bevan, Cripps and Ellen Wilkinson. On 24th January, the United Campaign was launched at a mass meeting at Manchester Free Trade Hall, the platform being shared by Stafford Cripps, veteran Clydeside ILP MP Jimmy Maxton, Harry Pollitt and William Mellors. As the right-wing of the Labour Party fought back, the United Front packed meeting after meeting with thousands of Labour, Communist, ILP, Socialist League and trade union supporters, organising practical aid for their Spanish comrades with devoted intensity. Eventually the Popular Front won wide acceptance, with David Lloyd George appearing on the same platform as Harry Pollitt and Clement Attlee visiting the International Brigade, giving the clench fist salute.
George Orwell had arrived at the front in Spain under the aegis of the Independent Labour Party in December 1936. As an officer in the anarchist POUM militia, he was able to put both his parade-ground practice in the Cadet Corps at Eaton and his training in the Burma police college to good use in drilling the raw Republican recruits. However, his eccentric dress in balaclava and long woolly scarf combined with his great height made him a target for snipers and he took a bullet in the neck outside Huesca. Orwell survived, but the damage to his vocal cords made it impossible for him to bark out orders. His faith in international socialist solidarity did not survive, however. In Barcelona he had witnessed first-hand the Republican cause being sabotaged by splits and feuds within the ‘Popular Front’. The communists, driven by instructions from Moscow, in return for the only material support, apart from volunteers, which came from outside Spain, seemed more interested in hunting down heretics like the anarchists and Trotskyists than taking on Franco’s crack Moorish troops. Returning home to heal these physical and mental wounds, his disgust with the official left’s rhapsodies about the Soviet Union only served to reopen the latter, and he decided to try to write the truth as he now saw it, that fascism and communism had more in common than most people realised and that the Soviet variety of it was ‘furthest of all to the Right’. The pillars of the Left like The New Statesman rejected his work. So too did Harry Pollitt, General Secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain, who described Orwell as ‘a little middle-class boy’ who had day-tripped through socialism but returned from his trip the imperialist reactionary he had always been.
Back on the ground in Spain, by the Spring of 1937 there were 30,000 Germans and 80,000 Italians in Spain. The Germans marched and flew aeroplanes. The Republican Government had practically no aircraft and had to pay huge sums of money to freelance pilots. The deliberate bombing of civilians was regarded as unimaginable barbarity at that time, before the experiences of the Second World War. When the Germans bombed the Basque town of Guernica for Franco, practically wiping it out, on 26th April 1937, their involvement could no longer go entirely ignored by the Chamberlain Government, although they tried to downplay the evidence of their own Consul’s own eyes, reported to them the next day. They were tempted to play along with Goebbels’ propaganda machine which went into a fury of action to try to convince everybody that the Basques had blown up their own city in order to discredit General Franco. They certainly couldn’t ignore the broader implications of the attack, that inland cities were vulnerable to aerial bombardment. Britain’s island status would no longer be enough of a defence against a potential Nazi attack, and its government would need urgently to strengthen its anti-aircraft defences, as well as the Royal Air Force, speeding up aircraft production. The movement of the population to the South-East of England would need to be halted, if not reversed.
The rest of the world was outraged and Picasso’s famous picture went on tour all over Europe, including Britain. Now everybody seemed to be taking a hand in the war, and the International Brigades had volunteers from dozens of countries, including two British contingents, one of them named after the mild-mannered military man, Clement Attlee. Harold Nicholson, who had previously muttered secretly at a dinner party to Eden that he wanted ‘the Reds to win’, had his convictions reinforced by the destruction of Guernica, telling his wife Vita ‘….I do so loathe this war. I really feel that barbarism is creeping over the earth again and that mankind is going backward.’ In public, however, he continued to support the National Government’s policy of non-intervention, praising Eden and instructing the House that ‘Britain could no longer indulge in a ‘missionary foreign policy’ from the nineteenth century by imposing ‘our views, our judgements, our standard of life and conduct’ upon other countries. Britain must fall back on ‘the preservation of peace’ through ‘the arrangement of the balance of power’.
When the Foreign Affairs Committee met in July to discuss the Spanish situation, Nicholson, now its vice-chairman, was agitated to find ‘an enormous majority anti-Government and pro-Franco’. There seemed little alternative to continuing the non-intervention policy, although Eden agreed with Nicholson that it had failed. Britain could not risk the Civil War spreading to an all-out Europe-wide conflagration. Churchill had been feeding Nicholson with an inflated assessment of Germany’s air strength, which if augmented by the Italian air force, meant that Britain was not ready to go to war, except with ‘very active Russian assistance’. Malcolm MacDonald, Secretary of State for the dominions, reiterated that Brritain was too weak to go to gamble on war at that time. ‘It would mean the massacre of women and children on the streets of London’, he said, adding that ‘no Government could possibly risk a war when our anti-aircraft defences are in so farcical a condition.’
Although the Spanish Civil War continued until 1939, the surviving British volunteers came home in 1937. They had had a rough war. For every five of them who had been gone to Spain the previous year, one had been killed and another three had been wounded. As they disembarked from the ferry giving their clenched fist salutes to the awaiting press photographers, it was evident not just that the outcome of the great clash between Left and Right was a clear victory for the Right, but that this had not been the real confrontation, merely the dress rehearsal for something much worse. The Fascists had been greatly encouraged by their successful alliance and joint adventure in Spain. Hitler and Mussolini left the Non-Intervention Committee in June, cementing their ’Rome-Berlin Axis’ and beginning a gigantic build-up of forces. The Non-interventionists in Britain and elsewhere had given Hitler the green light to acquire more territory in the East, at the very least, though he knew that Germany, too, would need more time to prepare for the coming campaign of conquest.
The Spanish Civil War had an even longer-term impact on British literature and culture, through Orwell’s writings, as well as those of others for whom the experience of it had been a pivotal experience. Homage to Catalonia, written in 1937, but not published until 1938, suffered from being seen as a shot from the sidelines at the internecine wars of the Left both in Spain and at home, and it was for this reason that Orwell decided to preach the same message in the more popular form of a fable. He wrote:
On my return from Spain I thought of exposing the Soviet myth in a story that could easily be understood by almost anyone…However, the actual details of the story did not come to me for some time until one day I saw a little boy, perhaps ten years old, driving a huge cart-horse along a narrow path, whipping it whenever it tried to turn. It struck me that if only such animals became aware of their strength we should have no power over them, and that men exploit animals in much the same way as the rich exploit the proletariat.’
In this way, the germ of Animal Farm, not published until 1945, was already in Orwell’s mind in 1937. In the meantime, however, his acerbic wit was mainly reserved for those who opposed the arm conflict with fascism, in a review of some military memoirs, in August 1937:
General Crozier is a professional soldier and by his own showing spent the years between 1899 and 1921 in almost ceaseless slaughter of his fellow-creatures; hence as a pacifist he makes an impressive figure, like the reformed burglar at a Salvation Army meeting.’
Today We Live! The Unemployed Miners
In 1937 Donald Alexander, a Cambridge ’double-first’, arrived in South Wales to produce a film called Eastern Valley which dealt with the relief work organised by the Quakers at the top of the Monmouthshire Valleys. In this short film one unemployed miner explained that he was working now ’not for a boss but for myself and my butties’ and another said that ’a new interest in life’ had been created by the Quakers. The best known documentary was Today We Live, made in the same year by the National Council of Social Service. The Welsh scenes were directed by Ralph Bond who told a story using real miners as actors, in which the unemployed miners of Pentre in the Rhondda agree, after some debate, to co-operate with the voluntary relief agencies. Despite the obvious coaching of the miners, the difficulty in dealing with poverty and boredom, living on a shilling a day, are movingly conveyed and it is not surprising that the film was so well received in the art-houses of London and New York. The film made its impact not only because of the realistic dialogue, which the miners interpreted themselves, in their own words, but because of the stunning images of life in the depressed Valleys. Bond’s assistant on the film was Donald Alexander and his shot of the unemployed searching for waste on the slag heaps was not only the highlight of the documentary itself, but also became the most iconic image of proletarian hardship in Depression Britain. It has been used many times in subsequent films and, at the time, played a similar role to that of Dorothy Lange’s still photographs of the migrant mother with her children in California, for American audiences.
The documentary film-makers of 1937 achieved a real breakthrough, despite being constrained by sponsorship and distribution problems. Grierson, Rotha, Bond and Alexander never knew whether their films would be seen outside of London’s Weat End or New York’s Museum of Modern Art. As the Socialist cause became stronger in 1936-7, several groups attempted to challenge Hollywood and the Ealing comedies by producing independent films with independent outlets. The Communist Party was instrumental in this, showing classic Russian feature-films in halls in London, and some of these were shown in the miners’ institutes in South Wales, together with other independent and radical films. Films like Spanish Earth, also made in 1937, were shown alongside more commercially successful films, such as Night Must Fall, based on Emlyn Williams’ stage play. British film-makers had become concerned about the extent of the domination by American-made films in British cinemas, and in 1937 a Quota Act was passed to restrict this, which led to American companies, like MGM, establishing their own studios around London in order to make ’British’ films. They could also be far more radical, since the British film censors were becoming more lenient.
Paradoxically, many of the English middle-class documentary film-makers had a very idealised view of ’the Welsh miner’ which came through in their work, often in the dialogue which contained vocabulary and idioms which were alien to the coalfield. One of the few film-makers to join them from an authentic background, Jack Howells, was openly critical of this, but was unable to effect a greater sense of realism. Howells shared their conviction that the camera could be used to show the world how the miners lived, but that the Cambridge intellectuals were too earnest and lacking in the ability to use humour both to entertain and inform. Penrose Tennyson, Eaton-educated, had left Balliol College Oxford after only one term, to become a film-maker. He was twenty-six when he made the film Proud Valley with Paul Robeson playing a rather confected role as a black sailor who comes to work in a Welsh pit and is recruited to sing in the local male voice choir. The film proved too radical for the censors, and its release was delayed by the Ealing Studios until the outbreak of war in 1939, when it was given a new ending in which the pit is saved from closure, not by the action of the miners, but by the demands of war. The dialogue was written by Jack Jones, which probably saved it from the music-hall stereotypes of Welshness which its actors, including Rachel Thomas and himself were meant to play. Robeson himself was no stranger to South Wales, as he had been singing in concerts to raise money for the Spanish Republicans, and the song ’You can’t stop us singing’ became a powerful resistance theme as choral singing became the means of suggesting solidarity, not just in films, but also in real life. When Penrose Tennyson began making the film early in 1937, his motivations were very clear, as his brother later revealed:
I think Pen felt that the mining community was the only working-class community in the country which had retained their dignity, their sense of community, and their own cultural life and values. I think he had a very special feeling; I don’t know quite what personal contact it was based on until the film, but I think he had a very special feeling for the miners, particularly for the South Wales miners. I remember at the time of the abdication of Edward VIII… that he quite seriously thought that the Welsh miners were going to march on London and insist on Edward VIII being reinstated and put to rout the Archbishop of Canterbury, Mr Baldwin, and all the people who had wanted Edward VIII to give up the throne. I think Pen was perfectly ready to join the march as soon as he could, and I think he was very disappointed that nothing ever happened.
Militant Minorities and Migrants
Penrose Tennyson’s belief that the miners were on the point of insurrection in 1937 was not entirely fanciful, but the Communist Party was already beginning to focus its attention on following up its success in winning the leadership of the SWMF with gaining support in elections. At the beginning of April 1937, the people of the Garw Valley were prepared to vote for a respected local Communist in the Council election:
The declaration of the poll in Ogmore and Garw Council elections took place amid scenes of enthusiasm…culminating in the singing of the ’Red Flag’ when Communist candidate for the Pontycymmer ward, Mr. James Redmond, miner, was announced as having gained the large total of 889 votes, and topped the poll. Edward John Evans (Soc), Schoolmaster, gained the other seat with 830 votes. Mr Daniel Davies (Soc) who has served upon the Council for 18 years, loses his seat, the number of his votes being 814. Mr Redmond is the first Communist to be elected in the Garw Valley…After the declaration the crowd became most excited, and the election proved to be the most enthusiastic and keenly followed for years.
Clearly, while the South Wales valleys may have been a long way from the verge of revolution in the Spring of 1937, they were experiencing some seismic political shifts. It was no coincidence that Redmond’s election came in the same week that a new wages agreement was reached between the SWMF’s Communist leadership and the coal-owners. Also, a decade-long struggle against company unionism in the valley had finally secured almost 100% membership of the Federation. Redmond’s success was a recognition of the organisational abilities of local Communists, rather than a wholesale shift towards the avowal of revolutionary socialism in mining communities. Those communities were simply expressing their growing self-confidence, which the Communist Party had helped them recover.
The 1935 Hunger Marches against the introduction of the Means Test were still strong in the imaginations of both people and politicians, but the popular image, presented in contemporary newsreels and photographs of thousands continually on the march, is a myth. Demonstrative action was sporadic, localised and uneven, and, where it involved large numbers, it was motivated by immediate concerns, basic frustrations and deep resentment. Such feelings could just as easily lead to a cynical withdrawal from political action, as they did for many. Nevertheless, the determination of militant minorities, well-organised in the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement, helped to facilitate a partial institutional and political recovery in 1936-7. However, these minorities, with their emphasis on extra-parliamentary marches and demonstrations, were often seen as a threat by the more mainstream Labour movement, especially its parliamentary leadership. This was a time when direct action on the streets had very negative and sometimes sinister undertones for those who believed in the traditionally British representative form of democracy. This helps to explain why the Labour Party conference held in Edinburgh in October of the previous year had refused to support the Jarrow Crusade or any other kind of ’hunger’ march, preferring instead to appoint a Commission of Enquiry into the Distressed Areas. This was the leadership’s idea of getting something done, but at least the words it produced were far removed from those which appeared in The Times on January 19th, which reflected closely the Government’s, when it claimed that the Distressed Areas were:
…economic cemeteries, the character of which may be made more pleasant by planting a few flowers, straightening a few tombstones and employing a sexton or two, but cannot be radically changed.
Towards the end of that month, the Commission began its tour of investigation in South Wales. Joining Hugh Dalton and other national figures were two local MPs, George Hall (Aberdare) and Arthur Jenkins (Pontypool). A large amount of written evidence had been received at the preliminary conference in Cardiff in December, much of which had already appeared in published form, since there had already been many quasi-official enquiries, investigations and surveys of the coalfield published throughout the thirties; some regional, some local in focus. The Minister for Labour, Ernest Brown, who had accompanied Edward VIII on his legendary tour the previous November, admitted on 9th March that no fewer than 32 out of 38 special area districts in the region had had over 30% unemployment during the previous year. Only one had had a rate of less than less than 20%, somewhere near the national, British average for the year of about 15%. In the previous July a special Ministry analysis had revealed that of nearly a hundred thousand unemployed men, one in eight had been out of work for more than five years, two in every five for over two years continuously, and more than half for over a year. Only one in five had been unemployed for less than three months. What’s more, the numbers of those who had been out of work for more than five years had doubled between the summers of 1935 and 1936.
Most of these older, long-term unemployed were located in local pockets of unemployment, or ’black-spots’ which had the highest levels of unemployment overall. These were spread throughout the coalfield from Garnant in the Amman Valley in the western anthracite area, generally less hard-hit than the dominant ’steam-coal’ section, with 58% unemployed, to Ferndale in the Rhondda in the centre with 56%, to Brynmawr and Merthyr on the northern edge with 57% and 46% respectively. These were the four highest levels of all the labour exchange areas of the industrial region. The Report of the Commission, published in May, was essentially a summary of these already-available statistics, including details of population loss, mainly by migration, and local rates. For Merthyr Tydfil, the Commission stated the obvious, that ’Migration has been very heavy. Persistent efforts have been made to attract new industries. Excellent sites are available.’ It also gave a list of the new industries which had been suggested to replace the jobs for the three thousand steelworkers in Dowlais to whom Edward VIII had promised something would be done six months earlier. Evidently, nothing had yet been done apart from the repetition of vague proposals. Meanwhile, the rates in Merthyr continued to climb to 29s in 1936-7, the highest in the region, of which just over half was spent on public assistance. At the same time, industrial properties accounted for less than 5% of the rateable value.
The miners’ ’Fed’, the SWMF, had put forward a long list of specific proposals, including the establishment of oil-from-coal plants, afforestation, and the raising of the school-leaving age to sixteen, with maintenance grants payable. A wide range of evidence was also received from the local Labour Groups, ’showing how the social services were at least blunting the edge of the depression, and how essential it was that much greater financial aid should be given by the Exchequer.’ Without the efforts of the Labour-controlled local authorities, they concluded, ’the results of unemployment and poverty would have been even more disastrous’. They also concluded that this was not enough, that prosperity could be brought back to the region, but only by ’thoroughgoing State action’. Above all, they highlighted the mantra of contemporary economists, that ’South Wales must be considered as an economic unit and its future must be planned.’ This planning needed to be coordinated by ’a vigorous and authoritative Minister of Cabinet rank’ with responsibility for all the Special Areas and their planning, with the commissioners for each of the areas becoming ’his chief executive agents’. Substantial funds needed to be put at his disposal and discretion by Parliament, free from detailed control by the Treasury. No more red tape and ’restrictions’ which had ’throttled’ Sir Malcolm Stewart, causing him to resign six months earlier, on the eve of Edward VIII’s visit to the region.
The Report went on to propose that for proper economic planning of South Wales, the Special Area should be extended to include the whole of industrial South Wales from the River Towy in the West to the River Usk in the East, including Cardiff, Swansea and Newport. It argued that a road bridge over the Severn was vital, and that the central Government should take direct responsibility for this. Bypasses should be built around the coastal towns and a first-class route should be provided to link the heads-of-the-valleys’ towns from Garnant and Brynamman through Merthyr Tydfil to Abergavenny and the Severn Bridge road. They recommended that a number of oil-from-coal plants should be established and owned by the State, since there was no shortage of suitable coal in the region. For older miners, they proposed the immediate introduction of a pension scheme. For those of a younger working age, the Minister for the Special Areas should have the power to require all new industries to establish themselves in the Areas, unless it could be proved to his satisfaction that there was an overwhelming case for their locating elsewhere. To that date, not a single new factory or extension was recorded as being established in the South Wales area.
Whether or not there was a fear of war, South Wales should be used for defence purposes, including the storage of oil, food and other supplies, as well as for the manufacture of defence requirements. Trading estates should be established, distributed throughout South Wales, one of which should be for electro-chemical industries requiring huge supplies of cheap electric power. Public Assistance rates needed to be reduced to the average for Britain as a whole, with a special Exchequer grant making up the difference, twelve shillings in the case of Merthyr. Local authorities should be given the powers and resources to clean up the debris of dead industry and to prepare them for use as building sites or open spaces. All children at school, and all juveniles receiving education or training should receive milk and a free meal per day, all year round. The report concluded that ’only the most drastic action by the State’ could save the people of South Wales ’from the suffering and misery and despair which for long years’ had ’engulfed them’. Most significantly, perhaps, for the first time, the Party came out against the Transference Policy:
The transfer of young persons to other parts of the country is very undesirable.
Neville Chamberlain did, eventually, introduce a new act of Parliament for the distressed areas, the Special Areas (Amendment Act), in 1937. For the first time he promised regional planning with some directed investment. His main motivation in doing so was not an acceptance of the Keynesian economics, so clearly articulated in the Labour Party’s ‘plan’, but the twin concerns over the need for Rearmament and the uncontrolled migration to the South-eastern area of England, visibly vulnerable to aerial attacks from the continent. Prior to the war in Spain, Chamberlain had believed that the only effective solution to the mass unemployment in the distressed areas was internal migration. Hence his support for Transference schemes as the main means of government policy and his rejection of locating new industries in the area, which would militate against migration. 1936 had been the most successful year of the Transference policy, especially because the government had come to understand the importance of family transference to the overall success of the scheme. Young men from areas where familial ties were strong were far more likely to settle more permanently in the new areas if their parents and other members of the family could join them. In fact, most of the successful migration schemes were those that had been organised, since the late twenties, along familial and institutional lines, free from government control.
In addition to political action, resistance to state intervention could be expressed in a refusal to participate in Government training and transfer schemes; it could also form part of a rejection of the ‘demoralisation’ involved in the lives of individuals and families by a host of bureaucrats and social service volunteers. Migration could be an effective expression of this spirit of resistance. It was far from being an acquiescent response to unemployment for many who decided to leave the valleys. As one of the older unemployed men from the Rhondda wrote in a written statement to the Pilgrim Trust later that year:
For an outsider, who views the situation from the angle of the people in the abyss, or the slum worker out of work, the idea he gets of the depressed areas or Special Areas may be totally wrong…I want to suggest that our people are fully conscious of the economic principles which have brought change to the valleys. The question is, to migrate or remain. I have chosen to remain….
Migration was not simply a knee-jerk reaction to economic conditions; it was a conscious response for the hundreds of thousands who undertook it. The Ministry of Labour’s ‘General Review of the Industrial Transference Scheme’, circulated in 1938, found that 72% of the men known to have migrated in 1936 and 1937, had done so ‘on their own account’ without any reference to the official scheme. The overwhelming majority of workers who left South Wales either knew nothing of it, or they chose to ignore its provisions. It was frequently linked to training, which took place in work camps and centres. Resistance to these can be gauged from the fact that, of 3,000 men interviewed by the Unemployment Assistance Board in Merthyr in 1937, 2,300 refused to even consider it. The lack of flexibility in the location and organisation of the centres, the menial type of training offered and the scheme’s failure to guarantee employment that these forms of provision did not match the needs of coalfield communities already naturally resistant to government intervention. Moreover, of the 90,000 men officially transferred by the Ministry of Labour between 1930 and the middle of 1937, 49,000 returned home. The successful resettlement rate among juveniles was little better; it was estimated that between October 1934 and September 1937, approximately 40% of boys and 50% of girls transferred by the Ministry returned home to stay. It classified ‘homesickness’ as the main cause of this, but this was often intensified by the conditions under which the young people were made to live and work, and could be mitigated by careful placement and thoughtful after-care. Such planning was largely absent from the Scheme at its inception, and the reports given by returnees to the coalfield of the conditions they had been forced to endure undoubtedly fuelled resistance among other potential transferees and, more particularly, their parents, who were more and more likely to feel that ‘it was better for their children to be half-starved in Wales than hopelessly corrupted in London’.
Naturally, most of the Industrial Transference Board’s reports stressed the successes of the Scheme, and where cases of re-migration were reported these were written off as hopeless cases of homesickness, defying all the counter measures taken by local officials and employers. However, many of the placements were in domestic service, particularly in the London area. Wages were insufficient for the teenage boys to support themselves, the work was often arduous, the hours long and there was little time off for visits home. As a consequence, they simply ‘ran off’, giving the local officials no opportunity to relocate them. The solution was found by placing the boys in industrial employment. In 1937, the officers of the Birmingham Juvenile Employment Bureau visited Merthyr to interview juveniles and explain to their parents the opportunities available. This resulted in the successful transfer of sixteen boys and seven girls. They were accommodated together at a hostel until suitable lodgings could be found close to their place of work. The managing director of one of the Birmingham firms of electrical engineers then employed a whole family from Merthyr, and they were given a bungalow from which the woman looked after a number of the firm’s transferred juveniles. Employers in Coventry also established a hostel in 1937, guaranteeing the employment of the Welsh juveniles for a year. However, most of the migration that took place, certainly among adults, was autonomous in organisation. As Captain Crawshay remarked in his survey for the Special Areas Commissioner’s 1937 Report, ‘Dai in the Midlands finds a job for Ianto at home’. Professor Marquand also noted that younger men were ‘subject to waves of feeling’ connected to the receipt of letters from friends who had already left Wales’, from which he concluded, in his 1937 Report for the South Wales Industrial Development Council, that a programme of training and transfer would only be successful if it were operated through a policy of group transfer. Social solidarity was the only means of real protection against an alien atmosphere characterised by precariousness and prejudice often encountered in the new industry areas.
The Hindenburg Blows Up
Following her triumphant first crossing of the Atlantic of the season, Germany’s huge airship Hindenburg, the biggest ever built, nosed down to the aerodrome at Lakehurst, New Jersey, on the evening of 6th May. A severe thunderstorm had just ended. As the landing lines were dropped, the ground crew began pulling the ship towards the mooring mast, when flames suddenly leapt from her tail. In a matter of a few seconds, the whole airship, filled with 6,700,000 cubic feet of inflammable hydrogen, was on fire; she began to buckle in the middle and fell to the ground. Passengers and crew jumped for their lives as flames and explosions destroyed her. Within five minutes, the fire had burnt out, leaving thirty-five dead among the wreckage. The dramatic pictures of the explosion, exclusive to The Daily Express, were flown across the Atlantic by two American pilots, who then returned to the United States a week later with exclusive pictures of the Coronation.
The Twelfth of May: Coronation and Kind Hearts
At midnight on 30th April, London’s quarter of a million busmen came out on strike, after negotiations for a seven and a half hour day had broken down. London had to walk to see the coronation, but they were rewarded for their efforts by fine weather. The Coronation of King George VI in Westminster Abbey, the crowning place of thirty-seven monarchs since William I, of Normandy, required twenty-five thousand police and eight thousand special constables to handle upwards of ten million people who had thronged to London to see the world’s greatest free show. It was estimated that the show cost forty million pounds, and its preparation had lasted six months, since planning had first begun for the coronation of Edward VIII. At 10.30 a.m. the royal coach left Buckingham Palace with King George and Queen Elizabeth inside. In Westminster Abbey, the assembled Lords and Ladies, who had been in their 19-inch-wide seats before nine o’ clock, tried to conceal, as best as they could, the sandwiches and drinks they had brought with them, many using their coronets as picnic boxes. Outside the Abbey, forty thousand soldiers lined the route, with the crowds packed in behind them. They cheered at the six-mile-long procession, with its royalties in glass carriages, distinguished men and women from every country in the world. Soldiers, sailors, airmen, bands and prancing horses preceded the golden coach.
The crowning moment belonged to seventy-four year-old Cosmo Lang, no doubt relieved that he no longer had to crown an adulterer. Immediately after, the hundreds of peers and peeresses put on their coronets and cried ‘God Save the King’ with everyone else in the Abbey. Guns at the Tower Of London and all over Britain were fired to mark the moment. At four o’ clock, the King and Queen were back at the Palace, appearing on the balcony with Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret Rose. For this appearance, the King wore the State Crown, not the heavy St. Edward’s Crown placed on his head earlier at the Abbey.
The Coronation also demonstrated how much George VI felt he owed to his speech therapist, Lionel Logue. He and his wife were given pride of place in the Royal box, much to the displeasure not just of the Archbishop of Canterbury, but also to many others in the Establishment. It was clearly of great importance to King George’s confidence that Logue should be physically close at hand during the ceremony. That night he broadcast to the Empire, the first time ever that a newly crowned monarch had talked to his people directly, and live, in their own homes. Logue’s coaching helped him to overcome his stammer, so that it was this speech of thanks to his people, which was the first of many successful encounters with the ever-present microphone he had previously dreaded. Edward had had two decades as Prince of Wales to prepare for the duties of King. His brother, as Duke of York, had not had to undertake many official engagements, but now found himself thrust into the limelight, and within five months had gone from being a diffident and unwilling inheritor of the Crown, sobbing for an hour on his mother’s shoulder, to overcoming all doubts and prejudices as to whether he could cope with the excessive pressures of kingship.
Many among those in the Abbey commented on the regal manner in which he carried himself throughout the event commended the King. During the ceremony, Churchill is said to have turned to his wife, Clementine, and said, ‘you were right! The other one would never have done!’ Although he had been a close friend and supporter of Edward VIII to the point where he, and many others, felt that he had blown his chances of a return to government, Churchill now accepted that the crown would now be safer on the head of King George VI. His love of formal ceremony, like that of his father, was clearly evident, just as his brother’s hatred of it had also been evident in the summer and autumn of the previous year, when he had used the very un-British excuse of ‘rain stopped play’ to cancel major events. George VI only had to speak six words in response to the Archbishop’s questions; ’all this I promise to do’, which he managed by pausing in the right place rather than stammering. His wife and children, beautifully dressed, added to the occasion, and all those watching in the Abbey, outside, or on the newsreels later, fell even more deeply in love with the new royal family. The effect of the event was to unify both Right and Left behind the monarchy, especially because the pomp of pageantry, containing all the symbolism of the monarchy as the defender of the freedom of the people of Britain, seemed far more benign than the Blackshirts goose-stepping in the carefully choreographed fascist rallies of Nuremberg and elsewhere on the continent. Kingsley Amis wrote of how the coronation had ’upstaged’ Goebbels and Hitler. The summer Olympics of 1936, held in the German capital, may have been a triumph for Nazi Germany, but in 1937 it was Britain which was revealing its best bright clothes to the world, and London was putting on its own kind of show, which only it could do. May was a bad month for Germany in the propaganda stakes, beginning as it had done with the Hindenburg disaster.
Exits and Entrances
At the end of May, Neville Chamberlain finally replaced Stanley Baldwin, the worn-out ‘dear vicar’, as Prime Minister. Baldwin had been planning for many months to retire from political life, but the events that precipitated the Abdication and those which followed it, had kept him in office. As soon as George VI had been crowned, Baldwin decided to hand over the Premiership to his Chancellor, and on May 28th the Chamberlains moved next door in Downing Street. The former PM went to the House of Lords as Earl Baldwin of Bewdley. As René Cutforth observed, ‘his chief influence had been anaesthetic’. Stability and the status quo had been obsessions that he shared with the great majority of voters in the first half of the decade at least and, unless forced to do otherwise, ‘he had preferred to drowse’. He had a genuinely poetic passion for the idea of ‘middle England’, but had done precious little for working-class regions of Britain as a whole. Like many in his generation, Baldwin had continued to ‘bleed inwardly for the sufferings’ of the Great War, and had promised both himself and his country that those evils would never be repeated. ‘Its memory sickens us’ he said, and Britain needed to be protected from the twin evils of extremism, fascism and communism.
Baldwin had been the epitome of sleepy village England virtues that no longer fitted with the modern age. However, just as Baldwin had not been fond of first class minds, Chamberlain’s cabinet, when announced, excluded most of the able men who might be suspected of supporting Churchill, like Duff Cooper, Harold Macmillan and Julian Amery. The old gang was given the top jobs, including Sir John Simon, Sir Samuel Hoare and Lord Halifax. When Sir Thomas Inskip was announced as Minister of Defence, the House of Commons sat there laughing for several minutes. Halifax, an aristocratic Anglo-Catholic, was intensely loyal to his native Yorkshire. He was also shrewd, having spent a lifetime in public office, and was proud of his ability to see behind the public rhetoric of Churchill. As Viceroy of India, he had done what was necessary to keep the imperial connection. Neville Chamberlain, however, represented the economic imperialism his father had campaigned for, even though his parental home, Highbury, was a way from both the screw manufacturing industry and municipal radicalism that had first brought the late Victorian dynasty to pre-eminence. His more patrician stepbrother, Austen, had seemed more destined to lead the Conservatives, especially as foreign and imperial affairs had been his speciality. Apart from being another Midlands industrialist, Neville Chamberlain had little in common with Baldwin. He was an upright provincial businessman with an old-fashioned moustache who had once been Lord Mayor of Birmingham. To some, both these were signs of his lack of imagination and vision. A political observer at the time he became Prime Minister wrote of him:
This seeming lack of breadth of mind and culture…arouses some misgivings about Mr Chamberlain. Clarity of mind – and he has it in an unusual degree – is not enough if the mind, so to say, sees the field as part of the landscape, and that kind of limited vision is not necessarily compensated by courage such as Mr Chamberlain has. The two together should be a positive danger.
Neville Chamberlain had remained true to his Birmingham roots, committed to the improvement of local government, especially education, and possessing a strong instinct for what the professional middle classes wished to see in a Conservative Prime Minister. Above all, they valued the preservation of peace. Churchill, sensing that Chamberlain was a far more principled appeaser than Baldwin, felt renewed in his opposition to the policy. Simon Schama has written of how Chamberlain and Lord Halifax represented a more pro-active Britishness that Churchill understood, while Churchill understood ‘this England, this Britain of… the village institute, the small town chapel, the brass band’. However, he continued to insist that this England, this Britain, would never survive by simply hoping that the new powers on the continent could be persuaded to leave it alone. That would be to depart, as Duff Cooper remarked, from two and a half centuries of British opposition to one-power dominance of the continent.
On November 9th, 71-year-old Ramsay MacDonald, died from a heart attack in mid-Atlantic while on his way for a vacation in South America. In his long career he had been a radical ILP MP, a founding member of the Labour Party, a pacifist during the Great War, Britain’s first Labour Prime Minister, and Prime Minister of the National Government six years earlier. George V had told him that he was his the PM he had liked most during his reign. A suggestion of a burial in Westminster Abbey was made, but he was buried in Lossiemouth in Scotland, where he had been born.
Amelia Earhart, America’s ‘Miss Lindy’ had become the first woman to fly across the Atlantic when she landed in South Wales on June 18th, 1928, after a 1,900-mile non-stop flight from Newfoundland in the triple-engine seaplane, Friendship. Four years later, she had appeared with Lord Astor at the Epsom Derby, after flying the Atlantic for a second time, but the first time this had ever been done solo by a woman, landing this time in a field near Londonderry, in Northern Ireland. She had hoped to reach France. On 1st June 1937, she set out in a Lockheed Electra plane, a “flying laboratory,” to make a round-the-world flight. She reached South America, Africa, India and Batavia, but after beginning the last stages to tiny Howland Island, a mid-Pacific airbase, neither she nor her aircraft were ever seen again. After intensive searches, she was presumed dead. A week later, another American female icon of the early twentieth century, film star Jean Harlow, best known for her platinum blonde bleached hair which had started a vogue among hundreds of thousands of girls, died from uremia at her home in Beverley Hills, Hollywood, on June 7th.
The Windsors’ Saga Continued
The most famous American woman of 1936 had been Wallis Simpson. After the granting of her divorce had been made absolute in the first week of May, she was free to marry Edward, now Duke of Windsor. They wed on 4th June, at the Chateau de Condé near Tours in France. No member of the royal family was among the sixteen guests, but the sixty-year-old vicar of Darlington, Rev J A Jardine, against the wishes of the Archbishop of Canterbury, was there. Writing privately to the Duke a week before, he had been invited to officiate at the ceremony. After the wedding, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, who received more than three thousand congratulatory telegrams and thirty thousand letters, left for a honeymoon in Austria, staying at the Schloss Wasserleonburg, near the Wörther See, throughout the summer. In July, Harold Nicholson performed one last service for Wallis. On her hurried flight to Cannes, during the Abdication Crisis, she had inadvertently left some notes at the Evreux hotel she had stayed in. These notes apparently ‘reflected greatly to her credit’ and upon hearing about them, Harold offered to retrieve them. Having succeeded in doing so, he then gave thanks in the city’s Cathedral for the completion of his mission. He needn’t have bothered, for some years later he discovered that the notes he had so painstakingly recovered had been carelessly lost once more by the Windsors.
The following October, they had a controversial rendezvous with Adolf Hitler at his mountain villa in Berchtesgarden, near the Austrian frontier. While the Duchess chatted with Nazi leaders, the Duke had a twenty-minute private audience with Germany’s dictator. Criticism followed this decision to make Germany the first country to visit on a tour of Europe planned by the Duke to investigate social conditions. Early in November, in his first public speech since his abdication address, he told journalists in Paris that he was mystified by the attribution of ulterior motives to his action. “Though one may be in the lion’s den,” he commented, “it is possible to eat with the lions if one is on good terms with them.”
However, Harold Nicholson was among those who thought the Windsor’s visit was ill advised, and its political connotations were clear, even if weakly discounted by the Duke himself. It left Nicholson, for one, considerably on edge. He himself had refused to travel through Germany ‘because of Nazi rule’, telling ‘Chips’ Channon that whereas ‘we stand for tolerance, truth, liberty and good humour…they stand for violence, oppression, untruthfulness and bitterness’, distinguishing traits that had obviously escaped the notice of the Windsors. It must have confirmed for Harold what many suspected: that the couple had fallen heavily for the ‘champagne-like influence of Ribbentrop. Rumour had it that the man nicknamed ‘Ambassador Brickendrop’ had ‘used’ the Duchess. Even Channon admitted that King George VI himself was ‘going the dictator way, and is pro-German, against Russia and against too much slip-shod democracy’. It has often been argued, somewhat with the benefit of the hindsight of what happened in the following three years, that Edward differed in many aspects from the government’s foreign policy, and foolishly allowed his tongue to run away with him in an unconstitutional manner. In Germany, these utterances created an impression of warm sympathy and an exaggerated idea of his power and influence. There is no evidence to suggest, however, that the former King’s views, however ‘pro-German’, influenced either the new King’s views, or government policy. After some deliberation, Nicholson concluded that Edward believed more than he should have in Herr Hitler’s integrity as well as in his own ability to continue to influence the course of events. In this, of course, he was not alone, as the events of 1938 were to reveal, though he was no longer, in any sense, in charge of those events. The man now in charge of Britain’s appeasement policy was Neville Chamberlain.
Living with the Dictators
Anthony Eden remained at the Foreign Office throughout 1937, but looked, at forty, increasingly out-of-place among the dull, grey knights of Chamberlain’s 1937 Cabinet. Worse still for him, whereas Baldwin had preferred to leave his Ministers to their own devices, Chamberlain was an interfering PM: he liked, he said, to give each member of his government a policy to pursue, and it was in foreign affairs that he chiefly meddled, because although he had little experience in that field himself, his policy of ‘Appeasement’ was not the same as Eden’s. It was believed by almost every liberal mind in Britain, including that of Churchill, that the Versailles Treaty had been unfair to Germany and needed to be revised, so that some form of ‘give and take’ policy might be needed in the highly charged atmosphere on the continent.
As winter approached, Harold Nicholson was invited to participate in a kind of ‘brains trust’ on foreign affairs at All Souls College, Oxford. Its purpose was to set out guidelines which would neutralise the menace of the totalitarian states. It included A L Rowse, the historian and fierce critic of government policy, Arnold Toynbee, a loyal defender of it, Harold Macmillan, Basil Liddell Hart, and H A L Fisher. With the Austrian and Sudeten Conflicts beginning to foment, the group suggested a ‘package deal’ to Germany, including allowing the Anschluss, getting the Czech government to allow cantonal status to the Sudetenland, and recognising Germany’s economic rights in eastern Europe. In return, Germany would be asked for assurances about the territorial integrity and autonomy of its eastern neighbours, to agree to limit its arms to giving it preponderance but not supremacy in central-eastern Europe, and that it would not support Italian ambitions in Africa and the Mediterranean. Nicholson put on record his outright opposition to this ‘deal’, and his belief in Germany’s ‘aggressive ambitions’ which he believed were based on the Nazi propaganda of the ‘heroic motive’ that inspired German youth and conditioned them to sacrifice themselves in the pursuit of world domination. The group, divided into ‘traditionalists’ and advocates of ‘a new policy of trying to conciliate the strong’, between ‘moralists’ and ‘realists’, failed to reach a consensus, eventually breaking up in May 1938.
In November 1937, Chamberlain had dispatched Lord Halifax to Berlin. Halifax was very interested ‘getting together with Hitler and squaring him’, and also met Goebbels and Goering (picture left) but wasn’t able to ‘square’ the Führer on this occasion. ‘We have a different set of values,’ he confided to his diary, ‘and were speaking a different language’. However, Halifax reported to the Cabinet that, in his view, the Germans had no policy of immediate adventure. Their country was still in a state of revolution. Nevertheless, they would press their claim in s in Central-Eastern Europe, though not in a form to give the Western powers cause to interfere. The PM took the view that an atmosphere had been created in which ‘practical questions’ involved in a European settlement could be discussed. Even though Halifax did not pretend to himself that he was using the same language as Hitler, he did want to go on talking in the hope that, sooner or later, some breakthrough of understanding may occur. The ‘state of revolution’ would eventually cease, and then the appeasers would have their role to play in the adjustments of world power that seemed to be taking place. Change could not simply be resisted, but it could be made as harmless British Imperial interests as possible. This condescending attitude transferred itself to the physical sphere of Halifax’s diplomacy, as he was a very tall man, six feet five inches. By contrast, he referred to both Hitler and Goebbels in his diary as ‘little men’. Hitler was the nasty one, Goebbels the more likeable one.
Whereas Eden was contemptuous of Italy, and was pursuing a strong line on non-intervention in Spain, insisting that both the Germans and Italians should take their promises more seriously, Chamberlain set about conciliating Mussolini, accepting his conquest of Abyssinia. He decided to go ahead with an Anglo-Italian agreement, without terms, to ease the bad feeling between the two countries that had existed since Il Duce’s invasion in 1935. Eden, firmly committed to the League of Nations policy, insisted that Mussolini should first agree to withdraw Italian troops fighting under Franco’s command. Finally, in a conversation between Grandi, the Italian Ambassador, Eden and Chamberlain, the PM actually argued Grandi’s case for him against Eden. The Foreign Secretary was eventually to resign over this issue in February 1938, to be replaced by Halifax, who had no qualms about letting Chamberlain run the Foreign Office. His view had not changed since the time of his Berlin visit, and was remarkably similar to that expressed by the Duke of Windsor; ‘you have got to live with the devils whether you like them or not’, Halifax wrote, reflecting on Eden’s ‘natural revulsion’ for dictators.
Incidents and Intervals
In many ways, 1937 represented a brief interval in the British inter-war drama before the curtain rose on the last act of the thirties. There were now two ‘open’ wars in progress, as well violent persecutions and civil strife across the continent. One a civil war in Spain, which it seemed Franco was going to win, and one in the Far East, which had partly emerged out of a decade-long civil war between nationalists and communists in China. Taking advantage, expansionist Japan had marched into Peking in July, following its annexation of Manchuria in 1931. A shooting incident near this frontier had led to the invasion, but China’s resistance under Chiang-Kai-Shek, its nationalist dictator, was greater than the Japanese had bargained for. He had built up a well-disciplined, well-equipped army, aided by his American-educated wife, Mei-Ling, who had taken over the organisation of propaganda, censored the news and negotiated foreign loans, using her connections as a member of China’s influential Soong family. At Shanghai on 28th August, sixteen Japanese planes had bombed the area around the South Station, killing two hundred civilians. An estimated 136 million people all over the world, in newspapers and newsreels, saw the picture (above right) of an abandoned baby crying amid the ruins. It was an abiding image and a warning of what might be to come in Europe as strong as those from the bombing of Guernica, four months earlier.
In December, on Sunday 12th, there was an international incident. This time the Japanese planes swooped down to bomb the US gunboat Panay, which was steaming along the Yangtze River, carrying Chinese refugees from Nanking, China’s capital at that time. The Panay seamen fired back with antiquated Lewis guns, but the planes kept in line with the sun, blinding the gunners. In two hours, the Panay sank and fifty-four survivors, who had got to the riverbank under heavy machine-gun fire from the planes, lay hidden, many badly wounded, in the rushes until the Japanese flew away. Hiroshi Saito, Japan’s ambassador to the United States offered immediate apologies when he heard the news, claiming that the bombing was ‘completely accidental’ and calling it ‘a terrible blunder’. Soon after, Tokyo made offers of full compensation and promised to punish offenders. Apologies were accepted by the ‘pacific’ Americans.
Britain, although having important commercial interests in China, was not strong enough to take on Japan alone. The French were busy building an impregnable fortified strip stretching all the way across northern France to the Belgian border, with hundreds of miles of underground workings. It never occurred to anyone that this might not turn out to be the fortification to provide the West’s main guarantor on land. Since Chamberlain’s accession, the speed of rearmament in Britain had quickened, but by no means feverishly, and the Army was being brought up to date, to make it less class-ridden, with commissions being given to intelligent NCOs (Non-Commissioned Officers). Despite the need for speedy rearmament, however, there were still 1,600,000 unemployed, and the efforts of Leslie Hore-Belisha, the new thoroughly modern War Minister, were resisted by the Generals with references to his Jewishness.
There had been a large influx of Jewish refugees from Europe, so large as to be noticeable on the streets of London, the continental cut of their clothes making them conspicuous even in crowds. The Nazis were already at war with their Jews, and particularly the intellectuals among them, so the number of these among the refugees was disproportionately large. The universities benefited from this, especially in the sciences, though the newcomers to Britain had little to do with the most shattering of all the scientific discoveries of the century: the atom had already been split at Cambridge and a handful of physicists already new that it might be possible to make an atomic bomb. The application of this knowledge in the US in the 1940s was, however, very largely the work of exiles from central and eastern Europe, fleeing Nazi tyranny. But that’s a different, well-documented story. In Britain in the late thirties the ordinary refugees were unpopular, but, after Cable Street, not to the point of open violence. The attitude of plebeian Londoners at the time seemed much the same as those of the patricians, like Duff Cooper, who once announced ‘although I loathe anti-Semitism, I do dislike Jews’. A well-known bus-conductor expressed his feelings by providing a free translation for his Jewish passengers, bawling out ‘Swiss Cottage – Kleine Schweizer-Haus’.
‘So ends a historic year’, Harold Nicholson observed in the last pages of his diary for 1937. His garden home of Sissinghurst on the Weald of Kent was ‘developing splendidly,’ and his life was ‘as gay as an Alpine meadow patinated with the stars of varied flowers’. For him, as for many in Britain, it had been a happier, more useful year. The only snag was that it was ending ‘clouded by the menace on the Continent.’ Taken together, the two years of 1936-7 contained a remarkable series of events in every aspect of British life – royal, political, economic, social, and cultural – which changed the course of the twentieth century experience of every creed and class in the country and forged a new age of modern Britain.
A Literary Interlude: The Remains of the Day
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro was published in 1989, and became an international bestseller in English. It was adapted into an award-winning film starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, by Merchant Ivory Productions. Both book and film became celebrated evocations of life between the wars in a Great English House.
In the strory, the fictional ’Darlington House’ becomes a venue for the aristocratic games of diplomacy which typified the deluded times of the setting, spawning a film and television genre from Gosford Park to Downton Abbey. A ’Conference’ on Germany is held in 1923 at the time of the Reparations Crisis and Locarno Treaty, and in 1936, an ’unofficial’ meeting takes place between Lord Halifax, shortly to become Foreign Secretary upon the resignation of Anthony Eden, and the German Ambassador to London, Herr Ribbentrop, the first of a series. Halifax arrives first, exclaiming somewhat nervously to his host, ’Really, Darlington, I don’t know what you’ve put me up to here. I know I shall be sorry.’ As Lord Darlington takes him on a tour of the House to relax his nerves, Halifax continues to express his doubts about the evening ahead. At one point, however, the butler, Stevens, hears the distinguished guest comment on the quality of the silver he is shown, which puts him into ’a quite different frame of mind altogether’. The butler looks back on this some twenty years later with a sense of pride that ’the state of the silver had made a small, but significant contribution to the easing of relations between Lord Halifax and Herr Ribbentrop that evening’. The butler goes on to defend his employer’s rlationship with the German Ambassador:
It is, of course, generally accepted today that Herr Ribbentrop was a trickster: that it was Hitler’s plan throughout those years to deceive England for as long as possible concerning his true intentions, and that Herr Ribbentrop’s sole mission in our country was to orchestrate this deception… It is, however, rather irksome to have to hear people talking today as though they were never taken in by Herr Ribbentrop – as though Lord Darlington was alone in believing Herr Ribbentrop to be an honourable gentleman and developing a working relationship with him. The truth is that Herr Ribbentrop was, throughout the thirties, a well-regarded figure, even a glamourous one, in the very best houses. Particularly around 1936 and 1937, I can recall the talk in the servants’ hall from visiting staff revolving around “the German Ambassador”, and it is clear from what is said that many of the most distinguished ladies and gentlemen in the country were quite enamoured of him.
The fictional Lord Darlington, Stevens tells us, received hospitality from the Nazis on several trips made to Germany during those years, which was nothing unusual. The guest lists for the banquets held by the Nazis at the time of the Nuremberg Rally would make interesting reading if published in The Times, he suggests. The great majority of these ladies and gentlemen were returning to England with ’nothing but praise and admiration for their hosts’. He goes on to describe as ’salacious nonsense’ any suggestion that his master was anti-Semitic, or that he was closely associated with Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, despite the ’blackshirt’ leader visiting the Hall on three occasions ’in the early days of that organisation before it had betrayed its true nature’. Lord Darlington quickly disassociated himself from Mosley’s movement when its ugliness became apparent. As the butler saw it, the BUF was ’a complete irrelevance to the heart of political life in this country’. On the other hand, his employer, as he also saw it in his grand delusion was ’the sort of gentleman who cared to occupy himself only with what was at the true centre of things, and the figures he gathered together in his efforts over those years were as far away from such unpleasant fringe groups as one could imagine.’ These were figures with ’a real influence on British life’, including politicians, diplomats, military men and clergy. They included Jews, he points out, at pains to bury an earlier incident in which he was instructed by Lord Darlington to discharge two Jewish chambermaids, despite the objections of the housekeeper. Towards the end of the book, Stevens describes, in flashback, one of these evening gatherings at Darlington Hall:
At almost precisely eight thirty, there came the sound of motor cars pulling up on the courtyard. I opened the door to a chauffeur, and past his shoulder I could see some police constables dispersing to various points of the grounds. The next moment, I was showing in two very distinguished gentlemen, who were met by his lordship in the hall and ushered quickly into the drawing room. Ten minutes or so later came the sound of another car and I opened the door to Herr Ribbontrop, the German Ambassador, by now no stranger to Darlington Hall. His lordship emerged to meet him and the two gentlemen appeared to exchange complicit glances before disappearing together into the drawing room. When a few minutes I was called to provide refreshments, the four gentlemen were discussing the relative merits of different sorts of sausage, and the atmosphere seemed on the surface at least quite convivial.
Meanwhile, Lord Darlington’s godson, Reggie Cardinal, an international affairs columnist has arrived, and begins a conversation with Stevens in the library. He has received a tip-off about the events going on in the drawing room and claims to be concerned that his lordship is getting into deep waters, and is out of his depth:
Over in that room…there is the British Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the German Ambassador. His lordship has worked wonders to bring about this meeting, and he believes – faithfully believes – he’s doing something good and honourable.
He asks Stevens if he knows why the three gentlemen have been brought together. The butler does not, nor is he curious to know. It is not his place to do so. Reggie tells him that his lordship is being made a fool of, being manoeuvred like a pawn by the Nazis, through Herr Ribbentrop, just as easily as Hitler’s pawns back in Berlin. Fuelled by copious amounts of brandy, he continues:
His lordship is a gentleman. That’s what’s at the root of it. He’s a gentleman, and he fought a war with the Germans, and it’s his instinct to offer friendship to a defeated foe. It’s his instinct. Because he’s a gentleman, a true old English gentleman. And you must have seen it… the way they’ve used it, manipulated it, turned something fine and noble into something else – something they can use for their own foul ends?…Today’s world is too foul a place for fine and noble instincts…Over the last few years, his lordship has probably been the single most useful pawn Herr Hitler has had in this country for his propaganda tricks. All the better because he’s sincere and honourable and doesn’t recognise the true nature of what he’s doing. During the last three years alone, his lordship has been crucially instrumental in establishing links between Berlin and over sixty of the most influential citizens of this country. It’s worked beautifully for them. Herr Ribbentrop has been able virtually to bypass our Foreign Office altogether. And as if their wretched Rally and their Olympic Games weren’t enough,… his lordship has been trying to persuade the Prime Minister himself to accept an invitation to visit Herr Hitler. He really believes there’s a terrible misunderstanding on the Prime Minister’s part concerning the present German régime… At this very moment, unless I am very much mistaken, …his lordship is discussing the idea of His Majesty himself visiting Herr Hitler. It’s hardly a secret that our new King has always been an enthusiast for the Nazis. Well, apparently he’s now keen to accept Herr Hitler’s invitation. At this very moment, Stevens, his lordship is doing what he can to remove Foreign Office objections to this appalling idea.
Stevens replies that he trusts his lordship’s judgement, to which Cardinal responds that no one with good judgement could persist in believing anything Herr Hitler said after the Rhineland. Although this is a fictional account, it does represent the atmosphere of aristocratic delusion which accompanied the development of the appeasement policy in the years 1936-7.
Norman Rose (2005), Harold Nicholson. London: Pimlico
Andrew J Chandler (1989), ‘The Re-making of a Working Class’ . Cardiff (Phd Thesis)
Keith Robbins (1997), Appeasement. Oxford: Blackwell
Tony Curtis (ed.) (1986), Wales: The Imagined Nation. Bridgend: Poetry Wales Press
René Cutforth (1976), Later Than We Thought. Newton Abbott: David & Charles
Simon Schama (2002), A History of Britain, 3, 1776-2000: The Fate of Empire. London: BBC Worldwide
The Labour Party (1937), South Wales: Report of the Labour Party’s Commission of Enquiry into the Distressed Areas.
THE LAND OF MIGHT-HAVE-BEEN: BRITAIN 1936-37
Somewhere there’s another land,
Different from this world we know;
Far more mercifully planned,
Than the cruel place we know:
Innocence and Peace are there,
All is good that is desired;
Faces there are always fair,
Love grows never old nor tired.
We shall never find that lovely land of Might-have-been;
I can never be your king, nor you can be my Queen;
Days may pass, and years may pass,
And seas may lie between;
We shall never find that lovely land of Might-have-been.
Sometimes on the rarest nights,
Comes the vision calm and clear,
Gleaming with unearthly lights,
On our path of doubt and fear:
Winds from that far land are blown,
Whispering with secret breath,
Hope that plays her tune alone,
Love that conquers pain and death.
Shall we ever find that lovely land of Might-have-been?
Will I ever be your king, or you at last my Queen?
Days may pass, and years may pass,
And seas may lie between;
Shall we ever find that lovely land of Might-have-been?
Ivor Novello, 1924
These lyrics represent Novello’s Ruritarian dream, a dream long-since discarded, like its romantic Welsh author, in modern, rational, liberal Britain, but one which was shared by many in his glamorous inter-war world and, of course, one which was twice turned into a nightmare by autocratic emperors and leaders in Europe. When Novello’s most successful west-end musical, Glamorous Nights, hit the stage in 1936, it seemed to many that the dream, not the nightmare, was about to be turned into reality. Britain was no longer a land of Might-have-been, but a land of what might be. The problem was that, while it was a dream they may have been prepared to share, this was not yet a land, like Roosevelt’s USA, which was more mercifully planned. While Novello’s social set, wonderfully depicted in Robert Altman’s recent film Gosford Park, with Jeremy Northam playing the singer-song-writer so brilliantly by performing his songs live to camera, these were the years, 1936-37, in which the dream and the nightmare were at their most polarised in the experience of the British people. That is what makes them so fascinating to study, containing as they do a series of dramatic scenes, events which, as a recent book has shown, changed all our lives for ever. In a very real sense, these events marked the beginning of the modern Elizabethan era which we are now celebrating, 75 years on. They also represent for most in Britain, a brief respite and recovery from the Depression of 1929-33 before the descent into despair of 1938-40.As the jack-boots were goose-stepping into the Rhineland, the British were determined to have their fun and to live their dream. They ended the decade by sleep-walking into disaster on the continental stage.
CHAPTER ONE: THE ROAD TO THE BERLIN OLYMPIAD; JANUARY – AUGUST, 1936
Chronology: January – June 1936
18 Rudyard Kipling died
20 King George V died; succeeded by Edward VIII
22 Accession proclaimed
28 Funeral of George V
16 Victory for the Popular Front in the Spanish Elections
7 Germany reoccupied the Rhineland
1 Haile Selassie left Abyssinia
By the turn of the year, the worst of the Depression was over, and for those in work, life ahead seemed full of promise. As depicted in Noel Coward’s classic film about inter-war London working-class life between the wars This Happy Breed, families were able to move out of the slums of the East End to modern houses in new suburbs like Bexleyheath. Men found work as semi-skilled engineers in the new electronics and communications industries. Four years of growth under the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Neville Chamberlain, had fuelled a housing boom, which in turn had led to an explosion of sales of the latest domestic equipment and consumer gadgets. Two-thirds of Britain’s homes were now powered by electricity. Credit, in the form of hire purchase, helped ordinary people to acquire fridges, cookers, vacuum cleaners and radios, while car ownership was no longer the preserve of the aristocracy, but also available to the richer business and professional classes.
For those in the upper classes that Ivor Novello and Noel Coward epitomised in their art and music, life was indeed easy. Everyone had servants, though harder to find, and women did not need to go out to work after marrying, which gave them time for entertaining and charity work. However, this made the contrast with the poverty of the distressed areas, soon to be re-named special areas even starker. Then there was the gathering gloom of the threat of future mass conflict, harnessing the new technologies, so that New Year revellers of all classes felt that they should enjoy themselves now, since they might be dead in another couple of years. They were not far wrong, and it was not only Churchill who was aware of the threat.
At Sandringham that Christmas and New Year, the King’s family celebrated the festivities as best they could under a gloomy mood presaged by the monarch’s declining health. His eldest son and heir, Edward Prince of Wales, known to the family as David, noticed how ‘thin and bent’ his father had become. However, David was preoccupied with his adoration for Wallis Simpson, a slender, dark-haired 39-year-old American who was married to a London businessman. She had been married before, in 1916, to an American Naval Officer Lieut. Earl W Spencer, but had divorced him eleven years later and married Ernest Simpson in 1928. Soon after the Simpsons had moved to London, taking a flat in Bryanston Square.
George V had rescued the monarchy from its darkest days of unpopularity due to its German descent and name at the beginning of the Great War, to celebrating his silver jubilee in 1935 as the Emperor of nearly half a billion subjects. He was clearly loved by his peoples, but not by his sons, and he barely spoke with the Prince. He had prophesied to Baldwin, his Prime Minister, that ‘Edward would pull the whole throne and the Empire down about his ears before the year was out’ following his death. The Prince, for his part, wrote to Wallis that it was ‘terrible here…so much the worst Xmas I’ve ever had to spend with the family’. He left Sandringham as soon as he could to spend New Year’s Eve with Wallis, whose husband was, conveniently, away on business in Canada.
The Prince of Wales detested the moral codes of the Victorian/Edwardian generation, and the hypocrisy with which the upper classes sought to uphold them, while still having their fun. Everyone knew that the ‘High Society’ sisters, Diana and Unity Mitford, were having theirs with Oswald Mosley, the British Fascist leader, and Adolf Hitler, but to speak openly in public about these dangerous liaisons would have been considered a serious breach of etiquette at that time.
At a supper party at the Savoy Grill on 13th January, Harold Nicholson, the career diplomat who had first met the Prince in 1921, found HRH talkative and charming as before, but commented that he was not his ‘sort of pal’ since he was ‘in a mess’. Harold was so alarmed by his ‘really very right-wing’ views that he preferred to avoid all ‘social intimacy’ with him, an option he would find difficult to achieve over the coming months, due to his standing in London society and his presence at the most fashionable dinner-tables.
Neither did the King speak openly of his son’s passion for Wallis Simpson, though his anxiety about this, obsessed as he was by attention to public duty, was undoubtedly contributing to his depression and deteriorating physical condition, diagnosed as a narrowing of the arteries. His friend and exact contemporary, Rudyard Kipling, the bard of Empire, was also known to be close to death. Since the Great War, when Kipling had lost his son, for which he blamed himself, Kipling had become a reclusive reactionary at Bateman’s, his home in Sussex. His wife Carrie decided that he needed they needed to escape the English winter for the south of France. En route, in London, his stomach ulcer decided otherwise. It burst, and a week later he died in the Middlesex Hospital on the same day that the King’s illness was announced. ‘Chips’ Channon, the rich American-born socialite and Conservative MP wrote in his diary for that day: ‘The Year has, indeed, begun in gloom. The King ill – and Kipling dead.’ The passing of these two great establishment figures within two days of each other seemed to herald a new era.
On the 20th January, at 9.25 p.m., the following message was broadcast to the Empire: ‘The King’s life is drawing peacefully to its close’, and exactly two and a half hours later, just before midnight, the bulletin was posted at Sandringham announcing his death. Even this moment was carefully chosen to manipulate public reaction to the maximum effect, reflecting the birth of the modern mass media monarchy.
Stanley Baldwin, on the Sunday before the King’s death, had told ‘Tom’ Jones, his Welsh friend and former Cabinet Secretary, that he was ‘distinctively nervous’ about the Prince of Wales becoming King, not least because he had seen at first hand his drinking and womanizing on a tour of Canada nine years earlier. When the Prince had arrived that afternoon to brief the PM on his father’s condition, having first called at his lover’s flat, Baldwin was wearing a black armband out of respect for Kipling, who was his cousin. The Prince made no remark on this, so Baldwin had felt obliged to ask if he knew ‘that another great Englishman, a contemporary of your father’s, died yesterday.’ Excusing the Prince’s obvious ignorance of current affairs, and informing him of the Nobel Prize winner’s death, Baldwin remarked, ‘But, of course, sir, you have a great deal on your mind. I should not have expected you to know.’ After their meeting, Baldwin had told Tom Jones that he had never thought, as a boy in Worcestershire reading history books, that he would have to put the knowledge gained to practice in interfering ‘between a King and his mistress.’
Nevertheless, Baldwin felt hat his previous friendship with Edward gave him a unique role in resolving the impending crisis that everyone in the court and cabinet, not yet the country, was fearing. However, Baldwin was tiring of, and in, office, and was not up to the twin challenges of a constitutional crisis and a resurgent, aggressive Germany. As the year progressed, the Chancellor, Neville Chamberlain, probably the hardest-working minister of the last century, took on much of the PM’s paper-work. Any historian who has gone through the boxes from the Ministry of Health and Local Government from the earlier Baldwin Government of 1924-8 will be aware of Chamberlain’s ability to see the devil in the detail of policy-making. Through his detailed knowledge of the country he managed both to keep it out of war until 1939, and to get it prepared for the global conflict to come. This is a fact often overlooked in the continuing arguments about his management of the international crises which followed his succession of Baldwin. The differences in policy between the two PM’s reflected their management styles. Baldwin was passive in his management of affairs and ministers, Chamberlain was far more pro-active.
The Accession: Long live the King!
Following his father’s death, Edward immediately broke with royal tradition, by having the clocks at Sandringham reset. His father and grandfather had always kept them half an hour slow, in order to allow more daylight time for shooting. King Edward seemed determined to break with these traditions from the very beginning of his reign, a determination which set him against many in the British establishment, including the Archbishop of Canterbury. On the morning after his father’s death, Edward flew to Hendon in his own aeroplane to attend his Accession Council and make preparations for the lying-in-state and funeral. He arrived hatless at the aerodrome, yet another departure from his father’s ‘standards’. Popular poet John Betjeman saw this moment as marking ‘the final putting to sleep of the Victorian age’, evoking the mood of the people:
Old men who have never cheated, never doubted,
Communicated monthly, sit and stare
At the new suburb stretched beyond the run-way
Where a young man lands hatless from the air.
Whereas King George had represented a sense of continuity with Victorian and Edwardian Britain, King Edward seemed intent to represent change and modernity. To traditionalists like ‘Chips’ Channon, he seemed ‘casual and a little common’. However, while the upper classes in London and the Home Counties were fully aware of the King’s great affair, very few outside these social and political circles knew anything of it. To the general public, Edward was very popular, perhaps even the first global celebrity, admired both for his looks and style and his concern for the unemployed and ex-servicemen. At the Accession Council, more than a hundred privy councillors were assembled to swear an oath of allegiance to the new King. He made a brief speech in which he said:
When my father stood here twenty-six years ago he declared that one of the objects of his life would be to uphold constitutional government. In this I am determined to follow in my father’s footsteps.
He also promised ‘to work, as he did, …for the happiness and welfare of all classes of my subjects’. Both Neville and Austen Chamberlain, half-brothers and ministers, powerful members of a powerful political dynasty, watched the 41-year-old monarch carefully. Neville remarked,
His speech was not remarkable in any way, and I thought he looked as uncomfortable as ever, though Austen says he did not fidget as much as usual. I do hope he ‘pulls up his socks’ and behaves himself now he has such heavy responsibilities for unless he does he will soon pull down the throne.
The heralds proclaimed the accession to the throne of King Edward VIII. The Norroy King of Arms, Major A. H. Howard, read the Proclamation at the Temple Bar on 22nd January. The new king was caught on newsreel camera, sat with a shadowy Mrs Simpson and her friends, in a room overlooking the courtyard below. The monarch was not usually present at this ceremony, and this latest breach of tradition was viewed by some as a bad omen for his reign. What was worse was that the group could be seen laughing while the solemn event was taking place. However, the footage was censured and never shown in the cinemas. Writing to her friends about the event, Wallis Simpson made fun of it, enjoying the situation like ‘a huge game’. However, she was soon to realise just how serious Edward was about making her his wife.
Back in Sandringham the same day, Tuesday 22nd, thousands filed past the coffin of the old King, which was guarded by four foresters in Sandringham Church. The following day, Wednesday 23rd, it was taken on a gun-carriage to the station at Wolverton, where it was lifted onto the royal train for transit to King’s Cross. Behind the cortége walked Bertie, the Duke of York, who was to become George VI later that year, Edward, the Duke of Kent, the Duke of Gloucester and Lord Harewood. In London, another gun-carriage was used to take the coffin to the Abbey. The Royal Standard was draped over it and the Imperial Crown, brought from the Tower, was perched on top. During the slow but jolting march the Maltese cross, encrusted with diamonds and sapphires, fell from the top of the crown, rolling towards the gutter, where it was rescued and pocketed in one movement by a Grenadier Guard Major. Edward was heard to mutter, ‘Christ, what will happen next?!’ One MP remarked that ‘it was a fitting motto for the coming reign!’ As news of the disastrous incident spread, Harold Nicholson wrote in his diary that it was indeed seen as ‘a most terrible omen’.
Between 800,000 and one million people passed the bier during the following four days of lying-in-state at Westminster Hall, the queue sometimes stretching for more than three miles, six abreast, down the Embankment and over Vauxhall Bridge. Three-quarters of those paying their respects were working-class. So profound was the nation’s grief that the Bishop of Durham feared the growth of a ‘George-culture’ rather like the ‘Lenin-culture’ which had followed the Russian revolutionary icon’s death twelve years earlier, or, in our own lifetime, the ‘Diana-culture’ which followed the death of the Princess of Wales more than sixty years later. There were dangers, he felt, in an over-popular monarchy, at odds with unpopular politicians. Like Diana, Edward had charisma, sex-appeal, an outward charm enhanced by a sense of inner melancholy, and he looked far younger than he was.
On the Thursday, the funeral of Rudyard Kipling took place at Westminster Abbey. Kipling’s body had also had a lying-in-state, but the preferred private ceremony and cremation which Queen Mary had also wanted for George V, was of course what the poet was given. His ashes were then carried into the Abbey by eight pall-bearers, including Stanley Baldwin. The obituaries reflected a feeling that Kipling represented a world, if not yet an empire, which was lost. His reputation as a unifying national bard had suffered from his increasingly isolated conservatism in later life. Some, however, saw in him the enduring qualities and values which still make him the most popular British poet, and ‘If’ the nation’s most popular poem. Somewhat appropriately, if somewhat controversially at the time, he was placed between the graves of Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy. Months after the funeral, Baldwin’s son alleged that Kipling had suffered from an ‘inferiority complex’, so that he forced his son to enlist, and that Jack’s death at the Battle of Loos in 1915 had robbed the author of ‘The Jungle Book’ of his love for people in general and children in particular. Oliver Baldwin’s view of Kipling may have been affected by the way the author had once regarded him as a ‘surrogate son’ after Jack’s death, only to reject him completely when he discovered about his homosexuality, which he referred to as ’beastliness’.
Four days later, on January 28th the unprecedented crowds, a million-strong, which had begun to gather before midnight the previous night, watched in silence as the Royal Funeral cortége made its way from Westminster to Paddington. At Marble Arch the crowds were so deeply massed that the police found it difficult to keep the route clear. At Windsor, the procession to the final resting place in St George’s Chapel included five remaining kings of Europe, all descended from Queen Victoria, the President of the French Republic and representatives from every other country in the world. It was a truly global event, marking the passing of one age and the advent of another, with a global celebrity as a thoroughly modern monarch.
By the Spring of 1936 the future of the demilitarised Rhineland was under discussion at the Foreign Office, the suggestion being that it could be used as a means of ‘appeasing’ Hitler in the year of the Berlin Olympics. Harold Nicholson, now National Labour MP for Leicester East, who had been part of Lloyd George’s diplomatic delegation at the Paris Peace Conference, was vehemently opposed to this strategy, addressing the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Commons on Anglo-German relations. He predicted that ‘trouble would come’ by 1939 or ’40. To deter Germany, it would be necessary to rearm, ‘so as to speak with authority’. Then, Germany would either have to accept ‘encirclement’ or the League of Nation’s Covenant. ‘Chips’ Channon was moved by Nicholson’s ‘brilliant address’ to the extent that he ‘almost heard the tramp-tramp of the troops.’
However, Britain was far from being ready to challenge Germany ‘with authority’ and Hitler was, in any case, was ready to take back what he believed was about to be offered by diplomacy, by force. He moved into the Rhineland on 7th March, in a flagrant breach of both the Versailles and Locarno treaties. Two days later Harold reported the general mood in the Commons as being one of fear, ‘anything to keep out of war…on all sides one hears sympathy for Germany.’ He continued to warn against such sympathy, arguing that ‘in the German temperament of today there is a strong strain of insanity’ and that the Nazi regime was ‘a blot and scourge to humanity.’ He viewed Hitler as ‘a factor of appalling instability and of the very greatest danger’ and concluded that ‘Germany is Hitler at this moment, and Hitler is Germany’. Nevertheless, the prevailing view, voiced by Lord Arnold among others, was that Germany had only asserted ‘German sovereignty over German territory’. Nicholson could only counter that ‘Germany was right in principle, wrong in practice.’ He also admitted that public opinion in Britain would not support being ‘drawn into a conflict over Poland or Czechoslovakia, or the Eastern States’. However, he thought Germany should be subjected to diplomatic sanctions through the withdrawal of ambassadors from Berlin, and that the Olympics, due to be held there in August, should be boycotted. He also argued that Britain should make its position crystal clear to Germany, and to any other aggressor:
We must act in such a way that the countries of Europe – Germany above all – must say, ‘This time they really mean it.’ We must say, if the frontiers of Holland, Belgium or France are crossed by any country, especially by Germany, we will within such and such a time bring so many forces, ships and aeroplanes in their defence. We must also say to France, ‘This is an absolute assurance backed by the whole public opinion of this country’.
In The Gathering Storm, his first volume of his Nobel-prize winning history of the Second World War, written twelve years later, Winston Churchill pointed to Hitler’s reoccupation of the Rhineland as the decisive moment on the road to war. Germany, he argued, should have been stopped by Great Britain and France acting together. He blamed Baldwin and Chamberlain for their failure to stand up to the dictator and their development of the policy of appeasement. His view was widely shared in the aftermath of the war, but, in reality, Hitler could not have been stopped, and intervention was never on anyone’s agenda, including Nicholson’s. In Britain, all strands of public opinion opposed an armed reaction. Only three days before the action, Labour’s Clement Attlee had opposed the government’s plans for Rearmament as ‘too bellicose’. In response to the events, Hugh Dalton, Labour’s Foreign Affairs spokesman, said that there could be no question of any resistance to Germany’s move into what right-wing MP’s viewed as his own ‘back garden’.
On the day of the occupation, Bishop Hensley Henson wrote in his diary that ‘the clouds are gathering over Europe in gathering gloom’. Churchill, for his part, was silent, and when he did break his silence in the Commons defence debate, Neville Chamberlain described his contribution as ‘constructive and helpful’. However, both Chamberlain and Baldwin continued to keep Churchill in the ‘wilderness’, denying him a return to government at the new ministry of defence. They did not trust him to keep his anti-German rhetoric in check at a time of sensitive diplomatic negotiations based on their appeasement policy. Churchill, for his part, continued to praise Chamberlain in public, especially in a speech in the latter’s stronghold of Birmingham, clearly hoping for a return to government when the Chancellor would succeed Baldwin as PM. Meanwhile, the government continued to follow a two-pronged policy of diplomacy and deterrence. In March 1936 it announced its plans to double spending on the RAF and to massively increase the overall military budget, despite Chamberlain’s hopes of diverting funds to the pressing needs of the ‘Special Areas’ and social reform. Even in the days just before the Rhineland incident, this spending was bearing fruit, as the very first Spitfires took to the skies above Southampton.
The Constitutional Time Bomb
Towards the end of March, Edward bought his beloved Wallis a ruby and diamond bracelet from Paris for sixteen thousand pounds, worth six hundred thousand pounds at today’s prices, engraved ‘Hold tight, 27. iii. 36’. He showered her with jewellery an also gave her cash, spending millions in today’s money. At the same time, he cut back on spending on the royal household, which his father had allowed to run out of control. This was, he said, out of step with the austerity that many of his subjects were still facing in the depressed areas of the country following the slump of the early thirties. However, it was his household staff who had to face reduced salaries, discontinued allowances and penny-pinching economies. Under these conditions, his staff became alienated and disaffected with his opulent treatment of his mistress.
In his eyes, Wallis could do no wrong. Those who urged caution were banished from court, those who flattered her were advanced.It was obvious to many that the King’s great love was purely, or impurely, sexual. There was gossip about the sexual practices she had learned while living in a brothel in Shanghai, which had made the King her slave, and that he was willing to become so because his childhood deprived of affection had made him crave female domination. She had a masculine look that made her attractive to lesbians, and her power over Edward was sometimes acted out in public displays of humiliation.
Harold Nicholson’s invitations to various social gatherings later in the Spring, gave him the opportunity to observe the unfolding drama of the King and Mrs Simpson at close quarters. It was already an open secret in these circles that the new king held the strongest hopes of marrying his beloved Wallis and making her his Queen. Her estranged second husband, Ernest Simpson, had filed for divorce, the hearing for which was to be held in Ipswich in October. This set a timetable like a ticking bomb for the late autumn. Harold was invited to meet the King at Mrs Simpson’s apartment at Bryanston Court and, over port, the bisexual diplomat again found Edward charming. However, he was also saddened by the King’s infatuation. Although ‘a perfectly harmless type of American’, he found ‘the whole setting…slightly second-rate.’ Ramsay MacDonald, although from very ‘humble’ beginnings, also enjoyed the attention of society hostesses, and told Harold that ‘the people do not mind fornication, but they loathe adultery.’ Harold became exasperated by the conduct of the King, becoming convinced that ‘this silly little man’ would ‘destroy a great monarchy by giggling into a flirtation with a third-rate American.’
It was already apparent to many in court circles that not only was this liaison dangerous for the monarchy, but that the new King had little patience for more tedious duties, was shallow in his thinking, erratic in his judgement and casual in his attitude to state papers. Traditionalists, including Nicholson, found this conduct, or lack of it, scandalous. Conversely, he developed considerable sympathy for the now ‘miserable’ Wallis, believing her when she told Lady Sibyl Colefax that neither she nor the King had ever suggested marriage to each other. Years later, she admitted lying about this.
The Peace Pledge
Canon Hugh Richard Laurie Sheppard, aka Dick, was a well-known dynamic peace campaigner in 1936, who had made a call two years earlier for young men to pledge themselves for peace: ‘We renounce war and never again, directly or indirectly, will we support or sanction another’. Over a hundred thousand took the pledge and, in May 1936, his ‘Peace Pledge Union’ was formally founded, representing the voice of absolute pacifism in the midst of the gathering gloom on the continent and in East Africa. In concert with this voice, there were also millions who placed their faith in the League of Nations to stop individual nations becoming aggressors. Anti-war sentiment crossed all class, gender and party lines. In the previous year, a ‘peace ballot’ organised by the League of Nations Union, attracted the participation of twelve million voters, nearly a quarter of the adult population, the overwhelming majority of whom expressed their support for the League. Of these, just over five million favoured an absolute pacifist stance. In the General Election of that year, Baldwin was forced to promise that there would be no great rearmament.
On 3rd April, The Times reported that the Red Cross had confirmed that it had treated numerous victims of gas attacks in Abyssinia. The newspaper quoted from the Emperor, Haile Selassie, who said that ‘he could not sleep at night for misery at the screaming and groaning of his fighting men and country people who have been burned inside and out by gas.’ They were victims of the indiscriminate bombing of the Italian airforce, attacking hospitals and Red Cross centres. The three types of gas used had been banned under the 1925 Geneva Protocol, of which Italy was a signatory. Water-holes and villages were also targeted, so that many peasants died in agony from their burns.
At the end of seven months’ fighting, with nearly half a million soldiers in Abyssinia, Italy annexed the country after troops had marched into Addis Ababa on May 5th. Abyssinians had rioted and looted the town before the Italians could march in. On 9th May Mussolini announced the fall of Addis Ababa to cheering crowds in Rome. Haile Selassie arrived in Britain, via Palestine, as a refugee less than a month later and was reluctantly granted asylum. “I do not intend to settle in England,” he said, “I still dream and hope of returning to Abyssinia. At present I have not the means.” It had cost Mussolini more than thirty-three million pounds to prepare for the war, and another 126 million to fight it. However, it was worth it, he said, since “Italy has at last her Empire – a Fascist Empire.”
The King, for his part, refused to meet ‘The Negus’ (who claimed his descent from Solomon and the Queen of Sheba) personally, sending the Duke of Gloucester instead. When Edward was advised that meeting with the deposed Emperor would be a popular move, he countered, ‘popular with whom? Certainly not the Italians.’ Nothing should be done, he suggested, to drive Mussolini into Hitler’s arms. By contrast, Dick Sheppard appealed on the radio for aid to the Abyssinian refugees, criticising his fellow Christians for lacking a sense of mission, and questioning whether they really believed in their religion. The BBC insisted that he should not preach pacifism on the airwaves.
In the New Year of 1936 the government’s policy towards the ‘Special Areas’ had again came under fire when the Report of the Commission on Merthyr Tydfil was published. The Commission’s recommendations were severely criticised in the increasingly influential journal, Planning, as providing nothing that would help solve Merthyr’s problems. The author of the review saw two alternative solutions, neither of which was being pursued with any vigour by the government:
It is manifestly impossible for a town in Merthyr’s plight to attract new industries on any useful scale without substantial state aid. There may be a case for declining such aid and for arranging the systematic evacuation, wholly or in part, of such a derelict area as Merthyr. There may, on the other hand, be a case for a larger scale effort to maintain the existing population and put it once more on a permanent self-supporting basis by a programme of re-equipment and of bringing in new industries, if necessary by special inducement. Or there may be a case for combining a planned reduction in population and equipment with the bringing in of new industries in order to provide decent opportunities for those who remain. There is, however, one course of which action for which no case can be made out. That is the course of raising huge sums of money, locally and nationally, in order to keep Merthyr on the dole…It is this last course of action which the Government has so far chosen to pursue.
The Journal of this ‘Middle Opinion Group’, as they called themselves, Political and Economic Planning, published statistics showing that immigration to the South East was now in excess of total emigration from Britain as a whole. Later in the year, they came to the conclusion that ‘one of the salient facts of the social and economic landscape at present, which we may regret but cannot ignore, is that there are two Britains – a prosperous Britain and a depressed Britain’. The Ministry of Labour’s ‘Index of Relative Unemployment’ also revealed this, showing that the ‘red’ areas which were at least 50% below the national average in unemployment levels in 1931-36 were almost all in the Midlands and South of England, whereas the ‘black’ areas where unemployment was at least 50% above that average were located exclusively in the North of England, Scotland and Wales. Most, though not all, of these areas were mainly industrial areas with previously high population densities. The diversion between these two Britains had grown considerably wider since the earlier period of depression in the older industries, 1927-31.
As the economy had recovered from the general recession, the structural depression in the older industrial areas became starkly apparent. Looked at on a regional basis, the South East (including London) had entered the trade depression of 1929-33 with levels of under 6% unemployment, increasing to nearly 14% at the trough, and recovering to 6% by 1937. By contrast, Wales began the recession with levels of more than 19% in 1929, rising to nearly twice that by 1932, and remaining above 30% throughout the first half of the decade. Even these figures mask the impact of long-term structural unemployment on particular coalfield communities like Merthyr Tydfil, where the overall unemployment level had been at, or close to an annual average of 60% for the previous four years, and still remained close to 55% throughout 1936. The overwhelming majority of these were coal-miners who had been unemployed for more than a year, whereas in Britain as a whole only one in five of the unemployed fell into this category.
By the middle of 1936, there were signs that the agitation for new industries to be brought to the Special Areas was beginning to have an effect on P. M. Stewart, their Commissioner, who had been in post for a year. In his first report, he had offered a stern rebuff to the growing feeling of regional and national patriotism in Wales and the North-East of England by suggesting in his first report that ‘love of home, pride of nationality and local associations, however desirable in themselves, furnish no adequate justification for leading a maimed life.’ He had made it clear that he would do all that he would do all that he could to increase the number of transferees among young people in the depressed areas and that relief work in those areas would be limited to social service work for the older unemployed. He had openly declared that he would not sponsor enterprises which were ‘undertaken solely with the object of giving employment.’ In his second report, published in February 1936, he accepted that efforts in this respect needed to be intensified. At the same time, however, he continued to argue that ‘no opportunity should be lost of enabling the younger person in the Areas to take advantage of the increasing prosperity of the country as a whole by accepting suitable employment in areas where the demand for labour is steadily improving.’ He continued to attack the opponents of the transference scheme whom he characterised as being ‘carried away by excess of sentiment’ having ‘shut their eyes to the hard facts of the situation’.
However, the opponents of the transference policy and supporters of alternative measures were growing in number and influence. In March 1936 the Lord Mayor of Cardiff called a Conference which comprised representatives of local authorities, churches, employers and trade unions, as well as members of the newly formed Industrial Development Council of South Wales and Monmouthshire. The Lord Mayor told the Conference that it seemed to him ‘a misguided principle to move men to other areas for work’. The Conference decided to petition the government ‘to take immediate steps to alleviate the lot of the unemployed in the area’ by amending the Special Areas Act of 1934 to provide the Commissioner with sufficient powers to encourage industrial development.
Two months later, the South Wales and Monmouthshire Council of Social Service held a special ‘Conference on Transference’ at the YMCA in Barry. The Council had played a major role in the administration of the transference scheme to this point, as well as directing government-sponsored voluntary work in the valleys. Most of the prominent members of the social service movement in South Wales attended, and on the second day, clear divisions emerged over the continuance of the scheme, with some Church leaders going so far as to suggest that Gandhi-an resistance methods should be used to counter its operation. His argument was that the ‘national conscience was being roused’ against the break-up of coalfield communities which ‘represented the history and traditions of Wales’. Unless the social service movement in Wales came out clearly against the scheme, its albeit ameliorating involvement could be seen as collaboration. Aneurin Bevan, then a young coalfield Labour MP, also called for an end to the policy, attacking the complacency of those who had set themselves up as the leadership of the Welsh Nation:
…if this problem was still viewed as it had been, this would involve the breakdown of a social, institutional and communal life peculiar to Wales. The Welsh Nation had adopted a defeatist attitude towards the policy of transference as the main measure for relief of the Distressed Areas in South Wales, but objection should be taken as there was no economic case for continuing to establish industries in the London area rather than the Rhondda.
The reason for this complacency was given away by the speaker who replied to Bevan’s remarks by suggesting that his constituency in East Monmouth had ‘no Welsh institutions or traditions likely to be damaged by large-scale transference, as most of the people were originally immigrants who had absorbed into local life’. However, the general feeling at the conference was that transference was expatriation, not repatriation. At another social service conference in August at Llandrindod Wells, Elfan Rees, the Secretary of the SWMCSS, took up Bevan’s theme in opposition to the comments of Cardiff’s Professor Marquand, author of South Wales Needs a Plan, that ‘a people largely composed of immigrants or the children of immigrants (had) no very deep roots in the soil’ and that ‘a people without roots may be ready to move away as rapidly as it moved in’. Whilst Rees agreed that much of the population of the coalfield had come ‘from countries and counties that could well spare them,’ he felt that it was not these who were leaving:
It is not only the young – it is not only the best – it is also the Welsh who are going…if transference was repatriation it might be a different story – but it is expatriation. It is the people with the roots who are going – the unwillingness to remain idle at home – the essential qualification of the transferee again, are the qualities which mark our own indigenous population. And, if this process of social despoliation goes on, South Wales of tomorrow will be peopled with a race of poverty-stricken aliens saddled with public services they haven’t the money to maintain and social institutions they don’t have the wit to run. Our soul is being destroyed and the key to our history, literature, culture thrown to the four winds.’
The Liberal ‘Cambrian Establishment’ in the official and quasi-official corridors of the Principality had finally woken up to the reality that they had lost their hegemony over the Welsh people and by the middle of 1936 they were clearly embarrassed by the large number of people of Welsh and Welsh-speaking origin who were leaving, at least in proportion to their presence in the population of the valleys. Whilst Rees and others began to exaggerate this for propaganda purposes, it is clear that their growing awareness of both the indiscriminating nature and the extent of migration led them to abandon complicity and complacency in favour of a nationalistic opposition to the transference scheme. Professor Marquand was critical of these ‘nationalistic passions of those who held safe jobs themselves’. He himself put forward seven practical policies in his book, of which Planning said that, had it been published three years earlier, it would have stood no chance of being taken seriously. Now, it suggested wryly, Marquand was still young enough to see most of these ‘forced upon a reluctant Whitehall and Downing Street by pressure of public opinion.’
The Budget Speech of the Spring of 1936 had already announced a significant change of policy in this direction – the attraction of new industries to the Special Areas was to be given priority through the setting up of the Special Areas Reconstruction Association (SARA), providing financial assistance for small businesses. Whilst the Government was partly influenced in making this decision by the divisions which were emerging in the social service movement over transference, it was also undoubtedly under more unified pressure for South Wales, aided by the personal interest of Edward VIII. He had visited the Welsh Valleys at the beginning of the Coalfield Depression in 1929. At that time, when James Evans, General Inspector to the Welsh Board of Health, had heard of the Prince of Wales’ proposed visit at the end of the previous year, he had urged caution to an already nervous H.W.S. Francis, the Assistant Secretary to Neville Chamberlain at the Ministry of Health. Sir Arthur Lowry had been despatched to South Wales to report, but a slight recovery in the Coal industry meant that conditions had been improving at the time of the Prince’s visit. Not so in the summer of 1936.
Chronology: July – August 1936:
16 The McMahon Incident
17-18 Army rebellion led by Franco began the Spanish Civil War
1 The Berlin Olympics opened by Adolf Hitler
10 The Nahlin Cruise began
24 Germany introduced conscription
The Blast that Never Came
The official six months of court mourning was coming to an end in July, and the King and Mrs Simpson began to be seen together at society parties. On 16th July, she attended the Presentation of the Colours to three regiments of the Brigade of Guards. Two viewing stands had been erected, one for the Royal family and another for the King’s friends. One of those whom Edward invited was Chips Channon, one of his most loyal supporters. On arrival, he sat with what he called ‘the new Court’, typified by Emerald Cunard, the pro-Nazi American hostess, who was sitting beside Wallis Simpson. In the next stand he could see the Royal party, including Elizabeth, Duchess of York, sitting with formidable poise, the epitome of Royal decorum. The Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret were, as usual, dresses identically in hats, short coats and skirts, with sensible shoes. The Yorks were the ideal, modern, nuclear family, as Marguerite Patten remembered: ‘They were a picture book family, with the two enchanting little girls, they were the lovely sort of family that everyone would like’. The two girls were taking a keen interest in events, under the watchful eye of their nanny, Marion Crawford, unaware of the tension among the adults around them. The Duchess had recently written a pointed letter to the court doctor, Lord Dawson, thanking him and bemoaning the change in atmosphere at court: ‘Though outwardly one’s life goes on the same, yet everything is different – especially spiritually, and mentally. I don’t know if it’s the result of being ill but I mind things that I don’t like more than before.’
As the battalions of Guards marched into the park, Channon’s eyes turned to the ceremonial, a more unifying spectacle for all. ‘It was London at its very best, London well-dressed, London in high summer, the grey sky, the green of the trees, and then the sun coming out at the right royal moment, the bayonets glistening, and the horses…the Waterloo-ness of it all.’ The royal brothers, the King and the Duke of York took the salute on horseback before dismounting to present the new Colours and make short speeches. The Duke’s speech was, as usual, an agony for all concerned. Silently, everyone prayed that he would get through it without too much stammering. Edward’s speech, written by Winston Churchill, acknowledged the horror of war. ‘Humanity cries out for peace’, he declared.
As King Edward was returning along Constitution Hill to Buckingham Palace on July 16, at the head of six battalions of the Guards to whom he had presented new colours in Hyde Park, George McMahon, a deranged Irish journalist, broke through the police cordon and pointed a loaded revolver at the King, throwing it on the road as a special constable grabbed his arm. It fell under the King’s horse as he passed. Edward remained outwardly calm and rode straight on with only a glance at the scene, though he later admitted to feeling a slit-second of terror when he had seen the pointed pistol; ‘for one moment I braced myself for the blast that never came’. He turned to the General on his right and said, ‘I don’t know what that thing was; but if it had gone off, it would have made a nasty mess of us’. McMahon was set upon by the crowd and had to be rescued by police, who seized him and manhandled him above their shoulders to the park railings on the other side of the road, where he continued to struggle with them. A police officer dismounted and picked up the revolver. The incident only served to further enhance the King’s popularity, as even his sternest critics at court had to admit that he had shown strength of character, such that they could no longer suggest that he might be a coward.
McMahon appeared in court before Justice Greaves-Lord at the Old Bailey in September and the jury, after retiring for ten minutes, returned a verdict that McMahon was guilty of a charge of producing a revolver with intent to alarm the King. He was sentenced to twelve months’ hard labour.
Whatever good the incident had done for Edward’s standing at court was, however, undone five days later, when six hundred débutantes were due to be presented to him at two garden receptions at the Palace. The large number involved was due to the backlog created by the period of mourning for King George. This was, again, a departure from the splendid evening court balls during which these presentations normally took place. As the endless line of young women went through the seemingly endless ritual of carefully practised curtseys in front of the royal dias, Edward appeared increasingly fidgety with boredom. Half-way through the proceedings it began to rain and Edward called a halt to the ceremony, returning hastily to the shelter of the palace, leaving his guests to run for cover under the trees. The contingency plan of continuing the ceremony in the State Ball Room was also abandoned. Though it was a court tradition which Edward could clearly do without, the way in which it was cancelled, as with so many of his changes, made him more enemies just at a time when he needed as many friends as he could muster among the Established classes. Channon wrote in his diary towards the end of July:
The Simpson scandal is growing and she, poor Wallis, looks unhappy. The world is closing in around her, the flatterers, the sycophants, and the malicious. It is a curious social juxtaposition that casts me in the role of Defender of the King. But I do, and very strongly in society.
With the Berlin Olympics approaching in early August, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s diplomatic envoy, had come to London with invitations to the Games, which he distributed among the aristocrats, newspaper magnates and that he considered would be helpful to the Nazi cause. Channon took him to a night-club and at the end of the evening, Channon was given the Führer’s personal invitation, which he accepted ‘gleefully’. Not all among the upper-class circles in which Channon moved took up these invitations, however, Harold Nicholson and Lady Colefax making their disapproval of his acceptance very clear.
Civil War in Spain
On 17th July, a revolt by a group of army officers against the Popular Front government, which had come to power in elections six months earlier, was the starting point for a brutal Civil War that was to last three years and cost thousands of lives. Middle-class intellectuals had formed the Republican government of Spain after the flight of King Alfonso in 1931. They had believed they could change things in Spain without a revolution, but had faced serious opposition from the Church, army and landowners. Forty thousand priests and other clergy dominated Spanish life, all paid for by the state. They controlled education, though 45% of people remained illiterate. Church interests were bound up with those of the big landowners, the 1% of the population who owned 51% of the land. Church property was valued at the equivalent of a hundred million ponds. A quarter of the national budget was spent on the army, controlled by an officer class of over seven hundred generals and 21,000 lesser officers, making one officer to every six men. To curb these powers, the new government had passed many laws but did little to enforce them, and when it had been forced out of office in 1933, a coalition of right-wing parties had come to power. A wave of strikes, riots and workers’ revolts broke out and the severity with which these were suppressed is revealed in the figure of thirty thousand republican prisoners by the end of 1935.
The Republican parties had joined together to fight the General Election in February 1936, beating the Nationalist parties by a clear margin, but six months later the rightists provoked the army revolt in Madrid, and when garrisons all over the country followed the following day, as planned, the Republican president announced the mobilisation of all men under thirty. In Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Malaga and Bilbao, the revolts were crushed, so that the planned coup d’etat expected to be over in a day, looked to have failed. However, the Governor of the Canary Islands, General Franco, flew overnight to take the leadership of rebel Spanish Moroccan troops, rapidly moving the mainly Muslim brigades, with Italian help, across the Straits of Gibraltar to fight for the Nationalist cause in southern Spain.
The British Royal Naval officers were sympathetic to the Spanish Naval officers, many of whom were aristocratic and reactionary by background, just as in the army. So Franco’s invasion from Morocco by the rebel troops with German air force support went unimpeded by the British Mediterranean fleet. In Britain itself, public opinion was divided, as news of atrocities on both sides were reported in the press. The Nationalists, clearly following the example and advice of the Italian Fascists, bombed civilians and murdered hostages. Madrid was first bombed on August 6th, and within a few weeks planes were regularly dropping bombs on a daily basis to wreck buildings. The loyalists, for their part, burnt down churches and shot priests. For most British people, it was seen as a war between communism and fascism, between Franco in the ‘Right’ corner, and President Azana in the Left. Left to it, the extremists on both sides might just wipe each other out. The more politically committed were divided between the right-wing Tories who supported Franco, while the broad spectrum of liberal and left-wing opinion backed the loyalists. For many young writers, artists and idealists, especially those who had joined the Communist Party, the Civil War was the titanic struggle of ideologies. Idealists of the Right and Left in Britain both hailed it as a the great Crusade of their time.
In reality it was a war about the future fate of Spain, fought out by Spaniards to a very bitter end. In spite of the clear legitimacy of the Spanish Government, the British Government fell into the pious posturing of ‘non-intervention’ as it had done earlier in the year over Abyssinia and the Rhineland. Most of the British popular press was on the Republican side, but the ‘ultra-conservative’ organs labelled them as ‘Reds’ or ‘Communists’, though they ranged from anarchists to social democrats.
At first, the failure of the army revolts in most of the mainland garrisons meant that the troops on both sides were evenly matched. However, Hitler’s intervention in ordering the airlift of the Moorish troops of Franco’s African columns, enabled the rebels to advance north towards the capital by mid-August. The Republican Government began to call for outside help itself, and this call was met immediately by young British intellectuals and artists spurred on partly by their own Government’s strict neutrality.
The Nahlin Cruise
Climbing into his private air plane, piloted by Flight Lieut. ‘Mouse’ Fielden, not long appointed Captain of the King’s Flight, Edward VIII left Heathrow aerodrome, Middlesex, at the beginning of August, to begin a four-week holiday. In fifty minutes the plane was across the Channel and the King then boarded a train bound for the Dalmatian coast where millionaire Lady Yule’s luxury yacht the Nahlin was waiting, with its crew of forty-eight who had boarded it in Portsmouth. King Edward had chartered the yacht to take him and fifteen guests, including Wallis Simpson, on an Adriatic cruise.
The yacht was specially fitted out for the King, with the library converted into a state-room, so that he and Wallis would have a place in which to attend to official business and relax in private. A dance floor had been laid in the lounge, where a powerful wireless doubled as a communications hub for the King’s daily despatches and, in the evening, a means of tuning into the BBC’s dance orchestra broadcasts. On the 10th, Edward boarded the Nahlin at the small Yugoslav village of Sibenek. The yacht was escorted by two Royal Navy destroyers from the Mediterranean fleet.
Apart from the obvious security matters, the ships were responsible for collecting and delivering the red dispatch boxes containing the business to which he was meant to attend in his private state-room. They needn’t have bothered, since the King had little interest in interrupting his merry-making with friends to spend time on the affairs of state. He had more contact with the ships during his exercise hours, which he spent in rowing skiffs around them, joking with the sailors that he was ‘reviewing the fleet!’
The presence of the two ships meant that there was little prospect of ‘the Duke of Lancaster’ remaining anonymous. Whenever the royal party disembarked, crowds gathered. At Dubrovnik the mayor issued a proclamation forbidding the townsfolk to stare. It only encouraged them more, but Edward was used to crowds. However, among them were numerous American journalists and photographers, providing lurid stories of his relationship with Wallis for the US press, while the British press was keeping to its self-denying agreement, or just about. Cavalcade, in its August editions, carried numerous photographs of ‘the Duke of Lancaster’ with his friend, ‘Mrs Ernest Simpson’. On the cover of the magazine she could be seen placing a steadying hand on the King’s forearm, as he climbed out of a motor-boat. The caption read, ‘The motor-boat arrived at Paradise Island’. As the yacht moored in Corfu, the British Ambassador to Greece wondered, in his dispatch to London, ‘whether this union, however queer and generally unsuitable to he state, may not in the long run turn out to be more in harmony with the spirit of the new age than anything that wisdom could have contrived’.
The luxurious Nahlin, which would be worth eleven million pounds in today’s money, docked in Istanbul at the end of the cruise. The King and Mrs Simpson travelled back overland together, staying at the Hotel Bristol in Vienna, which had a large steam-room. Here, the King stripped down and walked around naked, with his fully clothed chauffeur and six detectives in attendance. In doing so, he was only following local customs, but even this action was the subject of further criticism back at court.
The royal love story, amazingly, had so far remained largely unnoticed by the general British public. Though, as during the next few months, pictures of the cruise were published in the American press, causing public comment, they were not published in the popular press in Britain. However, on his return from holiday, Edward saw to it that Wallis Simpson’s name was twice printed on the Court Circular, once at a dinner party attended by the Baldwins, and the other on the her arrival with other guests at Balmoral, during the royal family’s annual retreat.
The Berlin Olympics
On Saturday 1st August, at exactly four o’ clock in the afternoon, Adolf Hitler entered the Berlin Olympic Stadium through the Marathon Gate. The crowd of 125,000 rose as one, gave the fascist salute and drowned out the Olympic fanfare with their cries of ‘Heil Hitler’. The Olympic orchestra, conducted by Richard Strauss, was accompanied by a ten thousand-strong chorus, in the performance of Deutschland, Deutschland über Alles, followed by the Nazi party anthem. The crowd then fell silent for the rendition of the Olympic hymn and the great bell, dominating the tower at the main entrance, started to toll. The flags of fifty-one competing nations were raised and the giant airship, the Hindenburg, the largest Zeppelin ever built, hovered round in circles above the stadium.
Joachim von Ribbentrop’s British guests, including three Lords – Monsell, Rothermere, Beaverbrook – were among the Nazi leadership’s ‘personal friends’ nearly all of whom had accepted their invitations. Ribbentrop had by now become Germany’s Ambassador to Britain, a sign of the importance Hitler placed on securing an alliance with the Government in London which would enable him to expand eastwards in Europe.
The opening ceremony continued with the parade of athletes. Each team was ordered to salute the German Chancellor according to the custom in its own country. The French followed the Greeks in giving the Olympic salute, raising the right arm to its full length at ninety degrees. The crowd, and Hitler, responded to this with the Nazi salute. The British, however, chose to make a modest ‘eyes-right’ when they passed the platform, and were greeted by only lukewarm applause. This was not an auspicious start for Ribbentrop’s prospective Anglo-German alliance. However, official relations were still cool following the Rhineland episode of the spring, and Hitler had chosen to ignore the British Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden’s list of questions designed to elicit a series of assurances about future intentions.
Ribbentrop had hoped to use the Games as a means of organising a summit between Baldwin and Hitler, and Baldwin’s close Welsh friend and former Cabinet Secretary became the conduit for these overtures. Jones had met the Führer at his Munich flat im May, but Baldwin, by this time very tired and depressed, was not convinced that a summit would serve any useful purpose and, though there were vague suggestions that the two leaders might meet during the summer in the Alps, it would be another two years, and another Prime Minister later, before the summit in the Eagle’s nest. Besides, Anthony Eden was becoming increasingly resentful of unofficial diplomacy and the development of the Appeasement policy had recently cost Baldwin one foreign secretary; he did not want to lose a second one within six months. In any case, Baldwin’s annual holiday in the French Alps was cancelled due to the Civil War in Spain. On the day the Olympic Games began, Baldwin was ordered to take complete rest for three months by his doctors, and did not re-emerge onto the political stage until October.
Although Hitler had, disingenuously, compared himself to Baldwin as a reluctant leader of his country, he was not shy about his role in opening the Games as their self-professed ‘Patron’. Somewhat incongruously, three thousand doves were released and flew off after completing a circuit of the stadium. The Olympic torch had been carried the 3,075 kilometres from Olympia by the same number of bearers, where it had been lit by the rays of the sun in a specially designed helio-furnace. The torch-bearing and the lighting of the flame were new features of the ceremonial in 1936, another masterpiece of presentation by the Nazi propagandists who were determined to weld the ideas of ancient Greece to their own vision of a master-race, symbolised by the lone figure of the blonde athlete in white shorts and singlet who stood on high, ready to light the cauldron at the opposite end of the stadium, by descending to the track and then bounding up the steps to the brazier. A German weightlifter had been chosen to swear the athlete’s oath, for which he was meant to hold the Olympic flag, but he grasped the swastika instead, as all the athletes raised their right arms in affirmation.
The Games were a triumph for Nazi Germany from beginning to end. Like the recent London Olympics, it was an unrivalled spectacle, and the home nation dominated in almost every sport, except in track and field, where the USA kept its long-standing supremacy. The legend of James Cleveland, or ‘Jesse’ Owens is, of course, well-known. That he won four gold medals and broke two world records is indisputable, but Hitler did not refuse to present his medals. He was never expected to do so, because he was specifically asked by the International Olympic Committee not to greet individual winners in order to avoid causing offence when he was absent from the Games. Certainly, this request enabled him to diplomatically avoid shaking the hands of Negro and Jewish athletes in front of the cameras. Also, there is little basis for the claim that the Führer rolled on the floor in fury at the Negro runner’s success over his Nordic competitors. Certainly, there was frustration, which Joseph Goebbels recorded in his diary for 5th August, the day that Owens won his second medal in the two hundred metres sprint:
We Germans win a gold medal, the Americans get three, two of which are won by niggers. This is a scandal. White humanity should be ashamed of itself.
However, the ordinary white Germans in the stadium cheered Owens’ victories in much the same way as the victories of Usain Bolt were cheered in London recently. They chanted ‘O-vens, O-vens’ just as if they were cheering German athletes. If the latter had failed to win any medals, it might have been a different story, but sporting spectators were far more interested in the Olympic ideal of the elite individual athlete in competition rather than their country’s position in the medal table. To those with any sporting knowledge, the victories of Owens and other American athletes can hardly have come as a shock. Whatever they wrote or however they behaved in private, the Nazi leadership was careful not to show its distaste for any athletic achievement in public. The Spectator’s correspondent reported that the host nation had ‘fallen completely under the spell of the American Negro, who is already the hero of these Games’. It was his fellow athletes, not the Nazi leaders, who were made to look ‘ridiculous, not only by the speed but by the sheer beauty of his running.’ Nevertheless, the USA’s continued dominance on the athletics track was the only factor that detracted from Germany’s total possession of the 1936 Olympics. The final German gold-medal tally was forty-six, which made them top of the medal table.
The threat of boycotts by the British and American teams following the Rhineland reoccupation had forced the Nazis to tone down their racist propaganda during the Games. Jewish competitors were included in the German team, one of whom, a fencer, gave the Hitler salute in receiving her silver medal on the podium. Official prohibition signs were taken down and anti-Jewish propaganda was removed from view. Acts of discrimination and brutality still continued, out of sight of the guests, but the Nazis cleaned up their public face so much that the year has become known as ‘the Olympic pause’ in the history of the Third Reich. As a result, distinguished British visitors like Chips Channon were gulled into admiration for the way the Germans organised both the Games and their society with such efficient attention to detail. However, not all were ‘taken in’. Lord Vansittart, a more prominent figure in British policy-making circles, remained as sceptical at the end of the two weeks as he was at the beginning.
Channon found the Games themselves dull. Athletics in Britain had not moved on since the Paris Olympics in 1924, the subject of Hugh Hudson’s 1981 Film, Chariots of Fire. It was still dominated by the strict amateur code of the Oxford and Cambridge colleges, and was starved of funds. It failed to attract broad public support, resulting in poor performances in Berlin. The focus for many of the British visitors was not sports but socializing and diplomacy. For his part, Ribbentrop’s lavish hospitality was the result of a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the British Establishment and its control over foreign policy in 1936. Quite simply, the Nazi leadership exaggerated the power of the King and the Lords over the Cabinet and the Commons. Although he was a member of Edward VIII’s inner social circle, Channon was not even a junior minister in the Government. However, he was only one of a number of fascist-sympathisers from Britain, including the Anglo-German Fellowship, a group of aristocrats, businessmen, , politicians and ex-servicemen who had come together to try to change British policy. Hitler himself entertained them in the Chancellery and had also invited the Mitford sisters, Diana and Unity, torch-bearers of British Fascism. Diana, mistress of Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists, was on a secret mission to Germany to raise funds from the Nazis. The sisters were staying with Goebbels in his large villa overlooking the Wannsee lake. They were not simply aristocratic women infatuated with powerful men in uniforms. They genuinely believed that National Socialism, if applied to Britain, could bring an end to mass unemployment and poverty. Diana later claimed that Hitler’s ideas, ‘if they had prevailed at the time, would have saved a great deal of suffering.’ Nevertheless, she was unsuccessful in acquiring further funds from Hitler for the BUF (she had already been given ten thousand pounds by him), but he did agree to help her with her planned marriage in Berlin to Mosley on 6th October.
Elsewhere and everywhere in the packed city of Berlin, houses and streets were bedecked with double banners, the Olympic flag and the red Nazi flag with the black swastika on a white circle. For the British athletes, many of whom were enjoying their first trip to the continent, it was an exciting time, but the Games were not the focus of attention at home that they have been in more recent decades. Dorothy Tyler found that ‘people were more interested in the fact that we were visiting Germany and seeing Hitler than they were in our taking part in the Games’. She was one of the few British success stories, winning silver in the high-jump. The most famous British victory came in the 4×400 metre relay, in which the British men beat the American and German teams to claim gold. Harold Abrahams, the hundred metre champion from Paris, described Godfrey Rampling’s leg, in which he received the baton with the US ahead and finished five yards ahead, as ‘the most glorious heaven-sent quarter-mile I have ever seen’. However, unlike the Jewish Olympian, most of the British visitors to Berlin showed only a fleeting interest in their team’s success. They showed more interest in the power, glamour and modernity of the capital city of the new German Reich, seduced by von Ribbentrop, like Lord Londonderry had been earlier in the year (see photo above).
The Olympic propaganda was made even more effective by the documentary film-maker Lani Riefenstahl, who had already made Triumph of the Will, acclaimed internationally as a work of genius. Her two-part epic, Olympia, was a massive hit in Germany, and, though it was not shown in Britain until after the war, those who did see it realised that Germany was well in the lead in making propaganda films, as in so much else. At the end of the Games, Germany finished with eighty-nine medals, thirty-three of them gold. Britain was tenth with fourteen medals, only four of them gold. There was a debate about the reasons for failure even before the Games had finished. Some argued that Britain’s weak performance reflected a national decline in fitness, something which had been troubling the authorities since the Boer War.
However, the main reason was the lack of funding and resources. The XIth Olympiad came to an end on 16th August, with the closing ceremonies. There was no march past of the athletes, only a parade of representative flag-bearers. They marched the length of the arena, halting beneath the Olympic flame. The President of the IOC stepped forward to call on the youth of the world to assemble in four year’s time in Tokyo. The flag was lowered and the Olympic flame was slowly extinguished and Hitler rose for yet another chorus of Deutschland, Deutschland.. The great Games, as Channon wrote, ‘the great German display of power, and bid for recognition, were over.’ Whilst David Lloyd George called Hitler ‘the greatest German of the age’, very few in Britain admired Fascism at home or abroad. Lord Decius, on his return from the Games, wrote to the Times, full of foreboding:
I left Berlin with the impression that a new race of energetic, virile young people had sprung up in Germany. They appeared to be ready to go anywhere under the orders of the Führer – a nation fully armed, equipped with the best of war material, and an air force second to none.
Sierra de Los Angeles
Towards the end of August, an amateur ‘International Brigades’ were being formed in Spain, comprising the assortment of radical intellectuals and international communists who had made their way to the conflict to support the Republican cause. It is estimated that 2,762 British volunteers fought in Spain, of whom 543 died there. Most of these soldiers were workers, many of them unemployed miners from South Wales and elsewhere, and their convictions had been built over generations of deprivation and resistance. Some were young graduates, like David Marshall, They were becoming increasingly frustrated by the lack of action, passing their days in Barcelona, feeling ashamed to be idle. At the end of August, they were sent to Albacete, 150 miles south-east of Madrid, where they were given some rudimentary training as part of the newly forming International Brigades, before taking part in the defence of Madrid. David’s first taste of battle was also his last, and it was ‘a bit of a shambles’. Although he had never used a rifle before, he was ordered to advance on a Fascist-held building at the top of a hill, the Sierra de Los Angeles, with a strategic view over to Madrid in the distance. Firing at the windows, his group felt exposed, so they sheltered in a narrow furrow as the enemy returned fire. He was hit in the leg: ‘My foot leapt up and hit me in the backside.’
Without any proper training, his short experience of actual combat was a disaster, and it demoralised him. What had started as a glorious adventure had ended in violence and shock. After his wound had healed, he asked for permission to return home, which was granted. He was fortunate. Although a casualty , he survived, whereas most of those fighting with him went on to die in the bloody battles of the autumn and winter. He went back to Middlesbrough as a young man who had learnt some hard lessons about ‘the actualities of war’ in a very short time.
Franco had had a promise of support from Mussolini before the war began and ideological allies had supplied him with arms from the beginning, in spite of the League’s Non-Intervention Committee. But when Italian troops were moved in on Franco’s side, the Left redoubled its efforts to rally support for the Republicans. Writers and painters all over Europe set to work as propagandists. Michael Foot wrote that ‘Spain cut the knot of emotional and intellectual contradictions in which the left had been entangled ever since Hitler came to power. Suddenly the claims of international law, class solidarity and the desire to win the Soviet Union as an ally fitted into the same strategy.’ The passionate cry from Madrid in response to the fascist revolt ‘it is better to die on your feet than live on your knees’ reverberated throughout the Left as the very real prospect of a fascist Europe loomed large. Most on the liberal-conservative Right continued to favour Non-Intervention, hating Communism at least as much as they hated Fascism, if not more so. Then there were those, increasing in number, who had considerable sympathy and admiration for Hitler’s modern Germany, even if not so keen on Franco’s reactionary Spain or Mussolini’s Italy.
Denys Blakeway, The Last Dance: 1936, The Year Our Lives Changed. London: John Murray, 2010
Norman Rose, Harold Nicholson. London: Pimlico, 2005
René Cutforth, Later Than We Thought: A Portrait of the Thirties. Newton Abbot: David & Charles, 1976
Andrew J Chandler, The Re-Making of a Working Class: Migration from the South Wales Coalfield to the New Industry Areas of the Midlands, 1920-40. Cardiff: unpublished thesis in University of Wales College Library.
These Tremendous Years, 1919-38: A History in photographs of life and events, big and little, in Britain and the world since the war. London: publisher unknown, 1939 (?).
John Gorman, To Build Jerusalem: A photographic remembrance of British working class life, 1875-1950. London: Scorpion Publications, 1980.