HC Deb 19 March 1936 vol 310 cc670-82

1. "That a number of Air Forces, not exceeding 50,000, all ranks, be maintained for the Service of the United Kingdom at Home and abroad, exclusive of those serving in India (other than Aden), during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1937."

2. "That a sum, not exceeding £6,518,000, be granted to His Majesty, to defray the Expense of the Pay, etc., of the Royal Air Force at Home and abroad, exclusive of those serving in India (other than Aden), which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1937."

3. "That a sum, not exceeding £6,600,000, be granted to His Majesty, to defray the Expense of Works, Buildings, Repairs, and Lands, including Civilian Staff and other Charges connected therewith, which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1937."

4. "That a sum, not exceeding £18,491,000, be granted to His Majesty, to defray the Expense of Technical and Warlike Stores (including Experimental and Research Services), which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1937."

5. "That a sum, not exceeding £760,000, be granted to His Majesty, to defray the Expense of Civil Aviation, which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1937."

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House doth agree with the Committee in the said Resolution."

5.52 p.m.


The House discussed fairly thoroughly on Tuesday most of the important questions involved in the Votes that are coming up to-day on the Report stage. It is not my intention to take up much of the time of the House or to raise any issues that will cause a long Debate, but on Vote A I would like to ask the Secretary of State a question in reference to statements that he made on Tuesday, and to compare them with the figures given in the Vote which we are at present discussing. In the course of his speech he said: Of the 2,500 pilots we require, we have taken 500 from airmen already serving. This gives our ground personnel increased opportunities to fly, which have been much appreciated. Of the balance of 2,000 pilots to be obtained from civil life, we have already secured nearly 1,200. Of ground personnel, we have to date obtained 14,500. Of these 1,100 are re-enlisted airmen and 13,400 are new recruits. We have thus got to date 15,700 of the 25,000 personnel we require over the two years."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 17th March, 1936; cols. 264–5, Vol. 310.] I would like to draw the attention of the Under-Secretary to the point that was raised concerning the number of fighting and bombing aeroplanes that will be in commission when the proposals in these Estimates are carried out. He said that the number given in the Estimates themselves did not represent the Air Force by any means. He admitted that, because it is well known. In fact, he said that the reserves and training units represent even more than the first-line defence. I gave the figure, as an estimate, of between 4,000 and 5,000 as representing the total Air Force. If one looks into the question thoroughly, I think 5,000 aeroplanes will represent not only the first-line defence, but also the reserves, training units, experimental machines, and so forth. The only point I intend to raise is that I cannot altogether square the number of personnel which is stated in thee Estimates as being required and as being obtained with the number that must constitute the total of the Royal Air Force in all its aspects.

I would like also to ask the Under-Secretary whether he is satisfied with the rate of enlistment that is represented. Over two years the proportion seems to be all right, but I would imagine that during the first year in the new expansion there would be a larger proportion of people desiring to enter the Royal Air Force, and that there might be some difficulty in obtaining the remainder of the personnel as represented by these figures.

I would also like to ask the right hon. Gentleman whether, in connection with personnel in general, the Air Force has found any of the type of difficulties with which the other Services have been faced? There is a problem with regard to recruiting in the Army and the Navy and a great deal of it is represented by the bad physical condition of large numbers of people. To what extent does that apply to the Royal Air Force May I ask, finally, what is the result of the new experiment, about which so much was said a little while ago in respect of airmen pilots? We on this side with our democratic ideas are, of course, very favourable to the principle of people going up from the ranks to the higher branches of the Service, and we should be interested to know how this experiment is succeeding.

6.2 p.m.


My excuse for intervening at this stab e is that I think I may possibly be able to reassure some hon. Members who hive been a little nervous about details of the personnel of the Air Force. I refer particularly to the short-service-commission men whom we have been taking in during the last few months. By the courtesy of the Minister and the Adjutant-General of the Air Force, I was able to visit practically all the short-service training schools a week ago. Many Members who have an interest in these things will agree that we were beginning to feel a little disquiet as to whether the quality of new entrants for the short-service commissions was such as to enable us to feel confidence. From what I could see up and down the country the quality up to the present is very high, and the percentage of rejections which will have to be made is likely to be very small. Members will remember that under this system the entrants, who are taken at various ages up to about 25, may come from any walk of life. They may come direct from a public school or any other school or from any occupation. They are given a course of flying training by civil instructors in civil schools, then given a short course of organisation and discipline, and then transferred to the Royal Air Force regular flying schools where they spend six months.

There are certain difficulties in this system, and I propose to put them before the right hon. Gentleman with a view to seeing whether means can be devised for removing them. I found a remarkable thing about the origin of these young men who take short service commissions: the great public schools supply a very small proportion of them. The grammar schools supply a goodly number, and those schools are in many instances of an extremely high standard of education. Some of the regular commanding officers who have to deal with these short service commission officers tell me that some of their "star turns" are boys who have been brought up for the mercantile marine in the "Conway" or "Worcester," who have done some service at sea to qualify for their certificates, but have found, as is too often the case, that appointments in the mercantile marine are very few. They have then transferred at a comparatively early age to the short service commission schools. These, I was informed, might probably be the best pilots and might ultimately make the best officers.

It is, however, a pity that a greater effort is not made to draw upon the very best material that we have in the country, which is found in the public schools. Nearly every public school has its Army class, but how many have an Air Force class? After all, the Air Force is a much more important thing than the Army so far as the defence of the country is concerned. If the Ministry would encourage the idea of some of our great public schools having an Air Force class, it would enable candidates to be prepared for the entrance examinations, just as they are now prepared for Woolwich and Sandhurst. I understand that a large number of boys from the great public schools fail to pass their entrance examination and are rejected, and there is every reason to suppose that in many cases they would have made excellent flying officers if they had only had the preparation which would enable them to pass the entrance examination.

But the main difficulty, as far as I can ascertain, is with regard to parents. I got that confirmed at one of the aerodromes at which I landed where there happened to be a party of boys of the Officers Training Corps from a neighbouring public school taking some sort of course. I managed to get the youngsters to talk to me openly. I found them very keen about the air, but they agreed ultimately after consultation with one another that parents were the real trouble. I made further investigations into the parents' point of view. As a bachelor of 57 years standing I can of course appreciate the feelings of parents. I found that the objections to a boy going into the Air Force are three in the case of the short service commissions. The first—and it is as well to be open about these things—is the reputation of the Air Force. That seems a bold and unpleasant thing to say in public, but everybody knows that there was a time when the Air Force was a pretty rough crowd. But if we consider what was the condition of the great universities in the same period, I venture to say that the parent who thought that if he sent his son into the Air Force he was endangering his immortal soul, would, if he only considered the matter, have felt he would have endangered it equally if he sent his son to Oxford or Cambridge. Therefore, that objection falls to the ground. Just as the great universities have reformed themselves since the immediate post-war period and are on at least as high a standing as they used to be before the War, so also, notwithstanding that terrible period in question, the Air Force has found its feet, has reformed itself, and is in every respect as fit a place for any young man as Oxford or Cambridge.

The next objection is that a parent has a sort of feeling that if his son goes into the Air Force and flies in an aeroplane, he will break his neck. I can only say that I myself am a living proof of the fallacy of that idea. I have crashed my way through some 300 or 400 hours of cross-country flying, and although I started at the age of 54 summers, having two war disablements, the first being in the Boer War, I have found it possible to preserve my neck in spite of the so-called dangers of flying and—touching wood—I hope to preserve it still. So the second objection falls to the ground.

The third objection is this. The public school boy goes in at the age of 17¾ or 18, which is the lowest age for a short service course. That means that if he only takes a short service commission and does not get a full-time commission subsequently, he comes out at the age of 23, and the parent thinks he is spoiled for any job in the professions, in industry, or in commerce. Speaking as an industrialist and after real consideration of all the factors, I definitely state that a boy from a good public school, particularly if he has been brought up on the classics and not on science—that is to say, if he has been properly educated—who goes in for a short service commission at the age of 17¾ will be far more useful in industry when he comes out than if he had been at Oxford or Cambridge. When he goes into industry direct from Oxford or Cambridge, it is some time before he is any real use, whereas a man who has been in command of men and in charge of high-powered machines can be made use of in industry almost immediately, and, in due course, he can be promoted, if not to the top positions in industry, at any rate to positions which will be satisfactory to his doubting parents who have allowed him to go in for a short service commission. What I am saying is propaganda, and I hope that the Press will report it, because the first thing to do is to remove the parents' objections to short service commissions. If only parents would ascertain the facts they would find that their fears were not justified.

There are one or two points of detail which I think may be of use to the Minister. It is difficult to know what percentage of these short service commissions are prolonged into full service commissions. For I do not suppose that anybody knows how far the expansion of the Air Force will go, and how permanent it will be. Therefore, it is admittedly extremely difficult to be able to say that we can guarantee a higher percentage of permanent commissions for the best of our short service commission officers. Would it, however, not be possible to give the commanding officers of the Royal Air Force training schools for the short service commissions the power practically to guarantee a small percentage of permanent commissions to the best of each of the classes which they have? Would it not be possible further to give commanding officers a little more discretion as to turning down those young men who they feel convinced will not be successful as officers. It is easy enough to turn boy down because he cannot fly, but there are many reasons which may make a boy, in no way through his own fault, unsuitable to go forward to a commission. Commanding officers who have been appointed to this work are of such quality that they may very well be allowed rather more discretion to deal with these men than they are allowed now. After talking with commanding officers in every part of the country, I was immensely impressed with the care of selection of the officers dealing with short service commissions. There was every type of man represented and everyone was first rate for the particular job.

There is one further point concerning the commandants of these schools which I should like to bring to the notice of the right hon. Gentleman. I think the Ministry will admit that where you have an organisation of that sort in detached units up and down the country there is always a danger that the form of instruction may tend to vary from unit to unit as time goes on unless there are means by which the commandants can have regular consultations with one another. I venture to suggest that the official summoning of these officers to meet under the auspices of the Ministry or the Air Force heads would not effect the object nearly so well as arranging for them to meet more or less unofficially. In the Midlands of this country there are a number of great houses still in existence, and the owners of some of them might find that they were doing good work for the country if they could arrange week-end gatherings to which a number of these commandants could be invited and at which they could talk things over among themselves to see that they were not varying their courses too greatly.

On this question of schools, I would say that the civilian schools vary a good deal. Some of them have excellent accommodation for short-service commission purposes and others not so good, but taking them all together, and as far as my observations go, I think these civilian schools are first-rate, and the Royal Air Force officers seem to be of the same opinion—that they give extremely good instruction and that the boys from them who subsequently join the Royal Air Force are found to have been thoroughly well grounded.

A wider aspect of the problem is that, until we know what form of tactical scheme is being worked out for the Air Force, we really cannot know what kind of personnel we require. The general public is of the opinion that the only form of defence against air attack on the civilian population is by means of reprisals. If that is to be the case it is obvious that we want a particular type of personnel to undertake it. It is not every English boy who will drop bombs on a civilian population with any enthusiasm. If, on the contrary, the tactical schemes of the Air Force are based on the principle on which we were brought up in the Army, and on which the boys of the Navy are brought up too, which is that the side which will win in war is the side which neglects everything in order to attack the armed forces of the enemy, and that the side which allows itself to be distracted by any side issue, such as killing women and children by means of bombs, is the side which will ultimately fail in war, we ought to be informed of the fact.

I am not fishing round for confidential information, but I do impress upon the right hon. Gentleman and upon the House that we do not know what type of personnel we want until we know definitely what is to be the basis of the Air Force tactics in the matter of defence. If we contemplate the other form of defence, that means attacks upon bombing squadrons. So far as we know any effective attack upon massed squadrons bombing open cities in this country will involve forms of fighting in which it is going to be a 20 to 1 chance against our pilots getting clear in their parachutes or not. If that is going to be the basis of our tactics we need for the purpose absolutely the cream of our young manhood, or we shall never be able to carry it out.

Finally, let me make another appeal to parents. Let them consider what the next war is going to mean for us in its early stages. There is not the least doubt that we arc going to see attempts by enemy Powers to cow civilian populations by intensive bombing of open towns, and I advise any parent who has a son who wants to join the Air Force arid who is doubtful about allowing him to do so, to go and have a look at a modern night-bomber standing on the ground and see that quintescence of wickedness, that work of art which embodies, in a form more effective than any which has been achieved by the genius of any poetic, plastic, or pictorial artist of the past, the whole spirit of evil. Then let him understand that his boy may have the duty and the honour of destroying at any rate one of those hideous embodiments of all that is foul and wicked in the world.

6.22 p.m.

Rear-Admiral Sir MURRAY SUETER

I am sure all hon. Members will congratulate the hon. Member for Mossley (Mr. Hopkinson) not only on first learning to fly after he had seen, as he said, 54 summers, but in getting through an air crash as he did a short time ago. I hope he will not risk himself too much, because we greatly value his contributions to these Debates. What he has said in his speech to-day about parents will, I hope, be published in all papers throughout the country, because I am certain it will do a tremendous amount of good. I wish to ask the Under-Secretary of State for Air a single question. What determines the number of pilots for the Royal Air Force? The White Paper and other documents say that we are to have 1,750 machines. If we look at the number of machines that Germany will have by March, 1937, she must be training pilots for 4,360 machines. I have tried to get the most accurate figures possible on this subject and I have taken some from the foreign Press. Russia must be training pilots for 4,000 machines, Italy for 2,750, France for 2,700 and Great Britain 1,750. The Prime Minister promised us parity with the nations within striking distance of this country, but I submit that if we are training pilots for only 1,750 machines we are falling very much short of what other nations are doing, and I hope the Under-Secretary will tell us on what basis his estimate of pilots is founded.

The hon. Member for Mossley raised the question of getting more pilots, and I should like to ask the Under-Secretary whether he has considered going to the Dominions for more. I know that he invites men from the Dominions to come to this country to be trained as pilots, but I should like to know whether anything has been done to create an Empire Air Force. This question was raised in another place by Lord Elibank some time ago, but I do not think he received a very satisfactory answer from the Air Minister. When we were short of pilots in the War we appealed to the Dominions, and they sent over some of the best pilots we had in the Royal Flying Corps and in the Royal Naval Air Service, many of them proving to be distinguished "aces." Could not an Empire air force be created in the Dominions, with small units to start with? They could use the pilots to pilot the civil air line machines carrying air mails. In that way we could build up gradually a splendid force of airmen, who might come to the help of the Empire when it is in danger. Could not the Under-Secretary consult the new co-ordination Minister about taking up the question of creating an Empire Air Force.

6.24 p.m.


I should like to refer to one point, concerning the public schools and the Royal Air Force. I do not agree with the hon. Member for Mossley (Mr. Hopkinson) that parents are afraid of accidents befalling their sons. I think the difficulty lies in short service commissions. If the Minister could arrange for longer commissions he would get any number of entrants from the schools, and, also, they might set up air classes. A boy leaving school at 18 is generally occupied up to the age of 25 in learning his job before he can earn his living, and if he goes into the Air Force on a short-term commission at a time when, otherwise he would be learning to earn his living, when he comes out of the Force he has to start afresh to learn a job. There is the great difficulty, and if the Minister could get over it I believe he would find no trouble in securing all the pilots he requires.

6.26 p.m.


I think we are all encouraged by these Estimates, which certainly represent a great advance on anything we have had before, and I do not wish that anything I say on this Vote should be interpreted as a criticism of them. I rise merely ask my right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary for definite information on one specific point. Will he throw some light upon the Government's intentions regarding the Prime Minister's famous pledge, made in March, 1934, that he would make the Air Force of this country equal in strength to that of any other country within striking distance of our shores I asked my right hon. Friend a question on parity and numbers on Monday, and his reply was that he hoped I would await his statement when he introduced the Estimates on Tuesday. I listened very intently to all that he then said, hut, so far as I could detect, there was no reference to this subject. Therefore, I make no apology for raising the point on this Vote. The Prime Minister's reassuring declaration was made at a time when the whole country had been showing signs of considerable anxiety at our unpreparedness in the air. The Prime Minister's words were hardly off his tongue before they were flashed to the four corners of the earth, bringing with them a deep sense of relief not only to the people of these islands but to all peace-loving and freedom-loving nations throughout the world.

Last year I fought two elections, and gave very great prominence to the Prime Minister's pledge about parity, and whenever I quoted his words they were received with signs of enthusiasm and of confidence. That is why I should like my right hon. Friend to answer four specific questions on this master. First, can he tell us whether the Prime Minister's pledge still holds good to-day and assure us that it is the corner stone of the Government's air policy? Secondly, in fulfilling this undertaking, what is the basis upon which air parity is being reckoned. Is it being measured by first line air strength, by reserves, by trained personnel or by the capacity of industry to expand rapidly in times of emergency? I trust my right hon. Friend will be able to tell us that the Government have a definite standard by which to compare the air strength of Great Britain with that of other countries, and their method of reckoning includes a combination of these factors. Thirdly, which countries, for the purpose of the fulfilment of this pledge, are deemed to be within striking distance of our shores?


The hon. Member is going far beyond the scope of the Amendment. He can only discuss the number of men.


May I ask for your guidance, Mr. Speaker? I wish to ask my right hon. Friend a question in regard to parity of personnel between this country and other countries. Would I be in order in raising it on this Vote?


That seems to be a matter of policy.


Unless we can have information of this kind, it is difficult for the House to form an estimate of the effort which the Government are making in fulfilment of that pledge.

Lastly, can the Under-Secretary tell us what is the maximum time within which the Government have set themselves the task of achieving parity in numbers? A construction programme, or a programme to increase personnel, is of little value without a time-table. Whether or not my right hon. Friend can give us the exact date, I hope that he will be able to assure us that a time limit exists for the fulfilment of this pledge. In short, does the promise mean something definite? I am sure that it was not merely a happy phrase thrown out in the course of the Debate. I believe we are right, and that the British people are right, in regarding the Prime Minister's promise as a very charter of our security against air attacks. That promise was made two years ago. The Government admit that they are still very far from having fulfilled it. I do not criticise them for that. I recognise the difficulties and the obstacles with which they are faced. Nevertheless I think the time has come when we have a duty to ourselves and to our constituents to ask for some clarifica- tion of the Government's intentions and of their interpretation of the Prime Minister's momentous pledge, upon which so much hope and confidence were founded.

6.34 p.m.

The UNDER-SECRETARY of STATE for Al R (Sir Philip Sassoon)

The hon. Member for West Islington (Mr. Montague) asked me for our views about airman pilots. He will remember that in my speech the day before yesterday I announced that we had already taken 500 airman pilots, who are already serving, to help us to make up the total of pilots that we require. In addition to that, we are also going to take direct-entry pilots, people who come directly into the Air Force and are trained as pilots in the same way as our serving personnel are trained. The system of using airman pilots in the Air Force has been of immense value and has been very successful. As to the difficulty that the hon. Member envisages, about our being able to secure personnel in completing this programme, we can only wait and see, but the results that we have had so far have been so encouraging, and been so considerably greater than our expectations, that we may have good hope and confidence that our necessity will be amply supplied. With regard to the standard of new pilots that are coming in, I think that the hon. Member for Mossley (Mr. Hopkinson) who spoke just now gave a very full reply. He was in a very good position to do so, because, as he told us, he had just completed a flight round the country, visiting some of those civil flying schools—

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