The Ambassador in Great Britain (Bingham) to the Secretary of State 24

No. 859

Sir: I have the honor to enclose copies of a self-explanatory personal note and memorandum dealing with Great Britain’s position in the recent naval discussions. I venture to point out that this communication is marked “Secret”, and to ask that copies may be made available both to Mr. Norman H. Davis and Admiral Richard H. Leigh.25 A day or so ago, when a member of the Embassy staff was informed that such a memorandum was in the course of preparation, it was stated that it was being prepared under aegis of both the Foreign Office and the Admiralty.

Respectfully yours,

For the Ambassador:
Ray Atherton

Counselor of Embassy

The Counselor in the British Foreign Office (Craigie) to the Counselor of the American Embassy (Atherton)


My Dear Ray: On looking through the records of our naval meetings it has occurred to me that a short restatement of the British position and of the reasons for increases in one category might be useful to you. The Prime Minister,26 before he left, stated the British case in broad outline but did not go into detail. At the experts’ meeting Admiral Little27 gave a full and clear statement of our requirements but this was done particularly from the technical and naval point of view. The enclosed memorandum is an effort to present the two aspects of the case—political and technical—in one document, and to do this as briefly and concisely as possible.

It is our hope that this document, which I send to you privately and unofficially, may fill a gap in our records.

Yours sincerely,

R. L. Craigie
[Page 300]

Note on Cruiser Tonnage

I. Possible decrease in total tonnage under method proposed by Great Britain

Put very shortly the American desiderata are stated to be (a) a reduction of 20 per cent, on the tonnage levels of existing naval treaties or (b) failing that, the maintenance of existing treaty levels. Similarly, the statement of British requirements put forward in the recent conversations, by reason of the limitations on the unit size of vessels and the abolition of the submarine which it suggests, would, if adopted in its entirety, permit of a decrease of 10 per cent, on the tonnages provided for under existing treaties. Had the British representatives, paying no regard to the requirements of the United States, put forward a statement of the full qualitative reductions which Great Britain is prepared to advocate, they would have been able to propose an ultimate decrease of 22 per cent, on existing treaty tonnages. Any suggestion therefore that the United States stands in general for naval reductions while Great Britain stands in general for naval increases would be incorrect and misleading, particularly when it is remembered that all naval Powers other than the United States are prepared to agree to considerable reductions in the unit size of most categories of ships. Both countries are, in fact, prepared for reductions, but unfortunately only by methods which, for vital strategical reasons, would be unacceptable to the other. It is felt therefore that the only hope of reaching a solution satisfactory to both Powers is to approach this question from a strictly practical point of view, each country recognising the special difficulties and the strategical problems with which the other is faced and attempting to reach an understanding based upon the political situation as it exists to-day. In such circumstances there seems no reason why the resulting treaty should show more than a slight increase in the under-age tonnage for all categories, which would be a small price to pay for the resultant political appeasement and the prevention of unrestricted naval competition. Naval limitation cannot be said to serve its full purpose if it leaves behind it a genuine sense of insecurity on the part of one or other of the signatories of the treaty.

II. Relative sizes of British and other cruisers

It has been suggested that, because in the London Naval Treaty28 Great Britain agreed to the United States having 18 8” gun cruisers [Page 301] to 15 British 8” gun cruisers (the difference being made good by a larger 6” gun cruiser allowance to Great Britain), Great Britain is prepared to agree in principle to construct cruisers for trade protection purposes of a smaller displacement than those which are being constructed by other Powers. This is quite incorrect. The arrangement referred to affected the British and United States cruiser strengths only and, as has frequently been stated, a settlement of this cruiser difficulty would be simple enough were it one between the two countries only and were it not that the minimum size of cruiser acceptable to the United States regulates automatically the average size of cruiser to be constructed by other Powers. There has never been any question of Great Britain agreeing to construct cruisers which, when placed upon the trade routes in isolated positions would, ship for ship, be outclassed by the cruisers of a potential adversary. Nor is it believed that the United States would wish to urge upon Great Britain the adoption of such a course.

III. Why cruiser tonnage figures must automatically increase independently of increase in number of British cruisers

If Great Britain was able in the London Naval Treaty to agree to the exceptionally low total cruiser tonnage figure of 339,000 tons this was because:

the figure was calculated on a basis of 50 cruisers;
it was hoped and believed that no other Power would build large 6” gun cruisers of 9,000 or 10,000 tons displacement, and that, in consequence, no such cruisers would be required by Great Britain, which has indeed since 1930 led the way with smaller ships of Leander class;
the international outlook permitted a steady replacement programme of about 3 ships a year, so that during the period of the treaty the small type of cruisers averaging 4,000 to 5,000 tons and designed for North Sea warfare would still be retained in considerable numbers.

(b) and (c) no longer apply, so that even if the future cruiser figure for Great Britain were to be based on the number of 50 cruisers, it would have to be considerably larger than 339,000 tons. Great Britain cannot be expected to replace her existing small wartime cruisers by ships which will be outclassed from the start by those in other navies, nor is it believed that such a course is seriously suggested by the United States. From this it follows that there must be an automatic increase, without any increase in the number of 50 cruisers, from a tonnage of 339,000 tons to 408,600 tons, which is arrived at as follows:—

[Page 302]
15 8” gun cruisers 146,800
10 ‘M’ class 6” gun cruisers 95,000
8 Leanders (7,030 to 7,250 tons) 57,000
12 new 7,000 tons 84,000
4 Arethusas (5,200 tons) 20,800
1 new 5,000 tons 5,000
50 408,600 tons.

It will be seen that this figure of 408,600 tons for 50 cruisers is based on the general acceptance of a future limitation of 7,000 tons beyond a specified number of large 6” gun cruisers. If this limitation of 7,000 tons could not be accepted by other Powers, and the limit remained as at present at 10,000 tons, then the automatic increase of the London Naval Treaty figure would bring the British figure up to 438,600 (in a period of 10 years). In estimating the total tonnage increase consequent on the increased number of cruisers that we require, the figure of 408,600 tons—not the London Naval Treaty figure 339,000 tons—should in all fairness be taken as the point of departure.

IV. Why an increase in the number of British cruisers is necessary

In the London Naval Treaty Great Britain accepted a cruiser tonnage figure based on the tonnage of 50 cruisers for the following reasons:

The Treaty was for 6 years only, and under the international conditions existing at that time there was a reasonable assurance that there would be more than 6 years of peace.
It was accepted, subject to the Powers other than the three signatories to Part III of the London Naval Treaty agreeing to corresponding reductions. This has not occurred; on the contrary the Naval Forces in Europe have greatly increased. If the “escalator” clause has not been invoked, this has not been because the building of other naval Powers did not justify such a step but because it was thought better to await the meeting of the 1935 Conference to explain the grounds on which the cruiser tonnages accepted by Great Britain in 1930 could no longer hold good.
In 1930 we were on the eve of the summoning of a general disarmament conference from which much was hoped.
Owing to the small size and worn out condition of the 14 cruisers that have been, or are being, scrapped since the London Naval Treaty was signed, it would not have been possible to keep these ships as efficient cruisers. Therefore, the number 50 could not in any case have been increased by December 1936 without departing from a steady building programme and providing more new ships.
In the process of the steady reconstruction of the Fleet after the war, a halt had been called in cruiser building for some years in the hope of inducing a corresponding halt in the building of foreign cruisers. Thus the curve indicating the number of British under-age cruisers was at its lowest during the period of the Treaty.

[Page 303]

It is unfortunately the case that, since the London Naval Treaty was concluded in 1930, a serious deterioration in the international and political outlook has occurred. Furthermore there are not present to-day any of the other conditions that rendered possible the acceptance in 1930 of a cruiser tonnage figure based on 50 ships. That this figure was an exceptional one was made clear during the 1930 Conference and by the Prime Minister and First Lord of the Admiralty in the House of Commons immediately afterwards. Moreover, an allusion to this fact was contained in Article 23 of the London Naval Treaty which states, with reference to the Naval Conference to be held in 1935, that “none of the provisions of the present Treaty should prejudice the attitude of any of the High Contracting Parties at the Conference agreed to.”

  1. Marginal notation on the original: “Returned from the White House, 9/7/34.”
  2. Former Chairman of General Board, U. S. Navy Department.
  3. J. Ramsay MacDonald.
  4. Charles James Colebrooke Little, Deputy Chief of Naval Staff, British Admiralty.
  5. Treaty for Limitation and Reduction of Naval Armament, signed at London, April 22, 1930, Foreign Relations, 1930, vol. i, p. 107.