Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The U.K., Iran and Current Events

The United Kingdom recently re-opened the British embassy in Tehran and reestablished formal diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran. The British embassy has been closed since 2011 when anti-western Iranian mobs stormed and pillaged the embassy, violating British sovereign territory, destroying property, desecrating portraits of Her Majesty the Queen and burning British flags. In fact, as the British embassy was reopened, graffiti was still scrawled on the wall reading “Death to England”. The British Foreign Minister, Philip Hammond, also visited Tehran, the first such visit since 2003. The British Foreign Office praised the move as a step toward better relations, all the usual talk about a new era, a better relationship and all the usual nonsense with one official even making the ludicrous statement that Iran, the largest state sponsor of Islamic terrorism in the world, could be a partner in the struggle against terrorist activity. The Germans have also moved to reopen their embassy in Tehran as well and many have tied this new warming to Tehran with the “nuclear deal” negotiated by U.S. President Obama which has yet to be ratified and faces stiff opposition in the U.S. Senate.

It is a very common mistake, made by many people around the world, to see all of this in the context of the United States. Of course, the enemies of Britain and no small amount of people inside the United Kingdom have also professed that the U.K. is nothing more than the obedient vassal of the American government in spite of the multitude of facts on the Iran issue specifically that disprove this. The bad blood between Iran and the U.K. is not tied to the United States but easily stands alone. Mass rallies in Iran regularly feature Iranian government officials, including the President and the Ayatollah, leading the mob in chants of “Death to America”, “Death to Israel” and, “Death to Britain”. It seems to me that the “Death to Britain” chants are not given as much media coverage as the other two but, perhaps, in other venues, it is. However, the rush by the British government to reestablish diplomatic relations with Iran show that Britain is most definitely not in lockstep with the United States. The U.K. had, as mentioned, full diplomatic relations with Iran prior to the 2011 attack on the U.K. embassy, whereas the United States has not had diplomatic relations with Iran since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

The only reason that there has been any commonality between the U.S. and U.K. policy toward Iran is due entirely to the fact that both have faced similar attacks from the Iranians themselves. The antagonism between Britain and Iran has deep roots and do not involve the United States. Britain was heavily invested in Iran long before the United States arrived on the scene or was even a major player on the international stage. Britain had supported the rise of the Pahlavi dynasty to power, it was Britain that established much of the oil industry in Iran and tensions arose between the two as Iran attempted to take control of this industry which Britain had so heavily invested in. Things came to a boil when the Iranian government nationalized the oil industry, seizing British assets in the process. The government in question had stripped the Shah of his power and dissolved the Iranian parliament, ruling by dictate. It was the U.K. which enlisted the support of the U.S. in the matter to take action to restore the Shah to power. This was done and the monarchy of the last Shah was very friendly toward the west, supportive of monarchy throughout the Middle East (where the Arab nationalist movement was threatening them) and even recognized the State of Israel.

The Shah of Iran and Her Majesty the Queen hosted each other on state visits and relations between Iran and the U.K. were very friendly. That was itself enough to make the U.K. an enemy of the Islamic radicals led by the Ayatollah Khomeini. He portrayed the Shah as the tool of the British and Americans, even though the Shah himself was actually far from being terribly fond of either of them and time would tell that neither were fully committed to the Pahlavi monarchy, despite what the Ayatollah told his deluded followers. When the Islamic Revolution broke out and the Shah was overthrown, Islamic militants attacked the British embassy, took the people there hostage and remained under constant threat until their heroic rescue by forces of the SAS. Diplomatic relations had been, effectively, broken off by the Iranians but the British government reestablished relations with the Islamic Republic later, broke them off again after the fatwa on Salman Rushdie and then reestablished by Britain again all the while the United States refused to have anything to do with the Iranian regime and did not take a very favorable view of anyone doing otherwise.

This, then, is simply the latest in a long-established pattern of behavior by which a succession of British governments have tried again and again to normalize and improve relations with a radical Islamist regime that is thoroughly anti-British and wants to see the United Kingdom destroyed. It may not be as high a priority for destruction as Israel and the United States but it is still certainly on the list and has been longer than the other two. Iranian regard for Britain as an enemy has nothing to do with America or Israel but is independently based on Anglo-Iranian history and the diametrically opposed views of both countries and all that each stand for. Putting aside all accusations, all conspiracy theories and simply looking at the basic facts, a few things should be clear. The U.K. has consistently shown that it simply wants to do business with Iran and that breaks in diplomatic relations have only happened because of direct Iranian attacks on British subjects and British sovereignty or, temporarily, because of a specific threat of violent against a specific individual. In contrast, other than President Obama and his most ardent supporters, the U.S. has been loath to have anything at all to do with Iran ever since the Islamic Revolution. Iran, as a regime, has shown nothing but hostility toward Britain.

Many on the left in Britain want to be friendly with the Islamic Republic. Some on the right, such as Peter Hitchens, agree and argue that Britain should not have backed the Shah in the first place and that Iran is entitled to possess a nuclear arsenal no matter what sort of threats their leaders make. Both points of view are based on the opinion that Britain was the guilty party in the Anglo-Iranian relationship prior to the Islamic Revolution. That is a matter of individual opinion and judgment. Is the current level of antagonism between the U.K. and Iran the fault of Britain? Have Iranian attacks on Britain been a justified reaction to British transgressions? That is for the individual to decide and I doubt I could persuade anyone to change their opinion. However, it is a decision for Britain and the British people to make and should not be tied to the views or actions of any other power.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Rear Admiral Benjamin Bryant, RN

During World War II, or World War I for that matter, most think of the British as being on the receiving end of submarine warfare. It is true that, because of the world wars, Britain has been the target of submarine attacks more than any other country but the Royal Navy quickly proved that they were just as adept at warfare under the waves as they were on the surface and Ben Bryant is a perfect example of the level of excellence achieved by British submariners, which continues on to the present day. He was born on September 16, 1905 in Madras, India, the third child and second son of John Forbes Bryant and Mary Ada. His father worked in the Indian civil service and he spent his earliest years there in what would be the height of the Empire of India. After moving back to Britain, as a boy Bryant went to Oundle School in Northamptonshire and after finishing attended the Royal Naval College at Osborne. Upon graduation he finished his education preparation for an officer in the King’s navy at the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth. He and his two siblings were to do their part for King and Country during World War II, Ben in the Royal Navy, his older brother Joseph in the Royal Army Medical Corps and his sister Mary who lost her husband during the Burma campaign.

HMS Sealion
In 1929 Ben married Marjorie Dagmar Mynors by whom he had two sons and one daughter (the first son died young) but international events were set to intrude on domestic tranquility. When the Second World War broke out, Bryant was in the thick of it from the start, beginning as a lieutenant commander on the S-class submarine HMS Sealion (72S). He served on the Sealion from September 1938 to October of 1941. In November of 1939, Bryant attacked the German submarine U-21 off the Dogger Bank. It was the second time that the U-21 had been attacked by a British sub and it survived both attempts to sink her. However, the British submariners would in quick order become rather famous for their success at killing submarines with other submarines. In 1940 Bryant scored his first victory with the sinking of a German merchant ship, the August Leonhardt, off the Danish island of Anholt. His next attack on the merchantman Moltkefels missed as was an attack on the German sub U-62 in July. The following month Bryant sunk the Norwegian merchant ship Toran but missed in a subsequent attack on another German merchantman.

HMS Safari
In February of 1941 Bryant and the Sealion shelled and sank the Norwegian cargo vessel Hurtigruten and in May attacked the German sub U-74 but, again, was unsuccessful. However, in July, Commander Bryant wreaked havoc on French shipping lanes, taking down four French fishing vessels in quick order. Bryant and his boat were dispatched to hunt the fearsome German battleship Bismarck (along with the bulk of the Royal Navy in the vicinity) but the beast was finished off without his assistance. Not long after, Ben Bryant was promoted to commander and given command of HMS Safari (P211), another S-class boat. This was the command that Ben Bryant is probably most associated with as he and his crew on the Safari wrought havoc on Axis shipping lanes in the Mediterranean. It was a critical operation as British success or failure depended on the struggle against the German and Italian forces in North Africa under Field Marshal Rommel. If they could conquer Egypt, the rest of the Middle East would have been scarcely defensible and the spine of the British Empire would have been severed. In the desert, almost everything depended on logistics and when Rommel and his Axis forces had sufficient supplies, they advanced, when they did not, they retracted. Ben Bryant and his sailors on the Safari made sure Rommel’s troops got as few supplies as possible.

During this outstanding campaign, dodging German and Italian ships, subs and aircraft the entire time, Bryant sank twenty Italian merchant ships, five German transports and six minor Italian warships. Eight other Axis ships were damaged and one Italian submarine was engaged but not sunk. In 1942, showing extreme audacity and skill, Bryant finished off a damaged Italian ship while it was being towed back to port by an Italian destroyer. By the time it was all over, Commander Ben Bryant and his men had done immense damage to Axis shipping lanes and severely hampered Italo-German military operations in North Africa. Were it not for the actions of British submariners like Bryant and others like him, the war in Africa and the outcome of the war entirely might have been very different. For the remainder of the conflict Bryant was given command of a succession of submarine depot ships but he had made a name for himself that would live forever as one of the best wartime sub captains in history. He was the most successful British submarine commander to survive the war. After the death of his wife he remarried in the 1960’s and had a long and distinguished career in the Royal Navy, ultimately achieving the rank of Rear Admiral. His books about submarine warfare are still popular today.

By the time of his death on November 23, 1994 Admiral Ben Bryant had been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and the Distinguished Service Order with Two Bars and was made a Companion of the Order of the Bath. One of the greatest submariners of all time, he had the qualities of leadership that made him the ideal commander. No better summary could be given than that of one of the men who served under his command, Lt. Commander Edward Young:
“Ben Bryant was one of those men who are big enough to give you confidence in yourself by assuming you can do your job without appearing to check up on you. He believed in taking the game of war seriously; nevertheless it somehow always seemed a game. He strove continuously to make himself and his men as efficient as possible, and was out to hit the enemy with all he knew, but he did so with such an air of gay bravado that half the time you had an odd feeling that you were playing at pirates. With his erect height, his seadog beard and arrogant eye, he was the typical submarine captain of the public imagination. He had a fine command of the English language, which he used to good effect in recounting yarns in the wardroom, inventing ballads, or expressing his opinion of some ineptitude on the part of one of his officers or men. He had the rare gift of being able to switch, without loss of dignity, from commanding officer to entertaining messmate.” 

Saturday, August 1, 2015

How Australia Could Have Changed Royal History

Today, monarchists in the United Kingdom generally rest easy that the institution which is the foundation of the British government is secure. Republican traitors are annoying but remain, so far, a vocal and over-publicized minority while most people either support the monarchy or at least do not feel that doing away with it would result in any change significant enough to be worth the effort. Hardly an ideal situation in my view but still an improvement over that which exists in numerous Commonwealth Realms. Monarchists in these countries must be ever vigilant against the constant struggle with the republican, anti-British xenophobes who are ceaseless in their efforts to tear down the existing system of constitutional monarchy. Dealing with this problem has caused some differences of opinion among monarchists, primarily between those who wish to defend the ties which the monarchy provides with Great Britain and the rest of the Anglo-sphere, the British heritage of the country and for a brave few even the legacy of the late, great British Empire; and then there are those who wish to emphasize the separate nature of “their” monarchy from that of Britain, playing up the fact that legally these are all separate monarchies which just happen to share one monarch who just happens to reside in London the vast majority of the time.

Personally, I prefer to defend it all in total but am not averse to any strategy that would work. In no Commonwealth Realm has the struggle been more intense and critical than in Australia, mostly due to the level of anti-all-things-British bigotry that has become fashionable there. However, after seeing how ecstatic Australians went for all things Danish after a lovely Australian girl captured the heart of Crown Prince Frederick of Denmark, with all the excitement of their being an Australian Queen in the oldest monarchy in Europe, it made me see a potential solution, albeit one unlikely to ever be taken up as serious. It helped to form my opinion that if the sons of the Prince of Wales would marry girls from the Commonwealth Realms, it would bring about the utter ruination of republicanism in those countries. Prince William, of course, chose an English girl and for all the girls Prince Harry has had his eye on, none have hailed from Canada or Australia. So much for that idea. Secondarily, however, I have also long been of the opinion that it would be a good idea to have junior members of the House of Windsor appointed to the position of Governor-General in the Commonwealth Realms.

This would, as I see it, serve a dual purpose. It would, hopefully, help to strengthen ties between the realms and Great Britain as well as with the monarchy by having an actual member of the Royal Family as the monarch’s representative in the country. Further, it would serve as a good form of preparation for those royals who are high up in the line of succession. Serving as the monarch’s representative would seem to me to be an ideal way of learning the trade of being the actual monarch for that country and the others some day in the future. Again, however, I realize most would roll their eyes at the very notion of having a royal Governor-General. It would mean having a Governor-General who was British and many people seem to think, for some reason my damaged mind cannot fathom, that this would be an unspeakable humiliation and a sign of degrading subservience to the old mother country. Personally, I have never seen any Commonwealth Realm treat their Governor-General in anything close to a subservient fashion but, I suppose, expecting these sorts of people to make sense is asking too much.

However, I was rather surprised when a British friend of mine (now residing in a Commonwealth Realm) mentioned that, while certainly unlikely, such a thing had very nearly happened before. Most reading this may be well aware but for those who were, like I was once, ignorant of this bit of history, I will relate: the Prince of Wales, starting in the 1970’s, made it known that he would very much liked to have been appointed Governor-General for Australia. In my view, this would have been a brilliant idea. The Prince of Wales had attended school in Australia for about a year in his youth, has always been very fond of the country and it would have solved the ever-present problem for almost all Princes of Wales in royal history of giving him something tangible and important to do. It was a job that needed to be done, a job that he was well suited to doing and one that would have provided good training for his future as monarch. But, obviously, though it was talked about seriously for some time, it never happened. The Australian government effectively said, “no” to the idea (if any objections came from the British side, I have not heard of it) and this was quite a blow to the Prince of Wales who said, “What are you supposed to think when you are prepared to do something to help and you are told you are not wanted?”

The problem is due to one of things that I find most frustrating about government in general in the English-speaking world outside of the United States which is that there is a difference between what the law says can be done and what “convention” says can be done. Legally, of course, the Queen appoints the Governor-General and, as far as I know, can appoint whomsoever she chooses. The convention, however, is that the Queen must appoint the candidate chosen by the Prime Minister of the country in question. Further, while, again, as far as I know, there is no law that says the Governor-General must be a native or resident of the country in question, the convention has been established that only an Australian can be appointed Governor-General of Australia and only a Canadian can be appointed Governor-General of Canada and so on. So, there were objections that having the Prince of Wales as Governor-General of Australia would be quite impossible. He is not “Australian” and was not put forward as a candidate by the Australian government. The dismissal of the Australian government by Governor-General Sir John Kerr on the Queen’s authority in 1975 has also been cited as a reason why the Prince of Wales was refused for the position. This, incidentally, was also a case of people objecting to a Governor-General doing something which he had the right, according to the law, to do but which, by convention, was something he was not expected to do.

Sir Ninian Stephen, Governor-General of Australia from 1982 to 1989, reportedly planned to name the Prince of Wales as his choice to succeed him in the office but that the idea was thwarted by Prime Minister Bob Hawke who, in explaining much later why he had opposed it, revealed that the precedent did not matter so much in his decision as did the fact that he is a traitor. He said in an interview long after the fact that, “It came up at some stage. I made it quite clear it wasn’t on. We’re in favor of a republic. The idea of doubling the dose…held no appeal.” By “we”, I assume he meant the Labor Party of which he was leader, a party which describes itself as democratic-socialist and which has made treason against the Australian sovereign, by pushing for a republic regardless of the will of the Australian public, a part of their official party platform. Had the Prince of Wales been appointed Governor-General, it might have killed that movement in its infancy and strengthened the bonds between the Crown and Australia.

I cannot help but think of the possible changes to royal history that might have occurred had the Australians welcomed the Prince of Wales with open arms. Being admittedly in favor of the idea, openly biased and completely partial, naturally they are all positive changes in my mind. Imagine a newly wed Prince Charles and Princess Diana moving to Australia. Prince William would have been a toddler there and the presence of two future heirs would certainly have given a boost to monarchism in Australia. The Prince and Princess of Wales, together in a distant country far from their usual circle of friends (and with no Camilla close at hand) might have been just the thing to draw them closer together and save their marriage. Had there been no divorce and thus no subsequent fling with the Egyptian playboy Dodi Fayed, Diana might still be alive today, the Princess of Wales and future Queen. It seems an idyllic family scene to my mind.

Of course, there is always the possibility that things might have gone differently. The level of anti-British sentiment in Australia has never been something I have been able to comprehend. I cannot imagine looking back on the British Empire with anything but a surge of pride at being part of the greatest human endeavor in the history of the world, I cannot imagine the mentality of the people of a country wishing to change their national flag and I cannot imagine viewing people who look the same as you and speak the same language as you, who even share the same religion, customs and ancestry as you as a “foreign” people. To me, it all seems completely irrational but it exists nonetheless and so there might well have been problems. Still, I think it laudable that the Prince of Wales desired the position, I think he should have been appointed to it and, far-fetched or not, I still think it would be beneficial for all if younger members of the Royal Family did spend time serving in a viceregal capacity. It was considered once, and it almost changed the course of royal history. Why not consider it again and, this time, give it a try? In 2007 it was reported that Prince William was interested in becoming Governor-General of Australia but that Prime Minister John Howard vetoed the idea, saying it could only go to someone who was “in every way Australian”. How exactly Prince William differs so radically from someone born and raised in Australia, he did not explain.

Monday, May 11, 2015

King George IV

HRH Prince George Augustus Frederick was born on August 12, 1762 the first of fifteen children born to King George III and Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. Within days he was given the title Prince of Wales and as he grew up he fit into what seemed to be a pattern for royals of the House of Hanover and British monarchs in general with eldest sons having an antagonistic relationship with their parents as well as the way monarchial parents and royal heirs seemed to alternate between those who held firmly to traditional family values (George III, Victoria, George V) and sons who lived a ‘playboy’ lifestyle (George IV, Edward VII, Edward VIII). While his father was the first Hanoverian monarch in Britain who was faithful husband, was very disciplined, upright, frugal and so on, the Prince of Wales began to show opposite characteristics as soon as he reached adulthood. As soon as he gained the first degree of freedom from his parents, he showed a great fondness for food, drink, women and lavish living. However, like others that would come after him, these qualities did not make him terribly unpopular with everyone. He had qualities that were to his credit as well and was known to be a charming, likeable fellow.

As a child, the Prince of Wales proved himself to be a quick study and very bright. He would be the second Hanoverian monarch to speak English as his first language but he was also proficient in German, French and Italian. He was witty and a great conversationalist, the sort of man who seemed able to talk easily with anyone about anything. He had an informality that put people at ease while, in his younger days at least, a regal bearing that impressed people. His appearance was to change dramatically over the years but in his youth few failed to remark on how handsome he was. Tall, dignified and charming, he had a presence none could forget, only lady (a mistress) remarking on, “the grace of his person, the irresistible sweetness of his smile, the tenderness of his melodious yet manly voice”. However, his fondness for drink and over-eating left him increasingly overweight by his mid to late thirties. Earlier than that his high living and over-spending left him heavily in debt and thus increasingly at odds with his very frugal father. By the time he was fifty years old the descriptions of his appearance were the total opposite of what they had been in his youth. He could charm women and in the company of men could easily seem ‘one of the boys’ but when it came to the tensions with his father, he could display a cruel streak. Aside from his lifestyle, father and son disagreed over politics as well.

Probably more out of an urge to rebel and assert his independence from his father rather than genuine ideological agreement, the Prince of Wales openly associated himself with the very leftist and even anti-monarchial opposition leader Charles James Fox. During the American War for Independence, Fox and his clique openly took the side of the rebels, condemning the King and parading about in the blue and buff colors of the continental army. If the Prince of Wales only associated with Fox as a way to annoy his father, Fox likewise had little genuine use for the Prince as well. He disliked monarchy altogether but saw in the Prince of Wales someone he could use to gain power and who could be duped into helping him wreck the political establishment in Britain. However, the Prince of Wales was not the dupe Fox thought he was, as would be proven in due time. First, however, the Prince had to get through his first, really serious, scandal which arose from his love life. Yet, it was not because of the succession of mistresses he had but rather one woman who was actually one of the best things to ever happen to him and who just might have changed the course of his life.

The woman in question was Maria Fitzherbert, who was five years older than the Prince and a Roman Catholic. Where all else had failed, she actually succeeding in altering his habits. A very upright woman, she firmly refused to be his mistress. This put the Prince in a difficult situation as he was totally smitten with her and would do anything to have her. Maria made it clear that the only way that would happen is if they were properly married in the eyes of God. So, the Prince of Wales grabbed a churchman from debtor’s prison (promising him a bishopric when he became king) and had him married to Maria Fitzherbert. This may have made them husband and wife in the eyes of God (and they lived as such after that) but according to British law in had no validity as the King had not consented to the marriage and there was certainly no way he would have ever given such consent for the heir to the throne to marry a Catholic. For the Prince of Wales, he genuinely loved Maria but he was not a faithful man and soon left her for his next mistress (Lady Jersey). However, the fact that he went through a religious marriage with Maria would cause him problems for some time to come.

When the Prince of Wales did legally marry it came about not because of romance but because of his mounting debts. The King was absolutely opposed to any increase in his allowance because of his lavish spending. However, Parliament finally agreed to cover his debts if he would settle down and get married. So, in 1795, he agreed to marry his cousin Caroline of Brunswick. It was hardly a match made in Heaven. Bride and groom were repulsed by the other and the Prince was drunk at his own wedding (perhaps the only way he could go through with it). After the birth of their first child early the following year, a daughter, the two lived apart. Meanwhile, the Prince of Wales was becoming more critical to national life as King George III began to show signs of madness, actually the first symptoms of porphyria. As the behavior of the King became more erratic, more looked to the Prince of Wales for leadership. Yet, for some, the Prince seemed all too eager to snatch power from his father. He did himself no favors by associating with the opposition, mocking the King, spreading embarrassing stories about him and even speaking (though surely not seriously) about a sort of palace coup to seize the royal powers for himself. Despite rallying for a time, eventually the mental state of the King became such that he had to be set aside and the Prince of Wales was appointed regent to act on his behalf in 1811.

With his achievement of power, the Prince of Wales did not immediately become the creature of the Whigs as many had expected. The Tories continued in power and continued the vigorous prosecution of the war against Napoleon. He presided over the War of 1812 with the United States, signed the peace ending that conflict and he saw Napoleon finally defeated at the Battle of Waterloo. So central did that battle become to the British national narrative that the Prince Regent seemed to genuinely convince himself that he had actually been present on the field that day, which of course he was not. The final peace achieved at the Congress of Vienna saw the British Empire in a very strong position with new footholds around the world and the elevation of Hanover to a kingdom. In 1820 King George III passed away and, at 57, the Prince Regent came to the throne as King George IV. The occasion was marked by what was probably the most lavish and grandiose coronation in British history. Although some groaned about the huge expense, the people enjoyed the occasion and the grand style of George IV symbolized a British Empire that had emerged victorious from the French Revolutionary Wars and was growing around the world.

There was plenty of criticism during the rather short ten-year reign of King George IV for his personal habits, his spending and his interference in politics. That, however, should be kept in perspective. The criticism of his personal life was mostly accurate but his political meddling was mostly due to incorrect assumptions based on his previous association with the Whigs. In fact, he largely stayed out of politics and the era of royal involvement in government seen during the reign of his father stopped and the era of royal non-interference had begun with George IV (or resumed from the first two Georges). However, that fact alone meant that when he did involve himself in political matters, particularly to carry on certain policies of his father (such as blocking Catholic emancipation) caused it to stand out more than it should have. There was also more to the man than the drunken glutton portrayed in the press. Many consider him the most intelligent of the Hanoverian monarchs and, when he was sober, he could demonstrate his knowledge, wit and uncanny memory.

Surely the greatest contribution made by King George IV was in his great sense of style. He left the country far more grand than he found it. Many of the most famous landmarks of Britain are attributable to King George IV. Whereas his predecessors had lived more simply in the German style, George IV seemed more reminiscent of the great patrons of the arts from the Stuart era. He restored Windsor Castle and rebuilt the Royal Lodge (lately the home of the Queen Mother). Brighton Pavilion was probably his most grandiose architectural achievement, built in an Oriental style it had Near Eastern exteriors, Chinese interiors and it still stands as a monument to the cosmopolitan nature of the British Empire. It also turned Brighton from a largely overlooked community to a major holiday center. The King stayed there often and after 1800 lived again with Maria Fitzherbert who still regarded herself as his wife, in the eyes of God if not in the eyes of the law. Although not often known, she did help him considerably, nursing him back from a stomach ailment and managing to get him to cut down on his drinking. Whenever they were together she proved to be very good for him. His unstable legal wife, Caroline of Brunswick, had left the country to live a rather scandalous life in Italy only to return at the time of his coronation to claim her place as queen. She was turned away at the doors of Westminster Abbey and died in 1821. He had tried to divorce her but was told that to do so would throw into the public much about his private life that would do no one any good. So when Caroline died she at least died fairly popular with the public who had no idea of what she was really like, having most of the same disgusting habits as her husband but without anything like his winning personality.

During his reign, King George IV moved considerably to the right from where he had been in his rebellious youth when aligned with Fox. Once the responsibility of royal leadership was fully on his shoulders, George IV realized that the type of ideas espoused by Fox would lead to anarchy and the sort of revolutionary chaos seen in France. Because of this, the Whigs viewed him as a traitor to their cause and would never forgive him for it. However, he was not the sort of man to put up much of a fight in the political arena. By the time he was actually King, with a lifestyle that had aged him beyond his years, he preferred to avoid confrontation whenever possible. As a result, he often promised one group his support on a certain issue only to fail to give it when it seemed there would be resistance. This left him with an untrustworthy reputation that caused most to try to avoid him. He was secluded most of the time but when he did make public appearances he could still awe a crowd with his magnificent fashion sense and showed that he could still display the regal bearing and dignity of his youth, despite his increased years and even more increased waistline. He could still win people over and, while often discounted, his highly choreographed visit to Scotland (the first such royal visit since the Stuart era) did help bring the United Kingdom more closely together.

In the final years of his reign, as his health declined, George IV seemed to be increasingly out of touch with reality. He devoted his time to planning further even more grandiose building projects, none of which were to ever see fruition. He might also talk at length about his imagined exploits at the Battle of Waterloo where his imaginary role became ever greater and more heroic. He also became much more religious at the very end of his life and that end finally came on June 26, 1830 at the age of 67 at Windsor Castle. Despite all the criticism of his habits and private life, he had not been a terrible monarch even though he was certainly not a great one. The tragedy is that he could have been so much better. He had the intelligence and he had the presence to make for a great monarch but he lacked the discipline and work ethic. As it was, he seemed to be marking time until he was succeeded by his younger brother the Duke of Clarence (King William IV) who himself is often seen as a placeholder until the accession of Queen Victoria. He had many faults but his reign was certainly not a disaster and, if nothing else, George IV at least left behind a country with a few more beautiful buildings and a finer sense of style because of him.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Attack on the Takao

One of the most daring exploits of World War II, or naval warfare in general, was carried out by a young Royal Navy officer from Ealing, London, Lieutenant Ian Edward Fraser. The son of a marine engineer, he worked in the merchant marine in the late 30’s and joined the Royal Navy in 1939, volunteering for submarine service. By 1943 he was serving on HMS Sahib with distinction and earned the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC). The following year he became a lieutenant in the Royal Navy Reserve at the age of 24 and transferred to the special ‘midget submarine’ service. These were the X-craft mini-subs which had already earned a page in naval history for crippling the mighty German battleship Tirpitz in 1943. Lt. Fraser was to command an XE-craft which was an updated version of the X-craft that would see service in East Asia. An important point, though, was that the XE-craft were unarmed. They were designed to be taken by a combat submarine to the area of operations, dispatched to stealthily approach their target and then one man in diving gear would attach mines to the hull of their target and destroy it. It took men of exceptional courage and nerve to carry out such missions.

The Takao
Lt. Fraser and his boat, the XE-3 were to take part in “Operation Struggle”, the plan for the liberation of the vital fortress city of Singapore which had fallen to the Japanese in 1942. Allied troops were, by July of 1945, back on the Malay peninsula but they dared not move against Singapore because of the powerful guard Japan had posted in the Johore Strait. That was the target of XE-3, the powerful Japanese heavy cruiser Takao. The lead ship of its class, the Takao was an awesome sight to behold. With 127mm armor, bristling with 8-inch guns, 5-inch guns, anti-aircraft guns, torpedoes and depth charges and with powerful engines giving her a top speed of just over 35 knots the Takao was a floating example of the excellence of the Imperial Japanese Navy. Stationed where she was, no Allied advance on Singapore was possible as the 8-inch batteries on Takao could decimate any Allied army that attempted to cross the causeway. The Takao was also a battle-hardened veteran which had been in action since the war began and had sunk or crippled numerous Allied warships and merchant vessels. Targeted by the Allies many times, the Takao had been subject to submarine attack twice but survived and was hit in air attacks numerous times but survived. Now manned by a skeleton crew, the veteran ship was placed to cover the causeway and provide protection from air attack with her formidable (and greatly enlarged) arsenal of anti-aircraft guns.

This was a real David and Goliath type of mission, a battle-scarred Japanese heavy cruiser versus a British mini-sub without so much as a single machine gun or torpedo. Still, the X-craft had proven that, while the odds were long, they could achieve success and Fraser and his men were ready to try. The XE-3 was truly a “British Empire” submarine with a diverse crew. Alongside London-born Lieutenant Fraser was Lieutenant “Kiwi” Smith from New Zealand, their helmsman Charles Reed (the only other Brit) and an Irishman named J.J. “Mick” Magennis who would have to set the charges. All were hand-picked for the job and all but Fraser himself were veterans of mini-sub service. It was just after midnight on July 30, 1945 that XE-3, after being towed to the vicinity by His Majesty’s Submarine Stygian, crept toward the entrance to Johore Straits where the mighty Takao was waiting. Just after dawn Fraser sighted the island that marked the entrance to the strait and ordered the XE-3 to submerge. From then on, victory or death were the only alternatives.

The XE-4
As the sub swam towards the entrance to the straits, Fraser looked through the periscope to a frightening sight. The way was blocked by two Japanese gunboats which, with or without sonar, would have an easy time spotting the sub in the clear, shallow waters. It was the only safe entrance to the straits but the Japanese, never lacking in thoroughness, had sealed it off. Still, Fraser was determined to make the attack and he ordered Smith to surface the boat. With only seven inches of hull above water, it would be hard to spot the sub in the low light of early dawn, but if just one Japanese gunboat happened to, the XE-3 would be a sitting duck. Fraser decided to go ahead and with just the top of his head peering out from the hatch he passed commands to steer the XE-3 past the watchful gunboats, doing his best to hug the shore. When the curving coast finally hid the gunboats from view, Fraser ordered the boat into the swept central passage and increased to flank speed, a mere 6 and a half knots for his little craft. It was risky, but if they didn’t strike fast the odds would be even greater that the Japanese would destroy them before they ever got near the Takao.

Then, as the sub was surging forward as best it could, around another bend in the strait appeared another Japanese gunboat. Immediately, Fraser ordered them to dive and once submerged turned hard to starboard (that’s “right” in naval talk). Even if they were not spotted, they would be just as dead if the Japanese inadvertently rammed them. However, as it happened, they had turned right into a minefield. If they hit one of the mine cables, it would pull the explosive down on them and end their lives right there. Plus, if the gunboat had spotted them, just one depth charge, anywhere in the immediate area, would set off the mines and they would be blown into a million pieces. It was a desperate gamble, but if they hadn’t been spotted, the minefield would prevent them from being detected -the downside being that it could easily kill them with just one wrong move. They sat silent for what seemed like an eternity, all nerves jumping when the sound of a mine scraping against the hull reminded them of just how perilous their situation was. Luckily, it didn’t go off and eventually floated free. With plenty of time having elapsed for the ship to pass them by, Fraser ordered them to move slowly out of the minefield. It would have been nice to see what exactly was in front of them but raising the periscope could happen to set off a mine so, instead, they carefully and blindly crept forward.

The Takao
Once clear, a quick look through the periscope showed them to be only 3,000 yards from the harbor where the Takao lay at anchor. But, between them and the harbor was a steel anti-submarine net with only one gate, operated by a nearby trawler to let friendly traffic in and out. Fraser waited and soon enough the trawler dragged open the gate to let out a tanker. As the big ship went through, Fraser ordered flank speed and the XE-3 surged forward, through the gate and into the harbor. Looking through the periscope, their wasn’t much to see but dilapidated old junks. By the summer of 1945 the Imperial Japanese Navy had been practically wiped out but that also meant that a powerful warship like the Takao would be all the more heavily guarded. Yet, while the XE-3 circled the harbor, searching and searching, the Takao was nowhere to be seen. It was as if an entire heavy cruiser had just vanished. Fraser and his men started to get rattled. Where could it be? Every hour that slipped by increased the odds that they would be detected and a heavy cruiser should have been the easiest thing in the world to find. A 10,000-ton battle cruiser is not something you just miss.

Just then, Fraser spotted through the periscope a launch full of sailors, all smartly uniformed, coming out of a group of old fishing boats near a tangle of jungle. They had to be from Takao and as he looked more closely he finally spotted the carefully camouflaged heavy cruiser. The Japanese had made the ship as close to invisible as it could possibly get, however, once spotted, Fraser retracted the periscope and maneuvered in blind, unable to risk being spotted himself, while Magennis prepared to make his attack. They crept forward, bumping along a rise in the harbor floor that served as a natural anti-submarine defense. As the depth gauge moved higher and higher they finally clanged into the side of the cruiser. At that point, Fraser had to maneuver the XE-3 underneath the Takao to set the charges on her keel, otherwise the full impact of the explosion would be directed away from the ship. There was a shallow area on the bottom that seemed just large enough for the British sub. Finally, a terrible noise told them they had scraped the bottom of the warship and, halfway under the beast, Fraser stopped. It was time for Magennis to make the attack.

The XE-8
The intrepid Irishman in his diving gear exited the submarine, retrieved the limpet bomb from its compartment and tried to attach it to the Takao’s hull. However, the ship was so encrusted with barnacles that the magnet wouldn’t stick. Magennis had to use his knife to scrape away the crusty covering, cutting himself on the barnacles in the process, until he finally reached the hull and could attach the bomb. It took so much time that he almost exhausted his oxygen supply but he kept his cool and just in time managed to attach all five bombs and return to the submarine. Once back aboard, all that was left was for Fraser to release the two bow canisters of explosives and they were done. The port canister was released but something went wrong and the starboard canister remained stuck. There was no time to coax it, in one hour the limpet bombs would go off and if they were not well away the XE-3 would be hoisted on its own petard. Fraser decided to get out and release the other canister in the harbor. He ordered engines back full but, to the horror of all, the little sub didn’t move. They had been down so long that the tide had fallen and the Takao was now pressing down on them, pinning them to the harbor bottom. The clock ticked away to certain death.

Fraser ordered the engines to full speed, forward and then back again, trying to dislodge the sub. It didn’t work. Desperate, he ordered the ballast tanks blown to lighten them, and tried again. Finally, the XE-3 pushed free but as the ballast tanks were empty, they immediately began to rocket to the surface. Immediately, Fraser ordered an emergency dive, re-filling the tanks. If they had popped to the surface right there, they would have been dead in the water. However, releasing the port canister while the starboard remained had made them lighter while throwing off their balance, the sub continued to rise and finally burst up on to the surface. The Japanese, somehow, didn’t notice them but in forty minutes and counting they would certainly notice the five bombs going off under the Takao. Fraser had to get that other canister off immediately.

Magennis and Fraser
“Mick” Magennis got his gear on and headed into the diving trunk again. Everyone waited, watching the minutes tick by till the bombs would explode. Magennis soon found the problem; the threads on the bolts attaching the canister to the sub were jammed. It took every ounce of strength he had but he finally got them off and the canister fell into the harbor. He raced back inside and Fraser turned the little sub for the harbor entrance with all the speed possible. They only had ten minutes before the bombs exploded. Just as the XE-3 got clear of the harbor gate they heard the huge explosion as the bombs detonated, raising the Takao up in the water and tearing a huge hole in the underside of the massive cruiser. Amazingly, the rugged ship still did not sink but it was certainly crippled and put completely out of action. Almost 1,800 Japanese officers and sailors lost their lives on the Takao, the formidable heavy cruiser was out of the war for good and the main defense of Singapore had been eliminated -and all by one tiny submarine and four Royal Navy sailors with nerves of steel. David had brought down Goliath.

The men of the XE-3 returned to a well-deserved heroes welcome. Twelve hours later they were picked up in the Singapore Strait by HMS Stygian and His Majesty King George VI awarded Reed and Smith the Distinguished Service Order and for Fraser and Magennis the coveted Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest award for courage in the face of the enemy. Fraser was promoted to Lieutenant Commander and continued to serve in the Royal Navy and then Royal Navy Reserve until 1965. He died in 2008 at the age of 87. For this daring operation, all of them earned an honored place in the annals of naval history.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Australia in World War II

The Commonwealth of Australia came of age as a country in the Twentieth Century. Australian forces had proven themselves in the First World War in numerous engagements, from the brutal stalemate of Gallipoli to their hard charging success in the Middle East. Australia was a growing, thriving country that fit in well with the British Empire. All serious people understood that this was essential for Australia in terms of national defense. With a small population it had an army of less than 100,000 men, a navy which could boast no larger warships than two cruisers and an air force of less than 300, mostly outdated, airplanes. The Australian armed forces, with their courage and rugged resilience, could hit above their weight but there was no realistic way the country could stand alone against the potential threats they faced. The most immediate threat faced by Australia was the Empire of Japan and this was understood well before the outbreak of war. Japan was the only country in the region that had naval and air forces capable of attacking Australia and it had the manpower available to have Australia totally outmatched.

This disparity was the reason why Australia was most reluctant to see the Anglo-Japanese alliance come to an end in 1921. It improved relations with the United States but the Americans would make no promises to defend Australia or any part of the British Empire in case of attack and so the Australians preferred to maintain the alliance with Japan at least until Australian military strength could be increased to a level that would give Japan pause should the “Land of the Rising Sun” turn hostile. This, however, was not to be and the alliance was terminated which necessitated Australia holding closely to Great Britain and the rest of the empire as the country would have to depend on the Royal Navy to be their shield against a possible Japanese attack. Later, anti-British elements in Australia would pour scorn on this policy but it was, putting history and sentiment aside, the only sensible thing for Australia to do. Thus, as concerned events in Europe, whatever action or inaction the British government took, they could count on Australia’s full support. When war broke out over the German invasion of Poland in 1939 there was no debate, if Britain was at war with Germany then Australia was as well.

Naturally, Australia was concerned about their own security given that Japan was part of the Axis but, in what turned out to be a major and costly mistake for Great Britain, the leadership in London assured Australia that there was no real danger of war with Japan. Australian forces were mobilized for action on the continent of Europe but the German conquest of France was so swift that the British had been forced to pull out before the Australians arrived. Still, their presence was felt soon enough as Australian pilots gave good service in the Battle of Britain and ships of the Royal Australian Navy scored several successes in the Mediterranean against the Italians. Australian troops first saw major action in the extremely successful Operation Compass in North Africa which drove the Italians out of Egypt and deep into Libya. Although often outnumbered, the Australians were backed up by British tanks and artillery that the Italians had no answer for and the Australian troops won a string of victories in North Africa in 1941. Their most important prize was the capture of the port city of Tobruk along with 25,000 Italian prisoners in January. But the British offensive was stopped and the situation changed dramatically with the arrival of the German “Afrika Korps” under General Erwin Rommel.

Australians defending Tobruk
Rightly guessing his enemy to be tired and over-stretched, Rommel threw caution to the wind and launched an immediate counter-offensive that drove the Allied forces back. However, the Australians proved their worth in what must be remembered as one of the proudest pages in Australian military history. Rommel was determined to take Tobruk and the garrison that defended it was largely Australian, commanded first by Australian General Sir Leslie Morshead, a tough, strict, no-nonsense general who would win more than his share of victories in World War II. Asked to hold Tobruk for two months, the hard fighting Australians held on for the better part of seven until November of 1941 when the siege was lifted, withstanding numerous, ferocious assaults by German and Italian forces. The Royal Australian Navy too played an important part in the gallant defense of Tobruk by ferrying supplies to the embattled garrison in spite of heavy attacks by Italo-German naval and air forces. The fighting was fierce and the sacrifices were great but the Australians held the port, taking everything that Rommel threw at them and earned the status of heroes.

Australian forces would serve with distinction throughout the North African campaign but, of course, by the end of 1941 there was a new and more immediate enemy to worry about when after the first week of December 1941 the Empire of Japan launched attacks on Hawaii, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia where many Australian troops were stationed. Because of the focus on the war in Europe, where the British were fighting for their lives, the British Empire was militarily weak in East Asia. To put it another way, they were focused on defending the front door from Germany and Italy when the back door was kicked in by Japan.
Still, despite having few forces available and being largely unprepared, Australian forces fought as hard as their countrymen in Europe and North Africa. In the swift and stunning onslaught by Japanese forces under General Yamashita in Malaysia it was the Australians who were brought in after the Indian forces were decimated on the Slim River. At Johor, with their backs to the wall of fortress Singapore, the hard-fighting Australians brought the Japanese to a halt, inflicting heavy casualties on the enemy. Unable to break the Australians, the Japanese were forced to flank them with an amphibious landing. Breaking through the Indian forces holding that line, the Australians finally had to pull back.

Execution of an Australian POW
Singapore was the linchpin of British military strategy in the region and it was a shock to the world when the vital port city surrendered to a Japanese army that was much smaller and almost out of ammunition. Almost 15,000 Australians were among those British Imperial forces who became prisoners of the Japanese, representing about 25% of all Australian forces serving overseas. It was a terrible blow that Churchill himself lamented as the worst disaster in British military history. Those taken prisoner would suffer immense hardships and often cruelty. Thousands of Australians would not survive captivity, dying from disease, starvation, brutal treatment or outright execution. With a death rate some seven times that of prisoners held by Germany or Italy, it was something Australians would never forget. Yet, more setbacks were in store as the Japanese swept across Southeast Asia and the Pacific. An early target was Rabaul in New Britain off Papua New Guinea (itself an Australian possession at the time). Reinforcements couldn’t reach Rabaul and the garrison was forced to surrender. Many were executed by the Japanese and many more were killed when the ship they were on was torpedoed by a U.S. submarine. Rabaul then became a major base for Japanese forces in the South Pacific.

In the Dutch East Indies (present-day Indonesia) Australian forces were sent to reinforce the small Dutch colonial army but it was an almost hopeless enterprise from the start. Japanese victories at sea meant that island garrisons were cut off and even if not defeated outright would have to surrender eventually. Yet, some did not as on Timor where the Australians waged a guerilla war against the Japanese for a year. Others who did surrender often met a grisly fate as over 300 Australian prisoners of war were massacred by the Japanese in a series of mass killings in February of 1942. Eventually, almost all of the East Indies fell to Japan and there was a massive buildup of military forces in Australia as fears grew of a Japanese attack.

Training to defend the homeland
Such fears were not hysteria as there was a Japanese proposal for an invasion of Australia. However, it was never adopted and while there was a more realistic plan for a strike southward to sever the shipping lanes between Australia and America this plan was dropped in favor of Admiral Yamamoto’s campaign aimed at the island of Midway. As we know, the Battle of Midway was a disaster for Japan and represented a turning point in the Pacific War after which, almost without exception, Japanese forces suffered one defeat after another. Prior to the fall of the Philippines, U.S. General Douglas MacArthur arrived in Australia to take command of all Allied forces in the southwest Pacific. This was a major turning point for Australia as the government, for the first time, turned to look toward the United States as a strategic defense partner rather than Great Britain. That policy has remained in place from 1942 until the present day. Australia was a huge and vital staging ground for Allied operations in World War II with over a million American troops passing through the country. Australia supplied a great deal of the resources necessary for the war and along with Australian military personnel, Australian civilians at home and on other islands in the vicinity often gave invaluable service as observers in coastal areas, keeping watch and informing the Allied command of Japanese movements.

Unlike the experience of those Australians serving in North Africa against the Germans and Italians, where a measure of chivalry still lingered, what those in the east were fighting was no “Gentleman’s War”. As American and Australian forces went on the offensive in New Guinea, more Australian forces were massacred after surrendering by the Japanese and, as a result, the Australians generally stopped giving any quarter to the enemy which, in any event, was often not requested anyway. After being defeated on Guadalcanal, Japanese forces began to pull back to New Guinea but Australian and American air power devastated their forces at the Battle of the Bismarck Sea. It was one more step in the turning tide as American and Australian forces began driving the Japanese out of New Guinea, striking rapidly while bypassing stronger points that would wither away in isolation. From about the middle of 1943 onward it was the Australian and other Allied forces that were on the advance throughout New Guinea though the fighting was fierce and the conditions brutal for the troops on both sides.

The bombing of Darwin
At home, while in no danger from invasion, Australia was certainly not immune from attack. Starting in February of 1942 the Japanese launched air attacks on the northern port of Darwin, putting it out of action and killing some 235 people. Periodic Japanese bombing attacks on northern Australia continued throughout the rest of the year and most of 1943. Fortunately, Japan did not have sufficient aircraft or available nearby bases for these to do much serious damage. And, there were also attacks from the sea to worry about. Several German raiders and one German U-Boat operated in Australian waters during the war and Japanese submarines sunk a number of ships around Australia. In May of 1942 three Japanese midget-submarines infiltrated Sidney harbor to attack Allied ships. Two were detected and destroyed before they could make their attack but a third managed to sink a converted ferry before it too was lost. The operation had been a failure but it made the point that even Sidney was not immune from attack. In the naval fight it was fortunate that the Japanese did not use their submarines to best advantage but still, some managed to do quite a bit of damage, none more so than the I-21 which sank 45,000 tons of Allied shipping in Australian waters. Whether close to home or on the other side of the world the Royal Australian Navy gave good service against the navies of Germany, Italy and Japan.

Starting in 1944, the Australian military contribution to the war effort began to be downsized. For a country with so small a population, it was already trying to do too much and the British and American leadership agreed that Australia would be of more help putting more men back to work on the home front to support the war effort of the other Allies, particularly the United States, which had more than sufficient numbers of men and machines to carry on the fight. Still, the remaining Australian forces played an important part in re-taking New Guinea, liberating the Philippines and in such naval battles as Leyte Gulf which practically destroyed the Imperial Japanese Navy as an effective fighting force forever. Australian personnel also played an important part in driving the Japanese out of the Dutch East Indies, the Bismarck Archipelago and the Solomon Islands. From the Greek islands and Libya to Iran to the Philippines, the Australians fought with equal tenacity all over the world. Australian military leaders were even organizing their contribution to the planned invasion of Japan which thankfully proved unnecessary. At the very end, as the Allies accepted the Japanese surrender on the deck of the battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay, it was General (later Field Marshal) Sir Thomas Blamey, victorious commander of several operations in the New Guinea campaign, who signed on behalf of the Commonwealth of Australia.

Blamey accepting Japan's surrender
The Australians had fought long and hard in World War II and paid a heavy price. In the fighting against Axis forces in Europe and Africa the Australians lost a little over 9,500 men killed and about as many wounded. Against the Japanese the Australians lost about 17,500 killed and 14,000 wounded. About 8,000 Australians were captured by German and Italian forces, mostly in Greece or as a result of being shot down in the air war. Most were relatively well treated in accordance with the Geneva Conventions. The largest number, over 21,000, were captured by the Japanese, mostly in the early part of the war. Unlike their countrymen in Europe, only about 14,000 of these men survived their captivity. Almost half of the total number of Australians who lost their lives in the Pacific War died after being taken prisoner rather than in battle. World War II affected Australia as no other conflict ever had. From the burning sands of Tobruk to the steamy jungles of New Guinea the Royal Australian Armed forces had earned a reputation for determined defense and courageous attacks. Industrial growth was spurred by war production at home, a greater interest was taken in world affairs and Australian security policy shifted from alignment with Britain toward alignment with the United States. There was also a move to grow the Australian population by encouraging immigration. Some of these changes worked out for the best, others did not, however, good and bad alike, the Second World War had a huge impact on Australia and for a country of its size, the Australian contribution proved decisive in several areas to the ultimate Allied victory.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Britain and the War It Couldn't Win

In the history of mankind, no political entity ever came close to matching the British Empire at its peak. After World War I, the British Empire; the United Kingdom, its territories, protectorates, mandates, the Empire of India and associated Commonwealths covered more land and sea and included more peoples than any other empire in the history of the world. George VI, the last British King-Emperor, reigned over an empire larger than that of Alexander the Great, Caesar Trajan or Genghis Khan. Winston Churchill, at the height of the battle of Britain, famously said that, “…if the British Empire, and its commonwealths, last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘THIS was their finest hour’”. Absolutely no one could deny that this was true. Yet, the British Empire was not to last a thousand years and almost before World War II was over, the dissolution of this monument to Anglo-Saxon civilization had already begun. Because it was so large, covering so many diverse lands and peoples, there has never been a greater setback to the cause of monarchy than the break-up of the British Empire whose collapse gave birth to so many republics across Africa and southern Asia. How could this have happened?

The causes of this catastrophe can be categorized in a number of ways. There were economic, strategic, military and political reasons for it. One of the greatest strengths of the British people, at least to my mind, was their ability to admit their own mistakes, look at them honestly and improve themselves going forward. The examples of this are numerous, in numerous fields, from politics to the military. However, when it came to foreign policy, past wisdom seemed to be increasingly forgotten in the events leading up to World War II. The First World War had left the British Empire at its peak in terms of size, but in economic terms it was stretched to the breaking point. The total war that Britain embarked on in 1914 had caused all other considerations to be set aside in favor of destroying Imperial Germany. Part of that included putting the British Empire deep in debt to the United States to buy the food, war materials and other necessary resources to keep Britain in the fight so that, by the time it was over, Britain owed billions of dollars to America. This, combined with a rise in the socialist movement within the trade unions after the war meant that the British Empire was economically unprepared for the strain and expense of an even larger, costlier world war in 1939. Before it was over, by choosing to fight in 1939 the British government was forced to turn over virtually its entire gold reserve to the United States to sustain the war effort.

In strategic terms, the strength of the British Empire depended on maintaining control of several vital “choke points” around the globe. British leaders had, for centuries, taken care to bring these “choke points” under the control of London so that, about the only one Britain did not control was the Panama Canal. To keep open the trade and supply lines vital to maintaining the empire, Britain had to maintain control of several strategic points such as Gibraltar, Malta and the Suez Canal through the Mediterranean and Singapore in South East Asia. After World War I all of these strategic points were totally secure and yet, due to foreign policy decisions, all were threatened by the start of World War II. In terms of foreign policy, the traditional British practice was to remain aloof from the continent to focus on maintaining control of the oceans and maritime trade routes which were vital to the empire. Britain would intervene on the continent only if the balance of power was disrupted to the point to become a potential threat to Britain’s global possessions. However, after World War I the British government began making extensive promises to continental powers and made several decisions which imperiled Britain’s strategic “choke points” around the globe.

One of the first such decisions was ending the alliance Britain had with the Empire of Japan since 1902. When representatives of the British Empire met to discuss the treaty, all but Canada favored renewing the alliance. The Canadian Prime Minister feared that his country would suffer if trouble developed between Japan and the United States while the British Empire was allied to Japan. Naturally, the United States wanted an end to the alliance as American business feared that it would allow Japan to dominate Asian markets. Ultimately, Britain decided it was better to end the alliance with Japan to improve relations with the United States. However, while Britain was already in a position in which it was certainly necessary to keep on good terms with America, this was not necessarily beneficial to the British Empire as a whole. Under the terms of the original 1902 treaty, Japan was bound to defend the British possessions in Asia in case of trouble. There were even provisions requiring Japan to deploy sizable numbers of troops to India if the subcontinent ever rose up in rebellion against British rule. Needless to say, the United States was not about to make similar promises and by ending the treaty, Japan immediately ceased to be an ally and became a potential threat. This, combined with post-war reductions in naval armaments, meant that British possessions were left vulnerable and it placed vital strategic positions, such as Singapore, open to Japanese attack.

Of course, there had been increased tensions with Japan since the end of World War I and one could reasonably argue that Japan would have been a potential enemy in any event. Was Japan really adhering to the alliance in good faith? Especially since the war with Russia, many Asian colonial dissident groups looked to Japan for inspiration and support in throwing off British rule and such rebel groups were not lacking in sympathizers within Japan. Racist sentiments were growing, coinciding with the pan-Asian movement that aimed to expel all Europeans from the region. Therefore, the case could be made that by ending the alliance and drawing closer to the United States, Britain was simply preparing for a time when Japan would break the alliance anyway. Yet, as things stood prior to the outbreak of World War II, nothing Japan had done had threatened British possessions or interests in the region. Japanese expansion had focused on northeast Asia, far from the British sphere of influence in China or British holdings in India and Southeast Asia. The choice to go to war with Germany in 1939, however, removed all British options in Asia. Forced to focus British military force on Europe and North Africa, British possessions in Asia were ripe for attack and only American military assistance could stop Japan from striking the British Empire while Britain itself was fighting a titanic struggle in the west against the Germans. Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and Burma would all ultimately fall to the Japanese and while British rule would be restored after the war, it was not to last for long.

In the west, other foreign policy decisions also turned another former ally into a potential (and ultimately actual) enemy which was the Kingdom of Italy, which just happened to sit astride the vital British lifeline through the Mediterranean from Gibraltar to Suez. Originally, even after Mussolini came to power in 1921, there were no serious problems in Anglo-Italian relations. In contrast to Hitler’s admiration of the Fascist dictator, Mussolini was not well disposed to the Nazi leader. When Nazis in Austria assassinated the chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss, it was Mussolini who rushed Italian troops to the border and forced Hitler to back down. However, the Duce was rather annoyed that neither Britain nor France supported him in the emergency. However, what proved to be the breaking point in Anglo-Italian relations was the outbreak of the Second Italo-Abyssinian War in 1935. Here was a case of high-minded principle coming into conflict with British imperial interests. Popular opinion in Britain, as with most of the rest of the liberal-democratic world, was firmly in sympathy with Ethiopia (though neither side was liberal or democratic) and yet the interests of the British Empire were not at all impacted by the issue of whether Haile Selassie or Victor Emmanuel III were Emperor of Ethiopia.

Public opinion, however, proved decisive and the British joined in placing sanctions on Italy which were not strong enough to cripple the Italian war effort but were strong enough to enrage public opinion against what Mussolini called the “plutocratic democracies of the west”, primarily Britain and France. In the end, despite the sanctions, the Italians conquered Ethiopia in seven months and Haile Selassie went into exile in England. Mussolini, because of the sanctions, was always particularly infuriated by efforts to use economic pressure to force a course of action and the sanctions imposed on Italy because of the war in Abyssinia represented a burning of bridges between the United Kingdom and the Kingdom of Italy. Mussolini put aside his past feelings and embraced the one major power that had not joined in the sanctions against Italy: Nazi Germany. Too late, Britain seemed to recognize that Hitler was the real threat that had to be opposed and tried to get Italy to come back alongside Britain and France in opposing Germany but this request was made, embarrassingly, while the sanctions were still in effect and needless to say, Mussolini was content to stand with Hitler and forsake any friendship with the British Empire.

Rather like World War II as a whole, Britain had taken a stand, almost universally considered on the moral high ground but which proved detrimental to the strategic interests of the British Empire. Italy had gone from an enemy of Germany to her primary ally and the British lifeline through the Mediterranean was under threat. And, it proved to be rather useless anyway as the British government ultimately recognized Italian rule of Abyssinia in 1938. So, the sanctions did no good, Ethiopia was still conquered, Britain eventually accepted the conquest and all that was achieved was to the benefit of Nazi Germany which gained an ally that threatened Britain’s lifeline in the Mediterranean and a free hand to annex Austria which Mussolini no longer objected to after the Abyssinian war. This also had some serious ramifications for the cause of monarchy which often goes unmentioned in histories of the build-up to World War II. It is not entirely out of order to suggest that the Franco-British opposition to the Italian conquest of Abyssinia thwarted a very real possibility of a restoration of the Hapsburg monarchy.

Previous efforts to restore the Hapsburg monarchy had been centered on Hungary and were thwarted by real or perceived Franco-British opposition as well as the unwillingness of the regent Admiral Horthy to give up power. Austria, however, was a different story as it became clear fairly early on that the only foreign countries which really mattered to Austria were Germany on one hand and Italy on the other. There had been an effort at a revival of nationalism in the country under the leadership of the “Austrofascists” led by Englebert Dollfuss. Dollfuss had courted the monarchists but never brought them home from the dance. His successor (after his aforementioned assassination by local Nazis), Kurt von Schuschnigg, was a different story. He took more pro-monarchy steps than his predecessor, actually met with the heir to the throne, Archduke Otto and stated that the monarchy would be restored within one year. He even broached the subject to Mussolini who had no objection and even considered that (yet another) royal marriage between the Houses of Hapsburg and Savoy would be beneficial. According to what Schuschnigg told Archduke Otto, it was not a question of “if” the monarchy would be restored but simply “when”. All that changed with the Abyssinian war, after which Mussolini dropped his opposition to Germany annexing Austria and Hitler did so enthusiastically, conspicuously naming his invasion plan “Operation Otto”.

Finally, it is also true that while Britain was attempting to draw a line in the sand against Italy, it was making agreements with Hitler’s Germany. As most know, there were several points at which German expansion could have been stopped. When the German military moved back to the French border, even Hitler admitted that the French could have easily stopped him but Britain wouldn’t back up France and so France did nothing. Austria was an opportunity but was lost due to the opposition to the Italo-Abyssinian War. Czechoslovakia was another but it too was lost and partly due to the fact that the German cause seemed to be not entirely unjust. There were some in the Allied nations who felt rather guilty about the treatment of Germany after World War I and who felt that German desires for a redress of Versailles were not unreasonable. However, the bottom line is that so long as Hitler focused his expansion on Eastern Europe there was little to nothing that Britain could really do to stop him. When Britain finally decided that they would let Hitler go no further the issue in question was Poland and there simply wasn’t anything Britain could do to aid Poland in the event of a German attack. Britain gave Poland a war guarantee and did go to war with Germany over the German invasion but while Britain could go to war with Germany in retribution for invading Poland there was no way Britain could actually help defend Poland and stop Hitler from conquering it in the first place.

It is also an obvious, if unpleasant, fact that the interests of the British Empire were in no way threatened by the German flag being raised over Danzig or German road and rail links being established with the isolated rump of East Prussia which is what the German-Polish dispute centered on. The only power on earth that was positioned to stop the Germans in Poland was the Soviet Union and Hitler and Stalin had signed a pact and the Soviets were even prepared to take eastern Poland when war broke out, which they did. Obviously, given that, there was nothing Britain could do to actually help Poland and British military preparedness had been woefully neglected, particularly considering the course of British foreign policy. In 1939 Britain was pledged to defend a country it couldn’t reach with an army it didn’t have to thwart a country that did not, as yet, pose any threat to the British Empire. A very small minority of writers have argued that Britain fostered the build-up to war by giving the war guarantee to Poland, without which the Poles might have been more willing to give in to Hitler’s demands regarding Danzig and corridor. That just might be possible, but sounds like pandering to anti-British sentiment to me. Poland made mistakes on its own and does not seem to have been inclined to surrender territory under any circumstances. It was a country that had known years of subjugation and it is not surprising that the Poles were rather hostile toward their former masters after regaining independence as well as being over-confident after giving the incompetent Bolsheviks a thrashing in 1920.

Whether Britain did the right thing in declaring war on Germany on behalf of Poland in 1939 is hardly debatable. That is what is usually focused on. What is not is the question; was it prudent? In terms of the British Empire and the place of Great Britain as a major power, the answer must be “no”. Britain had nothing to gain and everything to lose because, right or wrong, it was a war that Britain could not win. Of course, the British Empire did not immediately go to war with all the Axis powers in 1939 but given recent policy it should have been obvious that such an outcome was highly probable and that was a war that was simply beyond the strength and resources of Britain to win. Britain had to have considerable help, which ultimately meant an unsavory alliance with Stalin (and thus the loss of the independence of those countries Britain went to war over in the first place) as well becoming totally indebted to the United States, the only country economically powerful enough to lend the money needed even before the USA came into the war. In short, the British Empire had entered into a war which could only be won in concert with two other countries, both of which were led by men opposed to the British Empire continuing.

The British didn’t have to go to war in 1939 nor did Britain have to continue to fight after the conquest of France and the retreat from Dunkirk. That they did so is something that everyone in Europe and not a few countries around the world who have no wish to imagine living under Axis domination should be grateful for. Because Britain became, necessarily, a more minor player in the war from 1942 onward alongside the massive militaries of America and Russia, the world tends to forget that it was Great Britain and the British Empire that took a stand, fighting a war in which they stood to gain nothing and which they had no realistic hope of being able to win prior to 1942. The British government willingly chose to sacrifice the greatest empire in history and Britain’s place as a top-tier power in order to wage war against Germany (and later Italy and Japan) in order to ensure that none of the Axis powers would be great powers themselves. Those who are quick to criticize the British Empire should think about that and what might have happened if the British had just given up on having an empire some time before and just how much they sacrificed in order to see the Axis powers defeated.

Whether the sacrifice was worth it or not is a judgment call and not the sort of thing one can ever know for sure as there is no way of knowing precisely how the world situation would have developed in the event of an Axis victory. What we do know for sure is that even if Britain had self-interested motives, viewing a Europe with Nazi Germany as the dominant power, Italy having control of the Horn of Africa or sacrificing American goodwill in exchange for the continued alliance with Japan as all being potentially bad for British interests in the long-run, the fact remains that the actions of Britain were not self-interested at all and while others certainly gained a great deal from World War II, Britain certainly gained nothing but the knowledge that if Britain would no longer be a great power, none of the Axis countries would either. Whether it was a fair trade depends on whether or not one views the current world order as positive or negative but the fact that Britain made the decision and sacrificed the empire to fight a war that could not be won on British, imperial and commonwealth strength alone is beyond question.

It did not, of course, have to happen that way. British policy makers could have said that unless America was prepared to make a better offer, the Japanese alliance would be maintained. After all, if there had been trouble with Japan in the future, the same factors which caused America to oppose the alliance would have ensured that America would have stood with Britain anyway. The British government could have said that Ethiopian independence was not worth losing Mussolini as an enemy of Hitler and block against the German annexation of Austria. In that event, if Britain had still decided that Danzig and the Polish corridor was worth a war with Germany, it would have been a more localized conflict that Britain stood a better chance of winning without having Malta, Suez, India and Singapore under threat at the same time. Being able to focus the Royal Navy and RAF in particular on Europe rather than stretching them over the Mediterranean, North Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, would have been a considerable advantage. However, all things being as they were, when Britain chose to go to war in 1939, British leadership was simply impossible to maintain. It was impossible because Britain had only America to turn to for the money, munitions and resources essential to fighting the war and thus had to ultimately defer to the wishes of the United States just as, likewise, Britain had little choice but to agree to the extensive demands of Stalin for fear that he would capitulate or make a separate peace that would allow the Axis forces to concentrate all their strength on Great Britain.

It would be quite easy for monarchists who do not look down on the British Empire as is so fashionable these days, to look at its demise and the resulting upswing in the number of republics around the world, and say that it was too great a price to pay. It is certainly very easy to moan and groan about the world order that prevails today and wish that things could be different. However, I would say that, even for such monarchists, what would be an even more terrible vision than the British Empire going down in order to defeat the Axis powers would have been for Britain to have remained aloof only to see the likes of Clement Attlee elected to power and then the dissolution of the British Empire anyway, without even a great struggle to say that, at the end of the day, it was worth it. Friends and enemies of the British Empire alike would do well to give that some thought. Again, no one can say what would have happened for sure and I have puzzled over whether it was worth it or not, but that is ultimately for the British and Commonwealth Realms to determine. It is certainly though, something to think about and consider carefully whenever the subject of the British Empire comes up.