HC Deb 06 December 1939 vol 355 cc689-706

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Captain Margesson.]

3.51 p.m.

The First Lord of the Admiralty (Mr. Churchill)

I dare say the House will find it convenient if I review the course of the naval war during the first three months of its course and try to give some outline of the present position.

The main attack of the enemy has been concentrated upon the Royal Navy and the sea-borne commerce upon which the British Islands and British Empire depend. We have always, as I reminded the House the other day, considerably more than 2,000 ships at sea, and between too and 150 ships move every day in and out of our harbours in the United Kingdom alone. This immense traffic has to be maintained in the teeth of a constant U-boat attack, which never hesitates to break the conventions of civilised warfare to which Germany has so recently subscribed. We have also been frequently attacked from the air. Mining on a large scale has been practised against us; and latterly magnetic mines have been dropped from aeroplanes or laid by submarines on the approaches to our harbours, with the intention of destroying British, and still more, apparently, neutral commerce. These mines have been laid contrary to the accepted rules of sea-warfare and of specific German engagements in regard to them. Besides this, two of the so-called "pocket" battleships, and certainly one other cruiser, have been loose for many weeks past in the North and South Atlantic, or near Madagascar in the Indian Ocean.

The Admiralty task has been to bring in our immense world-wide traffic in spite of this opposition. Besides this, we have to cleanse the seas of all German commerce, and to arrest every German vessel and every scrap of cargo in which Germany is interested. Broadly speaking, as I shall presently show, these considerable duties have, up to the present, been successfully discharged. The destruction of the U-boats is proceeding normally, and in accordance with the estimate I gave to the House of between two and four a week, that is to say, at a rate superior to what we believe to be the German power of replac- ing the competently trained U-boat captains and crews. When I see statements, as I have done lately, that the Germans during 1940 will have as many as 400 U-boats in commission, and that they are producing these vessels by what is called "the chainbelt system," I wonder if they are producing the U-boat captains and crews by a similar method. If so, it seems likely that our rate of destruction might well undergo a similar expansion.

Enterprise and daring have been shown by U-boat commanders, who seek to emulate the exploit of Scapa Flow by penetrating into our defended harbours, and several graves of U-boats lie upon their approaches. The rate of destruction varies, of course, with the numbers of U-boats which are actively hunting. This fluctuates from time to time, and we have noticed three periods of maximum activity, interspersed with periods of minimum activity, when, presumably, the bulk of the raiders return home for rest and refreshment. In the last week they have been active, and we are inclined to think that five certainly have met their fate, either from our flotillas or from the ardent, skilful and invaluable cooperation of the Royal Air Force and particularly of the Coastal Command. These figures are, of course, independent of any results achieved by the French Navy.

Nevertheless, this struggle proceeds upon a margin which, though adequate, is not extravagant, and when we consider the possibility, as we always must, of some unexpected development of numbers by the enemy, it is a comfort to feel that very great reinforcements to our hunting-craft in home waters, which have already been tripled since the beginning of the war, will come into service during 194o. I must again repeat the warning which I gave to the House in September, that a steady flow of losses must be expected, that occasional disasters will occur, and that any failure upon our part to act up to the level of circumstances would immediately be attended by grave dangers. It is, however, my sure belief that we are getting the better of this menace to our life. We are buffeted by the waves, but the ocean tides flow steady and strong in our favour.

In the course of this war the U-boats have tended to turn from using the gun to using the torpedo, and from summoning ships on the surface to sinking them at sight without warning or provision for the crews. This carries them into a form of warfare at once more ruthless and at the same time far less effective. The under-water attack by torpedo can only be delivered at a quarter of the speed that it is possible for a U-boat to move on the surface, and the chances of their intercepting ships or convoys are, therefore, greatly reduced. In addition to our armed merchant cruisers we have armed already more than 1,000 merchant ships for self-defensive purposes, and this process is continuing with all possible speed. It will not be long before we shall have 2,000 vessels so armed. These merchant ships, in accordance with the oldest rights of the sea, fire back when they are attacked. The merchant captains and seamen show a resolute disposition to defend themselves, and many duels are fought in which the U-boat, fearing to be damaged, and thus to be unable to dive, gives up the attack and is beaten off. The efficacy of the asdic method of detection is increasingly proved, and as our margin in hunting craft increases, as it has done and will do rapidly, the ordeal to which the U-boat is subjected will become ever more severe.

The convoy system is now in full operation. Very few ships have been attacked in convoy; less than one in 750 has been sunk. Nevertheless we must remember that convoy involves a certain definite loss of carrying power, since the ships have to wait during the assembly of the convoy, and the convoy must travel at the speed of the slowest ship. This loss is being steadily reduced by the institution of slow and fast convoys, and by other appropriate measures; but a certain delay must always remain, a certain diminution, that is to say, in the actual fertility of our convoys.

In consequence of our defence and the defence of our merchant ships, the U-boats have found it easier to attack neutral shipping than to attack the vessels of Britain and France. They prefer increasingly to attack the ships of countries with whom they are at peace, rather than those of the countries with whom they are at war. The figures are remarkable. The losses of British merchant ships in October were half what they were in September, and in November they were only two-thirds of what they were in October. There has been a strong and steady diminution of loss among all ships obeying Admiralty directions or joining our convoys. Quite the contrary has been the case with the neutrals. They lost half as much again in the second month as they did in the first, and double as much in the third month of the war as they did in the second. It is indeed, as the Prime Minister said the other day, a strange war—it is a strange kind of warfare for the German Navy to engage in, when, driven off the shipping of their declared enemy, they console themselves by running amok among the shipping of neutral nations. This fact ought to encourage neutrals to charter their ships to Great Britain for the duration of the war, when they can be sure of making larger profits than they have ever made in peace, and have a complete guarantee against loss. The Ministry of Shipping have already arranged the charter of several millions of tonnage, and it seems probable that this healthy process will continue to mutual and even to general advantage.

In the last few weeks the German U-boats, having largely abandoned the gun for the torpedo, have descended from the torpedo to the mine. This is about the lowest form of warfare that can be imagined. It is the warfare of the I.R.A., leaving the bomb in the parcels office at the railway station. The magnetic mine, deposited secretly by the U-boat under the cloak of darkness in the approaches to our harbours, or dropped by parachutes from aircraft, may perhaps be Herr Hitler s much vaunted secret weapon. It is certainly a characteristic weapon, and one that will no doubt be for ever associated with his name. More than half our losses in the last month have been due to the magnetic mine, but two-thirds of the total losses from the use of this mine have fallen not upon belligerents but upon neutrals. In fact, in the third month of the war, neutral losses by mine have been twice as great as British losses, and neutral losses of all kinds have been one-third greater than belligerent losses. These losses have fallen upon Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Belgian, Finnish, Yugoslav, Dutch, Greek, Italian and Japanese vessels, who have had to pay a heavy toll for remaining in friendly relations with. Germany. So far as the sea war is concerned, German friendship has proved far more poisonous than German enmity.

The magnetic mine is neither new nor mysterious. As the Prime Minister announced in his broadcast, its secrets are known to us. Indeed the preparation of counter-measures was already far advanced before the first magnetic mine was laid in British waters. I do not wish, however, in any way to underrate the magnitude or intensity of the effort which will be required and is now forthcoming to cope with this latest manifestation of Nazi culture. Many variants are being developed and applied, and as an interim measure, before the full scientific treatment can be given to this procedure, we have found it necessary to call upon a large number of trawlers to assist in the dredging of our harbours. The service of mine-sweeping is one of peculiar danger and one calculated to try the strongest nerves because of the silence and constant uncertainty of destruction in which those who engage in it must dwell. The fact of this serious danger was sufficient to bring forward an overwhelming response from the fishermen, the trawler crews, when called upon to come to their country's assistance, though I imagine in this case for only a comparatively short time. Offices when they opened on the Saturday night at some of the fishing ports were crowded and thronged and had to be kept open all night and on the Sunday, and in a very short time a full complement was made up of these fisher folk, eager to serve their country in a manner which they felt would be really effective.

I do not say more about this at the moment. Events must tell their tale, and at the Admiralty we shall be content to be judged by the results of our exertions. Perhaps when we come together after Christmas, I shall be able to give more information upon the subject.

The recklessness of this latest attack upon neutrals, and the breach of international agreements which it involves, have led us to place a retaliatory embargo upon the export of all goods of German ownership or origin. This measure was taken in the late war, when it worked with surprising smoothness and efficiency. German oversea exporting power was rapidly destroyed, and with it perished all power of building up new credits abroad. No serious inconvenience need be caused to neutrals. They have only to avoid carrying tainted goods in their ships, and they can easily obtain a certificate from the British Consular officers in neutral countries, which will enable them to proceed upon their outward voyages without interference or delay from us. It is satisfactory to learn that goods for export are already piling up on the German quays and in their warehouses to such an extent that, we are told, they hamper the handling of incoming merchandise. This latter congestion will, however, be relieved as our blockade tightens through the growing strength of our patrolling and blockading squadrons.

A strident effort has been made by German propaganda to persuade the world that we have laid these magnetic mines ourselves in the fairways of our own harbours, in order, apparently, to starve ourselves out. When this inanity expired amid general derision, the alternative claim was made that the sinking of the neutrals by mine was another triumph of German science and seamanship, and should convince all nations that the German mastery of the seas was complete. This claim may be tested by a general survey of the results of the first three months of war. We began the war with 21 million tons of merchant shipping. This figure, of course, includes ships on the Great Lakes of North America, and a number of very small coastal vessels. Out of this total we have lost during the three months in which we have been subject to severe and concentrated attack by all kinds of methods, fair and foul, by U-boat, by mine, by surface raider, and by the hazards of the sea, about 340,000 tons. Against this we have gained by transfer from foreign flags, independent of the large chartering operations to which I have referred, by prizes taken from the enemy, and by the new vessels we are building on a very large scale, about 280,000 tons, leaving a nett loss of about 60,000 tons.

We should have to go back to the Hundred Years War in order to provide sufficient time and scope for inroads of this degree to make any serious impression upon the scale of our mercantile marine. For every 1,000 tons of British shipping sunk 110,000 tons have entered or left the ports of this threatened island, which we are told, upon the enemy's authority, is beleaguered and beset on all sides, in the first three months of war. In the month of November, nearly a quarter of a million tons of our shipping entered or cleared from our harbours for every 1,000 tons lost, a proportion of 250 to one. When from day to day we read in the papers of the losses, which are always advertised and often placarded, and one notices "another ship sunk," "four ships reported sunk" and items like that, it is necessary to correct our passing impressions by reference to the broad, underlying facts which govern the situation.

If the House feels that these facts are reassuring and worthy of acknowledgment, their debt is due to the officers and men of the Royal Navy and of the Merchant Service, and also, in increasing measure, to their comrades of the Royal Air Force, as well as to our Allies, the French, about whom I spoke on the last occasion, and to the small though highly efficient Polish flotillas which have lent us their aid.

The losses which have fallen upon the protecting warships of the Royal Navy are necessarily heavier in proportion than those which affect the Mercantile Marine. His Majesty's warships run greater risks as, unlike merchant ships, they have to seek the enemy wherever he may be. The Navy has never been so many days at sea each month as in this war plying in the most dangerous waters. The price for sea control must be paid. It is often heavy. We make a rule to publish all losses of British warships by enemy action, at the earliest moment when it is possible to inform the relatives of the survivors. There has, been no exception to this rule. We do not publish damage to His Majesty's ships unless this becomes widely known, or is certainly known to the enemy. These ships can be repaired very often within a few weeks, and there is not the slightest reason why we should be at pains to inform the enemy of matters which he cannot find out for himself, but greatly desires to know. We have lost, in these three months of war, two great ships, the "Courageous" and the "Royal Oak," two destroyers, and the submarine which was blown up by accident, in all, about 50,000 tons. We have at present building, much of it in an advanced stage, nearly 1,000,000 tons of warships of all classes. We have also lost one of our 50 armed merchant cruisers, the "Rawalpindi," whose glorious fight against overwhelming odds deserves the respect and honour of the House and of the nation.

However, our losses in warships during the first three months of war of 1914 were more than double those we have now suffered. Of course, war is full of ugly and unpleasant surprises. No one must indulge in easy habits of mind, or relax for one moment the vigilant attention to the fortunes of the State, and that fearless desire to measure the real facts and understand them and master them which are incumbent upon all citizens, and still more upon their Parliamentary representatives. If I have given this afternoon facts and figures of reassurance, it is only because the House and the nation have a right to know them, and because the House and the nation can alike be trusted to use these good tidings only as a stimulus and fortification to the much greater efforts which will be certainly required from us as this fierce and obstinate conflict rises to its full height. We have the means, and we have the opportunity, of marshalling the whole vast strength of the British Empire, and of the Mother Country, and directing these steadfastly and unswervingly to the fulfilment of our purpose, and the vindication of our cause, and for each and for all, as for the Royal Navy, the watchword should be "Carry on, and dread nought."

4.20 p.m.

Mr. A. V. Alexander

I am sure that the whole House will have been exceedingly interested in the statement of the First Lord, which I might describe as cautious and confident, and in which, as on previous occasions, we have been helped by his sense of humour in his typical references to the enemy. I should like presently to join with him in a tribute to the officers and men of the Royal Navy and the Mercantile Marine, but we are disappointed with one aspect of his statement. The matter about which we are most concerned is that we have not yet caught up with the menace of the heavily armed raider. We have been concerned also about that very gallant fight, against heavy odds, to which the First Lord referred in appropriate terms, by the officers and men of the auxiliary cruiser "Rawalpindi." People with more technical knowledge of naval matters than I possess have come to me, and they have also been concerned about the exact situation in which that auxiliary cruiser found herself.

I shall say nothing in speaking of these matters which would comfort the enemy, but I hope profoundly that vessels of that kind will have, if not immediate close protection of light craft, at least such touch with other naval vessels that there will be an opportunity of reinforcements if they are meeting with overwhelming odds, and perhaps in a smaller space of time than was possible in the difficult, stormy and arctic conditions in which that conflict took place. I am concerned also about the fact that while the enemy have been peculiarly economical in their sinkings of our craft, either in the Southern Indian Ocean or in the Southern Atlantic, other raiders are at large. While one appreciates to the full some of the words which fell to-day, and have fallen upon previous occasions, from the First Lord about the extent of the seas which have to be covered and combed, if you are to round up such menaces as these, there are grave anxieties in the minds of many people as to the danger of those ships, and they hope certainly that in the addition to our cruiser strength of the number of auxiliaries mentioned by the First Lord to-day there may be a means of dealing more quickly with the menace than has yet appeared.

I do not propose to add anything to what I have said except that we cannot speak too highly, after this period of three months in which the main brunt of the war has fallen on the officers and men of the Royal Navy, of the way in which these officers and men have behaved, and the way in which they have maintained the highest and best traditions of the great Service which they represent. I have no doubt that the Board of Admiralty and the First Lord have already communicated to the relatives of the officers and men who lost their lives in the conflict of the battle cruiser the sympathy which that Service deserves. I am sure that the House would wish to place on record in regard to such a major conflict as that was, its sympathy with the families of the men who lost their lives.

Perhaps, when it falls to the lot of a historian—it may be to the First Lord himself, as he has been able to produce such picturesque histories of past conflicts—to speak of that conflict in the early months of this war, I doubt whether there will be any more encouraging feature to comment upon than the magnificent spirit which was revealed in face of the new methods of the magnetic mine. When the First Lord asked for volunteers, he found that, within a few hours, he had 1,500 men at his disposal, and others on the waiting list. When I recollect the discussions that have taken place in this House during the last two years upon legislation relating to the conditions of the men in our fishing fleet, and the fight conducted in this House by hon. Members of all parties—let us be quite fair about it—and representing fishing ports, on behalf of that service, we might well take it to heart and say that those who follow this hazardous occupation should receive not merely our tributes of praise, glorying in their spirit and their work in war time, but the knowledge that their hazardous occupation will be always properly rewarded, because it is so fundamental a basis for the training of our marine services in time of war.

The First Lord has given us good news about the measures being taken to deal with the mines, but we ought to say a word about what is always more difficult to achieve than even the rush of courage in the face of an immediate menace, and that is the cool and calculating courage of those who came to the help of the research departments to attack the problem of the magnetic mine before they knew exactly what it contained, and had ascertained what was the real menace behind it. That is the kind of courage to which we should also pay a tribute. If the First Lord can, within the next few weeks, provide us with some information as to how, with our growing strength of surface ships of the Royal Navy and its auxiliaries, we can deal with the surface raider, so that that menace will not be allowed to grow, we shall feel confident that this great arm of Britain's defences is able so to deal with the menace against us that we shall win the first and the fundamental step to the victory for freedom and liberty which we have set our hand to achieve.

4.29 p.m.

Sir Archibald Sinclair

In the first place, I would associate myself with the tributes which the First Lord and the spokesman of the Opposition have paid to the officers and men of the Royal Navy and the Mercantile Marine who are ensuring the free flow into our ports and harbours of foodstuffs for our people and of raw material to our industries. I would particularly like to associate myself with the tribute paid to the fishermen by the right hon. Gentleman who spoke for the Opposition. It was a remarkable response that they made, at a time when the menace of the magnetic mine loomed most mysteriously. They came forward before the assurances were received that the secrets of the mine were known and that methods of dealing with it had been discovered. They came forward at once with their ships to face those unknown perils. I hope with the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Hillsborough (Mr. Alexander) that those of us who in the past have urged with persistence the case of the fishermen will be more successful after the war in obtaining a hearing than we have been in the past.

Let me also echo the tribute which the First Lord paid to the work of our gallant French and Polish Allies, and express the hope that co-operation will become ever closer. I am sure the House was particularly struck by the figures which the First Lord gave of the relative losses of neutral and Allied shipping. It is a very remarkable fact that the weight of the German attack has been flung so strongly against neutral shipping, and it is to be hoped that the neutrals will learn the lesson which the First Lord's review suggested, namely, that it would be wise for them to accept the hospitality and protection of the British convoy system.

I would like to say a word about the remarks which fell from the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Hillsborough about the depredations of the commerce raiders. I am sure that he represented one very strong body of opinion when he spoke of the anxiety that was felt with regard to the success of the raiders so far in eluding the ships which are searching for them and the measure of success they have had in sinking the "Rawalpindi" with its gallant crew. On the other hand, I myself have felt, and I know a number of other people who are more qualified to speak than I have also felt, that our patrols have not been unsuccessful in protecting British shipping, and it is remarkable that one commerce raider should have been at large in the South Atlantic and the Indian Ocean for many weeks and only get some three or four ships in that time; that is a great tribute to the efficiency of our patrol. Nevertheless, I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that it is a real menace and one which has to be faced.

I would like to raise one point in particular with the First Lord. I have been disturbed from day to day during the past few weeks on opening my morning paper to read that this ship and that ship have escaped from neutral harbours—German ships which have been interned and lying in neutral harbours, and which have eluded the control of the country in whose harbours they were interned. Indeed, according to newspaper reports some of these ships have actually had guns in their holds and have been turned into commerce raiders. The First Lord shakes his head, and I am glad to have that reassurance. I take it that none of them has been turned into a commerce raider?

Mr. Churchill

Not to my knowledge.

Sir A. Sinclair

I am glad to have that assurance. There can be little doubt, however, that some of them have been used as tender ships to some of these larger commerce raiders of which the right hon. Gentleman has been speaking. There have been several ships in particular which have escaped from the harbours of our Ally Portugal in Portuguese East Africa, including at least two very large ones which have escaped from those harbours, and I read in this morning's paper that the German ship "Columbus" at Vera Cruz is taking in food and water, and that oil is being brought to it from Tampico by another German ship. Is it not possible to ensure that a stricter watch is kept on those interned ships by those neutral countries which have interned them? I remember that even before the war the United States of America made a very thorough search of the "Bremen" when she was sheltering in New York to make certain that in crossing the Atlantic towards Germany she would not be able to engage in any unneutral action. I would ask the Government to see what they can do about these interned ships.

The next point I wish to make is about the announcement of casualties. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Hillsborough suggested that we wanted information about how we were dealing with these commerce raiders, although I would not press the First Lord to tell us immediately if and when he is successful in sinking one of those raiders, because I believe it would be information which would be useful to the enemy and which might govern the movements of other enemy ships. Therefore, it occurs to me that the First Lord is justified in keeping that information from us for some time. There may be a very strong case on naval grounds for delay in the announcement of losses from time to time, like the loss of the "Oxley," the damage to the "Belfast" and the loss of the "Rawalpindi." I would, however, suggest this point to the First Lord. He referred just now to the impression which is made upon public opinion when people see a number of sinkings reported in the papers. That impression is deepened if there has been delay in their announcement, and if the public has heard in the first place from the German wireless.

Mr. Churchill

There never has been any delay in announcing the losses due to enemy action. It has always been announced the moment we have been able to let the relatives of survivors know. It causes needless suffering if it is simply stated that His Majesty's ship "So-and-So" has been lost, because anyone who has a relative on board goes through 24 hours of agony until the names are published. Apart from that, the information is published as soon as possible, and my right hon. Friend will remember that the Germans first learned of the disaster to the "Royal Oak" only through publication to the public here. As far as damage is concerned, we must judge of that having regard to the military situation. In many cases the damage is easily and swiftly repaired, and there is no reason why the enemy should know the state of any of our ships at any moment.

Sir A. Sinclair

I am not criticising the right hon. Gentleman for the delay in publication of any of these statements. But he says he has always announced the losses by enemy action, and there was a delay in regard to the "Oxley." I know it was not damaged by enemy action, but it was heard of in this country first from Australia. Then there was the damage to the "Belfast," and that was heard of first from the German wireless. I am not criticising the First Lord's statement. I am merely saying that it was first of all heard over the German wireless, and, if there is delay in announcing losses or damage which may be defensible on naval grounds, and for which it would be quite wrong to criticise the right hon. Gentleman, and I am not criticising him—

Mr. Churchill

In the case of the "Belfast" it laid close to our own dockyard, and was brought in and immediately attended to. Why should we advertise the success of that enterprise and inform the enemy that one of our cruisers was temporarily out of action? Of course, as the story was conveyed through various channels to other countries—and there are many channels—there had to be a statement, but I do not propose to publish information about damage unless it becomes widely known, or unless I have reason to believe that it is known to the enemy.

Sir A. Sinclair

I do not wish to press the First Lord, and I am grateful to him for the explanation which he has given. I am sure that naval considerations should rule. I make no complaint of what has been done in the past, but I wanted to make the point that delay in announcing losses and damage strengthens the impression which bad news makes on the public mind.

The last point I wish to make is about the safety of our bases. There has been a good deal of anxiety, certainly in Scotland, and I think in other parts of the country, about the number of times that German reconnaissance machines have been over the Orkneys and Shetlands without suffering any great losses. Moreover, the First Lord did not mention Scapa Flow to-day. I hope we can assume that the hole in Scapa Flow through which the submarine entered has now been blocked and that the base is now absolutely secure, certainly secure from submarine attack, and as far as possible from air attack, too, and amply provided with anti-aircraft defences.

We have had three statements from the First Lord of the Admiralty. They have been robust and stimulating statements, and we are grateful for them. Nothing that I say must be interpreted as meaning that we do not want to have more; we do, and we are always ready to hear the First Lord of the Admiralty. We have also had two statements from the Secretary of State for War, but only one from the Secretary of State for Air. There is a good deal of fighting going on in the air and we know of action in which the Air Force has been engaged, not only reconnaissance action but the recent action against the ships at Heligoland. I would ask whether it would not be possible for the Secretary of State for Air before the House adjourns next week to give us some statement about the war in the air?

4.43 p.m.

Commander Sir Archibald Southby

I desire to congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on the statement he has made this afternoon. He made omissions some of which were tantalising and some of which were perhaps disquieting. As an instance of one which is tantalising, the Press has recently been full of photographs and accounts of the landing of an almost complete crew from a German submarine, and the House, and perhaps people outside this House, were hoping that this afternoon they might have heard from the right hon. Gentleman some details of the capture of that German submarine and crew. As an example of an omission which, I think, is somewhat disquieting, all reference to Scapa Flow was omitted from the right hon. Gentleman's speech. Scapa Flow is the premier naval base, and the loss of the "Royal Oak" did undoubtedly fill the minds of many people with disquiet. It may be thought that at the present time this premier naval base may not be in such a state as to enable the Fleet to use it. The frequent reconnaissance which the German planes are able to make over the Orkneys and the Shetlands is something which causes very great misgiving, not only in England but certainly in Scotland itself.

In the Debate on the Address last week I did venture to raise the question of the reconnaissance and bombing raids which were repeatedly made over the Orkneys and Shetlands and I am sorry the right hon. Gentleman was not then upon the Front Bench in order that he might, perhaps, have taken the opportunity of making some statement upon the matter. To-day would have been an admirable occasion on which my right hon. Friend could have reassured this House and the country on that particular point. It does seem as though the fact that reconnaissance can take place almost with impunity argues either lack of artillery defence or, what seems more likely, lack of aerial defence, which I hope is in course of being put right. The question of Scapa Flow is inevitably linked up with the action in which the "Rawalpindi" was destroyed, since that base was nearer to the spot where the action took place than any base in any other part of Scotland. In connection with the right hon. Gentleman's remarks about the convoy system, I should like to ask whether it is open to neutral vessels to sail in our convoys if they wish, or whether there is any technical international reason why they should not.

The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Hillsborough (Mr. Alexander) raised the question of the embargo in reply to the German magnetic mines campaign. Could the First Lord tell the House whether during the last war, when similar steps were taken by this country on the question of an embargo, Japan associated herself with us in those steps or not? It is of particular importance, I think, that the public should know whether on that occasion Japan associated herself with our particularly stringent embargo provisions or not. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Hillsborough referred to the surface raiders. I need not remind my right hon. Friend of the experience of the last war, when insufficient naval forces were given a task beyond their power. These surface vessels are very large and powerfully armed, and we have very few ships able to deal with them. The House would appreciate, in the near future if possible, some information as to the steps which it has been found possible to take to locate and destroy these heavy German vessels. The right hon. Gentleman knows that these vessels are at present at large, and that the general public are somewhat alarmed at their continued existence.

Mr. Churchill

It is hardly the moment for me to describe the steps that it is open to us to take.

Sir A. Southby

My right hon. Friend misunderstood me. I did not suggest that this was the moment. I said, "in the near future." Day by day acts of gallantry are being performed by officers and men of His Majesty's Navy of which the public know nothing. About many of those acts it is impossible to publish information, because it would give information to the enemy, but there are other acts of heroism and gallantry of which the public are entitled to know, and the publication of which would give immense satisfaction to the Fleet as a whole. We hear very little of what is going on beyond the broad general outline of naval operations. Unfortunately, we do not get details of some of the things which are being done by men of the Royal Navy and the merchant fleet. I would beg my right hon. Friend, if he would, to go into the question, and see whether it would not be possible to make public more of the instances of good service which are being performed by officers and men. The case of the magnetic mines is an instance, I think, where extraordinary work must have been done. I do not know what steps were actually taken with regard to these mines, but if any were washed up or found the officers and men who had the task of examining them took their lives in their hands. If such work was done I think it is the duty of the right hon. Gentleman, if I may say so, to make public the names of those officers and men. From any investigation which has been made of captured mines will come the measures which are to be taken to end the menace. The figures that the right hon. Gentleman has given about the sinking of U-boats are undoubtedly most satisfactory. The war against the U-boats is going steadily, and not only the right hon. Gentleman but the Department over which he presides is to be congratulated on the results.

4.51 p.m.

Mr. Boothby

May I say one word, before we pass on to the next business, about the fishermen? Those of us who have been fighting very hard for many years in this House on behalf of the fishermen were told by the Admiralty, before my right hon. Friend took office, that they would have no use for the fishermen or the drifters if war broke out. Some of us never believed that that would be the case, and it has proved not to be the case. The response of the fishermen has been very great, and I hope my right hon. Friend will not forget it.

Motion, "That this House do now adjourn," by leave, withdrawn.