BRITISH COMMONWEALTH & EMPIRE CO-OPERATION
AN ADDRESS BY SIR JAMES F. SOMERVILLE, G.C.B., K.B.E., D.S.O.
Chairman: The President, Mr. Eric F. Thompson
Thursday, November 1, 1945
MR. THOMPSON: Gentlemen: This is indeed a proud moment for the Empire Club of Canada, when we have as our guest of honour the Admiral of the Fleet,--Sir James F. Somerville, G.C.B., K.B.E., D.S.O. Sir James, who has been in the Navy for almost half a century, served throughout the first world war with great distinction being awarded the Distinguished Service Order and mentioned in dispatches.
Prior to commencement of the second World War, he served as Rear Admiral of the Mediterranean Fleet and then as Commander in Chief of the British Fleet in the East Indies.
During the first ten months of World War II, he was closely associated with the Radar defense of Great Britain and participated in the evacuation of Dunkirk.
In June 1940, at the time Italy declared War, he went to Gibraltar as the Commander of Force "H" which operated in the western Mediterranean. While in command here, he carried out a daring raid on Genoa and played an important part in the hunting and final destruction of the Bismark.
Last winter this club was addressed by General Dobbie the "Defender of Malta" who told us of the magnificent job done by the Navy in seeing that supplies got through to them without which they would not have been able to carry on, the man who saw that those supplies went through was none other than our guest speaker of today. One of Admiral Somerville's signals at the time, which read "The Convoy must go through" has like Nelson's signal at Trafalgar, become famous.
Admiral Somerville, early in 1942, was appointed Chief of the Eastern Fleet and, with numerically inferior forces, kept Japanese from further expansion westward over a period of two years. Then in 1944 with re-inforcements he was able to take the offensive in a series of strikes in the Japanese held territory of the Dutch East Indies.
His is truly a great record and as a result in May of this year he was given the well deserved promotion to his present high post of Admiral of the Fleet. He is today one of the three Active Service Officers of the Royal Navy holding "Five Star rank".
Gentlemen, it is with the greatest of pleasure that I--now present to you the head of the British Admiralty Delegation in Washington, Admiral Sir James F. Somerville who will address us on the subject: "British Commonwealth and Empire CoOperation".
SIR JAMES F. SOMERVILLE: I feel that I have some title to discuss British Commonwealth and Empire cooperation because my mother was a Tasmanian and if it had not been for her cooperation with my father I should not have been here today.
My father inherited our small family estate in Somerset at an early age and in accordance with the practice of the 1870's proceeded on a tour round the world. When he arrived in New Zealand he was so impressed with the possibilities of that country that he proceeded to mortgage the estate at home and buy two sheep runs. He then went on to Tasmania where he met my mother and became engaged to her. When the news of this double transaction reached my Grandmother in Somerset, there was the very devil to pay. To mortgage the estate except in dire need to avoid selling the family silver was a major crime, and as for marrying a Tasmanian, that was the last straw. My Grandmother's concern and indignation was shared by the villagers and in due course a deputation waited on the Vicar. "Passion", their spokesman inquired, "Wot be this yere yere we do year tell about young squire become engaged to be married?" Replied the Vicar brightly "Good news is it not, a very charming young lady from Tasmania". "Now do 'ee look yere", said the spokesman, "We do year tell as how these yere Tazzermainans be neither black nor white but a zort o' yaller colour". I am glad to report that the village was agreeably surprised when my mother with her fine rosy cheeks eventually arrived.
As a Midshipman from 1899 to 1901 I served for nearly three years on the Pacific coast where Esquimalt was our main base and it was there I first came in contact with Canadians. I remember most vividly how impressed I was with their general resourcefulness, and their ability to turn their hands to anything that really mattered, or seemed to me to matter, such as cutting lumber, building a log hut, blacksmith's work, cooking over open fires and above all catching trout and hunting deer, grouse and ducks. I remember also what pains they were at to impress on me that this was "God's own country"; that the Old Country was a pretty poor place compared with British Columbia. I rather resented this; I felt that these Canadians were fine fellows, fine handy fellows, but when all was said and done weren't they a bit too tough and weren't they too inclined to ram this toughness down one's throat?
Looking back on those days I feel sure that on my side, I was a fairly typical example of British Conservatism. Any departure from what were regarded as the normal habits of life, speech and outlook in the British Isles must be viewed with suspicion and initial dislike. As I got to know my Canadian friends better this feeling wore off; after all even in so small a country as England you will find different dialects and different outlooks between North and South and East and West; at least my Canadian friends all spoke the same way which was certainly not the case at home.
I mention these reflections and what happened to me nearly fifty years ago because I feel that even today there is sometimes a tendency for people in the Dominions to regard, possibly with justification, the people in the Old Country as being inclined to be high-hatted and superior whilst the people from the Old Country are inclined to regard their Commonwealth cousins as being in too much of a hurry to show what tough guys they are. It is a pity that this should be so and I think it is not unfair to suggest that both sides have skin trouble; skins are either too thick or too thin. People in the Old Country should remember that, in a sense, the great 'Commonwealth of new nations are wearing new boots, that these new boots may give rise to Commonwealth corns, and they must avoid treading on these corns.
But these little frictions and distempers disappear immediately when we fight side by side in defence of our freedom and liberties, it is then that we really get close together, that we get to the point where we say "this is my foot you are treading on, old boy" instead of "get off my crimson foot you clumsy beggar".
The history of the escort and hunting groups that kept the great sea routes across the Atlantic open during World War II discloses a comradeship in arms when feelings were seldom hurt by ill chosen words but on the contrary there was the ready give and take that you expect to find at a family party.
Canada has done many wonderful things in this war but as a sailor I feel one of her outstanding achievements was the contribution she made in respect to the protection of the Atlantic sea routes. It would be unprofitable to generalise on this and I propose therefore to give you a few facts and figures because these tell the story far better than any words of mine.
The total shipping losses of the Allies and neutrals during the war amounted to 4,770 ships of over 21 million tons. Of these ships, 2,770, or over a half, were sunk by U-boats. That was the score for the whole world, but of the 2,770 ships sunk by U-boats just over 1,900 were sunk in the Atlantic. Now how about the U-boats. How did they fare? Over 700 U-boats were sunk in the Atlantic; that gives you a pretty good idea of how desperate was the battle of the Atlantic, a battle in which the Canadian Navy played so prominent a part. It was a small part to start with because in 1939 the Canadian Navy consisted of 6 destroyers and 11 smaller vessels and just under 1,800 officers and men. But by the end of the war the Canadian Navy had been increased to 378 fighting ships and 95,000 officers and men of which nearly 6,000 were women. Of the U-boats sunk in the Atlantic, British controlled forces accounted for 462, U. S. controlled forces for 151, whilst 100 were sunk from undetermined causes but in most cases it was probable that these U-boats were lost in British mine fields.
The Canadian Navy assisted in escorting across the Atlantic 25,343 merchant ships carrying nearly 200 million tons of cargo. During the Normandy invasion and for many months afterwards, the Canadian Navy provided the entire close escorts for Atlantic convoys as well as providing about 30% of the striking forces in the North Atlantic. A particularly noteworthy operation was the safe escort of Convoy HXS 300 from New York, Halifax, Sydney, Nova Scotia and St. Johns, Newfoundland in July 1944. This convoy totalled 167 ships carrying over a million tons of cargo and was escorted by an all-Canadian close escort. It reached the United Kingdom without losing a single ship.
A particularly bad period was between January 1942 and July 1942, that is after the Americans entered into the war. During that period 670 ships were sunk, of over 33/2 million tons and in return for that great destruction only 48 submarines were sunk; this gave a ration of one submarine sunk for every 14 merchant ships, the worst ratio during the war. By the end of the war it was a different story; two submarines were sunk for every merchant ship' sunk.
I am never interested in discussions about who won the war, but I am most interested and concerned in ensuring that the part played by the British in winning the war should be fully appreciated. It is chiefly through ignorance of the facts that lack of appreciation arises and I am impressed by the genuine surprise expressed by many Americans when they are given facts such as the following; that the people, not of the British Commonwealth and Empire, but of the United Kingdom alone which has a population only one-third of the United States, sustained 1,032,000 casualties compared with 1,070,000 casualties of the United States; in these casualties the United Kingdom lost in killed 325,000 as against 252,000 Americans killed. The total of the casualties for the Empire was 1,515,000 of which nearly 429.000 were killed. Many people are equally surprised when they learn that in the British Merchant Navies 31,000 officers and men lost their lives as against just over 800 in the United States Merchant Navy.
As for the Burma campaign, fought so successfully under the direction of Admiral Mountbatten, here again I have often been asked what the British were doing in Burma, why did the Americans have to do all the fighting against the Japanese? But what are the facts? In Burma there were 600,000 British, Indian and Colonial combatant troops, the men who were doing the fighting, as against 12,000 Americans. These facts should be known since unless they are known there is a natural tendency to believe that they was America who was called upon to bear the principal burden of the war, and that the British for some unexplained reason, stood aside and let 'their Allies do all the fighting.
It has also been suggested that our contribution in the Pacific was negligible. What are the facts? By the time the Japanese surrendered, the British Pacific Fleet consisted of 400 ships manned by over 238,000 officers and men and the South East Asia Naval Forces contained a further 170 ships manned by 176,000 officers and men. In view of our commitments elsewhere I don't consider that a negligible contribution.
Valuable as British Commonwealth and Empire co-operation has proved during the war, I feel it is after the war that this co-operation will be even more necessary. The extracts published in the press from General Marshall's report to the Secretary of War make it abundantly clear what he thinks will happen if we allow a third world war to break out. He refers, among other things, to the destruction of American cities in a few hours by missiles projected from other continents. I agree in full with the General, in fact I will go further and say I believe there is no adequate counter to the destructive weapons of the future; no counter in the sense that these missiles can be rendered harmless by being deflected or made to burst in the air before they reach the targets. In my view the release of atomic energy has turned over a new page in the history of war, and printed on that page there is just one sentence "A Third World War will be the end of Civilization".
Well, what are we going to do about it? Whilst the world is settling down to readjusting itself after the frightful experiences of World War II, standing armies, navies and air forces will be necessary but I cannot believe that the final answer for maintaining world peace is the maintenance of immense fighting forces in the hope, that if we strike first before the other side is ready, there may be a chance of knocking our enemy or enemies out before they can retaliate. That would be putting the world into a state of very unstable equilibrium, an equilibrium at the mercy of a hair trigger.
We simply must face up to the facts of what causes war, facts of death not facts of life, and we simply must determine what steps are to be taken to deal with the causes of war.
I suggest that if all the brains, talent, energy and human endeavour that have been directed towards preparing for war are now directed towards preventing war, the answer could and will be found. This answer may involve lessening the standards of living in certain countries in order that others not so fortunately situated may benefit. It may involve surrendering sovereignty to the extent that every nation is prepared to allow its activities to be investigated by an International body or commission to ensure that nothing is being done secretly to prepare and construct the new terrible weapons of destruction But whatever steps are necessary to achieve the object of securing the world against another world war I feel sure that the co-operation of the British Commonwealth and Empire towards this end will be a most potent factor.
The Dominions are rightly proud of their independence, and are rightly opposed to anything that appears to question or to decrease this independence, but if I may be allowed to make a suggestion it is this-do not allow this Independence to obscure the need for co-operation and the security which accrues from co-operation.
The British Commonwealth and Empire is painted in splashes of red all over the globe. Individually the elements of the Commonwealth and Empire are of small account, but collectively they most certainly are of considerable account. Is it appreciated generally that in round figures the British Commonwealth and Empire occupies 14 million square miles of the Earth's surface, with a population of 558 millions, and that the combined areas and populations of the other two partners of the Big Three, namely the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics when added together fall short of these figures by 1,400,000 square miles and 232 million people? Anyone who thinks that because we have borne the heat and burden of the war for six long years, we must be exhausted and that we are now a back number had better think again. Many people thought we were finished in 1940, but we did not; and by "we" I don't just mean just the people in the United Kingdom; I mean all the peoples of the Commonwealth and Empire. Mr. Churchill warned us it would be "blood, sweat and tears"; we were under no illusions. The--people of the United Kingdom were in the front line, but they knew they had the backing of the rest of the British peoples. That backing could only be effective if the routes, the sea routes along which reinforcement and help could be sent, were kept open. That was the duty of the Navies of the British Commonwealth and Empire, the fighting and merchant navies, and it was a duty which, I suggest, they discharged most adequately. Until the conditions in the world are such that a major threat to our sea communications can no longer arise the Navies, both fighting and merchant, of the British Commonwealth and Empire must be ready to co-operate again in keeping the sea routes open and thereby frustrate all attempt to attack the freedom and liberty we have enjoyed for so many centuries.
In conclusion I would like to tell you of a little incident which occurred whilst I was responsible for keeping open a small section of Empire communications. It was in September, 1940, when I was in command of Force "H", the name given to the Western Mediterranean Fleet, and it took place whilst the abortive attack on Dakar was in progress, and whilst my Flagship, RENOWN, with some other ships of the Force were in Gibraltar harbour.
The French retaliated by sending over about 100 bombers from Algiers to bones Gibraltar. Although it was a bright sunny afternoon, the harbour and Rock were covered by a cloud caused by the Levant wind and we couldn't see the bombers. The bombers possibly couldn't see us but there was little doubt as to our approximate positions, and for nearly two hours the bombs rained down. RENOWN was straddled though not hit, the harbour was covered with dead fish, fires were started in the town, and dockyard and finally the dockyard fire engine itself caught fire. This was greeted unkindly by a loud cheer from the men at their stations on the upper deck of the RENOWN.
When the rain of bombs ceased I decided we had better get out of it; the A. A. defences at Gibraltar at that time were weak and we were sitting ducks for a further attack which I felt sure would develop next day. After we sailed, a small armed trawler, the STELLA MARTS, came into harbour and secured alongside the Mole at the berth RENOWN had just vacated. As I expected, on the following day the French returned to the attack and this time the poor STELLA MARIS was hit by a bomb and sunk with the loss of more than half of her ship's company.
Force "H" returned to Gibraltar about a week later, and in due course I proceeded to the Hospital to visit the wounded and sick. I came across a sailor in one of the beds and said to him "What ship do you come from, my lad?" He replied in a sepulchral voice "The STELLA MARIS; Sir." "By Jove", I exclaimed, "You're lucky to be here at all". "Yes, Sir," he replied, "I reckon I am". "Now tell me", I asked, "exactly where were you standing when the bomb hit the ship?" He seemed slightly embarrassed and after a short pause said "Beg pardon, Sir, I wasn't aboard the ship when she was bombed, I was on passage out to join her". "Really," I said, "and pray why are you in Hospital, what's the trouble?" "Ingrowing toe nail", he replied.