OFF THE RECORD
AN ADDRESS BY
COLONEL W. J. DONOVAN.
Chairman: The First Vice-President, Mr. C. R. Sanderson.
Thursday, April 10, 1941
MR. C. R. SANDERSON: Gentlemen, this meeting will derive a great deal of its value because it is strictly off the record, and therefore if there are members of the press present we hope they will observe the courtesies of the meeting.
The whole of the English-speaking world knows Colonel Donovan. But his missions have taken him to many another country which will have cause to thank him for what he has done, is doing and will do.
Colonel Donovan has done so much that is of great importance. And anyone who presents to a meeting which already knows him a man who has had the career that Colonel Donovan has had can pick out only one or two things to say. But one measure of his achievement on one side of his life is that he is the only soldier of the United States Army who obtained all three honours in the last war. (Applause.) He was given the Congressional Medal of Honour, the Distinguished Service Cross and the Distinguished Medal. Yet Colonel Donovan is not a professional soldier. Neither is he a professional diplomat. He is a lawyer. And as a lawyer he has risen to great heights in his profession. He gained an Assistant Attorney-Generalship.
Yet somehow he gives the appearance of always having been trying to evade his profession as a lawyer by acting as a soldier-diplomat. He was in Ethiopia in 1934 and 1935 when Italy had a little job on there which I think she has since regretted. He was in Spain as an observer with Franco's Army. He is back from a twenty-five thousand mile trip (we won't talk in figures, but that is a lot of distance) for the Secretary of the Navy of the United States, during which he covered the theatres of war not only in Europe but also in Africa. There he met people whose names are before us so much today, including Churchill and Wavell, in personal, close, intimate contact. And today in this "off the record" talk he is going to say some of the things that are in his mind, and, Gentlemen, I think we shall find they are exactly the things that are in our minds. Colonel Donovan! (Prolonged standing applause.)
COLONEL W. J. DONOVAN: Mr. Chairman and Gentlemen: I know that you, as the men who are interested in the welfare of our country, are thirsty for information as to what is going on, on the revolutionary battlefields of Europe. I am going to talk to you simply, frankly, as I wish to establish certain principles in your minds, with which you may be better able to understand the day-today movement of the troops abroad. I think the danger with all of us is that we try to listen to all the spot-news and go up and down like a thermometer in our emotions having nothing real to hang on to, whether it be reassuring or whether it be disturbing. And I think perhaps the best thing to do is to begin at the beginning and explain how I happened to be there and see what I have seen.
Last July I was one of those in America who were anxious to see that our Conscription Bill was put through and I was before the Military Affairs Committee of both the House and the Senate. While there one day I was called to the White House and 1 found there the Secretaries of State, of the Navy and of the Army with the President, and I was asked, because of disturbing news that had come from South America, if I would be willing to go and see what I could learn of fifth column activities abroad and the way in which England had been handled. When I said I would, there were several departments of our Government that asked me to do certain tasks for them.
I went to England and I had the opportunity there of making a study, through the information that had been obtained, of just how Germany had gradually disintegrated the underlying foundations of the various countries that she subsequently attacked. I also went about among the men of the Army and Navy and tried at the same time to get some comprehension of the economic and financial problems that arose from this war. Now out of that I came back with three impressions.
The first was that while there might be some kind of an improvised attack by the Germans in an attempted invasion of England, Germany did not at the beginning of the war have it in her mind that this would be necessary because Germany had believed that she would be able to destroy the British Army in France. When she failed in that, she then, out of her resourcefulness, attempted to build up an effort of invasion. How far that effort went, I doubt if anyone really knows, but it failed as told to me by General Gort who was then in command of the British Army of Defence. It failed for two reasons: first, because her efforts in September failed by a slight margin of their objective, and second because of her lack of fighting planes to protect her barges on which her soldiers were loaded, battened down under hatches.
Now the second impression I had was that the shipping problem would be the serious problem, and I thought too many of those in important positions in England were underrating the effect of air, submarine, raider and mine attack upon the shipping of England, and I think that has been borne out by what we find is a serious situation of shipping today.
The third thing was that it was not sufficient that England should be able to defend herself in the event of invasion but that it would be necessary f or her to take the initiative in a new theatre of operation which it seemed to me had to be the Middle East. Now I came back and reported those facts and subsequently, with the Secretary of the Navy, I went out with our Navy on manoeuvres. At that time a low state of mind existed not only among us but with many of you people here--I came here during that period to view your state of preparation--and I learned then that so many of our people had not much knowledge of the geography of the countries or of that part of the world that was east of the Straits of Gibraltar. So in December of last year I met with those same members of our Government, together with Lord Lothian, and they asked if I would be willing to go and see what I could of the Mediterranean and its implications in the Atlantic and the Pacific.
So I went and talked to Mr. Churchill and I said to him that I thought it was time for both of us-his people and our own people-to try and develop a body of experts to study the economic, political and military implications of the Mediterranean that would be common to both countries and to try and have an appreciation of German intentions in that theatre because that theatre could not be considered other than in relation to the entire strategic front. He agreed and he picked one of the very best British officers to go with me and we took this little odyssey. We went to Gibraltar, where I found some Canadian miners helping in the preparation of the defence of the Rock. We went to Malta which had been written off by the British themselves as not being able to bear the first two weeks of the war but is still there as a repair base for cruisers and destroyers. We went to Cairo where I spent some three weeks on the Western desert; then to south-eastern Europe where we went to Bulgaria and Jugoslavia and spent a week on the Greek positions; then to Africa, back to Malta, Gibraltar, Spain, Portugal, back to England and finally home.
Now there are certain questions that I know must be in your minds, and the primary question I imagine is that which arises out of the news that you are reading day by day. I know at times it must be very discouraging to you to find that in south-eastern Europe there should be such an easy advance by the Germans at Salonika. Let me tell you this, that the British leaders there took into account all the clangers they would run by going in and standing beside Greece at the moment that Germany had determined she needed Salonika, and I think it is the greatest credit to Britain that she elected to stand beside her fighting Ally in that dangerous moment. (Applause.)
Now let us see what Germany's purpose is in south-eastern Europe. As you know, from observing the course of economic and political history over the last ten years, Germany has been trying to take all the Balkans within her economic orbit and she has been doing that by means of an exchange--a forced exchange very often--of her manufactured goods for the food and the raw materials of that section of the world. Now it was an essential thing for her in this war to have the Balkans tranquil and quiet. I remember, just five weeks before the war began, I was in Germany and I talked on two or three occasions to the Chief of Operations of the German General Staff and I said to him, "Why do you people want Italy as an Ally instead of her remaining neutral, because as an Allv you will have a weak flank which can be pounded by the British and French Fleets." He said, "We think we can take care of the British and French Fleets, but what we need is what we did not have in the last war, and that is a bastion for a Balkan bread basket."
Now if that reason is still valid-and I think we have seen how important the Germans think it is-it was vital for them to have peace through the Balkan area. So you found that during these last eighteen months-just as in ancient days before the taking of a city the enemy would seep underneath the walls-there has been a gradual seeping, supported by intimidation, of these various nations of the Balkans, so that by out-flanking and then coercing, each would fall without a fight. Greece alone stood out, and undoubtedly Germany kept her hand off Greece but used ancient Italy to do the job, because at the same time, by remaining at peace with Greece, Germany was able to get the food and other supplies that she needed from Greece during that period.
Now I happened to be in the Balkans from about the middle of January through all of February and I saw these things going on, and it was very clear that Germany was determined that one day she was going to take Salonika for two reasons. From an offensive standpoint, because if she had Salonika together with the Dodecanese Islands which Italy now holds, and Sicily, she would have a chance to make her fight for domination of the Mediterranean; and secondly for a defensive reason because she undoubtedly felt there would be a clanger of Britain together with other Balkan nations using Salonika as a jumping-off place for an attack against Rumania, which is really Germany's solar plexis because of the oil in that area. So she was governed by those two principles. And it was necessary for her to isolate Greece. She got Bulgaria, and then she was able to get the politicians of Jugoslavia, but not the soldiers. Now this man who is the head of the Jugoslavian Government today is the head of the Air Force and he is a good straight-fighting fellow. I remember when I got to Cairo I got word that Sir Anthony Eden and General Dill were coming, and would I remain to see them. I did and I said, "You take a look at this man, he is a good fighting man and he may be of use to you." I think no matter how Germany may overwhelm Jugoslavia, you will find those fellows fighting, even though they may be inadequate in arms and equipment.
The situation in Greece was an interesting one to me, because as I said before, the Greek fought with a rock, 'a mule and a rifle. The rock was his parapet, the mule was the means by which he carried the supplies and the rifle was the means of offence and defence. If he needed a machine-gun he went over and took it from the Italians. As a matter of fact, the real arsenal of that section of democracy was Italy. (Applause.)
Now speaking of that leads me to a consideration of another question. I think we are all inclined to make the mistake of looking upon the Mediterranean solely as a great arterial highway running between the British Isles and India. When you go home take your map and look at it in a different way. Look at it in the North and South axis, then you will find that you have a better understanding of it. You take the Mediterranean as a "No Man's Land" between two lines of trenches, the northern being the European continent held almost completely by Germany but in which the British have a bridge-head still in Greece-and the southern being the African continent which the British had largely held, except for a dangerous line in Tripoli still held by Italy which could be widened and which is now being widened, is the greatest point of danger in future. So the fight is between those two countries then for domination of the Mediterranean. What Germany is trying to do is to seal up the Mediterranean by domination of the air, and having sealed it, then to block it up. England, on the other hand, if she can attain domination-as she nearly completely had until the Germans came in and then, as Admiral Cunningham said to me "We have to start all over again, but by God, we are going to do it!"
Now let me tell you this: I know you gentlemen are disturbed by the loss of Salonika, but I say to you this, that the British and the Greek allies never intended to make a fight for Salonika: they knew they couldn't. They knew first they could not get troops in time to the Bulgarian frontier and they knew, secondly, it would take too heavy a detachment of troops to make that part of the fight through Greece. So that the movement there is simply a holding movement and when you read in the paper there are "300,000 Greeks captured" it is a ridiculous statement because that would constitute certainly half of the Grecian Army, and I know where the Grecian Army was and it was not in eastern Greece. You will find just where the line of resistance of the British has been set up and you will find that it will be a switch line on high ground, organized in depth to protect the right and rear of the Greek position. Now I say this, even if the British should be driven out, that the most important thing they have done is to insist that Germany has to fight for whatever she gets. (Applause.)
I think she was not only fine in doing that, but I think she was wise in doing it, because it has knocked the German time schedule askew. It means Germany has had to bring forces there that she could have well used in other places. If Germany begins to realize that now she has got to make this fight and the war is not going to be over by the Fall as she expects, there is going to be pressure in Germany dictated by the need of time, just as there is pressure in England today dictated by the need of ships.
So that takes us over to Africa itself. Now I was with these British Generals during the attacks on some of those places, and I always felt-and I told them so-that the British never got full credit for that effort because of their habit of self-deprecation, that they rather talk too easily about the Italians, but I think the fault there lay not in the Italian soldiers but in the Italian General. The whole system was worked out as a system of medieval isolated cities. The British looked upon the desert as their ally; the Italians thought it was an enemy. They were afraid of it, so they locked themselves up in the towns. That is why with so small a force England was able to take something over one hundred thousand prisoners. I think I saw eighty thousand of them myself in various degrees of being captured or of finally being deloused. (Amusement.)
Now you see that the German has come across the Straits. I remember when I first heard of them coming across. I was in Jugoslavia when they told me that that was the word. I heard that the Germans had a corps of motorized troops in Tripoli. Now it is really quite a military feat that they were able to go across the four hundred and ninety miles of desert between Tripoli and Bengazi.
Now there is a danger that the Germans will attempt a pincer movement, coming in through Turkey, and through the Suez. As I said to the gentlemen who came in with me today, the way to look at this thing is to see that what Germany is setting up is a group of options, any one of which or any combination of which she may exercise in a given eventuality. So I think it is unwise for any one of us to have a pet project and say, Germany is going to do this. She will elect to do what seems wise and expedient at a given moment, but all of these options are part of one central plan in which she recognized that for a decisive victory she must down England.
I think we must not ignore this possibility either, that she could very well advance until she finds a hard spot in the desert, and hold; move against North Africa, because certainly she has been combing that situation, and filtering in German troops, attempt to reach Dakar from where she could tighten her grip on British shipping. That to me is the great danger which we may not fully realize today. The voyage from London to Suez, which is only four thousand miles now, may then become twenty thousand miles around the Cape, and five times as many ships would be required. So the great problem is how those ships are going to be protected in getting from America to England and to the Suez, and I hope we will have sense enough in our own interests as well as yours and England, to see that we do deliver the goods. (Applause.)
Now I have pointed out a lot of these dangers, Gentlemen, and I want to add to them this: I was with General McNaughton the night before I left. I was out on manoeuvres with the Canadian Troops and Tank Corps, and the Canadian Corps is certainly one of the great mobile reserves by which England intends to resist invasion. (Applause.) Certainly if Germany does attempt invasion now, the whole system of defence will be re-orientated. When I was there in July it was a question of meeting them at the ocean and trying to threw them back into the ocean. Now it is recognized that expeditions may be landed at any point and there will have to be mobile reserves maintained to stop and wipe up these expeditions.
All of that comes to this, Gentlemen. It means that this year is going to be a hard year; it is going to be a year when Germany is making her supreme effort. It is her inning now, and I don't want you to be misled by that fact--you are going to have yours. There is a great danger that when the other team is in and hitting the ball, people do not remember that their team will have its inning. And I believe that there is a factor in this whole situation that we are apt to ignore and it is this, that while the German is a formidable and ruthless foe fighting not by the rules of cricket but fighting a bar-room fight, there are forces in the various countries as there are in your own, which recognize the moral vision that is behind your effort and recognize that you are not of raid to come to grips in this new kind of warfare. Even though the facts are against us now, I believe that the brain that created the machine can still lick the machine. (Applause.) Because so many of these articles of war that Germany has adapted, she has not created: they were set up as mediums of peace; she has adapted them as instruments of war.
I have come to this conclusion-if you are going to have a machine you have got to have the best machine; second best is no good: and if you can't have the best it is better to have none than second best. If you have second best you trust too much to it and you have a mobile Maginot Line. If you have none, you rely on your own brains, resourcefulness and courage. You will see before this war is over, that if a hundred-thousand dollar tank comes along, and you as a group have nothing but a gin bottle which you fill with coal-tar and nitro-glycerine, if you have someone that has nerve enough to throw it, you blow the tank up. That takes a lot of courage, and I found wherever I have gone that that is the spirit of the people of Britain. (Applause.) And I for one would hate to be an invading soldier coming into England and being met by a Home Guard!
Now, Gentlemen, I know I have talked too long (No, No, from the audience) but I wanted to give you some of my impressions. This is going to be a damn tough year but I believe that next year if you can, if we people (applause) in North America can give hope and assurance to these people who are fighting on the front line, next year will be very different. (Prolonged applause.)
MR. C. R. SANDERSON: Colonel Donovan! When at the opening of your truly magnificent address you referred to our thirst for knowledge, you struck exactly the note that was uppermost in our minds in looking forward to your address. I was going to say, Sir, that in response to our anticipation you have given us reassurance. But you have given us something more important than that, because reassurance was not really the thing we needed. You have given us a renewed stimulation and you have given us a deeper understanding, an understanding of that wide sweep of strategy which, though we see it unfolding day by day before our eyes, is inexplicible except to and through someone like yourself, who as a world-intelligence officer has gathered information from first-hand and personal contacts in the theatres of war. We are grateful to you more than we can easily say, for having come to us and having talked so frankly and for having given us just that wider understanding that we needed.
May I add, too, that we have known about you for a long time. But we are happy to have listened to you in person; we are happy to have had this opportunity of feeling the force of your personality; and we are happy to seize this chance of expressing our recognition and appreciation of the vital contribution which you, Sir, are making to the cause which fundamentally is common to our two countries.