By Dr Paul Cornish – King’s College, London
Changing Direction: British Military Planning for Post-war Strategic Defence, 1942-47, by Julian Lewis (Frank Cass, 2nd edition, ISBN: 0714653993)
Published in 1988, the first edition of Lewis’s Changing Direction (Sherwood Press) accounted for the development of Britain’s post-Second World War strategy. The process, which began well before the end of the war against Germany and Japan, culminated in the May 1947 ‘Future Defence Policy’, a document which largely shaped Britain’s security and defence posture until the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950.
‘Future Defence Policy’ defined British strategic priorities in terms of three pillars: defence of the UK; a firm hold in the Middle East; and control of sea lines of communication. The real significance of the document, however, was in confirming that a transition (albeit cautious) had at long last taken place in British threat assessments; the risk of German resurgence was dwarfed by ‘the possibility of war with Russia’.
Changing Direction was well received and widely read by scholars of Britain’s part in the origins of the Cold War. My own work on that period – British military planning for the defence of Germany, 1945–50 (Macmillan, 1996) – benefited enormously from Lewis’s meticulous and dogged research into the official papers. With improved access to official archives, Lewis has been able to fill a number of ‘small, but significant gaps’ in his early work, and has produced a yet more authoritative and very welcome second edition of his important study.
Additional material is presented in seven sections of a new, 74-page introductory chapter. Returning to long-standing allegations that Churchill had wanted to develop an offensive biological warfare programme in 1944, Lewis demonstrates convincingly that the main purpose of British biological weapons research was to produce defensive countermeasures. There was no intention to produce an offensive biological weapons (BW) capability. It was, however, understood that a retaliatory posture – a ‘threat of retaliation’ – could improve the UK’s defences against a BW attack.
As far as the Soviet Union was concerned, Lewis’s research confirms that Britain’s military planners were ahead of their Foreign Office colleagues in assessing Soviet intentions and in proposing an early version of what was to become the strategy of containment. The prospect of the ‘unthinkable’ war with Russia in Europe in 1945 convinced Britain’s military planners that continental Europe could not be defended against a Soviet land attack; a stark prospect which led them to early advocacy of German rearmament.
Lewis produces more evidence of the very high priority placed by British security and defence policy makers on sustaining a close military and political relationship with the United States, and it was on this basis that Britain became so closely involved in planning for a strategic withdrawal from Europe in the event of Soviet aggression.
The section on strategic deception planning confirms Britain’s early involvement in the development of a sophisticated atomic deterrent strategy based to a considerable degree on the manipulation of Soviet perceptions. As Lewis notes in the final section of the new introduction, Britain’s military planners moved quickly and effectively to develop a complex framework for managing the threat of Soviet aggression, one based on a mixture of defence and deterrence.
Lewis is a meticulous historian who writes clearly and persuasively, and with great authority. This expanded edition of Changing Direction will be essential to any serious research on British security policy during the late 1940s.
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