The Royal Navy and the Far East in the 1930s: Promoting Stability and Preserving Peace on a Budget
Updated: Jan 8, 2019
By Dr Alexander Clarke
On 6 January 1939, HMS Birmingham, still with the smell of new paint, along with two sloops, HMS Folkstone and HMS Lowestoft left Hong Kong on a traditional show the flag/diplomatic relationship-building visit to Manila in the Philippines. This was supposed to last several days and many diplomatic exchanges. However, on 10 January, the visit was cut short as news reached them that a British merchant ship, the SS St Vincent de Paul had been detained by the Japanese at sea and was being escorted to the Japanese base at Tsingtao in China. Leaving Lowestoft behind, Birmingham and Folkestone were ordered to make the best speed to Tsingtao. The Royal Navy warships arrived on 29 January, where they were met in the harbour by a squadron of Japanese 8in heavy cruisers, led by the IJN Ashigara.
After a period of tense diplomacy, which was getting nowhere, Captain Eric Brind of the Birmingham decided to force the issue and announced that the British ships were leaving at 08:00hrs the next day. At night there was an attempted boarding of St Vincent de Paul by the Japanese, but it was diplomatically resisted by a Royal Navy party which had been stationed aboard earlier for just such an eventuality. In the morning, the ships all got their engines warmed up and ready as early as possible; forming up with Folkstone in the van and Birmingham protecting the rear.
During the passage out, Birmingham and Ashigara’s squadron all had their guns trained on each other, at full action stations; Brind assigned turrets to each of the Japanese ships. That this incident passed off peacefully under such circumstances was a testimony to the strength of presence the Royal Navy had managed to mobilise regarding legacy, personnel, and vessels in the Far East. Also important was the confidence that the British crews had in their ability to hold firm in the face of such overwhelming ‘enemy’ strength. The official write-up of the Tsingtao Incident though makes no mention of this and strikes a very measured tone:
H.M.S. Birmingham was ordered to Tsingtao to investigate and to obtain the vessel’s release. The Japanese navy disclaimed responsibility for her arrest, and the Commissioner of Customs at Tsingtao stated that he did not wish to detain her. In view of these disclaimers Captain Brind announced that he intended to sail the ship in company with H.M.S. Birmingham for Shanghai at 08:00 on 30th of January, which he did after having placed an armed guard on board for the night of 29th/30th to prevent any further interference with the ship.
It was a very tight incident, though Admiral Sir Percy Noble, Commander in Chief of the China Station, seems to have played it down in his official report to allow the British government room to manoeuvre. There can be no other explanation for him describing such an event so, as Birmingham faced off against three Japanese cruisers. As said above, all four cruisers were at battle stations, with their guns tracking each other, as the little British group of ships exited the harbour. After such circumstances, the generation of as much diplomatic space as was possible was necessary for a government that did not want to start a war for which it was not ready. If deterrence had not worked, and if the Royal Navy had not been able to use a combination of capability and reputation to bring about a successful resolution, undoubtedly war would have happened.
If Britain had bowed to Japanese pressure, it would have exposed its weakness and probably lead to them taking a more aggressive path sooner, though war would have been triggered even more quickly if Brind had misjudged the level of Japanese resolve. That war was avoided was because of the tradition of deterrence that the Royal Navy had employed in the region in the protection of its interests from long before the start of the Second World War. This was only diminished with the fateful 1968 East of Suez decision.
By the 1930s, in Britain, there had been successive economic crises. First, the First World War had generated enormous debts for the country. Second, while Britain had returned to the Gold Standard in 1925, this did not improve economic instability that became worse when the Great Depression began. As such, Britain’s finances were under considerable strain though retreating from the world was not an option. Neither was abandoning Britain’s pre-eminent position of influence a choice while deserting the Dominions, the Empire, and dependencies was also not an option.
First, the loss of influence would have severely impacted Britain’s ability to affect the global system. Second, and with specific reference to the Empire, the wider system of relationships that had been built over centuries was crucial to Britain’s economic security. Third, stepping back from the world would have been seen as a breaking of bonds and a disregarding of vows. Indeed, for Britain, a country with a tradition of an uncodified constitution and with much of its law based on precedent under common law, such an act would not have been contemplated lightly and not carried out unless there was absolutely no other option. It was this self-diagnosed tendency which had been partially responsible for Britain’s traditional eschewing peacetime alliances. It was in the name of preserving all this without bloodshed and most importantly without the cost bloodshed would entail, that Britain agreed to the series of naval treaties which limited its ability to develop its naval power.
Unfortunately, these treaties had unforeseen consequences. It strengthened the hand of the Treasury in limiting spending. The Treasury claimed it was not needed when they had an agreement with all the other powers. Worse still, it put the Royal Navy in a position where it could not merely out build its opponents as it had relied on in the past because there were limits put on not only total tonnage but individual tonnage, armament and, most problematically, the age for replacement. The latter was problematic because arguably the Royal Navy used it ships more than any other navy. After all, the Royal Navy had to secure access to all of the world’s oceans for British trade and security while its nearest competitive powers, America and Japan, only had to secure access to two and one oceans respectively. Still, the Royal Navy managed to keep war at bay for nearly a decade. The Royal Navy even succeeded in January 1939, in the events described, to deter and hold the British line when they were overwhelmed by the number of Japanese ships at Tsingtao. How was this possible? The Royal Navy played to its strengths.
The Royal Navy Plays to its Strengths
The Royal Navy used the ships it had, its personnel, and its strategic bases to ensure there was enough of a presence to undermine any perception of weakness. For example, by September 1939, even with tensions rising in Europe, there were still three County-class heavy cruisers (HMS Kent, HMS Cornwall and HMS Dorsetshire) along with Birmingham assigned to the 5th Cruiser Squadron of the China Station. The East Indies Station in the Indian Ocean had the 4th Cruiser Squadron, which was comprised of three of Birmingham’s sister ships; HMS Gloucester, HMS Liverpool and HMS Manchester. These forces often operated in support of each other, in fact, war plans were designed around them linking up. As ships, they represented the newest and most potent of the Royal Navy’s light cruisers, as well a significant portion of its heavy cruiser force.
The situation was further augmented by the presence of Dominion naval forces in the Asia-Pacific region. The Royal Australian Navy comprised the heavy cruisers HMAS Canberra and HMAS Australia and the light cruisers HMAS Sydney, HMAS Hobart and HMAS Adelaide, while the New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy could deploy HMS Leander and HMS Achilles. This combined force was, unless in need of a refit, always kept on the move so that neither the Americans, the Japanese or any of the other European powers in the region could be sure where they were going to pop up next. These ships, however, would not have had the impact they could have had, if it was not for the men, like Brind chosen to lead them.
The Royal Navy had early on developed a habit of sending out either very good or very diplomatic officers to the Far East. Noble was an excellent example of the latter, and he would go on to command the naval delegation the USA in during the Second World War. Noble had also been preceded in post by the likes of Reginald Tyrwhitt and Frederic Dryer, who were very good. The most important mission that these commanders were charged with was that of firmly establishing in the mind of all those they encountered, the sincerity and conviction of the British to do whatever was necessary to ensure the right side prevailed in any circumstance. The ‘right side’ being the side that aligned most closely with British interests. The trouble was that with Japan’s actions in Manchuria, as well as China more broadly, those who held the post were also given the responsibility of checking such actions, without the necessary increase in strength to do much more than to try to influence them.
A critical method the Royal Navy used to keep the Japanese in check was strategic basing. Hong Kong was great, but Singapore was the lynchpin: however, local bases like Tsingtao were often used, until it was made inhospitable by the sheer quantity of Japanese presence, to spread the influence. A judicious commander could make a couple of ships seem like a fleet if they kept that force moving, staying long enough in one area to be seen before going to the next port along the way and repeating. This is what the admirals did, often working with an attached aircraft carrier, such as HMS Hermes or HMS Eagle to maximise this effect with aerial patrols. It was a game of smoke and mirrors, which held up excellently until pressures of a European war forced the British to hollow out the China and Indian stations so much that even the arrival of a token capital ship deployment could not fix it.
Deterrence is always a tricky proposition. If applied too weakly, or too strong, war will still come along. Get it right, however, and diplomacy gets the opportunity to work. This means the glory will go to the diplomats and that the role of the armed forces will probably be forgotten, but few service personnel would be unhappy by such a course. The Tsingtao Incident was a classic example of this as it is a forgotten turning point because of what was averted. The history of the Royal Navy’s China Station could be said to have been littered with such events, but indeed very few, if any, were as filled with the potential to ignite a conflict as at Tsingtao in January 1939. Britain was already, visibly, focusing on events in Europe and with its eyes drawn away from the rest of the world, the Japanese knew that British forces were not well placed to reinforce, let alone deploy in strength, to the Far East. This weakness, combined with the Japanese martial psyche, was all the ingredients needed for much worse things to be brought up.
At Tsingtao, the apparent British willingness to use force and the speed, strength and resolve that the response conjured up, checked the Japanese. It forced them to think rather than to respond, and this gave the British the time to extract the St Vincent de Paul, which removed the fuze from the charge. Unfortunately, it did not resolve the broader issues as there was no time for diplomacy as Britain was still focused on Europe, so the situation did not resolve itself. In due course, Britain’s deterrent policy in the Far East would be called by the Japanese. The Second World War in the Far East was a lengthy and costly war, and even though it was won, vital imperial outposts, such as Hong Kong and Singapore fell. Where the Royal Navy’s enforcers of peace, the cruisers that Birmingham epitomised, had once ruled the waves, the wagons of war, the battleships HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse, would be sunk. However, deterrence had stopped it from being much worse as by delaying conflict, time was bought, ships were able to be that much further along in building, and these would eventually play a crucial role in the global war that ensued.
Dr Alexander Clarke is a naval historian with a PhD in War Studies from King’s College London. His primary research focuses on the interwar period where he is dealing issues surrounding procurement, grand strategy, and operations. He is a regular contributor to the Global Maritime History website and can be found on Twitter at @AC_NavalHistory.