HC Deb 13 March 1917 vol 91 cc887-9

asked the Under-Secretary of State for War whether he is able to give the House the evidence on which his statement that we still maintain the mastery of the air on the Western front is based; whether he can state the average number of casualties per week during the last six weeks; and can he also state whether the War Office are in every respect satisfied with the machine that is at present being employed?


I will reply to the last two parts of my right hon. Friend's question first.

The average casualties per week for the last six weeks are:

Killed 7.6
Wounded 8.3
Missing 4.2

The War Office is satisfied for the moment with the best types which are being employed. But there are machines still in use, of types which are not up to the latest standard. These are being replaced as rapidly as possible.

As regards the first and main part of the question, the situation in the air on the British front in France at the present moment is undecided. During the winter months, when flying is much interfered with by short days and bad weather, all the belligerents have endeavoured to in-crease and improve their Air Services. With the advent of good weather, we must expect a severe contest before achieving such a definite superiority as will enable us to throw the enemy entirely on the defensive.

In one respect we have been superior to the Germans throughout the War, and that is in the amount of work performed by the Flying Corps for the Army. The Ger mans have never been able either to carry out such work on a comparable scale, or to stop our men from doing it.

The situation is very similar to that which obtained at the same period of last year. At that time the Germans, reinforced and rested after the winter, put up a serious opposition, and it was only after severe fighting in the air—both at Verdun and in front of our lines—that fighting superiority was established. Even then, this superiority was only maintained by hard and continuous fighting at considerable distances behind the German lines, by which means it was found possible to keep the air above the battlefield practically clear of the enemy.

At the opening of last year's campaign, the main concentration of the German air forces was towards Verdun This year it appears to be in front of the British forces, a move which probably is connected with the German retirement.

There has not at any time, on any side, in the Western theatre, been a situation which could properly be described as the "mastery" or "supremacy" of the air, and when I replied to a sudden supplementary on this difficult point last week, I hope that the House will realise that I had no wish either to overstate or understate the actual situation.

Reinforcements and replacements of material are now being dispatched continuously to our front, and there is every reason to hope that we shall assert our superiority in the air this year, as we did last. But, as I have already stated, we must be prepared for severe fighting before that end is achieved.


Would it be in the public interest to state what portion of these machines described as not up to the standard are in use?


I am afraid I must have notice of that question.


On what does the hon. Gentleman base his proportion of 7 per cent.? Is that on the total of fighting machines, or the total number of men and machines in this country and abroad?


I cannot say that. I must confess these figures were supplied to me.

Major HUNT

Is the output of fighting and scouting aeroplanes now used by the British equal to that of the Germans, in view of the fact that about the middle of October it was not? Have you caught up with them yet?


I cannot assent to the statement which the hon. and gallant Gentleman has made. I am sure the House will realise that I cannot answer off-hand any question of that sort.


Is the inference from what the hon. Gentleman has said that during the past winter and also the winter previous the German activity in the manufacture of aeroplanes has been greater than our own?


No, I do not think it has.


Is the hon. Gentleman aware that these very machines that he says are not fit to keep our end up in France are at present being ordered in large quantities in this country?


The hon. Member should give notice of that question.


I will raise the whole question of the Air Service on the Adjournment to-night.