1920-1939 | Appeasing Hitler | Arms exports | Germany

Cabinet approves sale of advanced aero engines to Nazi Germany

Ramsay MacDonald on the cover of Time Magazine c. 1929 (via Wikimedia) and German bombers over Britain. c. 1940 (© IWM MH 6547)

28 July 1933

On 28 July 1933, six months after Hitler became chancellor of Germany, the Cabinet decided against implementing any regulations on the sales of British aircraft or advanced aero engines to Germany.  The only qualification was that, if, at any time, other countries were prepared to insist on a ‘written assurance from the German government’ that such exports would not be used for military aviation ( banned under the 1925 Paris Air Agreement ),’ then Britain would likewise press British manufacturers to seek a similar written pledge.

Ministers decided that ‘in the meantime no restriction should be placed’ on the conclusion of agreements, including Armstrong Siddeley’s negotiations ‘with the German authorities for the sale of manufacturing rights in their engines including supercharged engines.’1 The Times noted the following month that one of these engines being deployed on a British passenger plane was capable of 400 hp and of propelling the four engined aircraft with a load of 10 tons from Paris to London in just 90 minutes.2

On 28 February 1934, the Cabinet discussed the issue again and decided to allow Armstrong-Siddeley to sell Germany 118 aero engines in addition to 82 it had already sold. This was despite the acknowledgement by ministers that the engines might be used for fighter aircraft. Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald’s admitted to ministers that the business was ‘rather repugnant to him personally,’ but added that it was vital for British business to obtain as large a share of  German orders as possible.  In April 1934, The Times aeronautical correspondent, who was only aware of the initial smaller sale, commented that it was ‘the first order of any size received from Germany by a British constructor since the war.’  The same month Vickers was also able to conclude a far reaching deal with the Nazi government, selling it manufacturing rights, and thereby handing over to the nascent Luftwaffe the advantage of sixteen years of British research.3

Robert Vansittart, Permanent Under Secretary at the Foreign Office, had by then been warning for months of a ‘mass of secret information’ confirming that Germany had already started to recreate its air force.4 The government seems to have been indifferent to all but the business opportunities that provided.  When, in May 1934, Labour MP Seymour Cocks reminded MPs of ‘the great public anxiety on this question’, his concerns were dismissed by Stanley Baldwin, Lord President of the Council and leader of the Conservative Party, who declared that the ‘fulfilment of orders of this nature in no way involved Treaty obligations.’5

FOOTNOTES

  1. Minutes of the Cabinet meeting, 28 July 1933, The National Archives, CAB 23/76/21
  2. ‘Fast New Passenger Plane,’ The Times, 17 August 1933, p. 7
  3. Minutes of Cabinet meeting, 28 February 1934, The National Archives, CAB 23/78/7, ‘British Aero-Engines for Germany,’ The Times, 25 April 1934, p. 16 and Neil Forbes, Doing Business with the Nazis: Britain’s Economic and Financial Relations with Germany, 1931-1939, Frank Cass, London, p. 135.
  4. Tim Bouverie, Appeasing Hitler: Chamberlain, Churchill and the Road to War, Bodley Head, London, 2019.
  5. ‘Germany’s Plane Orders,’ The Daily Herald, 17 May 1934, p. 15 and ‘British Air Engines: Local MP’s Anxiety about Order from Germany,’ The Nottingham Journal, 17 May 1934, p. 4.

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