Note by Mr J.S. Duncan, Acting High Commissioner in London, of Conversation with Maj Gen H.L. Ismay, Secretary of U.K. Committee of Imperial Defence

LONDON, 17 March 1939

Mr Stirling [1] brought to my notice yesterday evening copy of the Minutes of a meeting of the Committee of Imperial Defence held on the 24th January last. [2] At this meeting, at which the Prime Minister [3] was present, consideration was given to an Appreciation on Empire Foreign Policy which had been prepared by the Chiefs of Staff. [4]

Among other matters mentioned in that report was the despatch of a Fleet to the Far East in the event of Japan coming in to a war in which the Empire was engaged with Germany and Italy. The report indicated that the nature and size of the fleet would depend on the situation at the moment, particularly in the Middle East.

In the discussion of it, the Prime Minister referred to the categorical and unqualified commitment which had been given to the Dominions that an adequate fleet would be despatched to the Far East and that the report seemed to indicate that that undertaking in its entirety may not be able to be carried out. He said further it was a matter for consideration as to whether the Dominions should not be advised.

The Secretary of State for Air [5] remarked that this advice would no doubt be a shock. The First Lord of the Admiralty [6] said in the course of the discussion, that the needs of the situation may be such that it would only be possible to despatch 2 of the larger ships.

The Minister for Co-ordination of Defence, Lord Chatfield, indicated that he did not agree with this view and that he had always contemplated the despatch of approximately 9 such vessels in order to hold the Japanese fleet.

Lord Stanhope in setting out his opinion at the moment spoke of the co-operation of the United States Navy.

The matter was left at an indefinite stage. It was agreed that the whole defence appreciation, of which this subject formed a small part, should be referred to a Committee consisting of the Service Ministers, the Chiefs of Staff, a representative of the Foreign Office and a representative of the Treasury.

These facts having come to my notice, I sought an interview with General Ismay, Secretary of the Council for Imperial Defence, to ascertain what had been the result of the Sub-Committee’s consideration. I emphasised our great interest in the discussion which had taken place, particularly in the light of the various undertakings and assurances which the Commonwealth Government had been given both at Imperial Conferences and at other times.

It was obvious that General Ismay was disturbed that these Minutes should have come to my knowledge. He was, he said, however, in a position to assure me that the views stated by the First Lord of the Admiralty should not be taken as the views of the United Kingdom Government. In fact, he added, the Chief of Naval Staff [7] had written to him to disassociate himself from the view expressed by Lord Stanhope, and had asked that some means should be devised of placing his disagreement on record and of putting him, the Chief of Staff, in a proper position in the matter.

General Ismay was firm in his assurances that an adequate fleet would be despatched.

We then discussed what was an ‘adequate’ fleet and the reply given to me was that that would necessarily be determined in the light of circumstances but that the strongest possible fleet would undoubtedly be sent to the Far East as soon as it was required and could be despatched.

I informed him then that I had not taken up the matter on a Ministerial level because I felt that I could obtain at that stage more reliable information from him and that I desired to be kept advised and particularly to know what was the considered view after the examination of the report by the Sub- Committee.

He undertook to keep me so advised and to so inform me.

He then asked that I should not take the Minutes to be the final stage at which the matter would rest and, in view of their interim character, not to make them the subject of a communication to the Commonwealth Government which would only have the effect of causing them alarm which in the real circumstances was unnecessary.

I decided that it was inexpedient to mention the matter by cable to the Commonwealth Government at the stage at which it then stood.

Later in the afternoon General Ismay, who obviously was very perturbed that this matter should have come to my knowledge, asked Mr Stirling to return the Minutes and a similar request is, I understand, also being made to Sir Cecil Day, Liaison Officer representing the Government of New Zealand, to whom they had also been forwarded.

I later called on my New Zealand colleague for the purpose of acquainting him with the situation, of which he had no knowledge.

I propose to watch the matter closely and to concert with the High Commissioner for New Zealand [8] if and when necessary.


1 A.T. Stirling, External Affairs Officer in London.

2 See note 1 to the Attachment to this Document.

3 Neville Chamberlain.

4 See note 2 to the Attachment to this Document.

5 Sir Kingsley Wood.

6 Lord Stanhope.

7 Sir Roger Backhouse.

8 W.J. Jordan.


Maj Gen H.L. Ismay, Secretary of U.K. Committee of Imperial Defence, to Lord Chatfield, U.K. Minister for Co-ordination of Defence, Reporting a Conversation with Mr J.S. Duncan, Acting High Commissioner in London

LONDON, 18 March 1939 [1]

I informed the Strategical Appreciation Sub-Committee at their meeting this morning that Mr Duncan (Acting High Commissioner for Australia) had asked to see me as a matter of extreme urgency, and that I had arranged an appointment with him this afternoon. I said that I thought it possible that he might raise the question of the despatch of a Fleet to the Far East, and asked for guidance from the Sub-Committee. My instructions were that, if this question was broached, I should say that no change had occurred to affect the considerations which governed the undertaking that, in the event of war with Japan, we should send a Fleet to Eastern waters, irrespective of the situation elsewhere; and that if Mr Duncan pressed me for further details as to the precise size of the Fleet or the time of its despatch, I should refer him to the Admiralty.

2. Mr Duncan duly arrived at 2.30 p:m., and astounded me by saying that he was very much perturbed by what he had seen in the Minutes of the Committee of Imperial Defence, and that he had come to me at once to talk the matter over. With this, he pulled out of his pocket a copy of the Minutes of the 348th Meeting [2], at which the European Appreciation (Paper No. D.P. (P) 44) [3] had been under consideration, and which included some discussion on the question of the despatch of a Fleet to the Far East.

3. I spotted that a copy of this paper had, by reason of a most serious error, been addressed to Mr Stirling (Australian Liaison Officer at the Cabinet Offices) and had been passed by him to the Acting High Commissioner. (I shall deal with this grave mistake later in this note.) 4. In the entirely unexpected position in which I found myself, it was obviously impossible to adhere rigidly to the guidance which had been given to me by the Strategical Appreciation Committee who took it for granted, as I did, that no Australian had any reason to think that the question of the despatch of a Fleet to the Far East was even under consideration. I therefore took the perfectly true line that the Paper under consideration at the meeting in question dealt with the situation which would arise in the event of a war with Germany and Italy; that Japanese intervention was merely incidental to the main theme; and consequently that the observations which had been made on that point were in the nature not of fixed conclusions, but of tentative opinions.

5. I also quoted to Mr Duncan the following extract from the Paper by the Chiefs of Staff (Paper No. C.O.S. 833) [4] which was given to Sir Harry Batterbees [5] early this year for communication to the New Zealand Government:-

‘It will thus be seen that no change has occurred to affect the considerations which governed the undertaking given at the Imperial Conference in 1937, that in the event of war with Japan, we should send a Fleet to Eastern waters irrespective of the situation elsewhere.’ 6. Finally, I referred Mr Duncan to Lord Chatfield’s [6] observation that ‘there were many important issues brought to light in the Report which would require considerable study’, and to the consequent setting up of a special Sub-Committee to go into the Report in detail. I thought it right to add that this Sub- Committee had asked the Admiralty to prepare a Memorandum as to the precise size of the Fleet which should be sent to the Far East in the worst contingency, namely war with Japan, Germany and Italy combined, and in the worst year (1939).

7. Mr Duncan expressed himself as satisfied with the explanation that I had given him, and undertook to make no communication to his Government suggesting that there had been any departure from the undertaking given to them at the Imperial Conference.

8. I withdrew the copy of the Minutes from him explaining quite frankly that their circulation should have been confined to those who received a copy of C.I.D. Paper No. D.P.(P) 44, and that quite apart from anything else, they could not be properly understood without a full knowledge of what was contained in that Paper.

9. I have gone into the question of how Mr Stirling came to receive a copy of this paper and find that it can be accounted for only by a complete misunderstanding, and gross stupidity. I deeply regret the occurrence, and am taking steps to ensure that there will be no repetition.


[PRO: CAB 21/893]

1 Although this Document was dated 18 March it was probably drafted on 17 March.

2 Not printed (See PRO: CAB 2/8). The meeting, which was held On 24 February 1939, discussed the grave threat a simultaneous war against Germany, Italy and Japan would pose to the Empire. Lord Stanhope, U.K. First Lord of the Admiralty, suggested that it would be unwise to denude the Mediterranean of capital ships in the event of war in the Far East.

3 Not printed (see PRO: CAB 16/183A).

4 Not printed.

5 U.K. High Commissioner to New Zealand.

6 U.K. Minister for Co-ordination of Defence.


[AA: M104, ITEM 7(1)]