7900-THE NEXT TEN YEARS 1929-1939

When Stephen King-Hall retired from the Royal Navy as a newly promoted Commander it would have been impossible to have foreseen the breadth of his activities in the next ten years. This is not the place to describe all these achievements in detail and this section will only cover one of them closely. This achievement has been chosen because its influence on public affairs was significant and it led to the most extraordinary and notorious KH connection in this website.

On leaving the Navy Stephen (SKH) took a research post in the Royal Institute of International Affairs at Chatham House. This Think Tank, as they are now called, gave him the opportunity to meet authorities in many fields and develop his talents as a commentator on current affairs.

However before starting on this aspect of his future career we should perhaps mention that he made his name as a playwright. With Ian Hay he produced a naval comedy, The Middle Watch, which was a cleaned up version of a play he had written to entertain the Home and Mediterranean Fleets when they met at Gibraltar after combined exercises. This play ran for two years and is still popular with amateur dramatic societies.

To return to his role as a current affairs commentator. This took several forms; as an author, a broadcaster and as a journalist. It was as a broadcaster that he first became a household name. From 1930 to 1937 he broadcast a talk on current affairs every Friday on BBC Children’s Hour. Apparently this programme was as popular with many adults as it was with its target audience. However it was through his work as a journalist, and particularly as author of his News-Letter (NL) , that he made his most important contribution to political affairs in the years leading up to the outbreak of the Second World War.

   Photo from 1 Oct 2012


The first letter was dispatched on the 30th June.  It consisted of about 1500 words printed on 4 pages whose size was between that of the modern A4 and A5.  The Letter was accompanied by a further section entitled From my Notebook which consisted of a brief summary of items of news that had attracted his attention during the week, and from time to time, a Supplement giving detailed background analysis of a particular situation which was currently important.  

On the 5th June 1936 Stephen sent a circular to 5,500 people telling them of his idea of starting a weekly newsletter on current affairs. Its annual subscription rate to anywhere in the world would be 10 shillings [50p in today’s currency]. By the end of the month he had received 602 subscriptions. From the beginning the contents of the King-Hall Newsletter (NL) were a commentary on national and international affairs, however it was its analysis of the latter that was mainly responsible for its immediate success.  By the end of 1936 there were over 2000 subscribers and at the end of 1937 there were 13,000. By September 1939, on the outbreak of war, the number of subscribers had passed 55,000.


To help understand the background against which the NL was launchd we need to remind ourselves of the international situation in the mid 1930s  and the subsequent  crises that led to the outbreak of the Second World War.


Jan           Hitler appointed Chancellor by Hindenburg.

Oct          Germany leaves League of  Nations.


July         Dolfuss, Austrian Chancellor murdered by Austrian Nazis.

    Hitler assumes dictatorial powers. Starts German rearmament.


Jan         Saar plebiscite votes to return to Germany

Mar         Germany re-introduces conscription.

Oct         Italy attacks Abyssinia.


Mar         Germany remilitarises the Rhineland in breach of the Treaty of Versailles.

July          Spanish Civil War starts .

                 Japan invades China

From the above list of events it can be seen that in 1936 the international background against which the K-H News-Letter would report can be briefly summarised as follows. In Germany Hitler had been in power for 3 ½ years. During that time he had taken Germany out of the League of Nations, started a major rearmament programme, reintroduced conscription and remilitarised the Rhineland.

In Italy his fellow Fascist dictator Mussolini, but not at that stage his close ally, had invaded and conquered most of Abyssinia.

In Spain a right wing general, Franco, had invaded Spain from N. Africa , to overthrow an elected Left wing Republican government, thereby starting the Spanish Civil War. Germany and Italy provided military support to the rebels while Russia supported the government

Facing these totalitarian states were two democracies, France and Great Britain with its dominions. Both had started rearmament programmes, but otherwise had no belligerent policies directed towards other nations. On the sidelines two other powers, the United States and the Soviet Union, were largely absorbed by their internal affairs. In the latter’s case this largely consisted of massacring large numbers of its own citizens, and at this stage were not directly involved in developments in Western Europe, except perhaps for the Soviet Union’s limited intervention in the Spanish Civil War. In the Far East Japan was on the verge of invading China.

At the end of 1936 public opinion in Britain was generally optimistic that war was in no way inevitable.  The 1st War was only ended half a generation earlier and surely no one could possibly want to repeat the horrors of that conflict. Hitler was not admired but many felt that some of his actions had been partly justified by reversing some of the more harsh provisions of the Treaty of Versailles.

However  in a NL 22 written in late November 1936 Stephen was not so optimistic. He wrote “Look at it how you will and the general picture is nasty. To me , it looks as if a group of militarised powers (Germany, Italy and Japan} are lining up to  make a bid for world dominion. They are unscrupulous and whole-heartedly anti-democratic. They are ruled by men who have repeatedly, recently, and cynically broken their international obligations. They are arming night and day”. He then went on to say that in the immediate future they can only be opposed by British Commonwealth of Nations. In the next NL, challenged by readers for being so pessimistic, he quantified his concerns by saying “it is an even money bet” that there will be a war “within the period 1936-46


There were no major crises in the 1937. Franco, supported by Italian and German forces continued to make progress through Spain and in April the town of Guernica was destroyed by the Italian Air Force, giving the world a foretaste of the indiscriminate nature of modern warfare. In the second half of the year the Far East saw the ruthlessness of a totalitarian state. In July the Japanese launched an all out assault on China capturing the coastal cities of Beijing, Nanjing and Shanghai and killing thousands in air raids on other population centres such as Ghanhgzhou (Canton).

The KH Newsletter reaction to this comparatively quiet year in western and central Europe is interesting. For instance in letter written in March, after a visit to Germany SKH showed for the first time his personal dislike of the Nazi regime, when he described it as  an ominous and dangerous phenomenon before going on to describe several incidents which showed that the liberty of the ordinary German was being rapidly eroded by a vast spy system which now permeates German life. Strangely he makes no mention of the persecution of Jews. 

In letter NL 65 in late September SKH gives a summary of the world situation. He repeats his conviction that civilisation is divided in to two camps, the Democracies and the Totalitarian states and that the latter regimes could only remain in power by generating a sense of crisis which would justify their being in power. He also urges strongly that the Democracies should stand up to the dictators and call their bluff as he did not believe they wanted to go to war. In 1937 these proposals were  mainly relevant to  Italy and Japan. However in the next year they would apply to Germany. 


On 12th March 1938 the German army marched into Austria. This action took place despite it being a clear breach of the Treaty of Versailles and a promise made by Hitler to the Austrian Chancellor, Schuschnigg, a few weeks earlier, in which he recognised Austria’s right to an independent existence. It also broke a promise he had made earlier to his ally, Italy.

There was little that Britain and the other Democracies could do about this act of naked aggression but its effect on public opinion was immediate. The Times, which up to date had supported a policy of appeasement wrote “This, the latest and worst demonstration of German foreign policy deals a blow to the policy of appeasement by leaving it more than doubtful whether appeasement is possible in a continent exposed to the visitations of arbitrary force”.

In NL 89 SKH wrote “Whilst welcoming the disappearance of illusion from Printing House Square (The Times) it is permissible to regret that it has needed the events of the last weekend to awaken a considerable section of British opinion to the reality of the danger that menaces western civilisation”.

Having achieved successfully the first step in his policy for a Greater Germany in which all Germans, regardless of their country of residence should form part of a political unit, it was feared that Hitler would turn his attention to his next victim, Czechoslovakia. A country, created from the breakup of the Austria-Hungarian Empire, which had a large German Sudeten minority of about 3.5 million out of a total population of 15 million. However for the next few months all remained quiet and Germany appeared to be waiting the outcome of negotiations between the Sudeten Germans and the Czech Government.

It was during this period that in July (NL108) SKH devoted an entire newsletter to a review of the state of informed opinion on the possibility of war. In summary he found that the well informed and influential people to whom he spoke divided into two groups. The first group which one can call the Optimists believed that the worst of Germany’s aggressive behaviour might be behind her as, with the exception of the Sudeten Germans, most of the serious injustices of the Treaty of Versailles had been rectified. This group also believed that there had been recent signs of her behaviour becoming more compromising on other issues.

The second group, which one can call the Pessimists, took the view that the record of Germany’s behaviour since 1933 had been one long catalogue of broken pledges and unilateral aggression and even if by some miracle Hitler and Mussolini had decided to change their ways, they could not do so without losing power in their own country. In short it would not be possible to combine a benign and democratic foreign policy with the brutal and authoritarian  regimes that they were setting up in the counties that they ruled.

Faced with these two schools of thought SKH hoped that the Optimists were correct but feared that it was prudent to assume that the views of the Pessimists “may prove to be well founded”. He concluded that “we should do all that that we can to make the optimistic view come true so long as in so doing we do not take action which would seriously jeopardise our position if the pessimists turn out to be right”.

To most eyes this would appear to be a very tactful and diplomatic conclusion. However there were some who felt otherwise. Four weeks later the German official Gazette announced “Herr Himmler, Chief of Secret Police, in consultation with Dr Goebbels, Minister for Culture and Propaganda, has decided under the law for the protection of the German State and people to forbid the circulation until further notice  of the K-H News-Letter  published by Commander Stephen King-Hall”. This would appear to have been a slight over reaction on the part of the Nazi leadership. A list showing the geographical distribution of membership of the NL, published in July 1938, showed that there were only 49 subscribers in Greater Germany! 

Negotiations between the Czech Government continued throughout the spring and summer, however despite very reasonable proposals on the part of the Czech government, the Sudeten Germans, encouraged by Hitler, continued to press for further concessions.

In September matters came to a head. After a visit to Hitler the Sudeten leader, Herr Henlien, rejected the latest Government offer which conceded as much as was consistent with the continued existence of the Czechoslovak republic.  At the same time Hitler proclaimed support for Sudeten self-determination. Benes, the Czech President broke off negotiations and declared martial law in the Sudeten frontier areas. 

The rest of the month was a period of intense diplomatic activity, which included two meetings between Chamberlain and Hitler, in an attempt to clarify the latter’s demands. Meetings between Chamberlain and Daladier, the French Prime Minister and finally the four power meeting between Chamberlain, Daladier, Mussolini and Hitler which resulted in the notorious Munich Agreement, which effectively sealed the fate of the Czechoslovakian Republic.  

The reaction of SKH to these events was interesting.   At the start of the crisis in early September he was not certain that Hitler would risk war, but by the middle of the month he concluded that Germany intended to enforce its claims to Sudeten lands even if this meant war. In NL 115 (dated 16th) he discusses when and how Britain should stand firm. His general conclusion seems to have been that Hitler’s actions made war between the Democracies and the Totalitarians almost inevitable, but that the Czechoslovakian crisis was not a suitable issue on which  to make this stand. There were two main reasons for this view.  The state of British public opinion, which while sympathetic to the Czechs, was unlikely to fully support going to war on behalf of a Central European state with which it had no treaty obligations and the poor state of Britain’s home defences against air attack. Having said that SKH felt that Germany should not be allowed to get away with its outrageous behaviour and in a special supplement he proposed that Germany should be put into international Coventry. This White War, as it was named by a cabinet minister, would consist of breaking off diplomatic relations, expelling all German nationals, ceasing all trade and a number of other measures.  How effective this proposal would have been we will never know because it was overtaken by the Munich agreement at the end of the month. 

The morality of the Munich agreement divided the country in a way that was not repeated until the Suez Crisis 18 years later. Yet despite this debate SKH made no mention of the subject in his next NL. Instead this letter concentrated on the issues of air defence of the homeland and likelihood of the policy of Appeasement being successful. It was as if he felt that the treatment of the Czechs was something that had to be accepted in the interests of preparing for the wider struggle that was yet to come. As he said "The Munich agreement might have brought us 'Peace in our Time', but for how much Time?"   

The remainder of the year saw no further major international incidents, however SKH’s views hardened against the wisdom of the policy of Appeasement and in a special supplement written at the end of September SKH was openly critical of the government for its apparent inability to see that the Nazi regime was fundamentally evil and to take the necessary steps to prepare the country to fight a Total War. He called urgently for the formation of a National Government to show our potential enemies that the British people were united in their wish to defend their democratic way of life.  


In March the Czechoslovakian crisis reignited.  Early in the month the Slovakian premier, M. Tiso, declared his intention of proclaiming the independence of that state. On being arrested by the central government he appealed to Germany for support. Hitler took this opportunity to threaten the Czech president, Dr Hacha, with an aerial attack on Prague if he did not hand control of his county to Germany. By the end of the month, Czechoslovkia had ceased to exist as an independent nation and had become a German Protectorate. These events virtually ended the policy of Appeasement.

In early April, after the German press had opened an attack on Poland, Chamberlin in a speech, made it quite clear that in the event of any threat to the independence of Poland,  Britain “would feel bound at once to lend the Polish Government all support in their power”.  This promise was formalised by the Anglo – Polish Treaty signed in London at the end of May.

For the next three months Europe was on the edge of war as the world waited to see if Hitler would attack Poland despite Britain and France’s guarantee.

The Newsletter’s attitude during this period was forthright. SKH argued that Britain was and had been for some time at war with Nazi Germany, perhaps not yet a fighting war, but a relationship that required special action on the part of the government. He advocated a National Government; special measures to counter the threat  of attack from the air and perhaps most urgently the creation of a Ministry of Information to counter the lies and propaganda being poured out by the Nazi controlled press of Germany.

It was this last belief that led SKH to take a very remarkable action. He firmly believed that the only chance of peace lay in separating the German people from their Nazi government and that this could only be done if they could be told the truth about the policies of the Democracies.  To achieve this, in June and July he wrote five Newsletters which, by various means, were sent into Germany.  The Nazi reaction to this project, which is described in more detail below, was startling.

As everyone will know all attempts to prevent war failed. During August the threats against Poland increased and on the 23rd August the notorious Molotov/Ribbentrop pact was signed removing the danger of Germany having to fight on two fronts.

On Sept 1st Germany launched a completely unprovoked attack on Poland and at 1100 on 3rd Sept Britain and France were once again at war with Germany.


In May SKH visited Danzig (now) Gdansk and Berlin. and on his return to England  was convinced more than ever  that the only way to avoid war was by a massive effort to counter the Nazi propaganda campaign to convince the German people that the Democracies  had  no aggressive designs towards them. Once again he made little progress, although Chamberlain did announce plans to establish a foreign Publicity Department, headed by Lord Perth.

Frustrated by this feeble response SKH, after consultation with a few friends who knew Germany intimately, decided to stage a private war on Goebbels by launching a German version of his Newsletter on a carefully selected audience of influential Germans.

The first letter was launched in early July and posted in Great Britain. The Foreign Office, who had been shown a copy, gave it lukewarm support.  The response in Germany was more spectacular. The first reaction of the Nazis was to give the letter enormous publicity by publishing large extracts and then trying to ridicule them. Goebbels wrote a lengthy letter of several thousand words which was published in the leading German newspapers.  Alarmed by the German response, which was also suggesting SKH was partly a front and that the letters were jointly written by the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, the Foreign Office withdrew its support.

The second letter was launched on and about the 15th July. While the first letter had deliberately been non-controversial, the second and later ones contained material more damaging to the Nazi cause.  This led to a complete change of policy and the full resources of the German secret police and postal services were employed to stop the letters reaching their destination. However SKH and his friends had anticipated this move and taken a number of steps to thwart it. Letters were put in different sorts of envelope, posted at differing times and days and posted in different countries. For instance the 3rd letters were posted in Poland. Apparently this new policy caused chaos in the postal system.

The 3rd,  4th  5th letters were dispatched in random batches from a number countries including Ireland, Belgium and Holland in the second half of July and mid August. It has been estimated that by mid July there were 50 000 copies of the letter circulating in Germany and therefore a final number of 100 000 does seem an unreasonable.

Non Nazi reaction to the letters was varied. After Goebbels, one of  SKH’s sternest critics appears to have been the British ambassador to Germany. On July 14th he wrote to the Foreign Office asking that SKH should stopped from sending further letters as they were enraging the Nazi leadership so much as to make his negotiations more difficult. To his credit the Minister involved, R A Butler, refused to meet this request. Other angry readers were Signor Mussolini and the Italian Press and public who took exception to some remarks in the 1st letter which indirectly questioned the valour of the Italian armed forces. These remarks led the British ambassador to make a similar protest as his colleague in Germany.

Elsewhere the whole project received worldwide publicity. SKH comments that he received copies of  8 000 press cuttings.. Strangely enough the one country that showed less interest than the project deserved was his own. Search of The Times in July 1939 gives only one return, a letter from SKH confirming full responsibility for the  letters  and denying any connection with the Foreign Office.  After dispatching the 5th letter SKH took one further step. Goebbels had complained that the British press had ignored his letter of early July.  SKH took steps to remedy this oversight. He arranged for it to be printed in the Daily Telegraph on the 12th August.  It filled a half of one page of that broadsheet newspaper.

By the time the last letter had been dispatched the effects of the German Letter project were being eclipsed by the rapidly deteriorating relations between Germany and Poland and war was probably inevitable after the Russian-German Non Aggression Pact.  It had come too late and did not have time to have effect. Perhaps if it had been launched a year earlier the story would have been different.

There was however one feature of the project that had taken effect. It had enraged the Nazi leadership to an extent that was out all proportion to its importance. On 3rd  Sept in a Radio broadcast from Berlin Hitler had rejected the British ultimatum to withdraw German forces from Poland. A copy of this speech was sent to London and was the last official communiqué to be received from  Germany. The memorandum ended as follows:

The intention communicated to us by order of the British Government by Mr King Hall, of carrying the destruction of the German people even further than was done through the  Versailles Treaty  is taken note of by us, and we shall therefore answer any aggressive action on the part of England with the same weapons and in the same form”.

The German Newsletters were not able to prevent the war. However it was a remarkable achievement that the Nazi leadership was so disturbed and infuriated by them,  that the name of their author was honoured with a mention in the final sentence, of the final paragraph, of the final document that was received by the British Government before a state of war existed.