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Authors: Jim Wilson

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Rothermere argued that Britain needed 5,000 warplanes if she were not to remain at the mercy of her European neighbours. Based on her already substantial civilian flying industry, he forecast that when Germany started to equip herself with a strong Luftwaffe, she would surpass Britain almost overnight. He called the British government’s failure to embark upon a realistic policy to create a properly equipped air force a policy of suicide. It appalled him that since 1925 Britain had cut the annual budget for its air force by almost 10 per cent. As Rothermere wrote in his book,
Warnings and Predictions
, published in the year the Second World War broke out, ‘by one section of the British population my policy was called “war-mongering”, by the other it was called “pro-Nazi”’. In reality, he said, it was a policy to achieve peace.

In 1935 Rothermere had translated his views into action, funding and founding an association called the National League of Airmen. This was his personal effort to give wider expression to the need to start building a strong and effective air force. He invested £50,000 (equivalent to £1.7 million at today’s values) in his campaign, and he attracted to the league experienced pilots and supporters, aiming to convince the population, and in particular the government, of the dire need for a modern air force. Full membership of the league was awarded to pilots who had a minimum of 100 hours’ flying time. Associate membership was offered to others who had the ambition to learn to fly. He set up a system to help those who wanted to qualify as a pilot. They could achieve their aim for only £14, and he funded a series of public meetings which swiftly led to the recruitment of several thousand members and potential flyers.

Hermann Goering, Commander-in-Chief of the Luftwaffe, had told an acquaintance of Rothermere’s in 1936 that Germany was adding one new aircraft to her fleet every half an hour, and the German munitions and aircraft factories were working seven days a week. It was an exaggeration, but appalled by what this meant if Britain had to face a future war, Rothermere published a further broadside in the
Daily Mail
in April 1936.
6
The words from Goering, he wrote, had been translated into deeds. Under his programme, Germany was to have had 87,000 aeroplanes by the end of 1935, all of the newest type:
‘There is every reason to believe that this programme, at least has been fulfilled, and that since that date the total number of aeroplanes has rapidly increased. It has been estimated that some fifty new aeroplanes, all of the most modern design, are added to Germany’s air fleet daily.’ Rothermere declared that Britain should not waste a moment more and should proceed swiftly to deal with the inadequacy of her own air force.

Not satisfied with conducting his campaign through words alone, he took practical steps and invested a considerable amount of his own money to commission a high-performance aircraft from the Bristol Aircraft Company, which he christened ‘Britain First’, after the slogan of the British Union of Fascists. It was initially designed as a civil transport aircraft and was delivered within a year. It flew for the first time on 12 April 1935. Fitted with two American variable pitch propellers, it was capable of 307mph; 80mph faster than any fighter being flown by the RAF at that time. Under pressure from Rothermere, the Air Ministry asked the RAF to test it at Martlesham Heath airfield in Suffolk. Some of the RAF’s top pilots who had the chance to fly it formed the opinion that its handling qualities made it a potentially excellent aircraft for military purposes. The RAF enquired if they could use it as a prototype, suggesting a similar model could be adapted for large-scale manufacture. In the name of the
Daily Mail
Rothermere presented the aircraft to the RAF. He wrote: ‘The building of “Britain First” conclusively showed that Britain’s lack of efficient modern bombers was not because we couldn’t make them, but because we wouldn’t make them.’
7
‘Britain First’, suitably adapted, eventually became the RAF’s Blenheim Bomber, one of the most successful medium bombers Britain possessed at the outset of the Second World War. When the king toured RAF airfields in July 1936, the Spitfire and the Blenheim were the two aircraft the RAF chose to display in front of him. By 1937 the Air Ministry had placed an order for 150 Blenheims.

Meanwhile, Jack Kruse, undoubtedly influenced by his colleague and employer, had thrown his support behind the campaign for rearmament. He, too, was lobbying for the strengthening of the RAF. In letters to
The Times
he expressed his views on the urgent need for a stronger air force to defend the country in a possible forthcoming war. He also wrote in support of enlistment into the British armed forces from far-flung outposts of the empire. Kruse was always extremely well informed, but his views supported a rather less extreme middle way between, on the one hand, Churchill’s hawkish anti-appeasement stance, and on the other, as he saw it, his employer’s rather too well-disposed attitude towards Hitler. He still kept in touch with Princess Stephanie, but perhaps Jack Kruse was beginning to realise that the introduction his wife Annabel had engineered nearly a decade earlier was leading to a rather too close relationship with Hitler and his henchmen for either Rothermere’s or his country’s good.

8
E
NTER
THE
B
LACKSHIRTS

The invitation for Rothermere to visit Hitler was handed to Princess Stephanie in March 1934, but because of Rothermere’s business commitments and his constant travelling, it was not until December that year that he was able to accept. When he arrived in Berlin, Rothermere received an overwhelmingly friendly reception. Hitler appeared to genuinely hold him in esteem. The significance of the visit to the National Socialists was not hard to see; there were potentially huge benefits if the Reich Chancellor was able to exploit the power a proprietor of such mass-circulation newspapers wielded in the UK. From Hitler’s point of view there was no more effective way of achieving a propaganda coup for National Socialism and for his policy to reclaim territory ceded in the settlement that followed the First World War and boost German influence in Britain.

At that first meeting, Hitler made the comment, ‘Lloyd George and your brother won the war for Britain’.
1
Hitler admired strong men and had a high regard for the late Lord Northcliffe, who had placed his considerable journalistic skills to great effect behind Lloyd George’s conduct of the First World War. Northcliffe had aimed fierce criticism at the Asquith government during the early part of the First World War. He had swung the power of his newspapers behind a campaign to ensure that more and better munitions reached the front line, and he had galvanised the government into action; persisting even when his criticisms, notably of Lord Kitchener, were reflected in substantial falls in the circulation of the
Daily Mail
. When Lloyd George replaced Asquith as premier he asked Northcliffe to join him in his Cabinet. However, Northcliffe refused, saying he was a journalist and that was where his talent and his influence could be exercised. To enter politics as a minister would undermine his ability to criticise government. Hitler admired Northcliffe’s stance and his patriotism. Now he was dealing, face to face, with the great propagandist’s brother, and on his own terms. The dividends, if he played his cards cunningly, could be significant.

It was just before Christmas 1934 and Rothermere and his son Esmond, together with Princess Stephanie, were accorded the honour of being entertained by Hitler at the first major dinner party he had given for foreign visitors at his official residence in Berlin since he had taken office. The Nazi leader was accompanied at the dinner by twenty-three high-level guests, among them Goebbels, Goering and Joachim von Ribbentrop. In Rothermere’s party was George Ward Price, the
Daily Mail
’s European correspondent who was to become one of the few British reporters to get close to the Führer; one of the very few reporters that Hitler greatly admired. On 20 December Rothermere returned the hospitality, hosting a dinner at Berlin’s famous Hotel Adlon. Twenty-five guests attended, including Germany’s Foreign Minister Baron von Neurath and his wife; Dr Joseph Goebbels and his wife Magda; Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s foreign policy adviser, and his wife Annelies; and Hermann Goering, accompanied by the actress Emmy Sonnemann, later to be his wife. Rothermere had also invited the British banker E.W.C. Tennant, one of the principal founders of the Anglo-German Fellowship and a friend of Ribbentrop’s who had been instrumental in introducing Ribbentrop to a number of influential people in English society.

Princess Stephanie had taken great care over the seating plan. Rothermere, as host, sat at the centre of the table, with Hitler on his right and Stephanie, as hostess, opposite. Hitler began to talk at length about his imprisonment in Landsberg Castle. By sheer coincidence, it was ten years to the day that he had been released from internment and he relished talking about the impact of the experience on his politics and policies. No official interpreter was present, so the princess struggled to keep up with the Führer’s torrent of words. When the main course was served, Hitler again dominated the conversation, speaking at length on the topic of Anglo-German friendship and his view that the future of the two nations, Britain and Germany, lay in a strong partnership. With Hitler in full flow, very few of the other guests were able to get a word in edgeways. Though he wanted to, Rothermere was unable even to propose a toast, because Hitler went on talking. Finally, when his guest paused for a few moments, Rothermere grabbed the opportunity to rise and make his speech, but at that moment someone accidentally knocked over a large vase of flowers which fell to the floor with a thunderous crash. Immediately, armed men from Hitler’s SS bodyguard rushed into the room, pistols drawn, convinced the noise signalled an attempted assassination. Although the whole incident was a pure accident, the Reich Chancellor left the hotel without waiting for the final course to be served. He was followed out by the other senior Nazis. To Rothermere’s consternation the evening, which up to that time had been convivial, ended in some confusion.

The year 1934 was a significant one for Rothermere. In Berlin he shook hands with the Führer. In London he voiced powerful support for Britain’s would-be Führer. It was the year of his notorious acclamation, in an article he published in the
Daily Mail
, of the Blackshirt movement in Britain; the popular name for Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, the British version of the National Socialism movement which Mosley had formed in 1932.
2
Mosley had been a darling of the British Establishment. He had served in the Royal Flying Corps in the First World War, where he had performed with distinction. But he had never really got over the sense of betrayal that he felt his generation had suffered in the terrible slaughter of trench warfare. He had first been elected to Parliament at the age of 22, in 1918 as a Conservative, and soon established a reputation as a powerful orator. He was a ‘man in a hurry’, impatient with his party’s ‘old guard’, among whom were many who, as he saw it, had allowed the tragedy of war to decimate the young men of the nation and had not done enough to keep them from poverty once the war was over. Mosley was a figure in high society as well as in politics. Those with whom he was identified were in the main rich, young and glamorous. Stanley Baldwin was perceptive in remarking of Mosley as a Tory: ‘He’s a cad and a wrong’un and they will find it out.’

Mosley had emerged from the war a dashing figure, much in demand by political hostesses, with a barely disguised contempt for what he regarded as middle-class morality; blandly describing his well-known pursuit of married women as ‘flushing the covers’. Disappointed and disillusioned by the Tories, in 1924 Mosley changed sides and joined Labour, believing them to be the party more capable of delivering the change he wanted. Some, including Aneurin Bevan, saw him as a potential Labour leader, and Mosley was promoted by Ramsay MacDonald to the Labour Cabinet. But when the economic programmes he passionately advocated to tackle unemployment and his brilliant analysis of the economic problems facing the country were rejected, he resigned from the Labour Party to become an Independent, only to rejoin Labour and then to rebel again.

In 1931 he launched his own party, the New Party. When that failed he departed to Italy, attracted by Mussolini and the politics that had brought the Italian dictator success. Returning to Britain in 1932 he founded the British Union of Fascists (BUF). Many found him an intriguing character – vain, arrogant and ambitious. He certainly possessed charisma and was socially acceptable, a protégé of some of the leading politicians of the day; not only of Bevan and Ramsay MacDonald, but also Winston Churchill. The views Mosley was advocating also appealed to Rothermere: they embraced youth, action and rearmament. The violence and anti-Semitism the BUF eventually espoused emerged later. Mosley convinced himself, and many others, that fascism would appeal where weak and spineless conservatism was putting off those who would be considered natural supporters of the right.

In some people’s minds, Mosley and his Blackshirts represented not much more than an extreme, energetic and youthful wing of the then Conservative Party, inspired by patriotism and loyalty. Plenty of middle- and upper-class people were attracted to his movement, many of them natural Tories driven to a new radical dynamism against the perceived socialist threat. Quite a number of peers and aristocrats were drawn to his ideas, although they found the way the Blackshirts were organised and the violence displayed at some of Mosley’s rallies and marches vulgar. It was to attract such people of influence that on New Year’s Day 1934, Mosley formed the January Club as a front to engage members of the political Establishment and people influential in British society with his ideas of the corporate state. It was in effect a ‘half-way house’ for those who sympathised with BUF aims but felt unable to come out and publicly join the Fascists. Certain Conservative MPs, senior military officers, businessmen and members of the aristocracy (many of them friends and acquaintances of Princess Stephanie) were January Club members. In contrast to those sympathising with the BUF, there were plenty of people who supported socialism and who genuinely feared the prospect of a fascist revolution in Britain. Rothermere’s nightmare was the absolute reverse. He, as one of the country’s richest men, worried about a communist takeover and all that might imply for those who had considerable wealth. He even planned to purchase an estate in Hungary as a ‘bolt hole’ against this eventuality.

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