§ 3.46 p.m.
§ Mr. Simmonds
I beg to move,That this House, while endorsing the Government's programme for Air Defence, urges that the power of this country to resist air attack continues to be inadequate and emphasises the need for increased organisation both to accelerate the production of flying and ground equipment and to protect the lives 'of the people.My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, speaking in the House on 12th November, 1936, ended a most remarkable speech with these words:The whole of our efforts in the field of diplomacy and foreign policy will be aimed at bringing agreement and peace to all foreign Powers. At the same time all our efforts will be devoted to this great question of Defence—the protection of our own people—and we will not relax our efforts for one moment, because we know that while we shall work for the blessings of peace, there can be no peace, in Europe certainly, unless every country knows that we are prepared for war."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 12th November, 1936; cols. 1150–52, Vol. 317.]Therefore, we have the Prime Minister's authority for thinking that this question of the strength of our defences is a peculiarly fundamental one, because upon it rests the peace and the lives of hundreds of millions of people in Europe. It is now nearly three months since the House addressed itself to this problem, and during that period we have been exercised in many directions. Therefore, I feel that I need offer no apology to the House for asking it to give its attention for a brief period to considering where we stand in this all-important question of air defence to-day. Probably if we exclude for a moment the question of the distressed areas, this is the most fundamental and potentially catastrophic problem which faces us in the whole range of national detail. In order that my further remarks may have their correct background, I would like to say that I and my hon. Friends feel unfeignedly thankful to the Government in that they passed, and passed quickly and resolutely, from the period of what I may call the seemings of unilateral disarmament to a more proper consideration of the actualities of European rearmament; but this change, far from permitting this House to enjoy any happy and trustful quiescence, certainly by the very nature of things imposes upon us a special and an urgent obligation for continuous scrutiny and persistent vigilance.
964 For the sake of good order I propose to deal with the several parts of the Motion seriatim. I first emphasise the fact that, while endorsing the Government's programme for air defence, we require that other considerations should receive attention. These preparations have been many times approved in this House, and I do not think there is any need to dwell upon them this afternoon. But I would like to say that it has been to me, at any rate, a source of increasing satisfaction to find that a large number of Members on the benches opposite, although they may differ from us on points of detail, are coming more and more to see the necessity and the inevitability of increased defences if we are to remain secure. Secondly, the Motion urges that the power of this country to resist air attack continues to be inadequate. In examining this aspect of the question we must go back to 22nd May, 1935, when in this House was announced the Government's determination to increase the strength of the Royal Air Force. This was given form in the Supplementary Estimate of loth July, 1935, which I may recall to hon. Members was:to undertake a further sheme for the extension of the Royal Air Force. The scheme provides for the formation of 71 new squadrons for home defence by 31st March, 1937,—I ask hon. Members particularly to note that date—which would bring the number of squadrons in this country, excluding the Fleet Air Arm, up to a total of 123, and a first-line strength of approximately 1,500 aircraft.This decision, clearly, was based on the estimate then made of potential dangers in 1937 and succeeding years, and it would be fair, therefore, to the Government if, before examining the tangible results of this expansion programme, we were to review briefly the rise and fall of the European barometer in recent times. Is it the case that the skies to-day are clearer, that the storm clouds have dispersed and spent themselves, or do the shadows of great upheavals still cast themselves across our path? The skies are not clearer. We have witnessed the Abyssinian débâcle, the eclipse of Geneva, the extension of conscription in Germany, the fortification of the Rhineland, the Nazification of Danzig, the nationalisation of the Kiel Canal, the concords between Germany and Italy and between Italy and 965 Japan and, finally, as if this chapter were not long enough, we have the sickening spectacle of the Spanish war. In short, the story, as the Prime Minister said in the House on 12th November, is one of "ever-deteriorating international conditions." Any suggestion, therefore, that the programme due to be completed by 31st March next can be reduced because the two years succeeding its initiation have been less gloomy than was anticipated, will, I am certain, find no acceptance in any quarter of the House. Nevertheless, on 10th November last, the First Lord of the Admiralty launched himself forth on what was, I thought, a most dangerous apologia. He said the 1937 programme had been incorporated in a larger programme, and he used these words:I can tell the House that so far as the bigger programme is concerned, that is to say, the programme in which the smaller 1937 programme was merged, the position is satisfactory. The 1937 programme is to a certain extent scrapped. … What is important is not so much the 1937 programme that has been superseded as the larger programme into which it is merged."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 10th November, 1936; cols. 825–26, Vol. 317.]I do not know if there is any figure of speech which could be termed "all-in wrestling" but, if there is, I think my right hon. Friend must on that occasion have given us what will in course of time prove to be a classic example. I admit that the statement was not controverted—it was nearly 11o'clock when it was made. But I think it would be unfair to allow my right hon. Friend to think that we are able to accept this contention. What are the facts? The total number of aircraft in the 52 home defence squadrons existing in May, 1935, was approximately 575. The first expansion, authorised in May, 1935, of 71 squadrons was to add 925 first-line machines, bringing the total up to 2,500 first-line home defence machines. The larger programme to which my right hon. Friend the First Lord referred, dealt with in the statement relating to defence of 3rd March, 1936, added another 250 machines, bringing the total metropolitan first-line strength up to 1,750 machines. Thus there was an addition of 250 machines, in a programme which now means a total increase of 1,175 machines, so that this larger programme represented in fact only 21 per cent. compared with 79 per cent. in the original, or, as my right hon. Friend 966 called it, the smaller programme. Further, that 21 per cent. was for an addition during the year 1937–38. Therefore, I think we ought to say definitely, that, taking into consideration the European situation and the obligations of the Government to the House and the country, it is not an acceptable contention that the present programme may properly be allowed to fall vastly in arrears because there is some small programme of 1937–38 amounting to 21 per cent. of the total. I feel that I shall have all hon. and right hon. Gentlemen with me on that point.
What have we achieved in this programme? No one in the House would wish to utter a word on the subject of defence which could be construed as against the national interest, but there does fall upon us a particular obligation to give our most earnest attention to all the information which the Government place before us in this House and in the various publications which are issued. For my part, I have studied at length, not only the Minister's statements, but also the monthly Air Force List which is full of information for foreign Powers and for those in this country who take the trouble to read it. If I am wrong in what I glean from the Air Force List, I trust that my right hon. Friend when he replies will correct me. But the Air Force List shows that in the last four months of 1935, the first months in which the expansion programme to the 71 squadrons began to evidence itself in the List, 10 new squadrons were added. During 1936, 22 more squadrons were added, and although I may not speak right up to date because one would not know the squadrons of the last few weeks until the next List appears, there are definitely two and possibly one or two more squadrons that have been formed in 1937. Therefore, it would seem that since May, 1935, we have 34 additional squadrons out of the 71 due for 31st March, 1937. But my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence, speaking in this House on loth November last, used these words:The process of building up squadrons and forming new training units and skeleton squadrons is familiar to everybody connected with the Air FOTCe."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 10th November, 1936; col. 741; vol. 317.]With this warning it is clearly important for us to see what is the significance of the skeleton squadrons to which my right hon. Friend refers. How much flesh is 967 there in fact upon the 34 squadrons to which I have drawn attention? This is, I think, very easily determined by reference to the Air Force List, because each month the List shows the number of pilots, including airmen pilots, in each squadron. I have had prepared a complete tabulation of all the squadrons formed since May, 1935, and have noted the number of pilots appointed to each squadron in each succeeding month after the first date of entry of the squadrons in the Air Force List. I shall not burden the House with details. Suffice it for the moment to say that it shows, at a rough average, that after six months from the first date of entry of the squadron in the Air Force List the flying personnel was approximately 50 per cent. of full strength—about 50 per cent. That would mean that the squadrons added during the last 12 months, 22 in number, may be regarded as effectively 11 full-strength squadrons. So that we must reduce those 34 squadrons, if we would obtain a fair figure, to 23 squadrons.
One small correction possibly is here necessary, in that the Air Ministry has increased the strength of some of the squadrons since the programme was originally announced. Fighter squadrons, I understand, have been increased from 12 to 14 machines, but light bombers, of which there are a considerable number of squadrons, still remain at 12, and if on the average we assume that the full strength of the squadrons since May, 1935, has been increased by 15 per cent., we then are adopting a very optimistic figure. So that if we say that these 23 squadrons which we arrive at by deducting the II from the 34, need to be increased by 15 per cent. to 26 squadrons, I think, from the information published by the Air Ministry we are not very far wide of the mark.
So, of the 71 new squadrons due in nine weeks from to-day, we have 26 and we lack 45. It has taken us 20 months to get these 26 squadrons. By a simple arithmetical calculation if we proceed at the same rate the remaining 45 squadrons will take us approximately three years. If we double our rate it will take nearly one-and-a-half years, and if we treble our rate it will take one year. Note that trebling the rate would mean the addition of squadrons roughly at the 968 rate of one per week. One must, therefore, come to the unpalatable conclusion that so far as the Air Force List shows a true picture the expansion programme is somewhere between one and two years in arrears. Now I ask my right hon. Friend, if I am wrong here, to show where I have misunderstood the figures that the Government have published. My system of calculation is the straightforward one, and no one would be more happy than my hon. Friends and myself if when he replies he can show that we have arrived at a pessimistic figure. Hon. Members will recall that the Prime Minister in his speech on 12th November, made this observation, speaking of the time it took for a democracy to make up its mind:Democracy is always two years behind the dictator. I believe that to be true."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 12th November, 1936; col. 1144, Vol. 317.]But if, in supplement, a democracy is two years behind in fulfilment of its own anticipations, then indeed the situation is grievous. Can we take any comfort from the situation in other countries? Can the Government fairly say to itself "True, we have not fulfilled this programme, nor have any of the European nations anything like the number of aircraft they expected they would have and we expected they would have by this date?" For my own part I had the honour, towards the end of 1935, of visiting, with the permission of the German Government, one of their most recent aircraft factories, and the efficiency there, the volume of activity there, and the perfection of the product that I witnessed were something that came to me as a great shock.
A friend of mine who has just returned from Berlin, seeing in one of the daily papers that I was to move this Motion to-day, came to see me on Monday because he thought I ought to know what he found in Berlin. He had the opportunity there of discussing with several Britishers resident in Germany and interested in this problem the strength today of the German Air Force. They approached it from many standpoints, but in the end they came to this quite simple basis, and they assure me that it is not very far wrong—that there are to-day, roughly, 150 service German aerodromes and that at each aerodrome, on an average, from all they could see 969 during the last year or so, there must be 100 planes. That would mean that in total, including training machines, of course, the German Air Force would have something like 15,000 planes. That to us sounds an astronomical figure, but from what I saw 15 months ago and what I understand has happened since then to increase the rate of production of German aircraft, it is by no means impossible, indeed it is completely probable. If, therefore, we take the extraordinarily low figure of 20 per cent. of that total being first-class modern aircraft fit to go into the first line, we arrive at the figure of no less than 3,000 first-line modern aircraft in the German Air Force to-day.
One of the points upon which my friend just returned from Berlin was very insistent was that the efficient modern German twin-engine bombers, for instance, the Junker J.U. 86, which I understand has a top speed of 217 miles an hour, are now coming out in vast quantities and are being made not only in the Junker works, but also in the works of sub-contractors up and down Germany. He also made this very interesting observation, that in view of the relatively small range of these aircraft the German Air Force was not being built up for attacking Russia but for use in other directions. I think that that is a point which should be borne in mind when we are considering this question. I notice that the Air Correspondent of the "Sunday Times," who had the privilege of accompanying the British Air Force officers who were the guests of the German Air Force, states that "The German fighting machines are rather less efficient than ours." If this means fighting in contradistinction to bombing, then there may be some substance in what he says, but I fear that at this juncture that is a very dangerous remark to make, and I would hate to think that the Government were in any way dependent upon the fact that the German bombing squadrons might be less efficient than ours, in coming to any conclusions as to any steps they should take in the immediate future to meet the deficiencies to which I have referred.
We see, and the Government not quantitatively but qualitatively admitted it, that there is a serious deficiency in our expansion scheme. What can be the cause? Is it the pilots that are the 970 trouble? On loth November my right hon. Friend the Minister for Co-ordination of Defence said:Over 2,400 pilots have been accepted for training since May, 1935; the pick of over 12, 000 definite applications. … No shortage has yet been experienced."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 10th November, 1935; col. 736, Vol. 317.]Incidentally, the Air Force List shows that 382 of those new pilots have actually passed into squadrons. So unless the realisation of the programme was from the very start an impossibility, it cannot be the pilots who are responsible. Is it the machines? Here it seems, from Ministerial declarations, that we are nearer the mark. How can this surpassingly serious situation, this potentially perilous situation, if I may say so, be rectified in short time? The aircraft industry is at full throttle. We have yet the shadow industry to come into effect, and how soon that will be, hon. Members will gauge for themselves when they recall that the Government decided this week to scrap one site and to start another. But the shadow industry is already casting its shadow across the present aircraft production programme, and I received yesterday morning from the managing director of an important contractor for the present defence programme this most disquieting letter, from which I propose to read an extract to the House. He speaks of the difficulty of obtaining skilled labour and says:The situation is going to get worse, due to the shortage of skilled labour, which will be accentuated immediately the shadow factories start up. We have been particularly badly hit in the last few months, due to Rootes Securities deliberately robbing our staff of jig and tool craftsmen (some 11 men) and paying them upwards of £2 per week more than we were paying them. In consequence, the work we were engaged upon for the Government has fallen behind considerably. On representing the matter to the Air Ministry, they informed us that they were unable to do anything in the matter. The situation, therefore, from our point of view as a large sub-contractor, becomes almost impossible, in that, in order to obtain labour, we have to pay fantastic wages, whereas the shadow industry are able to squander the Government's money with no regard to the commercial outcome; furthermore, as an incentive they are now offering contracts to more important members of the staff. If this sort of thing continues, the shadow factories will, no doubt, succeed, but during such time as they are building up, other firms such as ours will be forced to turn their attention in other directions. In consequence, the Government's programme will miscarry, and incalculable harm will be done to the industry as a whole.971 These shadow factories will not be giving their complement to the expansion scheme for some little time, and the Government must rely on the present industry in the months to come. If, therefore, the shadow scheme is to start dislocating the whole of our present manufacturing output, then indeed it may well be that the programme may be, instead of only one or two years behind, three years in arrears, and I ask my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence whether he will see that there shall be no more dislocating of the production of his present contractors in order that the shadow scheme may get under way in a year's time. But the shadow industry is not yet, and the House may ask me, in view of the fact that I have some knowledge of these matters, what can be be done at the moment in order to increase the output of aircraft.
I would say that the most urgent change is the organisation of what I will call primary supplies. In the aircraft industry the Government have properly insisted that supplies shall only be drawn from this country. I think that for a short period, until the manufacture of raw materials, jigs, tools, and machinery can be increased, the normal suppliers of those products should be permitted by the Government to import from the best sources abroad and thus to meet, temporarily at any rate, the present shortage. I think it is imperative that the Government should not set up their own organisation to bring in these additional foreign supplies, because it needs the keen eye of a specialist inspectorate in each of the producing firms to detect whether in fact the foreign product is up to the standard of the British product. Therefore, I would suggest that the Government might place at the disposal of some of its principal primary suppliers a sum of money, as indeed they have done in the shadow scheme, so that we might have a reserve of raw materials which could be drawn on and could assist forward the production programme. Even for the most elementary machines, such as capstan lathes and the normal automatic machines we are being asked to wait 36 and 45 weeks before we can obtain delivery. If the Government were to adopt this suggestion; scouts 972 could be sent out in many foreign countries, and suitable products to tide over the immediate future could be discovered.
The other point that I would like to make here is the necessity of some early consideration of the repair of aircraft. As hon. Members know, we are approaching a time when the aircraft at the service of the Royal Air Force will be vastly increasing in speed, and for that we may be grateful indeed. We are going to mount on these machines a large number of relatively inexperienced pilots, and it may be that we shall discover, what Germany has discovered, that the percentage of crashes is fantastically high. In this situation I understand that the German Government have organised separate factories for the repairing of damaged aircraft. It has been the procedure in this country that if an aircraft has been damaged more than can easily be rectified in the squadron, it is sent back to the manufacturer of the aircraft, but, as I have just observed, it is imperative that no additional work should be thrust on the shoulders of the present aircraft manufacturers if they are to increase their output of new and complete machines; and I have here a possible suggestion, in which, I may say, I have not the slightest personal interest. I understand there are several of what are known as unapproved firms which are lacking work. Would it not be possible for the Government to ask these firms to take on the responsibility for the repair each of, say, two or three types of these new aircraft? We should then be keeping these unapproved firms fully occupied, and at the same time there would be the utmost chance of the approved firms, the manufacturing firms, proceeding at maximum speed.
I will not deal with my second point, the need for organising ground equipment, guns, searchlights, and the like, because I know that that will be dealt with adequately by other speakers, but I will say one or two words on the last point, which emphasises the need for increased organisation to protect the lives of the people. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department is reported by the "Times" as using these words the other night in Birmingham:We must not take a panic view, but must as quickly as possible incorporate in the national organisation all reasonable and 973 practicable precautions which would help to reduce the danger if an air attack were ever made upon England.I know my hon. Friend is throwing himself with great energy into this question of anti-gas precautionary measures, but, frankly—and I think hon. Members will agree with me here—that is almost the only visible result of the Government's activity in this matter. Is it to be supposed that with this exception of gas the next war will be almost a replica of the last one? My fear is that the Government have not yet organised the protection of the civil population in its several spheres, and I trust my right hon. Friend will state exactly what is the Government's policy.
First—and I will pass over this quite briefly—there is the question of high explosives. When a centre of population is frequently bombarded by high explosives, a large number of civilians will obviously desire to evacuate themselves, though a number, as we have seen in Madrid, will stay on most tenaciously. Is it the responsibility of the Government, of municipalities, or of private individuals to protect the lives of those people who stay? I had a most interesting conversation the other day with the governing director of the company that has just bought Westminster Hospital, to erect there, as I understand, a vast block of modern offices, and I inquired of him whether he was proposing to put an air-raid shelter in that building. He said, "It has never crossed our minds." I wonder whether, in the new offices in Whitehall upon which the Government will shortly be embarking, it has crossed their minds to put some air-raid shelters. Do let us have a statement from the Government as to what their policy is in this matter.
Secondly, there is the question of firefighting equipment. If, in these days of peace, we require 100 fire engines, how many hundred fire engines do we require in the event of an air raid? I understand there is a most interesting publication in the Vote Office on this subject, but it is quite clear that a vastly increased number of fire engines is needed, and perhaps the Government will tell us where they have that vast quantity stored in readiness for the next war, if it should ever break out. Thirdly, there is the question of the docks. The docks of 974 London handle one-third of the traffic overseas to and from this country, and they take 70 per cent. of the meat and 35 per cent. of the petrol. Clearly it is going to be hopeless to rely that in the next war the London docks can be used to their full capacity, if indeed they will be able to be used at all. Are those store houses, those refrigerating plants, now being erected on the South West and the West coasts so that these ships may dock safely and we may continue to draw our essential supplies from overseas?
Then there is the question of fuel. Many hon. Members go to the Royal Air Force Pageant at Hendon once a-. year, and they will remember those giant skittles that are placed in the middle of the aerodrome for bombers to hit—and if the bombers do not hit them they are upset by somebody pulling a cord along the ground. The complete collapse of the skittles thus seems to be assured, and I can assure hon. Gentlemen that the collapse of many of those skittles filled with highly explosive petrols and other oils which we see on both sides of all our estuaries would be equally certain at the hands of hostile bombers. What are the Government doing about the storage of these vast quantities of petrol underground where they cannot be attacked?
Another matter which is now very topical is the positioning of factories. Are the. Government going to take the recommendation of the Commissioner for the Special Areas and plan so that the most important factories in their defence scheme—and Heaven only knows what factories in time of war will not be important—are put in an area less vulnerable than London. I was discussing the other day in a company in Paris of which I am a director the erection of an additional factory. The Government there have this matter highly organised. You are not allowed to place a factory on work of national importance within 25 miles of the centre of Paris, and if your products are of increasing importance, it must be 200 miles away from Paris, Have we a similar outlook developing in our midst?
My last point concerns the construction of factories. Some hon. Members may already have seen the beautiful building constructed by the Austin Motor Company for their shadow factory outside Birmingham. There are 17½ acres under one roof. The German idea is 975 quite different, and my friend who was discussing this matter with me on Monday told me of a factory he visited about 25 miles outside Berlin employing 7,000 hands on aircraft manufacture. Every building is at least 250 metres away from the adjacent building and stands by itself complete. Beneath each building is a gas shelter, an anti-H.E. shelter, complete with living accommodation, food, duplicate water and light mains, Red Cross, and everything necessary for sustaining people for a prolonged period during a raid. Are we doing anything to plan our factories, even if we do not position them correctly, in accordance with the dictates of potential warfare? I fear that there is very little evidence of it, and I have no doubt that other hon. Members will bear me out that this is the case. If so little has been done as to permit no announcement, it is greatly to be deplored. If this is prompted by a policy of secrecy, it is fundamentally wrong, because to come out boldly would not only reassure our own people, but would apprise any nation that might be intent on attacking us that hostile squadrons would probably gain so little military result from their efforts that they would desist from attacking us. The chain of defence, as every chain, is as strong as its weakest link. We have grave fears that the weakest links are weak indeed. Ruskin has it:What boots it at one gate to make defence and at another to let in the foe?As I began, let me end by reference to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. He said on 8th March, 1934, all but three years ago, that the Governmentwill see to it that in air strength and air power this country shall no longer be in a position inferior to any country within striking distance of our shores."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 8th March, 1934; col. 2078, Vol. 286.]In that speech he appealed to the young men. I am still young enough to be a young man, and this day three years afterwards I appeal to the right hon. Gentleman to tell us whether the Government are themselves reassured as to the steps they have taken.
§ 4.36 P.m.
§ Captain Harold Balfour
I beg to second the Motion.
I would suggest that it is the general wish of the House that at a fairly early 976 time in this Debate the right hon. Gentleman the Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence should reply to the points raised. My hon. Friend the Member for Duddeston (Mr. Simmonds) portrayed a state of affairs so serious that I am sure the House feels that the Debate must be to a large extent sterile until the right hon. Gentleman has been able to disprove, as we sincerely hope he will do, the statements made by my hon. Friend, or, alternatively, until he has taken the House into his confidence to an extent which the House is entitled to ask with the European situation as it is. Therefore, I propose to say but a few words as regards the figures which my hon. Friend gave us, preferring to wait for the right hon. Gentleman's version of them. The Government need not consider this Motion critical to the extent that it says that air defence is inadequate, because all defence must be inadequate in that it is partial as long as the problem of the air menace exists. The only complete defence for our shores lies in a removal of the danger and the causes of the danger, and those are factors in the foreign situation which are outside the control of this country and the scope of this Debate.
At Question Time to-day the right hon. Gentleman the Under-Secretary of State for Air replied to a question as to how long warning London had during the last War in the event of an air raid, and how long we would have in future. He replied that in the last War the time was about 45 minutes, and he preferred to give no figures as regards the next war. An easy mathematical calculation shows that, as in the last War aircraft flew at about 80 miles an hour, and as they will fly three times as fast in the next war, there would be but 15 minutes warning for London from the time that hostile aircraft first crossed our coasts. I feel that with the coast of England six minutes away from the Continent of Europe, and London only 15 minutes from the coast, the Government have such an enormous responsibility for air defence that the main point I would like to make is that the effort should be based on two main principles, in respect to both of which the Government can improve their present efforts. The first is to make the nation air-conscious to a much greater degree, and the second is to have incomparably the best technical equipment both in quality and quantity.
977 Air defence is not the duty of one section of the community, or for the benefit of one section or class. Every section will share in the protection of our shores and everyone will have to pay for it. It is, therefore, necessary that the Government should give the people of the country a far wider understanding of, and a better chance of taking part in, the duties and obligations of air defence than has been the case up to the present. The Government should make the citizens of the country air-conscious, to realise the gift of air transport and the dangers of air warfare in a way that other countries are doing. Germany and Russia are concentrating on an educational force among the young people to ensure that they shall feel enthusiastic for every step that the Governments of those countries take. The Board of Education should, in conjunction with the Air Ministry, educate every child in secondary schools on flying and what it means. There should be practical gliding on a far greater scale than the paltry subsidy now given to one particular body permits. Every boy of 18 who leaves the secondary schools should have a State-aided opportunity of going into the air at least once.
§ Captain Balfour
I would like to see every boy in the country given this opportunity, but I wanted it to start in a way which was within the practical scope of the Government, and then to extend it. I want this to be done so that every child leaving school should appreciate that flying is not the privilege of the rich or the super-man, and that all citizens should realise that it is a part of their lives. Voluntary bodies such as the Air League and the National League of Airmen have helped, but voluntary effort is not enough. The co-operation of the civil population is essential, and only if they can share in the responsibility of air defence can we expect their full cooperation. With regard to the second principle that we should have the best technical equipment both in quality and quantity, the Air Force Manual says:Air superiority is obtained by the combined action of bomber and fighter aircraft. The detailed measures to obtain and maintain the requisite air situation may vary with the circumstances of the campaign, but purely defensive measures will rarely be successful.978 That means that we must depend for our technical effort on the ability to strike at any attacking force that tries to strike these shores. My hon. Friend said we are behind in the programme. My figures do not show such a great lag as his, but, at any rate, we are some months behind in the programme. I think we are entitled to ask the right hon. Gentleman the Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence whether he has altered the answer which he gave to me in reply to a question I put in this House before we rose for Christmas. He then said that the lag was about four months, and that he did not think we should catch it up, but that he hoped the lag would not increase. Does that situation still exist? We know that the Government have had to contend with factors which were not foreseen. Some 20 squadrons were sent to the Middle East, which must have delayed the formation of units.
§ The Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence (Sir Thomas Inskip)
The number was 12.
§ Captain Balfour
I said 20, but I should have said 12. If Germany is so strong as the mover of the Motion said, I do not believe we should turn our backs upon two possibilities, one that of buying foreign aircraft, say from America, for the next year and a half, in order to fill in the danger months until the programme has built itself up, which is until the time when the programme is building up its reserves and the first-line aircraft are complete. The second suggestion is that we should, if necessary, go back to wooden aircraft for a time in order to fill in this gap. As I see it, the bomber situation is serious. There are six bomber firms turning out the latest bombing air-craft in this country. It would not be right for me to give the House a list of these particular firms, but I will go through the records of them one by one. One firm has an order for 320 aircraft, 40 of which were promised by Christmas, but not one has been delivered. There is a second firm which has a contract for turning out bombing aircraft which, owing to a change of locality in its works, and owing to industrial troubles, has turned out none so far. There is a third firm which has some 30 turned out ready for completion but, unfortunately, the engines have not arrived. There is a fourth firm which has delivered no machines but 979 some 10 are nearly ready to come out of the sheds complete. In the case of a fifth firm I understand the machines are not up to specification. The sixth firm is going well and delivering according to schedule.
One can paint a very dark picture of production at the present time, but, on the other hand, one must admit that we are reading the graph of production at the worst possible moment—just when production should have been coming out but, owing to delays, has not begun. If we can be told by the Minister that the situation is no worse than that, that we shall be catching up, that after 1938 we shall be building up the reserves and that the programme will finish in 1939 up to [...]me, I think we can say that, though we are disappointed, we are reassured. On the other hand, if the Minister cannot give us that degree of reassurance, if he cannot refute the figures which my hon. Friend gave in moving his Motion, I think the House is indeed entitled to take the most serious view of the situation. We none of us want unduly to criticise the Government, none of us want to minimise the difficulties of the Government. On the other hand, it is our responsibility to the electors of this country to see that adequate defence is provided for the country. The Government have been charged with this responsibility by the House. We are not saying that the Government have not fulfilled their responsibility or are not fulfilling it, but we ask that we should have the reassurance that the programme is going on according to plan, has not fallen hopelessly behind and that our trust in the Government to provide adequate air defence is one that can well be continued in the future.
§ 4.50 p.m.
§ Mr. Ede
As an ex-service man I am bound to feel considerable disappointment that this Debate should be necessary at all. It is one of the major tragedies of our time that people, so far from talking only of whether there will be a next war, have begun to talk about when it will break out. I hope that even now there may be sufficient sense left in Europe and in the world to ensure that we shall avoid the catastrophe towards which we seem to be tending. I wish to ask a specific question about one particular public service with which I am 980 connected. I am profoundly disturbed about the extent to which the Government realise the danger to the carrying on of industry in this part of the country in the event of a successful air raid owing to the extreme vulnerability of our great electricity stations. As chairman of the Joint Electricity Authority for an area which controls a quarter of the output of electricity in the country, including the whole of that for London and the Home Counties, it is a matter of very grave concern to me, and its importance has been forced on me at nearly every meeting of my authority by my colleagues when we have had regard to the present situation of these stations and the proposals for the extension of electricity supplies.
I understand that there is no better guide for aircraft than a river. That is what I am assured by those who are experts. I have never been in the air, but those who have been assure me that the easiest guide for aircraft, especially at night, is a great river. If one imagines aircraft coming up the Thames, could there be better landmarks than the great generating stations at Woolwich, Barking, Battersea, Lots Road and Fulham? There they are, strung out along a line. My authority was so impressed with the position of affairs that they asked me to see some of those who stand very high in the electricity world with regard to it. I am bound to say that the assurances that I received were of a kind that gave no satisfaction at all. I was assured that the probability was that there would be no direct hit, that the chances of a direct hit were almost negligible. I know that in the last War it took a great deal of lead to kill any one man, but, on the other hand, there was a firm belief among the troops that if your number was on a bullet it would find you, and there were nights during air raids when it seemed to me that it was very nearly my number that was on the bombs. To hear the bombs drop —one, two, three, four, five, six, getting gradually nearer and to be wondering whether there was a number seven was not a pleasant experience; and I cannot help thinking that if we are relying on the comparative difficulty of hitting these great stations, we are not relying on any-thing very substantial. If hostile air craft were sent to this country with in 981 structions to bomb that line of generating stations I feel the pilots would also know that if they came back without accomplishing their mission there would be very serious trouble for them; and it seems to me that a large flight of aircraft would include at least some men who would be detailed for what, I understand, is called "hell-diving" over these stations, so as to make quite sure that a hit would be recorded.
I was assured by one gentleman who is very high in the electricity world that the probability was that if aircraft came over they might be dropping a bomb to hit Battersea Station and, instead, might hit me sitting here in the House of Commons. That was poor consolation for me; and it would be still less consolation for a man in the Battersea power station if they hit him while trying to hit me in the House of Commons. But I cannot imagine that they would regard me as a very important target. I cannot imagine they would want to hit the Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence. After all, it is a well-understood thing that people high enough up are always immune from these attacks. The really dirty thing the Italians did in Abyssinia was to bomb the headquarters of the other side. In the late War that was outside the category of "things which were done." For the reasons I have given I do not share the view that bombs are likely to be wasted by being dropped in that way if a definite target has been in view from the moment the enemy aircraft left their aerodromes.
A very astonishing thing has happened. There is now a proposal to erect a new generating station, in order to deal with the great increase in the load in London and the Home Counties, on a site near Gravesend, again on the line of the river, not very far from the Woolwich Power Station. It seems to me that those responsible for the air defence of London should give serious consideration to the wisdom of continuing to put the whole of the generating stations for this area along the line of the river. I know it is felt that the "grid" probably provides more safeguards for the adequate supply of electricity than existed a few years ago, but I suggest that anybody who wished to make a good job of putting munitions works in and around London out of action for several days or weeks would only 982 have to deal satisfactorily, from their point of view, with the line of generating stations which I have mentioned. That would put the Government and the country and the manufacturers of munitions into very serious difficulties for some time. I sincerely hope that in the consideration of the supply of munitions and the defence of the country this phase of activity will not be lost sight of.
I understand that a very similar situation exists with regard to the milling of flour in this country. I have been assured by those who are closely connected with the industry that the tendency during recent years has been to erect great mills at the ports. The smaller mills in country villages and small towns have practically disappeared, and been replaced by big mills at the ports, by the side of harbours, and I imagine there might be the same kind of difficulty with regard to food supplies as I have suggested in the case of electricity if there were a successful attack on these ports. I can only express the hope that the Government will be able to say something which will indicate that these and similar subjects are receiving their very close attention, and that the great range of modern aircraft has been taken into account in relation to this problem. Those actually engaged in the supply of electricity to the Metropolis and the adjoining counties have the very gravest misgivings with regard to the situation if a successful aerial attack should be launched.
No one wishes to do other than assure the Government that if they are taking the necessary steps to safeguard the carrying on of the life of the country in the event of war and of air attacks, they will receive the support of all sides of the House. I have taken occasion privately to assure the right hon. and learned Gentleman that, from that point of view, he has the sympathy and the support of every Member of the House in the very difficult task to which the Prime Minister has called him. We must expect that the right hon. Gentleman will give us in return for our faith works that will justify it, but I am bound to say that the kind of recital we have had from the hon. and gallant Member for Thanet (Captain Balfour) of the lag in regard to preparation, is the kind of thing that puts a very severe trial on our faith. I am sure that so orthodox a Member of this House as 983 the right hon. Gentleman would desire in these days of doubt and difficulty to see that faith in at least one person should be maintained.
§ 5.1 p.m.
§ Wing-Commander Wright
I have listened with considerable interest to the speeches made by hon. Members, and whilst I must commend them for their anxiety in desiring that the defences of the country should be put into proper order at the earliest possible moment, I am very glad that I have had considerable experience from the other side, that is, from the point of view held by the pilot of a bombing aeroplane, otherwise I should have been very seriously alarmed and frightened. The bombing of objects is not quite so easy as some hen. Members seem to think, and it would be a great pity if it went out to the country generally from this House that the dangers are anything like as great as have been painted this afternoon.
In considering a matter of this kind we should try to get a true picture of what is really likely to happen in aerial warfare in the next war, if we are so unfortunate as to have such a thing thrust upon us. I shall be very glad if any words of mine can in any small way help to contradict that most deplorable but nevertheless very widespread belief that the main use of an air force in the next war will be the indiscriminate bombing of defenceless women and children. In my opinion such a thing will not happen, except in so far as a certain amount must happen through bombs missing their target when strategic points are attacked. I have very good reasons for saying that the deliberate bombing of defenceless women and children is not at all likely to occur. We should realise that an aeroplane, whilst it is very deadly, is an extraordinarily expensive and valuable weapon of war, and the pilot and trained crew of an aeroplane are often more expensive and more valuable. Comparatively negligible damage is done by indiscriminate bombing. The whole history of aircraft as we know it and the whole of our knowledge of human nature teach us that if you want to stiffen the resistance of the people you are attacking and if you want to make what would otherwise be a weakening nation a really strong, fighting power, the very best method you can adopt is to attack their women and 984 children. Therefore, I cannot believe that any commander would be so entirely unfitted for his job as to indulge in deliberate bombing of defenceless sections of the public.
What, therefore, are the real uses to which aircraft are likely to be put in the next war? If we can get that knowledge into our minds we shall have a very much better picture of the true situation. As I see it, the first duty of an air force in the next war will be to destroy the air force of the opposing country. That is obviously its first duty. In destroying that air force, or even rendering it ineffective, it would be automatically defending the strategic points behind its own lines, the power stations, such as those to which reference has been made to-day, the arms factories, the rail-heads, the munition dumps and so on. Having carried out the destruction of the enemy air force its second duty will, of course, be to make attacks on the strategic points to which I have referred. Therefore, the next thing we need to consider is what type of air force we require and how it is going to be used. We require a certain number of interceptor machines, which would be stationed in and around certain strategic points, and whose job would be purely defensive. They would work in conjunction with such ground defences as it was thought necessary to instal.
The most fatal mistake that you can make is to endeavour to deal with opposing aircraft over your own country. The whole history of the last War and why we were so successful, in spite of our very often having inferior machines, was that we always carried the warfare into the enemy's country. That brings me to what I consider the most important requirement in connection with our aerial force, and that is, that we must have an overwhelming superiority in high performance bombing machines of long-range capacity. I hope that the Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence will be able to give the House an assurance that the main effort of the Air Ministry at the present time is being concentrated on the production of high performance long-distance bombing machines. I hope he will give us that assurance, because it is the whole essence of the problem. I hope that at the same time he will be able to assure us that the Air Ministry is not being panicked into placing orders for 985 large numbers of machines of a more or less obsolescent type, merely for the purpose of yielding to pressure and producing figures showing that we have so many so-called first-line machines.
There are too many people who are inclined to forget that the all-important thing in air warfare is quality and not quantity. Quality and quantity together are best, but if you have to choose, then have quality and not quantity. There are far too many people who are inclined to express alarmist views by merely totalling up numbers and comparing the relative strength in the air of various countries by the number of so-called first-line machines. That is not a sound way of looking at the thing. If the Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence can give us an assurance on these two points, we can well afford, if necessary, to have a little delay.
After having had for a good many years Governments of all parties whose policy has been definitely in favour of disarmament, after having neglected the research which we normally should have been carrying on in this particular field, we have created in the Service, and more particularly in the Air Ministry, the idea that things must not be pushed on as they should have been pushed on. Let me give a little example from my own experience, which impressed me, and which hon. Members may scarcely believe. During my command of an auxiliary bombing squadron it was necessary on several occasions to give displays in which bombing was introduced. There were generally at these displays programmes which had to tell the story of what we were doing so as to make it intelligible to the people on the ground. Hon. Members would be astonished if they could realise the amount of ingenuity that was needed and the amount of time that we had to give to preparing a story which would explain why it was possible for an Air Force squadron to be seen dropping bombs. The susceptibilities of the people must not be hurt and it must not be thought that bombing squadrons existed for the purpose of dropping bombs. Therefore, we had to invent some story why a village was being destroyed, because of some terrible crimes which had been committed by the people inside it. I give that example to show the state of opinion at which we had arrived in this country.
986 It is unfair to the Air Ministry for us suddenly to turn round and change our policy and expect them by pressing a button to produce the latest types of machines, on which we should have been working years ago. We have to realise that the production of a bombing machine is a very highly specialised job. When people talk about being able in a few hours to convert civilian transport machines into active bombers, they are talking absolute nonsense. There have been produced some very wonderful flying machines and at first sight one would think they were extraordinary good bombing aeroplanes, but it has often been found when they were tested that the designers knew so little about the matter that they did not even consider it necessary for the machines to carry a bombsight. I mention this matter to show the absolute necessity of these machines being properly designed and fitted for their job.
We must have an overwhelming strength in this particular class of machine. The one thing that can save this country is the long-range bombing machine; the long-range bombing machine is the one thing that will give this country some chance of protecting itself, having regard to the hopelessly vulnerable position in which we are situated. A fairly large aerodrome is necessary in order to operate these machines satisfactorily. When a machine of this type is heavily loaded with bombs an aerodrome is very necessary, and if we can successfully bomb the aerodromes of the enemy that will make it impossible for them to get their squadrons off the ground or to land again if they happen to be in the air when we attack the aerodromes. Hon. Members will see, therefore, the enormous advantage that is given by the long-range machine which can go further than the machines of the other side. Otherwise the enemy will be able to reach your aerodromes, whereas his aerodromes cannot be reached. I hope that we shall get a satisfactory assurance from the Minister for the Co-Ordination of Defence. When I think that development has been almost at a standstill for so long, I thank God for the years that the locusts have eaten; otherwise we should probably now have a very large and expensive Air Force equipped with machines which would be absolutely useless for the purpose for which they might be required.
§ 5.16 p.m.
§ Mr. Montague
I have been listening carefully to what the hon. Member for Erdington (Wing-Commander Wright) has had to say, but I cannot understand, if he considers it unlikely, or even impossible, that indiscriminate bombing will take place over London, why we should require such a large Air Force of long-range bombers for ourselves. Do we propose to rain indiscriminate slaughter upon other capital cities? The hon. Gentleman has referred to the time spent in qualitative development in the years that the locusts have eaten, but he fails to appreciate that that statement entirely pricks the bubble of the assertion of the Government, and their claim, that they adopted a policy of disarmament in order to lead the rest of the nations of the world towards peace. We adopted our policy as a result of the Trenchard Memorandum in order that we should be able to concentrate upon qualitative development, realising that quantitative expenditure and development in armaments were entirely unnecessary for the time being, owing to the view that there would be no major war in Europe for 10 years.
I imagine that the House would hardly see any resemblance between the hon. Member for Duddeston and the fat boy in "Pickwick Papers," but even the fat boy had some very important things to say, according to the story. If what the hon. Member says is true about the air position in this country, it is time that he urged the Government of which he is a supporter to get out of business and make room for another Government. I am not quite so sure about this flesh-creeping business. I did not know he was going to raise the question of the armament of Germany, but I cannot help thinking that his statement that there are 15,000 aeroplanes in Germany available for service is an extravagant estimate.
§ Mr. Simmonds
Would the hon. Gentlemen allow me to interrupt? If he is using the term "for service" meaning for fighting, I would point out that I did not say that. My figure included training machines. If he means machines fit to fly, I would agree with him.
§ Mr. Montague
I hope, when other hon. Members use comparative figures of air forces, they will bear in mind that the home defence in this country is not 988 represented by the figures which are given officially on the subject. We have training machines too, and we have reserves.
§ Mr. Montague
The statement about German armaments appears, at any rate to me, exceedingly extravagant upon the face of it, and upon the face of ascertainable figures with regard to the economic position of Germany. A little time ago an article appeared in the "Manchester Guardian" by a leading industrialist of this country, showing, I thought very effectively, that if any-thing like the statements made about German re-armament were true, the figures which we had with regard to raw materials, metals and the general industrial and commercial situation in Germany must be based upon entirely wrong information. It was said to be economically impossible for such a huge air armament to have resulted from the developments of the last few years.
The point I would like to put, among others, to the Government this afternoon is: Why do we have this constant hush-hush policy with regard to air defence? If what the hon. Member has said is true, we ought to look very closely into the question, and the Government ought to be called upon for a frank answer. We do not get frankness from the Government upon this subject. This afternoon, the Under-Secretary of State for Air answered a question which had to do with the time that might be taken by a hostile aircraft from the moment of its first indication to its appearance over London. We were told that it was not in the public interest to give figures upon that point; nevertheless, figures, or estimates based upon known facts, appear week after week in the technical journals. In what way is it opposed to the public interest that we should know those things? Everything appears to be opposed to the public interest, even information about the sacking of dockyard workers. We must not know the facts about that; justice must not be done in this House or anywhere else, because it would be against the public interest to know the facts.
Why should we not know the facts about what other countries can do and what we can do in answer to air attack? What is there against the public interest, that other nations should not know the 989 facts? One would imagine that we want those people to come here in order to have the delight of seeing them drop into traps that we have made for them. Why should we not know, so far as the Navy is concerned, the latest developments in submarines and cruisers and so forth, as well as the latest developments in aircraft, according to the policy of this Government, which is one of frightfulness and reprisals? The Chancellor of the Exchequer said, in March of last year, that we were building an Air Force of such a terrifying character—that is his own word—that other nations would not think of attacking us. We can tell the people of Berlin that we are going to bomb them to perdition if the German Air Force does anything to London, and yet we cannot tell the German Air Force that 75 per cent. of their attacking aeroplanes would go to the same salubrious spot; yet that is the estimate of the technical people. They tell us that to-day we are able to prevent at least 75 per cent. of bombing aeroplanes successfully attacking London.
Does anyone imagine that Germany is going to send over here when she knows that she must sacrifice 75 per cent. of her aeroplanes and pilots? I am inclined to agree with the hon. Member for Erdington about the unlikelihood of London being bombed from the air. If it is true that to-day, within a minute, by means of a sort of cross-section sound principle, it is possible to detect oncoming aeroplanes far away, and, within another 50 seconds, to lay a gun, train a fuse and fire a shell that will, without any question, reach its object, why should we not be told? Why should we be fobbed off with this nonsense about protecting the people of London by gas masks and gas mask drill? I believe that there is a great deal of nonsense spoken about it.
§ Mr. Austin Hopkinson
The hon. Member has given a very remarkable figure; he says that we can certainly destroy 75 per cent. of enemy aircraft. May I ask where he got that figure? It is very optimistic.
§ Mr. Montague
I said that I got it from the people who are technically qualified on the subject. Actually, I obtained that figure from the editor of a technical journal, the "United Forces Review." I do not know whether it is accurate, and 990 I am asking that we should be told whether it is true or false. Why should we be told that it is not in the public interest to know whether or not we can do these things? I suggest that there appears to be a likelihood that this kind of thing is worked up because the desire is to take advantage of the fears of an uninformed public respecting gas attacks, in order to bolster up and support a recruiting campaign and the rearmament campaign of the Government. Whether the figures be true or not, it is unreasonable to suppose that other countries will bomb London at such a terrifying cost to themselves when they can bring Britain to her knees without the loss of one pilot or one aeroplane; that is to say, if they are successful in concentrating upon certain other methods.
I want to know whether it is likely or unlikely that they would be successful. I am thinking about our food supply. If we cannot get food, and even if we cannot get oil for our aeroplanes for the Navy and for transport, there is no question about the result upon London and the other cities of the country. The other countries do not need to rain gas bombs upon us. The last speaker mentioned the granaries and mills upon our southwestern and western borders, gaunt, white structures, standing up ready to be bombed as targets which could be hardly missed. What are the Government doing about questions of that kind? What are they doing about the protection of our food supplies? Rather than indiscriminate bombing I should imagine that enemy aeroplanes would attempt to smash the Port of London. What are the Government doing about the protection of the roads from those western ports and mills, and those alternative places where we expect there will be a diversion of food supply? Are the alternative roads to be built when the railways are smashed up, to take a stream of lorries and other transport conveying food to this country? I suggest that it is time this House was told whether the Government are doing anything in the matter.
When we are talking about food, raw materials and oil supplies, we cannot divorce the question from the international position, from the position at any rate of this country in regard to the Mediterranean and all that springs from a control of Mediterranean waters. What is the 991 position at the present time? I am charging this Government with letting the Empire down. It will not do for them to blame the Labour party; the country will send the bill to them. It will not do to say to the country, "Please, the Labour party did not support us in our recruiting campaign." The Government have had six years in office with an overwhelming majority, and what is the position? They have refused to accept our policy. We believe that the policy for which the Labour party has stood would have brought peace, or would have brought us much nearer to peace than we are now. The Government, having refused to accept our policy, cannot blame us. We are entitled to ask them what they are doing to implement their own policy.
What about the position in the Mediterranean? One of the questions answered this afternoon had reference to the Italian Naval Air Arm. We were told that the Italian Navy had control, not only of what we call the Fleet Air Arm, but also of certain land machines. But, apart from that, the Italian air position is about eight times stronger than our position so far as aircraft in the Mediterranean are concerned, and we alone cannot guarantee that the communications with North Africa would not be cut. We have to depend upon an alliance with France. Are we sure that France will always be the kind of country that she is? Are we sure that there is not likely to be, that it is not possible that there will be, a Fascist France before very long, and a Fascist Spain? What will then be our position in the Mediterranean? There is Gibraltar, with no aerodrome and only a few seaplanes or flying boats; there is Malta, quite incapable of defence from the air. We are in a somewhat better position in the Eastern Mediterranean, where we have Alexandria, Haifa, Aboukir and one or two other seaplane bases, and the hinterland up to the Syrian border. But we have Mussolini at both ends of the Suez Canal, controlling Abyssinia and developing the vast mineral resources of that country—with the aid, we are told, of German capital and German technicians—and menacing the Sudan. That has been brought about by a Government who have had an overwhelming majority for six 992 years. It has been brought about because they have been afraid to face up to bullets, because they have been afraid, really to defend the British Empire. We are not land-locked, but we are lake-locked. The British lion has become a circus lion in a cage, twisting its own tail between its own legs, and this Government is responsible for that position.
What about our raw materials? Take, for instance, the question of merchant shipping. During the last War we had as allies, not only France, but Italy too, and yet we could not allow our merchant ships to go through the Mediterranean, and all the troopships had to be convoyed by Italian vessels. The position is infinitely worse to-day. Our merchant ships would have to be sent round by the Cape, and every extra mile means an extra menace. Can we depend upon that Clapham Junction of the Atlantic, Madeira and the Atlantic Islands? The position now is infinitely worse than it was during the Great War. Again, what about the pipe-line from Iraq to Haifa? Our oil supplies would have to go all the way round to the Persian Gulf. If it is true that other nations cannot get their aeroplanes through, and are not likely to attack London for the technical reasons I have given, the likelihood is that they will concentrate upon submarines and the power of sea craft. What are the Government doing in reference to that matter from the point of view of air defence in the remoter seas? All these questions, I suggest, are questions on which we are entitled to an answer, without the stereotyped statement that it is not in the interest of the public service.
The Foreign Secretary said that the Mediterranean was a vital artery of the British Empire. It may be a vital artery, but it is sacrificed by a policy of apathy, of lack of responsibility, or lack of the acceptance of responsibility, by a Government which refuses to accept the alternative, the alternative being the policy, not of unilateral security, not of unilateral rearmament, but of collective security. The Government can take unilateral action when it likes. It does not ask other countries to pull the chestnuts out of the fire when it is a question of helping Franco in Spain. Then the Government can rake up old Acts of Parliament of the 70's in order to prevent any help 993 going to one side so that the other side can be assisted. Then, of course, we can take unilateral action. This idea of pulling the chestnuts out of the fire is all very well, but you cannot take up an isolated position in affairs of defence, as could have been done years ago. The chestnuts are still in the fire, they are cracking and popping, and we are going to get the result of the policy of a Government which claims to be a Government defending the Empire, which goes to the country as a patriotic Government calls us unpatriotic, and would drape all its by-election platforms with the Union Jack. The Government have let the Empire down from their own point of view, and, if the hon. Member for Duddeston is correct, the true story is one that ought to make the whole nation gasp, after the confidence that it has given to the present Government.
When is the quarrel between the Admiralty and the Air Ministry going to end? I have mentioned the statement we have had about the Italian air force. The Fleet Air Arm comes upon Navy Votes, but the training and control of personnel is in the hands of the Air Force; and yet the Army Co-operation Squadrons do not come upon Army Votes, but upon Air Ministry Votes. Where are we on that question? The Admiralty say they fear that, if they do not control the Fleet Air Arm completely, the Air Force can at any time under stress withdraw all the aircraft constituting the Fleet Air Arm. They talk about air flotillas being as much an inherent part of the Navy as flotillas of destroyers and submarines. On the other hand, the Air Ministry say that air defence is indivisible, and that the present methods have worked very well indeed. I do not want to enter into the merits of that quarrel, except to say that everyone knows that, if a war does take place, so far as coastal defence is concerned, so far as the major operations with respect to ourselves and the Continent are concerned, it will be the Chief Air Marshal who will take charge, and no one else. I suggest that the fact that that quarrel exists, with all the inefficiencies that arise from it, is the strongest possible justification for some unity in Service control—and I mean something more than the appointment of the right hon. Gentleman opposite.
994 There are just two other questions to which I want to refer, one being the question of recruiting. First of all, with regard to the matter of gas defence, I learn that volunteers for Red Cross work and for fire fighting work are not coming in in adequate numbers, and that the meetings which have been arranged up and down the country are very sparsely attended. I think we ought to have some information on that point. With regard to recruiting itself, I would like to make this observation. The difference—the chasm, as it were—between the regimental officer in the Army and the regimental soldier is pretty wide and deep. The ordinary soldier in the Army is much more regarded—
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Captain Bourne)
I must point out that the Motion before the House deals solely with air defence. We had better leave the other Services until they arise.
§ Mr. Montague
I mentioned it in order to refer to the Air Force, and the position of the Air Force. If I may be allowed to finish my sentence, I think you will see that it is relevant to what I have to say. The difference that exists in the Army does not exist in the Air Force, and that is the point that I want to put. I think that even the Secretary of State for War will agree with that. The difference is due to the technical question, to the fact that air officers and air mechanics are highly trained technical men, and the air mechanic is not so likely to regard himself as cannon fodder as was at any rate the old-fashioned soldier. I know that that is the case from my own experience here and outside. But, all the same, there is still a great deal to be said with regard to what we on this side call democratisation. Consider, for instance, the little trickle of airmen pilots that gets through. These airmen pilots, who come not from elementary schools, but from secondary schools and public schools, have to compete with one another; they are not allowed to compete with the university squadrons, the product of the universities; they have to compete with one another. They are very carefully selected, and just a few get through. That, at any rate, suggests to me that the idea still exists that we cannot afford, or that the authorities cannot afford, to 995 allow the people to control, or take any effective part in controlling, the organisation of the Royal Air Force.
We are very much concerned about this, and we say that, if you want recruiting to be increased, if you want adequate recruiting in the country, you must have regard to this question of how the better educated workman of to-day looks at the matter. The trade unionists, the organised workers, the better type of workers in this country, are not prepared to regard themselves as cannon fodder, and they are not prepared to support a policy of granting full military power to another class of society. I just mention that in passing, in order that the point may be taken by other Members who may wish to take part in this discussion. If you want adequate recruiting, and if you want support for the development of the Air Forces, you will have to make them much more democratic than they are at present, because we have had experience in the world of what we believe the handing over of the military forces of a nation to the ruling class amounts to under certain conditions.
§ Earl Winterton
Surely what the hon. Member is saying does not apply to the Air Force? They are getting all the recruits they want—almost more than they want.
§ Mr. Montague
I wonder whether the Noble Lord knows how many they want. I suppose he would be the first to say that the present plan is not the end of our requirements. You have to consider what is to come in the future as well as just the immediate plan, and that particularly applies to another question, the supply of skilled labour. It has been mentioned that tool makers, die-sinkers, and jig makers are not available, even for the present plan, in adequate numbers. How are you going to get that supply of highly skilled labour? You cannot take refuge in schemes of dilution for two reasons. First of all, you cannot train people for that kind of work as you trained certain people during the War. Twenty years ago development was not at the high technical stage that it is at present. It takes time to develop skilled labour of that character. The skilled trades are not going to allow dilution from raw labour to highly skilled labour quite in the same way as was done 996 between 1914 and 1918. We want more guarantees. We are not going to have trained men in huge quantities, after the emergency is over, thrown upon the streets in order to compete with normal industry and lower the standard of life. That happened 20 years ago. It is not likely to be allowed to happen again.
What are you going to do about this question of skilled labour? If you want the skilled labour, you have to train it. You cannot get on without very much more skilled labour than you have at present. It is about time all these questions were very seriously considered upon new lines. One cannot afford to go back to the old wasteful improvisation of the Great War. We must have plans. I feel that there has been a lot of exaggeration to-day from those responsible for this Motion. I do not think the situation is nearly as bad as it is made out to be. At the same time, if it is, the consequences will come upon the heads of this Government and they cannot throw them off upon any other party in the House or any other body of people. I am glad that the subject has been raised because it is about time that we got down to the real elements of the problem in front of us and got rid of this idea that it is never in the public interest to let the House of Commons or the people know what is happening and what the content of the future is going to be.
§ 5.48 p.m.
§ Sir T. Inskip
It had been my intention, as I thought it would be in accordance with the wishes of the House, to speak at the end of this necessarily short Debate. I thought that would give me an opportunity of dealing with all the questions that might be raised within the limits of my capacity, but my hon. Friend asked me to speak at an earlier stage so that, if necessary, some further reply can be made later. I am perfectly willing to fall in with whatever is the general wish of the House. The Motion covers a wide ground. It extends not only to the operations of the Air Ministry, but it deals with the work that is necessarily undertaken by other Departments, the War Office or the Home Office, and therefore I have been asked to deal with the matters that have been raised. I will do so to the best of my ability, though a large number have been raised, within the time that it will be right for me to take up.
997 I do not understand the attitude of the hon. Gentleman opposite. He suggested that the Government had been fomenting anxiety concerning our air defences for the purpose of bolstering up rearmament and recruiting. I thought the party opposite had now, unwillingly perhaps, made up its mind that a considerable measure of rearmament was necessary in respect of all the defence services. When the hon. Gentleman went on to say that the policy of the Government was one of frightfulness and reprisals, I simply do not understand what he is speaking of, because this Government has been reproached not for the policy of excessive frightfulness or of reprisals but for its slowness, its lukewarmness, in making preparations even for the purposes of defence. A Debate of this sort, however quiet and friendly, is felt by the whole House to deal with questions which must continually cause anxiety. It would not serve its purpose if it did not. We do not want to debate academic questions. This is a real live question as to how far the Government have made progress with the steps necessary to defend the country and its interests. The Debate, of course, is bound to concentrate on rearmament. I would point out that it is equally important that, while we rearm, we should concentrate on the search for conditions of peace under which armaments may recede into a limbo from which we all hope they may never appear again on their present scale.
I have a little regretted in the course of the Debate—not that I complain of it; it may be necessary—one or two references which have been made to the nation in Europe in connection with whose policy we have so many Debates. I know that it is very difficult to keep Germany out of any comparisons that may be made because Germany, together with other nations has entered into a statement by the Government in the White Paper as to the reasons for the Government's rearmament policy. At the same time, I think we all feel that, while we are necessarily rearming, we have nothing but the most friendly and peaceable intentions with regard to any of the nations of Europe. The present scheme of air defence, as far as the Royal Air Force is concerned, is based upon 998 the White Paper. It is there for every hon. Member to read. The plan is in no doubt. The hon. Gentleman opposite charged the Government with enveloping this business of our air defence in a veil of mystery. He described this as a hush-hush Government. There was never a more frank statement than appeared in the White Paper of what the Government's plans are in regard to the Air Force. It is set out in almost elementary language for anyone to understand. It is necessary to have in mind what was proposed before we can see how far attainment has marched with plan. It was proposed that there should be an increase in the first-line strength of the Metropolitan Force to a figure of approximately 1,750 aircraft, excluding the Fleet Air Arm but including the Auxiliary Air Force, which was to be increased by four squadrons for co-operation with the Territorial Army.
§ Sir T. Inskip
I am giving what is stated in the White Paper. I will deal with the squadrons later on. There was no mention of squadrons in the White Paper, but only of the number of aircraft. It was proposed to increase the number of squadrons overseas by 12, and to make a substantial increase within the next few years in the first-line aircraft of the Fleet Air Arm. It was stated that it was intended to provide proper reserves of men and materials to cover the period which would elapse until facilities for continuous supply were made available. On the supply side it was stated that an extension of capacity would be arranged by placing orders with new firms.
That is the scheme that stands to-day. It is a scheme that involves not only the formation of additional squadrons, but includes variations in the relative numbers of the different types of squadrons, in the case of some squadrons an increase in number per squadron and in one case a decrease. I congratulate my hon. Friend the mover of the Motion on his speech, although there were many calculations in it with which I could not agree and some statements that I thought a little far fetched. The existing scheme has meant a variation in the numbers of the different types of squadron, partly with a view to doing that to which my 999 hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Erdington (Wing-Commander Wright) referred when he spoke of the importance of a large number of long-range highspeed bombers. There is now a considerably different balance between the number of bombers of that character as compared with the provision made in the scheme that has been absorbed in the present scheme. The increase in some cases of the number of aircraft in a squadron has been decided upon solely from the point of view of tactical efficiency. In one or two cases there has been an increase from 12 to 14 in others from 12 to 18, and in one case the number per squadron has been reduced from 18 to 12. These changes are due entirely to considerations of the efficiency of the squadrons having regard to their purposes.
One feature of the scheme is the creation of a great reserve of aircraft. I hope hon. Members will appreciate that in all these computations of first-line aircraft there are behind them a large number of reserves, a policy which has always been part of the Air Ministry plan since our rearmament began. A second feature is the increase in striking power, not merely by replacing light with medium bombers, but also, and still more, by the decision to re-arm the bomber squadrons with new machines of greater power, greater load carrying capacity and greater range. I think that that will be approved of by the hon. and gallant Member for Erdington.
§ Mr. Churchill
My right hon. Friend is, of course, referring to the modifications in the programme, and not to alterations in the actual realised strength?
§ Sir T. Inskip
I am dealing with what I called two important features of the present scheme, up to a number of about 1,750 aircraft. It may be said that plans are good, decisions are better, but what the House wants to know is the measure of execution or attainment that has been reached. I wish it were possible to place orders for aircraft as one places orders for motor cars. The expression used by the hon. and gallant Member for Erdington was that it was not possible to press a button and obtain the aircraft we want. Experience of 1000 everyone at the present time shows how slow, laborious and painful must be the process of building up capacity after a long and leisurely period of production. In the years, from 1930 to 1934, the average number of airframes and engines was round about 700 and 750 for the whole year for the purposes of the Royal Air Force. These numbers are a mere fraction of what is required in annual output under the present programme, and it was necessary for the Government to take measures, with the co-operation of the professional aircraft firms, for the expansion of their capacity, and also for the creation of what is now very familiar to everybody in the House, the shadow industry.
Delays have undoubtedly taken place, and I am going to speak about the reason for the delays and tell the House, to the best of my ability, the extent of the delays. But let the House realise that these are delays in reference to the plan which the Government have laid down for the completion of this scheme. Statements have already been made in past debates about the number of squadrons raised, and my hon. Friend the Member for Duddeston (Mr. Simmonds), with great industry, has made a number of calculations. I, fortunately, have been saved the trouble of these calculations, because I have been given the latest information. The present position is that 87 squadrons have now been formed—13 of them are still on the one-flight basis. The House appreciates that the method of forming a new squadron is to hive off, as it were, a flight, and gradually add men and aircraft to that new squadron so as to bring it up in due course to its proper complement. Others of these 87 squadrons are over-strength in personnel, with a sufficient number of aircraft for training purposes.
Let me supplement that information by saying, that it is anticipated that 100 squadrons will have been formed by the end of March. I take the end of March because, in the now absorbed scheme, that was the date that was given as the date by which 124 squadrons would be brought into existence. Of these 100 squadrons, 22 will be on a one-flight basis, that is to say, in the process of being developed into fully equipped and manned squadrons. I am a little hesitant 1001 about giving dates or figures as to the other 24 squadrons to bring up the number to the full 124, but the House knows that the hon. Member's statement, that the Government desire to keep back things which they possibly might properly disclose, is not well-founded, at any rate, not in my case, because I always like to give the House frank information. I am going to take the risk, which may be brought home to me in six months time, of saying that, if our expectations are fulfilled, the remaining 24 squadrons, or, at any rate, 20 of them, will be completed by July next.
§ Sir T. Inskip
The squadrons will be formed, but I am not able to say that they will all by that time be brought up to their complement. I said that I would speak of the delays and tell the House the reason for them.
My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Thanet (Captain Balfour) asked me to give him an assurance regarding the statement that I seem to have given him in a Parliamentary answer as to there being three or four months delay, and say that the delay was no worse at this moment. To the best of my knowledge and belief—it being impossible in a few minutes to obtain detailed figures—the position is not worse by any manner of means. As he says, we are at a point where the line of the graph is really on a slowly rising scale. The line of ascent will become steeper and steeper as the months go by. My hon. Friend who moved the Motion, by ingenious calculations, said that, as it has taken two years to produce the present number of aircraft, if you multiply that by some number you will find that it will take another two or three years to produce the number of aircraft necessary to make up the necessary squadrons. That is a calculation which my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Thanet appreciates is not really a sound one. It sounds all right at first sight, but when you realise that it is the period of difficulty in the production of new types of modern machines, it is not quite as simple as that.
§ Mr. Simmonds
May I insist that if the speed were the same, it would be three years, but if it were three times the speed, it would be one year. I leave the 1002 right hon. Gentleman to decide what the speed would be.
§ Sir T. Inskip
If the speed were the same it would follow, and if it were increased the time would be reduced. My hon. Friend was quite safe in making that observation. I do not speak of these delays in the role of an apologist, still less in the rôle of one who seeks to excuse himself or the Government. I would rather speak as narrator of plain facts and leave the House to judge for itself. Again, I ask the House to affirm my claim, when I say, I never attempted to paint rosy pictures of the Defence Programme of the Government. I have been content to give what have often been sober and disappointing facts. Not in a very long time, I hope, I may reap my reward, if I outlive the reign of criticism which at present is perfectly natural but, none the less painful. I hope and believe that as we surmount our difficulties, the House will be in the happy position, of seeing the full attainment and large production.
There are three main reasons for the lag in completion, for the three or four months between the promise and the performance. I have not a word to say in reproach of the aircraft firms. They, in fact, under-estimated the difficulties of large-scale production, but there is no blame to be attached to them in that matter. It was a very difficult business producing new machines under large-scale production conditions as compared with what I call the leisurely conditions of the years before we began. At any rate, all the Government plans were based upon the estimates and statements of the manufacturers themselves. They were orders that were best designed to produce satisfactory types at the earliest date, but anybody familiar with these matters will realise, what I am told is the case to-day, that this is a period of rapid changes in aeronautical technique. That is perhaps illustrated by the change over from the biplane to the monoplane. I speak as a child in these matters, and can only put these things forward for consideration of those Members who understand these technical matters.
Another difficulty which was referred to by my hon. Friend who moved the Motion is that of getting skilled draughtsmen and skilled labour and machine tools which has thrown obstacles in the way of 1003 the manufacturers, for which assuredly they are not to be blamed. Still, the fact remains that the difficulties involved in the production of these new types of machines have been greater than they anticipated. The House will realise and will agree with me in thinking, that the Government have not been wrong in the way in which they have placed orders for the new machines while the machines have still really been in the stage of design. We might have followed the old method, produced a prototype or two, tested them, and then begun production. The Government deliberately adopted the other plan, of which, I think, experience shows the wisdom of building—taking off the drawing board, to use a colloquial expression —the new machines and testing them after they had been actually produced and learning the lessons, sometimes the hard lessons, of disappointment until the type was perfected. We are satisfied that we made no mistake over that because in spite of the delays that have happened, we are still a long way ahead of the schedule that would have been possible if the whole method of building the prototype and testing had been followed.
§ Sir T. Inskip
I should not put it as high as that, but it would have involved much more delay than the present plan. Incidentally, the plan which I have mentioned avoids the loss of millions of the taxpayers' money which would have been consequent upon scrapping. There would have been no difficulty in the way of the Government forming the new squadrons at a much earlier date, if we had taken the rosy path of ordering old types of machines. We have not done that, and I hope the House will approve the action of the Air Ministry in that respect.
§ Mr. Churchill
There has been considerable replacement in the last few months of machines designed seven years ago.
§ Sir T. Inskip
We have strained to the utmost capacity the ability of the aircraft manufacturers to produce machines of a novel type. If we had put every single manufacturer upon the latest and modern machines, I doubt very much whether we should have had a sufficient supply for the purpose of keeping the squadrons going. To the fullest extent possible we 1004 have not taken the easy path of ordering old and obsolescent types, but we have ordered new and modern types, and I hope that we shall be commended by the House for that.
The House, I am sure, will wish me to pay a tribute to the staff at the Air Ministry for the way they have worked under such exceptional strain. The Director of Aeronautical Production and the whole of his staff have worked with unrestrained devotion, and with success in accelerating to the utmost of their ability the output of new types of machines. That is the first reason for delay, but as the hon. and gallant Member will realise, it is a reason which will not recur. The difficulties which have been met and which are being overcome will not delay production once they are overcome. What is the second reason for delay? It is that we sent to the Middle East, to the Mediterranean and to the Aden Command 12 squadrons with full complements to reinforce the squadrons already there. That caused considerable delay in the expansion scheme. The third reason for delay is rather more important. It is the ambitious nature of the expansion scheme which has caused delay in the early stages. In the normal way the number of flying training schools would have been much less than they are. There are 11, employing a large number of personnel and aircraft. The suggestion has been made that the numbers should be reduced. I believe the House will agree with me that it would be literally fatal to reduce the number or the standard of instructors and turn out young men with insufficient training. Our airmen are second to none in the world and our young men seem to have a natural capacity and genius for the air. They ought to enjoy, at any rate, that which it is our duty to give them; the best and longest training that is possible. I believe the House will approve the decision of the Secretary of State for Air in maintaining the flying training schools and the personnel and aircraft which are necessary at their full number, even at the expense of not being able to form squadrons with the men and the aircraft which are being used in this way.
The House may say that it is not yet satisfied that the Government are doing all that is necessary for the purpose of providing the country with air defences 1005 which are necessary so far as aircraft are concerned. The hon. Member who moved the Motion made one or two suggestions. He agreed that there is nothing more we can do as far as pilots are concerned, because there is an ample supply of pilots. I do not think he suggested there is anything more we can do as far as machines are concerned—with one exception. He made a suggestion, repeated by another hon. Member, that we should buy foreign machines. That, naturally, has occurred to the Air Ministry. It has been considered most carefully and fully with a desire which, as everybody will recognise, the Air Ministry must have felt to obtain all the machines possible. But the fact is that the delay in obtaining foreign machines, or the time in which they could be obtained, would be longer than the time in which they could be obtained by using our own resources, and the complications due to the differences in the accessories, in the equipment of machines, would be a serious handicap to the efficiency of our squadrons, and in war time, I will not say would paralyse a particular squadron, but would gravely affect Its efficiency. If we could obtain aeroplanes from any other country we should be only too glad, but it is no good ordering machines from abroad if you do not gain some advantage, and especially if there is some serious disadvantage which might counteract any gain in point of lime, as there is in this case.
The hon. Member made another suggestion. He said that there has been delay consequent on the difficulty of getting machine tools, and he suggested that we should go abroad. I can assure him that this is the policy not only in regard to the Air Ministry, but to all the three Services, which is in operation to-day. I have had the advantage of seeing representatives of the machine tools industry, and they have with great public spirit and common-sense agreed that if a Government Department or a contractor is unable to obtain delivery of machine tools within a reasonable period there would be no objection to obtaining suitable machine tools from abroad. The extent of the imports of machine tools shows how much resort has been had to foreign sources of supply, but I am happy to say that the machine tools position is much better than I expected it to be six months ago, and, generally speaking, 1006 the whole industry is concentrating more and more on the Government programme, and substantial deliveries of machine tools will be complete by the end of the present year. That is the general position. As far as aircraft factories are concerned, I believe that the plans for getting tools from abroad will diminish the difficulties of the manufacturers.
§ Mr. Simmonds
If the right hon. Gentleman will read the OFFICIAL REPORT he will see that I did not suggest the purchase of complete aircraft abroad. I think, with him, that that would result in great delays.
§ Sir T. Inskip
I am much obliged to the hon. Member, and he will forgive me if I have indicated wrongly the source from which the suggestion came. We have been asked what stage of development the shadow factories have reached. I think my hon. Friend said that one could form a pretty good opinion as to how far they were from production by realising that only this week we have scrapped one of them. That hardly gives an accurate picture of the position. I wish I could hand round photographs I have here showing the very advanced stage of two of them, and they are not the best specimens. But the position of the shadow factories is this—once again I will risk making a prophecy—that they will commence production as far as aeroplanes are concerned in the Austin factory in the autumn of the present year, and, so far as engines are concerned, production will begin in January of next year, that is, in 12 months' time. With the exception of the Rootes factory the erection of these factories is in an advanced stage. I have tried to inform the House of the position wiht regard to deliveries of aircraft and plans for obtaining more production, but if any hon. Member can assist the Government by suggesting methods by which we can obtain a greater output, nobody will be more grateful than the Secretary of State for Air and myself. The suggestion that private aircraft firms should be asked to repair damaged aircraft I will bring before my noble friend, and it may be that under his direction they will be brought into use.
I have been asked a number of questions as to plans for dealing with high explosives and fire-fighting equipment. I can state quite shortly the position. As regards the construction of buildings 1007 which will afford ample protection, a handbook on structural precautions against bombs and gas will shortly be issued containing such proposals as have been found suitable not for keeping out high explosive bombs, but for defending the people against certain consequences. Anybody who realises the power of an high explosive bomb will know that from 20 to 25 feet of concrete, together with a certain depth of earth are necessary to resist a high explosive bomb.
§ Mr. Churchill
What kind of high explosive bomb? Is the right hon. Gentleman referring to armour-piercing or semiarmour-piercing bombs?
§ Sir T. Inskip
For a 500 lbs. semiarmour-piercing bomb 20 to 25 ft. of concrete and a certain amount of earth are necessary to keep it out, and anybody can see that it is impossible to erect buildings for the protection of persons on that scale. The real answer is that we shall have our adequate defences available to prevent the oncoming aeroplane ever being in a position to drop its bombs. The hon. Member for West Islington (Mr. Montague) gave some rather extraordinary figures as to the number of aeroplanes which could be shot down. I do not know from where he got them, but, fortunately, we have had no experience upon which we can base any figures of that sort. It must remain in the region of speculation, except for facts which may be obtained from the unhappy conflict in Spain. If the hon. Member has any facts on which his calculations are based, I shall be glad to obtain them.
§ Mr. Montague
I said in my speech that my information was based upon a technical article in a technical journal. I do not know whether it is true or not, and that is what I am asking the right hon. Gentleman.
§ Sir T. Inskip
Until there has been an experience from which it is possible to draw inferences, nobody can say. All I can say is that I believe our anti-aircraft defences are the very best that can be devised from the point of view of the guns, the searchlights, the instruments and the methods of detecting aircraft. What more can the Government do? We hope and believe that the skill of our scientists, the ability of our airmen and the excellence of their training will prevent the attacks 1008 ever being brought home to this country. As far as fire-fighting equipment is concerned, the Government have already stated that they will be prepared to make grants towards the cost of the provision of the additional equipment that must be provided for the fire brigade services in an emergency. A great deal more information on this matter was given in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. Sandys) on 2nd December, 1936, by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department.
With regard to docks, a great many plans have already been made to prepare for the necessary diversion of shipping in case of war, and the protection of the docks has already been included in the plans for the anti-aircraft defence arrangements applicable to the whole country. Special protection will be given to important docks. As to the fuel for the Air Force, naturally steps have been taken to provide an assured supply of aviation petrol as a primary necessity. Plans have been carefully worked out to ensure these. stocks, and I am able to give the House a most ample assurance that not only are the plans well-devised but the steps that have already been taken to lay up these stocks are thoroughly satisfactory. With regard to the location of industry, at present, of course, the Government have no power to prevent factories being put in particular positions, but we have constantly exercised such authority as we possess with a view to influencing their location in a suitable place. Obviously we cannot put the whole of our industries away on the West Coast of Scotland or some place as far removed as possible from attacking aircraft. As far as we are concerned, we have done our best.
The hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) asked a question as to the vulnerability of electricity undertakings along the River Thames. The interlocking of the electricity system under the grid will, to a great extent, reduce the damage done or the inconvenience caused by the destruction of one undertaking or of two undertakings, and of course the remedies that are possible by linking up the new power stations to take the place of one that has been destroyed diminish it. But one cannot move the electricity undertakings from the River Thames at the present time, 1009 and that will not be possible for years and years. All I can say is that the Government have made adequate provisions for the air defence of London, including the balloon barrage about which. I have spoken in previous Debates.
§ Mr. Ede
May I point out that I was drawing the right hon. Gentleman's attention to the fact that at the moment it is proposed to erect a further great station at the extreme East of the line close to the Woolwich power station? There will then be six or seven great generating stations within a few miles along one of the best guide routes that hostile aircraft could have.
§ Sir T. Inskip
I share the hon. Gentleman's solicitude as to the placing of an additional power station in this line of power stations if it is possible to place it anywhere else. Of course, I am not aware of all the details at a few moments' notice, but I will see what are the facts, and I am sure that any influence which the Government are able to bring to bear will be exerted to prevent any further accumulation in the danger area of these central and very vulnerable undertakings. I hope that in my remarks I have, at any rate, disabused the House of the charge preferred against me by an hon. Member opposite that I am guilty of engaging in hush-hush talk when I address the House.
To conclude, I am, of course, the Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence, and that means that one of my main duties is to concern myself with the practical work of rearmament. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has another and even more anxious duty to perform. He has carried out the policy of the Government, in the face of overwhelming difficulties, with resourcefulness, and, I think I may properly say, with undaunted courage. I believe he enjoys the full confidence of most hon. Members, and I need hardly say that he has the full confidence of all his colleagues. When he said recently that His Majesty's Government do not regard the re-equipment of the three Fighting Services as our objective, though an indispensable means to our objective, he put in one sentence what I can only repeat this afternoon. Rearmament is not our objective; political appeasement and economic co-operation alone can bring lasting peace, and they go, as my 1010 right hon. Friend said, hand in hand. All of us, irrespective of our position, ardently long for that general settlement by which peace and security may be assured to us and to all countries alike. But until that time comes—and we hope it may be soon—we hold ourselves bound to arm. We shall continue while it is necessary with all the vast resources of this undefeated country to arm in defence of our country and peace.
§ Mr. Montague
Before concluding, surely the right hon. Gentleman is going to say something specific on the very vital question of the supply of skilled labour?
§ Sir T. Inskip
The question of the supply of skilled labour has caused constant thought and anxiety in my mind. I can tell the House that when first I began to become familiar with the matters with which I shall have to deal, I thought we were then within sight of the end of the supply of skilled labour available. When July came I thought it would be at the end of October, and when October came I thought it would be in December. Nothing is more remarkable than the way in which, in spite of all our fears, skilled labour is being trained in the different works that are carrying out the Government's programme. There are difficulties and there is, of course, a certain amount of competition between the different firms for whatever skilled labour is on the market. There is not much of it.
I believe that both in the Government services and in the companies the best plan for dealing with the problem of skilled labour is to take in the younger men and train them in the work, which within a comparatively short time they are able to carry out with all the skill and facility of a man of longer experience. I deprecate any excessive competition or labour-snatching between firms engaged in Government work. We are holding conferences on this matter, and there will be one in the near future on the question of skilled labour in the building industry for the purpose of the Government's programme. I hope and believe that with the help and assent, which have been ungrudging, of the trade unions in this matter, as well as with the cooperation of the employers, we shall not fail in our plans through any want of the man-power or the skilled labour that may be necessary.
§ 6.40 p.m.
§ Mr. Churchill
I am sure we are indebted to the Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence for having intervened in the Debate before its conclusion and having made a statement which certainly frees him altogether from the charge which was preferred against him from the other side of the House of only dealing with the subject in hush-hush terms. He has placed facts and figures of very solid importance at the disposal of the House and the country for the purposes of examining the rate at which the Air Force expansion programme is being continued. I think we are indebted to him for it. There is just one quasi-technical point on which I would venture to raise a query or express a certain sense of bewilderment, and that is the statement in connection with the provision of air-raid shelters for the civil population, when my right hon. Friend said that it had been ascertained that 20 to 25 feet of concrete were required in order to give protection against an air bomb of 500 lbs. Those who have remembered the battlefields of the Great War and have seen the craters made by i6-inch shells, which have a tar greater velocity and weigh a ton—four times as much—would certainly think that 20 to 25 feet of concrete were a very satisfactory protection. Very few persons in the Great War ever aspired so high as 20 or 25 feet of concrete.
Since these figures were stated on the authority of the Home Office, I have heard distinguished and competent officers express very great doubt as to whether so large a provision as that was required. In any case, the matter does not turn upon the character of the defence so much as upon the character of the projectile. The kind of protection it is desired to give the civil population would not be protection against the semi-armour-piercing or armour-piercing bomb. Very few of these would be carried. If the enemy aeroplanes were to carry semi-amour-piercing or armour-piercing bombs, they would carry a great deal more steel than explosives. The value and importance of their attack would be enormously reduced. The number of bombs which they could cast on a voyage would be enormously reduced. It is not conceivable that there are any objectives short of ships of the sea upon which it would be worth while to use the semi-armour-piercing or armour-piercing bomb. A small 1012 bomb, a mere container of explosives, would be the natural and necessary weapons which would be used to attack the semi-military objectives found in great cities, and still more to attack the population. The idea that it would be worth while to send aeroplanes hundreds of miles to drop semi-armour-piercing or armour-piercing bombs through the night on the chance that they might penetrate some underground shelter in which people were gathered is, I think, much too farfetched. As a matter of fact, the semiarmour-piercing bomb would be the weapon of attack upon the highly-developed and immensely costly ships of war and perhaps upon special objectives, such as power stations and so forth. If it is desired to afford a method of protective shelters for the civil population, an incomparably cheaper scale of protection in concrete would be required than that which the right hon. Gentleman has mentioned to us this afternoon. However, that is a matter of opinion.
If we are indebted to the right hon. Gentleman, I think we are also indebted to the hon. Member for Duddeston (Mr. Simmonds) for introducing the Debate which has called forth the important Ministerial statement to which we have listened. As regards the figures which the hon. Gentleman gave of air strength, although I have had no conversation with him on this matter, I had, curiously enough, possessed myself of the Air Force List in order to ascertain the official statement of the progress that is being made. One knows that between 70 and 80 squadrons figure in this List and that a very large number of them have only three or four officers apiece—a quite inconsiderable proportion. Here we are within nine weeks of the 31st March, by which time we were promised 124 squadrons. When that promise was made it meant, one supposed, 124 squadrons complete in all respects, that is to say 124 squadrons, with all their flights and the reserve machines which they ought to have—the reserves in the case of our squadrons differing from those in other countries. They were to be completed by 31st March and now we have the figures which the right hon. Gentleman, with perfect candour and courtesy to the House and convenience to the country, has given us this afternoon. There will be, he hopes, on 31st March Rio squadrons instead of 1013 124, and of these 22 will consist of only one flight each.
§ Sir T. Inskip
To the best of my recollection no date was given in the White Paper for the completion of the expanded scheme which is the present one. The date 31st March, was the date in the original scheme, what I call the absorbed scheme, of 124 squadrons.
§ Mr. Churchill
As to what is in the White. Paper, I cannot charge my memory, but certainly we have been told not once but a hundred times that 124 was the figure which was being aimed at by 31st March.
§ Mr. Churchill
Then there is no difference between us. As to the White Paper I do not want to quarrel about that—I am glad to have no difference with my right hon. Friend on the subject. The fact remains that out of the 124 squadrons there will be only 100. Of these, 22 will consist only of one flight each, and I suppose others will consist of only two flights each. These squadrons are formed very much in the way in which the human race was formed. A rib is taken from one body and starts out on an independent existence of its own. But 22 squadrons, consisting of only one flight each, really cannot bear their part as complete squadrons. They are not in a condition to take part in fighting. They are only nuclei around which are built up new drafts and semi-trained personnel. If we take 22 from 100 it leaves 78 and that is the number which we shall have on 31st March in place of 124. That is to say we shall be 46 short of the promised total.
Now, 46 out of 124 is a considerable proportion, and it must be remembered that when the first programme was mentioned in March, 1935, we already had 52 or 53 squadrons. So we have actually had 25 or 26 squadrons in 20 months and we shall be 46 short of what we hoped to have on 31st March. In order to be punctual in the fulfilment of the programme outlined we would require to do in nine weeks nearly double what we have done in 20 months. It is clearly a serious deficiency. There is no good in pretending that it is a comparatively small thing, that it is just a little falling-short. It is an enormous percentage of deficiency. 1014 Even if you were to assume that all the squadrons which are supposed to be completed were fully equipped, not only in personnel but in machines, even if you were to assume that all of these squadrons were equipped with modern machines, there would still be a great falling-short. And even if the full programme of 124 had been completed by 31st March it would still not have given us parity with the German strength at that dale, or anything like it.
We have been most solemnly promised parity. We have not got parity. Would the right hon. Gentleman rise in his place and say that he could contend that we had parity, at the present time, with this Power which is in striking distance of our shores, in first-line air strength? I am not making any invidious comparisons with regard to Germany. We have no right to assume that any quarrel will ever arise between us and Germany. But that is not the basis on which we discuss military matters. They are discussed on a basis of impersonal potentialities and not of particular nations. Therefore, I say that we have not got the parity which we were promised. We have not nearly got it, we have not nearly approached it. Nor shall we get it during the whole of 1937, and I doubt whether we shall have it or anything approaching it during 1938. I feel bound to make these statements.
The hon. Member for Duddeston spoke also of the strength of the German Air Force, and I am very glad to see my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in his place when I refer to this matter. I hope he will allow me to say that I think he will find that he has again been misled by his advisers in the statement which he made in the Debate in November about German air strength. I ventured to suggest that as a minimum—and I laid stress on the fact that it was a minimum —German air strength then was 1,50o front-line machines. Of course they have increased it since. My right hon. Friend then said that he was advised by his experts—and naturally he could not be expected to ascertain the figures for himself—that that was a very considerable over-statement, or words to that effect, and that the actual number was substantially less. Now I venture to continue to assert the truth of my figures and to repeat that at the very least they had at that date 1,500. They have considerably 1015 more now. Actually, the Germans are believed to possess at least 150 formed squadrons.
I wonder whether the reason why there is a difference between the Government and me upon this point is that I have always counted 12 German machines to the squadron. That is the calculation adopted in France and other countries. The fact, of course, is that the German squadron is organised on the basis of three flights of three machines each, with three machines in reserve. But the three machines in reserve are not reserve machines in the sense that they belong to a different status of efficiency from the other machines. They are in the same class as the other machines, with the same class of pilots. They are absolutely the same as the pilots of the other machines in value and capacity. If, for the purposes of calculation, for what I may call Parliamentary purposes and for making a good show, you count those squadrons at nine machines to the squadron, you get rid of no fewer than 450 machines which are perfectly serviceable machines with first-rate pilots, machines of a modern type, organised in squadrons. They are wiped out as if they did not exist. That makes the figures look better. Whether it has the slightest effect upon the realities, the House can judge for itself.
It is certain that 450 machines of the first order, interchangeable with the best machines in the front-line squadrons, represents something which cannot be wiped out of consideration without the risk of seriously falsifying the data upon which the Govenment and Parliament are forming their opinion. If you take the basis of 150 squadrons at 12 machines to each squadron, it would give a figure of something like 1,800 front-line machines at the present time. I notice that figure is very much the same as the figure quoted in the French Chamber yesterday, and not in any way challenged or disputed, of 2,000 machines for the German first line. If you add to that the squadrons of Luft Hansa machines which could be made available immediately, then the figure of 2,000 machines would be reached. It is clear that our figure, when 100 squadrons are completed, will be barely half that, and when 124 squadrons are completed of course the German figure will have advanced as 1016 their programme proceeds. Therefore, when I said in November last that we had not got two-thirds of their strength, I made, as I have always done on these occasions, a very deliberate understatement. I think one half would be a far truer guide to the relative strength than the figure which I then quoted. Well, that is not parity.
The hon. and gallant Member for Erdington (Wing-Commander Wright) raised a point of great importance. He was bringing some succour to the Government and saying how he rejoiced about the years which the locusts had eaten, but the actual point of substance which he raised was one of the most disquieting that could be raised. He said that the one kind of aircraft which we required above all others was the long-range bombing machine. If that were to be adopted as the test, then the question of parity would recede to a very remote distance, because there is no branch of our service in which the relative comparison is more unfavourable to us than that which the hon. and gallant Gentleman selected as the most important and decisive of all.
I do not intend to detain the House any longer at present except to say that I hope the Government are taking what steps they can to ascertain all the information which comes to hand about air fighting in Spain. Very valuable and instructive events are occurring in those scenes of horror. It is said that German anti-aircraft guns in groups, electrically controlled, have produced extraordinarily good results upon hostile aviation. At any rate, it seems to me that the whole of that matter requires to be most carefully studied, because anything which can increase our defence against air attack would be of enormous advantage. For my part, I believe that the day will come when the ground will decisively master the air and when the raiding aeroplane will be almost certainly clawed down from the skies in flaming ruin. But I fear that perhaps ten years, ten critical and fateful years, will pass before any such security will come and that in the interval only minor palliatives will be at our disposal.
However, I do not intend to keep the House any more, because we shall have many opportunities in this Session of discussing these Air matters. Certainly 1017 it is the most important question next to the maintenance of peace through a sober and wise foreign policy. Next to that the provision of adequate Air defence is the most important question that can possibly be discussed by Parliament and the nation at the present time. We are indebted to the hon. Gentleman for having raised this Debate; the information which has been given by the Minister will be of great help and value for intelligent discussion of this matter in the future; and I trust that we shall resume in much more detail the examination of the state of our Air programme when the Estimates are in due course presented to us.
§ 7.1 p.m.
§ Rear-Admiral Sir Murray Sueter
I join with the right hon. Member for Epping (Mr. Churchill) in congratulating the hon. Member for Duddeston (Mr. Simmonds) on the great service he has done in bringing this Debate before the House. He has made one of the best Air speeches I have ever heard in this House. It shows that he has had good training on the Air Committee upstairs. I congratulate also the Seconder of the Motion on the points he brought forward. I think the whole House listened with great interest to the figures given by the Defence Minister, and we all hope that by July he will have his 124 squadrons. He touched on many other points, among which were the factories. I have visited Messrs. Short's factory, the Bristol Company and the Gloucester Company lately. The Defence Minister says that he has issued instructions for setting up these factories. If you look at the Bristol Company's works you will find that a new factory is being built over five acres of land. That seems to be a big target from the air and it might be better to build small units scattered over the country. I am glad that the Government turned down the Maidenhead site, but it is not a question of whether you fix factories in the Special Areas, of amenities, or of whether the Air Ministry has bought certain land. The chief factor is one of Defence, and when you propose to set up these factories you ought to go into the question of the site from a Defence point of view and get these factories as far North as possible. It may be said that modern aircraft can 1018 reach any factory, but if hostile machines have to cross a large stretch of our territory you are more likely to bring them down. The question of these factory sites ought to be looked into with greater care.
The numbers of machines given by the hon. Member for Duddeston are, I think, fairly accurate when we take Germany's air strength into consideration. In Nuremberg—and I would like to give this figure to the hon. Member who spoke for the Opposition—I was told by a man I knew fairly well and who is in a responsible position, that Germany had 1,800 first-line machines. That was five months ago and they have increased the number since. I think that we may take these figures of the right hon. Member for Epping as very fairly accurate. I have just come back from Malta where I have been on a visit for some months, and I expected on arriving there to find the whole Navy seething with discontent over the Fleet Air Arm question, as the House was informed by the gallant Admiral of the Fleet the Member for North Portsmouth (Sir R. Keyes). I visited many ships in the Fleet and came in contact with many naval airmen and the airmen of the flying service, and I can assure the House that the Royal Air Force officers and the officers of the Fleet Air Arm get on spplendidly together. I have never seen a body of men work in greater harmony. The younger men, as keen as anything, recognise that there are administrative difficulties, and the senior officers do so as well, but they look to the Minister for Co-ordination of Defence, the Secretary of State for Air and the First Lord of the Admiralty to tackle these difficulties and get out a scheme that is workable for everybody. I am certain the Minister for Co-ordination of Defence will do that.
While I was in Malta four flying boats arrived from England, manoeuvred over Sliema, and landed on a fine day in the harbour. Just before then we had had very severe gales and there was a great swell in the harbour when I went aboard the "Glorious." Is it quite fair to send four flying boats to Malta when they have no protection from bad weather? The Marsa Scirocco harbour is open to the winds, and if these boats have to land in bad weather there would be a chance 1019 of their breaking up. Each flying boat costs a good deal of money. I have not got the exact figure, but it is near £40,000. With improvements, the cost may run up to anything like £100,000. These boats would be risked if they had to land in Malta at the present time. Has the Defence Minister gone into Lord Strickland's proposal to build a breakwater at Marsa Scirocco Harbour? Something should be done to protect the harbour from the big swells that come into it. Various figures have been given of the cost of building one of these breakwaters, but it should not be very great. At Marseilles, when I passed, great breakwaters were being built with enormous concrete blocks, and I cannot think that it costs a great deal of money. They are making Marseilles into one of the greatest ports in the world. If France can spend money there I cannot see why we should not spend a little in Malta. This does not concern only the flying boats which may be used for the convoy of our merchant ships but the flying boats which may be used by Imperial Airways. I ask the Minister of Defence to look into this.
The hon. Member for Duddeston said that he would not go into the question of ground forces at all. I want to raise the question of the protection of London. It is now in two hands—the Army and the Royal Air Force. When we set up the first Anti-aircraft Board for the protection of London, to which the right hon. Member for Epping gave approval and encouragement, it was given to the Royal Naval Air Service. We were charged to create this first anti-aircraft defence of London. We ran it with offices over the Admiralty Arch. It was quite successful and worked very well. We set up an area in London and had concentric rings of guns. All went well until the right hon. Member for Epping left the Admiralty. Then criticisms were made, it was thrown overboard and the Army took on the job. It is high time that the whole of the defence of London and our big cities was put under the Air Ministry. I do not know whether they would take on that work. It would add to the efficiency. It has been done in Berlin. I understand that they have a very efficient protection for that city.
1020 The hon. Member for Henley (Sir G. Fox) wanted to know during Questions what warning was to be given to the inhabitants when there was an air raid and whether any precautions are taken to warn people in houses, as they do in Berlin. He informs me that they have people in charge of these buildings to tell the inhabitants that an air raid may be coming. In larger buildings they have a man and his staff to tell people to take the necessary precautions. Also, he tells me, they have a specially constructed shovel for dealing with thermite bombs. The Defence Minister has a great deal of work to do and tremendous responsibilities. It is shown by his speech this afternoon, and I would ask him whether he cannot consult the Prime Minister about taking in the Estimates this year enough money to provide for an Under-Secretary to assist him in all supply work. That would relieve him of a good deal of the details of supplies and allow him to apply his great brain to questions of greater magnitude. If that were done it would lead to the more efficient administration of the fighting services.
§ 7.13 p.m.
§ Lieut.-Commander Fletcher
I am sure that the House listened with the greatest interest to the speech of the Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence. The right hon. Gentleman leads a double life. He is partly a lawyer and partly a composite soldier-sailor-airman. It is very noticeable that yesterday, when we were debating the subject of the dismissed dockyard workmen, which involved a great many legal niceties, the lawyer was not allowed to speak, but the composite soldier-sailor-airman has spoken to the House this afternoon to our very great advantage. He said that he thought that the Mover of this Motion had been farfetched in his statements. I hope for the sake of the Minister's own reputation that that is true and that these statements are far-fetched, for if they are found in the future not to have been far-fetched but based on solid fact, then I am afraid that the reputation of the Minister will be sadly tarnished and the country will have little reason to remember him with gratitude. He apologised every time he mentioned a technical matter and said "I am a babe in these matters." That does great credit to the Minister's 1021 modesty and diffidence, but I am not quite sure that it is comforting to the country to find that one of the great bulwarks—I think "bulwark" is the right word—of our defence professes himself to be a babe whenever he has to refer to any technical matters.
I listened also with the greatest interest to the speech of the hon. Member for Duddeston (Mr. Simmonds) in moving his Motion, and I hope he will allow me add my modicum to the chorus of congratulations when he has received. He referred to the statement of the Prime Minister that a democracy is always two years behind a dictatorship. I am afraid that in the matters which we have been discussing to-day the Prime Minister was an optimist if he thought that he and his Government were only two years behind one of the dictatorships which has been mentioned in this House to-day. If Herr Hitler thought he was anything less than five years ahead of our Government, I think he would get rid of most of the people who are working for him at the present time. I wish very much that the hon. Member for Duddeston had expressed some opinion about the claim of the Germans, which has appeared in the Press this week, that Berlin is now absolutely immune from air attack, and I hope that that subject will be discussed in the House some time, because it has an important bearing on the statement of our own Prime Minister that the bomber is always able to get through.
One other point which was mentioned by the hon. Member was the question of the evacuation of the civil population in the case of air raids. I do not know which Minister or Ministers may be charged with thinking out the plans in that connection, but I hope that, whoever he or they may be, they will go and look at the scenes in some of our railway stations on a bank holiday, when a happy, good-tempered, good-natured crowd is trying to get away for a day's enjoyment. The scene is a shambles and nothing else, and that might give the Minister in question some idea of what the scenes are likely to be if it ever becomes necessary to evacuate the civil population of London under conditions of terror and fear.
The next point to which I would like to address myself is the question of the allocation of money in the Estimates between the Air Force and the Navy. The 1022 Mover of the Motion was not altogether satisfied with what is being done in the way of air defence, but if air defence is to be satisfactorily carried out, the money must be forthcoming. Is the Air Force fairly treated in the allocation of the money between the Air Force and the other Services? The Admiralty has always been the spoilt darling of the Conservative party, and as a result of that treatment the Admiralty always expects to get its way when the Estimates are being considered. The original Estimates for 1936–7 showed the Navy getting £70,000,000 and the Air Force £39,000,000, and even then the Admiralty apparently could not find enough money to buy enough ammunition out of the £70,000,000 to enable it to say "Boo" to the Italian goose in the Mediterranean last year. For 10 years the Admiralty has been telling us that it really has got the air weapon cold, thanks to its protective decks, and blisters, and marvellous anti-aircraft guns, and that it does not fear the menace of the air, but, after all, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and at the end of all this talk about having established superiority over the air weapon, we had the spectacle of the Navy scuttling out of Malta in terror of Italian bombers. Sir John Salmond told us in 1935 that hostile shore bases existed from which air forces could lay Malta in ruins in 48 hours. The Navy apparently took no notice of that warning, but Sir John Salmond's words proved true last year.
We know from the Prime Minister that a bomber can always get through. The Prime Minister is of course never wrong about these matters, but if, as he says, there is no defence against air attack, then we have to rely upon retaliation, and can we effectively retaliate if we are only aiming at parity in the air? Can we defend London, the best and biggest and brightest air target in the world? We have all heard of the German general who came to London and was heard to mutter, "What a city to loot." But there is not a foreign airman now who comes to London who does not go away saying, "What a city to bomb." Yet the Air Force gets the smallest share of the money which should be used to prevent a crippling attack upon this country from the air. Remember, we shall have no chance of building up superiority after 1023 a surprise attack has informed this country that we are at war. The war will be decided with the forces which are available upon that day. I think the want of clear thinking on this subject of the relative importance of the air weapon and the Navy was displayed in all its naked simplicity by the First Lord of the Admiralty in a speech which he made at Southampton on 10th July last year, when he asked if development of the air arm had not led us to forget "the existence of the sea," and laid down the doctrine that, while wishing to see "all possible progress made in the air, it was upon the sea that this country and this Empire depend for their existence." He said:This is the overwhelming reason that makes the reconstruction of our fleet so vitally important. We are now faced with rebuilding what virtually amounts to a new fleet.Between 1922 and 1936 we spent £776,000,000 on the Navy and £225,000,000 only on the Air Force, and yet the Prime Minister and the First Lord are now telling the world that our Navy has got to be rebuilt. During those 14 years, while those colossal sums were being spent upon the Navy, the air weapon was growing steadily in potentiality. Yet the Navy had nearly half the money spent on defence and more than three times as much as the Air Force had. The First Lord tells us that the Navy must be rebuilt if we are to safeguard our imports of food during war, but he has never given us any reasons whatever for holding that opinion, and how can be reconcile that statement with the development of the air arm? This House has never yet been given any explanation as to how the ships bringing our food and our fuel will be guarded from air attack. How is protection to be afforded to those ships by the Navy alone?
What sort of a Navy is it that the First Lord is envisaging? We were five times as strong as Italy at the time that the Admiralty hoisted the white flag in the Mediterranean. The First Lord told us in June last year that had our Navy been twice as strong as it was, there would have been no Italo-Abyssinian crisis. According to the First Lord's statement, he is contemplating a Navy ten times as strong as the Italian Navy, 1024 but where is the money to build that to come from? He said at Southampton:To my naval advisers there is no question of air power and naval power being rivals,but when our naval power came into rivalry with the Italian air power last year, it was our Navy which retired. How does the First Lord reconcile that statement, that there is no rivalry, with the following passage from his own speech, in which he said:Air power has made what was once the most secure island in the world the most vulnerable society in Europe. For the first time in history the heart of our Empire has become vulnerable.But in spite of these warnings he went on to speak of "our great programme of air reinforcement" yet only expressed the determination to reach air parity with the strongest air Power. He wants a Navy ten times as strong as the Italian Navy, but he only wants an Air Force equal to the Italian Air Force, although it is from the air that this blow against the heart of the Empire is to come, on his own admission. Could inconsistency possibly go further? The First Lord is one of those politicians who flit from office to office, never doing very well or very badly in any of them and always willing to come back "to oblige" after being given his notice. He was at the Air Ministry from 1922 to 1924 and from 1924 again until 1929, and when, in his own words, we were "the most vulnerable society in Europe," he, as Air Minister, allowed our Air Force to fall to the fifth or sixth place in the world. The First Lord says there is no rivalry between the sea and air power, and yet he admitted at Southampton that it is from the air and not from the sea that "the mortal blow might be struck at the heart of the Empire."
In spite of this statement of the First Lord's, it is high time that the allocation of money between the Defence Services be reconsidered and that the Air Force get a fairer allocation of the funds than they have been doing up to date. Unless this is done, the wish of the Mover of this Motion to see our air defence put upon a more secure footing will not be realised. In 1929 the Government said that we must have "a Home defence Air Force of sufficient strength to protect us against the strongest air force within striking distance." They have announced programme after programme since then, 1025 and again to-day we have heard the same story, that we are behindhand with these programmes as we have been behindhand with them ever since 1923. Let us hope that 1937 will see an end of these delays and that in 1938 we may be able to say that this delay, this policy of ever late and never up-to-date and always too late, has been finally ended.
§ 7.28 p.m.
§ Lieut.-Colonel Heneage
I do not think the House would like to leave this subject without someone mentioning one side of it which has not, in my opinion, had due attention, and that is the question of ground defence. I am sure the House is aware of the tremendous efforts that are being made by the Air Ministry to strengthen the City of London by raising aircraft units. I am sorry that we have not been able to ask the Secretary of State for War or the Minister for the Coordination of Defence how the changeover from infantry to anti-aircraft units is getting on. The last speaker mentioned the vital question as to whether London is safe in its ground defence. It is possible that it is, and I only hope it is, but that should be our aim, so that any air Power attacking this country should not be able to attack it without getting pulled down from the skies. I would ask the Minister responsible for the antiaircraft units to see that their housing is adequate.
There have been complaints all over the place that the schemes for housing are inadequate, and I put forward the suggestion, as many other people have done, that if you are going to attract and keep Territorials into your anti-aircraft units, you must treat them properly. I am afraid the scheme which is being put forward now does not show that grasp of the situation which we would wish and meet the views which the commanding officers have put forward to the War Office. It would be thoroughly worth while to deal with this matter properly, and if you do, you will not only get your recruits, but you will be able to keep them. There are many subjects to which the right hon. Gentleman should address his attention, such as the adequacy of equipment, where these new guns are being placed, whether they are being put in the right places for training, as well as fighting and so on. If time permitted—
§ It being Half-past Seven of the Clock, the Debate stood adjourned.