HC Deb 14 June 1939 vol 348 cc1439-68

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn." — [Major Sir James Edmondson.]

10.4 p.m.

Lieut.-Commander Fletcher

I want at once to thank the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs for his courtesy in coming here to-night. I know that I am depriving him of one of the few short nights we get but, nevertheless, I am providing him with the somewhat congenial task of explaining yet another instance of Italian undertakings which are not fulfilled. We on this side of the House have certainly by now grown well accustomed to hearing the right hon. Gentleman the Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs explaining away and condoning and passing over instance after instance of Italian bad faith in matters relating to the work of the Non-intervention Committee, the war in Spain and the Anglo-Italian Agreement. In anything that I have to say about this question I do not wish to make any charges of bad faith against General Franco, who I think is not directly concerned in it. He is, no doubt very naturally and properly, doing the best he can for his country. In fact, if any charge of bad faith is to be levelled it is to be levelled at the British Government in respect of the ambiguity of their replies and statements in the House.

I understand, from answers which have already been given, that the Foreign Office view is that the Government cannot help the giving or selling of Italian war material to General Franco and in any case Italian war material constitutes perhaps less of a danger if left in Spain than if taken back to Italy. I take a completely realist view of the matter. I am not worrying about a lot of secondhand and possibly worn-out equipment of an unimportant nature, but I do not think that argument would apply in the case of heavy artillery and tanks. After all, it is an easy thing to transport men, but not such an easy undertaking to transport heavy material, and I can imagine that it might be very convenient indeed if the head of the Italian Government should be in a position in which he could transport men quite easily to Spain knowing that they would find there a great deal of the heavy equipment and material that they might need.

Apart from that side of the question, I think there are very serious matters of principle also involved. If the Italian Government, as we are told, did mention during the course of the Anglo-Italian negotiations the possibility of the sale or gift of Italian war material to Spain one can hardly make any charge of bad faith against the Italian Government. The charge lies rather against our own Government for not having revealed the facts. But, if this matter was raised by the Italian Government, no such contingency was contained in the Anglo-Italian Agreement, or any of the Annexes to it, and no reference to the possibility of Italian war material being sold or given to Spain at the end of the war was ever made in the House of Commons until a day or two ago. I feel sure that not only the House but the country would have been far more restive than they were had the possibility of the sale or gift of such material been explained fully and frankly from the very beginning, and if the Government think it such a natural and simple and straightforward matter I am utterly at a loss to understand how it was that the situation was never so explained.

It is on that account that I say I think it is far more a question of the good faith of our own Government than of the Italian Government that is involved. I must also say that, as the Italian Government did discuss this matter with our representatives, I am surprised that they, the Italian Government, did not insist upon publicity in order to guard themselves in the future against any possible charge of bad faith. This undertaking in regard to the removal of Italian war material was contained not in the Protocol of the Anglo-Italian Agreement, nor in the Annexes, but in one of the Notes attached to the Protocol, and the Prime Minister drew special attention to this Note on 2nd May, when he used these words: Therefore I desire to call particular attention to Count Ciano's letter, which is to be found on page 28 of the White Paper, in which he gave three specific assurances to the British Government. Secondly, he reaffirms that, if this evacuation has not been completed at the moment of the termination of the Spanish civil war, all remaining Italian volunteers will forthwith leave Spanish territory and all Italian war material will simultaneously be withdrawn." — [Official Report, 2nd May, 1938; col. 541, Vol. 335.] If the Prime Minister was seeking to draw the particular attention of the House to the matter, I think it very remarkable that he did not inform the House of this reservation about the sale or gift of Italian war material. The other day, when a reference was made to this statement of the Prime Minister, the Under-Secretary blandly remarked that "some of the war material had been returned to Italy but a considerable quantity had been handed over to the Spanish Government." If he now says, "Why should we worry? How could we prevent what happened? On the whole it is a good thing and it is better that the material should be in Spain than in Italy," why on that occasion did he go on to say that "naturally we should wish all war material to go back" to Italy? It was a very disingenuous remark if in fact the Italian Government had told the British Government that they reserved to themselves the right to give or sell some of this material to Spain.

If the Government now say the matter is one of very little importance, why was Count Ciano ever asked for the promise about the removal of Italian war material at the conclusion of the war? Why was that promise on his part stressed in the House if it was not considered of very great importance indeed? Now we have the Under-Secretary's statement that "we cannot prevent" this material remaining in Spain. That, surely, means that Italy is under no obligation whatever to remove one single item of her war material. She might give or sell the whole of it to Spain and take home none whatever. According to the Under-Secretary we should have no cause for complaint if she did that. If that is the case, why put the matter of removing the war material from Spain into a Note, as if it were indeed a matter of importance, when it was known that the promise could be evaded and that we should have no ground for complaint if it were evaded? I asked the Prime Minister on 3rd April: whether, in view of the end of the civil war in Spain, he proposes to make representations to the Italian Government concerning the immediate withdrawal of Italian troops and material from Spain in accordance with the undertaking of the Italian Government? The right hon. Gentleman replied on behalf of the Prime Minister: As the House is aware, the Italian Government have given an undertaking to withdraw all Italian volunteers and war material on the termination of the civil war in Spain. I have no reason to suppose that the Italian Government will not honour that undertaking." — [Official Report, 3rd April, 1939; col. 2471, Vol. 345.] As hon. Members are aware, when that Reply was given, the House was not, in fact, aware that the giving or the selling of Italian war material to the Spanish Government had been the subject of discussion by the Italian Government with His Majesty's Government. On the occasion when that Reply was given, the House was not told that the undertaking in question did exclude the giving or selling of this war material. I think this incident was one more of an extraordinary series of ambiguities of phrase and statement in regard to Anglo-Italian affairs— phrases used to soothe the House and the country at a critical stage, phrases that were deliberately chosen because they were capable of carrying quite another meaning after they had served the original purpose for which they were used. There was the phrase "a settlement in Spain." When Lord Perth replied to Count Ciano's letter, as set out in the White Paper, he said: I hardly need to remind Your Excellency that His Majesty's Government regard a settlement of the Spanish question as a prerequisite of the entry into force of the Agreement between our two Governments. The Agreement was brought into force before any "settlement in Spain" had been arrived at, and on 25th July of last year, the Prime Minister said that no understanding had been come to between the British and the Italian Governments as to the meaning of the phrase '' a settlement in Spain "in the Agreement. Yet the whole of the Anglo-Italian negotiations and Agreement turned on the phrase" a settlement in Spain." Surely, it is unprecedented that negotiations should have been carried on on the basis of a phrase on which, as the Prime Minister said, no understanding had been come to between the parties to the negotiations as to what it meant.

Similarly, there was the Italian undertaking to withdraw troops from Libya. Italy did withdraw some troops, and then a month or two later she returned them. We were then told from that Box, I think by the Under-Secretary of State, that the temporary withdrawal of those troops had fulfilled that clause of the Anglo-Italian Agreement. If it was the case that that clause could be fulfilled by taking some troops away and immediately sending them back, what was the purpose or value of putting that clause into the Agreement? Similarly, Italy apparently could, in a few weeks, return all her troops to Spain without there being any breach of the Anglo-Italian Agreement. In the first stage of the Anglo-Italian negotiations, when the Prime Minister was recommending to the House the initiation of those negotiations, there was rather an awkward corner to turn. The late Foreign Secretary had just resigned, and I think the House was not too happy about the initiation of the negotiations. In his speech, the Prime Minister narrated a conversation which he had had with the Italian Ambassador in London. He said: I pointed out to him that if we made an agreement we could not ourselves go to the League and ask the League to approve that agreement if in the meantime anything had been done by the Italian Government in regard to Spain which had altered the situation in favour of General Franco, either by sending reinforcements to Spain or by failing to implement the assurances and the undertakings which they had given when they accepted the British formula. No intimation could be plainer than that." — [Official Report, 21st February, 1938; cols. 152-3, Vol. 332.] That was the basis on which those negotiations were recommended to the House. Was that undertaking by the Italian Ambassador ever adhered to? From that moment, Italian intervention in Spain not only continued, but increased. Similarly, we have had one ambiguity after another in reply to questions. On nth April last year, I asked the Prime Minister if he is satisfied, after examining the evidence regarding recent arrivals of Italian aircraft and other munitions in Spain, that these do not constitute an infringement of the condition on which the Anglo-Italian negotiations were instituted; namely, that, the situation in Spain should not be materially altered during the conversations by sending fresh reinforcements to General Franco? To that the Prime Minister replied: From assurances I have received … I have no reason to think that the position in Spain has been materially altered by recent Italian reinforcements to General Franco "— [OFFICIAL REPORT, 11th April, 9138; col. 734, Vol 334.] I wonder from whom the Prime Minister received those assurances and if he received them from an interested party? I wonder if those assurances squared with the information which, I presume, the right hon. Gentleman was receiving from what the Under-Secretary this afternoon, described as the best intelligence service in the world? On 16th May, 1938, I asked the Prime Minister a similar question about "the evacuation of Italian troops from Spain and, particularly, the evacuation of the Italian troops and war material before the termination of the Spanish civil war." The Prime Minister then put the whole thing on to the Nonintervention Committee. He said that "negotiations for the withdrawal of foreign volunteers from Spain at the earliest possible date are proceeding within the Non-intervention Committee." This was in May, but the right hon. Gentleman omitted in that answer to inform the House that the Non-Intervention Committee had not met since the previous November. Yet all the responsibility was transferred to the Non-intervention Committee. In November last year, again, I asked the Prime Minister whether he proposed "to make any representation to the Italian Government concerning the presence of Italian aeroplanes and other warlike material in Spain" and the Under-Secretary replied: The question of the presence of Italian war material in Spain is primarily a matter for the Non-intervention Committee." — [Official Report, 1oth November, 1938; col. 313, Vol. 341.] We had a statement on this subject from the Prime Minister last week. I may say at once that I think we have to agree that, as the Non-intervention Agreement lapsed on 20th April, it certainly is the case now that any Government is perfectly entitled to supply or sell war materials to Spain and we accept that position. But in this statement the Prime Minister said: A considerable amount of material … has been disposed of to the Spanish Government including aircraft … Full information is not available as to the form in which payment … is to be made. It would be very interesting indeed to have some information about the form in which payment is to be made for this material. Again the right hon. Gentleman said: During the… negotiations… mention was made of the possibility of material being sold or given away … But it was not against this eventuality that His Majesty's Government especially desired to guard. If His Majesty's Government were not desirous of guarding against the possibility of a "considerable amount of material" being left behind in Spain, can the Under-Secretary tell us what was the eventuality which they had in mind against which they wished to guard. What was that eventuality if it was not that of a considerable amount of Italian war material being left in Spain? Why was the House not informed that the Govern-men attached little importance to such an eventuality, when the matter had been the subject of repeated questions? The Prime Minister also said: We wished to be certain … that at the end of the war there was not a quantity of war material left in Spain under Italian control. That has been achieved." — [Official Report, 7th June, 1939; cols. 304-305, Vol. 348.] Upon what authority and upon what information does the Prime Minister know that that has been achieved, and that the Italian war material which has been left behind in Spain is not under Italian control? Is the Prime Minister perfectly certain, for instance, that the Italian guns near Gibraltar, and the Italian guns mounted at Ceuta, are not still under effective Italian control? I think he would be a very bold man if he said that. I notice also that in the same statement the Prime Minister undertook to consider the possibility of inquiring of the Spanish Government how much Italian war material has been left in Spain. I should like to ask if any steps have been taken in the way of a beginning with those inquiries. But why ask the Spanish Government? As I said at Question time to-day, if everything has been done in such a spirit of brotherly love and good faith by Italy in this matter, why cannot we ask the Italian Government direct how much war material has been left behind and what has been the mode of payment by the Spanish Government for it?

In conclusion, I should like to say that, as I see it, an agreement is an agreement and should be honoured to the letter unless release is obtained from one of the parties to the agreement. The Italian record on the Non-intervention Committee, to put it mildly, has not been remarkable either for candour or for good faith, and if the Italian Government wish to regain their reputation, or to gain a reputation, for good faith, it is for the Italian Government to be particularly scrupulous in observing their agreements. The Under-Secretary of State, in many of his replies on this point, has seemed to me to encourage the Italian Government not to be scrupulous where their undertakings and agreements are concerned. Italy was under a firm, binding obligation to remove all her troops from Spain on 1st April, when General Franco announced that the Civil War had ended. She did not do so. When I raised the point, the Under-Secretary did not contest the fact, but said that he thought I put a "legalistic and an unfriendly interpretation" on the matter. If ever I take the Under-Secretary's house furnished from him, and I am under contract to go out on 1st April and remain until 1st May, I hope he will not put any narrow, legalistic, and unfriendly interpretation on such an action on my part. An agreement is an agreement and, as I have said, should be honoured by the Italian Government scrupulously and to the letter.

This affair of the Italian war material left in Spain is the latest—I hope it may be the last, though I am not optimistic about that—of a long series of incidents in regard to the Civil War in Spain, the work of the Non-intervention Committee, and the two Anglo-Italian Agreements, where it is impossible to believe that our Government have treated this House with candour. If the Under-Secretary repels the charge of any want of candour in these matters, he can only do so by admitting that His Majesty's Government have been duped over and over again by the Italian Government. I have quoted several undertakings which have been given in regard to the Anglo-Italian Agreement. I have not quoted an undertaking which was given by the Prime Minister in a speech at Birmingham, an undertaking to eat his hat if Italy did not behave satisfactorily in regard to the Anglo-Italian Agreement. The other day the Prime Minister told us that he hoped he had the reputation of being usually rather better than his word, so I must leave it to him to decide if this meal is overdue or not. When I examine the long record of Signor Mussolini's dealings with this country I can only say that I feel I could be fairly asked to eat a straw hat if ever I placed any reliance upon an Italian undertaking, or upon a Government reply in regard to some breach of faith by the Italian Government.

10.31 p.m.

Mr. G. Strauss

I should like to ask the Under-Secretary one or two questions before he replies. The Prime Minister, in defending the attitude of the Government in this matter, said the other day that the purpose of the Government had been achieved. The purpose of this particular section of the Anglo-Italian Agreement was to prevent Italian arms being left in Spain under Italian control and that as the Italian troops were being removed the Italian arms would not be left in Spain under Italian control. If that had been the objective of the Government in this matter, why did the Italian Agreement specify that Italian troops and materials should be withdrawn forthwith at the conclusion of hostilities? All that it would have been necessary to state was that Italian troops should be withdrawn. There would have been no need to mention the word "armaments," but armaments were specifically mentioned, and, therefore, one must assume the Government thought it important that Italian arms should not remain in Spain even if the Italian troops withdrew. Perhaps the Under-Secretary will give us some explanation on that point.

The second question I should like to ask is what evidence he has for suggesting that the arms left by Italy in Spain are not, in fact, to-day under effective Italian control? If we read the Italian Press we must come to the conclusion that the Italians still maintain a very considerable influence in Spanish affairs—if not considerable, a major influence. I will quote an article which appeared on 7th June in an Italian paper, "Lavoro Fascista." We know that nothing can appear in that paper which has not the general support of the Italian Government. In that paper there was a leading article entitled, "The Nightmare," stating: The Duce stated clearly that the victory— that is the Italian victory in Spain— was, first, one over the democracies, and secondly one over Bolshevism. Because to fight Bolshevism without fighting democracies would be like fighting a shadow without worrying about the body that casts the shadow. The nightmare of the democracies has not ended with the return of these 20,000 soldiers of the revolution, because Italy has not abandoned Spain nor will she ever abandon Spain. If that means anything at all it means, shortly, that Italian influence is still important, possibly supreme, in Spanish affairs, and that these arms which Italy has left in Spain are under the virtual control of the Italian Government to-day. If the Under-Secretary has any evidence to the contrary I should be very pleased to know what it is. Then somebody, I forget whether the Prime Minister or the Under-Secretary, explained away the existing situation by saying that it was only a part of the Italian armaments which had been left in Spain. What evidence has he of that? The evidence we get from the Italian Press seems to show that the major part of the Italian armaments, at least the heavy armaments, have been left in Spain. I will quote from the Rome correspondent of the "Times," who, on 29th May, wrote in his article dealing with Italian affairs this paragraph: Meanwhile General Gambara, who commanded the Italian legionaries, is reported to have completed arrangements for— this is put in inverted commas— 'handing over to the Spanish army the whole of the arms of the Italian expeditionary force '. I think we ought to know whether the whole of the arms are being handed over to the Spanish army and whether, in the conversations which were had with Count Ciano when these matters were discussed, it was ever suggested that a large volume of Italian armaments should be left in Spain; or whether the Prime Minister had the impression that it might be a few odd guns or a few aeroplanes that were no longer very useful; or whether he appreciated that the Italian Government meant to leave such large quantities in Spain. Obviously, if large quantities were left, and our Government were led to understand that there were only to be small quantities, our Government were seriously misled and we should protest immediately to the Italian Government.

As far as I can see, unless we can get some more satisfactory explanation of this matter than we have had in the past it will appear that two things have happened which we could have expected from the Italian Government and this Government. The first thing is that the Italian Government have obviously broken their pledges made in the Anglo-Italian Agreement. The second is that His Majesty's Government, as they have done throughout during the Spanish affair, have misled the House of Commons in the matter. We have had ample evidence during the last few days of how the Government misled the House and the country in regard to the number of troops and of arms sent by Germany and Italy to Spain during the war. We were always given to understand from answers to the questions with which we plied the Prime Minister and the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, week after week, about the huge volume of arms and troops which were being sent to Spain by the Fascist Governments, that although there might be some troops from those countries in Spain, yet there had been breaches on both sides and that the figures which were put forward were grossly exaggerated.

We find that this impression, given week after week to the House of Commons, was entirely false, and we find that the figures put forward from our side were an understatement; because we now have the boast from Signor Mussolini and Herr Hitler about the tremendous help which those countries gave not only in material but in men as well. Everybody will agree that, in point of fact, this House was misled by the Government in this matter. If the Government say, as an excuse, that they had not got information themselves, that is a serious reflection upon the Government's own sources of information, and they should do something quickly to remedy that defect. I believe that the Undersecretary was quite right when he said that the Government's sources of information were good, and that the Government had the facts. But because of their policy in the Spanish affair of doing nothing which might upset the Italians, they deliberately misled this House and the country on the matter.

It now appears, that there has been an obvious breach of the Anglo-Italian Agreement but the Government say that there is no breach—because that is the point of the Prime Minister's statement. And we are not even going to protest about the matter. The Government are still pursuing the policy, which we believe to be so disastrous, of defending the Fascist countries, supporting them in their breaches of agreements and appeasing them in whatever action they care to take in European affairs. The Government are continuing the policy of making friends with them at the expense, not only of the democracies of Europe but, in this case, of the safety of the British Empire.

10.40 p.m.

Miss Rathbone

There is one aspect 01 this question that neither of the previous speakers has mentioned and to which I want briefly to draw the attention of the House. During the exchange of questions and answers on this subject last Monday, the Under-Secretary used these words: His Majesty's Government are well aware, and have often stated, that from the beginning of the civil war in Spain intervention on both sides was taking place on a considerable scale." —Official Report, 12th June 1939; col. 876, Vol. 348.] It is these words that I would like the right hon. Gentleman to expand and justify. We have heard a great deal of the intervention that took place on the Italian and German fronts, and of the facts about that. If they were even doubted on the Government side of the House at the time when we on this side were continually finding out the facts, they cannot be doubted by anyone now. What I want to challenge is the assumption which the right hon. Gentleman seemed to imply the other day that intervention was in any reasonable sense of the words equal and opposite on both sides. As to the question of intervention from the beginning of the war, what kind of intervention took place on the Spanish Republican side in the early stages of the war? Is the right hon. Gentleman referring to the International Brigade, which was composed of genuine volunteers? If so, I would remind the right hon. Gentleman that the aspect of the Non-Intervention Committee's work connected with the question of the sending of volunteers really only materialised at about the beginning of 1937. Is the right hon. Gentleman referring to the fact that combatant troops were sent on both sides? According to the "Times" correspondent in October, 1937, the numbers of the International Brigade never amounted to much more than 18,000 men, and we know that they came from practically every country in Europe, some even from America, and that no individual contingent was very large. Is the right hon. Gentleman referring to arms?

I beg him to answer this question: We all know the country that has been in the minds of those who sit behind him when they have made the charge that has been repeatedly made throughout the Spanish civil war. The nation that they had in mind was Soviet Russia. Has the right hon. Gentleman any evidence that Soviet Russia sent arms to Spain to any substantial extent before October, 1936? Did they do so at the beginning of the Spanish war? Is it not the case that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, like ourselves and France, signed a Nonintervention Pact early in the war, and that M. Litvinov, speaking in the following September at the League Assembly, said he only did so reluctantly because he did not wish to differ from the action that the democratic Powers were taking. They signed the Pact at about the same time as we did, and they kept honourably to that Pact. I do not say that nothing was sent; a certain quantity of planes might have been sent; but I challenge the right hon. Gentleman to say whether there was intervention, on anything like the scale of the intervention of Germany and Italy, from Russia or any other country at any time during the war, and whether there was intervention on any considerable scale from Russia until it became perfectly plain that Germany and Italy were sending arms and combatants—not volunteers—on a very substantial scale.

At that time M. Maisky gave full warning to the Non-intervention Committee, in the classic phrase which I wish had been adopted by all these countries, that in the future his country intended to observe the Non-intervention Pact in the same spirit in which other nations were observing it—that thenceforth they would observe non-intervention in the same manner in which it was observed by other Powers. It was only in mid-October, if my information is right, and I challenge the right hon. Gentleman to say it is wrong, that Russia began to send arms to any considerable extent. I know, at any rate, that that was M. Blum's opinion, and I suppose he may be regarded as the mother of the Non-intervention Pact. The claim to be its putative father may be disputed between members of His Majesty's Government. The Pact was begotten, I think we may say, on this side of the Channel, but it was conceived by the French, and first saw the light of day under the aegis of M. Blum's Government. And he; stated that, as far as his knowledge went, there was no considerable sending of arms to Spain by Russia until mid-October—and then after warning had been given by M. Maisky that henceforth Soviet Russia would observe the Pact in the same spirit as other countries.

I have watched this aspect of the- matter from the beginning, because in September, 1936, soon after the War began, I was asked to be chairman of a small unofficial committee, which set itself to examine evidence of intervention—which everybody except His Majesty's Government already knew was being undertaken by Germany, Spain, and Portugal on a considerable scale. At that time we made it known, in the papers and in every way we could, that we wanted to receive information as to intervention on either side in Spain, and we received considerable quantities of evidence, which was subsequently published in a pamphlet, that there was substantial intervention by Italy and Germany, a good deal of it with the connivance of the Portuguese authorities. But during that time not one single person suggested that Russia had intervened. On the contrary, the taunt in the pro-Franco Press was, ''Here are these people more royalist than the King. They want the British Government to supply arms to Spain, and even Russia is not doing it."

The charge that Russia was intervening and that Germany and Italy had intervened only because Russia was doing so sprang up some months later than that; and I do not think there has ever been one iota of evidence for that charge. It became almost a cliché in the mouths of Ministers, when we spoke of intervention by Italy and Germany, to reply that there was intervention on both sides. Our answer was that intervention was official on the part of Italy and Germany and that there was nothing comparable to it on the part of any country on the Republican side. It is rather a pity that now, when the facts about Italy and Germany are known to everybody, because Signor Mussolini and Herr Hitler have boasted of intervention, we should again hear from the Government this unfair charge that there was intervention on both sides from the beginning of the war. I appeal to the right hon. Gentleman either to justify or withdraw his charge. When, at long last, we are drawing closer to Russia, when a pact or alliance with Soviet Russia is under discussion, I think this is an unfortunate time to repeat against Soviet Russia charges for which there has never been one iota of justification.

10.49 p.m.

Mr. Wise

I want to reply, somewhat briefly, to what has been said by the hon. Lady. We have departed some distance from the question originally raised by the hon. and gallant Member for Nuneaton (Lieut.-Commander Fletcher), but it is worth while to recall the real facts of intervention in Spain, which are all well known. Of course, there was intervention on both sides. The 1,400 aeroplanes shot down by the Nationalist forces were not all built in Barcelona, and the 48,000 prisoners of war of foreign extraction in the concentration camps of General Franco before the end of the war had not all appeared in Spain as purists inspired suddenly to go to defend a distressed republic. These are facts as patent as any possible evidence for intervention on the other side.

Miss Rathbone

My point was that intervention, such as it was, was on a very much smaller scale, and it did not take place at the beginning of the war, but only when it was called into existence by the extent of German and Italian intervention. Is the hon. Gentleman prepared to say that these Russian aeroplanes went to Spain at the beginning of the war, or that the Russians ever equalled in number the men sent by Germany and Italy?

Mr. Wise

The hon. Lady has thrown out a perfectly fair challenge as to whether intervention began on the Republican side at the beginning of the war. Not all of us have forgotten that the attack on Madrid was stopped by the International Brigade long before any German or Italian soldiers were sent.

Sir P. Harris

Hitler boasted about it.

Mr. Wise

I do not want to stop the hon. Baronet's permanent indignation, but what we are discussing is a question of dates, and not a question of whether Germans and Italians were in fact there. All I say is that the International Brigade stopped the attack on Madrid before either Germans or Italians were sent.

Mr. Pritt

The hon. Member in discussing intervention does not suggest that the arrival of the International Brigade— British, Czechs, Frenchmen, and so on— at Madrid constitutes intervention by the Governments of Great Britain, France, Czecho-Slovakia?

Mr. Wise

The hon. and learned Gentleman's mind is of a becoming subtlety, but really he must understand that the Government of Russia is an authoritarian Government.

Mr. Pritt

There were no Russians in the International Brigade there.

Mr. Wise

Really that is the point in dispute.

Mr. Vernon Bartlett

As the only Member of this House here to-night who was in Spain two months after the civil war broke out, and before the attack on Madrid, I would like to say that I at that time visited every town of any size on the Spanish Government's side, and I went to the Toledo front and the northern front, and the only Russian I met the whole time was Mr. Rosenberg, and at the same time I did spend a considerable amount of time behaving in a rather undignified way when these large Italian and German bombers came over with their machine guns.

Mr. Wise

The fact that the hon. Gentleman met only one Russian is not indisputable proof that there were no other Russians there. The same argument might probably apply if the hon. Member met only 2,000 or 3,000 Spaniards, but I believe there were rather more than that. But the fact is, I think, fairly well accepted that there was, of course, intervention on both sides.

Sir P. Harris

Did the English Government intervene then?

Mr. Wise

We are not discussing the question of whether the English Government intervened. The fact that Russian mechanics and Russian airmen went to Spain, and went there on a very consider able scale—

Mr. Pritt


Mr. Wise

—during the course of the civil war is a clear indication that the Russian Government were well aware of what they were doing, and, indeed, encouraging them to do it. We cannot on this side of the Housebelieve—in spite of the legal subtlety of the hon. and learned Member for North Hammersmith (Mr. Pritt) and the ingenuity of the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Bartlett) and the enthusiasm of the hon. Lady the Member for the English Universities (Miss Rathbone) —that the Russian Government is so incompetent that, with its magnificent police service, it has no control over the movements of its own nationals.

Mr. Pritt

Nobody suggested that. They openly announced what they were going to do, and the only question was, when?

Mr. Wise

The question is now one which might very well be left to the past. The Spanish civil war is over, and the main task of this country to-day is to endeavour not to go too far in antagonis- ing the Government of Spain. The people of Spain are our friends. The last time we quarrelled seriously with them was at the Battle of Trafalgar, and that was against the wishes of the bulk of the Spanish people. Surely it would be much better that we should devote ourselves now to a serious effort to improve relations between this country and the Government of Spain. They are, first, an important friend, and they might be a very inconvenient enemy. In the same way, it is possibly only right that we should endeavour, as far as possible, to cultivate friendly relations with every other Power on the Continent of Europe. To bicker now about whether war material was left behind after the Italian troops were withdrawn from Spain or whether it was not is really unnecessarily straining the relations which are not nearly friendly enough between our two countries. Let us at least be delighted that the Italian troops have been withdrawn from Spain, and let us remember that hon. Members opposite spent their time assuring us that they never would be. The policy of His Majesty's Government, tempered by the restraint that has been shown, has been amply justified by the result.

As the hon. and gallant Member for Nuneaton (Lieut-Commander Fletcher) very truly said, we do not question the right of any Power to sell munitions to any other Power, and I am not quite sure really what his complaint to-night is. We do not question the light of the Italian Government to sell material to the Spaniards. It does not really much matter whether they leave behind material which is already there or whether they take that material away and sell them fresh material. In any case, it is a legitimate sale. I gather that the hon. and gallant Gentleman was really complaining that our Government did not give him interesting commercial details about these transactions during the past few months. A perfectly fair answer to that question is that, quite frankly, it is not the business of the British Government whether the Italian Government sell materials to Spain or whether they do not. I hope that to-night will be the last fling of this unfortunate Spanish predilection on the part of hon. Members opposite. They must admit that it has done them very well as a red herring for the last two years, and I suggest that they should now find some possibly more domestic and useful hare to hunt in the days to come.

10.59 p.m.

Mr. W. Roberts

I should not have intervened in this Debate but for the speech of the hon. Member for Smethwick (Mr. Wise). It happens that I am the secretary of several organisations connected with Spain, and I believe that the hon. Member was one of the patrons of the organisation called "The Friends of Nationalist Spain."

Mr. Wise

I am afraid not.

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

Question again proposed, "That this House do now adjourn." — [CaptainMargesson.]

Mr. Roberts

A number of hon. Members who took the same point of view as the hon. Member in the Spanish conflict were connected with that organisation. I received a rather interesting letter only this morning. I thought it was rather apposite to the occasion. It comes from a correspondent who says that he is indebted to a friend of his for the address of the organisation, and he asks me to put him in contact with someone in Nationalist Spain with whom he can correspond. He wants to join an organisation the name of which appeared to be "The Friends of Nationalist Spain." It happens that he belongs to the City of Birmingham, but I suppose that is pure chance. What is interesting about the communication is that he sends me a document which is a denunciation of the Spanish Republican Government and its actions. It is far too long for me to quote, and, in any case, it is not specially new or interesting. [Hon. Members: "Then why refer to it?"] There is some object in what I have to say. It speaks of the propaganda of Nationalist Spain, and it happens to be printed in Hamburg, and it comes from Birmingham. That is one of the many instances where certain hon. Members of this House, who have spent a good deal of their time and energy in championing the cause of General Franco have, in fact, been doing the work of Hitler in Europe, just as the British Government have by concealing the facts of the Spanish war.

The Under-Secretary said that he did not know that Italian ships had been put at the disposal of General Franco. I well remember asking him a question on the point, to which he replied that he had no information. I asked him whether four destroyers had been put at the disposal of General Franco, and whether he had any recent information. His reply was a categorical "No." I had the information from a nonintervention officer who had seen the names of these Italian destroyers being painted out and Spanish names being put in their place. The Under-Secretary told me that he had no information. When I challenged that statement in a supplementary question, he explained to me that he had no recent information. He had the information two months sooner and it had taken two months to reach me. Therefore, he was in order in saying that he had no recent information. That is the way that information has been kept from this House by a quibble which sometimes has gone very near to something which is much less in keeping with the traditions of this House than a verbal quibble. I do not want to detain the House more than to say that in concealing the truth from the House I believe that private Members and the Government have been assisting Herr Hitler to establish his position, and also assisting Signor Mussolini. They have now a position of immense strategical importance which it will be impossible to make up for by a little flattery to-day of the present rulers in Spain.

11.5 p.m.

Mr. J. J. Davidson

May I ask the Under-Secretary to answer one question when he replies? We have been told that the policy of His Majesty's Government in future should be one of friendly relations with the present Spanish Government and that the question of the war materials which have been left should not interfere with this policy. May I ask whether His Majesty's Government will establish these friendly relations irrespective of the Spanish Government meeting British claims with respect to British sailors who were killed in Spain and British ships which were sunk?

11.6 p.m.

Mr. Noel-Baker

There are two issues of real importance to which the Undersecretary ought to address himself tonight. The first is the danger of the Italian armaments which have been left in Spain to the British Empire, and the second is the question whether the Government have been wholly candid with the House in relation to non-intervention and the Anglo-Italian Agreement. My hon. and gallant Friend made out a powerful case, and I do not want to cover the same ground which he has covered, still less to go into the history as to whether Russia's intervention was more than Germany's or not. I want to bring out the record of the Government in the information which they have given from time to time to this House, and to that end I want to begin with the summer and autumn of 1936.

We believed then that from the beginning of the war Germany and Italy were intervening as Governments on the side of General Franco; we believed that their intervention was decisive; that their transport of Moors from Africa to Spain, their protection by aircraft of General Franco's transports, in fact saved him from defeat in the early weeks of the war. We believed that as time went on there was intervention on a far greater scale, that arms and munitions were furnished almost without limit, that Government troops were sent, not volunteers, but trained troops of the armed forces of Italy and Germany, that the land forces numbered tens of thousands—we said at least 60,000 in the case of Italy and 10,000 in the case of Germany—and that they were giving help on sea, on land and in the air, and that, in fact, from the first day onwards Germany and Italy were openly belligerents on the side of General Franco. At that time much great evidence was produced by British journalists, and by the committee presided over by the hon. Lady the Member for the English Universities which supported that general view. We drew the conclusion that General Franco was getting everything he wanted. The Government contested that view from the first. They told us, with every kind of evasion and excuse, that we were wrong. They said that, of course, there were "volunteers on both sides." If we produced any specific piece of information they had no confirmation or any recent news. If we mentioned that a ship had arrived with a large number of Italian troops on board in any given port, our Consul had never seen the ship—perhaps because on the voyage the name had been changed. And it reached the point that when the Spanish Government put in an official memorandum to the League of Nations with many documents taken from German and Italian prisoners captured on the field and we asked that it should be translated for this House in order that we might have (the real information, the Government said that such a translation would be a very difficult matter.

In our view all this amounted to a systematic suppression of what the Government ought to have known were the facts. I say "ought to have known." We have in Spain a great number of consular agents—56, in fact—one or more in every port. We have consuls in every port in Italy and Germany, and military attaches in all these countries, and we have a very expensive Secret Service, the Under-Secretary has told us that it is the best in the world. If the Departments in Whitehall did not know the number of men in Spain and the armaments they had, then there are many people in the Departments who ought to be sacked. Now we know, from the very highest sources, that we were right and that our only mistake was that we had understated the facts. We know it from Signor Mussolini and Herr Hitler. Signor Mussolini said the other day that Italy had not hesitated to give her full aid openly from the first days right up to the final victory. His official Service paper made the statement, which the Under-Secretary had not heard of to-day, that 100,000 Italian troops had been sent to Spain between 15th December, 1936, and 15th April, 1937. It gave the fullest information about the work of the Italian Navy, how submarines had sunk ships, how they attacked the "Cervantes" and other Republican warships, and of course all details about air intervention. Herr Hitler did the same. He told us how his Junkers brought the Moors from Africa to Spain and that there were 18,000 Germans in Spain. If these were the facts —and of course they were—if there was intervention on that scale, how could Whitehall remain ignorant of it? If Ministers did not know, it is a very serious thing indeed for the working of Parliamentary Government in this country.

Unhappily there is a great deal of evidence that not all Ministers have been entirely frank with the House. I would in that connection particularly mention the Prime Minister. When the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Eden) resigned, he did so over Italian intervention in Spain. His whole case was that it was no use making a Treaty with Signor Mussolini until he withdrew his troops from Spain. On 21st February the Prime Minister out-Edened Eden. He said of course we must have a settlement of the Spanish question and Italy must send no reinforcements, and he told us that Signor Mussolini had accepted the British formula for the evacuation of troops. He assured us that he by his method would get the Italians out of Spain a good deal quickly than the late Foreign Secretary would have done by his. Two months later he brought us his Agreement. It contained a specific pledge about the withdrawal of troops and arms. Signor Mussolini confirmed his full adherence to the United Kingdom formula for the evacuation of foreign volunteers and pledged himself to give practical and real application to such evacuation at a moment which should be determined by the Non-intervention Committee on the basis of the above-mentioned formula. All armaments, as well as troops, were to be withdrawn. On the excuse that the Italian Government could not act until General Franco had accepted that plan of non-intervention drawn up by the Nonintervention Committee, we allowed it to remain a dead letter. Troops poured in.

That was a plain violation of the undertaking that Signor Mussolini had given. The Prime Minister did not take that view. In November he brought the Agreement to the House although that violation of the Agreement had occurred, and he still spoke of the good intentions of the Italian Government. The next day, after the House had agreed that that Agreement should come into force, the Foreign Secretary in another place told a very different tale. He said that Signor Mussolini, from the very first conversation between His Majesty's Government and the Italian Government, had told us that he was not prepared to see General Franco defeated. I said last year, and I say again now, that if our Government, six months or more before the Agreement was ratified, took the view that Signor Mussolini did not mean to allow General Franco to be defeated, they should have told the House so before they asked it to agree to the ratification of the Agreement. I submit that they were guilty of a gross lack of candour. It is exactly the same lack of candour which they have shown over this matter of the arms which are now being left in Spain. It is another example of exactly the same thing, but a worse example. The Agreement states quite clearly that all Italian war material will be withdrawn. That was the text presented to us on 2nd May of last year; but six weeks before, Count Ciano had told Lord Perth that some Italian material might be given or sold to the Spanish Government. That was absolutely inconsistent with the pledge which Signor Mussolini gave. The Government may say that it is no longer Italian when it has been sold or given to the Spanish Government. That is a verbal quibble, and nothing else. I am afraid that what has happened is that they have now acquiesced in a violation of the agreement in respect of these Italian arms; but much worse than that, they acquiesced in that violation six weeks before the agreement was even signed, and did so without telling the House.

I come back to the two main questions on which, I hope, the Under-Secretary will speak. First, is it really safe to leave these arms in Spain? Are they no danger to us? Why is it that Signor Mussolini is leaving them there? Do we really think there is no longer the danger of a knockout blow against France? Of course not. Secondly, the Government have consistently suppressed the facts. Do they think that democracy, which is now on its trial, can be made to work unless Parliament and the people are told the truth?

11.18 p.m.

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

As has been said in the Debate, we have debated this question times without number, and a very large number of Parliamentary questions have been asked upon it. The hon. and gallant Member for Nuneaton (Lieut.-Commander Fletcher), in a speech in which he investigated the whole ground, confined himself chiefly to the question at issue, and to which I will turn my attention; namely, the fact that certain war material which was with the Italian forces is now to remain in Spain in the hands of the Spanish Government. I shall confine myself to that main issue as raised by the hon. and gallant Member, and I am afraid I shall not be able to go into the wider questions that have been raised in the course of the Debate.

The hon. and gallant Member said that if he took a house of mine—which I should always be ready to let him take, in view of his honest character—he would leave it on 1st April. I may say that it seems to be fashionable now for hon. Members to exchange houses and estates, and we almost had a case of that yesterday between the Noble Lady the Member for the Sutton Division of Plymouth (Viscountess Astor) and the hon. Member for Dumbarton (Mr. Kirkwood). But when the hon. and gallant Member leaves my house, if he takes it, I sincerely hope that he will take with him all his speech material. He has an unrivalled knowledge of the Official Report and the answers to Parliamentary questions, and to-night he has exhibited an unrivalled knowledge of the many exchanges we have had over the Floor of the House. Those exchanges have not been entirely satisfactory to him and to some other hon. Members. I have had opportunities before of explaining, quite sincerely, the very real difficulty that a Minister is in in answering the almost incredible number of Parliamentary questions on this one subject over the last 15 or 18 months. In my capacity of Under-Secretary, I at any rate have done my best to give the House the information in my possession. If I were to waste the time of the House in doing so, I could give many instances in which hon. Members opposite and hon. Members below the Gangway, have put questions to me with a view to tripping me up, just as they accuse the Government of trying to mislead the House, but I have no intention to-night of indulging in that kind of sport. It is my duty to serve the House and I would not wish to spend time trying to prove that hon. Members wished to trip me up in these matters.

The fact is that, on these questions, I have given the House the information in my possession quite sincerely, and if hon. Members have found, in these many answers, that I have given certain points which have upset them, I can only be thankful that there are so few as those which have been raised to-night. I can reply that there have been many cases in which information was vouched for by hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite in putting questions, yet which the Government, upon sincere examination, with our sources of information, have proved to be false.

Mr. Noel-Baker

What I have said tonight is proved by statements of Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini.

Mr. Butler

That has not been so in every case. The hon. Member will recall many cases of ships supposed to be arriving in certain Spanish ports, where, when the facts were investigated, we found that in many instances those statements were wrong. I have never imputed to any hon. Member any lack of candour in giving me information which he sincerely thought to be correct, but I think this illustrates that this exchange of information raises an extremely difficult question. I have often wanted to be a Minister in charge of a Department of my own, knowing the facts of my own Department instead of being perpetually called upon to answer in this House upon the activities of foreign Governments in foreign lands, and in circumstances which must impose great difficulty, and indeed great danger, upon any British Minister.

Let me address myself to the questions which have been put by the hon. Member for Derby (Mr. Noel-Baker). He raised the question of whether we had been candid with the House and he discussed several past instances. He instanced what my Noble Friend said in another place, on which I answered on 2ist December, in the Debate on the Adjournment, to which I refer the hon. Member in order to save time. That was in reference to Signor Mussolini's words, which the hon. Member quoted just now. The main bone of contention is that the House should have been informed earlier, that the Italian Government had indicated the posibility that material might be sold or given to the Spanish Government. Let me remind the House that the Prime Minister said that fears had been expressed by the Government that at the end of the civil war the Italians who had been fighting in Spain might not be withdrawn, that the Italian Government might seek territorial advantages in Spain itself or her oversea possessions, and, even if the territorial status quo remained undisturbed, the Italian Government might desire to obtain concessions in Spain, such as naval or air bases where war material might remain concentrated in their hands. It has always been the main objective of His Majesty's Government to prevent that. When I am accused, or the Government are accused, of misleading the House, I must remind hon. Members of some words which the Prime Minister used on 2nd May, 1938, in bringing before the House the Anglo-Italian Agreement. These words indicate what was the main objective of His Majesty's Government and on that there has been no question of wishing to mislead the House. The Prime Minister said: With regard to Spain, there have been suspicions, which have been frequently expressed, that Italy not only when the time came would refuse to withdraw volunteers in accordance with the Non-Intervention Committee's Agreement, but that she also was aiming at acquiring for herself some permanent position, either in Spain itself or in some of Spain's overseas possessions." — [Official Report, 2nd May, 1938; col. 541, Vol. 335.] That was the main thing that we wished to avoid, and the Prime Minister goes on in the remainder of the speech to define the assurances given by the Italian Government, which included the assurance to which reference has been made by the hon. and gallant Member and the hon. Member for Derby that Italia men and war material would be withdrawn.

Mr. Noel-Baker

The Prime Minister said it would be kept in the spirit and the letter.

Mr. Butter

I am coming to the present position. Since that date the House has been informed that in the discussions which took place before the Anglo-Italian Agreement was signed, Count Ciano mentioned the possibilty that material would be left in Spain—sold or given to the Spanish Government. The negotiations which took place before the Italian Agreement was signed took a long time, as hon. Members may well imagine. There were very many talks, and this was one of the points mentioned in those talks, but I think it is exaggerated to say that the Government were misleading the House when the Prime Minister stated on 2nd May, 1938, that our main objective was what I have said. As he has reminded the House in the last week, this objective has remained the same all that time.

The hon. Members opposite have asked why we did not think this point important—the point of leaving war material in Spain. It was not the main objective of our policy, and that is the reason why the mention by Count Ciano of this subject was not brought before the House before. We realised that after the end of the war any international agreement preventing the sale of war material to the Spanish Government would lapse, and in fact, on 20th April, such international agreement did lapse. Now we cannot prevent any Government from selling or, indeed, giving war material to the Spanish Government. Therefore, we were powerless to prevent the transactions which have taken place; and there is no difference between these transactions and any other transactions that might have taken place, such as the return of war material to Italy and the sending of it back again as a purchase to Spain, or, indeed, the later sale of war material from Italy or any other country to Spain. While naturally we do not want to see any more war material than is necessary in Spain itself, or indeed in any other country, yet we are unable to prevent these transactions. It is for that reason that the main objective that we have had in mind has always been as I have expressed it.

The hon. Member for Maryhill (Mr. Davidson) asked whether we were intending to proceed with certain claims. I can assure him, without going into details, because the matter really does not arise here, that we are pressing those claims. The hon. Member for North Lambeth (Mr. G. Strauss) asked why arms were mentioned. The reason why war material was mentioned was that we expected that any war material in Italian hands should be removed, and a certain proportion of war material has been removed, although the hon. Member is right in saying that the heavier war material—the tanks and so forth—has to a large extent been left. The reason why we mentioned war material was that, having in mind the same objective defined by the Prime Minister on 2nd May, we did not want war material to be left in Spain under Italian control to make a possible focus for Italian control in Spain. We have no reason to believe that the transactions to which I have referred have had the result which we intended to avoid. That, I think, answers the further question I was asked on that point.

The present position is that practically all the Italians have left Spam, and that most Italian airmen have left Majorca. Since answering questions this afternoon I am glad to be able to say that a further batch of Italian airmen have left, and there are now only about 40 remaining there, and we believe they are going soon. The Germans, we understand, have all left the island. The position now is that, omitting this transaction which the Government are powerless to prevent, the spirit and the letter of the agreement have been carried out, and now it only remains to make friends with the new Government in Spain.

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