Use this URL to cite or link to this record in EThOS:
Title: Worthy of better memory : the Royal Navy and the defence of the Eastern Empire 1935-1942
Author: Boyd, Andrew Jonathan Corrie
ISNI:       0000 0004 5924 2389
Awarding Body: University of Buckingham
Current Institution: University of Buckingham
Date of Award: 2015
Availability of Full Text:
Access from EThOS:
Access from Institution:
This thesis proposes major revisions to the history of the naval defence of Britain’s Eastern Empire during the critical period 1935 – 42 as the Royal Navy (RN) sought to manage the increasing risks posed by three potential Axis enemies across divergent theatres. It challenges the prevailing historical interpretation which explains the successive defeats suffered by the RN at the start of the war with Japan as the inevitable consequence of resource weakness and imperial overstretch already evident in a deeply flawed pre-war strategy “Main Fleet to Singapore”. The dominant narrative argues that: Britain never had the naval resources to protect a two hemisphere Empire let alone cope with a triple threat from Germany, Italy and Japan; it certainly could not pose any effective counterweight to Japan once it was fighting for its life in Europe; and it compounded resource weakness by consistently underestimating the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) and failing to recognise the potential of modern airpower at sea. Britain’s strategy for defending its Eastern Empire through naval power therefore rested on convenient self-deception regarding Japanese intent and the balance of relative capability whereas in reality the RN was decisively outmatched. Furthermore, most historians suggest that, while Britain’s initial war with Japan ended in ignominy, this had little impact on the overall global struggle against the Axis because Britain’s role in the East was essentially irrelevant to the Allied cause whatever the losses to its own imperial standing. This thesis contends that the dominant narrative is neither satisfactory nor sufficient and reflects important gaps in the historical record. But it also argues that the historiography of the last 50 years has defined the RN role in protecting the Eastern Empire in very narrow terms, focusing almost exclusively on the defence of the Far East territories and the prospects of deploying a fleet to Singapore. In reality, the Eastern Empire encompassed a much wider area and it faced existential threats on its western boundary as well as in the east. Ensuring the security of this wider area had profound implications not just for Britain’s own war-making potential but for the overall Allied cause too. The thesis therefore offers an interpretation which, for the first time, investigates thoroughly the inter-dependencies between different theatres of war hitherto viewed principally in their own terms. By taking this wider perspective, it demonstrates that not only was there more coherence and continuity to RN policy and strategy towards the Eastern Empire in this period than historians have traditionally accepted but that it also reflected greater realism about what truly mattered and where naval resources should best be concentrated at any given time. In doing so, it shows how and why prevailing accounts are defective. The thesis proposes five main arguments across the period 1935 – 1942. First, it shows that the RN of 1939 was stronger, more capable, more innovative, and more ambitious in its strategic goals than the mainstream accounts of its inter-war history have generally ii accepted. It is simply not the case that meeting the demands of a multi-theatre war over the next three years as the output of the rearmament programme became available was out of reach as many have argued. It then demonstrates that British strategy to ensure adequate security through naval power for the core territories of the Eastern Empire in the face of the Triple Threat was more flexible and realistic, and better directed at what would prove to be the critical points in the first half of the war, than the prevailing historical narrative recognises. Thirdly, by looking at all relevant theatres simultaneously, it argues that Britain’s investment in the Middle East, and the RN commitment to the Eastern Mediterranean, from 1940 – 42, were essential both to protect the Eastern Empire and its resources and to enable it to generate maximum war potential. This commitment also vitally influenced the security of the Atlantic lifeline. It was not a diversion but an essential complement to meeting the threat from Japan. The thesis then re-examines the disasters suffered by the RN in the first phase of the war with Japan. It argues that promises of US naval support in the Atlantic and exaggerated expectations of the deterrent power the US could exercise against Japan allowed Britain’s war leadership to believe it could maintain a forward defence strategy in the Middle and Far East theatres simultaneously. This goal was never realistic with the resources Britain was able and willing to deploy overseas; yet it was the Admiralty, rather than the Prime Minister, who showed a reckless disregard for the resulting risks in the immediate run-up to war. In reality, the exercise of naval power to secure what mattered in the Eastern Empire did not ultimately depend on holding Singapore. The final line of argument is that it is simply not possible to reach a secure judgement on the eastern theatre without a proper understanding of how it interacted with the other war theatres and how this then influenced the decision-makers of the day. The thesis shows how the entry of Japan into the war confirmed that the Indian Ocean was an inescapable defence commitment, critical not just for Britain but also the wider Allied cause, ranking indeed second only to the Atlantic lifeline in importance. Despite the defeats suffered in the first months of the Far East war, the thesis demonstrates how the RN could still generate sufficient power by mid-1942 to defend this theatre against any naval force Japan was likely to deploy. The 1935 start date for the thesis marks the point when the threats posed by a resurgent Germany, an increasingly hostile Japan, and unpredictable Italy, moved from theoretical to real. The end of 1942 is an appropriate finishing point because, as the thesis explains, it marks the end of any credible threat from the Axis to the core Eastern Empire through either the Indian Ocean or the Middle East.
Supervisor: Not available Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available
Keywords: U Military Science (General)