No. 131 NAI DFA 219/4

Confidential report from William Warnock to Joseph P. Walshe (Dublin)

Berlin, 2 March 1940

The storm after the Altmark incident has now died down for the time being.1 When the news first came through concerning the British attack on the Altmark in Norwegian territorial waters the indignation rose to fever pitch. In that the British had clearly violated Norwegian neutrality there was plenty of scope for the propagandists. At first it was maintained that the Altmark was an ordinary defenceless merchant ship, and no mention was made of her connection with the 'Graf von Spee'. Later she was described as a 'government ship' flying the service flag (not the navy flag).

I was speaking the other day to a neutral journalist who visited Jeseossingfjord a day or two after the incident. He said that the Captain first told him that they were unarmed, but afterwards remarked that they had two machine-guns which had been given to them by the 'Graf von Spee'. There were some bullet-holes in the vessel; it was impossible, however, to prove that they had been caused by firing from the British boarding-party.

The Norwegian attitude has displeased Germany. It is thought that protest to Great Britain should have been much more energetic. The last note from Dr Koht2 is regarded as being almost apologetic in tone, when he admits that Norway may have made a mistake. Even supposing that Norway had no right to allow the Altmark cruise in her territorial waters, it was for Norway alone, and not for Great Britain, to decide whether Norwegian neutrality had been violated by the Altmark or not.

Neutral circles are, of course, very worried. It is felt that anything may happen from now on. The British have given a very bad example, and have furnished the Germans with a precedent for similar breaches of neutrality.

The attitude of the Swiss press in the Altmark affair caused great anger in German official circles, in that the Gazette de Lausanne and some other papers are said to have condoned the British action.

Dr Goebbels addressed a warning to neutrals in a speech the other day. He said that while Germany had no intention of making demands on the neutrals like Mr Churchill had made, it was necessary that neutrality should be interpreted in its true meaning. Germany could not agree to a definition which confined itself to military matters, and omitted the political aspect. There should be no glaring distinction between the neutrality of a state and the neutrality of public opinion. It does not do for a government to declare its neutrality, and for the press to have freedom to abuse. To be neutral means to keep oneself out of the conflict in all its aspects.

The German railways have been under great strain for the past few months. The canals became frozen over just before Christmas, and they are not yet free. A considerable number of trains have had to be placed at the disposal of the armed forces, and passenger trains have been reduced to a bare minimum. The employees have to work long hours and the numerous accidents which have taken place are attributed to the fact that the men are overworked. Trains are also commandeered to carry coal to the cities, where the conditions were unbearable during the cold spell, which, by the way, has not altogether left us.

Very little railway material could be seized in the former Polish districts. The Poles kept withdrawing towards the east, and most of the Polish rolling stock which had not been destroyed during the German advance, was, at the end of the campaign, in the territory now under Russian control. The Russians have held onto it all even though they are re-laying the railway lines to suit their own gauge, which is wider than the internationally recognised 4 feet eight and a half inches.

Arrangements have been made to introduce more foreign labour than ever this year in order to meet present shortage. 50,000 Italian agricultural workers will be distributed over the country, and a large number of Polish labourers will be available this year. Czech technicians are a great help but for obvious reasons they are not allowed to work in the armament and allied industries. There are, I understand, almost 30,000 Slovak workers in Germany. I recently had an opportunity to discuss these problems with the Minister for Labour, Herr Seldte, and with Dr Syrop, the Secretary of State in the Ministry of Labour. Dr Syrop told me that the war had not created a new unemployment problem, as had happened in other countries, but rather the reverse. Certain industries were, of course, having a thin time, but the workers had been quickly absorbed into other branches. In order to offset the effects of mobilisation, the women and older men have had to be pressed into service. The unemployment figures are not published, but I understand from Dr Syrop that at the end of November there were in all greater Germany 100,000 unemployed, the most of whom were unemployable. The figure for February was 250,000 and the rise was explained by the fact that outdoor building work had to be curtailed owing to the severe cold. When one takes into account that the population of Germany is 80,000,000 these figures are negligible.

The British are claiming that one of their reconnaissance aircraft overflew Berlin the other night, and dropped leaflets. The report states that the pilot dropped rockets to light up the city. I find it very difficult indeed to believe this report. If leaflets had been dropped, I would have heard about it. As it is, nothing was known of the affair here until a denial was issued in the newspapers. The Poles issued statements in November to the effect that they have bombarded Berlin from the air.

People are saying that the war will start soon now. I myself consider it not impossible that the Germans will not after all take the offensive. They are confident that they can break through the Maginot Line, though, of course, with terrible loss, but why should they? Their opponents are powerless against them at the moment, and they are carrying on fairly well economically. The British blockade is ineffective in the east area from Saarbrücken to Vladivostok. And there does not seem to be any convincing proof that time is working against Germany.

[signed] W. Warnock

1 The reference is to a naval confrontation during which British naval personnel boarded the Altmark, a German ship, in neutral Norwegian waters and freed British POWs onboard.

2 Halvdan Koht (1873-1965), Norwegian Foreign Minister (1935-40).

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