HC Deb 11 December 1941 vol 376 cc1686-700
Mr. Lees-Smith

Can the Prime Minister now make his promised statement on the war in the Far East and elsewhere?

The Prime Minister

A great many things of far-reaching and fundamental importance have happened in the last few weeks. Most of them have happened in the last few days, and I think it opportune, in reply to my right hon. Friend, to give the House the best account I can of where we stand and how we are.

I will begin with the Battle of Libya. A lot of people in easy positions have been very much down upon the Military Spokesman in Cairo. They accuse him of having taken unduly favourable views of our position at different dates. I am not going to apologise for the Military Spokesman in Cairo. I have read every day the statements he has made, and I have also read all the reports which come continually from the front. I think the Military Spokesman in Cairo has been pretty well justified in what he has said, having regard to how things stood, or seemed to stand, at each moment when he said it. Of course, it is quite a difficult thing to have a Military Spokesman at all. It would be much more convenient to the military Commander to remain quite silent. But then it is said, "Are we to know nothing of what is going on? Is it to be kept to a small secret circle? Is nothing to be told to the public, is nothing to be told to the Empire, is nothing to be told to the Army?" Remember, there is a very great army in the Middle East. Only a small part of it is able to fight in this Battle of Libya, but all are watching with very great interest what occurs. I do not think that you could go on the basis of fighting for three weeks or a month with no information being given by our side except in very guarded communiqué's, and the only stories being told coming out from the enemy, who are not always entirely truthful in their accounts. Therefore, I am in favour of the Military Spokesman in Cairo, and I think he has discharged an extremely difficult task wisely and well. Also, if anybody based their hopes on what he said, that man would find to-day that he has not been misled. There might be ups and downs, there might be disappointments, there would certainly be the ebb and flow of battle, but, in the main, news founded upon the daily output of the Military Spokesman would be found to be thoroughly in accordance with where we are at the present time.

It must be remembered that although here at Westminster, and in Fleet Street, it has been sought to establish the rule that nothing must be said about the war and its prospects which is not thoroughly discouraging, and although I must admit that the British public seem to like their food cooked that way, the Military Spokesman, addressing a large Army, might do more harm than good if he always put things at their worst and never allowed buoyancy, hope, confidence and resolve to infect his declarations. There ought to be a fair recognition of the difficulties of a task of that kind. This defence also, applies to the admirable official communiqués which have been issued by General Auchinleck's headquarters, which have given a very informing and effective picture of the confused struggle which has been proceeding.

The Libyan offensive did not take the course which its authors expected, though it will reach the end at which they aimed. Very few set-piece battles that have to be prepared over a long period of time work out in the way they are planned and imagined beforehand. The unexpected intervenes at every stage. The willpower of the enemy impinges itself upon the prescribed or hoped-for course of events. Victory is traditionally elusive. Accidents happen. Mistakes are made. Sometimes right things turn out wrong, and quite often wrong things turn out right. War is very difficult especially to those who are taking part in it or conducting it. Still, when all is said and done, on 18th November General Auchinleck set out to destroy the entire armed forces of the Germans and Italians in Cyrenaica, and now, on nth December, I am bound to say that it seems very probable he will do so. The picture that was made by the Commanders beforehand was of a much more rapid battle than has actually taken place. They had the idea which I expressed to the House, that the whole German armoured forces would be encountered by our armour in a mass at the outset, and that the battle would be decided one way or the other in a few hours. This might have been the best chance for the enemy. However, the sudden surprise and success of our advance prevented any such main trial of strength between the armoured forces. Almost at the first bound we reached right up to Sidi Rezegh, dividing the enemy's armoured forces and throwing them into confusion. In consequence of this, a very large number of fierce, detached actions took place over an immense space of desert country, and the battle, though equally intense, became both dispersed and protracted. It became a widespread and confused battle of extremely high-class combatants, mounted upon mechanised transport and fighting in barren lands with the utmost vigour and determination. The commander of the 21st German Armoured Division, General von Ravenstein, whom we captured, expressed himself very well when he said, "This warfare is a paradise to the tactician but a nightmare to the quartermaster."

Although we have large armies standing in the Middle East, we have never been able to apply in our desert advance infantry forces which were numerically equal to those which the enemy had gradually accumulated on the coast. We have always been fighting with smaller numbers pushed out into the desert than he has been able to gather there, over a course of months, in his coastal garrisons. For us the foundation of everything was supply and mechanised transport, and this was provided on what hitherto had been considered a fantastic scale. Also, we had to rely upon our superiority in armour and in the air. But most of all in this struggle everything depended for us upon an absolutely unrelenting spirit of the offensive, not Only in the generals but in the troops and in every man. That has been forthcoming; it is still forthcoming. All the troops have fought all the time in every circumstance of fatigue and hardship with one sincere, insatiable desire, to engage the enemy and destroy him if possible, tank for tank, man to man and hand to hand. And this is what has carried us on. But behind all this process working out at so many different points and in so many separate combats has been the persisting will-power of the Commander-in-Chief, General Auchinleck. Without that will-power we might very easily have subsided to the defensive and lost the precious initiative, to which, here in this Libyan theatre, we have for the first time felt ourselves strong enough to make a claim.

The first main crisis of the battle was reached between 24th and 26th November. On the 24th General Auchinleck proceeded to the battle headquarters, and on the 26th he decided to relieve General Cunningham and to appoint Major-General Ritchie, a comparatively junior officer, to the command of the 8th Army in his stead. This action was immediately endorsed by the Minister of State and by myself. General Cunningham has rendered brilliant service in Abyssinia and is also responsible for the planning and organisation of the present offensive in Libya, which began, as I have explained, with surprise and with success and which has now definitely turned the corner. He has since been reported by the medical authorities to be suffering from serious overstrain and has been granted sick leave. Since 26th November, therefore, the 8th Army has been commanded, with great vigour and skill, by General Ritchie, but during nearly the whole time General Auchinleck himself has been at the battle headquarters. Although the battle is not yet finished, I have no hesitation in saying that for good or ill it is General Auchinleck's battle. Watching these affairs, as it is my duty to do, from day to day, and often from hour to hour; and seeing the seamy side of the reports as they come in, I have felt my confidence in General Auchinleck grow continually, and although everything is hazardous in war, I believe we have found In him, as we have also found in General Wavell, a military figure of the first order.

The newspapers have given full and excellent accounts of the strangely interspersed fighting in which the British Armoured Corps, the New Zealand Division, the South African Divisions, an Indian Division, the British 70th Division and the rest of the Tobruk garrison, including the Poles, all played an equally valiant and active part.

At the beginning of the offensive I told the House that we should for the first time be fighting the Germans on equal terms in modern weapons. This was quite true. Naturally there have been some unpleasant surprises, and also some awkward things have happened, as might be expected beforehand. Those who fight the Germans fight a stubborn and resourceful foe, a foe in every way worthy of the doom prepared for him. Some of the German tanks carried, as we knew, a six-pounder gun which, though it of course carries many fewer shots, is sometimes more effective than the gun with which our tanks are mainly armed. Our losses in tanks were a good deal heavier than we expected, and it may be that at the outset, before it was disorganised, the enemy's recovery process for damaged vehicles worked better than ours. I am not so sure of it, but it may be so. It is very good at that. However, we had a good superiority in numbers of armoured vehicles, and in the long rough and tumble we gradually obtained mastery so far as the first phase of the battle is concerned.

Our Air Force was undoubtedly superior throughout in numbers and quality to the enemy and although the Germans have drawn in the most extravagant manner upon reinforcements from many quarters, including the Russian front, that superiority has been more than maintained. The greatest satisfaction is expressed by the troops and by the Military Authorities about the way in which they have been helped and protected by the action of the Royal Air Force. None of the complaints in the previous enter- prises have reached us here upon that score. Like other people concerned, I had hoped for a quick decision, but it may well be that this wearing down battle will be found in the end to have inflicted a deeper injury upon the enemy than if it had all been settled by manoeuvre and in a few days. In no other way but in this Libyan attack could a second front have been brought into action under conditions mare costly to the enemy and more favourable to ourselves. This will be realised when it is remembered that about a half, and sometimes more than a half, of everything, men, munitions and fuel, which the enemy sends to Africa is sunk before it gets there, by our submarines, cruisers and destroyers, and by the activities of our Air Force, acting both from Libya and from Malta. In this way, the prolongation of the battle may not be without its compensations to us. From the point of view of drawing weight from the vast Russian front, the continuance of the fighting in its severity is not to be regarded as an evil.

The first stage of the battle is now over. The enemy has been driven out of all the positions which barred our westward advance, positions which he had most laboriously fortified. Everything has been swept away except certain pockets at Bardia and Halfaya, which are hopelessly cut off, and will be mopped up, or starved out, in due course. It may be definitely said that Tobruk has been relieved—or, as I prefer to state it, has been disengaged. The enemy, still strong but severely mauled and largely stripped of his armour, is retreating to a defensive line to the west of the Tobruk forts, and the clearance of the approaches to Tobruk, and the establishment of our air power thus far forward to the west in new airfields, enables the great supply depots of Tobruk, which have been carefully built up, to furnish support for the second phase of our offensive, with great economy in our lines of communication. Substantial reinforcements and fresh troops are available close at hand Many of the units which were most heavily engaged have been relieved and their places taken by others, although we have to keep the numbers down strictly to the level which our vast transportation facilities permit. The enemy, who has fought with the utmost stubborness and enterprise, has paid the price of his valour, and it may well be that the second phase will gather more easily the fruits of the first than has been our experience in the fighting which has taken place so far. As the House knows, I make it a rule never to prophesy, or to promise, or to guarantee future results, but I will go so far on this occasion as to say that all danger of the Army. of the Nile not being able to celebrate Christmas and the New Year in Cairo has been decisively removed.

Before I leave the purely British aspect of the war, I must report to the House the progress of the Battle of the Atlantic. When I last spoke on the subject, I said that in the four months ending with October, making allowance for new building but not for sea captures or United States assistance, the net loss of our Mercantile Marine had been reduced to a good deal less than one-fifth of what it was in the four months ending in June—a tremendous saving. As these were the very months when Hitler had boasted that his strangulation of our seaborne supplies would be at its height, we were entitled to rest with some solid assurance upon that fact. The House was right to treat the fact as of great importance, because these matters of sea power and sea transport involve our lives. The month of November has now gone by, and, without revealing actual figures, I am glad to say that it fully maintained the great recovery of the previous four months. In the first 10 days of this month, we have also found that the progress and position have been well maintained. These are the foundations upon which we live and carry forward our cause.

Now I turn to Russia. Six weeks or a month ago people were wondering whether Moscow would be taken, or Leningrad in the north, or how soon the Germans would overrun the Caucasus and seize the oilfields of Baku. We had to consider what we could do to prepare ourselves on the long line from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean. Since then a striking change has become evident. The enormous power of the Russian Armies, and the glorious steadfastness and energy with which they have resisted the frightful onslaught made upon them, have now been made plain. On the top of this has come the Russian winter; and on the top of that, the Russian Air Force. Hitler forced his armies into this barren and devastated land. He has everywhere been brought to a stand- still. On a large portion of the front he is in retreat. The sufferings of his troops are indescribable. Their losses have been immense. The cold snow, the piercing wind which blows across the icy spaces, the ruined towns and villages, the long lines of communications, assailed by dauntless guerilla warriors, the stubborn unyielding resistance with which the Russian soldiers and the Russian people have defended every street, every house, every yard of their country—all these facts have inflicted upon the German armies and the German nation a bloody prop, almost unequalled in the history of war. But this is not the end of the winter: it is the beginning. The Russians have now regained definite superiority in the air over large parts of the front. They have the great cities in which to live. Their soldiers are habituated to the severity of their native climate. They are inspired by the feeling of advance after long retreat and of vengeance after monstrous injury.

In Hitler's launching of the Nazi campaign upon Russia we can already see, after less than six months of fighting, that he made one of the outstanding blunders of history, and the results so far realised constitute an event of cardinal importance in the final decision of the war. Nevertheless, we must remember the great munitions capacities which have been lost to Russia by the German invasion, and our pledges to the Russians for the heavy monthly quotas of tanks, aeroplanes and vital raw materials which we have made. Although, as we can all see, our position has changed in various important ways, not all in a favourable direction, we must faithfully and punctually fulfil the very serious undertakings we have made to Russia.

A week ago the three great spheres, Libya, the Atlantic and Russia, would almost have covered the scene of war with which we were concerned. Since then it has taken an enormous and very grave expansion. The Japanese Government, or ruling elements in Japan, have made a cold-blooded, calculated, violent, treacherous attack upon the United States and ourselves. The United States have declared war upon their assailants, and we and the Royal Netherlands Government have done the same. A large part of the Western hemisphere, State after State, Parliament after Parliament, is following the United States. It is a great tribute to the respect for international law and for the independence of less powerful countries which the United States has shown for many years, particularly under the Presidency of Mr. Roosevelt, that so many other States in Central and South America and in the West Indies, powerful, wealthy, populous communities, are in the process of throwing in their lot with the great Republic of North America.

It will not stop here. It seems to me quite certain that Japan, when she struck her treacherous and dastardly blow at the United States, counted on the active support of the German Nazis and of the Italian Fascists. It is, therefore, very likely that the United States will be faced with the open hostility of Germany, Italy and Japan. We are in all this too. Our foes are bound by the consequences of their ambitions and of their crimes to seek implacably the destruction of the English-speaking world and all it stands for, which is the supreme barrier against their designs. If this should be their resolve, if they should declare themselves resolved to compass the destruction of the English-speaking world, I know that I speak for the United States as well as for the British Empire when I say that we would all rather perish than be conquered. And on this basis, putting it at its worst, there are quite a lot of us to be killed.

The Generalissimo, Chiang-Kai-Shek, has sent me a message announcing his decision to declare war against Japan and also against Japan's partners in guilt, Germany and Italy. He has further assured me that the whole of the resources of China are at the disposal of Great Britain and the United States. China's cause is henceforth our cause. The country which has faced the Japanese assault for over four years with undaunted courage is indeed a worthy Ally, and it is as Allies that from now on we will go forward together to victory, not only over Japan alone, but over the Axis and all its works.

The Japanese onslaught has brought upon the United States and Great Britain very serious injuries to our naval power. In my whole experience I do not remember any naval blow so heavy or so painful as the sinking of the "Prince of Wales" and the "Repulse" on Monday last. These two vast, powerful ships constituted an essential feature in our plans for meeting the new Japanese danger as it loomed against us in the last few months. These ships had reached the right point at the right moment and were in every respect suited to the task assigned to them. In moving to attack the Japanese transports and landing-craft which were disembarking the invaders of Siam and Malaya at the Kra Isthmus or thereabouts, Admiral Phillips was undertaking a thoroughly sound, well-considered offensive operation, not indeed free from risk, but not any different in principle from many similar operations we have repeatedly carried out in the North Sea and in the Mediterranean. Both ships were sunk by repeated air attacks by bombers and by torpedo-aircraft. These attacks were delivered with skill and determination. There were two high-level attacks, both of which scored hits, and three waves of torpedo-aircraft of nine in each wave which struck each of our ships with several torpedoes. There is no reason to suppose that any new weapon or explosives were employed or any bombs or torpedoes of exceptional size. The continued waves of attack achieved their purpose, and both ships capsized and sank, having destroyed seven of the attacking aircraft.

The escorting destroyers came immediately to the rescue and have now arrived at Singapore crowded with survivors. There is reason to believe that the loss of life has been less heavy than was at first feared. But I regret that Admiral Sir Tom Phillips is among those reported missing. He was well known to us at Whitehall, and his long service at the Admiralty in a central position as Vice-Chief of the Naval Staff made him many friends, who mourn his loss. Personally, I regarded him as one of the ablest brains in the naval Service, and I feel honoured to have established personal friendship with him. On his way out I was most anxious that he should see General Smuts, and so was he, and a long interview was arranged between that great statesman and a Naval Officer whose long service at or near the summit of the Admiralty had made him acquainted with every aspect of the war. It is a very heavy loss that we have suffered. I hope that in a short time it will be possible to inform the relatives of the many who have safely arrived at Singapore from both these great ships. Still, the loss of life has been most melancholy.

Naturally, I should not be prepared to discuss the resulting situation in the Far East and in the Pacific or the measures which must be taken to restore it. It may well be that we shall have to suffer considerable punishment, but we shall defend ourselves everywhere with the utmost vigour in close co-operation with the United States and the Netherlands. The naval power of Britain and the United States was very greatly superior—and is still largely superior—to the combined forces of the three Axis Powers. But no one must underrate the gravity of the loss which has been inflicted in Malaya and Hawaii, or the power of the new antagonist who has fallen upon us, or the length of time it will take to create, marshal and mount the great force in the Far East which will be necessary to achieve absolute victory.

We have a very hard period to go through, and a new surge of impulse will be required, and will be forthcoming, from everybody. We must, as I have said, faithfully keep our engagements to Russia in supplies, and at the same time we must expect, at any rate for the next few months, that the volume of American supplies reaching Britain and the degree of help given by the United States Navy will be reduced. The gap must be filled, and only our own efforts will fill it. I cannot doubt, however, now that the 130,000,000 people in the United States have bound themselves to this war, that once they have settled down to it and have bent themselves to it—as they will —as their main purpose in life, then the flow of munitions and of aid of every kind will vastly exceed anything that could have been expected on the peacetime basis that has ruled up to the present. Not only the British Empire now but the United States are fighting for life; Russia is fighting for life, and China is fighting for life. Behind these four great combatant communities are ranged all the spirit and hopes of all the conquered countries in Europe, prostrate under the cruel domination of the foe. I said the other day that four-fifths of the human race were on our side. It may well be an under-statement. Just these gang? and cliques of wicked men and their military or party organisations have been able to bring these hideous evils upon mankind. It would indeed bring shame upon our generation if we did not teach them a lesson which will not be forgotten in the records of a thousand years.

Admiral of the Fleet Sir Roger Keyes

May I first of all express my grief at the loss of an old friend, Admiral Sir Tom Phillips? May I ask the Prime Minister whether, in view of the very grave anxiety in this House and throughout the country at the loss of His Majesty's Ship "Prince of Wales" and His Majesty's Ship "Repulse," and in view of the erroneous deductions which appear to have been drawn from that misfortune, he can give an assurance that his expert advisers are still of the opinion that the battleship is still the foundation of sea power, and that they are confident that the "Prince of Wales" was as well protected against under-water and air attack as the "Bismarck"?

Mr. Speaker

I do not think this is the occasion to discuss that.

Sir R. Keyes

With all respect to you, Mr. Speaker, I am asking the question in order to allay the anxiety of the people.

Mr. Speaker

I think the hon. and gallant Member is raising a quite different issue. The Prime Minister has made a statement, and what the hon. and gallant Member now wishes to raise would mean a prolonged discussion, and we could hardly go into that.

Sir R. Keyes

I accept your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, but I would like to ask the Prime Minister whether it is a fact that these ships were acting without the support of land-based or seaborne fighters?

The Prime Minister

I will give a fuller account when full reports have been received, but I do not think my hon. and gallant Friend ought to be in too great a hurry to assume that the friend to whom he has just paid a tribute—who was a most skilful naval officer—acted otherwise than on sound naval lines.

Sir R. Keyes

I am not suggesting for one moment that he did.

Sir Hugh O'Neill

Is the Prime Minister satisfied that these great ships had sufficient air protection escort, and can he say whether the seven aircraft destroyed were destroyed by anti-aircraft or by our own aeroplanes?

The Prime Minister

They were destroyed by anti-aircraft fire.

Major-General Sir Alfred Knox

Have we adequate aircraft for the Navy?

The Prime Minister

We have only a certain amount of aircraft to meet the many engagements which we have to face. We certainly sent as many reinforcements as we could many months ago to the waters where we anticipated this new danger. I cannot say that our Air Force anywhere is as strong as I would like to see it. Although I had not intended to go into details, it is early days to form an opinion of this episode. I understand it was not possible for shore-based aircraft to give the support to the ships that had been hoped for, because of the attack which had been made on their aerodromes. The Admiral proceeded on the basis that clouds which were very low afforded effective protection for the offensive stroke that was made. For a certain period in the operation a rift in the clouds enabled the ships to be discerned, and on the way back conditions became favourable to air attack. I cannot, however, give any undertaking that occasions may not arise when ships may not have to engage without having either carrier support or being so close to the land that they can have effective shore-based air support. That is a matter which has to be judged on the spot by the responsible officers, and my opinion, on expert authority, is that what was done was rightly and wisely done and risked in the circumstances.

Sir Joseph Lamb

May I ask you, Mr. Speaker, whether it is your intention to allow this matter to be debated, and whether it would not be very much wiser if all questions which Members wanted to put to the Prime Minister were first put to you Sir, in writing?

Mr. Speaker

Under these circumstances we cannot have a Debate.

Commander Sir Archibald Southby

On a point of Order, Mr. Speaker. I think that on a previous occasion you said that you would allow reasonable questions to be put to the Prime Minister when he made a statement which was not on a Motion for the Adjournment. The Prime Minister has now made a very important statement, which, had it been made on a Motion for the Adjournment, would have been debated. If hon. Members wish to ask questions arising out of something which he said, are they not allowed to do so?

Mr. Speaker

There is a limit to the number of questions I can allow. Two or three questions may be permissible, but there must be some restriction.

Sir P. Harris

Would it not be wiser, if questions of strategy have to be discussed, to discuss them in a Secret Session?

Mr. Bellenger

May I ask for your guidance, Mr. Speaker? The Prime Minister has made a statement, with much of which the House will have great sympathy and perhaps be in agreement, but with certain features of which some hon. Members may disagree. Although I do not ask for the possibility of debating that statement, if the Prime Minister makes controversial statements, as, for example, when he discussed the Cairo spokesman, is there not to be some opportunity for hon. Members to express their opinions and perhaps to offer a few observations to the Prime Minister on the matter?

Mr. Speaker

I am now concerned only with the question before the House. Other occasions arise when there can be full Debate, but this is not the occasion for that.

The Prime Minister

With the leave of the House, may I say that I thought I was meeting the wishes of the House in making this statement? I thought I was being respectful to the House and following a course which it approved. I could quite easily have made the statement on the broadcast, and then I should not have been exposed to questions. I am always in the hands of the House. If hon. Members wish me to make these statements to them, I shall be delighted to do so, but if hon. Members think I had better not, I will wait until some other time.

Mr. Bellenger

I should have liked to put one or two points to the Prime Minister. I submit to you, Mr. Speaker, that this is an important matter. The fortunes of our country are at stake. I suggest to you that in future, although we would welcome statements by the Prime Minister, they should be put on a regular basis so that other Members may have an opportunity of expressing their views briefly on what the Prime Minister has said.


Read the First time; to be read a Second time upon the next Sitting Day, and to be printed. [Bill 8.]