HC Deb 14 June 1938 vol 337 cc41-7
Mr. Attlee (by Private Notice)

asked the Prime Minister whether, in view of the continued attacks by Spanish insurgent forces upon British and other neutral shipping, any further action has been taken, or is contemplated, by His Majesty's Government?

The Prime Minister (Mr. Chamberlain)

On 31st May, His Majesty's Government made representations to he Burgos authorities by way of protest against damage suffered by British ships in or adjacent to Spanish Government ports. In reply to these representations the Burgos authorities stated on 5th June that they deplored the loss of life that had occurred at Valencia and other ports and that it was in conflict with their policy that their aviators should single out British ships for attack. British ships were, however, liable to mingle with ships of other nationalities, and where they lay in the neighbourhood of military objectives the task of discrimination between ships and military objectives was rendered at times impossible. They were unable to renounce the use of the Air Arm inasmuch as the prolongation of the war was due to the importation of military supplies which they declared were being carried by British and other ships.

If by "military supplies" the Burgos authorities mean arms and munitions, it may be recalled that by strict adherence to the Non-Intervention Agreement His Majesty's Government have taken drastic steps to ensure that no British ships carry arms into any port in Spain, and that they have passed legislation to this end. The Burgos authorities have been invited to furnish His Majesty's Government with any evidence in their possession on this point, but no evidence has yet been produced, except in one case, which is at present sub judice, to show that there has been any contravention of the law by British ships.

Since the receipt of the communication to which I have referred, I regret to say that air bombardments have continued, resulting in the loss of several lives and further damage to ships. Altogether, since the middle of April, 22 British ships have been involved in air attacks on Spanish ports. Eleven of these ships have been sunk or seriously damaged, and in several cases the attack appears to have been deliberate. Faced with a situation which has arisen out of the development of military aircraft and is without precedent in previous experience, His Majesty's Government have given earnest consideration to the question of what action, if any, they could take which would be likely to give protection to British shipping without reversing their declared policy of non-intervention.

I will tell the House frankly some of the difficulties we have encountered. These attacks take place in Spanish ports which are the scene of military operations, and the problem is thus totally different from that with which we were faced last summer, which was a question of stopping piracy by submarines on the high seas, effectively countered by the action of His Majesty's ships. The present attacks are made by aircraft while the shipping is in port and consequently protection could only be afforded by stationing anti-aircraft guns on land, or warships in or near the port. Since it is impossible to tell whether any aeroplane is intending to attack a British ship until the attack is delivered, and since to wait until the attack had been delivered would be to deprive the defence of any useful effect, it follows that fire would have to be opened on all approaching aircraft. Action of this kind would obviously constitute participation in the defence of the port and would amount to direct intervention in the civil war.

His Majesty's Government have also considered retaliatory action of various kinds but, as at present advised, they are not prepared to embark on such measures which, apart from their inherent disadvantages, cannot be relied upon to achieve their object.

Two proposals have been made which, if found practicable, may go some way in the desired direction. The first is for the provision of safety zones for shipping in certain harbours, and, although this proposal presents considerable difficulties, it is being actively investigated.

The second proposal was received by His Majesty's Government last Saturday from the Burgos authorities, and is to the effect that a port in Spanish Government territory should be selected outside the zone of military operations for the use of British merchant ships, which could enter and leave it unhindered. The Burgos authorities desire to make it a condition that the port should not be used for the purpose of supplying the Spanish Government with munitions or certain other commodities, and they, therefore, propose the appointment of international commissioners who would be in a position to guarantee that no such commodities were carried in ships using the port. The selection of such a port or ports would mean that British ships entering it under these conditions would be free from the risk of bombardment.

There are certain obvious difficulties about this suggestion. It depends for one thing upon an agreed understanding of what the commodities in question should be, while its effectiveness would clearly be impaired unless ports in both portions of the territory held by the Spanish Government were allotted for the purpose indicated.

Apart from these specific proposals for safety zones and the establishment of a neutral port or ports, the result of the further and detailed examination made by His Majesty's Government has been to show that effective protection cannot be guaranteed to ships trading with ports in the war zone while they are in territorial waters, unless this country is prepared to take an active part in the hostilities.

In the opinion of His Majesty's Government they would not be justified in recommending such a course which might well result in the spread of the conflict far beyond its present limits. They must therefore repeat the warning they have already given to British shipping on the 28th and 29th November last, that while they will continue to afford protection as hitherto to ships on the high seas, ships entering ports which are liable at any time to be the object of military operations and attack must do so at their own risk.

At the same time it is impossible that attacks, frequently involving loss of life and sometimes apparently deliberate, on British ships, can be repeated without serious injury to the friendly relations which the Burgos authorities have declared they desire to maintain with the British Government.

Mr. Attlee

Has the right hon. Gentleman considered the danger in this acquiescence in breaches of international law—the sinking of ships where there is no question of belligerency and the indiscriminate bombing, which are breaches of international law—and is there no effective action which the right hon. Gentleman's Government can take in order not to acquiesce in this degeneration of warfare; and may I further ask whether he has considered that, in the circumstances, it would be well to allow the Spanish Government to import anti-aircraft guns to protect not only British ships, but to protect their women and children?

The Prime Minister

I think the statement which I have made will show that His Majesty's Government have considered all possible alternatives—

Miss Rathbone

And are going to do nothing—

The Prime Minister

—and that we are by no means acquiescing.

Miss Rathbone

You are.

The Prime Minister

The suggestion of the right hon. Gentleman that the import of anti-aircraft guns should be allowed to the Spanish Government appears to be contrary to the Government's policy of non-intervention.

Mr. Attlee

Has the right hon. Gentleman considered, in addition to making representations to General Franco, making representations to Governments that supply the aircraft, and which are friendly Governments?

The Prime Minister

The answer to that question is that General Franco is entirely responsible for the forces which acknowledge his command.

Sir Percy Harris

Have not most British ships non-intervention observers on board? Should not that be a protection of British ships from bombing, especially if there is evidence of their flying the British flag?

The Prime Minister

British ships, all of them, I think, have observers on board. I do not think it is necessary to have observers on board in order to say that any such bombing is in our opinion unjustifiable.

Captain Arthur Evans

In view of the fact that the warning to which the Prime Minister has referred has been disregarded by certain sections of the shipping industry in this country, can my right hon. Friend consider whether it is possible practically to discourage owners engaged in the Spanish war trade purely in interests of abnormal profits, from running risks which in themselves must embarrass this country and might probably result in involving this country in war?

Mr. Arthur Henderson

Is it not a fact that a supplementary agreement was signed at Nyon last year, which specifically dealt with attacks by aeroplanes on merchant ships in territorial waters, and did not each of the signatory Governments undertake to give instructions to warships to resist such attacks? Why cannot collective action be taken under that agreement?

The Prime Minister

I have explained the reasons.

Mr. Sandys

In view of the fact that, even if belligerent rights had been granted and even if these ships had been carrying munitions of war, these attacks by aircraft on neutral merchantment even within the three-mile limit are a direct violation of international law, is my right lion. Friend satisfied that the action he proposes is adequate?

The Prime Minister

I have said that I do not think any action which we can take is practicable to stop these attacks. If my hon. Friend has a practicable suggestion to make I shall be glad to consider it.

Mr. Noel-Baker

Have the Government considered the withdrawal of Sir Robert Hodgson and an embargo on trade with General Franco, as was done in the case of the British engineers in Russia who were alleged to be in peril?

The Prime Minister

We have considered that also, but do not consider it to be practicable.

Mr. Attlee

Is not the Prime Minister in fact abandoning the cause for which this country has stood for years, in acquiescing in the kind of warfare which brought the United States into the field in the last War?

The Prime Minister

As I have said, for this action there is no precedent. There is no precedent for these attacks from the air, because aircraft were not previously developed. It gives rise to a series of new problems, as to which previous experience is not available.

Colonel Wedgwood

In view of the unprecedented nature of these attacks could we not break off diplomatic relations with the Duke of Alba and the hon. Member for Hitchin (Sir A. Wilson)?

Brigadier-General Sir Henry Croft

Would it not meet the wishes of the whole House and also greatly soften the whole difficulty if Excess Profits Duty were immediately imposed on all those who are engaged in this trade?

Mr. Mander

Will the Prime Minister consider the advisability of proposing to the Non-Intervention Committee that antiaircraft guns should no longer be on the prohibited list?

The Prime Minister

I have already answered that question.

Sir W. Brass

Has my right hon. Friend considered the difference between aircraft and seacraft? Previously we were told that our ships were to be protected outside the three-mile limit by the Navy. Now we are told that we have to protect our ships within the three-mile limit against aircraft. What is the difference between aircraft attacks on shipping and attacks at sea?

The Prime Minister

You can prevent a ship going into a port but you cannot prevent an aeroplane coming over.

Mr. McGovern

Is it not the case that the Prime Minister's statement to-day is a direct incitement to General Franco to go on bombing British ships and to murder British seamen?

The Prime Minister

I do not think that that is likely to be the effect of it. If the hon. Member will consider the statement that I read, and particularly the last part of it, he will see that it contained a warning.

Mr. Noel-Baker

In order to clear up a point, are we to understand that the Prime Minister recognises the right of General Franco's aircraft to bombard ports which are 50 miles from the fronts—ports like Barcelona, Valencia, and Alicante, which are great centres of civil population, whereas a few weeks ago he denounced that as a violation of international law?

The Prime Minister

I do not think we agreed to or approved of anything of the kind.

Mr. Attlee

In view of the grave issues involved, I beg to give notice that we shall take an early opportunity of raising a Debate on this matter.