HC Deb 11 April 1938 vol 334 cc893-900

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn.—"[Lieut.-Colonel C. Kerr.]

11.9 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Henderson

I desire to raise the matter of foreign intervention in Spain. I do not intend to discuss the policy of non-intervention, but to establish two propositions. The first is that the German and Italian Governments have been intervening on a large scale since the early days of the Spanish civil war; and the second is that this intervention has taken place since the Prime Minister made his statement on 22nd February. What are the facts. The successful defence of Madrid in the early days of 1937 meant the failure of General Franco to achieve his principal object, and, as the war continued, and a strong and efficient citizen army was created by the Spanish Government, it became evident to the Spanish rebel leaders that victory could only be achieved with aid from abroad.

Taking first the question of manpower, by March, 1937, this help had grown to formidable dimensions, estimated by the Spanish Government as follows: 60,000 regular soldiers of the Italian Army, constituted in three divisions, the Littorio division, the 23rd March division, and the Arrow division; and Germans to the number of 29,000, including airmen and technicians. These figures are apart from 'Africans, the Foreign Legion, and the so-called Italian volunteers. On the Government side, the international brigades have been estimated to consist of approximately 15,000 soldiers, together with 5,000 technicians, airmen, and other branches of the Army.

What confirmation have we with regard to the supply of German and Italian soldiers? First of all, a communiqué of the Spanish Government, quoted in the "News Chronicle" of 22nd March, was to the effect that, apart from volunteer detachments, there were 60,000 regular soldiers of the Italian Army then fighting in Spain. A newspaper on the other side of the political field in this country, the "Evening News," quoted from Rome newspapers to the effect that troops of the Italian twenty-third division and the Littorio division were fighting with Franco. Later on, on 30th March, Signor Mussolini, the leader of the Italian Government, made this statement: It is ridiculous for our enemies to pretend that our efforts in Abyssinia and in Spain have left us weak. On the contrary, the experience gained in these campaigns has rendered our armies more than formidable. Then, on 7th April, the diplomatic correspondent of the "Times" wrote to this effect: It is thought that the Italian Government will withdraw their troops from Spain when the fighting is over. So much for the question of troops. I come now to the question of aircraft. The Spanish Government, on 22nd March, officially alleged that the number of foreign aircraft at General Franco's disposal was 700, made up of more than 300 Italian machines and between 200 and 300 German machines, including one of the latest types of German machines, the Messer-Schmidt scouting machine. What confirmation have we with regard to the use of foreign aircraft? Again I refer to the "Times," which on 1st March quotes Rome newspapers to the effect that Italian air squadrons took a prominent part in the fighting at Teruel. Later, on 17th March, the "Times "again quoted a speech made by General Valles, the Italian Under-Secretary for Air, who, speaking in the Chamber, said: Victories on the Pasque front were chiefly due to the air force, and victory at Teruel was 75 per cent. due to the same arm. On 26th March, we read in the "Times": Nothing can now save the Government in Spain unless foreign intervention comes to their rescue, approximately equal to the help Italy and Germany are giving to General Franco. In addition, I have in my possession photostatic copies of German staff documents containing the names and ranks of German air officers serving in Spain in a squadron of Heinkel III bombers. With regard to my second proposition, whether the allegation that the Italians and Germans have continued to intervene in Spain since the Prime Minister's statement on 22nd February, the Spanish Government, on 29th March, in a further note alleged that on 28th February 80 German pilots from the Magdeburg flying school flew direct to Portugal, after which they entered rebel Spain, and on 2nd March a ship with German troops arrived from Bilbao. People in the neighbourhood of the port were told to leave the district. On 4th March the Government alleged that a group of four squadrons of Heinkel III bombing machines arrived for use in the rebel offensive in Aragon. These are alleged to have flown over France, landing at Palma. They now form part of the German Condor Legion, which also contains two chaser groups consisting of four squadrons each of Messerschmidt 109 machines, besides a reconnoitring group composed of two Dornier 17 squadrons and one Heinkel 45 patrol. On 12th March a further six Heinkel bombers are alleged to have arrived at Melilla, whence they flew to the Peninsula. On 10th and 11th March, 4,500 infantrymen, 500 Blackshirts, 15 fighting aeroplanes, 3 bombers and 15 tanks landed at Cadiz. On 16th March, 250 pilots arrived and flew to Sevilla aboard the "Franca Farcio." I have also here a translation of a statement by a Lieutenant Poggi, an officer of the Italian Air Force, who was captured on 28th March, and a photostat copy of the original statement in which he says: Recent acceleration of shipments of material is due to the fact that Signor Mussolini wishes to finish the war in Spain quickly. I have also a statement by a German airman, who states that he arrived in Spain in the middle of February and was captured on 27th March. What further confirmation have we? We have the statement in the "Times" of 26th March: Under the terrible punishment meted out by the newly arrived German and Italian air units the temptation of troops, once on the move to continue rather than to stop was irresistible. We can only hope that the news this morning that Russian planes have been received by the Spanish Government is true, as an offset to the assistance which has been given to General Franco. We have statements that 1,600 wagons and 200 lorries arrived during January and February and early March from Russian sources. The Spanish Government, on 6th April, stated that they had sent these full details on 22nd March to the British Government, and I should like to ask whether any reply has been sent by the British Government. The most the Government can say is, "We have no official information"; secondly, "We cannot vouch for all the information in our possession"; thirdly, "There has been foreign intervention on both sides"; and to-day the Prime Minister said he had no reason to think the position in Spain had been materially altered by recent Italian reinforcements.

So the Government are moving a little. We ask them to be frank with the House, and to cease to hide behind this barricade of official ignorance. I hesitate to charge the Government with deliberate dishonesty, but their attitude is due either to gross inefficiency or to a deliberate intention to mislead the public. The German and Italian Governments have developed a new technique of aggression —to-day, restricted to Spain; but which one day—who knows?—may well be followed against another country, such as Czechoslovakia. It is a precedent full of danger to the peace of the world, and I ask the Government to give the facts, so that the public may realise upon whom should be placed the real responsibility for the tragedy now being enacted in Spain.

11.21 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Butler)

I am very glad that the hon. Member has raised this subject. I must apologise to him that on previous occasions when he wished to raise it, for various reasons, not entirely connected with myself, it was impossible for me to deal with it. We have had sincere difficulties about the information on these matters which we have endeavoured to do our best to give to the House. If the hon. Gentleman is to make charges such as he has just made, it will be well for him and his hon. Friends to realise the sincere difficulty in which we are placed in this matter. At any rate, we are quite confident of our honesty and of our dutiful rendering of information to the House of Commons. Turning aside to what the hon. Gentleman has said, I will at once acknowledge the sincerity of his own utterances. We appreciate how much he feels on this matter; that was obvious from the speech which he has just made.

On the general point of information I am sure the House will realise that we obtain our information from many sources. I have said frequently, in answer to many questions which have been put to me by hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite, that it is impossible for the Government to give to the House of Commons information for the accuracy of which we cannot vouch. We have difficulties in confirming the many rumours that have been put to us from all sides of the House. There was a rumour that 30,000 German Storm Troopers had travelled to Spain. We could find no confirmation of this rumour. It would have meant a vast ship movement to bring 30,000 Storm Troopers and considerable railway dislocation in Spain when they arrived. None of our information confirmed that rumour, nor when the rumour was translated into 30,000 technicians could we find any confirmation of it. We have found considerable difficulty in specific cases. The hon. Member mentioned the ship, the "Franca Fassio." The Noble Lady the hon. Member for West Perth (Duchess of Atholl) asked a question about this on 6th April, and we have been inquiring into the question. The Noble Lady also said this ship arrived at Seville—I think she probably meant Cadiz—with 250 Italian aviators. The difficulty about that ship was that on this date, according to our information, it arrived on the 26th at Marseilles, which is a long way from Cadiz. [Interruption.] The hon. Member mentioned that particular ship, and that is why I give its movements. That is the information ascertained from the officers of the Non-Intervention Board. I would remind the House that it arrived at Marseilles and took two observing officers on board. That shows our difficulty in ascertaining the facts.

The hon. Gentleman raised the further case of the supposed 80 Russian aeroplanes which arrived at Barcelona. That is an instance on the other side. We have no confirmation of the matter, but it is interesting to receive the information from the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. A. Henderson

I hope that the Under-Secretary will not misrepresent what I said. I said that I hoped it was true. I have no information at all.

Mr. Butler

I thought the hon. Member had been fortified with information. If it is true, I naturally accept it from him.

The hon. Member raised the question of Italian and German intervention. As I told him on 21st March, it is common knowledge that both parties in Spain have received help in men and material from foreign sources. I hope he will take that as accepting the fact which he has put to me, that there are in fact foreigners in Spain. He asked me to give him a direct answer to his main point, which I have done. He mentioned that these volunteers numbered 60,000 Italians and 29,000 Germans. Numbers of foreigners came before the volunteer agreement of February, 1937. It will be remembered that the observation scheme, which imposed a system of control, and therefore a system of watching for volunteers, did not come until April, 1937. It cannot be denied that before that time volunteers and material did go into Spain.

I cannot specifically, at this Box, deny that there have been German reinforcements in Spain. With regard to Italian reinforcements, to which the hon. Member referred, I can only repeat what the Prime Minister said on 24th March, that His Majesty's Government are satisfied as to the fulfilment by the Italian Government of the conditions which it had indicated to them. Those conditions were that there should not be substantial reinforcements. The hon. Member has gone further and quoted what the Prime Minister said to-day, that, despite the information put before the House this evening, the position, according to our information, has not been materially altered in regard to the situation in Spain. That is a statement by which I stand to-night. It is the statement made by the Prime Minister at Question time.

Mr. Henderson

Does that apply to the Germans as well?

Mr. Butler

No, it refers to the Italians, and applies only to them. I have tried to meet the point which the hon. Member put having regard to our sincere difficulties in getting information. I would remind him that sometimes when we have thought that we found a case of intervention we have found ourselves confused and wrong when we have come to verify it. I have given my hon. Friend the facts as far as we know them about the Italian and German intervention.

It remains for me to make one or two general remarks about the difficulty of the policy of non-intervention. We realise that this policy has not been entirely successful. I hope that I am being perfectly frank in saying that. Since the land observation has been suspended there is no doubt that the position has not been made easier, and the modification of the sea observation plan which we propose and which is in the British plan to-day, has not been put into force because it has not been finally adopted by other Governments. That plan involves the appointment of an observer on ships going to Spanish ports. At present the difficulty is that no ships will advertise that they are going to a Spanish port if they do not desire to carry an observer. We think there should be an obligation on all ships which may be going to a Spanish port to carry an observer. Another sincere difficulty about the scheme of non-intervention is the question of control. It is extremely difficult to devise any system of control over material coming in from the air. If the hon. Member could help us with advice on this point it would be extremely helpful. I can only give him this assurance that the committee are considering a scheme for introducing some sort of air control, and if it is possible to get success it would be welcomed as much by the Government as other features of the nonintervention schemes which are being considered by all Governments.

In conclusion, we believe that the policy of non-intervention with all its difficulties has averted a major war, and that at this time it would be a most valuable thing if all sections of the House could unite in taking any steps, humanitarian or otherwise, to bring to an end this terrible conflict.

It being Half-past Eleven of the Clock. Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.