Debating bombing and foreign intervention — II

After Philip Noel-Baker's opening speech on 21 June 1938, the prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, replied for the government. He began by touching briefly on the Japanese invasion of China, in a way which interestingly foreshadowed something he said just over three months later:

if it were not that China is so far away and the scenes which are taking place there are so remote from our everyday consciousness, I think the sentiments of pity, [horror] and indignation which would be aroused by a full appreciation of those events might drive this people to courses which perhaps they have never yet contemplated.

In response to Noel-Baker's comments about the status of aerial warfare in international law, Chamberlain agreed that 'new weapons [don't] make new laws', but added that new weapons create new circumstances which the old laws may not cover. That is, the laws of war 'do not entirely meet the case which we have to meet to-day'. Having said that, he believes there are 'three principles of international law which are as applicable to warfare from the air as they are to war at sea or on land':

In the first place, it is against international law to bomb civilians as such and to make deliberate attacks upon civilian populations. That is undoubtedly a violation of international law. In the second place, targets which are aimed at from the air must be legitimate military objectives and must be capable of identification. In the third place, reasonable care must be taken in attacking those military objectives so that by carelessness a civilian population in the neighbourhood is not bombed.

Chamberlain stresses the first of these principles:

Let me say at once that we cannot too strongly condemn any declaration on the part of anybody, wherever it may be made and on whatever side it may be made, that it should be part of a deliberate policy to try and win a war by demoralising the civilian population through a process of bombing from the air. That is absolutely contrary to international law, and I would add that, in my opinion, if any such policy is followed, it is a mistaken policy from the point of view of those who adopt it, for I do not believe that deliberate attacks upon the civilian population will ever win a war for those who adopt them.1

But the problem is: what is a military objective? 'Suppose a church is used as the headquarters of a division. Is that a military objective or is it not? ' What happens if one side claims it bombing military objectives only, but the other claims it attacking civilians? It would, in all honesty, be hard to prove or disprove:

Suppose a man makes a bad shot, which is not at all unlikely when machines are going at over 300 miles an hour and when, as I am informed, in taking aim you have to release the bomb miles away from its objective -- it seems to me that it is extremely difficult to lay down exactly the point at which reasonable care turns into unreasonable want of care.

But he will go so far as to say that 'in the opinion of the British Government far too many instances have occurred, both in China and in Spain, where these general rules have been plainly disregarded and where there has been a deliberate attack upon civilians'.

Turning to the second of Noel-Baker's issues, that of bombing attacks on British ships engaged in the Spanish trade, the prime minister says that 'We do not admit the right of General Franco or anybody else to attack these ships', but that the Royal Navy cannot be everywhere at once:

we do not believe any practical means of preventing it, without adopting a policy which would be completely at variance with that which we believe to be in the true interests of this country, has been found.

A later passage makes it clear that by this Chamberlain means the risk of a war against Italy and/or Germany would be too great were Britain to intervene too forcefully in defence of its ships.

Chamberlain goes on to dismiss Noel-Baker's various suggestions for stopping the attacks: withdrawing the British agent would do nothing; the same goes for cutting off trade (plus 'a very considerable amount of damage would be done to other kinds of British trade'). As for the military and naval options Noel-Baker gave, Chamberlain repeats that that it is impossible to tell if an attack is going to be made until it is being made, so

The fact is that the only possible way of intervening effectively by antiaircraft gunfire, is to fire at every aeroplane that appears as soon as you get news of its presence. That becomes at once an act of intervention[.]


The one satisfactory solution of the Spanish question would be a termination of the war. That would put an end to all these difficulties at once.

Well, yes, that would do it. But this answer seems unlikely to satisfy the Opposition. I'll examine the responses of the House in a concluding post.

  1. This appears to be what Randall Wakelam refers to as an announcement that 'Britain would bomb only purely military targets', which it clearly is not literally, but amounts to in practice. Randall T. Wakelam, The Science of Bombing: Operational Research in RAF Bomber Command (Toronto, Buffalo and London: University of Toronto Press, 2009), 14. 

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3 thoughts on “Debating bombing and foreign intervention — II

  1. Nicholas Waller

    Apropos of nothing in particular, Philip Noel-Baker went to my old school, as did AJP Taylor. About the only other famous old boy was Brian Rix, noted farceur on British TV and the stage in his time, often seen on screen with his trousers down; latterly head of Mencap.

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