HC Deb 27 May 1941 vol 371 cc1714-8
Mr. Lees-Smith

May I ask the Prime Minister whether he has any statement to make on the course of the war?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir. The battle in Crete has now lasted for a week. During the whole of this time our troops have been subjected to an intense and continuous scale of air attack, to which, owing to the geographical conditions, our Air Forces have been able to make only a very limited, though very gallant, counterblast. The fighting has been most bitter and severe, and the enemy's losses up to the present have been much heavier than ours. We have not, however, been able to prevent further descents of airborne German reinforcements, and the enemy's attack and the weight of this attack has grown from day to day. The battle has swayed backwards and forwards with indescribable fury at Canea and equally fiercely, though on a smaller scale, at Retimo and Heraklion. Reinforcements of men and supplies have reached and are reaching General Freyberg's Forces, and at the moment at which I am speaking the issue of their magnificent resistance hangs in the balance.

So far, the Royal Navy have prevented any landing of a sea-borne expedition, although a few shiploads of troops in caiques may have slipped through. Very heavy losses have been inflicted by our submarines, cruisers and destroyers upon the transports and the small Greek ships. It is not possible to state with accuracy how many thousands of enemy troops have been drowned, but the losses have been very heavy. The services rendered by the Navy in the defence of Crete have not been discharged without heavy losses to them. Our Fleet has been compelled to operate constantly without air protection within effective bombing range of the enemy airfields. Claims even more exaggerated than usual have been made by the German and Italian wireless, which it has hitherto not been thought expedient to contradict. I may state, however, that we have lost the cruisers "Gloucester" and "Fiji" and the destroyers "Juno," "Greyhound," "Kelly" and "Kashmir," by far the greater part of their crews having been saved. Two battleships and several other cruisers have been damaged, though not seriously, either by hits or near misses, but all will soon be in action again, and some are already at sea. The Mediterranean Fleet is to-day relatively stronger, compared to the Italian Navy, than it was before the Battle of Cape Matapan. There is no question whatever of our naval position in the Eastern Mediterranean having been prejudicially affected. However the decision of the battle may go, the stubborn defence of Crete, one of the important outposts of Egypt, will always rank high in the military and naval annals of the British Empire.

In Iraq, our position has been largely re-established, and the prospects have greatly improved. There have been no further adverse developments in Syria. In Abyssinia, the daily Italian surrenders continue, many thousands of prisoners and masses of equipment being taken.

While this drama has been enacted in the Eastern Mediterranean, another episode of an arresting character has been in progress in the Northern waters of the Atlantic Ocean. On Wednesday of last week, 21st May, the new German battleship, the "Bismarck," accompanied by the new eight-inch-gun cruiser "Prince Eugen," were discovered by our air reconnaisance at Bergen, and on Thursday, 22nd May, it was known that they had left. Many arrangements were made to intercept them should they attempt, as seemed probable, to break out into the Atlantic Ocean with a view to striking at our convoys from the United States. During the night of 23rd to 24th our cruisers got into visual contact with them as they were passing through the Denmark Strait between Iceland and Greenland. At dawn on Saturday morning the "Prince of Wales" and the "Hood" intercepted the two enemy vessels. I have no detailed account of the action, because events have been moving so rapidly, but the "Hood" was struck at about 23,000 yards by a shell which penetrated into one of her magazines, and blew up, leaving only very few survivors This splendid vessel, designed 23 years ago, is a serious loss to the Royal Navy, and even more so is the loss of the men and officers who manned her.

During the whole of Saturday our ships remained in touch with the "Bismarck" and her consort. In the night aircraft of the Fleet Air Arm from the "Victorious" struck the "Bismarck" with a torpedo, and arrangements were made for effective battle at dawn yesterday morning, but as the night wore on the weather deteriorated, the visibility decreased, and the "Bismarck," by making a sharp turn, shook off the pursuit. I do not know what has happened to the "Prince Eugen," but measures are being taken in respect of her. Yesterday, shortly before midday, a Catalina aircraft—one of the considerable number of these very far-ranging scouting aeroplanes which have been sent to us by the United States—picked up the "Bismarck," and it was seen that she was apparently making for the French ports— Brest or Saint Nazaire. On this, further rapid dispositions were made by the Admiralty and by the Commander-in-Chief, and, of course, I may say that the moment the "Bismarck" was known to be at sea the whole apparatus of our ocean control came into play, very far-reaching combinations began to work, and from yesterday afternoon—I have not had time to prepare a detailed statement—Fleet Air Arm torpedo-carrying seaplanes from the "Ark Royal," made a succession of attacks upon the "Bismarck," which now appears to be alone and without her consort. About midnight we learned that the "Bismarck" had been struck by two torpedoes, one amidships and the other astern. This second torpedo apparently affected the steering of the ship, for not only was she reduced to a very slow speed, but she continued making uncontrollable circles in the sea. While in this condition, she was attacked by one of our flotillas, and hit by two more torpedoes, which brought her virtually to a standstill, far from help and far outside the range at which the enemy bomber aircraft from the French coast could have come upon the scene. This morning, at daylight or shortly after daylight, the "Bismarck" was attacked by the British pursuing battleships. I do not know what were the results of the bombardment; it appears, however, that the "Bismarck" was not sunk by gunfire, and she will now be dispatched by torpedo. It is thought that this is now proceeding, and it is also thought that there cannot be any lengthy delay in disposing of this vessel.

Great as is our loss in the "Hood," the "Bismarck" must be regarded as the most powerful, as she is the newest battleship in the world, and this striking of her from the German Navy is a very definite simplification of the task of maintaining the effective mastery of the Northern seas and the maintenance of the Northern blockade. I daresay that in a few days it will be possible to give a much more detailed account, but the essentials are before the House and although there is shade as well as light in this picture I feel that we have every reason to be satisfied with the outcome of this fierce and memorable naval encounter.

Mr. Garro Jones

May I ask the Prime Minister whether he can say what was the weight of the projectiles which were thrown on the "Bismark" prior to the abandonment of the gun attack for torpedo attacks?

The Prime Minister

I naturally cannot. I only heard about five minutes before I came into the Chamber the latest information to reach the Admiralty, and, as I have said, I have no doubt we shall get further information in the course of the day.

Mr. Woodburn

Would the right hon. Gentleman consider the dropping of weeping gas bombs on the "Bismarck" to see whether she could not be captured?

Sir A. Knox

In view of the effect produced on Lord Beatty's battle cruisers at the Battle of Jutland, may I ask whether, when the "Hood" was withdrawn for overhaul, she got special equipment— additional armour—to guard her magazines or not?

The Prime Minister

The "Hood" was refitted about 10 years ago, and during the war she has been several times in hand for short periods in order to have her turbine blades attended to, but no major reconstruction of the ship, which was known to be thinly armoured, was possible during the war, and none had been set on foot before the war.


The Prime Minister

I do not know whether I might venture, with great respect, to intervene for one moment. I have just received news that the "Bismarck" is sunk.