HC Deb 21 October 1915 vol 74 cc2118-24

I want to raise a question that I mentioned during Question Time in regard to the Zeppelin raids, and the advisability, or inadvisability, of giving warning in the towns that are threatened with these raids. I am not myself going to express any very definite opinion on the matter, but I think it would be well if some fuller statement were given by the Home Secretary, so that there might be the largest amount of reassurance, so far as the general public are concerned. I think there is no need at all why there should be panic or scare in this matter, but it is advisable that we should calmly discuss the best means of reducing the loss of life. It is pretty clear that the approach of the Zeppelins is known, and is known to the authorities. I think it is quite safe to say that warnings are given in certain directions, to certain offices, and so on, and the question arises as to whether it would be wise or unwise to extend these warnings to the public generally. It may be said that this in itself would lead to something in the nature of a scare or panic, but, so far as I have observed—and I have been within a very short distance of where bombs were actually falling—the people seemed to take the matter with a great deal of detached interest. But there is this about it: if warnings were given, I think the streets would very quickly be cleared of people, and, quite apart from the actual bombs that fall, there is a good risk from pieces of falling shrapnel from our own anti-aircraft guns. It is certain, I think, that children would be taken out of the streets if warning were given in time. I will not say more, but I think it is desirable that the pros and cons of the question should be discussed with perfect calmness as to how we can reduce the loss of life in the best possible way. It is purely from that point of view that the question should be discussed, and not to raise any passion or feeling against the Government, or anything of that sort, because I think it is wicked to use a matter of this kind for political or semi-political reasons.


I am very much obliged to my hon. Friend for raising this question, because I agree with him that it is one in which it is desirable that the arguments on the one side or the other should be placed at the disposal of the public. I am also much obliged to him—and I am sure everybody in the House is—for the entirely reasonable and moderate way in which he has put the matter before us. The question whether public warning should be issued by the authorities in advance of the arrival of the Zeppelins in the London area is a question which has been more than once most carefully considered by the authorities responsible. Indeed, the last occasion when it was minutely examined was so lately as this morning, when I had the advantage of hearing in detail the views of the Department at the Admiralty which answers for the gun defence of London. Let me just interpose at this point this observation: There is really no confusion here between the responsibility of one Department or another. The defence of London from Zeppelin attack is in charge of the Admiralty. The way in which the Home Office comes into the matter is this: that as a consequence of such attacks there may very well be special and most urgent action to be taken by the police, and there is also the question of the regulation of lights. These are necessarily police matters, and it is these matters of a non-military character which the Home Office endeavours to administer, but always subject to the advice of the Anti-Aircraft Department of the Admiralty.

Now, how does this matter of warning the public as to the approach of Zeppelins stand? Let me say at once that my anxiety in it is not that London will become panic-stricken. Nothing is more remarkable, nothing is more worthy of praise, than the consistent coolness with which the population of the Metropolis has taken the visits of these airy strangers when they happen to drop in. That is not really the difficulty. The difficulty is a twofold one, and I would like to put it quite plainly to the House. First of all, it must not be supposed that when the authorities first have reason to think that there may be a Zeppelin attack on a given night they are in a position to assert that there is going to be a Zeppelin raid in the London area. The first news, of course, which the authorities here are able to collect, is news of the passage of these Zeppelins, it may be across the North Sea, or across, what I believe some people used to call, the German Ocean. It has constantly happened that Zeppelins have been out for a nocturnal airing of that sort, and have never got inland at all, and it has constantly happened that, although they do touch some portion of the coast of this land, they have wandered about in a perfectly aimless way and dropped these destructive bombs on various agricultural areas, or sometimes, whether by accident or design, on perfectly innocent people in various provincial towns and villages. The House will see, therefore, that when one speaks of the authorities knowing there is going to be a Zeppelin attack, the first thing that is known is nothing more than that there are some of these visitors on the way, but whether they will ever get here, or whether, if they do get to England, they will succeed in making their way to this particular area of London, is a thing no one can possibly prophesy with confidence, and, therefore, if you are going to give warnings to the public, you must face this, that nine times out of ten—I just choose a round figure—I do not know whether I shall express it rightly when I say, the public will be disappointed. That is the first difficulty, and it is in connection with that fact, of course, that arrangements are made to protect, not only London, but other parts of the country, as rapidly as the information at the command of the authoriies permits.

I do not think this is a matter on which public interest at all requires that one should preserve complete, silence, and I am most anxious that the public should understand how very thoroughly and systematically this problem is being studied, and attempts at a satisfactory solution are being made. It is a matter of the greatest importance that we should not ourselves, by foolish gossip and indiscreet statements, assist these invaders in the slightest degree to identify the part to which they have come. It is the universal opinion of those who have studied this thing, not only on the ground but in the air, that nothing would be less to the interest of the country than that we should make statements of that sort, and, of course, I am not going to do so. But there is not the slightest reason why the public should not understand the sort of way in which this invasion is sought to be dealt with. As soon as it is known there may be such an attempt, and long before it is known with any certainty that London is going to be the successful object, of course steps are taken in order that all possible observation shall be kept by those whose duty it is to keep the observation on the different areas of the coast. If they reach the coast steps are at once taken so as to control the railway traffic in the area affected in order to reduce to a minimum the risk of trains acting as guides to this place or that. That does not mean, of course, that at a moment and in a flash we stop all the trains coming to and from London, but it means that you control the traffic and the most careful arrangements are made to secure that this is effectively done. Arrangements are made in advance to do this in such areas as are material to the purpose for checkmating the invader. It may be that at a later stage some better and some more certain judgment can be formed as to whether the London area is likely to be reached. This sometimes happens and sometimes it does not.

There are some things which obviously ought to be done and which are done as a precaution forthwith. At a suitable moment the special constables are warned. The system by which we secure the service of doctors in London at different suitable points is all put in motion. You cannot tell what portion of the London area is likely to be attacked for the best of all reasons that the Zeppelin itself has not the remotest idea, and we have strong reason for believing that it has not only no idea in advance but a very hazy idea after the event. It has been thought after the most careful consideration that it is better not to make any preliminary announcement at large to the public, for instance, by the ringing of church bells or the sounding of a hooter. I cannot imagine a better guide for a Zeppelin wandering about the flats in Essex or about Epping Forest than constantly hearing a unanimous chorus of all the church bells and steam whistles of the Metropolis. That is the first difficulty we have endeavoured to face, and that is the conclusion to which we have come. There is a second point. I said it was not panic which disturbs us. After all, if you do tell the men and the women and children of the Metropolis that it may be in the course of an hour or two hours' time that we shall be honoured with a visit from a Zeppelin, what is it exactly which the men, women and children are expected to do? Of course if those who conduct these invasions were careful to do no damage to civilian life; if they really were prepared and were able to take precautions not to strike private property, it would be a very reasonable thing to secure that everybody went home. But our own experience goes to show that the Zeppelin does not pay the slightest attention to things of that sort.

Supposing you tell the population of London that there might be a Zeppelin coming, I cannot help suspecting that what most of them would do would be to go out into the streets and have a look at it. I think our own experience has really confirmed that. It is an instance of the coolness and courage, and of the contempt with which the Londoner regards these dastardly outrages. But that does not assist to protect the lives of Londoners. I asked the other day that the papers should be analysed, in order that I might know in regard to the different casualties in the London area, whether they had occurred in the open air or in the houses, and the House may be interested to know that a very substantial proportion of the casualties, both fatal and otherwise, have occurred in the streets, and observe, although these attacks occur at night, and at a time when the larger part of the population would naturally be under cover. That goes to show that the probable consequence of telling everybody that there may be a Zeppelin to-night would not reduce the number of people suffering injury. Let me say frankly, that there have been one or two cases in which I have been much puzzled as to what would be the better course to take. Let me take an extreme instance, to show what I mean. It may happen before we have done with these invaders that a theatre gets struck, and the people assembled there, for perfectly peaceful and innocent enjoyment, may suddenly find a bomb dropped among them. If, unfortunately, that did happen it might do damage to a number of innocent people, and great as the coolness of the Londoner is, it might create some sort of local panic.

I thought at one time that it might be desirable that we should arrange with the theatres that in certain events they should be warned of this possibility, but I ask the House to consider the arguments the other way. In the first place, it is questionable what the effect would be on a theatre audience. I heard of a case the other night. It was a cinema where there was some such intimation given, and I believe the proceedings were stopped and afterwards one or two persons present bitterly complained that having paid their money they wanted their money's worth. A great many more people thought the alternative attraction was too good to be missed and promptly went out into the streets. Supposing you urged these people to go home. A large number of them go by train. If there is any immediate risk of a Zeppelin attack in the London area we stop the trains, and the result would be that if you were able to warn our peaceful population a large proportion of them would assemble at the termini of the railway companies. Trains could not run out, and the consequence would be that you would have a great collection of people under another roof which, if the enemy paid any regard to ordinary military considerations, would be a more suitable object for his attention than a theatre or a music hall. You have all sorts of other assemblies.

I wish to tell the House that I am glad of this opportunity of telling hon. Members here publicly that the view which is presented to me by the Admiralty and which we have felt it right to adopt—always subject of course to alteration in the light of further and greater consideration—is that on the whole it is better not to attempt to warn people of the suggested approach of the Zeppelins. The public must therefore understand that if they feel, as some of them very naturally may do, that this leaves them in more than one sense in the dark, they really must take their own risk if they choose to go to places where a number of people are assembled together at night. They will be able to estimate the extent of that risk, and I have no doubt that they will act in this matter reasonably and fairly. I apologise for having taken so long, but the matter is one which very closely affects the interests of all of us, and upon which the man in the street is very naturally and closely concerned. I was anxious to show to the House that this has not been some hasty, careless, and despotic policy of the Government to conceal from the people of England the truth, but a deliberate policy adopted as a practical decision after most carefully weighing the pros and cons of the matter.

I might say, in conclusion, that I believe there are some areas in England, some towns in England, where the alternative policy has been actually tried. I have not had any representations from any hon. Members representing those areas as to how it has worked, but in one such area I have reason to know that the number of false alarms that have been given have produced a very great deal of consternation and disappointment, and the total result, to say the least of it, is extremely doubtful from the point of view of perfect public security and safety. The truth is that in this and other matters, since we are at war, and since our enemy chooses to adopt these devices, we have got to show him that it is not an idle boast, but that it is a genuine fact that Englishmen, men and women, Londoners no less than others, are prepared to face even the tragic incidents of war with courage, calmness, and resolution. Londoners and others may be perfectly satisfied that everything that can be done shall be done in order to minimise any risk to which they may be put. Nobody can feel more keenly than the Government do the seriousness of the individual tragedies which have been created by these horrible attacks, but just as it is the determination of our people to carry this War to a victorious conclusion, so it is, after all, an incident, though a very grave incident, which we here at home have got to bear, and which is small in comparison with the daily and nightly risks run by our heroes on the field of battle.