HC Deb 14 June 1917 vol 94 cc1283-92

Whereupon Mr. SPEAKER, pursuant to the Order of the House of the 12th February, proposed the Question, "That this House do now adjourn."


I see my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is here, and also I see the Under-Secretary for War. I have given them notice that I should like to ask a question or two with regard to the air raid of yesterday. Perhaps the Home Secretary may be able to make a statement as to a portion of the matter in which a great many people are interested in regard to this air raid. I am not going into the whole question at the present moment, but, as the House knows, yesterday's raid—the third, I think, in a fortnight, was the most considerable of all, the casualties, I believe, being something over 500—my right hon. Friend will be able to give us in a moment the exact numbers—and there is a somewhat strong feeling amongst the people of London that they would like at least to be reassured that everything that possibly can be done for their protection is being done. I desire to say at once that I do not want a single machine brought back from the front. I do not want the Army or Navy crippled in the slightest degree in order that we here may be kept in safety. The Army comes first, and we want it as fully supplied as possible with the best machines and the best guns. But something might be done for London, for instance, by a system of warning, such as has been done for some provincial towns. I had occasion yesterday to go to Ipswich, and I found they had received warning from their police of a raid, that within a quarter of an hour the German aeroplanes had passed away from Ipswich and were en route for London; the warning was taken off, and the people of Ipswich were able to go about their business in the usual way. I quite realise that London is infinitely larger than any of our provincial cities. At the same time, there was very great disinclination, we remember, in this House a year or so ago to give any kind of warning in provincial cities. It has now been found possible to give warning in all towns on the South and South-East Coasts in order that people may remain indoors. It is very much safer to keep indoors when a raid is taking place than to go gaping in the streets to see what is happening. People in London do not realise the danger, because there is no warning given. It was stated this afternoon that some people even took motor cars to go into the City to see the raid—a most futile and foolish proceeding. If my right hon. Friend can give us any idea of whether it is possible to have some kind of warning, such as is given to provincial towns and cities, it might be a great advantage in keeping the people of London under cover, because there will be more raids. I do not think we can assume for a moment that we are out of the wood, and that now Germany has begun this policy of calculated brutality on the people of this country, as apart from the Army, she is likely to stop for one moment.

I do not know whether the Undersecretary for War can give any information on the other side of the question, apart from police warning, with which the Home Secretary will deal, as to the arrangements made for the anti-aircraft defence of London, and whether he can assure us that the best guns are now being used, or whether there is any hope that in a month or two's time better anti-aircraft guns can be provided for our defence. If it is undesirable to make any statement on that question, I need hardly say that I will not press it. Further than that he may be able to tell us something of the arrangements for sending up aeroplanes for the defence of London. It was freely said at the time of the Folkestone raid that there was notice of it in Great Britain three quarters of an hour before bombs were dropped on Folkestone. It is also said that forty-five minutes at least before bombs were dropped on London the advent of hostile aeroplanes was known over the coast of Essex. If that is so, there was surely time for our aircraft to ascend and meet the enemy in the air. We do not know now whether any were brought down, as was the case in the last raid at Shoeburyness. He will be able to tell us about that. But, generally speaking, I think the House and the country must realise that when machines come over, as they are able now to do, at a height of fifteen to twenty thousand feet, and at a speed of 80 to 100 miles an hour, it may not be always possible to stop them. I do not ask the hon. Gentleman to give an assurance that it is at all possible completely to eliminate raids of that kind, but I do ask the Government—I am not pressing for a reply —at the present time—to take into very serious consideration the policy of reprisals on German towns. Germany has now entered on warfare, not only against the Army of Great Britain, but has declared deliberate war on the nation, the men, women and children of our country. She is going definitely and persistently to pursue that warfare on the nation, and I submit to the House and the Government that the time is very rapidly approaching when, whether we like it or not, we shall be forced to declare war in the same way on the German people. Not that I have any desire whatever for the exercise of cruelty, or to slay Germans be cause they have slain our people. I say this because I believe it is the only possible way of bringing home to the German nation the enormity of what they have done—that is, the adoption of the policy on their part of destroying the English civilian population in the way they have done. I ask the Government to state, not that there will be a small and insufficient raid on a town like Cologne or any similar German town, but that as soon as a raid of this sort, involving, as it has done, 500 casualties, takes place, stem and swift reprisals will take place on German towns. I ask for that, and that the Government should very seriously consider it. I cannot ask the hon. Gentle man to make a statement on that to-night because it must be a matter for the very careful and serious consideration of the War Cabinet, but I do ask him to inform the War Cabinet that feeling is rising, and that the only certain way of stopping these raids, in spite of the defence we may make by means of our aeroplanes and anti-aircraft guns, is that we shall punish, and punish severely, raids of this kind by inflicting similar raids with certainty—because they are useless without certainty—on German towns. If the right hon. Gentlemen can give me some information I shall be very glad.


It is only natural after so serious a raid as that which occurred yesterday that a statement should be asked for regarding it at the earliest moment in the House of Commons, and that Members should want the fullest information that can properly be given to them. I have the figures as last ascertained of the casualties which occurred yesterday, and they are very serious. The number of killed as far as yet known is 104, the number seriously injured 154, and the number slightly injured 269. These figures make a total of 527 casualties, including, I am sorry to say, 120 children, either killed or injured. Our enemy has made the statement that his aeroplanes yesterday bombarded the fortress of London. I hope it will not be forgotten that among the victims of that bombardment are 120 young children, a number of them under five years of age. With regard to the questions that have been asked, my hon. Friend will not expect me to deal with the military points which he has raised, or with the large question of policy referred to in the last part of his speech. I can only deal to-night with his question relating to the warnings which have been given of air raids. That is a question which, of course, has been considered in conjunction and consultation with the Home forces. It is a matter which has never been an easy matter, and has been dealt with very carefully. The moment hostile forces reach the coast, or approach the coast, warnings are sent to headquarters in London. The air-raid warning is distributed among the centres to which information ought to be given, namely, to the headquarters of the police, the police stations, explosive factories, and other places which I need not particularise. Apart from that the police, both ordinary and special, have instructions to give all possible warning to people in the streets in the case of real danger, to go under cover, and the only question that has been raised, and which has caused any doubt in my hon. Friend's mind, is whether some warning should not be given to the public, either by hooters or in some other way that an air raid is impending. That is a question upon which I do not wish to pronounce a final opinion. It has been considered time after time, and it is remarkable that on every occasion the experts have been unanimously of opinion that public warning of an impending air raid should not be given in London. Of course, it must be given if given at all to the whole of the great metropolis of London. You cannot particularise and warn only one dictrict as you can in places like Ipswich or the small towns where it is given. If you give a public warning you give it to the whole of London. In the second place, it must not be forgotten that cases where there is a raid threatened or impending are many times more than cases where an actual raid occurs. In fact, in London I think in the last two raids no warning could be given, because the enemy machines were not observed, whereas on the last five occasions before yesterday when the warning was given there was no raid. It follows that if you are to give a warning you must give it on all occasions. The result is immediate dislocation in the minds of the people. Many go out and look up at the air, as we all know from yesterday's and to-day's experience. And to-day there was no raid at all. They leave their work, not for a short time, but in many cases for the whole day. And the day's work is lost. In nearly every case where a warning is given of an air raid the man quite naturally leaves his work and is anxious to go home and make sure that his home and people are safe. Therefore a warning of this kind only results in the loss of a day for many thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of workmen. There are two munition factories close to each other in one particular district just outside London. In one case they heard of the last raid and the 4,000 men who were warned left their work and lost a day's work. In the other factory some thousands of men did their whole day's work because they were not warned. What I have said shows how much work may be lost by warnings given when raids do not ensue. If you give that warning to all munition factories and it is not needed you put a stop to the manufacture of munitions which will have its effect upon the fighting forces and the lives of our soldiers and sailors. That is an important consideration from the point of view of the Ministry of Munitions. If we made it a practice to give a public warning on every occasion when a raid is supposed to be possible that would result in such a dislocation of ordinary occupations and our preparations for war, that we should in that way afford the greatest possible satisfaction to our enemies. It would, in fact, be worth the enemy's while to have these raids every day of the week if they knew that what I have described would be the result of each attempt.

One other point, and it is the most important of all. It is, if warnings were given, would they have the effect of saving life? I am advised that they would not have that effect. Of course, I put the saving of life before every other consideration. Supposing we gave warnings by such means as loud-sounding hooters. I am advised that sudden warnings in this way of impending air raids would have the effect of producing overcrowding in the streets and trams, and people would suddenly crowd into the Tubes and other places, and this of itself might result in a serious loss of life. When warned of an air raid, the impulse of many people would be not to run indoors, but out of doors. Most of us yesterday and to-day, when the news went round, saw people leave their houses and shops and congregate in groups on the pavements watching for the machines in the air.


And on the Terrace of the House of Commons.


That is the effect of a public warning, and it is a danger against which we all ought to guard. It is a wise and prudent thing to go under cover. I do not mean to say that that is an absolute protection. It happened yesterday that the persons who were killed and injured under cover were more numerous than those who were killed in the open. I attribute that to a great extent to the fact that the police induced so many to go under cover. I know they did their best. I know of one well-known house where a number of employés rushed out and the policeman exerted himself to drive them indoors, and he succeeded very well. Just afterwards a bomb exploded near to the house, and the lives of those people were saved.

That is an instance where going under cover resulted in the saving of life. I cannot too strongly warn people that the wisest thing that they can do when an air raid occurs is to go under cover. The fact that they are behind a wall or under a solid floor of some kind is in itself almost a certain protection against injury, and, if people would take the precaution of getting under cover, a great number of lives now lost would be saved. I do not at all close my mind upon the matter, but I wish to tell the House that the opinion of all the experts and of all the business men whom we have consulted is that upon the whole we are wisest, both from the point of view of carrying on the War and from the point of view of protecting life and the safety of persons, in not giving a general public warning by hooter or some means of that kind.


Could the right hon. Gentleman at all events extend the warning to the hospitals? The London Hospital which treated 190 patients yesterday, had no warning whatever, and had no time to prepare.


I was going to suggest that point. I think that public institutions, public schools where there are infants, and the hospitals, where there are wounded soldiers, ought to be given warning.


The Leader of the House informed us yesterday that one of the enemy raiders had been destroyed. Can the right hon. Gentleman confirm that or add any information as to whether any other machines were brought down?

The UNDER-SECRETARY Of STATE for WAR (Mr. Macpherson)

Perhaps the House will allow me, in a few words, to reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford (Mr. Joynson-Hicks) that everything that is possible has been done and is being done to ensure the best possible defence for this city. I may tell my hon. Friend, as I think he knows, that we have a good supply of the best available guns and the best available pilots who yesterday ascended the moment orders were given. As the House knows well, the raiders came across the Channel in about twelve minutes, and, as the Home Secretary has pointed out, on at least four or five occasions we were ready, and we never really know when they may come directly over London. With regard to the point raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy (Sir H. Dalziel), so far as I know there is no further information with regard to the number of raiders brought down than that conveyed to the House last night by the Chancellor of the Exchequer.


One was brought down?


I understand that is true. I got definite information yesterday that one was brought down in the eastern part of Essex near Shoeburyness. As far as I know—and I think I can assert definitely—no further raiders were brought down in the raid of last night. I am not going to enter into one of the points to which my hon. Friend directed my attention—the point of reprisals. My hon. Friend knows that is purely a question of policy for the Government, but we may assume that the raid which took place yesterday on London was merely a reprisal on the part of the Germans for the very continuous and effective raids which we ourselves have taken the precaution of inflicting upon them, particularly round about the dangerous area of Zeebrugge. I have been in communication with the Home Defence authorities, and they tell me that they are satisfied with the home defence of London as it is at the present time, but they are now, particularly after yesterday, seeing whether in any possible way that defence can be improved. As my hon. Friend, who has just paid a visit to the front, will realise, the amount of work which is being done by our very best pilots and our very best guns at the front may occasionally handicap the home defence. I can assure him upon this point that not only are we now satisfied that we have got the men, the aircraft guns, and the machines at the front suitable for very effective raiding and for very effective defensive purposes along the front and also in German territory, but we have at the present time a very good supply of pilots, men, and machines for home defence.


Has the Home Secretary any information with regard to an attempted air raid to-day?


Can the right hon. Gentleman give us any reply to the question whether the hospitals, Red Cross hospitals, and public schools in which children are kept get proper notice or any notice if a raid is made?


I believe it is the practice to warn hospitals. If, as the hon. Member suggests, one was not warned yesterday, it must have been by some omission. With regard to schools, I am rather doubtful whether it would be wise to give them warning because the result would be that the children would be immediately asked to leave instead of being kept under shelter.


At a school I am acquainted with there are arrangements for the children being taken away so as to save their lives if a bomb fell there.


I saw hundreds of young ladies in Government offices yesterday exposing themselves to very great danger. It would be worth while considering whether penalties should be imposed.


I believe orders are given in Government buildings that employés, especially women, shall seek safety. Undoubtedly there was a warning of an air raid yesterday, but fortunately I do not know yet exactly for what reason, the raiders did not do more than approach the coast. They did not really make any serious attack.


I am not quite sure what buildings they were. They were buildings across the road in the Park.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine minutes after Eleven o'clock until to-morrow (Friday), pursuant to the Order of the House this day.