Max Nicholson

Part of Chapter 9 of Max;s unpublished autobiography
World War II - The Unfolding
Entire contents of this page Copyright © 2003 executors of Max Nicholson

Of all the kaleidoscopic historic changes of 1941 two had a particularly far-reaching influence on the shipping situation and on my role in it. These were the unwilling entries into the war of the Soviet Union and the USA. Hitler's invasion of Russia in June promised to divert a large part of the Nazi war machine against which we had been struggling single-handed. Clearly however, it opened up immense new requirements for material which, difficult as it was to spare, was even more difficult to deliver in face of the hard facts of Russian geography and climate. Apart from the remote Siberian back-door at Vladivostok the choice was limited to the only relatively less remote overland access through Iran and the closer but climatically and strategically forbidding Arctic route through the Barents Sea to Murmansk or Archangel. The common feature of these routes was that, unlike nearly all others used in the war, both were right outside the ken of our shipping men, who took a pessimistic view, especially of the prospects of running supplies through the Arctic Ocean in winter.

Politically however, it was at once realised at the highest level to be of overriding importance to be seen to be giving practical aid to our involuntary and intractable but nonetheless invaluable new allies. An Anglo-Soviet Shipping Committee was set up under my chairmanship and the ball was in our court to deliver the equipment which was enthusiastically provided. An unexpected ally was the climate, which proved to be less unfavourable for arctic shipping movements than for many decades. On the other hand, the capacity and facilities of the North Russian ports were so rudimentary that tanks and other heavy items could only be handled there by ships filled to manage the entire lift, as well as being altered, for example to use propellers which would not snap or buckle in the ice.

The PQ convoys in which they sailed had to be very strongly escorted, with accordingly limited places. It soon became obvious that the throughput of tanks and so forth was being reduced by Russian insistence on themselves providing half the vessels in each PQ, since these mainly small timber ships, could carry only a small proportion of the load of our own larger and more modem ones. I pointed this out to our Soviet colleagues, whose response was negative, but we watched the reports of ship movements and were relieved to find that our advice was in fact being taken. The Russian ships were systematically redeployed between North American Pacific ports and Vladivostok, which made much more sense as the Soviet Union was not at war with Japan.

We were soon to learn that even the brusque rejection of a proposal by the Russians did not necessarily mean that they would not act on it. It simply went against the Russian grain to 1dmit openly that anyone else might know better than themselves about anything. My secret weapon in these dialogues was the contribution of Jean Hasler, whom I brought in as secretary to the Committee without letting on that she had enterprisingly taken the trouble to learn Russian well - she disliked doing anything badly. She was able after each meeting to brief me on their candid remarks to one another under the impression that we had no Russian speakers present.

On one occasion for example, they had been led to press us to send them more large cranes than even the then great port of Liverpool possessed. When we declined they adjourned into a private huddle in which they were overhead to agree that Moscow's instructions were utterly unrealistic and that they should reply according and ask that in future they should be trusted to obtain from us the maximum practicable in the light of actual possibilities. I responded by making it a rule that all concessions and offers on shipping matters should be channeled through this Anglo- Soviet Committee in London and never through our own Embassy in Russia, which gracefully acquiesced. It soon appeared that the Soviet Government drew the desired conclusion about the prowess of their envoys in London and ceased to interfere. Shipping ha~ been low in the Soviet peck-order. These were not high-ranking officers, but they were sensible and we got on well, especially with one who proved to be a keen bird-ringer. As a boy he had served during the Revolution on the Caspian Sea, where his vessel was once caught far from shore in dense fog with alarming loud trumpeting coming from all around. As they stood to arms the fog lifted revealing not the expected flotilla of White Russian ships but simply a vocal herd of Whooper Swans.

Meanwhile the grim realitities of running the gauntlet of air, surface and submarine attack were ever present, culminating in the memorable disaster which owing to a high-level Admiralty misunderstanding overtook the convoy PQ 17. It was indeed "a nightmare sea-route 'The Turn of The Tide by Sir Arthur Bryant, P. or the convoys carrying arms and supplies to Russia. My friend John Lawrence, going out in' one of these to edit the British information bulletin Britanska Soyuznik in Kuibishev was in his cabin when the ship was suddenly broken in two by a German torpedo, giving him a remarkable view of the Arctic Ocean in place of one of his cabin walls which was drifting away with the other part of the ship. On boarding a lifeboat he dutifully complied with the Foreign Office instructions by jettisoning his bag of secret papers only to find that it obstinately stayed afloat, buoyed up by trapped air. He accordingly recovered it and was able after all to present his sea-stained credentials to the Russian authorities, thanks to having been picked up by the tough crew of one of the rescue vessels which were detailed to follow these convoys. As his party stood lined up on its deck a Foreign Office colleague in it took exception to their no-nonsense treatment, mildly pointing out that they were diplomats, to which came the crushing reply "Yer may have been diplomats once, but you're only fucking survivors now!"

This supply line to Russia in the early days of that theatre of war had much more political and propaganda than logistic and military significance, although these were not negligible. As time went on it proved preferable to direct more of the traffic through the Iranian route, a little of it by an obscure back way through Meshed into Central Asia which was unkindly named my "donkey parade". Unlike the naval chiefs we, in shipping, never bluntly pronounced it an impossibility to carry on with the Arctic convoys, but at times in pursuance of our orders, we were inevitably reminded of the Charge of the Light Brigade. It was an immense relief to be spared the ordeal of losing on the Arctic sea route one in four of our new ships. During April and May 1942 only 58 of the 84 ships despatched got through and as well as large numbers of precious seamen these attacks sank tanks, vehicles and aircraft which our own services urgently needed for other cui4ent operations.

Almost simultaneously with the Japanese attacks which brought the United States into the war on our side in December 1941, the bluff and amiable civil servant who headed the Allocation of Tonnage Division (of which my Economic and Inter-Allied Branch was part) found the job of keeping ships moving with the right cargoes to the right ports too much for the equability of his blood pressure. The Ministry was full of able experienced shipping men and competent civil servants but my masters astounded me by picking me for this key task. It was gradually becoming perceived that, as World War II was developing on a global scale, the shortages and losses of shipping would increasingly govern not only our strategy but our survival. Since to have enough shipping was still an unattainable dream, to use it to best effect was imperative.

While the day-to-day management of ships could only be undertaken by shipping men, the matching of the total dry cargo merchant shipping under British Control (totalling 21,324,000 deadweight tons at December 31st 1941) so as to secure the greatest lift on the most favourable routes, called for quite different qualifications. The department's statisticians, headed by the benign and thoughtful Sir William Elderton, maintained elaborate tables from which could theoretically be derived estimates of lifting capacity on various assumptions of losses and repairs, the addition of new vessels and the types of cargo to be loaded, carried and discharged between different ports with different turn-round times. The statisticians however, could not take account of all the fluctuating and unpredictable practical conditions, such as unavailability of expected cargo, convoy delays, air-raids on ports or arbitrary detention by high-handed military and other authorities, sometimes intent on landing only some urgently desired item of cargo and leaving the rest to await unloading days or even weeks later.

The head of Allocation of Tonnage had to be currently informed of such goings on and to acquire a feel for opportunist adjustments enabling programmes to be as nearly as possible fulfilled over a period even at the expense of drastic departures from them in the short-nm. As such experiences mounted up the panics which had earlier been created by statistical short-falls were customarily eliminated by what became a time-honoured formula that the prospective deficits shown were "not unmanageable". Just how that result was brought about was understood to be nobody's business but mine.

Allocation of Tonnage was perhaps the most central of the Ministry's operating divisions (although less close than Sea Transport to actual military operations). As its Head I was able to delegate fully to an excellent staff, including skilled shipping men, the everyday translation into action of our multifarious commitments. I could entirely rely on their practical performance, but I needed to keep a sharp eye on the constant and inevitable tendencies for deviations or drift to lead to departures from the authorised programme, which called for remedial action or, when that was impossible, for report and reconsideration, if necessary with other parties affected. Many circumstances could affect our capacity to fulfil shipping programmes at the specified times; equally it could happen that promised cargoes were not promptly or fully available and switches might be necessary.

Users of shipping and especially the military, tended to look on it as a kind of cab-rank from which the needful vessels would be whistled up as and when they were wanted. They found it hard to adapt to the shipping authorities' view of their task as being to manage over time and space a scarce and fleeting resource in such a way as to yield the utmost quality and quantity of cargo lift. That could only be achieved by all behaving as a disciplined and intelligent team, doing their best to fulfil a common programme. It was therefore by no means enough for Allocation of Tonnage to perform efficiently its own specific tasks. Practical co-ordination was needed among all concerned not merely with the management but with the uses of shipping. Any deficiencies or interruptions had to be tracked down and corrected.

Even those most intimately and continuously concerned were not always successful in learning the whole truth and nothing but the truth about the shipping situation. Yet whenever anything went wrong elsewhere there was usually a reaction of blaming the shipping authorities and plaguing them with misguided inquisitions by ignorant and incompetent outsiders. Shipping programmes and estimates had to be prepared for our masters and about the time I took charge we had learnt the hard way that unless the forecasts matched the outturn we had simply made a rod for our own backs. While it was naive to suppose that even the best advance estimates would be automatically fulfilled in the course of subsequent management, we found that our management could be so manipulated as to enable results at the end of the day to suggest an almost uncanny prescience in the forecasts.

Under this ingenious if misleading system six estimates for the second half of 1944 made from the previous November onwards came out with an accuracy within 1 1/2 percent. At a later Anglo- American meeting a United States Army Colonel lost patience with such considerations sufficiently to blurt out to us "well gentlemen, we may be about to lose this war, but at least we will lose it statistically perfect!" We sympathised but unless we could maintain credibility in the forecasts and returns to which planners, service chiefs and political leaders inevitably attached importance, endless misunderstandings, arguments and demands for ill-conceived changes were the only alternative.

Welcome as it was to have the Americans with us, after nearly two years of struggling against Hitler without allies who could really help4he new situation at the close of 1941 brought more problems than solutions in the short-run/World War I proved to have been a misnomer; with active hostilities ranging nearly 190 degrees eastward and another 90 degrees westward from our perch on the Greenwich Meridian and through nearly 120 degrees of latitude north and south, this was the first true world war in which, despite its expanding air dimension, shipping had to carry the burden as never before. In 1939, out of a world gross tonnage of 56.8 million tons (disregarding fresh-water vessels and those of below 600 tons) the United Kingdom share had been 1 6 million or not far short of one-third, while the United States share was only half that. In world-wide infrastructure, regular route mileage and range of experience the British preponderance was much greater. Yet that array of peacetime shipping experience could be in wartime as much a handicap as an asset.

So it came about that mechanisms and techniques had to be devised and channels established, especially between London and Washington for ensuring that so far as humanly feasible their respective pools of tonnage functioned as if they were one. In addition, as Allied grand strategy gradually became settled and accepted - as it never did perfectly - the shipping authorities were consulted early enough and in enough detail to be able to give and fulfil the necessary assurances about future availability of shipping without which operations and programmes could not have been carried through.

These channels were created at two levels. First, a combined Shipping Adjustment Board was established both in London and Washington, in January 1942 under which the shipping resources of the two countries were "deemed to be pooled". In London this formally consisted of a United States Government representative and the Minister of War Transport, but it rarely met and the Minister and his Director-General normally delegated the fulfilment of their directive to me.

In Washington President Roosevelt was represented by the distinguished and likeable Lew Douglas who had resigned as Director of The Budget in the early days of the New Deal on finding tat the President had no serious intention of carrying out his election promise to balance public expenditure. He got his own back on this occasion by responding as he told me later, to the invitation wit the words: "Mr President, there is something essentially honest about ships. If you don't have them you can't print them, and you can't fool people that they are there. So I am very ready to serve you in this capacity."

Rarely have I had the pleasure of working with a more trusty and agreeable person. The only penalty for his visitors was that his chronic sinus trouble led him to keep his office fully dehydrated at a temperature of at least 75 F even in winter, when outside in the street it was nearer 20 F. Compared with our Ministry in Berkeley Square House the War Shipping Administration was very leanly staffed. Its creation had been bitterly resented by the United States Army and Navy, who wished to lay hands on as much shipping as they thought they needed at their own sweet will and had to be constantly called to heel to induce them even partially to honour the President's decision. This they would certainly have flouted but for the punctilious way in which we kept the USA in the picture and backed up their efforts, aided by the fact that our Minister Lord Leathers was one of those with the most intimate access to Winston Churchill.

The second and more important but more elusive channel was the succession of large formal War Conferences between the President , the Prime Minister and the Combined Chiefs of Staff, passing under such code names as Trident Octagon and Argonaut. The first of these, at Casablanca in January 1943, reached a numb2r of ambitious conclusions which, in the absence of the right level of shipping advice and reliable data, soon proved to be inoperable and a salvage operation had to be mounted by the Combined Shipping Authorities. Only then did the political and military leaders hoist in the truth that in such a war it is a must for sound strategic planning to have responsible shipping advisers present during decision making to a~4ess the shipping implications of each proposed operation or programme and to certify its feasibility or otherwise in operational shipping terms. Fortunately one of the first to learn this lesson and the staunchest in abiding by it, was the British C.LG.S. Sir Alan Brooke, without whose insistence the US military leaders would never have accepted it.

Thus it came about that heading Allocation of Tonnage changed from the desk job which it had been under my predecessor to a peripatetic and diplomatic assignment. My Director-General and his deputies did not take kindly to travel, either by themselves or initially by their lieutenants and for a long time they hoped that our resident British Merchant Shipping Mission in Washington under Sir Arthur Salter would be able to conduct all the co-operation necessary. That those hopes were eventually disappointed was no fault of the Missions. The determination and subsequent manipulation of global shipping programmes had life-and-death implications for the main parties concerned on both sides of the ocean.

The inevitable divergences of perception and priorities, after even a little time, called for prompt and thorough personal explanation and adjustment in the light of a vivid sense of the tender feelings, suspicions and grievances which could spring up overnight, leading to unforeseen and sometimes irrationally acute crises. There was a constant need for a sensitive honest broker, to reinforce the mutual respect and awareness of common cause when they began to get frayeq/ahd to suggest adjustments, rarely wholly satisfying to any but adopted as the best means of going on living together. Such a broker had to be on the spot in London and Washington, in New York and Montreal often enough to be a familiar face and to keep abreast not only of the facts but of shifting office politics and personalities. Although now a Principal Assistant Secretary, qualifying on transatlantic crossings in the Queens to be berthed as a Rear-Admiral, I was somewhat junior for this role, but my seniors had noj hesitation in wishing it on me and to my surprise, and no doubt theirs, the cap seemed to fit.

This was largely due to luck. My pre-war career had trained me to be an eager observer and interpreter of the fascinatingly varied conduct of different organisations and professions. The contrast between the running of the War Shipping Administration and the Ministry of War Transport was a real feast and in lapping it up I quickly found myself acquiring a mid-Atlantic stance, appreciative yet critical of both and identifying warmly with the hard struggle for existence which my American colleagues had to wage against their almost all-powerful military rivals. They must have sensed this and understood the value of the insistence of my Minister with sturdy Churchillian backing, tat shipping should be handled not on a British or American but on a combined and consistent basis in terms of the best use of resources.

On one occasion during the run-up of Overlord (the Normandy invasion) a more than usually tough confrontation arose in Washington, in which the American generals and admirals pressed us very hard and then proposed that the Americans and British should retire to different rooms and return wit their conclusions. To their surprise I insisted as an alternative tat the Combined Shipping Authorities should retire altogether and come back with their common answer.

That answer proved broadly satisfactory to the American military, but less so to my Minister Lord Leathers, who unbeknown to me had just obtained a War Cabinet decision on the same matter in a contrary sense. As it happened I was about to fly back to London, on an aircraft which got iced up at Goose Bay in Labrador; by the lime I eventually arrived wiser counsels had begun to prevail and I had not too much trouble in getting off the hook. The course I had rashly agreed on was adopted and it worked, so there was no black mark after my name.

From the moment that the Americans joined us I was deeply impressed by the contrast between their keenness to frame and find answers to searching and relevant questions, whereas their British counterparts assumed, often wrongly, that they already knew or could improvise the0 answers. Like the Americans I came to wartime shipping problems with a fresh mind and I found their approach not only more congenial but more productive. Instead of thumbing through long out-of date lists of last reported positions of named ships the Americans anticipated the computer age by organising a vast Hollerith index which enabled them, within ten or twenty minutes, to find how many vessels of above a certain size were currently in North African ports and how many more were due to arrive there within a given period.

To the British safe arrival was the key fact and they assumed often mistakenly, that it would be followed by prompt and orderly discharge and turn-around. Too often in wartime conditions the problem was not to get the ship to its destination but to get its cargo unloaded and the ship back for "presenting to load" wherever its next programmed cargo awaited it. This is one simple example of many where the American approach to management enabled those responsible at the top to keep track of progress and to intervene instantly when it fell short. When I say "American" however, I must exclude both the US Army and the US Navy who simply did not want to know about efficient ship management and until the last stage of the war got away with wasting tonnage on a colossal scale.

We were able to work more or less happily with all our key opposite numbers in Washington and New York, although we had to take the rough wit the smooth. I got on especially well with Dick Bissell, who came from an academic background and having been at the London School of Economics found it easy to share our perceptions and ways of thinking. But some of the American shipping men certainly taught us plenty and despite their full-blooded Americanism always had to bear in mind that but for the British devotion to the Combined principle their own generals and admirals would give them short shrift, so self-preservation dictated tolerance.

Their pertinacity and skill in framing and getting valid answers to key questions added enduringly to my education, especially since they brought in for the purpose outstanding independent minds such as the delightful Stacy May, a true philosopher with a sure intuition for problem-solving and an enjoyable sense of humour - when we had to cross the Atlantic together in the convened liner Queen Elizabeth he christened our little forest of makeshift bare timber bunks the "wooded deli".

The War Shipping Administration and the British Merchant Shipping Mission had adjoining offices in the Department of Commerce, a conveniently central location quite near the White House. I recall returning there from lunch one wet day in January 1945 and being unable to cross Pennsylvania Avenue until the procession had passed for President Roosevelt's third Inauguration. As his motorcade neared me there was audible from the crowd a spontaneous chant which I at first supposed must be some kind of ritual welcome to the White House, until it was taken up by the rear rows nearest to me and could be decoded as a message to those in front - PUT DOWN THOSE UMBRELLAS!

Thanks to that I was able to see the ailing President for the last time, except for a brief glimpse at Yalta. He was dead within three months.

On a later visit I had a grandstand view from our office windows of the great victory parade for obsession with the Pacific, but without it as a safety valve we might have had much Admiral Nimitz, the hero of what many Americans had regarded as the real war in the Pacific, which they had fought and won uncluttered by allies. At the time we were critical of the trouble elsewhere.

One of the valued amenities of the Commerce building was a series of fish-tanks along a basement corridor where one could spend a few spare moments between tangled committee meetings therapeutically contemplating the great conga eels as they likewise intenneshed but with less apparent stress and confusion.

Our British Merchant Shipping Mission, set up early by that shrewd veteran Sir Arthur Salter, had concentrated initially on ensuring the rapid and extensive development of an American mass- production pro e of dry-cargo standard Liberty ships. This was an area in which we were unable to complete, while the Americans excelled and without it the war might well have been lost in face oft e nightmarish rate of sinkings throughout the Battle of the Atlantic.

It was a joke in the War Shipping Administration that new vessels were being launched faster than they could think of names for them; even the bright idea of using every obscure signatory ~ V of the Declaration of Independence only relieved the strain for a few days. Earlier in the war one of our top civil servants who was not found useful in other ways was given a similar assignment; having literary tastes he was responsible for many seafarers bearing across the oceans the names of poets of whom they had never heard.

Among the talented staff of the British Mission were Jack Maclay, later Lord Muirshiel, and Bill Hart, both of whom in due course headed it. Once I was making a tans-atlantic call to Jack from the Ministry when his brother Joe, our link man wit the Royal Navy, came in and asked to have a word with him. This was most irregular and soon led the monitoring censor to intervene; his bewilderment at finding that he had two Mr Maclays on the line, one at each end, was quite something.

It was a job to find suitable personnel of the right calibre whom we could post to the Mission as it grew. I was a keen upholder of the claims of women in administration and at one time in the war I believe Allocation of Tonnage contained more at Principal level than any other in the Ministry and perhaps even in the civil service, including such trusty performers as Jean Hasler, Jane Lidderdale, Sonia Brownell who later married George Orwell and Charlotte Waterlow who was released to me by the Ministry of Economic Warfare most reluctantly on the ground, frankly admitted by their Establishment Officer, that the branch she was ~n had too little to do and if I took away its main prop they would have to face closing it! Our opposite numbers in Washington however, would employ women only as secretaries or below and when I chose Brenda Skinner, one of our bright young principals, to fill a post in our Mission the reaction was surprising. To make mailers worse she was a blonde and easy to look at - she afterwards married Otto Clark of the Treasury - and my WSA colleagues accused me of sending her especially to vamp them, declining to receive her singly, lest they should be bewitched. Happening at this time to meet Roosevelt's only woman Cabinet Minister, Frances Perkins, I asked for an explanation and she told me that a woman could hope for real advancement in the Administration in education, health or social services, but nowhere else. So this was one field in which we were leading the Americans and in which I took a special interest.

Another area of British superiority was in general dedication to winning the war, which was demonstrated only by more limited sections of the American population. The crisis came when, long before it actually arrived, the end of the war was believed to be at hand. A mad rush began to get out of war jobs and into the best post-war situations, resulting in partial paralysis of Washington agencies, including our own Mission. Even in the darkest days,for example in the Middle East, certain Americans up to senior level allowed post-war advantage to dominate their thinking and added insult to injury by assuming that we were doing the same. In regard to the Far East this tendency was aggravated by what could only be termed the China syndrome. When matters in that area arose the hostility was such that even with American friends we sometimes had to ask whether their main enemies in that theatre were us or the Japanese?

Fortunately at the top on both sides there was immense wisdom and usually the warmest goodwill. On our side one of the finest and wisest characters was Sir Ashley Sparks of Cunard, who headed the Ministry's shipping office in New York. I recall his tip when I first arrived 7 always to remember that when you reach a highway bridge in America sign-posted "safe up to 30 tons" it is the twin of one in England sign-posted "dangerous over 10 tons" and the load under which each will collapse is in fact 20 tons. At that time this story truly reflected contrasting national psychology, but does it still?

Although the Washington wartime agencies were staffed by many brilliant recruits, their performance did not compare with ours and indeed our Cabinet Office branch in Washington had, under colour of combined administration, to shoulder much of the burden for US inter- agency co-ordination, with the aid of such talented and tactful operators as my friend Bill Hasler, who like me, oscillated between Washington and London. The trouble on the American side was aggravated both by national character and by the perverse addiction of the President to never being content with leaving a responsibility to one agency if he could set up another to compete with it. This resulted in a plethora of acronyms, lending itself to ridicule with such fictitious but nearly credible examples as OUCH - the Office of Utter Confusion and Hysteria.

I suppose we were lucky, despite the monstrous behaviour in shipping matters of the US Army and Navy, that the War Shipping Administration always enjoyed reasonable support from the White House and that through its channels or ours the too frequently needed appeals which had to be made for top-level succour or whistle-blowing never failed to get through and usually elicited a tolerable if not a wholly favourable response.

Entire contents of this page Copyright © 2003 executors of Max Nicholson