HC Deb 05 May 1937 vol 323 cc1131-7
1. Mr. Arthur Henderson

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs whether, in view of the declared intention of the Spanish insurgent authorities to raze Bilbao to the ground and destroy its inhabitants, and in consequence of such declaration following the destruction of Guernica by bombing and machine-gunning from the air, he will ask for an immediate meeting of the League Council with a view to action by the League in order to avert this threat being carried out?

The Secretary of State for Foreiģn Affairs (Mr. Eden)

So far as the reference of any aspect of the Spanish conflict to the Council of the League is concerned, this is clearly in the first instance a matter for the Spanish Government. The Non-Intervention Committee, on the initiative of His Majesty's Government, are, however, at present considering the possibility of an approach to the contending parties in the Spanish civil war with a view to preventing the recurrence of the bombardment of the civilian population.

Mr. Henderson

Is the Foreign Secretary aware of a report that it is intended to make air attacks on Bilbao and Madrid on an overwhelming and unprecedented scale, and in view of the fact that the House is adjourning to-morrow for nearly three weeks, will he given an assurance that in the event of the Non-Intervention Committee failing to arrive at an agreement to take effective action in this matter, he will undertake to raise the matter at the forthcoming meeting of the Council of the League?

Mr. Eden

The hon. Member will be aware, from the answer that I have already given, of the importance that we attach to this matter. That is why we have raised it in this way before the Non-Intervention Committee, which is to meet again on Friday. I am afraid that I cannot give an undertaking about what I might or might not do at the Council of the League. This is a matter which clearly, in the first place, would be a matter for the Spanish Government which is a permanent member of the Council.

Mr. Henderson

Will the right hon. Gentleman concede that in the event of the Non-Intervention Committee failing to take action there is a possibility of the situation developing into a worse situation, which would be a matter for the League under Article II of the Covenant?

Mr. Eden

I am conscious, and the Government are conscious, of the gravity of events, and that is why we have taken the initiative ourselves.

Captain Gazalet

Has the right hon. Gentleman seen the account in the "Times" to-day and the official account printed yesterday of the bombing of Guernica, and do not those accounts show that the original account was entirely inaccurate?

2. Mr. Noel-Baker

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs whether His Majesty's Government have laid concrete proposals before the Non-Intervention Committee for the evacuation of foreigners fighting in the civil war in Spain?

9. Mr. MacNeill Weir

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs whether he is now in a position to state what progress has been made by the Non-Intervention Committee as to the withdrawal of foreign nationals serving in Spain?.

Mr. Eden

The first step in dealing with this very complex and difficult subject is clearly to reach agreement on the broad lines of the questions under examination. With this aim in view, as I informed the House on Monday last, the Technical Sub-Committee specially appointed to deal with this subject met on that day. The British representatives on this subcommittee are taking their full part in the discussions, and I understand that good progress has been made.

Mr. Noel-Baker

As it is now three weeks since the decision was made to draw up a scheme of this kind, can the right hon. Gentleman take some steps to expedite practical proposals?

Mr. Eden

The hon. Member cannot be more anxious than I am to expedite this matter, but the problem is one, as he will admit, of extreme difficulty, and I think the Technical Committee are doing all they can in the circumstances.

Mr. Mander

In view of the fact that foreign aeroplanes are still arriving in large numbers, with foreign pilots, on whatever side it may be, will the right hon. Gentleman take very urgent action, seeing the grave danger of the situation?

8. Mr. MacNeill Weir

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs whether the Non-Intervention Committee have received any information as to the number of foreign nationals serving in the forces of the Spanish Government and the Spanish insurgents, respectively?

Mr. Eden

Not so far as I am aware.

Mr. Weir

May I ask whether there are any observers at the headquarters of both armies, having regard to the fact that the non-intervention and supervision scheme is to see whether foreign nationals are there?

Mr. Eden

I understand it is the duty of observers to go on ships at certain specified ports.

Mr. Weir

Is it not necessary to know whether foreign nationals are there or not?

12. Mr. Mander

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs whether he has any statement to make with reference to the landing of 1,500 Germans at San Sebastian on 27th April?

Mr. Eden

My attention has been called to a Press report to this effect. I have no information tending to confirm the report, but I am making inquiries.

Mr. Mander

Do I understand that the German contribution in Northern Spain has been limited to the massacre at Guernica?

13. Mr. Mander

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs whether he will consider the advisability of participating in the investigation being undertaken by the French Government representatives as to the responsibility for the destruction of Guernica, either jointly or independently or through the appropriate organ of the League of Nations?

Mr. Eden

I would refer the hon. Member to the statement which I made in the House on Monday last on the subject of the steps which His Majesty's Government were taking to establish the facts regarding the destruction of Guernica. As I have already stated, the Non-Intervention Committee are, on the initiative of His Majesty's Government, considering the possibility of an approach to the contending parties in regard to the bombardment of civilian populations. His Majesty's Government are, of course, in close touch on the whole subject with the French Government, who are in accord with the procedure to which I have just referred.

Mr. Mander

Has not the Spanish Foreign Minister invited an investigation on the spot?

Mr. Eden

Perhaps the hon. Member will put that question down.

Brigadier-General Sir Henry Croft

If the right hon. Gentleman is pressing for an inquiry on this subject, will there be a similar inquiry on Eibar and other places which were deliberately burnt down by retiring Government troops?

Captain Harold Balfour

Why is it necessary for the hon. Member to ask for an inquiry when in his previous question he makes an allegation?

Mr. Noel-Baker

In view of the obstruction by German and Italian delegates at the Non-Intervention Committee when this question was considered, can we ask the Foreign Secretary to give us an assurance that during the Recess His Majesty's Government will take some means of finding out what really happened and who were responsible?

Mr. Eden

I should not like the House to accept the opening part of the hon. Member's supplementary question. I think in a matter of this kind we must accept the communique issued by the Committee itself. The Committee is to meet again on Friday, and the House can be sure that we shall do everything we can to further progress. Our objective is not concerned with one side or the other; we wish to stop all destruction of this kind.

14. Mr. Mander

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs the reason why the British Government, on the Non-Intervention Sub-Committee, have refused to support the request of the Governments of Denmark, Norway, Finland, and Sweden, with the support of France, Belgium, Russia and Czechoslovakia, that the main Non-Intervention Committee should be summoned to decide what action should be taken regarding ships already seized by the Spanish rebels, and in future cases of interference with vessels in Spanish waters despite the presence on board of observers of the International Non-Intervention Board; and whether the matter is to be considered?

Mr. Eden

The hon. Member appears to be misinformed. He will see from the communique issued after the meeting of the Chairman's Sub-Committee on 3rd May that a preliminary discussion took place at that meeting, and that it was decided to call a full meeting of the Non-Intervention Committee to consider this subject further this morning.

Mr. Mander

Can the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that in the event of any scheme being agreed upon for the protection of ships the British Government are willing to co-operate?

Mr. Eden

I should like to know the nature of the scheme.

Mr. Noel-Baker

Are we to understand from the reply that the British Government do support the proposal of these northern countries?

Mr. Eden

The hon. Member must understand from the reply that the matter is being considered this morning. I do not myself know the outcome of the discussion.

Mr. Noel-Baker

What is the attitude of His Majesty's Government? Are they supporting the proposal of the northern countries that neutral shipping should be preserved from illegal attacks?

Mr. Eden

That, obviously depends in a large measure on the nature of the proposal.

Mr. Mander

Will His Majesty's Government consider sympathetic co-operation?

18. Mr. Gallacher

asked the First Lord of the Admiralty whether, in view of the sinking of the Spanish insurgent battleship by Spanish Government aeroplanes, he is prepared to reconsider the proposed increase of expenditure on the battleship programme?

20. Lieut.-Commander Fletcher

asked the First Lord of the Admiralty whether he has any information as to the circumstances attending the sinking of the rebel Spanish warship "Espana"?

21. Mr. Ammon

asked the First Lord of the Admiralty whether he can state definitely whether the Spanish insurgent vessel "Espana" was sunk by aircraft or mined?

22. Vice-Admiral Taylor

asked the First Lord of the Admiralty whether he has any information regarding the sinking of the Spanish battleship "Espana"; and what conclusions can be drawn regarding the vulnerability of battleships to aerial attack?

The First Lord of the Admiralty (Sir Samuel Hoare)

The House will be aware that reports have been published in the Press attributing the sinking of the "Espana" to bombs dropped from aeroplanes. I understand that it was also claimed locally that this vessel had been sunk by shellfire from coast batteries. While it is impossible in the nature of things finally to establish the cause, all the information in the possession of the Admiralty leads to the conclusion that the "Espana" was sunk by a mine and not by bombs or shellfire.

The British steamship "Knitsley" reports that the Spanish destroyer"Velasco,"which was attempting to intercept the"Knitsley," was apparently called to the assistance of the "Espana" shortly after 8.15 a.m. The destroyer was seen to go alongside the "Espana," or to close her, on the side remote from the "Knitsley." No aircraft were observed until 9.20 a.m., that is, after the battleship had been stationary, with the destroyer in close attendance, for approximately an hour. Three aircraft then appeared at a considerable height above the clouds, and the "Espana" opened fire with anti-aircraft guns, but made no attempt to get under way, as would have been expected if an undamaged ship had been attacked by aircraft. Observers on board the "Knitsley," which was at no great distance, have stated definitely that they saw no bombs falling on or in the vicinity of the "Espana"; and although two loud explosions were heard, these were assumed to be shore batteries firing.

Some time afterwards the "Espana" took a list to port and subsequently turned bottom upwards, sinking stern first at approximately 10.10 a.m., and the "Velasco" was seen to come clear with her decks crowded with men. The Admiralty understand the view of the Spanish Insurgent naval authorities themselves to be that the ship was sunk whilst turning under helm by a floating mine, that is, a mine which had broken away from its moorings. I may explain to the House that, owing to the effect of the bow wave in deflecting the mine, a ship is unlikely to be damaged by a floating mine unless she is turning under helm, when the stern in swinging out may come into contact with the mine. This view is consistent with the account received from steamship "Knitsley" to the effect that the ship sank stern first.

Mr. Gallacher

Is the Minister aware that he informed the House that the ship was stationary and that then, in order to try to justify the suggestion of a mine, he said it was not stationary but was swinging round? Further, is he aware that 50 aeroplanes could attack a battleship and that with the precision with which they can fire torpedoes now, it is almost certain one or other would make a lucky hit, and that even if the 50 aeroplanes were destroyed, the destruction of the battleship would be sure?