§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn." — [Mr. James Stuart.]
§ Mr. Lees-Smith (Keighley)
The attention of the country is, at the present moment, mainly concentrated on the Eastern Mediterranean, and I wish to confine my remarks mainly, though not wholly, to that area of the war. I may say that I should be very surprised if there should be a rancorous Debate on this subject, and I think it will be found that this Debate will be useful. There is quite a number of questions in the public mind and I shall endeavour to formulate those questions as shortly as possible. I think that, at the end of the Debate, it will be found that very useful purposes will have been served, if the Prime Minister has the opportunity of giving such answers to those questions as he thinks are in the national interest at this moment.
In regard to this Eastern Mediterranean theatre of war, we must keep the background of recent events in our minds.
64 For very many months we had, in this area, a spectacular series of victories, during which we defeated the Italian Fleet, broke up the Italian forces in Libya, destroyed the Italian Empire in Abyssinia, Eritrea and Somaliland and opened the Suez Canal to American supplies. Looking back for some months we find all that record in the background of more recent events. Recently, German armoured divisions have made a disturbing appearance on the West of Egypt, we have evacuated Greece and the evacuation of Crete has given the enemy considerable freedom of action in the Ægean and the Dardanelles and, more important than that, it will undoubtedly limit the action of the British Fleet in preventing supplies for the German Panzer Divisions getting from Sicily across the Mediterranean. I think it will be useful to have a Debate like that on which we are now entering, in order to elucidate the question of whether any of these recent events have been due to mistakes from which conclusions can be drawn as to future operations.
Before stating the questions which I want to ask, there is one fact which has to be borne in mind throughout. In all this area of warfare, the overriding difficulty is not mistakes, but the simple fact that General Wavell has to conduct a number of campaigns simultaneously, in each one of which he is out-numbered and out-machined. That is due to the facts of the past. It seems to me that he always has to be like one of the jugglers one sees at shows throwing up half-a-dozen balls at the same time. The whole possibility of his avoiding serious reverses has depended upon the most precise timing by which it has been necessary for him to bring one campaign to a conclusion and transfer his troops just before the other campaign reached its peak. I am not surprised that there may have been certain breakdowns in the interval. As a matter of fact, looking back to the past, I think we can congratulate General Wavell and congratulate ourselves that the campaign in Abyssinia, Eritrea and Somaliland was practically concluded while the Germans were still held in Libya, and that the campaign in Iraq has been practically wound up just before the campaign in Syria has begun. Therefore, I say that I shall not be surprised if the answer that is given to a number of the 65 questions which I shall now ask lies in the fact I have just pointed out, that you cannot have British forces and British machines everywhere at the same time.
To turn to Crete, certainly I shall not question the decision to defend that island. This country is at the moment fighting a great delaying action, which began with the fall of France and will continue right into next year until the superiority of material is on our side. It is a delaying action of almost two years, and during that delaying action it is absolutely essential that Hitler should be held up and delayed everywhere where resistance is possible. In the case of a campaign such as that in Crete, we may all be very wise after the event, but, in fact, nobody could foresee what would be the issue of a battle for which there was no precedent in the history of war. We know what our own losses have been, but we do not yet know to what extent Germany's striking power has been affected and to what extent that may influence the result of the other campaigns to which the war has already moved.
I will try to put shortly what I think are the public anxieties arising out of the Crete campaign. I have no doubt that the right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister will reply to such of these questions as may be desirable. The first question is the most obvious one. We had been in control of the three aerodromes at Malemi, Heraklion and Retimo for about seven months, and yet, at quite an early stage of the battle, our Air Force was withdrawn because of the lack of aerodromes. Undoubtedly, it was the withdrawal of our Air Force from Crete which led to the reverse; and of course, the public wants to know why. I have seen the explanations which have been given. The main explanation is that when you are operating from three small aerodromes and the enemy are operating from nine large aerodromes within striking distance, both your Air Force and your aerodromes may be driven out by sheer weight of numbers. That is the main explanation I have seen; but if that be the explanation, it leads to further questions. That possibility must have been foreseen all along; and it raises the questions, Was it impossible to enlarge those aerodromes during the seven months, was it impossible to create new 66 aerodromes during the same period? Those are obvious questions.
The other series of questions arise from this fact. It is clear that, although we had ourselves evacuated the aerodromes, if nevertheless we had been able to deny them to the enemy, to make it impossible for the enemy to take them, even then the battle might have been saved, because I think it is pretty clear that even after our Air Force was withdrawn, it was a very closely-run thing as to whether we should not still be able to hold the situation. But it is clear that it was the capture of Malemi aerodrome which was the turning point in the battle. This raises the questions whether it would not have been possible in the intervening period to fortify those aerodromes, to provide them with tanks in sufficient number and of sufficient size to attack any forces which landed, to mine the aerodromes in advance so as to blow them up and make them very difficult for landing, and to cover them with heavy artillery which would break to pieces any forces which actually occupied them. Those are questions that have been asked. There is another question. After our Air Force was withdrawn, there was an interval before the alternative air support from Egypt came upon the scene. There was an interval of 48 hours, and, of course, those 48 hours were far more vital to the operations than any 48 hours which came afterwards; but during those 48 hours we had no Air Force over Crete. I think those are the most important issues which are in the public mind.
There are, then, one or two other matters that are taken from the reports of the battle. It is clear that in the actual land fighting the main weapon seems to have been the Tommy gun. It is rather surprising that in this weapon the Germans who had to land from the air were better equipped than our own Forces which had been there for seven months. I see that our troops very quickly learned the use of the Tommy guns when they had them, but they relied largely upon those which they captured from the Germans. There is then a last question which has been put to me by one who is very well acquainted with Crete. Why was not more use made of the Cretan fighters, as distinct from the Greeks? I have been told that there are at least 20,000 Cretans between 20 and 40 years of 67 age. I have been told that they are very tough, that they are superbly courageous, that they are well accustomed to guerilla warfare in their own hills, and that most of them are very good shots. As a matter of fact, they had been disarmed before the war began, during one of those insurrectionary periods through which Crete used to pass. Therefore they had no rifles when the war began, whereas if, during the intervening seven months, we had provided them with rifles, they would have been an immense accession to our fighting powers.
To sum up, I would say that the general impression which is widely felt is that this war in the Middle East was not viewed sufficiently as a whole, and that there was insufficient long-distance foresight in the situation which might arise in Crete. It could have been envisaged since Italy attacked Greece. If Italy had failed, the Germans could not have allowed that failure to stand, and if Germany herself had conquered Greece, then Crete was very obviously the next strategic stage in her advance. It is suggested that although these possibilities were foreseen, it was assumed that Germany would attack by the more orthodox method of an invasion by sea, with which the British Fleet could deal, and with which the British Fleet did deal, but that we were unprepared for the new technique which Germany adopted, which we had to deal with by hasty improvisations which came too late in the day. That is the summary which, I think, can be made of the questions being asked by the public on this small-scale campaign.
Apart from an inquiry into why certain things happened, a Debate like this will be quite useful if we bear wider considerations in mind. After all, this was a very novel campaign, and I think we can profitably discuss whether there are not certain conclusions which can be drawn from it with regard to the defences of our own Island. Surely that is a subject into which this House can very profitably inquire. We have all read Goering's order to his air forces after his capture of Crete.. He stated that the capture of Crete has shown there is no unconquerable island. Undoubtedly the German methods, as applied to Crete, have been carefully worked out to the last detail. They have been scientific, absolutely regardless of 68 life, and they have been unorthodox. It would be perilous if we ignored the possibility that some of these methods might be used in an invasion of this Island. I have heard a number of discussions on the conclusions which can be drawn from what has happened in Crete in regard to the defence of this Island. I have noticed that the answer which has been given is that Germany's success is Crete was due to the fact that she obtained complete mastery of the air, and that in an attack on this country she would not have that mastery, and therefore there are no lessons to be learned and no parallel to be drawn in an attack on this Island.
I am not satisfied with that summary of the situation, although it has been made in very authoritative papers. Germany has adopted novel methods, and one of them, which has particularly impressed me as probably altering our ideas about the defence of this country, is her use of crash-landing aeroplanes. I gather from accounts of the battle that so far as parachute troops are concerned they are not regarded as being very dangerous, but that it is the crash-landing aeroplanes which are the danger. Hitherto it has been assumed that if air-borne troop carriers were to land, they would require fairly suitable ground, but experience in Crete has shown this view to be obsolete. The air-borne troop carriers used in Crete were furnished with old and derelict engines which were regarded as quite good enough, and were practically constructed of plywood. They carried a number of men in organised formations, and these planes were crashed in the most surprising places. If a certain proportion of the troops emerged, they were organised into formations at very short notice. I have heard that this type of troop-carrying aeroplane, which is required to make a single journey only, can be produced in Germany at the rate of 100 per week. I am not talking about gliders. This, I think, affects our plans for dealing with an invasion in two ways. The Government must have made calculations on the number of troops which will come by sea, and the number of invading troops which will come by air. It seems to me that experience in Crete shows that the number of divisions which may invade us from the air may be very much larger than the number we have hitherto estimated, and that our plans should be adapted to meet 69 that situation. The other fact which emerges is that formations from troop carriers come into action as soon as they land, and that they land as formations. Formations from parachute troops have to get together after they land. Therefore, the calculations which have been made as to the amount of time that will elapse before air-borne troops could attack will very likely have to be altered on account of this recent experience.
I call the attention of the Government to one area of danger to which I think this experience lends more anxiety than has hitherto been felt. It is clear that attacks from troop carriers crash-landed, would the most effective if they were in a fairly isolated district where they could not be immediately reached. There is a very isolated district from the defensive point of view, and that is Southern Ireland. Anxieties have been expressed about the Irish ports, but this is another anxiety— Ireland as a landing ground for attack. I do not know what the strength of the Irish defensive forces is, but I know that at the beginning of the war they had a regular army of 6,000, and an air force of less than 20 machines. Taking the experience of Crete, the establishment of a German force in Southern Ireland would be a matter not of days but of hours. I fully realise that the conquest of Southern Ireland is not the conquest of Great Britain, but, nevertheless, if you had German forces established in Southern Ireland, they would have to be driven out, and the process of driving them out might divert very large bodies of troops which would be needed in other areas at the very moment when we are fighting for our existence.
There is one further fact which was drawn to my mind by a question that was put about the order of Business today. It was suggested that the Prime Minister might make a statement at some time, not with regard to a particular area of war, like the Eastern Mediterranean, but a statement setting that area of war in the framework of the war as a whole, because I think there is a certain danger in a series of Debates in which, quite naturally, we concentrate upon our difficulties and upon those areas where we are at the maximum disadvantage. Neutral opinion is very closely trying to make up its mind as to how the war is going, and neutrals may get a very 70 erroneous sense of proportion if we always concentrate upon those areas. It is, therefore, necessary, even in a Debate like this, to make it quite clear that the Eastern Mediterranean, important though it is, is not the primary theatre of war, where the war will be won or lost. The primary theatre of war is this Island and the Atlantic Ocean. If Hitler wins there, he wins, but let neutral opinion understand that, if he does not win there, whatever may be happening at this moment to these small countries which he can easily conquer, when the time arrives when we can take the initiative, and will arrive if he does not win the Battle of the Atlantic, those small countries will be a liability to him rather than an asset. He has not conciliated them. He is stretched all over Europe. He has immensely long lines of communication, and in each of those countries they are waiting for a frightful vengeance and are ready for the attack when the material superiority has passed out of his hands. So that the main battles of the war are being fought by the public opinion of the United States, and those battles are coming our way day by day. That is why I think it would be useful, for a general survey of the war, to show that when you take it in its entirety neutral countries can see that we have more solid reason for confidence to-day than at any previous stage.
§ Mr. Hore-Belisha (Devonport)
Whether or not they were asked to do so, the Government have undoubtedly been wise on this occasion to take Parliament, which is the source and sanction of their authority, immediately into consultation upon recent serious developments culminating in the abandonment of Crete. The event is one of unusual significance. For the first time in history an island has been captured by air-borne attack. That in itself is an occurrence— let us hope not a portent—on which we, situated geographically as we are, cannot fail anxiously to ponder. Yet we are under some embarrassment in that no statement has been made by the Government at the opening of this Debate, and I say candidly that the course of one's remarks might naturally be influenced by an authoritative pronouncement. However, in the absence of such a statement, one must draw one's own conclusions. The war deepens and widens—or shall we say contracts—around us. I trust that 71 the. Debate will be helpful, for, if the reverse which we have suffered were to prove insufficient to impart its plainly-spoken lesson, what but an act of Providence could assure the vindication of our cause and the safety of our country?
Military setbacks are a part of the fortunes of war and, in so far as they are incidental, do not necessarily affect the ultimate issue. When a commander, having appreciated a situation, reaches a decision and executes it with real skill and energy, it would be as churlish to complain when things go against him as it would be ungracious to withhold praise when he succeeds. If, however, the reverses are due to errors and miscalculations of strategy, the consequences are more far-reaching, and the causes and character of the errors and miscalculations should be objectively examined with a view to ascertaining in what quarter and how they have arisen, and to applying remedies without delay. It would be helpful for the future if we were to ask ourselves whether at Dakar, in Cyrenaica, in Greece, and now in Crete the forfeits which we have incurred have not been at least in part due to an imperfect assessment of possibilities, and indeed of probabilities, and consequently to ineffective preparation. Except in the case of Greece, these are all areas in which the initial advantages and the opportunity of exploiting them have been with us. In Greece there was a period of six months to prepare before the arrival of the Germans. Neither the boldness of the enemy in overcoming obstacles, neither his ingenuity, his speed, nor even our own experiences seem to have been taken into full account.
What is the course of events leading up to the loss of Crete, and what is the interpretation which has been put upon them as they have occurred? Let us make the perspective clear. Up till last October the sole major base of the British Fleet in the Eastern Mediterranean was Alexandria. The lack of a safe alternative harbour close to Italian waters circumscribed the range of the Royal Navy. Similarly a lack of landing grounds within the necessary proximity deprived us of the opportunity of bombing Italy which we should have desired. By a stroke of good fortune, as it then appeared, the entry of Greece into the war on our side 72 gave us unexpectedly the use of Suda Bay and aerodromes on the island of Crete. In acknowledging these acquisitions to our strength my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister informed the House that they would enable us "Sensibly to extend the activities and radius of the Navy and of the Air Force." That, of course, was true. The distance to Taranto had been almost halved. Our warships could thenceforward refuel in relays and thus maintain a more continuous vigilance. It became hazardous for the enemy to attempt to dispatch transports to Libya, and the campaign which General Wavell initiated was made all the more easy. Crete, which in British hands was a great protection to the Imperial Forces operating in the Western Desert, being only 200 miles from Tobruk, under enemy control, now offers a serious menace to them as it does indeed to the major base at Alexandria, on which severe attacks are now being made. It was no doubt partly for this reason that my right hon. Friend coupled both these places together when he said on 7th May:We intend to defend to the death, and without thought of retirement, the valuable and highly offensive outposts of Crete and Tobruk." — [OFFICIAL REPORT, 7th May, 1941, col. 940, Vol. 371.]Further potential benefits accrued to us through our occupation of Crete which I need not examine. If during the six months we had in Greece and Crete in which to beat the Italians out of the Balkans, and if possible, out of the war, we were not able to exploit our opportunities, it was, as we have since been told, due to a lack of aeroplanes or of aerodromes. The same deficiency stood in the way of our success in Greece. A hundred more Hurricanes, all the war correspondents concur, would have given us a margin with which to break the enemy's domination. It was heartbreaking, they wrote, to watch formations of German bombers escorted by numerous fighters flying over at regular periods, day after day, and strafing our troops and lines of communication with impunity. Despite the fact that there wasa plan which promised good prospects of military success,the task of the Armed Forces in these circumstances—in the absence of air support—became impossible. This was the crux of the whole matter. After the evacuation of the mainland of Greece, and 73 considering its lessons, the War Office spokesman in a broadcast on 15th May said:In the first few days the German bombers had the air to themselves. We could not help sympathising with the Royal Air Force. Hopelessly outnumbered from the start and finally driven off their last aerodromes by the advance of the German Panzer divisions, they had to abandon the fight since the fighters could not get from Crete to the battle and back again.Then he added, by way of consolation:Though we are out of Greece, we remain in Crete. This Island, if you look at the map, is right at the centre of the Eastern Mediterranean; it has airfields and an excellent harbour. It is important to us. …These words were used by Major-General Collins five days before the new attack opened. Already, General Freyberg, Commander-in-Chief of the Imperial and Greek Forces, had proclaimed in an order of the day:We will not only maintain the integrity of the soil of Crete from any invader but we shall also, by God's grace, in time go forward from this base."——this highly offensive outpost—to restore the freedom and independence of the whole of Greece.It was on the same day that my right hon. Friend made his statement about defending the island to the death. Then came the news of very heavy concentrations of German aeroplanes on the aerodromes in Southern Greece which we had been unable to use, some of them indeed being in the Peloponessus, which the Germans occupied only after our evacuation of Attica. Summarising the position then, before the invasion of Crete was launched, it must have been obvious to the responsible authorities firstly, that the Army had been driven out of Greece because of a lack of aeroplanes or because operational use of aerodromes could not be made; secondly, that experience had shown that the Army, despite its valour, could not hold its ground without such support; and, thirdly, that the preliminaries to an air-borne attack on Crete were in train. Every one of these lessons was discarded. No adequate measures for defending aerodromes were instituted in an island of which we had been in occupation for seven months. The Army was not given its air support—indeed, this was withdrawn shortly after the battle began. Although it was known that the preliminaries to an air-borne attack were in train, 74 the official view persisted that this was impossible, and statements continued to be made that Crete would be held.Air-borne forces by themselves won't capture that island,broadcast Air-Comomdore Goddard on 22nd May, two days after the invasion and when air support had been withdrawn. He said:Crete, so far as we are concerned, must be the business of soldiers and sailors.It did indeed become the business of soldiers and sailors, and sacrificially they discharged their allotted task; but at what cost! A bare description of what they were enduring in this desperate battle aroused the deepest emotions and, indeed, the gravest forebodings. Yet confident statements continued to be made by military spokesmen in Cairo. Reinforcements were sent, but unfortunately not of a kind which could alone have saved the situation. Without the requisite overhead protection the Navy lost, as far as we have been informed up to this day, four cruisers and six destroyers sunk, and several warships were damaged—casualties greater than those we inflicted on the Italians in the battle of Cape Matapan.
Why was the Fleet called upon to operate in narrow waters and the Army required to undertake so desperate a task in circumstances which neglected every dictate of experience? The Government were formed following the events in Norway. There it had been shown under what a handicap the Fleet laboured in the discharge of operations within the range of the land-based Luftwaffe. There it had been demonstrated that an Army could not be maintained without aerodromes from which it could be given cover. Since then these tactical facts have been reinforced. They were reinforced in January in the Sicilian Channel, where our direct line of communication was interrupted and where we lost the cruiser "Southampton," and where the aircraft-carrier "Illustrious" was hit and the destroyer "Gallant" damaged. They were reinforced so far as Armies are concerned, in the Low Countries, in Yugoslavia and in Greece. Why were they not applied?
Surely it has become urgent to draw a distinction between the Royal Air Force operating strategically—that is, long distance bombing against the enemy or in countering long-distance bombing by the 75 enemy—and the tactical role of the air in aid of the two other services. Aircraft must be recognised to be as integral a part of a Navy or Army as any other weapon. We have gone part of the way in the Navy by establishing the Fleet Air Arm, which has amply justified itself. Why should not the process be carried as far as this in the Army and to its logical conclusion in the Navy? Should we not give to the commander in the field or the commander conducting operations at sea, control over the land-based aircraft which are shown once again by these events to be essential to his task? As matters now stand the vital arrangements to be made by them before and during an action are for argument, negotiation and compromise between those who naturally take different views of the obligations and possibilities of their respective Services. Such a process may result in failure to provide what is required initially or in a delay or incapacity to obtain it while the action is proceeding. How can those charged with formulating plans or in executing them be trained or accustomed to think in terms of the air as in terms of the sea and the land if they do not habitually dispose of their own aircraft as effectively as they do of their other weapons?
It is, however, not only in the actual battle that the defects of the present system are apparent. The trouble goes further back. The Air Ministry—it is only natural—will always attach greater importance to having machines for long distance bombing, which it holds will win the war. The Army, for its part, is unlikely to obtain quickly a sufficiency of the types which it requires, such as dive-bombers, ground strafing machines, or even transport planes, indispensible to its success, if it falls to the Air Force to balance the urgency of these requirements against its own particular needs. The present arrangements have hitherto been defended on the ground that they worked. The answer given in Crete is plainly that they do not. The Fleet Air Arm could not bring its full weight to bear against relays of bombers operating from the shore. The Imperial Forces were lashed mercilessly by the Luftwaffe, which had the air to itself. From the opening day of the attack, although the German bombers were not able to come into action until the positions of their own troops were 76 clear, none of our planes was available to resist them. One or two, it appears, still remained undestroyed on the Maleme Airfield, but from then until the end not another British machine was to operate from the soil of Crete.
Never again should a contingent of the British Army be placed in such a position. It is improvident to allow the best fighting material which we have in the Empire to be immolated when vaster and unknown tasks may lie ahead. Is it not inconceivable that the land commander or the sea commander in Crete, if either had had complete control, would not have made provision for the air support required for his operations, or would have allowed such air support as was available to be withdrawn from him at a critical juncture when he knew that by so doing he would be placing the other arms, which had to remain, under an impossible handicap?
§ Mr. A. Bevan (Ebbw Vale)
Is the right hon. Gentleman suggesting that the Air Force was withdrawn from Crete on the initiative alone of the Air Ministry?
§ Mr. Hore-Belisha
I was going to ask that very question. On whose decision was this course taken? Was it taken by the Army Commander or the Air Commander or in Cairo or in London? Who took the decision? If proper air support could not be given why were those ships and the Army left to undergo what they did? On what grounds was it stated that the island could and would be held? Perhaps my right hon. Friend will tell us that. It has been suggested that the tragic outcome of the decision to leave the Navy and Army to hold Crete without the necessary protection was because our side had no aerodromes and not because they had no aeroplanes.
§ Mr. Hore-Belisha
That is a phrase which my right hon. Friend used in his statement in the House on 22nd May. It was before the final evacuation and in a statement made just before the House rose. On the other hand, it has been stated that even if we had had the aerodromes we could not have spared sufficient machines from the total force available in the Middle East. Between these two opinions lies the central fact that a 77 successful airborne invasion was not regarded as a possibility. You do not prepare against what has never entered your mind.
Now, however, we must realise that an airborne invasion over 100 miles of sea can be successful without surface command of the waters, if the Navy is not given full support from the air. Simultaneously the Army will require such support. The Air Force must, therefore, have numerous and well distributed bases from which to work. The defence and rapid construction and repair of aerodromes, when damaged, demand their place in the most urgent category of our requirements. It is to be assumed that the methods of defence will be taken into prompt review and that assurances will be given before the end of the Debate that provision will be made against the new contingencies. It is evident that the unprotected man, even though conventionally armed, is not able to resist an overwhelming descent effected by surprise. The armoured fighting vehicle is required to give the necessary shield and mobility. In the construction of aerodromes and in their repair when damaged the Germans clearly have a more speedy procedure than we employ. They were able to bring their new aerodromes in Greece into operation within 18 days. We have it on the authority of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour, in his speech at Wimbledon last Friday, that we are behind with our aerodromes as we are with some of our factories.
I do not in the least wish to attribute blame in that matter to the Air Ministry, whose programme, I am sure, is satisfactory. I have made what examination I can of these matters with experts, and I am advised that for the purpose of repair, at any rate, it is not sufficient to rely on maintenance contractors. Their plant, tools and the man-power of which they dispose are strictly limited. If 50 or 60 aerodromes in an area, or, as matters now stand, two or three, were to become objects of determined simultaneous attack there would not only be an inadequacy of labour but of machines and of material. The Air Ministry might be well advised to have a corps of its own, like the Royal Engineers or Pioneers, under orders and trained as fighting personnel, organised in mobile units in each area. Each unit would have on its charge a mechanical 78 excavator, a caterpillar tractor, a concrete mixer and hydraulic tipping trucks. I am told that at present when such equipment is required it may in certain parts of the country have to be brought from over 100 miles away. As heavy machines can only be moved along our roads at an average rate of five miles an hour, it will be seen that unless some improved system is instituted the Germans if they could penetrate our defences and destroy a large number of aerodromes would, as in Crete, be able to dislocate the operations of our Air Force for a protracted and certainly at a critical time. If the Air Force had such a corps, detachments would be available when we occupy new territory to prepare the landing grounds.
It is quite evident from the happenings we are examining to-day, and from the events which have preceded them, that in the sphere of strategy there has been on our side no adjustment to the tempo or resourcefulness of the enemy. What is equally serious, however, is that the great enthusiasm and impulse which were imparted to the whole people, irrespective of class, and to the whole of our efforts, when my right hon. Friend came into power, have faltered. They must not be further dissipated. They must be revived. When I say this I do not disparage the great efforts made by my right hon. Friend. It is desired on all sides to strengthen his hand. He has referred to the actual equipment situation in terms of some optimism. Within the last few days he has informed Mr. Menzies that the strengthening of supplies to the Mediterranean was limited neither by British will nor British resources, but entirely by the physical problem of transportation. That, of course, can only be remedied to some extent by further economising shipping space, by a more rapid and widespread concentration of industry, and by the strictest and most equitable rationing of all articles. After the Secret Session another encouraging statement was made by the Ministry of Supply on progress. Again, when I ventured to urge that tanks should be given the same priority as aeroplanes, I was informed that as many heavy tanks were being made in a month as were at the disposal of the War Office at the time of my departure. That is a matter for great rejoicing. I do not place myself in competition with my right hon. 79 Friend either in achievement or in opportunity. He enjoys plenary powers, which I hope he will fully utilise, powers enjoyed by no previous administration. I wish I had enjoyed them, or, rather, I wish the Ministry of Supply had enjoyed them in my time.
§ Viscountess Astor (Plymouth, Sutton)
Why did you not get the Ministry of Supply in your own hands instead of giving it to the right hon. Member for Luton (Mr. Burgin)? [Interruption.] It is true.
§ Mr. Hore-Belisha
I am flattered by the Noble Lady's intervention. My right hon. Friend has the whole motor-car industry at his disposal, which is not allowed to make a single private car unless for a special purpose—all now engaged on production of aeroplanes and tanks. I wish that had been the case in my time. He has no restrictive trade union regulations. He has all parties at his back. I do not know how far the satisfaction which my right hon. Friend has expressed is positive or relative, nor am I in a position to vouch for the accuracy of the diagnosis recently made in the Deputy-Director's Office of Production Management in the United States. It is a very grave statement. Mr. W. L. Batt, Deputy-Director, Office of Production Management in the United States, said:There is not one shred of evidence that Britain's industrial military strength, plus what we are sending and have promised to send at the present time, is strengthening her position in relation to Germany's.Then follow a number of supporting statements of a very grave character, which I will not read, and the statement concludes:—For us to suppose that Britain is growing stronger every day in relation to Germany is criminal folly.On such information as is available to me, I deem it my duty to warn the country that it is only by handling our problems, admittedly stupendous, with more vigour, dynamism and imagination that we can obtain victory. No false loyalties or personal considerations or second best standards must be allowed to stand in the way of achieving this result.
§ Mrs. Rathbone (Bodmin)
On this, the first occasion that I have ever had the opportunity to address the House, I beg 80 the indulgence of hon. Members. I should have felt inclined to wait a very much longer time before giving voice to my opinions, but I have literally been forced to my feet to-day, not only by my own convictions, but by the countless distressing and appealing letters which I have had from my constituents. We have just listened to a most interesting and highly-analytical speech from the right hon. Member for Devonport (Mr. Hore-Belisha). I do not propose to go into any such detailed recriminations about Crete or any other of our past failures. I want to put before the House the general feeling which there is in my constituency and certain matters which disturb me personally very much indeed. It will be universally agreed that recriminations are futile and are a complete waste of time unless we learn very definite lessons from those past experiences, such as Crete. But I feel that the time for learning lessons is becoming rather short; the people of this country, who have been so willing to accept explanations in the past, are not feeling so ready to accept them to-day. They want to see action, vigorous action, which will in fact bring alive the determination which they feel in their own. minds. In fact, I feel that there are too many avenues which have for too long had traffic diversions round them. I want to point out one of these to hon. Members.
We have seen, as speakers have said before, the invasion of an island successfully carried out from the air. I want to ask the Government: Is the scope of our strategical and our tactical planning for the defence of this Island broad enough? Does it include the possibility of impossibilities? Are our preparation and our training fast enough and careful enough? If not, why not? We must stop thinking in watertight compartments, even as between one Government Department and another or as between the Defence Forces, or even within the confines of one particular branch of our Defences. One example comes to my mind from my own personal experience, but it is difficult to speak about it, because if one gives details, one is perhaps giving more information than one should in public; but it is commonly recognised that the R.A.F. and the Army must work in more close co-operation, not only in battle but in the defence of our aerodromes in this country. We, as a nation, have been 81 perhaps a little too inclined to look back to "1066" and to our coastline and to forget that our aerodromes are our frontline defence too.
I want to ask how much training the Home Guard and the Army are having, one in conjunction with the other. I know many areas where this contact is working extremely well, but I know many areas where there is no contact at all. In other words, this particular form of practical training is left almost entirely to local initiative and to local commanding officers, who are willing to give extra time and attention to the matter. Surely it should be recognised that this should be a universal form of very vitally necessary training. The Home Guard should be an auxiliary arm of the Army, just as civilians should be an auxiliary arm of the Home Guard. Mutual instruction and training of this kind in the giving and the taking of orders is the only possible way that we shall be able to see the greatest confidence and co-ordination, which are needed in a time of crisis. It will surely offer the very best antidote to any fifth-column activity. The machinery for such co-ordination and such liaisons ' should become absolutely automatic in this sphere, as in many other spheres of our war effort. It should become a habit of mind.
The Government have told civilians in this country—and here I come to a point which is disturbing the minds of my constituents considerably—to stay put. I ask hon. Members to bear with me for a moment while I recall the Story of a refugee who is staying as a visitor in a house in my constituency. On the first day when she heard gunfire, the refugee packed her bag, took her children and set off down the lane. Her hostess took her aside and said, "The Government have told us to stay put. You must go back." The refugee answered, "I come from a country in Europe, and I have seen. You have never seen. I do not stay put." The British people are a law-abiding race. They have the temperament to stay put. We must give them the training. In how many villages in this country has there been a mock invasion from the air, from the land or from the sea? In how many civilian homes have tests been put as to how they will carry out their plans in the event of invasion? I would go a step further, 82 and perhaps be a little irrelevant, and ask how many civilians have been trained to wear their gas-masks at regular intervals?
This is one cog in the wheel, which I have brought to the notice of hon Members. I realise that it is not the only sphere where clarification, simplification and greater efficiency are needed. I feel that there should be no need for a suggestion to arise at a time like this that an Army air arm should be created, when we are fighting the greatest battle that we have ever endured. Surely there can be sufficient co-operation between the Army and the R.A.F. to make such a move unnecessary. Surely we should be wise to have a nation-wide spring-clean, now that the Crete dust is settling. The Prime Minister has led this country vigorously, unitedly and with singleness of purpose and directness of approach; I wish his method and spirit were as contagious as the measles. We might not be capable in this country of Nazi ruthlessness and tyranny, but we can and we must be capable of ruthless efficiency.
Arising out of the post-morten which we are holding here to-day, I go so far as to say that I should like to see an Order of the Day issued to the people of this country to stimulate simplification and co-ordination in industry and in every branch of our war effort, and to appeal to people finally to discard once and for all the fetters and the red tape which hold up our war effort. I could read, but I wish to be brief, a letter which I have here from a constituent of mine, who is a member of one of the Civil Defence forces. He tells me that it takes months to get a decision of any kind, because matters must filter from London through Truro, Bodmin and Liskeard, to wherever he lives, through sub-unit and sub-sub-units. That is not good enough when we are fighting a war of this kind. I would like to see us like an athlete preparing for the last great match. We, as a country, should go into a period of strictest training. There would be a tremendous response to such a call, provided that Government Departments themselves gave very close scrutiny to possible weaknesses which might exist in their very midst. We must put first things first. This is not the eleventh hour; it is the half-past eleventh hour. Our people are more 83 grimly determined than ever, and I pray that the Government will realise that fact and lead with renewed vigour.
§ Sir Percy Harris (Bethnal Green, South-West)
I am very privileged to follow the hon. Lady who has just made her maiden speech. It was like a breath of fresh air from America across the moors of Devonshire [Hon. Members: "Cornwall."] Well, it is all the more bracing. Her speech was full of knowledge, common sense and understanding and was a most valuable contribution to our Debate.
I was one of those, and I plead guilty, who were in favour of a Debate to-day. I was convinced that the country and the newspapers were full of rumours, leading articles and correspondence and, needless to say, that the Lobbies were full of discussion. It is far better to have a discussion in the House of Commons, where complaints and criticisms may be answered by responsible Ministers. It might have been better had it been possible for a Minister to open the discussion, but it is very satisfactory to know that the Prime Minister himself will wind up, and that he will answer the points made by the three previous speakers. Those who heard the three previous speakers will agree that they made in each case a valuable and constructive contribution. The right hon. Member for Devonport (Mr. Hore-Belisha) was critical. I did not agree with all his criticisms, yet the speech was worth making. It is much better to make it in the House of Commons, where it can be answered, than to be written in the form of articles in the Sunday Press.
We want to get the Battle of Crete in its proper perspective. After all, it is only part of a battle spread over three Continents, to say nothing of the Atlantic. We must read it with the victories, which have not yet been mentioned to-day, in East Africa, Abyssinia and Iraq. We as a nation are rather inclined to underestimate our achievements and to be over-conscious of our failures. That is healthy, because it means that we are not suffering from over-optimism. Nothing that has been or will be said to-day will, I am quite sure, prejudice our new campaign in Syria. It is a campaign of great significance, because alongside us stand the Free French as active partners. We are 84 all conscious that the whole world is listening to our Debate, not only the Germans and Herr Goebbels, who we all know distorts and twists whatever is said, but the neutrals, the Dominions—particularly the Dominions, which have already been discussing the Crete campaign because they were very concerned in it—and above all the United States of America. I am not one of those who under-estimate the happenings in Crete, although I think the right hon. Gentleman who opened the Debate was somewhat inclined to do so.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Devonport that Crete was of vital strategic importance. The Prime Minister said so in the Debate on the Vote of Confidence. He said that we should defend Crete to the death and without thought of retirement. There is a public listening more conscientiously than we are aware for every statement made in the House of Commons, and that public was buoyed up to believe that failure in Greece would be followed by a great success in the neighbouring island. That was emphasised by the fact that great publicity was given to the transfer of the Greek Government to Crete as a permanent base for keeping alive Greek independence. Therefore, when things did not go as well as was expected, when the news of setbacks gradually trickled out through the Press and the B.B.C., inevitably there were disappointment and criticsim. The country, which follows these things to-day far more closely than it did in the last war because there are now far more people militarily educated than there were then, could not help realising that for over six months there had been time to prepare the defences of this most important strategic island.
One gets the impression that in this case the Government, or whoever was responsible for the defence, grossly underrated our enemy. We now hear many explanations of what has happened, and why it was that when we were in occupation of Greece we had not enough aerodromes to retain that country, whereas as soon as the Germans came into possession they were able so to organise matters that aerodromes became available for a massed attack on Crete. I know there is a possible explanation, which we shall perhaps get to-day, to the effect that the Germans succeeded in having enough aerodromes 85 for this great enterprise where we failed to do so because the weather had changed, and drier weather made available aerodromes which might not have been of much use for our original purpose. But neither do we understand, and it is difficult to explain, the under-rating of the power of the parachutists to seize vital points and of the power of air-borne troops to organise large-scale operations quickly and efficiently. I should have thought that our experience in Norway, Holland and Belgium would have proved to the responsible officers that preparations for such large-scale attacks ought to have been made. These are points which might well be explained by the Prime Minister when he comes to reply.
It is clear that air power is now a serious competitor to sea power. The technique of war is completely changing. If we have learnt that lesson as a result of our experience in Crete, the battle will not have been fought in vain. It is quite clear, as the right hon. Gentleman said, that the Army is powerless without an adequate Air Force. He pressed home his particular belief that just as the Navy has its own Air Arm, so should the Army have its Air Force. But technical opinion up to the present suggests that that might dissipate our force, and instead of strengthening our air power, dividing its use between three authorities would almost certainly weaken it. I think we are entitled in the course of the Debate to have an assurance that there is close and adequate liaison between the two Services. I know, according to what the Prime Minister told us in the recent Debate, that there are regular meetings of the Chiefs of Staff almost daily, and that the Prime Minister himself presides over those meetings. In addition there is the Committee of Imperial Defence. But is there a staff representing all three Services working out the strategy of the war as a whole, and not merely from the point of view of each separate service? It is clear that the German staff work out their plans in the minutest detail. Nothing is too unimportant, nothing is left to chance, and it is clear that the two services in Germany work as one.
I noticed in the '' Times'' an interesting report of the comment of an Australian correspondent, who said that German methods are dangerously unorthodox. We are not, in the German sense, a military 86 nation. In peace-time we have only a small standing Army, and therefore our officers, and our staff officers in particular, must be small in number in proportion. In the first year of the war general strategy was in the hands of the French, and I think we should like to know— and we may well be told—whether in the meantime machinery has been set up to secure comprehensive plans for combined operations.
May I now for a few minutes turn to another matter? There has been a general impression in this country, and certainly in the Dominions, that the Australian and New Zealand troops have borne more than their share of the fighting in Greece, in Crete, and, I may add, in Libya. I have lived in New Zealand, and I know New Zealand people well enough to realise that they are proud to be in the forefront of the battle. But the population of New Zealand is only about 1,500,000, and that of Australia at most 7,000,000; between them, they have about the population of Greater London. Perhaps the publicity is to some extent to blame. Hardly any mention has been made of the particular British troops concerned. No reference to the regiments or to the kind of troops involved has been made. The impression has certainly been given that the strain and stress of these three difficult and dangerous campaigns, which involved heavy loss of life, has been mainly borne by Australian and New Zealand troops. It is clear that they do not complain. That is not their spirit. They are as loyal as any section here to the cause which is the cause of the British Empire as a whole.
But the case has been made for a closer association of some Dominions statesmen with the direction of the war. I advocated that in this House as long ago as last August. I admit that I believe I am pressing at an open door, and that if a suitable politician from the Dominions was able and willing to help us in our councils, the Prime Minister would welcome him. But the leaders in the Dominions have their home problems. General Smuts, now Field-Marshal Smuts—a happy gesture to South Africa—has a difficult task to lead his people to close co-operation in this war; Mr. Mackenzie King, I believe, is 1oth to leave his own country at a time like this; while Mr. Menzies has a majority of one, and, therefore, if he were to leave his Dominion a position of great difficulty 87 and delicacy might result. But I would remind the House and the Prime Minister that when General Smuts was in the War Cabinet during the last war—and I think my right hon. Friend the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) will testify to the great value of his wise counsel and military knowledge— he was not Prime Minister of South Africa. General Botha was Prime Minister there. There may be available, although I am not prepared to name him at the moment, some Dominion statesman of character and experience, capable of understanding the military problems, who would be of very great assistance, and who, above all, would show by his inclusion that we were not looking at problems merely from our own point of view but that we were considering them from an Empire point of view. The case for such a proposal is strengthened by the happenings of the last few months. The fact that we have been so dependent upon help in the Near East from the Dominions emphasises the case which I put forward last summer.
I do not want the House to feel that Crete is too serious a setback. I have a vivid recollection of defeats in the last war which were upon a scale 10 times greater than anything that has happened during the last 12 months. There was Vimy Ridge, there was terrific destruction of life in France, there was the battle of Salonica, and there was the Dardanelles campaign. There were, as a result, bitter and acrimonious Debates in this House. These things loomed very large. I am sure that the Government are wise to allow us this early occasion of discussing the whole situation. But when we discuss these problems, let me show that we have no lack of faith either in the Government or in the great and wise leadership of the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is our greatest asset. Nothing that we say here should suggest that we have lost faith in his ability to lead us to victory. That does not mean that it is not our duty, as members of Parliament, to ventilate the grievances of the public outside, and to make clear what their criticisms are.
§ Mr. Stokes (Ipswich)
I, like other right hon. and hon. Gentlemen who have spoken, find myself in a difficulty because no statement upon Crete has been made from the Government Front Bench. I am not in possession of more facts than have 88 either been stated by other speakers or have been culled from the daily Press. I want, therefore, to spend a few moments in reviewing the strategy which has led up to the present position. We know that we have in our Armed Forces the bravest men, and that we have the best equipment, although we have not at present, perhaps, enough of it. I have some serious doubt, however, as to the wisdom of some of our war strategy. The general position as I see it, is that Hitler, with his forces, is on a mainland, and that we are on an island. His difficulty is to know how to get at us. Obviously, the tactic that he should follow is to lure us out of the island on to the mainland.
Whenever we take upon ourselves the job of invading the Continent, we are surrounding ourselves with just those difficulties that Hitler would surround himself with if he endeavoured to invade these shores and from which he shrinks. His war machine is mainly a land and air machine, while our power, surely, lies mainly upon the seas—and in course of time it will be in the air as well. Every time we land on the Continent and get kicked off, we lose both material and prestige. That has a deplorable effect upon small nations. It has just the effect that Hitler desires, giving them the conviction that he is invincible. In fact our strategy might almost be described as "playing Hitler's game." I should like to call to mind the various expeditions we have indulged in since the war started. Naturally, with France as our great Ally, we had no alternative when the war started but to send an expeditionary force to France. But what have our other expeditions been like? I will refer first to the Norwegian fiasco. I remember that when the German invasion of Norway took place, the Prime Minister said:All German ships in the Skaggerak and the Kattegat will be sunk, and by night all ships will be sunk as opportunity serves.But were they? He said:For myself, I consider that Hitler's action in invading Scandinavia is as great a strategic and political error as that which was committed by Napoleon in 1807 or 1808, when he invaded Spain.But has it proved so? He said:I feel that we are greatly advantaged by what has occurred, provided we act with unceasing and increasing vigour to turn to the, utmost profit the strategic blunder into which 89 our mortal enemy has been provoked."— [OFFICIAL REPORT, 11th April, 1940; cols. 747–8. Vol. 359.]What, in fact, happened? We sent an inadequate and badly-equipped force to Norway, including insufficiently-trained Territorials; with the disastrous result to which I need make no further reference. I would only add that it was followed by that deplorable event, the loss of the "Glorious," a ship which went down overcrowded with men and aeroplanes, and with inadequate escort, apparently owing to the nature of the instructions that were sent out. Our next mistake, I think, was the Dakar fiasco, and here again, except in so far as it caused obviously great complications with the French, no further reference is now necessary.
Is there any real sense in luring these small nations on the Continent—I suppose there are none of them left now—into fighting a war against odds which to them alone are absolutely insuperable? I submit that in doing so we neither help ourselves nor them, and that the only effect most of these expeditions have had has been to cause them bloodshed and ourselves to lose equipment we can ill afford to spare at the present time. I ask the House to compare the strategy which we followed in this matter with what Hitler does. I presume that at one of these many meetings on the Brenner, after the invasion of Albania by the Greeks and after the invasion of Libya by ourselves, representations were made to Hitler that help should be forthcoming for his Italian ally. I do not know any more than anyone else in this House what transpired, but it would be more than likely that Hitler's reply to any appeal for help would be in effect to say that he would not come until he was ready, and that when he was ready there would be available all the support that it was really possible to command. With regard to Greece, if Hitler ever had any doubts as to whether we would send an expeditionary Force to Greece or not, I suggest that the butterfly wanderings of the Foreign Secretary made it clear to him that, if he cared to invade Greece, a force of ours would be there to meet him, thereby providing him with yet another opportunity to punch us on the nose. One of our leading critics of strategy said at that time: 90Our Grecian strategic blunder placed two armies, where Hitler wanted them; ours in Europe—his in Africa.As to the Greece episode, which seems to have a complete bearing upon what happened in Crete, Mr. Menzies, in a communication which he sent to Australia, said:After consulting naval and military advisers the Cabinet felt that the adventure into Greece held a real prospect of military success.I want to ask a question—I do not know whether I shall receive an answer to-day—and perhaps the Secretary of State for War will put it to the Prime Minister. It seems to me, with but a bare travelling knowledge of that part of Europe, that the sending of help to Greece would be futile unless the Greeks themselves could be persuaded to withdraw their armies from Albania. I ask whether that stipulation was made to Greece before the Expeditionary Force was sent, because without that condition such forces as we could send, small as they were, were bound to be faced with defeat. If they refused to withdraw their troops from Albania, surely the right policy to follow would have been to say, "We are not landing any forces here. We are prepared to aid you to the best of our ability from the sea and by sending air units, with, naturally, aerodrome protection, but we are not going to land anything in the nature of an Expeditionary Force." The second question I want to ask is, Had we really sufficient equipment to spare from Libya? I would remind the House again of what the Prime Minister said upon the Libyan campaign. On 9th February he told us that:Egypt and the Suez Canal are safe, and the port, the base and the airfields at Benghazi constitute a strategic point of high consequence to the whole of the war in the Mediterranean.Presumably he meant till the end of the war.
Did General Wavell then really agree to a Grecian Expeditionary Force? The Foreign Secretary said that the generals in the East were in full agreement. We all know what that means. It means, very likely, that the venture was put up from this end and that the generals had nothing to do but agree to it. Was it initiated by the generals, or was it started at this end and the generals on the spot forced to agree to it or resign? Did it affect the 91 position in Libya at all? If in fact, as it proved, it was impossible to hold Crete, it makes it all the more insane to send land forces to Greece at all. Supposing instead of losing our material in Greece we had landed it in Crete, would that have made a considerable difference to the outcome of events on the Island?
There has been a good deal of criticism, and statements have been made with regard to the relative effectiveness or success of the Navy with an Air Force against it. It is utterly wrong to allow the impression to grow that the Navy cannot face the air power, and that the Navy was beaten by air power in the Battle for Crete. Surely the facts are quite to the contrary. The two seaborne invasions attempted from Greece into Crete were completely driven off by the Navy. It is agreed that there was considerable loss as a result of air activities, and presumably had our own Air Force or Naval Air Arm been stronger these losses would not have been as large as they actually were. The point I would like to make is this: We went to Crete in November. The Admiralty presumably knew that sooner or later that island would have to be held. I ask the Secretary of State for War whether, at the time that we went to Crete in November, the Admiralty insisted upon such dispositions "with regard to future Air Forces as would enable the Navy to receive proper protection and support from those Air Forces in the event of an ultimate battle such as finally took place, which they knew six months ago was bound to come?
Much has been said about the dive-bomber and the effect of it. I am one of the fortunate Members of this House who has not been dive-bombed, but I have talked to a great many people who have been so bombed. The newspapers seem to have got hold of the idea that flesh and blood cannot stand dive-bombing. I do not believe that. Lots of people who have faced dive-bombing admit that really it is psychological, rather than damaging to life and limb. I cannot believe that any kind of dive-bombing can possibly equal the kind of intensive barrage with which troops had to put up day after day and night after night in the last war, and which must have been far more damaging to life and limb than any of these dive-bombing efforts have been. It would be quite 92 wrong, and an insult to our troops to say that they cannot face it. I would recall to the House the story of Corporal Neill referred to as the "Mad Marine," who on the island of Crete disregarded the dive-bombers and shot them down with a machine gun. Corporal Neill's example could be well followed, and on reflection it reminds me of a story told of George III. When it was reported to him that General Wolfe had gone mad, he said, "Then I wish he would bite some of my generals." I would suggest that if Corporal Neill could come home and bite some of those generals who are responsible for the training so as to make sure that the Army is inoculated with the idea that bombing can be faced if the men are properly equipped and trained, it would be to all our advantage.
I do not wish to detain the House with unnecessary amateur opinions as to what should or should not be done with the Navy or any other of our Forces, but I do suggest that if we admit, as we must, that our final success depends upon our ability to overcome our enemies in the Atlantic, then the Navy has a greater job to do than escorting and evacuating the forces required for what I would term these pseudo-Marlburian adventures into Europe. In conclusion, I want to say this: I feel that the strategy on which the war is being conducted is inadequate, and to show that that feeling is abroad may I quote from a message from Australia which appeared on the tape machines three or four days ago? It says:It would appear +hat a stage has been reached in which the fighting places and necessary strategy are dictated mainly by the enemy. The Australian people would certainly welcome some new species of strategy, some plan of campaign, more comprehensive and more farsighted than anything at present being attempted. Questions of resources in fighting men and their equipment are vitally important but no less so is the need for a plan of campaign fully-rounded and all-inclusive.I agree with every word of that, and I am sure, from the many talks I have had with people in this country, that there is a general feeling that our war strategy is not on a sufficiently broad or understandable basis. No doubt this Debate will roll on to its inevitable conclusion—a rhetorical Blenheim—but oratory will not win wars, and I have nothing but praise for the Prime Minister's pugnacity and energy. It is just what you want 93 in time of war. He himself epitomises his own description of the British bull dog —" God so designed the British bull dog that he can hold on and still breathe." I recognise him as a great leader, but from the strategical point of view I think nobody should follow him.
§ Mr. Beverley Baxter (Wood Green)
I think the House will agree with me that this Debate is taking place as a result of the demand in the country, and I deem it the duty of Members of Parliament to express what the country is feeling. There has been very broadly and very deeply a disquiet among all classes which does not by any means reach discouragement. There is a feeling that in Norway, Dakar, Greece and Crete—with all of which the Prime Minister was intimately associated in the decisions that were taken—there has no: been a sufficiency of thought as to what might happen. There have been flair and imagination, but there has been a lack of real thought, and if you take one instance at Crete when our fighters flew away, think of the effect of that upon our soldiers, who once more had to pit their young bodies against the merciless attack from the air which the hon. Gentleman the Member for Ipswich (Mr. Stokes) looks upon with commendable philosophy but was worse than he imagines.
§ Mr. Stokes
I do not want for one moment to belittle the effect of dive-bombing. I am sore ii is a most terrifying experience, but experience in France showed that it proved the least effective way of inflicting casualties.
§ Mr. Baxter
Perhaps we may leave it at that, but I think the decision to withdraw our fighters or failure to place enough of them on the island of Crete is perhaps the most serious point before the House to-day. Who decided that we would have only so many planes there? Who decided that they should be withdrawn? Did some constituted authority, presided over by the Prime Minister, say, "If we withdraw the three or four squadrons there "—I do not know the number—" are we ready to give in return 94 four cruisers and six destroyers? "That is the direct answer. These ships sailed into the battle of Crete with no air protection, and I think the House has a right to know who decided that we could afford these ships better than we could afford 50 aeroplanes.
It is possible that the Minister of Aircraft Production—at that time Lord Beaverbrook—had something to say as to how many planes should be sent to Crete? As a member of the War Cabinet, he had a perfect right to do so, but is it possible that there was a cleavage between the Air Ministry and the Ministry of Aircraft Production? I do not know, but I have a suspicion that there may have been. I will not pursue that point any further, but we must find out who took that gravely serious position which resulted in what we have heard to-day—losses greater than we inflicted upon the Italian navy at Mata-pan. Who decided on the number of planes we would send to Greece? I do not want to labour that, but it seems to me that decisions are being taken hurriedly, without proper thought of all the consequences, and not giving to the country the feeling that there is a real strategy beyond opportunism, successful withdrawals and consecutive miracles by the British Navy.
The British Navy must be getting tired of performing miracles; certainly we here in this country are beginning to get a little weary of it too. It has been said that before every great advance in a country or every great decline there is first a spiritual advance or a spiritual decline. Nothing exemplifies that better than the sad and tragic collapse of France, but I would say, with great deference, that with all the greatness, bravery and simple humanity of this country we are in the grip, not of a spiritual decline, but of an intellectual decline. We are at the mercy of the grooved mind, and that does not apply only to the public school tradition, although it is a profound producer of the grooved mind. It is in the trade unions as well. It is in every rank— ("an Hon. MEMBER: "Even among journalists"). I quite agree. There is a respect for the grooved mind which is much overdone. We are now facing men of criminal character but men with tremendous intellectual power. It would be foolish for us to ignore this. Their souls may be as black as the pit, but their brains are 95 working, unexpectedly and untraditionally. When they improvise something, they carry it through mercilessly.
I wish to put to the House very seriously something which has been in my mind for a very long time. With the greatest respect to the Prime Minister, whose courage, whose language, and whose leadership are inspiring, I do not believe that the Government in their present form can lead us to victory, at any rate, in time for it to be anything but a universal collapse of Europe. I do not believe that in their present form they can do it. The War Cabinet is too large. It has inside its ranks Ministers of ability, Ministers of character; it has one or two brilliant Ministers, and three or four Ministers whose brilliance we must accept because they have not had an opportunity to demonstrate it in their careers up to date. We must in kindness accept it. There are in the War Cabinet Ministers who are good husbands, good party men, patriots, but who are not war-minded, and we cannot run a war with men who are not war-minded. Moreover, there are in the War Cabinet men of conflicting temperaments, Ministers with great Departmental duties and clashing Departmental interests. The War Cabinet is unwieldly and the result of that is demonstrating itself. Too much is put upon one man, the Prime Minister. We have only one Minister who can speak for the country. If he tires, the whole country is unexpressed, because we have one Minister only who can speak for the country to America or to the nation itself. I think there is too big a strain upon him. He is a dictator without the advantages of a dictator.
I think we must have a new system which is in essence a smaller War Cabinet. That observation has been made so often that it is dull. I do not think we can get the results we require merely by cutting the present Cabinet in half. I do not consider that you necessarily improve a lemon merely by squeezing it. I do not think this War Cabinet would be right even if it were cut in half. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for South-West Bethnal Green (Sir P. Harris) spoke about an Empire Cabinet. That is especially dear to my heart, but an Empire War Cabinet falls on one thing. Especially in 96 these days when so much is being required of the Dominions, a Dominion Prime Minister cannot leave his country for any length of time. If he sent somebody in his place, what could that person do? He could get on the telephone every night, and say, "This is what we said; what am I to do?" It would be impossible for a Dominion Prime Minister to delegate his authority so that his nominee could sit at a table with the British Prime Minister on equality. Therefore, that suggestion falls, except possibly, as in the last war, for a month or two. Yet this is an Empire war, and it is time that the Empire had more to say about the colossal sacrifices which are being asked of it and of Britain as well.
I wish to make a suggestion to the House. It is that, instead of having an Empire Cabinet, the strategy of the war should be placed in the hands of a directorate of Empire men. I have in mind the Prime Minister of Great Britain, Field-Marshal Smuts, Mr. Menzies, and—a name which may not seem at first quite to conform to the requirements—General McNaughton of Canada. I believe that if an announcement were made that a non-Ministerial directorate of those four men had been formed to direct the strategy of the war, it would galvanise the whole country. As I conceive it, it would operate in this way. The British Government would remain complete masters of the situation of this country. The War Cabinet would be abolished, but the Cabinet itself would continue. The directorate would have no direct power. It would be presided over by the Prime Minister of Great Britain. Therefore, when it came to a conclusion about strategy, the Prime Minister would then convey to the Government the directorate's decision, which would be his, and the machinery of Government would go into operation. That seems to me to be perfectly clear.
§ Mr. R. J. Taylor (Morpeth)
Will the hon. Gentleman explain to the House the position with regard to New Zealand? Why should not Mr. Mackenzie King be on such a directorate?
§ Mr. Baxter
I must apologise. I failed to say that, before such a directorate was formed, Field-Marshal Smuts and Mr. Menzies would have to resign as Prime Ministers in their countries. They would not come here as representatives of their country.
§ Mr. Shinwell (Seaham)
Would it be desirable for Field-Marshal Smuts to resign his position in the Union of South Africa, where he is so vital?
§ Mr. Baxter
I believe that if Field-Marshal Smuts left South Africa to come here as one of the four supreme directors of the war, that would have a big effect in South Africa, and might balance his not remaining there.
§ Mr. Baxter
No, the Prime Minister of Great Britain is the head of the British Government, and he would sit on the directorate as chairman and Prime Minister. I realise that hon. Members on the benches opposite look upon this suggestion as Utopian.
§ Mr. Baxter
I have given much thought to this plan, which the hon. Member says is an ill-thought-out one. What is ill thought out about having four great figures of the Empire, not officially representing their own Dominions but nevertheless being identified with them, sitting here as a non-ministerial directorate to advise on strategy? What is ill thought out in that? Once more we are up against the grooved mind.
§ Mr. Baxter
We may have to call in some journalists to save men like the hon. and gallant Member for Lichfield (Captain Poole), who has not had an original thought for 45 years. I will not press that.
§ Captain Poole
The hon. Member said that I have not had an original thought for 45 years. As I have not been living that long, I did not start thinking as early as he did.
§ Mr. Baxter
I am sorry. I must have put my case badly. In conclusion, may I ask whether this House is the place where, at a moment like this, one must not put forward an idea which is capable of argument? Must it be so crushed, and the inspiration so filled with sawdust, that it is presented as a corpse to be dissected? It seems to me that of all places the House of Commons is the place in which to put forward an idea. If it is unworkable at the moment, surely it is possible for it to be made workable by the House itself? The neglect of the Empire, and it has been nowhere more neglected than in this House, is one of the most serious things in our public life. If the House will forgive me, I would point out that I made my maiden speech, in 1935, to an empty House. The House was empty not so much because I was speaking, but because the Debate was on the Empire. For five years I have seen the House fill up for any foreign affairs Debate, and it did not matter what scarlet-painted hussy of Europe was to be debated; but in an Empire Debate there were only 12 bores talking to each other. In that maiden speech I stated that we should either have to develop our Empire and become Empire-conscious, or the very existence of the Empire would bring this country down. We are trying to fight this war under the direction of the British Government, with its own Departments, its own Civil Service, and all the impedimenta which go with it. I say that we must make this an Empire war and call in these Empire figures, but if my plan will not work, then I pray that this House will find some plan which will embody that spirit. But let us have it, because we badly need it.
§ Lieut.-Colonel Macnamara (Chelmsford)
It so happens that the hon. Member for Wood Green (Mr. Baxter) and myself made our maiden speeches on the same day, and during an Empire Debate. He followed me, and now I have the honour to follow him, but he will excuse me if I do not carry on the same theme. A few days ago I enjoyed one of those rare events—a few days of Army leave. I went to my constituency, and I found that there was far more concern among my constituents than I found in the Army, in which I am serving, over the circumstances and the result of the battle of Crete. I also found that there was concern 99 in this House, not only in the Chamber, but in talking to Members outside. I am not personally worried over this battle, but I feel there are many lessons which must be drawn and acted upon. I am not one of those who, after we happen to have lost the battle, wish now to criticise the Government, the generals or the soldiers who fought there. I believe the decision to fight in Crete was a right and wise decision. It was all part and parcel of the battle of Greece, a battle with which I found myself in full agreement. Personally, I believe we should take the opportunity of fighting the Germans in many places and of stabbing them. I believe that by constantly stabbing them we shall one day find, as they found in their tactics, the weak spots, and through those weak spots we shall be able to probe and ultimately drive through them. It is no good carrying on a war unless you are prepared to fight it in many places and take every opportunity of killing as many Germans as you possibly can, even though it may mean risking a certain number of casualties on our side. We might as well say that the retreat from Mons was of no avail in the last war. We may as well say that the Spanish resistance at Alcazar was of no avail to the side which happened to be fighting there during the Civil War. We might also say it is of no use from the enemy's point of view for Italy to fight a rearguard action in Abyssinia. Of course it is, and so are the battles of Crete and Greece of use to us. We retreated from Corunna and Gallipoli, yet on both occasions we won those wars.
Once again I say that I consider the Government's decisions, and the decisions of the generals, were right. Nor do I feel any despondency on the matter. On the contrary, I am strategically confident, and I consider that the strategic decisions were wise. In a nutshell, the war strategy, as I see it, is as follows: At the beginning of the war we had large possessions and we had small forces to hold those possessions, whereas Germany was able to put down at any one point a larger army than we could bring there to meet them. Gradually that war strategy is changing entirely in our favour. We now see the contrary developing. Germany has great possessions, and soon she will find, the more she stretches herself out, that she will have 100 inadequate forces to hold them, and ultimately we shall be able to put down at any one spot, at our own choosing, and when we have command of the air and sea an army which will defeat her at that particular spot. War strategy, as it has existed, is changing into the exact opposite, and is going in our favour.
I have just said that I am strategically confident, but at the same time I am not tactically confident—the two are not quite the same. The Prime Minister cannot be held personally responsible for tactics and administration of any army, or any part of the Army, or part of the Services. He is responsible for the major strategy, and that is going well. But all his wise strategy, including the handling of Allies, is of no avail unless backed up by perfect tactics and administration in the field. The House will remember that in the last war, when it was necessary to have steel helmets for the troops in France it was almost impossible to get them through until someone wearing a steel helmet caused a sensation by jumping from the Gallery into the Chamber of the House of Commons. I am not going to jump from the Gallery here, but some of the things I am going to refer to, although I have to refer to them with diffidence and with care, are just as important as if someone had caused such a sensation. I speak with difficulty because it is obvious, in the position in which I am, that I must be careful not to give away any secrets, and I ask to be excused, if I refer to my notes, not so much as to what I want to say but more as to what I must not say.
To return to Crete, what has caused this despondency in one's constituency, or possibly even in the Chamber? I do not know the numbers, but I imagine that we had something like 30,000 to 40,000 troops, British, Greek and Allied, in Crete. The Germans had none, but in 12 days they were in full possession of the island. Naturally, when one thinks of it, people are upset by that tactical fact. They heard that there would be no retreat, and yet there was. Furthermore, we have been told that the battles of France and so on were won by the breakthrough of the German tanks, yet there were no German tanks in the battle of Crete. Nevertheless, they were in full control 12 days after the invasion was launched. We may have been able to 101 get some of our troops away by sea after the battle, but undoubtedly our full use of the sea was hampered by enemy air action. The Germans, on the other hand, had no sea support. They had command of the air, but yet we had very few real casualties. I mean that quite seriously. There were also very few casualties at Dunkirk. If we add up all the small casualties, British, German, French and Italian, and lump the whole lot together, after getting on for two years of war I doubt whether they would mount up, in killed, to the casualties in one day of the Battle of the Somme, and that is a lesson that we must take well to heart.
What are those lessons? First of all, the Navy cannot operate effectively in waters near the enemy land bases. The next is that air-borne troops can quite well land anywhere if they can land in Crete, as Crete is a most inhospitable country and, what is more, they can be reinforced. Air-borne troops can come overnight. Let us take that for granted. The third lesson is that though our troops did not have very many casualties men may apparently be still easily demoralised by dive-bombing and machine-gunning from the air, which does not give casualties but, on the other hand, makes noise. It sounds a strange thing to say, but I am sure it is true, that one of the greatest and most effective weapons which have been used against us so far in all the theatres of war is noise, and it is a matter of training, which should be considered by the Army authorities. We must train against it. It does not matter about Crete. What we are really thinking about in our hearts is this country. I do not believe that these lessons have yet been taken to heart here. I do not believe they have been taken to heart in any circle, including military circles.
Let us apply everything that we have talked about now, not to Crete, but to this country. Crete is past history. It is no good recriminating about it. Let us see how the war is going to work out against this country. I am sure that Hitler will make a peace drive. That will fail. I am sure he will try to liquidate the second front in the Balkans, and either liquidate Russia or come to some agreement with her, and neutralise Turkey and so on, but even if he does all that, and has failed with his peace offensive, still he has to face up to the bombing of Germany next winter with ever-increasing force by our 102 Air Force based on this country. Will he stand up to it? My opinion is that he does not want to stand up to it and that he will try to bring this country to its knees before he has to face it. Therefore Germany must break us if she wants to win. Sooner or later she must make the plunge against this country, provided we have the guts to see everything else through. She will make the invasion, as far as I see it, as follows:
First of all, there will be a circling movement through Spain to Africa and then northwards to Greenland and Iceland, which is an island defended by our troops, and all really part and parcel of the defence of this country, to the Faroes, the Hebrides and so on, all islands, all very much part and parcel of this country's defence, with air-borne troops, and to various other places in the north. Next I am pretty certain in my own mind that they will go for Southern Ireland. Is Eire properly defended? If not, why not? We may have no control over Eire, but we have to begin thinking about it. After all, we have to think of ourselves, and there are such things as free Irishmen as well as Free Frenchmen. Have we ample troops now in Ulster with ample armoured support ready to go in and take over, the very first hour that the German troops start landing? Are Ulster, Wales, Cornwall, and the Scilly Islands studded with aerodromes prepared to give the necessary support to the Irish, North or South, against any invasion, and are those aerodromes themselves protected? Are they underground? Are there aeroplanes on the mountain sides and so on? After having attacked Eire the invaders will come direct to this country. They will come, in my opinion, first of all like this: They will strike a tremendous blow simultaneously at every single aerodrome they can in this country. On some aerodromes they will use bombs, on some they will use paratroops and glider troops, and others they will just neutralise by throwing down blister gases.
I am going to ask these questions: I do not necessarily want the answers, a great many of which I know already, but I would like the people responsible to check up if they will. Is there an alternative aerodrome to every one of these aerodromes? Is every aeroplane at all times kept in a blast-proof shelter constructed above ground, half-way under ground or 103 below ground, so that they will not be caught unawares by such a sudden attack? Is every aerodrome adequately defended, not by the youngest of our soldiers, but by A1 troops who are actually on the spot, not an hour's journey or a three hours' attack from them, but actually on the spot with the weapons and with the proper armoured fighting vehicles or whatever may be necessary to deal with an attack? Are the airmen themselves all trained as infantry soldiers to take part in the defence of their aerodromes? Sometimes one sees 2,000 airmen at one spot. Are they being trained as infantry to take part in the defence of those aerodromes? Are they physically fit to take part in that defence; do they do the route marches, five miles across country, and everything else that gives them physical fitness to take part in what may be a very fierce battle? Is every aerodrome 1oo per cent. proof against gas, and, what is more, is it possible immediately to decontaminate every single aeroplane? Probably it is; I merely want the matter checked up.
After the aerodromes have been attacked and, as I say, probably simultaneously attacked all over the country, next in the invasion will come the landing of air-borne troops. That is nothing new. The attack on Crete is nothing new. We ought to have learned our lessons in Holland, where an air-borne division landed behind the Dutch lines. I suggest that something like 60,000 German troops could be landed in one sortie alone.
§ Captain Poole
Does the hon. and gallant Member not seriously think that he might run the risk of giving some very valuable information to the enemy? I suggest, with all due respect, that his speech is at any rate to some extent dangerous.
§ Lieut.-Colonel Macnamara
The hon. Member who has asked me that question has every right to do so. I assure him that I have given very careful thought before making any statement at all, and I do not think that anything I have said or will say would give any secret away. If by any chance there is the slightest suspicion that I am doing so, I very much hope that someone on the Front Bench will immediately check me. But I feel the hour is grave. As I said, some 104 60,000 troops might be landed in one sortie of aeroplanes, which could then go back for more. We have got to be prepared for a very big landing of air-borne troops inland, all coming at once. I suggest that these will probably be landed with a view to capturing London. They will probably be landed in Kent, Sussex, Essex and all round London with that aim. One wants to feel that we have become not only island defence-minded, with our Navy and sea, our coastal defences, our Air Force over the sea, but that we have also become inland defence-minded, not only from the point of view of aerodromes, but from every point of view—from the point of view of defending every headquarters, every gun there may be in the field, and so on.
We want to feel that the whole of our strategy of defence, our tactics, are now based on the lessons we have learned from the battle of Holland and the battle of Crete, that we are inland defence-minded, and not thinking, as we used to do in the last war, of a long line with the enemy in front of it, the line in this case being our coast. I wish to get that point emphasised without giving any details which might give any secret away. Meanwhile there would be the bombing and strafing of all our ground troops and our civilian population. On that point, has our Army yet been trained to stand up against—and I do not think this is any secret—this very matter of noise which I have already pointed out as having been a weapon which undermined morale not only in Crete but in France, and particularly against the French? We must be able to stand up against noise as against gas or anything else. I referred to casualties earlier in my speech, and I suggest that our soldiers have to stand up to dive-bombing—the bombs and machine-gunning from the air—and stand up to as many casualties that way as they did in the last war when they had to face shells and machine-gun fire when moving against the German defended lines.
Above all, and this is the most important point of all, the air-borne landings inland, as we have seen happen in Crete, will be for the purpose of turning from behind our coast defences. That happened in Holland, where the air-borne landings behind the Dutch defences turned those defences. The air-borne landings in this country will, or may, turn 105 some of our coast defences. We must be prepared for that to happen. We must be prepared for the Germans getting into this country not only their air-borne troops but their tanks, through one or two gaps which they may make, especially in the narrow waters where, as the lesson of Crete has told us, the Navy cannot effectively operate, and where the Germans will probably gain local air superiority.
§ Mr. Loftus (Lowestoft)
Surely the conditions would be quite different here; we should have very strong defending forces within very easy reach.
§ Lieut.-Colonel Macnamara
I said that deliberately—where they would gain local air superiority. They would make an absolute effort to gain local superiority at one point where they wanted to get their fighting materials. They could also get them through, even without air superiority, by bringing them overnight. These tanks may get right inland unless one thing is done; that is, that every effort be made to provide anti-tank defence for our troops. It is much better than it was, but, on the other hand, I suggest that with the lessons of France and other countries before us, the Army should have priority over the other Services. The Air Force gets all priorities, and I suggest that antitank weapons for every soldier should be given priority over, say, long-range bombers. I consider this to be a matter of great urgency, and I hope it will be taken up. I hope that the Army will, if necessary, fight with the other Departments so that they get a real priority. I know the situation is improving, but, at the same time, it must get much better than it is at the moment.
I have spoken fairly frankly, and I have found it difficult to speak at all for fear of saying too much. I feel, however, that it is possible not to realise how grave the situation is or how grave it might be for our own country unless we take more precautions than we are taking already. Although I cannot say very much, perhaps I may at least have goaded people into taking up matters around which my speech has fringed. If I have done that, I have done something. I cannot go more into details, but I ask the House to believe me when I say that we are working to fight a 1941–42 war, but that sometimes we are thinking in terms of 106 1914 standards and tactics. It is difficult to get matters put right. One sees so many things that one wants to get put right, and it is difficult to do it. It is impossible to do it through the normal channels; there is too much of a trade union caucus among the people who rule us. At the same time, one can go to the top and get a certain amount put right that way. We shall have to think in much more modern terms than we are thinking at the moment if we are to compete with an enemy and generals who are thinking in very modern terms too. I believe that we can do it, and I am certain that we have the spirit and the initiative if only we will use them.
§ Earl Winterton (Horsham and Worthing)
I think that I shall have the assent of the whole House when I say with what interest we have listened to my hon. and gallant Friend, whose intervention in Debate, owing to the important military duties which he performs, have been very infrequent since the war began. I do not propose to attempt to refer to his speech because, like my right hon. Friend the Minister of Health, I belong to what obviously, in the opinion of my hon. and gallant Friend, is the very outworn generation of people who fought in the war of 1914–18. I would, however, venture to make one observation on my hon. and gallant Friend's speech, and that is that had he ever been in the last war in a really heavy bombardment, he would have known what noise was.
§ Lieut.-Colonel Macnamara
That is my whole point. We should get our present Army to think in the same terms.
§ Earl Winterton
I do not want to quarrel with my hon. and gallant Friend, but I have the honour of knowing some other colonels and, indeed, generals in the modern Army, and they would not agree that the modern soldier is not prepared to face noise. However, it is an interesting point, and, indeed, the whole of my hon. and gallant Friend's speech was most interesting.
It is obvious that the mood of the House to-day is serious, not to say sombre. Those of us who have been here some years can appreciate very quickly what the atmosphere of the House is, and it is a long time since I have seen it more 107 deeply stirred by its whole attitude than it is to-day. It seems rather to take the attitude of Voltaire's famous words:This is not the time for jesting; it does not harmonise with massacres.Massacres in one form and another are going on now all over the world. I prefer to use such wit as is at my disposal for referring to the remarkable manner in which the Government have arranged this Debate and to the ingenious statement of the Prime Minister about the Debate being asked for by certain unspecified channels. I think that his words were "minor channels of Opposition." Incidentally, that is a curious phrase to use about my hon. Friends on these benches and on the benches behind, because the last thing they can be described as is either "minor" or "Opposition." They might almost be regarded as members of the Government. At any rate, it is clear that this Debate was not asked for by those to whom the Government refer as the "embryonic Opposition." It is no doubt very convenient from the Government point of view that there should be no statement from any Minister as to the reason for what, after all, was a calamity, and that only at the end of the Debate will there be an answer from the Prime Minister. I venture with all respect, and without anything which could be described in the slightest degree as discourtesy, to express the hope that when the Prime Minister replies he will deal with the specific points that have been put in various parts of the House. For example, there was the point put by my hon. Friend below the Gangway opposite about an Imperial War Directorate. I do not agree with him, but that, as he said very properly, is the sort of point that should be put in a Debate like this.
I hope very much, therefore, that the Prime Minister will answer those points and will not adopt the plan which is the easiest one for him to adopt—no man can adopt it so easily—the plan of not answering the critics but of covering them with ridicule and rhetoric. Let me say frankly to the House, which has always been kind to me, and allowed me, as other independent Members, to express views that may be unpalatable to the majority, that there has been a tendency in recent Debates to think that because the Govern- 108 ment have won a Debate we have thereby won a battle. We have not done so. It is very dangerous. This must not be taken as applying to the Prime Minister—I would not apply such a wounding term to him—but it is true to say that facts sometimes become obscured in the tropical jungle of florescent rhetoric. As I say, I would not apply such a term to the Prime Minister, but obviously I have in mind other members of the Government, and it is a danger against which we have to guard.
I suggest that the matters under discussion in this Debate should be approached with a completely impartial mind, not weighted with bias for or against His Majesty's Government, because I feel the situation to be too serious for that. I should like to explore that argument for a moment. In the first place, I suggest that ordinary party allegiance such as properly influences hon. Members in time of peace really cannot justifiably function, and I will venture to say why. My hon. and right hon. Friends on the other side were elected, as I was elected, to support a peace-time Conservative Government. It has disappeared. My hon. and right hon. Friends on this side were elected, as Liberals or Socialists, in favour of pacifism and in opposition to capitalism. I do not use the word "pacifism" in any wounding sense, but that was the fact. If I wanted to say anything about their pacifist activities in the past I should refer, for example, to the question of the training of Territorials in the parks, to the Cadet Corps, and other things of that kind.
§ Earl Winterton
The hon. Member is the last person with whom I wish to quarrel, because we have certain things in common.
§ Earl Winterton
I will tell the House what my hon. Friend and I have in common. I am quite serious about this. For one thing, neither of us is afraid to oppose the popular voice of his own party, and that gives us something in common. But what I was going to say is that we should, 109 in my judgment, be betraying the interests of the country if merely because we believe in the National Government and think, as all sensible people do, that the Prime Minister is the best possible man for the post, we refrain from all adverse comment and criticism. I say deliberately and with all seriousness—and here I think there will be no dissent—that that: way lies totalitarianism. If we are to say that because we have a Prime Minister who is obviously a great leader of the people, because we have a Government that is supported by the great majority of this House, it must never be criticised, that the Government and the cause of the country must always be the same, we might as well close Parliament altogether. In fact, I have no doubt that some people, even people in this House, would adopt the foolish, fatuous and dangerous attitude: "Why have Debates at all? Let the Ministers stick to their posts. Close Parliament. Do not have Debates."
If some Members think so, why do they not have the courage to say so? They would not find it popular with their constituents. If they were to say, "I do not want any Debates, I do not want to bring Ministers down here; leave it to Ministers," they would have to say to their constituents, "I am not prepared to accept your complaints because I leave it all to the Prime Minister." That would be playing into Goebbels' hands, because the Nazis would like the world to think that it was a one-man war. I do not want to intrude my personal affairs, but I was broadcasting the other day to the Empire, and in that broadcast I denied that it was a one-man war, saying that we were all in it, and "Lord Haw-Haw" devoted eight minutes to replying to me and said, on the contrary, that it was a one-man war, that this House and this. Government would not go on without the Prime Minister, and that if he were removed to-morrow, we should make peace. That shows the danger of assuming that one must never criticise and must never comment. I say, therefore, deliberately, that if the country felt that we could not win the war under the present conditions of Government the people would demand that another should be formed, if necessary of elements outside this House, through the medium of an election. But they do not believe 110 —why should they?—that the whole genius of the nation is confined to those at present in this House and in this Government.
In fact, no such crisis is in sight, and we should not fear the danger of its emergence to such an extent as would cause us to stifle any honest and constructive criticisms which we wish to make. The other day the Prime Minister spoke very amusingly of an embryonic Opposition. I take no exception, nor, I am sure, would other Members who were criticised, to anything that the Prime Minister said, except for one comment which I thought wounding and injurious and most unfair. That was his reference to the right hon. Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) as a sort of Marshal Petain. If the Prime Minister were present—and I did not give him notice that I intended to make this reference— I should have reminded him that he and I were once proud to serve in the Government of the right hon. Member for Carnarvon Boroughs and that both of us, on platform after platform, said that if any man showed courage in the darkest hours in the last war and helped to win that war, it was the right hon. Gentleman. I regret that the Prime Minister should have thought it necessary to say that in any way the right hon. Gentleman resembles Marshal Petain.
The Prime Minister paid my right hon. Friend the Member for Devonport (Mr. Hore-Belisha) and myself the compliment of attacking us and underlined our responsibility for certain deficiencies in armaments at the beginning of the war. I should like to say a word about that, because it affects the whole basis of this Debate, which is. With what arms and armaments are our Forces provided today? I will begin by saying that I an; indeed flattered to think that the Prime Minister should suppose that the 10 weeks which I spent at the Air Ministry was a period so fraught with possibilities of good or evil in our war potential, but he has thought it necessary to refer to it on three occasions. I may mention incidentally that my noble Friend Lord Swinton and I—I was Deputy to Lord Swinton—were at the Air Ministry more than three years ago, exactly the time taken by Hitler, starting from scratch, to build the biggest air force then existing in Europe outside Russia. Further, while it is true that the pilots who 111 won the Battle of Britain were largely trained during Lord Swinton's period as Secretary of State, if there is any lack of aeroplanes—and I do not know whether there is or not—I am prepared to say that the Prime Minister must obviously look nearer home for the responsibility for that lack of aeroplanes. He must look to the present Chancellor of the Exchequer, who was two years at the Air Ministry, the most critical years; he must look to the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of State; and he must look to the present Secretary of State for Air.
I should like to say, in parenthesis, that had those of us who were at the Air Ministry more than three years ago listened to the foolish advice tendered to us from some quarters to make cheap mass-produced planes, we should never have won the Battle of Britain. It was the superiority of our planes over those of the Germans that won that battle. At that time I asserted, standing at the Box in the other House, amid constant interruptions by the present Prime Minister, that at that time the question was whether we should go for quantity or quality, because we could not then have both, and what is happening in America illustrates the truth of what was then said. It is true that the locusts ate a lot of the years during the period of the Baldwin-Chamberlain Government, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Lord Chancellor, the Minister of Health and other members of the Government could tell us how and why that was so much better than I could. What I am concerned to know, and what the whole House is concerned to know, is —I am not using an original phrase, it has already appeared in the Press—how many days, how many months and how many weeks the locusts are eating to-day. We have had some very disturbing information on that very point from no less a person than the Minister of Labour himself.
It is surely not unfair—and this is an answer to many of the attacks which have been brought against the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Devonport and myself—to make the point that the war has now lasted 21 months. The Prime Minister was a powerful member of the Committee of Imperial Defence from the very beginning of the war, and he has been its most powerful member for the last 112 13 months. In the last war you could build a destroyer in something like nine months; we may assume that bombers, heavy tanks and guns can be built to-day in not more than 18 days. You have to build the factories to begin with, and train men and women to make those articles. With the unlimited power which the Government have possessed in the last 13 months, far greater power than any other Government have had, there should be, at the end of these 13 months, a pretty big supply of machines and ammunition functioning now. Are they doing so?
I must make a further reference to a matter which affects the position of the whole country as well as some of us who were in office in the past. I took part in a campaign, now almost forgotten, in those dark and dismal days of the last war. I am not here to attack the Prime Minister for Gallipoli, because I have always been a supporter of his, over Gallipoli, I think he was badly treated. He was let down by the Chief of the Naval Staff. I am not going into that matter, but I say that when the Prime Minister or any member of this Government, or anyone on the other side of the House, twits those of us who were in office during the last war about the state of affairs in this country then, let them carry their memories back to the last war. Let me quote to them what General Foch said on that occasion about our position in the last war, and let them see how it is relevant to what is happening to-day. He said:For the battlefield of 1914, the Entente had not brought more than a British Army of six divisions and a French Army lacking in the artillery and ammunition required for modern war.What is the situation now? As a result of the action of the Liberal Government, of which the Prime Minister was a leading member as First Lord of the Admiralty, the lives of everyone of us in that campaign were necessarily in danger, all through that campaign. We never had enough guns or men, due to lack of preparedness on the part of the then Government. Here is the lesson to be learned for to-day—and I speak of what I saw in Palestine, but I think it applied to the other fronts. From the summer of 1916, the supply of guns and men began to increase very rapidly indeed. Therefore, applying that lesson to the problems of the present war, I 'say, deliberately, that from now onwards at any rate, it will be 113 impossible for any spokesman of the Government to put the blame on their predecessors for any lack of munitions, except perhaps in heavy ships, big ships, and certain guns. It will not be possible for the Government to say, as they have said so happily up to now, "Look at the situation before we came into office."
I go on from that to say that we are apt to be unduly depressed in the House of Commons and in the country by defeats and unduly elated by victories. The sinking of the "Bismarck" and the loss of Crete are defeats in a limited field, for our enemies and ourselves respectively, but they are indecisive, so far as the final result is concerned. I was slightly shocked by the tremendous enthusiasm shown by this House when we learned of the sinking of the "Bismarck," because, in the same speech made by the right hon. Gentleman, and almost as an aside, he admitted that we had lost two cruisers and four destroyers off Crete. I am not criticising the right hon. Gentleman, but I disliked the whole atmosphere created by the cheers at the sinking of the "Bismarck" and, almost as obiter dicta, the statements that we had lost two cruisers and four destroyers. This loss was very serious indeed, and we have lost others since. It has been stated that our losses have not been considerable, but I must point out that our losses in ships have been extremely serious and most grave. It was a grave mistake to adopt that attitude. I assert the old point, which has been made by many hon. Members in this House and which cannot be made too often, that the real battle is still in the shipyards, mines and munition works, and in the fields of Great Britain and our Empire overseas.
I would call the attention of the Lord Privy Seal—he was good enough to agree that the matter should be considered—to an astonishing state of affairs. We were given by President Roosevelt, in the course of his "Fireside talk" a fortnight ago, figures graver, in my judgment, than any yet given, except possibly for a month or so in 1917. We were told by President Roosevelt, who was speaking with all the authority of the head of a great and friendly State, a man who is supreme in his own position and one of the greatest Presidents the United States have ever had, that our losses in ships were treble our replacements and double 114 the output of our combined yards. It is astonishing that a statement of that kind should be made by the President of the United States in a broadcast, and should never have been discussed publicly in this country. Does that not emphasise the need for the Debate for which my hon. Friends on this side of the House have asked, to take place at the earliest possible date and to consider the whole shipping position? [Interruption.] I would say to the Prime Minister, as he has often said to me, that I hope I am not interrupting him in his conversations with his colleagues. I could not but overhear something he said. I hope that he will be able, through the mouth of the Prime Minister of this country, to give us a little more information on this matter.
The truth is that the British worker and every worker in the Dominions, India and the Colonies, are fighting the German workers. I should like to say a word on this question of help from the Dominions, India and the Colonies. For six or seven whole weeks I and one or two other Members of this House tried last September and October to get a Debate on the subject of the production of munitions and the provision of man-power in India and the Dominions. We met with the same difficulties that have been described in the Debate: this was an Imperial subject, and therefore it did not interest the House as a whole. After six weeks, we got a Debate. There was a very thin attendance, but an excellent speech was made by the Secretary of State for India. He gave us insufficient information. Therefore, I venture to put this point, in tabloid form only: We know practically nothing of the means being taken by the Government to exploit the enormous resources in manpower of Africa and India, the growing resources in munitions fabrication of South Africa, of Calcutta, Bombay and other centres of industry in India, and of Australia and New Zealand. I venture to urge that we should conceive a very big idea in connection with this matter. We could build up in course of time strategical reserves in West Africa, in the Middle East behind the present line, in India and in Malaya—where we have already made a start—munitioned and provisioned from South Africa, India, New Zealand and Australia, so that the Germans would know all the time, when they stretched 115 out their lines in the way described by the hon. and gallant Gentleman who last addressed the House, that however far they go they will have ahead of them fresh reserves of properly trained troops. There is far too much talk about this war as if it were a war between the 67,000,000 white inhabitants of the British Empire, helped by the benevolent inhabitants of the United States, and 80,000,000 Germans. It is not a war of that kind. The name "British Empire" or "British Commonwealth" is meaningless unless you regard it in terms of 500,000,000 inhabitants and one-quarter of the world's surface, and it is fantastic to say that we could not enlist to-day, if we had the wish to, at least half-a-million more men in India and at least half-a-million more men in Africa. It is typical of our foolish propaganda that while the Press has been full of accounts of the most gallant work done by the Anzacs, there has hardly been a word about the splendid fighting of the East African troops.
§ Earl Winterton
Or about the English, for that matter. Therefore I say that we have to regard this war as one which depends upon the great body of workers in this country, in the Dominions and in India. As far as this country is concerned—although we are not primarily dealing in this Debate with production— I think most of us would agree that the great body of workers is doing very well indeed. There is probably less trouble in the works, and less "ca'canny," than there was in the last war, but there are one or two black spots, and I wish to call attention to one of them because it affects the very question which ought to be uppermost in this Debate. I wish to deal with only one, to which the Minister of Labour has drawn attention, and I would ask the House to realise the full gravity of what seems to follow from what the Minister of Labour said. What we require most urgently at the present time are more and more aerodromes, of all sorts, all over the country. If we do not get those aerodromes, we may not have the air margin necessary to defeat an invasion. What happens? Quite casually, in a speech delivered about a week ago, the Minister of Labour appealed to the men constructing these 116 aerodromes to work faster. He said that they were being constructed too slowly. Can anyone conceive that in Germany the German High Command would have to appeal to workers to make aerodromes faster? They would make them, by some means or other, at once. [An HON. MEMBER: "And in America."] In America they have a much more drastic method of dealing with them. I was not advocating that we should send troops, but the interruption of my hon. Friend is quite useful, because it shows that other democratic countries are not afraid, when the necessity arises, to use very drastic methods.
What is the position with regard to these aerodromes? My hon. Friends on this side of the House must not take this as any general attack upon labour, nor as an attack upon organised labour, because the men concerned do not belong to any trade union. They consist largely of elderly men and of boys of 17 or 18 who earn enormous wages by doing construction work. I assert, and I take full responsibility for what I say, that if you go to the aerodromes and watch these people at work, you will see that they are not doing a quarter of the work they ought to do. Men in uniform, conscripted for service, receiving a conscript's wage and having to work 24 hours a day, men who come back from bombing Germany, go to aerodromes and see this state of affairs. It is intolerable that that sort of thing should be going on. What is the way to deal with it? I know there will be an outcry when I say it, but I say quite frankly that it is for the Minister of Labour to announce that he has powers under the Act passed last year giving him complete control of person and property, and that for their good and for the good of the country it would be far better that those men, both under and over military age, should be put into uniform, rehabilitated if necessary, trained and given good food and medical attention, and then set to work. If the Minister were to say that, no one would dare to get up in this House and say it was a bad thing.
§ Earl Winterton
I am quite prepared to admit that some of this slackness may be due to the way in which the men are treated by the contractors, but all I am concerned to say is that it is an absolute disgrace that this should be going on. That is one of the things which the Government ought to take in hand.
In conclusion, I would only say this: It is not usual to pay a tribute in this House to the Press, it is rather the other way, but I think that as a great legislative Assembly we do owe a debt of gratitude to what is commonly known as the popular Press, especially the four great daily papers, the "News Chronicle," the "Daily Express," the "Daily Mail," and the "Daily Herald," which from entirely different points of view have in the past week made these points, which are the pivotal points of the situation in this country to-day, namely, that we can and must win the war, and that any faint heart who doubts it is an actual or potential traitor; and secondly—and this is equally important, and I beg the Prime Minister and his leading Ministers to make more of it in their speeches than they have done—that we can easily lose the war by our own faults as a nation, and lose it within the next three or four months.
§ Earl Winterton
Yes, we can, and it is no use the Noble Lady saying "No." People who say" No" are in many ways as bad" as Quislings. The two types of people who should be tackled in this country are those who say we cannot win the war and ought to give in, and those who say that under no circumstances can we lose it. Of course we can. We can lose it to-morrow by bad direction and in half-a-dozen other ways. We can lose it tomorrow if we do not take the right course. Therefore I would venture to suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that he should say— [An HON. MEMBER: "What has it to do with Crete?"] It has this to do with Crete: Crete is not an isolated instance. It is one of a series of instances. What" Happened in Crete is not, as my hon. Friend may quite falsely suppose, necessarily due to any original tactical or strategical error on the part of the higher command there or of the 118 Government here. It is due to a whole chain of circumstances. One of those chains of circumstances is that neither in military matters nor in civilian matters have we developed and controlled our total available man-power and production power as much as is possible.
I apologise for the length at which I have spoken, but I think the points I have put forward are extremely relevant to a Debate of this character. They are points which could be put by the Government, who should warn the people more than they do on the fact that what will win this war in the next few months is the adoption of the German method of putting guns before butter, and being prepared to put up, if necessary, with far greater privations than we are undergoing now. I commend what has been done by the President of the Board of Trade in the way of rationing—I think it has been excellent—but we may have to ration far more strictly. What the public do not like is to be told by one Minister that everything in the garden is lovely and then a week later to be informed that, notwithstanding what was previously said, it is necessary to impose severe restrictions, whether in the matter of food, clothes, tobacco or anything else. We ought to be told. We are living at a time when we ought to apply to this country a siege economy. We must not think that during the next three or four months we can afford to sit up and case off. This war will be won or lost, within the next three or four months, in the factories, in the fields, and in the shipyards of this country, and on the seas around Britain.
§ Captain Godfrey Nicholson (Farnham)
In common with all other hon. Members, I intend that my remarks should be helpful, and I wish no doubt to be cast upon my loyalty to the Prime Minister, although I do not extend that to some of his helpers, or to some of those who hold prominent position in the nation. Great as the uneasiness is that is felt throughout the country, that uneasiness is not directed towards the Prime Minister personally. But there is great uneasiness. I do not think it could be otherwise when it is realised that every time the British Army has met the German Army it has had to retreat. This uneasiness is serious, because it is affecting the national morale and the national war effort. It is no good taking these retreats or defeats piecemeal; 119 considering Crete as a separate item, explaining it away, and thinking that you have explained away the whole cause of the national uneasiness. Crete is a symptom of a very complex set of factors. Unless we can use this Debate, this inquiry into the retreat from Crete, as a means of identifying the causes, this will be a Debate of mere recrimination. The first and prime factor is that of supply. I shall return to that later. There are many secondary factors. The first is the degree in which the implications of the supply factor affect our naval and military strategy. The second is the degree to which errors of appreciation of the supply factor have brought about errors of appreciation in strategy. We have made, and we continue to make, profound errors of appreciation with regard to arms and equipment. For example, throughout the Army there is grave uneasiness at the lack of air cooperation, the lack of dive-bombers, the lack of parachute troops, and, above all, the fact that in training in this country the Army seldom sees more than a single token aeroplane, and the fact that we are inclined to fight dive-bombers and mechanised forces with an equipment which denies the use of the dive-bomber to ourselves.
I want to get down to the point that is worrying me most. I have already touched upon the lack of co-operation and liaison with the air arm. I come to another side of the same question, the errors in strategy that our Army leaders have made. I blame the Army primarily for the lack of air co-operation, because the Army are at fault in not insisting upon it. We are given to blurring over our defeats. Prime errors in appreciation have been made in every one of our campaigns. France was a disastrous defeat. We have had defeats in Libya. We have had another defeat in Crete. I pass over the Greek defeat, because we were forced to go to Greece for political reasons. Admittedly we were forced to go into Belgium for political reasons; but it was a very important error by our military leaders to go into Belgium if they thought it would lead to the loss of our Army, with all its equipment, as it did. In the same way, in Libya there was a supreme error of appreciation. Our victory over the Italians in Libya was as much a surprise to us as it was to the Italians. Our 120 retreat from Cyrenaicea came as a surprise. So it was in Crete. I think it was a mistake to defend Crete, as it was defended without air support. If that was a political decision, the Army leaders deserve full blame for not having refused to undertake the defence in that manner when they knew it was doomed to failure. If it was a military decision, it was a prime error of judgment to hazard such enormous forces in that way.
What I have said up to now may seem disjointed, as indeed it is. I am working up to this point, that the uneasiness in this country is due to the fact that the same men who have made these prime errors are still in control. I am not asking for heads on chargers; that is a foolish thing to do. But if a battalion commander makes a serious blunder he gets the sack, if a staff officer makes a cardinal error his divisional or Army commander says to him, "I like you very much, and I shall be very glad to see you in peace time, but I cannot have people on my staff who make errors of this sort" But that does not apply to the higher ranks. It is the same thing in the Navy.
§ Captain Nicholson
Yes, it should apply to politicians too. The uneasiness which is felt is due to the fact that there have been no changes, that insufficient efforts appear to be made to find military leaders who comprehend the possibilities of modern war.
§ Captain Cobb (Preston)
Has it not occurred to the hon. and galiant Member that these military leaders may have been overruled?
§ Captain Nicholson
Indeed it has. That is an exceedingly important part of the argument. If the hon. and gallant Member had had patience, he would have seen that that was the very point that I was going to make. It will be said, "It is the politicians who have given ill-judged instructions to the Army; that is the trouble" It may be. They say that it was the politicians who took a political decision—I am not using that adjective in any derogatory sense—to advance into Belgium, or to send forces to Norway or to go to Greece. It certainly was a political decision to go into Belgium, but if the situation had been properly appreciated by the British General Staff in 121 France, they would have seen that that was bound to run the risk of hazarding the whole of our Expeditionary Force.
§ Earl Winterton
What does my hon. and gallant Friend suggest they should have done? Should the whole lot of them have resigned? How could they prevent right hon. Gentlemen sitting on the Front Bench opposite or the Prime Minister coming to these decisions unless they resigned in a body?
§ Captain Nicholson
They could have done two things. It is very easy to judge after the event, as the Noble Lord will agree, and perhaps the complete defeat of the French Army could not have been foreseen. But they had two lines of conduct before them. They could have said, "We consider that we are running such a hazard that we cannot do this." Land warfare is an expert job, and I cannot see any leader worthy of the name obeying the orders of the Cabinet if he really believed that in so doing he would run the risk of losing the whole of the forces under his command. I say that definitely. Secondly, what they could have done, if they had appreciated the possible speed of the German advance, was to have safeguarded their lines of communication to the deep-water forts. I defy the right hon. Gentleman to contradict that. That is where the cardinal blunders have been made. It is the same in Crete. It may have been a political decision. If it was a political decision, did the Army accept the decision against their better judgment? A great general, if he is a great general, does not accept a political decision against his better judgment, if, in his opinion, it seriously jeopardises the safety of the forces under his command. It is no good soldiers sheltering themselves behind the orders of politicians above them. I understand that the successful campaign in Iraq was a Cabinet decision, and the Cabinet deserves our full gratitude for that decision. If the soldiers are big enough men, and make a correct appreciation of the position, they will not accept decisions from the Cabinet when they think that they would end in defeat.
So much for this digression. I come back to the main theme, which still is the cardinal cause of our defeats. The secondary causes are continued failure to appreciate the need for modern weapons 122 and the sort of uses to which they can be put, failure to appreciate the methods of the enemy and above all the speed of the enemy. If to-day a decision were taken that we should go in for dive-bombing to the same extent as the Germans, how long would it take before our Forces were equipped with dive-bombers? At least a year. If to-day the Army Council decided that the British platoon commander should have the same air support as the German platoon commander, how long would it be before it came into being? Does the House realise that the German platoon commander can "whistle up," so to speak, air support within 10 or 15 minutes, whereas in our case the request goes from platoon to company, from company to battalion, from battalion to brigade, from brigade to division, and he is lucky if air support arrives within two or three hours? By that time the whole position may be fundamentally different.
It is these things that are causing uneasiness. We still do not seem to realise that by the introduction of the dive-bomber, and close communication between troops and air forces, and between the air and armoured units, the Germans have revolutionised the art of war. We have refused to recognise that revolution. We must recognise it and secure full and perfect co-operation between air and land forces. We must see to it that our Armies are commanded by men who do not make these cardinal blunders. If we blame the politician, we must encourage the soldiers not to accept fatal orders from politicians. I do not believe that they are so encouraged. The country is sick to death of continual reverses, continual defeat, coupled with the failure to exert 100 per cent. of our possible war effort.
For example, to this very day the country does not know who has the final word in deciding priority in supplies, whether it is Lord Beaverbrook or the Lord President of the Council. Which is it? I ask for a definite answer. Up to this very minute the country does not know how priorities are decided. Before the war, the Treasury was the deciding factor in matters of priority, and the Treasury had this advantage, that the terms on which they decided priority were pounds, shillings and pence, which are easy to assess. But to-day you have to assess your priorities in terms of tonnages 123 and man-hours. I suggest in all seriousness that the Treasury methods should be adopted in assessing priorities and that a staff should be borrowed from the Treasury and made dependent upon the Minister whose duty it is to determine priorities.
I apologise for the length of my speech and the rather rambling way in which I have delivered it, but I wish to express to the House my firm conviction that the country is uneasy. It is not sick of the Prime Minister. It wants the Prime Minister to go on being Prime Minister, as indeed I do. He is not the greatest Prime Minister since the younger Pitt; he is greater than the younger Pitt. He is our chosen leader, and the country will follow him anywhere. But we want to see him cut out the dead wood, in the War Cabinet, and in the Army, and in the Navy. There is a lot of it. We want to see men in all positions who are aware of what modern war means.
§ Mr. George Griffiths (Hemsworth)
Will the hon. and gallant Member tell us where the dead wood is to be found, and then we shall know?
§ Captain Nicholson
It is not for a very junior soldier to say where the military dead wood is to be found. It is not for a Member of Parliament to dictate to a Prime Minister to whom he has just declared his unswerving loyalty exactly who his assistants should or should not be.
§ Mr. Griffiths
If the hon. and gallant Gentleman knows that there is some dead wood, then we ought to know where it is.
§ Captain Nicholson
With all respect to the House and to the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Mr. G. Griffiths), I think that that is a frivolous contribution.
§ Captain Nicholson
My contribution to this Debate is intended to be serious and 124 to express grave uneasiness on my own part and on the part of my constituents, and of those other electors with whom I come in contact, and I have endeavoured to express it as well as I can.
§ Mr. Bellenger (Bassetlaw)
I did not follow entirely the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Farnham (Captain Nicholson) when he laid down as a principle that if generals disagreed with orders given by politicians, they should resign in war-time. If you are to carry that principle into the Army, it will lead to a serious situation. It will lead almost to anarchy in the Army. Perhaps the House will believe me when I say that I really am an old soldier, having fought in two wars in the front line. As an old soldier I can quite understand that it is necessary that permanent Army staff people should have opinions of their own and express them. But obviously they must express them through the proper channel—through the Army channel. The Chief of the Imperial General Staff, on the Army side, listens to those representations and if necessary conveys them to the War Cabinet.
Having fought in Belgium in this war and the last, I am certain that it was not an entirely political decision that sent us into that country. Belgium has been the historic battleground of Europe for centuries, and I believe that if that country had been properly defended, or if we had had adequate defences on the frontier, we should never have been rushed out of France so quickly as we were. It was due almost to apathy in Army circles, and nobody knows it better than the Secretary of State for War at that tune, the right hon. Member for Devonport (Mr. Hore-Belisha). There were serious differences, I believe, at that time between the political side and the Army Command as to the defences, and it was purely because of the lack of adequate defences from the Magi-not line to the sea that we lost that battle. Not even the 10 armoured divisions that the Germans were supposed to have launched against the French—not against us—on the North front, or their dive-bombers, could have pushed us out. Not any number of dive-bombers they could send against this country to-day will defeat us in this country, although I recognise only too well that our defences are not all they could be. The hazard of launching 100 per cent. attack against this 125 country would be too great for Hitler to lose, and he could not afford to lose it.
That is why I disagree with the outline of strategy given to us by the hon. and gallant Member for Chelmsford (Lieut. -Colonel Macnamara). I disagree with him that our strategy is right, but what do we know of strategy? Obviously, it is in the hands of the Government and in the hands of the Prime Minister himself, who is head of the Committee of Defence. He knows what it is, and obviously we cannot criticise it. We may have opinions as to a certain part of it, but I do not think we can criticise it in its entirety. What I would prefer to do is to refer to what I would call the tactical mishandling of our troops which occurred in Norway, France and Greece, and now in Crete. The hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Chelmsford referred to certain things to which he knows the answer. Everybody who knows anything about the Army knows that young soliders battalions have been sent to guard aerodromes and do guard duties, so destroying their young spirit. Those of us who have seen what the men in France and other campaigns have had to withstand in the way of onslaughts by German dive-bombers, tanks and motorcycle units know that the job of guarding aerodromes is not a job for young soldiers to tackle. We want much more seasoned troops for that, as the hon. and gallant Gentleman knows.
There is one cardinal feature that arises from this Cretan battle, and, if I may, I would like to concentrate upon it. It is that undoubtedly the Army must have its own Air Arm. The days have long gone by when we could go into academic discussions as to whether bombers could drop bombs down the funnels of battleships. Those who have taken part in recent warfare know the remarkable strength that air power has given to the German infantry. They do not trouble about bayonets and cold steel. We know the complete cooperation between the German air arm and their ground forces. It makes no difference whether it is in reconnaissance, bombing or dive-bombing, the German air forces are the modern artillery of the German army today. Whereas in the last war we massed guns wheel to wheel to create a barrage, to-day that is obsolete; it is the air arm that is doing military work, and only when the line is likely to 126 become static is it necessary to bring up ground artillery to do its proper work.
I suggest to the War Office that this lesson has not been thoroughly digested by our General Staff. We are not having a post mortem or an inquest, because that presumes that the body is already dead. I believe the body is still alive; I believe we can win this war, but I do not think we are going the right way to win it at the present moment. I suggest that the War Office should do something other than tell us that there is some Army Co-operational Air Force or some organisation that somehow links our Air Force with the Army. I think every German panzer division has at least one squadron of planes entirely at its own command. On occasions squadrons are put under the command of the divisional commander, just as in the same way heavy artillery is placed in the hands of a divisional general, instead of keeping it in the hands of G.H.Q. We must do the same with our Air Force. I do not think it is of much use discussing why we lost Crete or whether it is such a big disaster. We must concentrate on those features of the battle from which we can draw a lesson if we are to get any results from a military point of view.
The hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Farnham said that we had dead wood in the Government. Of course, everybody knows it; the Lobbies, smoke-rooms and clubs are full of talk about it. Many hon. Members on this side of the House, when they talk about it privately, can put their finger on it, and I suggest that we cannot tolerate this position much longer. We have had for five or six years a sense of frustration. Time and time again the Government have been warned—and by nobody more than the present Prime Minister when he was a critic—of the disaster facing them and facing us. There is no doubt about the eminence of the Prime Minister. We all know we could not replace him at the present time with somebody else who would conduct this war to a successful conclusion. There are few who have such a stout heart or believe in our victory as he does. We do not want to displace the Prime Minister, but we say to him, as we are entitled to say to every general, "Choose your own personal staff, but they are your staff and you are responsible for them, and if they make a mistake, you 127 have to dismiss them; if you allow them to make too many mistakes, we may have to dismiss you." I believe that will arise if there are too many mistakes. Was it Napoleon who said that the most successful general is he who makes the least number of mistakes? He admitted the possibility of generals making mistakes, but he warned his generals that they could not go on being generals for long if they made too many mistakes.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Lees-Smith), who opened the Debate with a very sparkling address, referred to the methods used by the Germans in Crete. Those methods were not novel. Crash landings were known long before Crete was invaded. If my right hon. Friend has had access to the military intelligence that was gathered together and issued in the form of staff documents after the Norwegian campaign, he will know that crash landings were made by the Germans on Oslo aerodrome. My criticism is that we have not digested the lessons that ought to have been learned immediately after the Germans invaded Poland. In that campaign the Germans did everything that they have done since. The only difference is that, with their initiative, they have brought these things to a much finer art and a much more successful conclusion. They wanted aeroplanes and tanks to overwhelm the Poles. To-day they do not even want the tanks to overwhelm us. But still the central theory underlying German military tactics is the same. I suggest to the House and to the War Office that they might take a leaf out of the German book. After all, the German army has been a very successful army. Let us, if necessary, if we want success, copy many of its methods.
A question has been asked as to who was responsible for withdrawing the Air Force from Crete. I notice that the Secretary of State for Air is now present. He was not present when that question was asked. I think he can give us the answer. I would hazard a guess that it was the Air Command that was responsible for withdrawing the Air Force in the same way as when the Air Force was withdrawn from France. Then the Army had no control. At corps headquarters we had, I think, a wing-commander and another staff officer to whom the corps 128 commander looked for guidance in air matters, but at a certain stage in the retreat, possibly at the stage when they could not maintain their aeroplanes in the field, they had gone. There was no question of the corps commander saying, Send out a sortie of aeroplanes on reconnaissance to see what is in front of us" The wing-commander had gone. Why? Because he had received his orders direct from his superior in the Air Command. The corps commander, a lieutenant-general, and even G.H.Q. themselves, had no control. The Air Command was a separate and complete command. I do not know whether the Secretary of State for Air has any views on that matter, but certainly the War Office ought to have very definite views on it. This is not a time when we should fall out over matters of status. The Navy, the Army and the Air Force should be all linked up together. We must have that if we are to get victory.
I want to refer to one other matter that was mentioned by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Chelmsford. I do not know whether he has been to the front and experienced dive-bombing, but I disagree with him entirely when he speaks about training troops in the noise which there is when there is dive-bombing. I believe it would have quite the reverse effect from that which he suggested if the noise were created in the training. The troops will know all about it when the time comes; there is no need to go half way to meet the trouble. From my experience in France, on the beaches at Dunkirk, where we were dive-bombed par excellence, I believe that the troops were not so much concerned with the dive-bombing so long as they could see our aeroplanes in the sky. Even if they saw only three of our aeroplanes against a host of German aeroplanes, they cheered from their hearts, and carried on. They will carry on; they will have to carry on, just as the civilians have to carry on under bombing night after night. The British Army does not like noise any more than we do, but they will carry on as long as they have weapons either in their hands or in the air above them.
I say in all seriousness and with a full sense of responsibility that even the morale of the Army may be affected if they are given too many occasions like Crete and Dunkirk, when they curse the 129 Air Force, as they did all along the beaches at Dunkirk. I hope Members of the Government will read a booklet that was published some months ago under the title of "The Diary of a Staff Officer" In that book a responsible staff officer— not an Air staff officer but an Army officer attached to the Air Force—stated that the troops spat on the ground when they heard mention of the Air Force. That was not general, and I never saw it, but I heard some very strong criticism of our lack of air support. Will you be able to maintain the morale of the troops on whom you depend for ultimate victory if you give them bayonets to fight against tanks and Tommy guns, and if you deny them air support? I can well imagine the feelings of the troops in Crete who knew that they were facing slaughter with no possible chance of success. If the German troops had suffered under the same conditions, they would never have hung on for 12 days. These are the lessons which I hope the House and our staffs will learn.
The Prime Minister and certain other members of the Government have shown their resentment of criticism on more than one occasion. I venture to remind the House that in the Debate on Norway I was the only Labour Member who said that Labour ought to take its share of responsibility in the Government. There may have been many of my colleagues who felt the same, but they did not say so. I have always taken a more or less independent attitude, although in complete loyalty to my party. If ever there were a time when loyalty to my party would affect the independence of my judgment and thought, I should resign from the party. I have not done so. I have been in complete agreement with members of my party going into the Government, but I say—and I believe this is in the minds of other hon. Members—that not all the members either of my own party or of the party which the Prime Minister leads are carrying on the war as they ask the country and the common people to carry on the war. We cannot ask the country to put its whole back into the war unless it is led by men. and women who put their backs into the war, too.
§ Sir John Wardlaw-Milne (Kidderminster)
More than once during this Debate the situation which we face to-day 130 has been described as grave. I do not know that I would have used that expression myself, but this is certainly a most important period in the conduct of the war. I think the House was entitled to this Debate, however it may have been arranged, and I think it is right that it should have been held in public. There is, so far as I know, no weakening on the part of the public in their support of the Government or in their determination to achieve victory. The Government have every reason to be satisfied with the attitude which the House of Commons has taken up in these last 18 months. The position of any Member speaking in public on the war situation must be one of difficulty, and it is well that that should be recognised both inside and outside this House. But, as I say, there is no weakening in the war effort, and there is no slackening in the country's determination, and certainly, so far as I have seen, the country does not desire to withdraw any of that support which the Prime Minister so justly has secured from all classes of the people. Yet it would be wrong to think that there is no criticism of the conduct of the war, and that strong views are not both held and expressed. As a result of recent events there are grave doubts held throughout the country as to whether, even now, the necessity for complete co-operation between the land, sea and air forces of this country has been fully appreciated. To-day the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Bellenger), and some other speakers who preceded him, have struck a very grave note. I do not pretend to be able to say how much lack of co-operation really exists, but I can say that as a result of recent events there are grave doubts in the country as to whether that co-operation is really 100 per cent.
My hon. Friend below me spoke of command. I want to put a point to the Prime Minister about which I think the country is anxious. This is a completely new kind of war, and everyone knows it. We have no previous experience of war being fought simultaneously in the air, at sea and on land. At the present moment the fight is in the Near East—I dislike the term "Middle East," because that part of the world never has been the Middle East. We have a Commander-in-Chief there, and I do not suggest for one moment that he has not supreme powers. However, I should like to ask, in the event of its being necessary in his view— 131 I give this merely as an example—to hold Crete at the time when we were engaged on that campaign, and the Commander-in-Chief of the Air Force in the Near East said he could not send fighters to Crete because it was impossible to do so as we had no aerodromes, and that it was therefore suicide to send these men to Crete, whether the Commander-in-Chief in the Near East could, in those circumstances, say, "I deeply regret that I have to overrule you, because we must have these fighters, even if these men have to be sacrificed" Is there a supreme command, not on paper, but in reality? We know that in so many other walks of life where there are various men in charge of great works or great branches of work, all the time there must be someone in supreme command who can in the end say, "I must overrule you. I have listened to all you have had to say, and although I know this is your branch, I am afraid I must overrule you. I do not want to do it, but it must be done."
The country is anxious as to whether there is not divided control, which may be leading to some of the difficulties we have had in the past. It would be foolish to say, or to suggest, that the bulk of the people of this country think in these terms. They do not. The bulk of the people of this country want an answer to that question, and one other, which may be a very simple question to answer, but which is a question the Government must answer to-day. We were told that it was impossible to keep fighter aeroplanes— and only fighter aeroplanes can control the bombers; indeed, they are the only means of opposing the bombers—in Crete because the aerodromes were not there. Why were they not there? We were there for seven months. Can any of us believe that if the Germans are there for seven months, they will not have all the aerodromes they want, together with the ground staffs and everything else? I do not say this question cannot be answered, but I think it is right that the Prime Minister should know that that is the main question which is being asked to-day. I said a moment ago that however much the average citizen is disturbed —and he is disturbed at the present situation—he feels that he is without the information necessary to enable him to criticise with knowledge and judgment.
132 He is much more inclined to-day to criticise in an altogether different way. After all, what does he know about strategy, and what can he know? Rightly, he is not given the information upon which he can form any judgment, and I am not suggesting for one moment that he should have it. The Prime Minister and those associated with him have the trust of the country, and great matters of policy and strategy must be left to them. It is not on these lines that the country is worried. What the country is worried about is that the Government, after 21 months of war, have not yet brought the full capacity of the country, which has been so willingly offered, into the war, and that it has taken too long to harness the nation's resources so as to secure effective work and production.
I think it is an indication, a very definite indication, of the complete unanimity of the people in support of the war that there has not been a demand for more information. We do not know, for example, what numbers of men the Government consider essential for the Army, or the respective Air Force strengths of this country and the enemy. They do not know what further naval and mercantile shipping construction is necessary to secure our supplies. But what the country does know is that for munitions of war, aeroplanes, and ships there is at this moment no limit to what we require, and that the full effort of the country and of every man and woman in it is not being exercised to secure that result. In a recent speech in this House, I made the statement that if I had to guess what was the figure of efficiency of our effort to-day, I would not put it higher than 75 per cent, of the full possibilities of the nation. I should like to be able to change that figure every time I speak, but I am bound to tell the House that I do not think I can put it any higher to-day. There are factories in this country' in which we have men standing idle because they have not got all the supplies which are required. There are factories and yards which are short of labour. There are plants in which workers are doing their full day's work, and others in which people are arriving late, leaving before time and slacking. I do not think it is of any use not facing the facts as they are. In some cases there are a few men upsetting 133 others and affecting the whole tone of the undertaking, and the Government are taking no prompt and definite action to put these matters right.
The Government have had these powers for 21 months, or whatever the exact number may be. The Restriction of Engagement Order is by no means working well. In fact, in many cases it is doing more harm than good as at present operated. These are very grave statements, but I make them deliberately because I see too clearly what has happened. The managements of some of the factories working for the Government, some of them Government factories, even the Ordnance factory, have no power whatever to deal with these cases. They are only a very few. The bulk of the people are working wonderfully, but there are a few who will always need some form of compulsion and to whom no form of propaganda will appeal. [Interruption.] The management, in the bulk of these cases, is helpless. Under this very Restriction of Engagement Order the position is that, if you discharge a man, you are very often giving him the very thing that he really wants. When he is discharged he very likely gets more pay somewhere else. Possibly the only thing that you can do in these cases is to refuse to discharge him.
§ Sir J. Wardlaw-Milne
That carries you nowhere, and I am not putting all the blame on the workers. I say it is a very small number, but they are doing immense harm. Not one of them has the support of a trade union. While you have the good will of an enormous percentage of the people, there are some who are working against the national effort, and they must be dealt with.
§ Mr. J. J. Davidson (Glasgow, Maryhill)
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that repeatedly complaints have been made by trade union organisations and shop stewards with regard to managerial inefficiency and that no steps have been taken to support these people in their protests?
§ Sir J. Wardlaw-Milne
I have not any doubt about it, but that cannot apply in some of the cases of which I am speaking, where they are Government factories. 134 That Order, which was so well meant, and which in many cases works well, does not always work, and something will have to be done to put the matter right. Why should not the management have power— the management in this case very likely a Government Department—to suggest that these men be de-reserved and sent back to the Army? There would, of course, have to be a right of appeal, but that threat alone would get rid of half the difficulty, and there is no doubt that it could be put into operation. There are other difficult questions, such as fatigue and housing, all of which require the urgent attention of the Government. A good deal of the absenteeism is not deliberate but is due to fatigue, and in some cases to want of proper housing. These matters are being attended to by the Government, but there are too many authorities, and there is too much red tape. They will have to be gone into more quickly if we are to get the full 100 per cent. effort that we require.
There are other matters which I am sure the Government have in mind. We are all, when we are not discussing Crete, thinking of the Battle of the Atlantic. We are all looking to the United States for great help in that part of the struggle, and we shall not look in vain, but it would be foolish to believe that her help, through new ship construction, will immediately give us a large flow of new tonnage. In the next stage of the war our own ships and our construction are the vital factors. In the protection of our existing Mercantile fleet the Government must be well aware of the grave doubts that exist in shipping circles at present. It would be unwise for them to think that, although the deciding voice must rightly be that of the Navy, they can afford to ignore the lifelong knowledge of those who have built up and operated our Mercantile Marine. There is dissatisfaction with the convoy system and it would be well for the Government to get as much expert opinion behind them in that matter as possible. There are all kinds of questions which are giving the country trouble. They are not causing anxiety, but they are small things which the Government should put right. The country is solidly behind the Government, but it is anxious and worried, not as to final victory, but as to the immediate steps in the campaign, and particularly as to whether we have learnt 135 from our mistakes in the past. I ask the Government to give the country every bit of information they can. Let them conceal nothing of the risks or of our resources. The country can take it, whatever it is. On the other hand, do not press trifling successes too far or gloss over grave dangers, if such there be. Let them use their powers drastically, and, if they will do that, and let the country know what the problem really is, what the dangers are and what the chances are, they will receive from the country in return that complete support which will assure victory to our arms.
§ Rear-Admiral Beamish (Lewes)
I wish to refer to one special aspect of the situation which has arisen in consequence of the fighting in Crete, and I want to talk about sea power. One constantly hears and reads that for some reason or another sea power has lost its power. It is not a fact. If it was not for sea power, there would be only one side in the Mediterranean at present, there would not be a man, a gun, a tank, an aeroplane or a vehicle. There would be nothing there at all. There would be no Army. No one would have got to Crete, and no one would have got out of Crete, if it had not been for sea power. But what happened? Sea power has had its wings clipped. In fact, its wings have practically been removed by asking the Navy to carry out work for which it was never designed. It never was and never will be the function of sea power to protect the Army while it is on land, and in the narrow waters between Crete and Greece the Navy has been carrying out work for which it never was designed. The losses that were recounted in the nine o'clock news last night and previously are almost irreplaceable—destroyers, cruisers and so on. They were only there because they could get there and because they had never in the past, and never will, let down the British Army. That is a very sad state of affairs. Reference has been made to our failure, not only in Greece but in Crete, to use the aerodromes, and that has resulted in what are very nearly irreplaceable losses to the Fleet, making more and more difficulties for our exercise of sea power in other parts of the war area, more particularly in the Western approaches. To what is this due? The failure, as has been stressed over and 136 over again in this Debate, to secure the proper co-ordination and the proper use of the Air Force. People say that the Navy has its Fleet Air Arm which can do the work. You may have as many aircraft carriers as you like, but they are extremely vulnerable craft and are not designed for working close in shore for the protection of the Army. They have-done magnificent work, as in the case of the "Bismarck," and they will do so again, but they must have plenty of sea room.
That brings me to the point that the Air Force, magnificent as it is, has not played the part we were justified in thinking it would play. The shortage of aircraft and the handicaps and complications of design have led to a very difficult position at the present time so far as the Army and Navy are concerned. There is more to it than that. The House has been told for years by people who have technical knowledge that unless the Army and the Navy had complete and absolute control of the aircraft which are working with them, the situation we see to-day would most certainly arise. It has arisen and will continue until something is done to secure proper co-ordination and to put the Air Force, working with the Army, under the complete control of the Army, and the Air Force working with the Fleet under the complete control of the Fleet.
At the present time there is a battle area in the Western approaches which stretches 3,000 miles from North to South and certainly from 1,000 to 1,500 miles from East to West. The Fleet is doing its utmost in face of grave difficulties in the area, but what is the situation? It has a small Fleet Air Arm which it has been doing its utmost to build up during the last two years or so, but in that area is working a perfectly separate Command —the Coastal Command—and it is only by perfect working between the Commander-in Chief of the Western approaches and the Commander-in-Chief, Coastal Command, that we are able to get anything like co-ordination. A friend to whom I said recently, "I hope you are getting on all right in the Western approaches," replied, "I cannot speak too highly of the officer in command of the Coastal Command." My answer to that was that it was a very fortunate state of affairs, but what was going to happen if by chance he should be succeeded by somebody with whom it was not easy to 137 work? My friend said that the situation would then be very difficult.
The fact that the Catalina flying boat the other day was largely if not entirely instrumental in ultimately finding out where the "Bismarck" was was a very fortunate circumstance. As far as I know, the officer who was in command of that Catalina flying boat was not under the command of the naval officer who was looking for the "Bismarck." That cannot be right. He was working over the sea; he was acting as a flying man-of-war, so to speak, a scout. There can be no question about the system being wrong, but to put the blame upon the Air Force would be wrong. The blame lies on the House of Commons. There has been a sort of spirit of compromise and a hope that the thing would work when the strain came. Now we see that it is not working. So far as the Army is concerned, I would like to quote what I wrote down the other day after a discusion I had with a military officer. He was complaining of the difficulties in Crete and remarked that he had supposed that tanks and land defences would have sufficed to prevent the parachutists from taking control of the aerodromes. He was very upset about the whole affair. I asked him what was his opinion in this matter and what had been his experience. He said, and I wrote down:My experience extends to having served in Egypt, Palestine, France, Dunkirk and many places in the British Isles, both as a regimental officer at brigade headquarters and divisional headquarters. Co-operation between the air and ground is virtually non-existent in the Army at present. Even the elements of this co-operation, which is absolutely essential, would appear to be a closely guarded secret. I have seen one air liaison officer throughout the whole of the training exercises in which I have taken part, and he knew nothing of our organisation.I am not prepared to say that that is strictly true in every detail, but it was told to me quietly and thoughtfully. Even if there is a little truth in it, it shows a very grave state of affairs.
I attended a conference recently when the Regional Commissioner talked to us Members of Parliament, and I noticed a military officer in the room. I asked him a number of questions. I asked him what connection and what co-operation he had with the Air Force. He said, "I am a military staff officer; there is no Air Force officer attached to this region so 138 far as I know." That is one more indication of this failure to effect complete cooperation. Finally, I would say that in the Near East we have what is called a military Commander-in-Chief, but he is not that in the full sense of the term, because he has to apply on his own element—the land—to another Ministry and another military force to ask for coordination and co-operation. I maintain with the utmost positiveness that until we place our military forces on land under one Commander-in-Chief, \our sea forces under another, with all the weapons and vessels that they can use for the promotion of victory under their own respective individual and unassailable command the difficulties we have to-day will continue. In what I have said I have only tried to impress the House with the fact that if that particular aspect of things can be put right, I do not see the slightest reason why there should be a repetition of what has happened in Crete.
§ The Prime Minister (Mr. Churchill)
I do not think anyone, however Ministerially-minded, could possibly complain of the tone, temper and matter of this Debate. The kind of criticism we have had to-day, some of it very searching, is the kind of criticism that the Government not only accept but welcome. All the same, the House will, permit me perhaps to point out that the way in which this Debate came about was calculated to give one the feeling of a challenge to the security of the Administration, and, from the point of view of the advantage to the country, that raises serious considerations. There were all kinds of paragraphs and reports which appeared in the papers about the grave uneasiness and unrest, stating that a Debate on Crete must take place. The parties were demanding it, the Labour party, the Liberal party and members of the Conservative party were demanding it, and there must be a full accounting, an inquest held, and so forth. That being so, one is bound to take a serious view because of the interests which are confided into our care.
I think that it would be a mistake if the House got into the habit of calling for explanations on the varying episodes of this dangerous and widespread struggle and asking for an account to be given of why any action was lost or any part of the front was beaten in. In the first 139 place, no full explanations can possibly be given without revealing valuable information to the enemy, information not only about a particular operation which is over, but about the general position and also of the processes of thought which are followed, such as they may be, by our war direction and our high command". There is always a danger that a Minister in my position, in seeking to vindicate the course we have pursued, should inadvertently say something which may supply the enemy with some essential, with some seemingly innocent fact, about which the enemy is in doubt, and thus enable the enemy to construct a comprehensive and accurate picture of our state of mind and the way in which we are looking at things. The heads of the Dictator Governments are not under any similar pressure to explain or excuse any ill-success that may befall them. Far be it from me to compare myself or the office I hold or the functions I discharge with those of these pretentious and formidable potentates. I am only the servant of the Crown and Parliament and am always at the disposal of the House of Commons, where I have lived my life.
Still the House, and I think I may say also the country, have placed very considerable responsibilities upon me, and I am sure they would not wish any servant they have entrusted with such duties to be at a disadvantage against our antagonists. I have not heard, for instance, that Herr Hitler had to attend the Reichstag and tell them why he sent the "Bismarck" on her disastrous cruise, when by waiting for a few weeks, and choosing his opportunity, when perhaps our capital ships were dispersed on convoy duty, she might have gone out accompanied by the "Tirpitz," another 45,000-ton ship, and offered a general sea battle. Neither have I heard any very convincing statement by Signor Mussolini of the reasons why the greater part of his African Empire has been conquered and more than 200,000 of his soldiers are prisoners in our hands.
I must say, quite frankly, to the House that I should feel myself under a needless disadvantage if it were understood that I should be obliged, in public Debate, to give an account, possibly a controversial account, of our operations irrespective of whether the times were suitable or not. 140 It would, for instance, have been a nuisance if Parliament had demanded a Debate on the loss of the "Hood" before we had been in a position to explain what measures we had taken to secure the destruction of the "Bismarck." I always take—and I am sure that what I say will be accepted—very great pains to serve the House, and on all occasions to associate the House in the fullest possible manner with the conduct of the war, but I think it would be better, and I submit it to the House, if in the future I were permitted on behalf of His Majesty's Government to choose the occasions for making statements about the war, which I am most anxious to do
There is another general reason why I should have deprecated a Debate upon the Battle of Crete. It is only one part of the very important and complicated campaign which is being fought in the Middle East, and to select one particular sector of our widely extended front for Parliamentary Debate is a partial, lopsided and misleading method of examining the conduct of the war. A vast scene can only be surveyed as a whole, and it ought not to be exposed and debated piecemeal, especially at a time when operations which are all related to one another are wholly incomplete. Into the general survey of the war come all sorts of considerations about the gain and loss of time and its effect upon the future. There also comes into the picture the entire distribution of our available resources to meet the many calls that are made upon them. For instance, my hon. Friend the Member for Kidderminster (Sir J: Wardlaw-Milne), who has just spoken, asked why it was that when we had Crete in our possession for more than six months we had wasted all that time for constructing numerous airfields and placing them in the highest state of defence, and he reminded us how very efficiently the Germans would have done a work like that if Crete had fallen into their hands. Everyone will, I dare say, admit that it would have been a mistake to make a great number of airfields in Crete unless we could find the anti-aircraft guns, both of high and low ceiling, and the aircraft to defend those airfields, for that would simply have facilitated the descent of the enemy's air-borne troops upon the island.
Why then, first of all, I must ask, were enough guns not provided for the two 141 serviceable airfields which existed in Crete? To answer that question one would have to consider how many guns we have and whether we could afford to spare them for that purpose. That leads us to a wider sphere. All this time, the Battle of the Atlantic has been going on, and a very great number of the guns which might have usefully been deployed in Crete have been, and are, being mounted in the merchant vessels to beat off the attacks of the Fokke Wulf and Heinkel aircraft, whose depredations have been notably lessened thereby.
Again, we must consider, on the subject of these guns, whether our airfields at home, our air factories or the ports and cities in our Islands, which are under heavy and dangerous attack, should have been further denuded or stinted of guns, in the last six or seven months, for the sake of the war in the Middle East. Further, it must be remembered—I did not notice that this was mentioned—that everything we send out to the Middle East is out of action for the best part of three months, as it has to go round the Cape. We have run very great risks and faced very serious maulings in this Island, in order to sustain the war in the Mediterranean, and no one, I venture to submit, can be a judge of whether we should have run more risks or exposed ourselves to heavier punishment at home, for the sake of fortifying and multiplying the Cretan airfields, without having full and intimate knowledge of all our resources and making a complete survey of the various claims upon them.
We did, however, from the moment that the Greek Government invited us into Crete, take steps to defend the anchorage of Suda Bay, as an important naval base, to develop the aerodrome nearby and to provide the base and the aerodrome with the largest quantity of high and low ceiling guns which we thought it fit to divert from other strategic points in the Mediterranean. We provided, in fact, a deterrent to the enemy attack sufficient to require a major effort on his part; but, of course, there are a great many islands and strategic points in the seas, and to attempt to be safe everywhere is to make sure of being strong nowhere.
Therefore, it may well be that if the House were able to go into detail into these matters, which I am afraid is not possible, hon. Members would feel that a 142 reasonable and right disposition of our Forces was made; but without going into the facts and figures, which I am sure no one would wish me to do, even in Secret Session, let alone in Public Session, it is quite impossible for the House, or even for the newspapers, to arrive at a justly proportioned and level judgment on this affair. There is, however, this much that I should like to say: A man must be a perfect fool who thinks that we have large quantities of anti-aircraft guns and aircraft lying about unused at the present time. I will speak about aircraft in a moment, but, so far as anti-aircraft guns are concerned, large and expanding as is our present production, every single gun is in action at some necessary point or other, and all future production for many months ahead is eagerly competed for by rival claimants with, very often, massive cases behind each one of them.
This goes back a long way, but four years ago, in March, 1937, I mentioned to the House that the Germans had already got 1,500 mobile anti-aircraft guns—mobile and formed in batteries—in addition to the whole of their static artillery of anti-aircraft defence. Since then they have been making them at a great rate, and they have also conquered more than all they want from the many countries they have overthrown, so that our position is very different from that. The right hon. Member for Devonport (Mr. Hore-Belisha) has made to-day a very cogent and moderate, well-informed and thoughtful contribution to the Debate, but he used a different mood and tone in a speech which he recently delivered in the country, and that at any rate makes it necessary for me to say that the state in which our Army was left when the right hon. Gentleman had ended his two years and seven months' tenure of the War Office, during the greater part of which he was also responsible for production and supply, was lamentable. We were short of every essential supply, but most particularly of those modern weapons, those special classes of weapons, the anti-aircraft gun, the anti-tank gun and the tank itself, which have proved themselves the vital necessities of modern war, a fact which he is now prepared to suggest we are so purblind and out-dated as not to be able to comprehend.
§ Mr. Hore-Belisha
I do not know why the right hon. Gentleman, for the purposes 143 of Debate, should make a statement such as he has made, that I left the Army in a lamentable condition. It is quite out of accord with what he himself said after the retreat from Dunkirk, that we had lost the finest lot of equipment that had ever left these shores, and that the Army had been fully equipped in almost every particular. The French Ambassador stated that we had fully discharged our obligations to the French. Perhaps my right hon. Friend will be good enough to recall that up till very recently before the war the whole House and indeed the country were opposed to the creation of a Continental Army, which nevertheless I proceeded to try and create. I do not seek to be judged by my achievements, but by what I tried to do, and my right hon. Friend will realise that my obstacles were greater than his to-day.
§ The Prime Minister
I thought that I had misquoted my right hon. Friend in some way, but it appears he wished to continue the argument. I am dealing not with the particular equipment of the troops who went to France, who naturally drained the rest of our Forces, but the fact remains that the equipment of our Army at that time, and at the outbreak of war, was of the most meagre and deficient character, and that the deficiencies made themselves most marked—and still make themselves most marked—in the very type of weapons for which there is the greatest possible demand. I could give facts and figures upon this point if we were in private which would, I think, leave no dispute upon the subject. I am not throwing all the blame for this upon my right hon. Friend at all—certainly not —but I think it is only fair, when he himself comes forward and sets himself up as an arbiter and judge, and speaks so scornfully of the efforts of some others who have inherited his dismal legacy, I think when he speaks in this way—he has a great responsibility in the matter—it is only fair to point out to him that he is one of the last people in this country entitled to take that line.
§ The Prime Minister
The hon. Gentle-man said something about no recriminations, but extremely violent and hostile speeches have been spread about, doing a 144 great deal of harm, and about which I have received information from different countries and capitals, showing the uncertainty and disturbance which are caused by them, and certainly if we are attacked we shall counter-attack.
§ The Prime Minister
The hon. Member for Eye (Mr. Granville) had better return to his lucubrations in constitutional experiment, which exercise his mind so much at present. So much for the difficulty in which we stand in the matter of the anti-aircraft guns. The output is at last rapidly expanding, but the fact remains that our outfits are incomparably inferior in numbers to those possessed by the Germans, and every claim has to be weighed against every other claim. Another general question which may fairly be asked is, "Why have we not got much stronger and much larger air forces in the Middle East?" I can only say this: From the moment when the Battle of Britain was decided in our favour, in September and October of last year, by the victories of our fighters, we have been ceaselessly sending aircraft as fast as possible to the Middle East, by every route and by every method. During the present year, as our strength in the air has grown, we have not been hampered in this matter, as we were in the case of the antiaircraft guns, by lack of aircraft. The problem has been to send them to the Eastern theatre of war.
Anyone can see how great are the Germans' advantages, and how easy it is for the Germans to move their Air Force from one side of Europe to another. They can fly along a line of permanent airfields. Wherever they need to alight and refuel, there are permanent airfields in the highest state of efficiency, and, as for the services and personnel and all the stores which go with them—without which the squadrons are quite useless—these can go by the grand continental expresses along the main railway lines of Europe. One has only to compare this process with the sending of aircraft packed in crates, then put on ships and sent on the great ocean spaces until they reach the Cape of Good Hope, then taken to Egypt, set up again, trued up and put in the air when they arrive, to see that the Germans can do in days what takes us weeks, or even more. 145 This reflection, I say, has its bearing upon the possibility of a German movement back from the East to the West, which certainly could be executed very swiftly if they were to resolve upon an assault upon this country. I can give an assurance to the House that we have done, are doing, and will do, our utmost to build up the largest possible Air Force in the Middle East; and it is not aircraft, but solely transportation, which is—
§ The Prime Minister
Not transportation in the sense of shipping tonnage, but in the sense of the time that it takes to transfer under the conditions of the present war. It is not aircraft, but transportation, which is the limiting factor at this end. I have dealt with anti-aircraft guns; I have dealt with aircraft. As to the disposition of our Air Force in the Middle East, it is primarily a matter for the Commanders-in-Chief in the Middle East, although His Majesty's Government share to the full their responsibility for whatever is done. I might refer again to what was said by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Lewes (Rear-Admiral Beamish) about the importance of coordination between the Services. It is carried to a very high pitch. The Chief Air Officer lives in the same house in Cairo as the Commander-in-Chief. They are there side by side. The Naval Commander-in-Chief has to be at sea very often. He has to be at Alexandria. But the very closest association exists between these branches. The idea that any one of these problems would be studied by one of these commanders only, without the closest association with the other two is quite an illusory idea, and I can really assure my hon. Friend on that point.
§ The Prime Minister
It is not so much a question of the final say. No disagreement that I know of has arisen. Obviously, the Army is the main factor in that business, and the Fleet is preserving the security of the Army on the seas, and preserving the command of the seas, and the Air is assisting the Army and the Fleet in all their functions. But in the event of any differences, they can be settled in a few hours by reference here. These Commanders-in-Chief have to 146 settle it among themselves, although we share to the full responsibility for whatever is done. It must not be forgotten that apart from the effort we made in Greece, which was very costly in aircraft, the situation in Iraq, in Palestine, and potentially in Syria, as well as the winding-up of the Abyssinian story, all made very heavy demands upon our aircraft, and the situation in the Western Desert had also to be considered. Before any rational judgment could be formed upon the disposition of our Air Force and the consequent failure to supply an adequate Air Force for Crete, it would be necessary, as in the case of the anti-aircraft guns, to know not only what are our whole resources, but also what is the situation in these other theatres, which were all, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Lees-Smith) pointed out, all intimately interrelated, and it is no use trying to judge these matters without full knowledge, and that full knowledge obviously cannot be made public, and ought not to be spread outside the narrowest circle compatible with the execution of operations.
I come to the next stage of my argument, because I am offering the House an argument, if they will bear with me as I unfold it. I have shown them the foundations upon which we started, and I now go a step forward. In March we decided to go to the aid of Greece in accordance with our Treaty obligations. This, of course, exposed us to the danger of being attacked in the Western Desert, and also to defeat by overwhelming numbers in Greece unless Yugoslavia played her part or unless the Greek Army could be extricated to hold some narrower line than that actually chosen. If Greece was overrun by the enemy, it seemed probable that Crete would be the next object of attack. The enemy, with his vast local superiority in air power, was able to drive our aircraft from the airfields of Greece, and adding this to his enormously superior anti-aircraft batteries, he was able to make those airfields rapidly available for his own use. Moreover, as the season was advancing, many more airfields became available to him as the weather improved and dried them up. It was evident, therefore, that the attack upon Crete, if it were made, would be primarily an air-borne attack, for which, again, a vastly superior hostile air force would be available.
147 The question then arose as to whether we should try to defend Crete or yield it without a fight. No one who bears any responsibility for the decision to defend Crete was ignorant of the fact that conditions permitted of only the most meagre British air support to be provided for our troops in the island or for our Fleet operating round the island. It was not a fact that dawned upon the military and other authorities after the decision had been taken; it was the foundation of a difficult and harsh choice, as I shall show. The choice was: Should Crete be defended without effective air support or should the Germans be permitted to occupy it without opposition? There are some, I see, who say that we should never fight without superior or at least ample air support and ask when will this lesson be learned? But suppose you cannot have it? The questions which have to be settled are not always questions between what is good and bad; very often it is a choice between two very terrible alternatives. Must you, if you cannot have this essential and desirable air support, yield important key points, one after another?
There are others who have said to me, and I have seen it in the newspapers, that you should defend no place that you cannot be sure you can hold. Then, one must ask, can one ever be sure how the battle will develop before it has ever been fought? If this principle of not defending any place you cannot be sure of holding were adopted, would not the enemy be able to make an unlimited number of valuable conquests without any fighting at all? Where would you make a stand and engage them with resolution? The further question arises as to what would happen if you allowed the enemy to advance and overrun, without cost to himself, the most precious and valuable strategic points? Suppose we had never gone to Greece and had never attempted to defend Crete? Where would the Germans be now? Suppose we had simply resigned territory and strategic islands to them without a fight? Might they not, at this early stage of the campaign in 1941, already be masters of Syria and Iraq and preparing themselves for an advnce into Persia?
The Germans in this war have gained many victories. They have easily over- 148 run great countries and beaten down strong Powers with little resistance offered to them. It is not only a question of the time that is gained by fighting strongly, even if at a disadvantage, for important points. There is also this vitally important principle of stubborn resistance to the will of the enemy. I merely throw out these considerations to the House in order that they may see that there are some arguments which deserve to be considered before you can adopt the rule that you have to have a certainty of winning at any point and that if you have not got it beforehand you must clear out. The whole history of war shows the fatal absurdity of such a doctrine. Again and again, it has been proved that fierce and stubborn resistance, even against heavy odds and under exceptional conditions of local disadvantage, is an essential element in victory. At any rate, the decision was taken to hold Crete. The decision to fight for Crete was taken with the full knowledge that air support would be at a minimum, as anyone can see—apart from the question of whether you have adequate supplies or not—who measures the distances from our airfields in Egypt and compares them with the distances from enemy airfields in Greece and who acquaints himself with the radius of action of dive-bombers and aircraft.
Of course, I take the fullest personal responsibility for that decision, but the Chiefs of Staff, the Defence Committee and General Wavell, the Commander-in-Chief, all in turn and in their various situations not only thought that Crete ought to be defended in the circumstances, which were fully before them, but that, in spite of the lack of air support, we had a good chance of winning the battle. No one had any illusions about the scale of the enemy air-borne attack. We knew it would be gigantic and intense. The reconnaissances over the Greek aerodrames showed the enormous mass of aircraft which were gathering there—many hundreds and it turned out that the enemy was prepared to pay an almost unlimited price for this conquest, and his resources when concentrated upon any particular point may often be overwhelming at that point.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Devonport referred to the broadcasts which were given by the spokesman of the War Office, Major-General Collins, and by 149 the spokesman of the Air Ministry, Air-Commodore Goddard. I take no responsibility for those statements. I take no responsibility for those or any others that may be made. It is very convenient to bring them up in the course of Debate, but the officers who give these broadcasts are not acquainted with the control of affairs and with what is decided or thought or felt in the Chiefs of Staff Committee or the Defence Committee. How can they be? One does not spread things about in that way.
§ The Prime Minister
I would have liked very much to have stopped them, and in some cases I have reduced them in number. I think it is a very risky thing to ask a professional officer, naval, military or air, to give a weekly expatiation on the war when, in the nature of things, although he may be very accomplished in his profession, he cannot know and ought not to know the facts as they are understood at the secret meetings.
§ The Prime Minister
I am very glad to see the feeling in the House on the subject, because, on the other side, one is appealed to ceaselessly to give more information, to make the war more interesting to the people, and to tell them more about what is going on. But it is not possible for the head of the Government or even for the Chiefs of Staff to vet—to use a slang term—beforehand these detailed weekly statements which are made. I think the matter must certainly be reconsidered. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] As I have said, no one had any illusions about the tremendous scale of the air-borne attack, the greatest ever delivered in the world, or thought that we should resist it without any but the most restricted air support on our side. That is the fact. It is not a nice case, but it is the fact. Let us look at the anatomy of this battle of Crete which was undertaken in those bleak circumstances. We hoped that the 25,000 to 30,000 good troops—I am making it a little vague—with artillery and a proportion of tanks, aided by the Greek forces, would be able to destroy the parachute and glider landings of the enemy and prevent him from using the airfields or the harbours.
150 Our Army was to destroy the air-borne attacks, while the Navy held off or destroyed the sea-borne attacks. But there was a time limit. The action of the Navy in maintaining the Northern sea guard without adequate air defence was bound to be very costly. My hon. Friend has pointed out how serious were those losses. We could only stand a certain proportion of naval losses before the Northern sea guard of the Fleet would have to be withdrawn. If meanwhile the Army could succeed in biting off the head of the whole terrific apparatus of the airborne invasion before the naval time limit, or loss limit, was reached, then the enemy would have to begin all over again, and, having regard to the scale of the operation, the enormous, unprecedented scale of the operation, and the losses he would have to incur, he might well for the time being have at least broken it off—at any rate, there would have been a long delay before he could have mounted it again. That was the basis on which the decision was taken.
I wonder what would have been said by our critics if we had given up the island of Crete without firing a shot. We should have been told that this pusillanimous flight had surrendered to the enemy the key of the Eastern Mediterranean, that our communications with Malta and our power to interrupt the enemy's communications with Libya were grievously endangered. There is only too much truth in all that, although perhaps it will not in the end turn out so badly. Crete was an extremely important salient in our line of defence. It was like Fort Douaumont at Verdun, in 1916; it was like Kemmel Hill, in 1918. These were taken by the Germans, but in each case the Germans lost the battle and also the campaign, and in the end they lost the war. But can you be sure the same result would have been achieved if the Allies had not fought for Douaumont, and had not fought for Kemmel Hill? What would they have fought for if they had not fought for them? These battles can only be judged in their relation to the campaign as a whole.
I have been asked a lot of questions. My right hon. Friend the Member for Keighley put them very clearly and precisely about the actual conduct of the battle in Crete. For instance, why were the Cretan airfields not mined beforehand? Or again, why were they not 151 commanded by long-range gunfire, or why were not more tanks allotted to their defences? There are many other questions like that. I can give answers to these questions, but I do not propose to discuss tactics here, because I am sure it is quite impossible for us to fight battles in detail, either beforehand or afterwards, from Whitehall or from the House of Commons. His Majesty's Government in their responsibility to Parliament choose the best generals they can find, set before them the broad strategic objects of the campaign, offer them any advice or counsel that may seem fitting, ask searching questions which are very necessary in respect of particular plans and proposals, and then they support them to the best of their power in men and munitions, and also, so long as they retain their confidence, they support them with loyal comradeship in failure or success.
It is impossible to go into tactical details, and I never remember in the last war, in those great battles which cost something like 40,000, 50,000 or 70,000 men—I am talking of battles of a single day—in which sometimes there were very grave errors made, that they were often made the subject of the arraignment of the Government in the House of Commons. It is only where great strategic issues of policy come that it is fitting for us here to endeavour to form a final opinion. Defeat is bitter. There is no use in trying to explain defeat. People do not like defeat, and they do not like the explanations, however elaborate or plausible, which are given them. For defeat there is only one answer. The only answer to defeat is victory. If a Government in time of war gives the impression that it cannot in the long run procure victory, who cares for its explanations? It ought to go — that is to say, if you are quite sure you can find another which can do better. However, it must be remembered that no Government can conduct a war unless it stands on a solid, stable foundation, and knows it stands on that foundation and, like a great ship, can win through a period of storms into clearer weather. Unless there is a strong impression of solidarity and strength in a Government in time of war, that Government cannot give the support which is necessary to the fighting men and their commanders in the difficult periods, in the disheartening and dis- 152 appointing periods. If the Government has always to be looking over its shoulder to see whether it is going to be stabbed in the back or not, it cannot possibly keep its eye on the enemy.
There is another point of some difficulty which presents itself to me whenever I am asked to make a statement to the House. Ought I to encourage good hopes of the successful outcome of particular operations, or ought I to prepare the public for serious disappointments? From the purely British standpoint, there is no doubt that the second of these courses is to be preferred, and this is the course that I have usually followed. It is the course which, no doubt, would commend itself to my noble Friend. He has been urging us to look on the gloomy side of things— a kind of inverted Couéism. When you get up in the morning you say to yourself, "We can easily lose this war in the next four months," and you say it with great emphasis and go on your daily task invigorated. I must point out to my noble Friend, and to the House generally, that the British nation is unique in this respect. They are the only people who like to be told how bad things are, who like to be told the worst, and like to be told that they are very likely to get much worse in the future and must prepare themselves for further reverses. But when you go to other countries—oddly enough I saw a message from the authorities who are most concerned with our Arab problem at present, urging that we should be careful not to indulge in too gloomy forecasts. The Arabs do not understand the British character of meeting trouble long before it comes, and they think it is much better to go on putting a bold face on things and then meet the disaster when it arrives. Any statements of a pessimistic character which are used here are calculated to discourage our friends and to spread alarm and despondency over wide regions, to affect the nicely balanced neutrals and to encourage the enemy, who, of course, seizes upon any phrase or any gloomy allusion and repeats it myriad-fold in his strident propaganda.
It is a nice question whether the increase in our war effort which would result from my Noble Friend administering this austere mental treatment to himself in the mornings would counterbalance the undoubted harm which would be done when a phrase torn from its context, and 153 probably with an alteration of the verb, is sent throughout the world—" Admission in the House of Commons by an eminent nobleman and ex-Minister: We are going to lose the war," or something like that. I am not blaming him at all. I feel just like him about it, and it is very much safer. It makes me feel very much whether Members of Parliament have not got to pick their words a little carefully. After all, in this deadly war in which we are gripped, with dangers which are measureless, as they are unprecedented, closing upon us in so many quarters, with so much to defend and such limited resources, so many chances which may turn ill against us—when we think of this position, it is a great pity if statements are made which add nothing to the informative; criticism which is so valuable, but can be taken from their context and placarded all over the world as a sign that we are not united or that our case is much worse than it is.
There is one thing I regret very much, and that is that the brunt of this fighting in the Middle East—I quite agree it is a very foolish expression "in the Middle East "—or East should have fallen so heavily on the splendid Australian and New Zealand troops. I regret it for this reason among others, that the German propaganda is always reproaching us for fighting with other people's blood, and they mock us with the insulting taunt that England will fight to the last Australian or New Zealander. I was very glad to see that Mr. Menzies, in his noble speech of Sunday night, deal with this vile propaganda as it deserved. There have been, in fact, during 1941, almost as many British as there are Australian and New Zealand troops engaged in all the operations in the Western Desert, in Greece and in Crete. The losses during this year compared with the numbers engaged are slightly heavier for the British than for the Dominion troops.
In Crete also, the numbers were almost exactly equal, and the British loss again was slightly heavier. These figures include killed, wounded and missing. They exclude Indian or non-British troops. In order to turn the edge of this German propaganda, I have asked my right hon. and gallant Friend the Secretary of State for War to endeavour to have mentioned more frequently the names of British regiments, when this can be done without 154 detriment to the operations. The following British regiments and units, for instance, fought in Crete: The Rangers, the Black Watch, the Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders, the Leicestershire Regiment, the Welch Regiment, the York and Lancaster Regiment, the Royal Artillery, the Royal Engineers and numbers of the Royal Marines, who formed he rearguard and suffered the most heavily of all. In fact, of 2,000 Royal Marines landed in Crete, 1,400 became casualties or prisoners. Naval losses of life in these operations exceeded 500 officers and men, and while this was going on, we also lost 1,300 men in the "Hood." Out of 90,000 lives lost so far in this war at home and abroad, at least 85,000 come from the Mother Country. Therefore, I repel and repudiate the German taunt, both on behalf of the Mother Country and of the Dominions of Australia and New Zealand.
It might well be asked—I am trying to look at the questions which might fairly be asked—why, having begun the battle for Crete, did you not persist in the defence of the island? If you could bring off 17,000 men safely to return to Egypt, why could you not have reinforced with 17,000 men to carry on the battle? I have tried to explain in a simple way that the moment it was proved that we could not crush the air-borne landings before the Fleet losses became too heavy to hold off longer a sea-borne landing, Crete was lost, and it was necessary to save what was possible of the Army. It is one thing to take off 17,000 men as we did, with their side arms, and quite another to land them in a fighting condition with guns and materials. It is a wonderful thing that as many as 17,000 got away in face of the enemy's overwhelming command of the air.
I do not consider that we should regret the Battle of Crete. The fighting there attained a severity and fierceness which the Germans have not previously encountered in their walk through Europe. In killed, wounded, missing and prisoners we have lost about 15,000 men. This takes no account of the losses of the Greeks and Cretans, who fought with the utmost bravery and suffered so heavily. On the other hand, from the most careful and precise inquiries I have made, and which 155 have been made by the Commanders-in-Chief on the spot, we believe that about 5,000 Germans were drowned in trying to cross the sea and at least 12,000 killed or wounded on the island itself. In addition, the air force the Germans employed sustained extraordinary losses, above 180 fighter and bomber aircraft being destroyed and at least 250 troop-carrying aeroplanes. This, at a time when our air strength is overtaking the enemy's, is important. I am sure it will be found that this sombre, ferocious battle, which was lost, and lost, I think, upon no great margin, was well worth fighting and that it will play an extremely important part in the whole defence of the Nile Valley throughout the present year. I do not think there are any who are responsible for it would not take the same decision again, although no doubt, like our critics, we should be wiser in many ways after the event.
It is asked. Will the lessons of Crete be learned, and how will they affect the defence of this Island? Officers who took part in the thickest of the fighting in responsible positions, including a New Zealand brigadier, are already approaching this country. At the same time, very full appreciations have been made by the Staff in the Middle East and are being made in a more lengthy form. All this material will be examined by the General Staff here and will be placed at the disposal of General Sir Alan Brooke, who commands the several millions of armed men we have in this Island, including, of course, the Home Guard. Every effort will be made to profit by it. There are, however, two facts to be borne in mind in comparing what happened in Crete with what might happen here. In the first place, we rely upon a strong superiority in air power and certainly upon a much greater air power, both actually and relatively, than was proved sufficient last autumn. This sustains not only the land defence but liberates again the power of the Navy from the thraldom in which it was held round Crete. In the second place, the scale of the effort required from the Germans in' attack would have to be multiplied many times over from what was necessary in Crete, and it might be that this would be beyond the capacity of their resources or their schemes. Everything, however, will be done to. meet an air-borne 156 and sea-borne attack launched upon a vast scale and maintained with total disregard of losses.
We shall not be lulled by the two arguments I have put forward into any undue sense of security. An attack by parachute troops and gliders may be likened to an attack by incendiary bombs, which, if not quickly extinguished one by one, may lead not only to serious fires but to an enormous conflagration. We are making many improvements in the defence of our airfields and in the mobility of the forces which will be employed upon that and other tasks. Nothing will be stinted, and not a moment will be lost. Here I ought to say that it is not true that the Germans clothed their parachute troops who attacked Crete in New Zealand uniforms. I gave that report to the House as it reached me from the Commander-in-Chief in the Middle East, but he now informs me that the mistake arose from the fact that parachute troops, after landing at one point, drove a number of New Zealand walking wounded before them and along with them in their attack, and consequently the cry arose that they themselves were in New Zealand uniforms. There is no objection to the use of parachute troops in war so long as they are properly dressed in the uniform of their country and so long as that uniform is in itself distinctive. This kind of fighting is, however, bound to become very fierce as it breaks out behind the fronts and lines of the armies, and the civil population is almost immediately involved.
Now I come to the operations which have begun in Syria. I have been waiting all day to have further news of our advance, but at the time I got up to speak I had not received any advices that I could impart to the House.
§ The Prime Minister
I certainly will. The right hon. Gentleman associated himself with a very strong movement there has been for a much greater development of the air force which is actually associated with the Army. Last year, when we were considering our affairs, the great need was to multiply fighters and 157 bombers. It became an enormously important matter. Nevertheless, portions of the Army co-operation squadrons were associated with the military forces, but not on the scale which was desirable or to the extent which was desirable. I think it is of the utmost consequence that every division, especially every armoured division, should have a chance to live its daily life and training in a close and precise relationship with a particular number of aircraft that it knows and that it can call up at will and need.
§ The Prime Minister
Certainly, for the purposes of everything that is a tactical operation. It was not possible last year to provide it on a large scale without trenching on other domains which were more vital to our safety, but it is the intention to go forward upon that path immediately and to provide the Army with a larger number, a considerably larger number, of aeroplanes suited entirely to the work they have to do, and above all to the development of that wireless connection between the ground forces and the air which the Germans have carried to such an extraordinary point of perfection. If this had been done in Crete, it would not have made any difference to the event there, because the numbers there for the purpose of cooperating with the troops could not have altered the event.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Devonport asked me who it was who decided that the Air Forces on the aerodromes in Crete were to be withdrawn. It was decided by the Commander-in-Chief of the Air Force in the Middle East, on the recommendation of General Freyberg, concurred in by the R.A.F. officer commanding on the spot, Group-Captain Beamish. It was at that request. The numbers were small, and if they had not been withdrawn, they would have been blown off the aerodromes without having been able in the slightest degree to affect the course of events. I did overlook that point in my statement, and I am glad that my right hon. Friend has reminded me of it.
Now I come to the Syrian operation. Let me repeat that we have no territorial designs in Syria or anywhere else in French territory. We seek no Colonies or 158 advantages of any kind for ourselves in this war. Let none of our French friends be deceived by the blatant German and Vichy propaganda. On the contrary, we shall do' all in our power to restore the freedom, independence and rights of France. I have, in a letter which I wrote to General de Gaulle, said "the rights and the greatness of France "; we shall do all in our power to restore her freedom and her rights, but it will be for the French to aid us in restoring her greatness. There can be no doubt that General de Gaulle is a more zealous defender of France's interests than are the men of Vichy, whose policy is that of utter subservience to the Germany enemy.
It did not take much intelligence to see that the infiltration into Syria by the Germans and their intrigues in Iraq constituted very great dangers to the whole Eastern flank of our defence in the Nile Valley and the Suez Canal. The only choice before us in that theatre for some time has been whether to encourage the Free French to attempt a counter-penetration by themselves or whether, at heavy risk in delay, to prepare a considerable force, as we have done. It was also necessary to restore the position in Iraq before any serious advance in Syria could be made. Our relations with Vichy and the possibilities of an open breach with the Vichy Government evidently raised the military and strategic significance of these movements to the very highest point. Finally, and above all, the formidable menace of the invasion of Egypt by the German Army in Cyrenaica, supported by large Italian forces, with German stiffening, remains our chief pre-occupation in the Middle East.
The advance by the German army forces into Egypt has been threatened for the last two months, and there would not be much use in attempting to cope with the situation in Syria, if, at the same time, our defences in the Western Desert were beaten down and broken through. We had to take all these things into consideration, and I was very glad indeed when General Wavell reported that he was in a position to make the advance which began on Sunday morning, and which, so far as I have been informed up to the present, is progressing with very little opposition and favourably. This position in Syria was very nearly gone. The German poison was spreading through the country, and the revolt in Iraq, perhaps 159 beginning prematurely, enabled us to take the necessary measures to correct the evil; but, as I say, we must not rejoice or give way to jubilation while we are "engaged in operations of this difficulty and when the reaction of the Germans still remains to us obscure and unknown.
It is very easy, if I may say so, for critics, without troubling too much about our resources and even without a sense of the features of time and distance, to clamour for action now here and now there: "Why do you not go here; what "as I think an hon. Member said, "are you dithering about; why do you not go in there?" and so on. Indeed, one can see how many attractive strategic propositions there are, even with the most cursory examination of the atlas. But the House will, I am sure, best guard its own dignity and authority by refraining from taking sweeping or superficial views. Others have said that we must not follow a hand-to-mouth strategy, that we must regain the initiative and impart to all our operations that sense of mastery and design which the Germans so often display. No one agrees with that more than I do, but it is a good deal easier said than done, especially while the enemy possesses vastly superior resources and many important strategical advantages. For all those reasons I have never, as the House knows, encouraged any hope of a short or easy war.
None the less, it would be a mistake to go to the other extreme and to belittle the remarkable achievements of our country and its Armed Forces. There are many things for which we may be thankful. The air attack on this Island has not overwhelmed us; indeed, we have risen through it and from it strengthened and glorified. There is no truth in the statement of my right hon. Friend the Member for Devonport, which he made in his speech in the country, that productivity in our factories is falling off at an alarming rate. It may not be going as fast as we would like, and if anyone can do anything to make it go faster, or tell us how to do it, he will be rendering a great service. But it is not simply a question of giving very strident orders and demands. There is a great deal more than that in making the whole of our factories, go properly, but it is certainly the exact reverse of the truth to 160 say that productivity is falling off at an alarming rate. In guns and heavy tanks, for instance, the monthly average for the first quarter of 1941 was 50 per cent. greater than in the last quarter of 1940. The output for the month of May, a four-week month, was the highest yet reached and more than double the monthly rate for the last quarter of 1940.
§ Mr. Hore-Belisha
Surely my right hon. Friend is confusing productivity and the production. Of course, there is an increase of production in certain articles, but with absenteeism, to which his attention was called by the Labour party conference, and by the Select Committee on Aircraft Production, the output per man cannot be what it was, and one can give many other illustrations.
§ The Prime Minister
I read into the word the meaning most people read into it; when he said productivity was falling off, I took it to mean not (he effort of each man but the general production. I felt I must contradict his statement today because it happens that I have heard from two foreign countries in the course of the morning of the very serious effect which this statement produced upon opinions there; how it was published rapidly throughout Spain, for instance, and given the greatest prominence coming as it did from an ex-Secretary of State. It was said to be exercising a bad effect.
§ Mr. Hore-Belisha
But the Minister of Labour the very same day had said that the building of factories and aerodromes was falling behind. Did that get circulated in Spain?
§ The Prime Minister
I do not see any difficulty in reconciling that. The Minister might be urging the men to make greater efforts, he might say that this particular lot of airfields were falling behind, what the programme actually was, but that is quite a different thing from saying that the productivity of our factories is falling off. I must say I do not think we are in a sufficiently safe position to allow ourselves the full luxuries of vehement statements upon these very grave matters. As I say, we have many things we may be thankful for. In the 161 first place, we have not been overwhelmed by the air attack; and our production, far from being beaten down by the disorganisation of that attack, has been increasing at a very high rate.
The Battle of the Atlantic is also being well maintained. In January, Herr Hitler mentioned March as the peak month of his effort against us on the sea. We were to be exposed to attacks on a scale never before dreamed of, and there were rumours of hundreds of U-boats and masses of aircraft to be used against us. These rumours were spread against us in the world, and a very alarming impression was produced. March has gone, April has gone, May has gone, and now we are in the middle of June. Apart from the losses incurred in the fighting in the Mediterranean—which were serious— the month of May was the best month we have had for some time on the Atlantic. Prodigious exertions were made to bring in the cargoes and to protect the ships, and these exertions have not failed. It is much easier to sink ships than to build them or to bring them safely across the ocean. We have lately been taking a stronger hand in this sinking process ourselves. It is a most astonishing fact that in the month of May we sank, captured or caused to be scuttled no less than 257,000 tons of enemy shipping, although they present us with a target which is perhaps one-tenth as great as we present to them. While they slink from port to port, under the protection of their air umbrella, and make short, furtive voyages from port to port across the seas, we maintain our whole world-wide traffic, with never less than 2,000 ships on the seas or less than 400 in the danger zones on any day. Yet the losses we inflicted upon them in the month of May were, I think, in the nature of three-quarters of the losses they inflicted upon us. This also has a bearing on the possibility of sea-borne invasion, because the destruction of enemy tonnage is proceeding at a most rapid and satisfactory rate.
Nor need these solid grounds for thankfulness and confidence fall from us when we look at the aspect of the war in the Middle East. We have been at war for 21 months. Almost a year has passed since France deserted us and Italy came in against us. If anybody had said in June last that we should to-day hold every yard of the territories for which 162 Great Britain is responsible in the Middle East; that we should have conquered the whole of the Italian Empire of Abyssinia, Eritrea and East Africa; that Egypt, Palestine and Iraq would have been successfully defended, he would have been thought a very foolish visionary. But that is the position at the moment. It is more than three months since the Germans gave out that they would be in Suez in a month and were telling the Spaniards that when Suez fell they would have to come into the war. Two months ago many people thought that we should be driven out of Tobruk, or forced to capitulate there. The last time we had a Debate on the war in this House so instructed a commentator as my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Petersfield (Sir G. Jeffreys) warned us gravely of the danger of a German thrust at Assiout, at the head of the delta.
Six weeks ago all Iraq was aflame, and Habbaniya was declared to be in the direst jeopardy. Women and children were evacuated by air. It was reported from enemy quarters that a surrender would be forced. A hostile, insurgent Government ruled in Baghdad, in closest association with the Germans and the Italians. Our forces were pinned in Basra, having only just landed. Kirkuk and Mosul were in enemy hands. All has now been regained. We are advancing into Syria in force. Our front at Mersa Matruh in the Western Desert is unbroken and our defensive lines there are stronger than ever. The large forces which were occupied in the conquest of Abyssinia are now set free, with an immense mass of transport, and large numbers are on their way to, or have already reached, the Delta of the Nile.
I think it would be most unfair and wrong, and very silly in the midst of a defence which has so far been crowned with remarkable success, to select the loss of the Crete salient as an excuse and pretext for branding with failure or taunt the great campaign for the defence of the Middle East, which has so far prospered beyond all expectation, and is now entering upon an even more intense and critical phase.
I give no guarantee, I make no promise or prediction for the future. But if the next six months, during which we must expect even harder fighting and many disappointments, should find us in no worse 163 position than that in which we stand today, if, after having fought so long alone, single-handed against the might of Germany and against Italy, and against the intrigues and treachery of Vichy, we should still be found the faithful and 164 unbeaten guardians of the Nile Valley and of the regions that lie about it, then I say that a famous chapter will have been written in the martial history of the British Empire and Commonwealth of Nations.
§ Question, "That this House do now adjourn," put, and agreed to.