HC Deb 12 December 1939 vol 355 cc1067-74

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

4.2 p.m.

The Secretary of State for Air (Sir Kingsley Wood)

When I made my last statement to the House on l0th October I dealt with the opening phases of the war in the air. I referred to the efficiency of the arrangements for the mobilisation of the Royal Air Force, to the constant watch which was being maintained by units of the Coastal Command, to the gallant raids carried out on German ports, and to the reconnaissances carried out over large areas of Germany, bringing home to the German people the range and ubiquity of the British bomber.

At that date we had not yet been able to test out in actual operations the state of preparedness of our air defences. But already, when I had made my statement, this first chapter of the war in the air was drawing to its close, and I should date the beginning of the second chapter with the raid carried out on warships in the Firth of Forth by German aircraft on 16th October. Since that date, though we have still had no great aerial battles, no encounter of Armadas in the air, there has been steadily increasing activity. We have had to deal with a series of reconnaissances and raids over this country, some by single aircraft and some in force, and we have thus been able to test out the strength of our defences and the efficiency of our organisation. We have also, both in this country and in France, been able to try out our aircraft in combat with the enemy.

The results, and the conclusions which we have been able to draw from them, though of necessity provisional, are certainly encouraging. We have been able to satisfy ourselves by actual operations that the various elements of our air defences, the anti-aircraft guns and searchlights, the fighter squadrons, the balloon barrages for close defence and the units of the observer corps, have been successfully welded into an efficient and adaptable system under the operational control and command of one Commander-in-Chief.

This system of unified control, the strength of which is steadily increasing, has justified our expectations and gives us the great advantage that our whole defence organisation can thus be adapted and adjusted to meet the exigencies and requirements of any particular moment and circumstance.

In this great organisation every element is manfully playing its part—the Territorial Units manning the guns and searchlights and, by no means least, if I may single them out for special mention, the personnel of the Balloon Barrage and of the Observer Corps. They have to keep their constant watch with little excitement through the long hours of waiting for the sight or sound of an enemy machine. Many of them are stationed at remote places, and many have had to carry out their duties in difficult conditions. But we know that we can fully rely upon them to carry them out, uneventful though they may be, with efficiency and uncomplaining spirit.

Our fighter squadrons, regular and auxiliary alike, have taken a heavy toll of such of the enemy as have tried to cross our air defences, and we can, I am certain, justifiably claim a definite superiority in our aircraft over the Germans. Our Hurricanes and Spitfires have been in contact with Dornier, Dunker and Heinkel bombers in turn, and there can be no doubt that they possess a decisive margin of advantage. Even more encouraging, I think, is the knowledge of the superiority that thy have shown over the German fighters. Not only have they twice the gun-power of the Messerschmitt, but they have markedly better flying characteristics and are superior both in control and manoeuvreability at high speeds.

Meanwhile the ceaseless watch of the Coastal Command continues in the freezing winds and sleet of winter; and I know that the First Lord joins with me in paying a special tribute to the magnificent courage and skill of these units and to the success which has attended their efforts. Over wide areas of the ocean our aircraft have to throw out their defensive screens and to maintain their ceaseless patrols day after day over the North Sea and the western approaches of the Atlantic Ocean. Every day they escort the many convoys which are constantly on the move, and in the course of their flights they have on many occasions encountered and shot down enemy aircraft. They have carried out attacks on submarines on 57 occasions, and in 19 cases we can be sure that substantial damage has been caused. Every month over 1,000,000 miles are flown: every day a distance that is greater than the circumference of the globe.

Perhaps I could instance the achievements of one squadron which are typical of many. Since the outbreak of war this squadron—No. 269—though only formed just three years ago, has flown 3,000 hours on long-distance tasks over the sea by day and by night in all conditions of weather. Its aircraft have already travelled nearly 500,000 miles, an average of 6,700 miles a day since the start of hostilities. They have brought in detailed reports for safety and contraband purposes on some 700 merchant vessels: they have sighted seven enemy submarines, and carried out attacks on five occasions. Their motto is "Omnia Videmus" {We See Everything), a motto that is fully justified.

I should also like to refer, if I may far one moment, to one operation which I believe throws special credit on the units of the Coastal Command. A British submarine was damaged by heavy weather and was for three days in difficulty in the North Sea. An air escort was sent out and the submarine was able to proceed for repairs into a Scandinavian port. While they were escorting the submarine our aircraft engaged a number of enemy aircraft arid shot one Dornier down into the sea. When the repairs had been effected, the aircraft once more provided an escort for the submarine and she returned successfully to her home port.

In the Bomber Command, too, the units have added to their laurels, and the recent attack on German warships at Heligoland was yet another of the fine offensive actions of the war. It was a particularly difficult and dangerous operation, requiring skill, daring and resolution, but our bombers reached their objectives successfully, registered direct hits with heavy bombs on the enemy and returned safely to their base. It is significant that in the course of this flight the aircraft were engaged by some 20 Messerschmidt fighters and that two of these which pressed home their attack, were driven down and one of them certainly destroyed. This, I think, is a very striking tribute to the formidable gun defences of our bombers.

Reconnaissances over Germany have been continued and our aircraft have visited Hamburg, Bremen, the Rhur, Berlin, Munich and Nürnberg in succession, and in many cases on more than one occasion. Conditions are more difficult now, but our men with their machines have stood up to the elements in the same spirit of daring as they have shown in facing the fire of anti-aircraft batteries and the fighters sent up by the enemy. Of the value of these flights there can be no doubt, and the Germans have paid us the significant compliment of copying our ideas.

The Royal Air Force units in France have been greatly encouraged by the visit of His Majesty the King and are carrying out yeoman service. They have adapted themselves with the greatest cheerfulness to the very different conditions of service, and they are working everywhere in the closest comradeship with the French. Everywhere the morale of our Air Force is magnificent. We have a definite superiority over the Germans in the initiative and skill of our pilots, and it is, I am sure, no cause for surprise that nearly one-third of the men who are now registering under the National Service Act are expressing a preference for service in the air.

Many of our personnel come from overseas and we shall soon be having many more. Squadrons of the Royal Canadian Air Force will in due course be playing their part in active air operations in Europe, and in the meanwhile a Canadian fighter squadron has been formed in this country from Canadian personnel now serving with the Royal Air Force, and is about to take its place in the first line of air defence of this country. A full squadron of our latest four-engined flying boats will soon be operating as a unit of the Royal Australian Air Force, and a squadron of the latest bombers is being formed with New Zealand personnel. The Union of South Africa have initiated a large expansion of their Air Training Organisation and of their first-line strength and have already carried out valuable coastal reconnaissances. Southern Rhodesia, too, are bringing their existing air unit to full strength and will man two additional squadrons.

I am also glad to be able to inform the House that arrangements have been made under which certain Polish squadrons will be re-formed in this country under the command of Polish officers. These squadrons will be attached to the Royal Air Force, and will in due course take their place in the front line. The first detachment of Polish airmen has already arrived.

As regards the important matter of production, I am glad to say that the mere numerical output to-day is more than twice what it was a year ago, and that the types that are now passing from the factories to units represent, not only in man-hours of construction but in their efficiency as weapons of war, not a two-fold, but a manifold, accretion of strength. The great organisation that we have created is growing steadily as new factories come into production and as additional firms become engaged in the field of sub-contracting. We have also new and more powerful types of aircraft, which have already flown and which will shortly be able to operate against the enemy.

I said at the beginning of my account to-day that we were now in the second chapter of the war in the air. That in its turn may be drawing to a close, and we must be prepared, perhaps soon, perhaps in the Spring, for another and more strenuous and difficult chapter. It is clear that we must continue unceasingly in all our efforts and extend them; and we must not for a moment relax the state of our preparedness. But we can be confident that our air defence system is sound, that our personnel and aircraft are superior to the enemy's, and that our strength, defensive and offensive, is growing steadily, so that every day we are in a better position to establish our ascendancy in the air.

4.20 p.m.

Mr. Dalton

While I am sure the whole House appreciates the very high record of achievement and the fine morale of the Air Force, and while my hon. and right hon. Friends reserve the right to put certain questions to the right hon. Gentleman in other conditions to-morrow, I should like now to ask him one question, similar to that which I asked him once before. Is he satisfied, especially in view of these new attempts to lay mines from German aircraft in the neighbour- hood of this country, that there is proper co-operation and liaison between the Air Force, the Admiralty and the War Office in taking the most effective steps to deal with this German invention?

4.21 p.m.

Sir Archibald Sinclair

I should like to associate my hon. Friends and myself with the tribute which the Secretary of State paid to the spirit and qualities of the Royal Air Force. We are very glad, indeed, to hear the news which he gave of the superiority of our machines and of the ascendancy which our pilots have established over the enemy. We are very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for the most interesting statement which he has made to us. At the same time, I observe that the Under-Secretary for Air is back from his visit to Canada. I am sure that the House will be interested on some occasion, before very long, to hear some account of what has been happening in Canada, of the development of the plans which have been made there for the training of the Empire flying force and for the reinforcement of our air effort in the war.

May I also briefly refer to a point which I have mentioned before? I do not want to press this too far, but I want to refer to the thirst which is felt by the public for information about the achievements of the Air Force. Many of us have heard that photographs exist which most graphically depict some of the things which our pilots have been able to do in some of those actions to which the right hon. Gentleman has referred. I would urge that as much information as possible should be given, both by written description and by photographs, to the people of this country, who are so anxious to know what these pilots are doing.

May I refer to a point which I made after the First Lord of the Admiralty spoke the other day? The Secretary of State said that the Air Force had had to deal with a great number of reconnaissances, and some of those reconnaissances have been over that part of the country with which I am, perhaps, more familiar than the Secretary of State himself. It is a little—perhaps "disturbing" is too strong a word—irritating to hear of these frequent visits by German aircraft to the Orkneys and Shetlands, and I might even say to the counties of Caithness and Sutherland, and to know that they have escaped—except on the first occasion, when they were very faithfully treated in the Orkney Islands—with few casualties. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will be able to assure us that the most effective steps possible will be taken to deal with such reconnaissances in the Northern islands and in some counties of Scotland.

4.25 p.m.

Miss Wilkinson

Statements have been made in both the Dutch and the Swiss Press, and even in our Press about five weeks ago, that the Germans were preparing the Siegfried Line under floodlight, and that flares were going all night. It seems strange that they should be allowed to do that under the eyes, so to speak, of our Air Force. I have repeatedly been asked questions about this at meetings, and I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman can give me any information?

4.26 p.m.

Sir K. Wood

Perhaps the hon. Lady will allow me to inquire into the matter, and I will see her about it. With regard to the question put to me by the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Dalton) about co-operation between the Air Force and the Admiralty, I can assure him that it is of the greatest possible extent. Almost every day we are in conference with the Admiralty, and the First Lord and myself are conferring with our advisers this evening. Relations between the Admiralty and the Air Force are all that tan be desired, and the House can rely on our constant endeavours with a view to helping one another to do all we can to meet the present situation. I was very gratified when the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Liberal Opposition referred to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Air. I am sure that every hon. Member is glad to see him back again, but no one is more glad than I am. I have missed him very much while he has been away, and I am glad to see him back safe and sound, and to know that he will be able to continue giving me the great help that he has always given me while we have been associated.

I shall do all that is possible to give information about the work of the Air Force. I have given great personal consideration to this matter during the past three weeks. On the one hand, there is the need, to which the Air Staff must pay particular attention, and for which they have a heavy responsibility, for safeguarding national security. On the other hand, there is a very great desire on the part of the public—and I think quite rightly—for all the information that can reasonably be given about our Defence forces, and particularly, at this moment, about the Air Force, on which such heavy duties fall. I will do all I can in that connection. Finally, I assure the right hon. Gentleman that, so far as his part of the country is concerned, we shall give it special consideration, and I hope that next time we have a visit to the Orkneys very favourable results will ensue.

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