The Right Honourable Arnold Hiller, M.P
By Chris Oakley
Includes material previously posted at Othertimelines.com
Summary: In the first seven chapters of this series we traced Arnold Hiller’s rise to power; his crushing of domestic opposition; his 1936 occupation of Ireland; his alliance with Mussolini; and the opening months of the Second World War. In this installment we’ll study the CANZUS1 nations’ strategy for confronting Hiller and recall the final battles of the British campaign in the Middle East; we’ll also discuss General de Gaulle’s efforts to break the British siege of Paris.
Ten days after the Brisbane Accords were signed, Australian prime minister John Curtin, Canadian PM Mackenzie King and New Zealander PM Michael Joseph Savage met with President Roosevelt in San Francisco to discuss effective strategies for meeting the Anglo-Japanese threat to their nations’ individual and collective security. All parties involved knew that Hiller would try sooner or later to force India and Pakistan back into the British fold, and they suspected that plans had been laid for attacks on CANZUS outposts like the Australian garrison at Port Moresby, New Guinea and the American naval base at Subic Bay in the Philippines. The only matter in doubt was how to counteract the threat.
The Brisbane Accords committed each of the four signatories to come to the others’ aid in the event of a Japanese or British attack; they also made provisions for the sharing of military intelligence between the CANZUS nations. This was of particular importance to President Roosevelt, who was concerned that American naval bases on the islands of Oahu and Midway might be vulnerable to attack by the Japanese or the Royal Navy should the Axis choose to mount such an assault. On the very day the San Francisco conference began, in fact, a Royal Navy sub had been spotted off Hawaii and chased away when it attempted to take photographs of US naval activity at the Pacific Fleet headquarters in Pearl Harbor.2
One of the other provisions of the Brisbane Accords called for the United States, as the largest and most prosperous of the signatories, to assist New Zealand and Australia in bulking up their air defenses. With British and Japanese military aviation officials consulting on a regular basis, the members of the CANZUS alliance didn’t want to get caught unprepared if their cities or defense posts came under Axis air attack.
For their part, Britain and Japan were certainly not idle during this time. In Asia, Japanese marines were helping British colonial authorities retain their grip on Hong Kong and Singapore; at Scapa Flow a combined Anglo-Japanese naval engineering team was developing a new torpedo called the Excalibur(aka the Long Lance) that promised to be a vast improvement in range and accuracy over existing torpedoes of that era. RN and IJN3 flag officers made exchange visits to discuss theories of carrier warfare, while veterans of the Japanese air war on China compared notes with their British counterparts from the French campaign on combat tactics.
In the Middle East, the Royal Army was having a field day. The 7th Armoured Division had cleared out the last pocket of French resistance in Aleppo and was moving to secure Lataika while the 9th Armoured had encircled Beirut and cemented its control of Sidon; the British Africa Corps and its Italian allies held all of Tunisia, most of Algeria, and a growing strip of territory in Morocco and had even started making inroads into French West Africa. In France itself, though, the British campaign had stalled-- General de Gaulle had proven to be a tougher opponent on the battlefield than Hiller first anticipated, and his earlier prediction that France would quit by January 6th had not come to pass.
Paris was proving the toughest nut of all to crack; though British artillery, tanks, and dive bombers had pounded much of the French capital into dust, its defenders refused to quit-- in fact, many of them hid in the rubble and waged guerrilla-style attacks against the invaders. From an underground bunker beneath the headquarters of the French war ministry, Leon Blum broadcast defiant speeches pledging his countrymen would defend the city to their last drop of blood.
It was at this point that Hiller turned to his favorite general, Irwin Ramsdell, to break the logjam. On January 12th, 1938 Ramsdell was recalled to England and given orders to meet with Lt. Gen. Montgomery for the purpose of organizing a pincer attack designed to break the French defenses on Paris’ southern perimeter; Ramsdell’s second-in- command, Brigadier Richard Verne Thomas, assumed temporary command of the 7th Armoured.
As for General de Gaulle, he was marshalling his own divisions for a three-pronged assault on the British siege ring around Paris. His bold plan, dubbed Operation Bludgeon, called for a massive combined infantry and armor thrust against the British eastern flank preceded by a diversionary strike from mechanized infantry divisions on the northwestern sectors of the British siege line; de Gaulle’s aim was to disrupt that line’s cohesion to the point where other French units could sweep up through metropolitan Paris and cut the British northern flank in two.
On January 16th, 1938, four days after the Ramsdell-Montgomery staff conference, Operation Bludgeon was unleashed just after 1:00 AM London time. The British, who’d been sure that the French armies in Paris were on their last legs, were taken by surprise by this highly audacious offensive and within two days after it started de Gaulle’s divisions had succeeded in breaching the northern and eastern edges of the Royal Army siege ring around the capital. For a while, staff officers on both sides thought that this might mark the beginning of a British retreat back towards the Channel coast.
Five days into de Gaulle’s offensive, however, Montgomery and Ramsdell started their pincer assault on the French armies. Operation Bludgeon was stopped in its tracks and the French found themselves on the defensive once more; Ramsdell used his armored corps to lethal effect, wiping out some French units and trapping others in steadily shrinking pockets of resistance scattered throughout the Paris area.
10 days after Operation Bludgeon began, most of Paris was under British control; even then, however, Leon Blum refused to abandon his post. To do so, he believed, would send a dangerously defeatist signal to his fellow countrymen. It had taken a great deal of persuasion to get Blum to let some of the French government’s most vital ministries evacuate their headquarters south to join General de Gaulle in Vichy.
By February 1st the Union Jack was flying atop the Eiffel Tower and Leon Blum’s bunker was an island of French control in a sea of British soldiers; the French prime minister, however, still wouldn’t flee or capitulate. If anything, he seemed determined to make himself a martyr for France-- an impression reinforced when, in one of his final radio broadcasts, he declared: "Those here with me will continue to fight as long as we are physically able, and then with our last bullets we will shoot ourselves."4 That was all right with Hiller-- he didn’t much care by then whether the socialist leader was taken alive or dead, just so long as Blum was overthrown and the British army gained full control of Paris.
On February 3rd, an SS battalion under the command of Lieutenant Colonel August Scofield seized control of one of the main artillery batteries defending Blum’s bunker; moments later the battery’s guns were turned on the bunker’s main entrance and fired. The doorway was blasted to rubble, and as Blum and his aides rushed to take shelter from the debris additional SS men armed with flamethrowers turned the bunker into a crematorium. Blum and most of his staff were burned to ashes within a matter of minutes; the few people who were lucky enough to escape the flamethrowers were either shot dead as they emerged from the bunker’s emergency rear exit or captured and sent to prisoner-of- war camps back in England.
At 5:30 AM on the morning of February 4th, 1938 Joseph Gable woke up the British people with this dramatic announcement over the BBC: "As of this moment, the last pockets of enemy resistance in the French capital have been crushed by the Royal Army. Paris is ours!"5 Prime Minister Hiller was given a standing ovation in the House of Commons when he read the War Ministry’s official announcement that the battle for Paris was over. Bernard Montgomery was rewarded for his part in the victory by being named a field marshal and appointed as supreme commander for all British military forces in continental Europe; Irwin Ramsdell became a full general and returned to Damascus having become a demigod in the eyes of his comrades-in-arms in the Middle East.
Six days after Paris fell, the last French defensive points in Lataika were overwhelmed by a combined force of British soldiers and Syrian anti-colonial insurgents. Lataika’s capture meant that Beirut was the last major Mediterranean city east of Cairo still under French control--and with its defenders’ supplies almost down to the bottom of the barrel, even the Lebanese capital seemed poised to fall very soon. The 9th Armoured Division could have swept into Beirut any time that it wanted to, but with its own supplies stretched thin General Hobart chose to wait the French out, letting hunger and fatigue on their part do most of his work for him.
Thousands of miles away, the British Africa Corps and their Italian allies were poised to take Morocco’s most celebrated port, Casablanca; the Axis powers had expanded their foothold in French West Africa and were laying plans to send troops into French Equitorial Africa, with special attention being paid to the mineral-rich Congo. A continual stream of air and sea transports made their way to and from the joint Anglo-Italian naval base at Malta as Italy and Britain built up their expeditionary forces for Operation Dragoon, the assault on France’s Mediterranean coast that was scheduled to begin with 30 days after hostilities in the Middle East ended.
Hiller felt no concern about the possibility that Spain might intervene against him; Franco’s Nationalist rebels had the Madrid government tied up in knots. Nor did he worry very much about Germany breaking its non-aggression pact with Britain; Alfred Jodl, the man who’d succeeded Ludendorff as ruler of the Third Reich in December of 1937, seemed content at least for the short term with consolidating his nation’s conquests of Czechoslovakia and Austria and strengthening his armed forces in advance of their coming war with Poland. The USSR was also honoring its non-aggression treaty with Britain, and in any case Stalin had done away with most of the Red Army’s best officers in the purges of 1935-37, so there was certainly no danger of the Kremlin moving a muscle to stop Hiller. Norway and Denmark were both neutral. The Low Countries were too weak to oppose Hiller with much more than sternly worded protests.
In short, Hiller had next to nothing to worry about from his European neighbors. The United States, however, was a different story altogether. Even as the ink was drying on the Brisbane Accords the White House had quietly opened negotiations for a military alliance with the Salazar government in Portugal6; Roosevelt knew that if the Anglo-Italian fascist coalition succeeded in conquering France and subverting Spain, their next target would be Portugal and the Azores, both suitable for use as staging areas if and when Hiller made up his mind to invade North America.
Though still not yet fully equipped for a direct confrontation with Hiller in the Atlantic, indirectly Washington was opposing him by any means it could. With the Neutrality Act having been sharply relaxed and on the verge of being scrapped altogether, US arms manufacturers were free to sell surplus munitions and equipment to France and Spain; in British-occupied northern France field agents of the three-year-old Office of Strategic Services (OSS)7 were forming and equipping partisan bands to wage the first battles of a secret campaign which history now remembers as "the Cold War".
Not that the French needed much encouragement to rise against the enemy occupying more than half their homeland. Even before Paris fell French civilians behind the British lines in northern France had been conducting hit-and-run attacks on the occupation forces using homemade booby traps and whatever firearms they’d managed to squirrel away in the early days of the war with Britain. The French Communists proved especially adept at asymmetrical warfare; ignoring Comintern orders to co-operate with British occupation authorities, they harassed British troops at every opportunity and aided their non-Communist brethren in doing the same. This constituted a serious embarrassment for Stalin, who had assured Hiller that he had the French Communist Party well in hand.
With Stalin’s acquiescence, Hiller unleashed the full wrath of the SS on the French Communist cells, wiping most of them out and driving many of the rest into either hiding or prison camps; a few, however, were able to survive the massacres and would cause untold headaches for the British occupation forces as the war dragged on. The SS also cracked down harshly on non-Communist resistance cells, with roughly similar results.
There was little effort made to conceal the high civilian body counts these anti-partisan raids incurred; on the contrary, Joseph Gable and Henry Hamill touted them as a useful propaganda tool for deterring would-be insurgents in other territories conquered by the British. William Joyce apparently agreed with them on that score-- he made certain that the state-controlled print and broadcast media in British-occupied southern Ireland carried detailed accounts of the SS anti-partisan campaigns in France to discourage Irishmen who might be thinking of mounting a rebellion against BNSP rule.
The British campaign in the Middle East came to an end on March 7th, 1938 with the surrender of the last remaining French troops in Beirut; with the fall of Lebanon’s capital, France’s last hope of retaining a foothold in the region effectively disappeared, and within hours after General Hobart’s forces moved into Beirut French resistance had also ended in Syria as the French colonial garrison in the town of Kassah on the Turkish border surrendered to the 7th Armoured Division. Irwin Ramsdell celebrated the British triumph in Syria and Lebanon with a huge victory parade through downtown Damascus; massive crowds turned out for the festivities as Hiller’s Arab allies celebrated the end of French rule and the beginning of a new era for Syria and Lebanon as independent countries.8
In North Africa, meanwhile, the British Africa Corps and its Italian auxiliaries were continuing their relentless march through what had been France’s African empire; within three weeks after Beirut fell Axis troops had entered Senegal and seized control of Morocco’s capital and largest port, Rabat. As had been the case elsewhere, the British extensively backed local uprisings against French colonial authorities in exchange for the rebels’ support of the Hiller regime. In early April of 1938, the British began their last major military offensive of the North African campaign, Operation Gladstone.
Gladstone’s objective was to take Senegal’s capital Dakar and from there continue advancing until Axis forces reached the Atlantic coast. There was little doubt that Dakar could be won; the only thing that concerned Hiller and his generals was whether their armies could reach the coastline before running out of gas and needing to wait for their supply lines to catch up with them. That concern too was quickly dispelled: the BAC, displaying a keen instinct for efficient use of local resources, simply commandeered captured French fuel stocks and used them to supplement their own inventory, reducing the need to rely on the Royal Army quartermaster corps for the time being.
On April 9th, 1938, a colonel with one of the advance units assigned to Operation Gladstone telegraphed the War Ministry with word that his men had reached the Senegalese coast. Within the hour the ministry got a second telegram, this one from BAC headquarters declaring: "It is our duty and honor to report that we now have complete control over the former French colonial territories in North Africa." For Hiller, who would be turning forty-nine eleven days later, it was a wonderful early birthday present. With France now completely shorn of its North African and Middle Eastern holdings, the way was now clear for British forces to commence Operation Dragoon....
To Be Continued
1The acronym for the four-country coalition of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States during World War II; it’s pronounced "kan-zoos".
2As part of the 1937 Yokohama Naval Agreement, British submarines were being allowed to operate from Japanese bases, an arrangement that continued until Japan’s final defeat in the Pacific phase of World War II.
3Imperial Japanese Navy
4Quoted in an Associated Press bulletin out of Geneva dated February 2nd, 1938.
5The full recording of Gable’s announcement is preserved in the Broadcast Material archives of the Imperial War Museum in London.
6Though these talks eventually petered out after nearly a year with almost nothing being accomplished, the effort illustrates Roosevelt’s desire to establish another bridgehead against Hiller in Europe; to see how the war might have been affected if a military alliance with Portugal had been successfully established, read Stephen Badsey’s article "Strange Bedfellows: The US-Portugese Military Coalition" in the Peter G. Tsouras-edited book The Whitehall Options: Alternate Decisions of the Third Anglo-American War(copyright 2007 from Greenhill Books).
7The OSS was established in 1935; before the bureau opened its agents’ training school at Quantico, Virginia in 1940 most of its early field operatives were veteran US Army intelligence officers and ex-FBI undercover agents. For further details on the early years of the OSS, read Professor C.J. Perritt’s three-volume series Piercing The Veil: The Dawn Of American Counterintelligence 1935-1950(copyright 1994-98 Temple University Press).
8At least as long as they remained loyal to Hiller.