T. H. Wintringham

Present Phase of the Arms Race

Source: Labour Monthly, July 1935. Vol. 17, No. 7, pp. 411-416.
Transcription: Phyll Smith
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DURING most of the past three years the race in armaments has had a peculiar shape. This race, in which all the leading imperialist powers are involved, was subject to the stimulating influence of a world Disarmament Conference, and was mainly carried out according to the formula of a child’s game: no one must move while anyone else is looking. Each ruling class had in 1932-34 its own method of covering up or pretending to cover up its expansion of armaments: the Germans a relatively efficient secrecy, with official denials of facts well known to the world; the British a dexterous hypocrisy, every increase in striking power being only a long overdue “replacement”; the French a conscious rectitude—they only built tanks to strengthen the League of Nations. Within the past few months all this has altered. The race has become open, acknowledged. And therefore it has become very much more rapid. Instead of cautious, stolen steps towards their goal, the Powers are really racing—flying. In this change British imperialism has given the lead and sets the pace.

Setting the pace in this new and acknowledged competition in killing-power, the present Baldwin-MacDonald government is following in the path of all the other Baldwin-MacDonald governments that, under various names, have ruled in London since 1923. Competition in cruisers, on a world scale, was started by the 1924 variant of this familiar form of misrule, known to fame as the first Labour Government. At about the same time rapid technical development of the light machine-gun, or machine-rifle, began here. The development of “close support” artillery (mortars working with infantry or a hundred yards behind them) began in Britain three years before any Continental army moved in that direction. The only amphibian tanks in existence, apart from experimental models abroad, are those made by Vickers. British development of a tank brigade, capable of moving independently at high speeds, has this year been brought to a new level with the institution of a mobile division of all arms. (A “mechanised” division is one in which the divisional transport and guns are petrol-drawn; the infantry marches. In a” mobile” division the infantry also moves in vehicles, right up to the battle zones.)

In these and in a score of different ways, during the period of hidden rearmament—the period when, according to capitalist politicians, including those of Labour Governments, Britain was indulging in “unilateral disarmament”—in these ways British imperialism kept ahead of its rivals, or tried to keep ahead.

As was noted in the LABOUR MONTHLY at the time,1 a decision was taken last summer by the powers that control British world strategy, to prepare its forces for a probable war “in the hinterland of Western Europe.” Mr. Baldwin’s remark that “our frontier is now on the Rhine” followed a few days after the pronouncement by a Major-General that we then quoted. This decision, and the programme of increase and alteration in armaments implied by it—including 41 new Air Force squadrons—begins the transition to the present armaments race in its new and open form.

At first, when this programme was confined to the Air Force, the Government explained it simply by the desire to have air “defence” strength equal to that of any power within range of Britain. But later other indications of the new line of policy made this argument inadequate. The military correspondent of the Daily Telegraph wrote:

An important decision, and re-orientation of aim, is indicated by instructions that have, I understand, been conveyed from the General Staff.

For several years the training of the Army at home has been based on colonial warfare, in the form of major and minor expeditions. In the brigade and divisional exercises the “enemy” has commonly been represented as savage tribesmen or as the forces of an Asiatic state with a comparatively low standard of equipment.

Next year the training will be based primarily on the requirements of hypothetical operations in Europe. (Daily Telegraph, October 22, 1934.)

On November 15, 1934, the same correspondent, Captain Liddell Hart, reported “far-reaching plans for the reorganisation of the Army and the creation of an up-to-date Expeditionary Force.” These changes, and the increase of armaments necessarily accompanying them (Captain Liddell Hart mentions mechanisation of cavalry regiments, “improvement in the proportion of weapons to men,” 52 extra machine-guns per brigade, new tank battalions), could not be camouflaged as replacements and did not, like the air programme, fit into an “equality of arms” propaganda. It was necessary, at some point, to find a convincing excuse for them. It was also necessary to find an excuse for the second stage in the air programme: the acceleration of air rearmament to its present rate. Therefore a growing number of speeches, through the winter, with the burden: “Nazi Germany is the danger; Hitler threatens us.” In his broadcast speech on November 16, 1934, this was the essence of Mr. Churchill’s “warning.” This campaign culminated in Mr. Ramsay MacDonald’s “White Paper” of March 4, which is the real beginning of the past three months’ open and Gadarene rearmament.

These facts have to be recalled before it is possible to understand the events of recent months. Without them the sequence of events appears to be one in which the British Government begins a process of rearmament after, and because, it has been made uneasy by Hitler’s proclamation of conscription, his announcement of a strong air force, his submarines, etc. Actually the sequence of events is one in which the British Government begins and presses forward a process of rearmament, and later uses the Hitler “threat” to secure placid acceptance of this programme, and of its speeding-up, from the pacifist and Labour Party forces. (It relies on these “opposition” forces for the most subtle and most useful organisation of war feeling: the organisation of the worker’s demand for peace round people, institutions and ideas that can swing the workers into support for war.)

There has never been a bigger bluff than the pretence that British imperialism is rearming now because it has suddenly discovered that Germany is rearming.

As the LABOUR MONTHLY has shown month by month, the policy of the National Government here has been continuously one of support for Hitler’s rearmament plans, combined with pressure to ensure that these armaments are used in the right direction, eastwards. It must be emphasised now that what has happened in the past few months is not due to the National Government waking with a shock to the realisation that the Frankenstein it has helped to create is larger and uglier than it had intended. Nor is it a question of the section of British imperialism that fears—and with reason—that Nazi Germany may possibly turn westwards, getting, to any extent, the upper hand. The righteous indignation of the British Government at the news of Hitler’s conscription measure is sheer bluff, and impudent pretence. The grave concern of London’s rulers at the strength of Berlin’s air force is ludicrous: they have known the strength of this force all along, have helped it to grow.

Certainly there is a section of British imperialism that fears, and has good reason to fear, that Nazi Germany may turn westwards. When arming gangsters and encouraging them to “pull a difficult job”—in this case a job so difficult as to seem almost impossible—it is wise to keep your own personal arms and bodyguard as efficient and powerful as possible. But it is asking a lot to try, when arming gangsters, to excuse your own arming by “revelations” that these gangsters have got arms And the “revelations” of the past few months have been based on facts about German rearmament as well known in London as in Berlin—or Paris.

Let us take conscription first. It became clear, during 1933, that the “voluntary labour camps” in Germany were in fact a system of military training for conscripts. At these camps practice in entrenching, throwing hand grenades, and marching with packs was enforced. They were “voluntary” in the sense, that if a lad refused to go to one he lost his job, was barred from relief, and could expect a visit from men in brown shirts. “It is officially estimated,” wrote the Times Paris correspondent even before these “labour camps” were opened, “that Germany could at short notice put into the field an army of 1,000,000 men.” (Times, December 10, 1932.) Is it likely that what was known to the Times was unknown to the British Government? In “Hitler Rearms” Dorothy Woodman gave evidence for an estimate that the German army, trained and organised, numbered 2,400,000 men by the summer of 1934. It is a conscript army in being, and of something like this size, that Hitler has partially released from the restrictions of secrecy, by announcing the conscription of 550,000 men.

Let us take next the “surprising revelation” that Germany possesses an air force as large as Britain’s. The Times Paris correspondent reported in 1932:

That the German factories produce fighting and bombing machines complete to the point of fitting in machine-guns and bombing aparatus is admitted by the German air authorities themselves. That they construct on a large scale types of fighters and scouting planes is equally evident. It is pointed out that the H.D.38, H.D.41, and H.D.43 of the Heinkel firm are classed as such in the British works of reference. (Times December 10, 1932.)

The British Government not only knew of these planes; it gave permits for British aero-engines to be exported for use in some of them. (When questioned on this, it explained that there was “no reason to believe” that the engines were not for civilian flying.) The British secret service, which before the war and during it knew most things about the German forces (including the most secret naval codes), is not likely to have over looked a single German aircraft factory.

There can be no question, then, of accepting any part of the National (and Labour Party) explanation of the present phase of the arms race as due to a British “discovery” of German rearmament, or to decisions by the German government to rearm. Britain took a long lead in the change from slow and secret to open and rapid rearmament, a lead of many months. In so far as there is a single main cause of the present arms race, it is the British decision to begin open rearmament.

Let us note, for example, the position of air rearmament before Hitler’s announcement of his air strength:

“Every aircraft factory in this country at present,” stated the Aeroplane on February 20, 1935, “is either already turning out masses of aeroplanes for the new squadrons and for the increased reserve . . . . or else the factories are tooling up for production—which means that new machine tools and special apparatus are being installed—or else negotiations are going on between the manufacturers and the Contracts Department at the Air Ministry.”

“If war were to break out to-morrow,” stated the Aeroplane on March 13, 1935, “the effective personnel of the Air Force, pilots and mechanics alike, would be doubled or trebled within a week. The existing squadrons of machines each would automatically become squadrons of i8 machines. In the R.A.F. reserve there are 2,250 pilots, and there are some thousands who have done their time in the reserve.”

That was the position, openly published to the world, before the rest of the world came into the open arms race. From that time onwards the pace grew hotter.

How hot the pace has become was shown particularly clearly in April. It is safe to say that most of our readers will have forgotten already many of the items in this incomplete list (date as reports in the Times)

April 1. Officially announced in London: Hitler had stated that German air force equals British.

April 2. German anti-aircraft units reorganised under air ministry.

April 3. General Denain: Air re-equipment “was now being expanded and accelerated . . . the number of bombing machines in the French air force was now multiplied by three.” M. Flandin: Frontier fortifications now manned with troops.

April 8. French retain 60,000 conscripts, due for discharge, in army.

April 10. Sir Philip Sassoon: “The Royal Air Force has still a margin of superiority over the German air force. Nevertheless, the rate of Germany’s air development is such as to cause H.M. Government grave concern.” German claim to 35 per cent, of British naval tonnage published; also French law on civilian “de fence against air attacks.”

April 12. Paris police advise civilians to buy gas masks. Mussolini: We intend to keep 600,000 men under arms.

April 13. Transport of British 1st and 2nd Divisions to be fully mechanised in a year.

April 16. Budget: service estimates increased by 10,539,000. U.S.A. “defence” outlay raised to $1,063,098,000 (over 200,000,000); this includes much “relief works” expenditure.

April 17. Home Office sets up department for precautions against air raids.

April 29. German decision to build 12 submarines revealed.

April 30. U.S.A. begins naval man to include 160 war ships, 450 planes.

May 1. U.S. President denies suggestions made by U.S. generals that preparations need to be made for bombing Canada and other British possessions.

May 2. Expansion of Australian “defence” programme announced.

May 3. Runciman: Government will not stop export of British aero-engines to Germany. MacDonald “Government are already taking steps for the further and accelerated extension of the Royal Air Force,” needed to implement Baldwin’s pledge of “no inferiority with Germany,” Goering: “We have expanded technical and industrial capacity to its extreme limit, to create the air arm at a single blow.”

These three quotations, in our last entry, so perfectly characterise the political and technical position that it is not necessary to carry the diary further; new entries could be made for each day (decision to double the Japanese air force, Mussolini’s further mobilisations, gradual announcement of greater and greater acceleration of R.A.F. expansion, etc.). In these three quotations we have the “guts” of the whole affair. The British striking forces are being swiftly increased because of a German “threat,” yet Messrs. Armstrong-Siddeley may sell their excellent engines to General Goering because (in Runciman’s words) these engines are manufactured for civil aeroplanes.” They are, but taking the world as a whole, they are probably fitted in more service machines than civilian ones.

As for the real political reason for this increase in armaments, look again at the quotation about the Army on page 412.* Soviet Russia used to be, for military purposes, “an Asiatic state with a comparatively low standard of equipment.” It is now fully up to European levels of military technique. British imperialism, recognising this, alters the army, doubles, perhaps trebles her air force. And this air force is taught that “the next really big job of the R.A.F. will be to go to Germany to help in staving off a Russian invasion.” (Aeroplane, February 13, 1935.)

It is for this unchanged purpose that the change has been made to open and rapid rearmament, a race in which Britain leads and in which Britain encourages Germany (“some hundreds of very good British and American aero-motors have been [exported] for the German Air Force” Aeroplane, May 8, 1935). While this purpose remains unchanged under all the pacts, the agreements as to new navies or new air forces, no Socialist should be deceived for a moment by the Government plea that it is arming for the defence of “democracy” against Fascism.



1.  “War from the Air” by T. H. Wintringham, August 1934.

*   Paragraph 6 above “On November 15th . . .” to “. . .and Gaderine rearmament.”—Transcriber.