An Idyll Too Far - Part 13

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To Prepare for the Worst

Red of face, peppery by nature, the admiral was a man of short stature and shorter temper. He was not accustomed to discussing any decisions he took and always expected to be obeyed without question. Neither did he like giving reasons for such decisions and nor was he especially pleased when that inexperienced upstart, as he regarded Lord Louis Mountbatten (who, in his estimation, would still have been a rating were it not for his royal connections), had been appointed over his own more worthy self only that morning. The fact, however, was that although he was indeed experienced, he was unpopular with all who served under him and could not expect the cooperation so necessary in the Fleet at this time more than any other, whereas the very opposite could be said of Lord Louis. The Admiral began by grumbling.

'Goodness knows why we've been called away from our work at such short notice to take joint decisions on a matter that could so easily have been decided by other means,' he growled, clearly insinuating that he was quite capable of handling such matters himself, and by his manner obviously intending to dominate the forthcoming proceedings. 'However, that said,' he continued, 'it is fairly clear that our requirements are for an area with plenty of room, on the coast and near enough to the sub-continent to be used for launching an attack from when the time comes for us to re-occupy that territory, supposing we do have to re-take it. We must also choose a place where we don't have to fight a native population in order to occupy it. So I believe our choice lies between somewhere on the coast of Iran, where I am sure we should have the cooperation of the Shah, the island of Masirah off the coast of Oman, which would also be a possibility. Again, I believe the Sultan would be only too pleased to agree. Finally, there's the island of Ambouna, in the Arabian Sea, the population of which only numbers a few thousand anyway, so that even if their Sultan objected to our presence he could easily be made to put up with it.

'I suggest that the advantages lie with the last alternative. Firstly, it is closest to the sub-continent without being vulnerable. Secondly, it has its own oil well, together with a small refinery. There is also an airstrip, which, though at present inadequate for warplanes, could easily be lengthened over the adjacent level desert. It has a small deep-water harbour and there is a fresh water supply piped under the desert from an inland hill or small mountain. I would add that it does not suffer from the disadvantage of relying on the army for its defence. We all know only too well what happened to Hong Kong, Malaya, Burma and the island of Singapore, which were dependent on them. Our naval forces, based on the North African coast, could be relied upon to protect Ambouna.'

Strange noises had been emanating from the throat of Lieutenant General Sir Mortimer Grenville-Jones during the latter part of the admiral's peroration. A large man, he'd played rugby football in the front row of the scrum for the army in years gone by. Normally easy-going and patient, he now could hardly wait for the admiral's mouth to close before exploding.

'So Sir Andrew thinks we can rely on his Jack Tars to defend Ambouna, does he? How is it then that the floors of the Java Sea and South China Sea are sinking under the weight of about a third of His Majesty's fleet, sent down there by a few tin-pot Jap planes, without firing a shell in defence of Singapore or any of the other places he mentions?'

The admiral's face and neck had been developing a deep puce colour during this effort and now the words burst forth as he tried to interrupt. The general had a powerful voice, however, and now used it to drown the opposition.

'You've had your say, sailor; now you can listen to me! All our forces that were diverted out east had been trained in the sort of trench and open-country warfare that is still applicable in Europe and North Africa. Against my better judgment, they were thrown without notice into a jungle where the enemy, who had been acclimatised for five and more years fighting this kind of war in China, swarmed through the trees like monkeys, carrying small-calibre, lightweight weapons and shooting our boys down on the ground while invisible themselves. In addition, when our lads landed and before they went into action, they were bombed and machine-gunned by the Jap equivalent to Stukas, with never a plane of ours in the sky. Can anyone imagine circumstances more likely to demoralise our men? We are now, I'm thankful to say, in the process of training troops to beat the enemy at his own game. It is unfortunate that we have so few available just now to allocate to the task. Nevertheless, once trained, I am confident we shall succeed in driving the Japs back and keeping them out of India.

'That said, we cannot be certain of anything, so I concede we need to agree on a fallback position. I am not in favour of using an island such as Ambouna. If we can lose a fleet in the Java Sea and allow 70 enemy aircraft to get close enough to Ceylon to bomb the docks we could, in my opinion, easily lose an isolated island in the Arabian Sea. So if we prepare a vital depot there with aerodrome, warehousing and stores, it would be even more useful to the enemy, should they manage to capture it. I might add that, although the enemy's lines of communication are long at the moment, if India should fall, they could establish bases and use airfields on the western coasts there so that it could become easier for their troops to capture Ambouna than it was for them to take Singapore. Incidentally, I understand that the Japs already have Indians working for them — agents inform us that Sikh troops are guarding our POWs in Singapore, for instance, so they would most probably be able to enlist many of the Indian troops that we would undoubtedly be forced to leave behind, should they penetrate India to any great extent. Thus, it is certainly possible that, given time, they could emulate the British Raj in throwing Indian regiments into battle on their side, to take the whole sub-continent.

'Therefore, if it were to be left for me to decide, gentlemen, I think I would opt for somewhere near the northwest African coast — like Masirah, for instance, where we can provide a fallback position in an emergency by ferrying in troops from other fronts. I am, however, prepared to abide by the majority decision. Thank you.'

Sir Ronald quickly interposed when the admiral attempted to speak again. 'Gentlemen! Each of you will be able to speak as often as you wish, taking turn and turn about; if you want to, we can keep that up all night. But I beg each of you indeed to speak in turn. That said, it is now the turn of Air Chief Marshall Trevor Holiday.'

The last speaker, normally a quiet man, was the oldest of the three — had it not been for the war, since he was in his early sixties, this officer would have probably retired by now. He began by speaking so quietly that the admiral, who was hard-of-hearing, had to ask him to speak up.

'As far as the RAF is concerned, a word first on why we were unable to be of much help to the army in the Malayan campaign. You will know that at the outbreak of war a couple of years or so ago, our aircraft industry had really only just got back into effective production after having been run down as a deliberate policy of the then-pacifist government — for the same reason, of course, that Sir Andrew had to ditch most of his Pacific fleet. Therefore, with the Luftwaffe trying to bomb our homeland into submission, every available plane was needed in Britain. If the home country had fallen, all else would have been lost — that goes without saying. Then, with Rommel advancing across North Africa, as more planes became available, those that could be spared had to be sent there.

'When the threat which the Japs presented was ultimately accepted by those running our country, we were indeed instructed to divert a squadron of Hurricanes to Malaya, but it was by then too late. It is an unfortunate fact that before they could even be taken from their crates and assembled, enemy aircraft were able to destroy all but half a dozen or so of those badly-needed planes on the ground. Too few were left, in fact, to be of any real use against the hundreds of Stuka-type planes and fighters (plus carrier-borne aircraft) that the Japs were by this time deploying from aerodromes recently captured nearby, higher up the peninsular of Malaya. Had these remnants of the squadron been allowed to remain, those that weren't immediately shot down would have been destroyed on the ground after their first sortie, as no plane, however good, can remain airborne indefinitely. In addition to that sad fact, we had to face the situation that it was becoming abundantly clear that at the rate the enemy were coming down the mainland, none of the remaining airfields were likely to stay in our hands for much longer. Since we needed these precious planes in other spheres, where they could indeed be used effectively, they were evacuated, with the agreement of the War Office.

'I don't intend to express any recriminations against either of the other two services; the total unpreparedness of army, navy and air force was beyond our control. With hindsight we could doubtless have made better use of our meagre resources, but the underlying problem with us all was the actions of pacifists between the wars. When the government had the funds, the unemployment, the manufacturing capacity and the skills to keep our defences modern and up-to-scratch, they were determined to destroy them, putting millions out of work and leading to the Jarrow hunger marches. With the abundant examples of Japanese, Italian and finally German aggression under their very noses, pitifully, they still insisted on relying on the discredited League of Nations pretence that one could depend on "Collective Security".

'So, to come at last to the question of a secure base to retire to should India fall. It's in the lap of the gods which would be the better of the suggested alternatives, because it all depends on how soon it will be needed — if, Heaven forbid, it ever should be. If, say, we had six months or more, no doubt we could deploy more ships and aircraft — though not troops — than we can afford to now. Without more troops, it would probably be more difficult to defend a base on the African mainland than it would Ambouna. So tell me, Sir Mortimer, for how long do you anticipate you can hold out against a Japanese occupation of India?'

Sir Mortimer told him that if he were a gambling man, he would have to admit that he'd lay ten to one against the Japs penetrating much further into India than the positions they now held. In the dense jungle where they were now fighting, they were unable to find much sustenance other than leaves from the trees, so they couldn't live off the country indefinitely. He continued, 'We know from our own bitter experience how malaria and dysentery have enervated and emasculated our own troops in those same jungles, so the enemy must by now be in a fairly bad way. This has indeed been confirmed by the condition of prisoners that have only recently begun to fall into our hands. If, as I'm sure we can, we manage to hold the Japs back for a few more weeks, we'll have our own men trained in their kind of warfare. With shorter supply lines and fresher troops, we should be able to start pushing them back.

'Yes, I believe India now to be fairly safe, so I concede, in spite of my earlier remarks, that perhaps it's not all that important to have a fallback position ready at all. That being the case, I suppose I can't really object to the admiral's choice of Ambouna. I have to say, however, that we are very short indeed of infantrymen and would be quite unable at this moment to find any to defend Ambouna or anywhere else one might select. The best I can do, therefore, is to put in a Pioneer battalion to extend the airstrip and build accommodation for men and stores and a company of the RASC to handle the stores and equipment itself. In addition, perhaps, we might be able to spare a platoon of the new REME for repairs and maintenance of vehicles and a troop of gunners to mount a few ack-ack guns. I don't think there is any need for me to say more, gentlemen.'

'In that case,' put in the air marshall, 'I will also add my support to that of the general, Mr Chairman, and plump for the choice of that island to occupy, prepare and equip and then use as our fallback position, if India should be lost to us. And since I fully appreciate the army's lack of ground troops, I will endeavour to find a battalion of our RAF regiment for guard duties.'

The general opened his mouth to speak, but thought better of it. Although those men had initially been trained by the army, he could not but help wondering how they would behave if they were to be called upon to fight. Until now, none of them had ever fired a shot in anger. He, however, had nothing better to suggest.

Sir Ronald Ponsonby heaved a sigh of relief. 'Gentlemen; anticipating the possibility of Ambouna being your favoured venue for this project, I took the liberty of instituting a few enquiries. The island has British colony status, and as such the day-to-day administration is carried out by civil servants. The nominal and spiritual head of this Muslim state is the Sultan, who is in his last year at Cambridge at this present time. The population is a mere hundred thousand or so, mostly concentrated in Ambounadi, the only town, and therefore the process of converting the place to an air and sea base should present no political difficulties. I shall from this point in time be pleased to leave in your hands the task of forming a working committee to begin putting the scheme urgently in progress forthwith. I have to report our decision to Lord Louis in the morning. Knowing him only too well, we can be sure he'll expect our fallback position on the island to be ready as of yesterday! I shall expect, gentlemen, to receive a weekly joint progress report from you each Friday, so you should arrange your future meetings accordingly.

'I now declare this meeting closed, but request all those present to stay for a moment or two while I write up notes on the essence of your decision. Then I'll ask each of you to sign them and take a copy for your individual records. While I'm writing, you might like to be discussing your next steps, which should include the time and date of our next meeting, which must be within a few days, when we shall deal with the situation in Africa.'

An Idyll Too Far Archive

Len (Snowie) Baynes

16.11.06 Front Page

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