HC Deb 26 July 1938 vol 338 cc3047-60

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—(Captain Hope.)

10.14 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Henderson

I desire to raise the question of the guns which have been installed in the vicinity of Gibraltar and the North African Coast. I do so in the hope that the Secretary for War will give the House and the country more information than he was prepared to give this afternoon. That German guns have been installed is, I think, generally admitted. The Secretary of State for War himself, on 2nd November, 1937, in reply to a question which was addressed to him on that day, said: The guns on the Straits of Gibraltar are of various calibres from 12-inch howitzers downwards. Ceuta was a defended port before the civil war began, and its armament has not been reinforced since the early period of the war and then only by guns of secondary calibre. On the Gibraltar side batteries were installed after the shelling of Algeciras. As the big guns on this side are howitzers which are not normally installed for seaward purposes, it is a reasonable deduction that the defences have been improvised for the protection of Spanish Nationalist territory. The guns on both sides of the Straits are of various dates and countries of origin."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 2nd November, 1937; 727, Vol. 328.] No official statement has ever been made as to the numbers, calibres and countries of origin of these guns. Let me give the House the information in my possession with regard to these guns. I am informed that in the hills surrounding Algeciras more than 20 guns have been mounted. These guns include three guns of more than 10 inches, and a number of 5.9-inch guns, together with several heavy howitzers. My information is that all these guns are so placed that they can easily shell Gibraltar, although they have been placed so as to be invisible from the highest point on the Rock. There are nine naval guns on the Punta Carnero, and at least one 15-inch gun on a high peak near Alcala de las Gazules, placed nearly 21 miles inland. These are guns in the vicinity of Gibraltar, and in Ceuta, in Spanish Morocco, there are some 45 guns, ranging from 6-inch to 15-inch. When the Noble Lady the Member for Perth and Kinross (Duchess of Atholl) raised this matter by question on 29th June, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs replied: I realise the importance which the Noble Lady attaches to the question, and I assure her that the matter is receiving consideration."—[OFFCIAL REPORT, 29th June, 1938; col. 1886, Vol. 337.] To-day I asked the Minister if he would state the countries of origin of these guns. He replied that his information was not of a kind which could be made the basis of an authoritative and detailed statement. Surely, the Minister does not seriously suggest to the House that these guns have been installed in the vicinity of Gibraltar and that they do not know the countries in which these guns were manufactured and by whom they were supplied to General Franco? This country has sources of information second to none, and I cannot believe that these sources of information have failed it in regard to the question of these guns, their calibre, their type, and their country of origin. Why do not the Government publish this information? Why is there this continued hiding behind the veil of official secrecy? For nearly two years the Government have declined all official knowledge of German and Italian intervention in Spain. During recent months, it is now common knowledge, in both countries they have openly boasted of their intervention. The House had a very good illustration tonight. It has been alleged that 10,000 Italians recently landed at Vinaroz, in Franco Spain. According to the Under-Secretary in his speech to-night that statement was entirely inaccurate, according to the Government information. Apparently they were 6,000 or 7,000 Spaniards belonging to General Franco's forces. Therefore, when it is desired to use information to contradict assertions of the Spanish Government, there is no difficulty in obtaining information, but when it is a question affecting the other side, the difficulty seems to increase.

If the information with regard to the guns is correct, can there be any doubt that their installation constitutes a serious threat not only to Gibraltar but also to our sea route through the Mediterranean and the Eastern Atlantic? I hope the Minister to-night will be frank with the House, although I do not see him here yet, and that he will let us have the full facts about these matters. If the guns have been sent, as has been alleged, from German sources, then the German Government must realise that if they desire to obtain British friendship they have only to withdraw their troops and their armaments from Spanish territory. Be that as it may, I hope the veil of mystery will be lifted to-night and that the Government will give us the information, which must be in their possession, first, as to the calibre of the guns that have been installed in the vicinity of Gibraltar and on the North Coast of Africa and, secondly, the countries in which those guns were manufactured. There can be no harm in giving the information to the House, if there is nothing wrong in supplying General Franco with these guns. It may be—I do not know—that the guns were supplied prior to the agreement of 27th August, 1936. If the guns were supplied properly to General Franco, and if they are to be used for legitimate purposes, why should there be any secrecy as to the countries of origin? I hope the information will be given to the House.

10.23 p.m.

Mr. Bellenger

I desire to support my hon. Friend in the demand that he has made of the Government that this House shall be given information on what, I suggest, is a matter of considerable importance to the country. I do not know whether the Secretary of State for War intends to be here to reply to the demands which my hon. Friend has made. It is true that we cannot claim a monopoly in the Mediterranean, but if all the proclaimed friendship which these other nations appear to have for this country is genuine, and if they are not menacing British interests, if they are not attempting to intimidate this country into a policy which otherwise we should not wish to follow, then I suggest that if the facts given to the House by my hon. Friend are true, British interests are being menaced, and it is the duty of the Government to explain to the House whether they are going to acquiesce in British interests in the Mediterranean being menaced in this fashion.

Hon. Members opposite have rather derided the statements that have been made on this side of the House and have said that we are too ready to give voice to rumours. If they are unfounded rumours, if there is no accuracy in what my hon. Friend has said, surely it is the easiest thing for the Government, with all the sources of information at their command, to say that what my hon. Friend has said is entirely untrue, and we can then go home and rest contentedly in our beds with our sleep undisturbed.

Although, as I have said, we have no monopoly of the Mediterranean, I think we should know from the Government whether these guns have been mounted there; secondly, by whom they have been mounted; and, thirdly, whether they have been mounted at a spot where they are a menace to British interests. If my hon. Friend's facts are accurate and British interests are being menaced, it is the duty of the Government to say what policy they propose to follow in order to get the guns removed. It may be a very inconvenient subject to bring forward at this hour, but surely the House has some concern for British interests, if they are being affected in the way suggested, and we have a right to know what policy the Government propose to follow, because incidents like these are not in the interests of peace, which is so much proclaimed by the Government. I do not think the House will disagree with me in saying that my hon. Friend has done a service to this country by raising this matter to-night.

10.27 p.m.

Wing-Commander James

I do not pro- pose to detain the House for more than two minutes. Complaints have been made about possible landings at Vinaroz. I think it is most unlikely that Italian troops would make use of this port. It is a comparatively small port and no ships over about 600 tons could possibly get into it. The commonsense view is that if Italian troops have been landed they have gone to Castellon which is a good harbour 40 miles further South. As to any heavy guns which may have been mounted, there was a pre-war equivalent of our Woolwich Arsenal in the North of Spain at Trubia where there are facilities for casting large guns. It is not, therefore, necessary to assume that the guns of a large calibre now in the Peninsular could not have been cast in the Peninsular. The factory at Trubia has been in active production for a good many months now and there is every facility for casting very big guns there.

10.29 p.m.

Mr. A. V. Alexander

We quite under-stand the reasons why the Secretary of State for War was delayed, and we make no complaint about it. In the circumstances it might be as well to give him a picture of what we complain about so that we may get a direct answer to the points that have been raised. We are all indebted to the hon. Member for Kingswinford (Mr. A. Henderson) for taking advantage of this opportunity to raise the matter. I hope the Secretary of State will realise that from the moment, some 12 months ago, the story appeared with every kind of indication of authentic observation on the spot in regard to the mounting of guns on the North coast of Africa very near Gibraltar, there has been at any rate among some sections of the public, considerable apprenhension as to what would be likely to be the result of such an action. It may be that hon. Members such as the hon. and gallant Member for Wellingborough (Wing-Commander James) always seize an opportunity of defending any action taken by people holding views favourable to Franco—

Wing-Commander James

I was only occupying the House until the Minister came.

Mr. Alexander

I am sure that any Member wearing the old school tie will always keep his end up, but the few remarks which the hon. and gallant Member addressed to the House were in the usual strain of remarks by him on this subject. Nevertheless, a very large section of the community views with considerable concern the reports that had been current in different degrees during the last 12 months. It is not long ago that one of my hon. Friends asked a question concerning the very strong propagandist speeches made by people fairly close to General Franco in the vicinity of Gibraltar, and concerning all sorts of designs and intentions that have been made public with regard to the occupation of that very important point. Anybody who has been concerned in the defence of Commonwealth routes and who recognises the extreme importance of the maintenance of the guard which we keep and the dockyard facilities which we provide at Gibraltar, must be exceedingly unhappy about the position unless we can have an assurance on the matter which has been raised to-night. If there is nothing in those reports, then, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswinford said, there is no objection to the Government stating the facts. If, however, the position is that gun mountings have been placed in these very important strategic positions, then the country is entitled to know from the Government, not what steps are going to be taken, but what steps have been taken during the last 12 months.

For instance, I should like to know whether the Secretary of State has specific information both in regard to the Spanish mainland and to North Africa, whether he has communicated his information to the Foreign Office, and whether representations have been made to try to obtain the reasons for these emplacements from the authorities concerned. I suppose that, in the first instance, the representations would be addressed to the Burgos authorities, and it is very important that we should know, not only what the answer of General Franco has been, but, if the guns are there, what is their calibre; what the actual menace would be in the event of their being used in a hostile fashion against us, what is the origin of these guns and how were they supplied? I do not think there is any hon. Member on either side of the House who does not want to ensure that there is no undue handicap placed in the way of those who have to maintain the freedom of passage of ships flying the British flag, in war or in peace, on the Commonwealth routes, and I do not think it is asking too much when I say to the Government that it is their bounden duty to inform the House of the facts.

10.34 P.m.

The Secretary of State for War (Mr. Hore-Belisha)

I am grateful for the indulgence of the House and for the courtesy of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Hillsborough (Mr. Alexander), who explained in advance the circumstances in which my presence here was delayed. I need hardly say that had I realised that the Debate would take place so early, I should have been here before. I was engaged upon another aspect of my duties, as I think the House will realise.

There is no need for secrecy in regard to the matters which are being discussed. The embarrassment which I feel is the embarrassment which I endeavoured to explain to the hon. Member for Kingswinford (Mr. A. Henderson), who quite properly asked me questions on the subject this afternoon. I am quite ready to answer for any matters under my immediate control and to speak authoritatively upon the subject, but if I cannot reveal certain information about matters under my own control, the right hon. Gentleman will be the first to appreciate why I should claim his permission to be silent. But here we are dealing with matters under the control of other authorities and I would not like to make any authoritative pronouncement as to the facts or figures. There are, in fact, guns on the Gibraltar side of the Straits and there are, in fact, guns on the Ceuta side of the Straits and by means of information which comes to us from time to time, we obtain a rough general idea of how many guns and what kind of guns there may be either on one side or the other. But I think it would be indiscreet and perhaps dangerous if I were to translate information which comes from various sources, into precise revelations.

Therefore I do hope that the House will be gracious enough to permit me not to say exactly what kind of information is brought to me. It might embarrass the source of the information were I to do so, but I assure the House that there is no reason for secrecy because information comes to hon. Gentlemen in all parts of the House on these matters. I have no reason to believe that that information differs from my own, but when it is given from this Box, it receives an imprimatur which perhaps is more than it deserves. The batteries which are on the Gibraltar side of the Straits could, of course, if they were effective and powerful and in order, shell Gibraltar. I do not think that could be denied. They could do that, but they could also be effectively countered. We are not in any state of alarm about them. Similarly, with regard to the guns on the Ceuta side of the Straits, they do constitute, as all guns must, a potential menace, but it is a menace which could be avoided by the means at our disposal.

That is a frank statement of the general position. I do not think it would be of very much interest to amplify or analyse it in any particularity. That is the fact and I do not think that hon. Gentlemen opposite are misinformed upon its character. I think they have a right to be assured that we are not unduly alarmed and that we have at our disposal resources which would counter any potential menace. I think I can give them that assurance. Nobody is in a great state of excitement at the War Office. The information which is in our possession has been in our possesion for a long time, as it has been in the possession of hon. Gentlemen opposite. Indeed, it is exactly a year ago since my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence endeavoured to reassure the House on exactly the same lines as I am endeavouring to reassure it now, and it is perhaps some consolation to know that in the intervening period nothing disastrous has happened.

Of course we must not under-estimate any peril which may be offered to our position. We do not intend to engage in any war. There is nothing practical that we can do, except to assure the House that, on our side, we are taking every possible precaution. These guns are of various origins and why they are of various origins is because guns of heavy calibre, I am given to understand, are not made in Spain. Therefore, any guns on either side would naturally come from foreign sources. I would not like to take the responsibility of pointing to any particular gun and saying that that originally came from this or that country, because it might have been purchased indirectly. If there were any advantage in putting my finger on any particular gun and giving that information, I would readily do so, but I do not want to complicate an international situation which is not too easy at the moment, and, therefore, I hope that, if I assure the House that the General Staff is not unduly alarmed and is of the opinion that we can cope with any situation that presents itself, the House will be satisfied with that assurance.

Mr. Alexander

What we really want to know is this: Have the Government, in the course of the last 12 months, taken any note of the fact that these very heavy guns, situated, as the Secretary of State admits, so as to be potentially a menace to the Gibraltar defences—has that note been taken in such a way as to bring it to the attention of the authorities who erected them, and, if so, what representations were made and what were the answers received? What is the object of mounting in these positions guns of that calibre unless it is as a potential menace to Gibraltar? I think we really ought to know what has been said to the people who are responsible for their mounting and to know what the answer has been.

Miss Rathbone

Has the right hon. Gentleman any reason to suppose that the mounting of any of these guns is contrary to Treaty? Am I not right in thinking that there is a Treaty between us and Spain that prevents guns being mounted on heights in such a way that they command Gibraltar? I think that when we heard about these guns, over a year ago, it was alleged that the placing of them there was contrary to the Treaty, or at any rate that is true of some of them.

Mr. Hore-Belisha

The right hon. Gentleman asked me whether the Government have taken any note of the position. Of course they have taken note of the position. It is the duty of the War Office to bring to the attention of the Government any developments of importance that occur, and that we have naturally done, in pursuance of our duty. Whether my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs has delivered any precise Note in regard to these guns, I am not in a position to say, but I take it that he would be guided by what I have already said, namely, that we are not unduly alarmed and that therefore there would be no absolutely practical purpose to be served in delivering any Note.

With regard to the question raised by the hon. Lady, I do not think that anything has been done, as far as I can speak—and I am not an authority, because that is a matter for the Foreign Office—in defiance of the Treaty. I do not think that is the case, but at any rate it must be realised that there is a civil war in Spain, and when there is a civil war it is not very easy to call attention to any precise breaches of any treaties. My hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the War Office has put in front of me an answer to a question which was delivered upon that point, and the answer was: The provision of the Treaty of Utrecht to which the hon. Member presumably refers raises certain difficult legal considerations about which I am not at present prepared to make a statement.''—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 30th July, 1937; col. 3524, Vol. 326.] That answer was delivered by the Noble Lord the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs on the 3oth of the month that we are now in, last year, when he was Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. It is a very complicated legal position, and I am not in a position to define it, but the fact is that there is a civil war, and I do not think that juridical points have very much influence in restraining either side in these matters.

10.45 p.m.

Sir Percy Harris

The right hon. Gentleman referred to an answer given to the House by the then Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs 12 months ago. He pointed out that there was considerable legal difficulty in defining the actual repercussions of the Agreement. I suggest that after 12 months the Foreign Office, with the aid of its legal advisers, must now know the real legal implications, and the Prime Minister might clear up what has been a subject of great interest in the House of Commons. I do not think my right hon. Friend can take shelter under the fact that this concerns another Department. We have always maintained Cabinet responsibilities as a whole. He is a Member of the Cabinet and the Government must shoulder the responsibility of making clear to the House how far our interests are concerned.

Mr. Hore-Belisha

I agree with the hon. Baronet about the importance on certain hypotheses of clearing up the legal position. The Treaty referred to is the Treaty of Utrecht, and, if my memory does not escape me, it was made in the reign of Queen Anne, and various matters which were settled in her reign are considered as obsolete. Although in general and in theory the matter is of importance, in practice it is governed by the fact that there is a civil war, and whether it would be advisable to pursue the exact legal interpretation I do not know.

10.47 p.m.

Lieut.-Commander Fletcher

We were interested to hear the remarks of the hon. and gallant Member for Wellingborough (Wing-Commander James), who was sent in to play for time while the captain of the side was working out his plans. He told us an interesting story about some arsenal in the north of Spain which could cast big guns, but he failed to tell us when it last cast a big gun and how big it was, and whether these guns were in any way similar to those which have been mounted on the Straits of Gibraltar. Considering the gallant way in which he passed the time of waiting for the Secretary of State for War, it was cruel of the Secretary of State to say that, as a matter of fact, no guns of heavy calibre are made or cast in Spain.

Wing-Commander James

They certainly do cast big howitzers, so I was not inaccurate. I do not know if my right hon. Friend alluded to guns or howitzers.

Lieut.-Commander Fletcher

The Secretary of State stands in need of every conceivable excuse that can be made for him, and I am sure he will be grateful for the intervention of the hon. and gallant Member. We know, for it has been elicited in reply to a question recently, that the Committee of Imperial Defence is considering the situation created in Gibraltar by the siting of these guns and other considerations which obtain at the present moment. I accept the statement of the Secretary of State that the menace constituted by these guns can be met. At the same time there is no doubt that they constitute a serious menace which will add greatly to the difficulties and dangers which may confront us in the Straits of Gibraltar in the eventuality of war, and will no doubt add considerably to the losses which will result in the event of war in that quarter.

There are two points which particularly interested me in what the right hon. Gentleman said. He said that there were batteries on the Gilbraltar side which could shell Gibraltar, but that these batteries could be effectively countered. It would have been interesting if he had elaborated that statement a little, because it seems to me that if only one gun of large calibre were mounted 20 or 25 miles away from Gibraltar, it would be able to carry out effective shelling, while to locate or to register a direct hit upon the isolated gun so mounted would constitute a serious problem.

The other point that I thought of importance was this: The right hon. Gentleman said these guns might be of foreign origin, but he did not wish to enlarge upon that point because they might have been bought through some intermediary. It seems to me that by far the most important point is, who was responsible for them being brought to the Straits of Gibraltar, or to Ceuta, and what was the nationality of the engineers, the officers and the personnel who carried out the work of mounting them? There is no question of an intermediary arising in that respect and, since the right hon. Gentleman has informed us that sources of information are open to the Government, and evidently the Government attaches weight to those sources of information, I should imagine the Government have some information on the specific point of the nationality of the personnel engaged in mounting the guns, and that is a matter on which the House might legitimately ask for some information. If that question could be settled, I do not think there is any weight in the argument that there is a civil war going on and that anything might happen because of that civil war. I cannot believe that these guns have been mounted in the neighbourhood of Gibraltar or at Ceuta for any purpose whatsoever connected with the civil war. They have been mounted for some completely different reason, and I believe it is a reason directed against our national interests and our national security, and on that account I consider that we are entitled to more information as to the nationality of those engaged in mounting these guns. As we have heard to-day that it is intended that Sir Robert Hodgson shall return to his post with the Burgos Government, I would ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he has considered representing to the Foreign Secretary that Sir Robert Hodgson should also take back with him to Burgos some representation on the subject of these guns.

10.53 p.m.

Mr. Ede

I do not think the right hon. Gentleman can expect that the House will be content to leave the matter where he left it at the end of his speech. I should like to ask whether the removal of these guns will be part of that magic phrase which has hitherto not been defined, "a settlement in Spain." Is this matter receiving any consideration from that point of view at all? We understood from his speech that when the civil war broke out the guns were not there. They have been placed there during the civil war. He suggests that possibly they may be some incident of the civil war though, as far as I can gather, the Allies of the side that placed them there have never had any great reason for fearing up to the moment that their enemies in the civil war would be within range of those guns. Therefore I think the right hon. Gentleman ought to be a little more specific on that point. He says that it is very reassuring that during the 12 months that have elapsed since attention was first drawn to the matter in this House nothing has happened. Has he really been expecting that someone might accidentally fire a salvo from those batteries at Gibraltar, and is he relieved to find that nothing has happened? If these guns are not removed at the end of the Spanish civil war we may, if there is anything in the theory of the knock-out blow, find that they have been used before it has been possible to bring into action the weapons that he says can be relied upon effectually to counter them.

I am not at all reassured to hear that the War Office is not getting excited. Unfortunately, I am old enough to remember the beginning of the Boer War. The War Office was not excited then about the armaments possessed by the Boers. I recall a famous cartoon by the late Frank Carruthers Gould showing Mr. Balfour expressing surprise that the Boers had rifles. It was based on a statement he had made in this House. No one can expect that the House will be reassured because those in high command at the War Office are not alarmed about the state of affairs. I say that we are entitled to know whose engineers and artillerists were responsible for the mounting of these guns. The right hon. Gentleman suggests that the information is well known, that it is only some sort of unofficial Official Secrets Act which prevents everybody from blurting out the statement. If it is as widely known as all that, the knowledge cannot be confined to this country, and to suggest that a dangerous international situation might be created if a member of the Government were to state the nationality of the engineers and artillerists responsible is asking the House to accept a proposition which I am sure they will find it impossible to accept.

I think the Government gravely misunderstand the national feeling with regard to Gibraltar. For the past 70 or 80 years every child in an elementary school has been brought up to believe that Gibraltar stands as a monument of the impregnable and unassailable position of the British Empire. In my own county, which is by no means a maritime county, every school has had a picture of the Rock of Gibraltar, placed there in the far-off days when the Tories wanted to persuade the people that the British Empire was unsafe in the hands of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman. For 3o or 40 years the children of the county have gazed every day upon that picture of the Rock of Gibraltar, and have had it pointed out as a symbol of the impregnability and unassailability of the British Empire. The right hon. Gentleman says to-night that that rock can now be shelled and treats the Treaty of Utrecht as a joke. It is a great pity that the right hon. Member for Epping (Mr. Churchill) is not here to deal satisfactorily with him for so astounding a statement regarding what is sometimes regarded as one of the greatest pieces of work of the reign of Queen Anne, and although it is true—

It being Eleven of the Clock, the Motion for the Adjournment lapsed, without Question put.