The Right Honourable Arnold Hiller, M.P
By Chris Oakley
Includes material previously posted at Othertimelines.com
Summary: In the first five chapters of this series we traced Arnold Hiller’s rise to power; his crushing of Ernest Rome’s SA and the British teachers’ strike; his establishment of an alliance with Italy’s Benito Mussolini; his 1936 occupation of Ireland; the start of the Second World War; and the imprisonment of his most vocal critic Winston Churchill. In this segment we’ll recall the infamous 1937 RAF "night of terror" raid on Paris and the Anglo-Italian invasion of the French colonies in North Africa; we’ll also look at Hiller’s response to William Joyce’s "final solution" proposals for handling potential rebellion in occupied Ireland.
The first air raid sirens in Paris sounded just after 8:15 PM on the night of November 1st, 1937. It was not the first time Parisians had heard those sirens, nor would it be the last; however, this particular raid would inflict greater damage on the City of Lights than it had even seen before. 200-plus RAF bombers, escorted by fighters operating out of captured French bases in Normandy, were on their way to the French capital to wipe it off the map-- or at least damage it to the point where Leon Blum, who by then Arnold Hiller had come to regard as nothing less than the spawn of Satan, would finally deign to surrender to Britain.
However, forcing Blum to capitulate would prove to be easier said than done; as the bomber force was approaching the outskirts of Paris, French anti-aircraft guns began opening up on the British planes like hundreds of miniature volcanoes erupted all at once. The bomber crews flinched under the shuddering caused by the bursting flak shells.
"It was like all the hounds of hell were coming after us." Arnold Gallard would later recall in his autobiography The First and the Last when he remembered the ‘night of terror’ bombing. Many of the British bombers were of prewar manufacture, and 17 of the planes in the attack force were downed in short order by the French AA gunners. Most of the bombers, though, managed to get through these defenses and hit their targets. For three solid hours the City of Lights shuddered under the endless CRUMP! of British bombs, many of which hit treasured national landmarks like the Arc de Triomphe and the Louvre; the Eiffel Tower sustained major structural damage when RAF bombs sheared off the top of its spire and its radio antenna.
Vital services were hit as well; Paris’ main water and power stations were wrecked, as was the city’s main telephone exchange and the headquarters of France’s national bank. By the time the raiders had turned for home, at least a third of the French capital was in flames and some 1100 French civilians were dead-- those not killed by the bombs themselves often perished in the fires the bombing had started.
Herman Geary personally gave the surviving bomber crews a hero’s welcome when they touched down back in Britain; the pilot of the aircraft which had led the first wave of the raid into French airspace was presented with the Victoria Cross and promoted to Squadron Leader. Joseph Gable, in a BBC broadcast just hours after the raid, gleefully predicted that was it just a matter of time before Blum bowed to the inevitable and surrendered to the Empire.
Blum crushed that hope the next morning with the most passionate radio address of his political career. His choice of words made it clear that he wouldn’t give up the battle even if the Royal Army were marching down the Champs-Elysees: "We shall fight them on the beaches, we shall fight them on the streets and in the fields, we shall fight them in the hills, we shall fight them at sea...and we will never surrender!" Across the English Channel, Prime Minister Hiller sat in the Cabinet War Room listening in utter shock to a translation of Blum’s defiant speech. This was definitely not the response he had expected or hoped for from the French. But no matter: one way or the other, he promised his cabinet, France would be subjugated.
At about the same time Britain had declared war on France, the Ludendorff regime in Germany had finally made up its mind to take up arms to settle its long-simmering dispute with Czechoslovakia over alleged maltreatment of the country’s Sudeten German minority. Though France had a mutual defense treaty with the Czechs to come to their aid if Germany attacked, intervening on the Czech side was easier said than done with British troops continuing to push through the French countryside; as if that weren’t bad enough, Hiller’s chief European ally Benito Mussolini was now gearing Italy up to enter the war on the British side.
A few days after Blum’s "we shall fight them on the beaches" speech, Hiller and Mussolini met in Cardiff, Wales for the Axis leaders’ first wartime summit. The main item on their agenda was mapping out a joint strategy for the invasion and conquest of France’s colonies in North Africa; among the British military advisors who accompanied the prime minister to the Cardiff summit was a Royal Army officer whose name was very shortly to become synonymous with desert warfare, Brigadier Irwin Ramsdell. Ramsdell, a World War I veteran with a keen understanding of armored combat doctrines, had recently sent Hiller a memo that roughly sketched out how a joint Anglo-Italian thrust into French North Africa might be carried out; on the second day of the Cardiff summit, he gave Hiller and Mussolini a more detailed version of his proposed invasion plan.
Ramsdell’s campaign, code-named Operation Torch, envisioned Royal Navy carrier aircraft bombing the French Mediterranean naval bases at Toulon and Marseilles while elements of the Royal Marines landed on Algeria’s coast and Italian troops made a four-pronged thrust into the Algerian interior. To further baffle the French high command about the Axis forces’ true intentions, British reserves in Palestine and Iraq would mount diversionary offensives against French forces in Syria; if everything went well, Brigadier Ramsdell estimated, most if not all of France’s colonial holdings in North Africa and the Middle East would be under Axis control within two or three months.
A letter from Hiller to Randolph Heston that survived the war says when he heard Ramsdell’s plan for Torch, it opened his eyes to the kind of officer Brigadier Ramsdell was. And apparently Hiller liked what he saw, because by the time the prime minister returned to London Ramsdell had been promoted to major general and placed in command of the 7th Armoured Division, a newly organized tank unit which in turn was part of a special expeditionary force called the British Africa Corps (BAC).
One other decision Hiller made at the Cardiff summit would have catastrophic consequences for the people of Ireland. After lengthy consideration, he had made up his mind to give William Joyce the green light to begin implementation of his "final solution" program. In the second week of November of 1937, as Ramsdell was arriving in Baghdad to set up the 7th Armoured’s new field headquarters, the prime minister’s long-awaited Leamington Spa conference on the specifics of the program’s timetable was officially convened; among the men who joined Hiller and Joyce for that conference were Ronald Hatcher, Henry Hamill, Hatcher’s second-in-command Arnold Hyman, Hiller’s attorney general John Franks, and an Oxford University medical school professor who advocated sterilization of suspected subversives, Dr. Joseph Angle.
The minutes of the conference, dubbed "the Wensley protocol" after the hotel where the meeting took place, left no doubt that Hiller fully endorsed Joyce and Hatcher’s proposals regarding the detention camps and the ‘Special Commandos’. He had long considered the Irish a culture of anarchic barbarians who needed to be firmly stamped down if England were to be kept safe; also, he had twice been the target of IRA assassination attempts during his first year as prime minister. Last but not least, in the spring of 1918 two comrades from his Royal Army regiment had been savagely murdered by IRA gunmen while on leave in London.
While he never issued specific written orders for their program to be put into effect, he did give them verbal consent in early December of 1937 to begin the first phase of the "final solution". At that time there were already two dozen detention camps being run by the British occupation forces in Ireland; Joyce ordered that at least as many more be built and put into operation by August of 1938.
When Major General Ramsdell went to Baghdad, he’d taken with him an "elastic directive" from Prime Minister Hiller authorizing him to take whatever steps Ramsdell deemed appropriate to build up the BAC’s strength in advance of Operation Torch. Only two men in the Royal Army enjoyed more authority than Ramsdell-- J.F.C. Fuller being one of them and the other being the C-in-C for the British expeditionary forces in France, Lieutenant General Bernard Law Montgomery.
Montgomery and Ramsdell had risen almost simultaneously through the ranks of the Royal Army officer corps over the years, and that trend would continue for most of the Second World War. In fact, Ramsdell’s elevation from brigadier to major general happened the same week that Montgomery was promoted from major general to lieutenant general. Some in the Royal Army speculated that one or both of them might wind up a field marshal before the war was over-- and indeed, both men eagerly sought to attain that rank.
Operation Torch would not only mark Major General Ramsdell’s first major combat action of the war, but also the operational debut of the Royal Army’s newest battle tank, the Mathilda II; Hiller had boasted that the new vehicle was a considerable improvement over anything then in service with the Royal Army’s tank corps, and Ramsdell hoped to see that boast proven right.
The 7th Armoured, under Ramsdell’s command, was deployed along the Iraqi-Syrian border; upon receiving word that the main body of the BAC had begun their landings along the Algerian coast, the 7th was to cross the frontier and immediately engage French colonial troops in Syria. His assigned task was to penetrate as far as he could into the Syrian Desert and keep French forces in Syria off-balance while the BAC moved to strengthen and expand its foothold in Algeria. Assisting him in this objective would be Sir Percy Hobart’s 9th Armoured Division, which would fan out from Palestine across the Golan Heights and besiege the Syrian capital of Damascus.1
On December 12th, 1937, Maj. General Ramsdell finally got the news he’d been waiting for: the main body of the British Africa Corps had landed on the Algerian coast and established a beachhead near the port of Oran. Within minutes of receiving the official communiqué informing him that Operation Torch had begun, Ramsdell sent out a message of his own to the men of his command-- a four-word dispatch that said simply, "The battle is joined."
And indeed it was: no sooner had his dispatch been received than the main body of the 7th Armoured Division was rolling across the Syrian border, driving hell-for-leather through the desert and firing at will on every French tank that had the misfortune to come within range of their Mathildas’ guns.
Meanwhile, French colonial divisions in Algeria were fighting to keep the BAC from entering Oran proper and the skies above Toulon and Marseilles were filled with the boom of anti-aircraft guns. France’s already grave situation had taken a turn for the worse....
To Be Continued
1Damascus was then the headquarters for the main French colonial administration in the Middle East.