HC Deb 02 November 1939 vol 352 cc2155-60

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

3.48 p.m.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Chamberlain)

In the week that has passed since my last statement to the House, stormy weather combined with low visibility has had its effect upon operations of war by land, on sea and in the air.

Activity on the Franco-German frontier has been confined to the action of local raiding parties and occasional artillery fire. Despite exceptional cold and wet, the British Expeditionary Force has continued to work diligently at its task of strengthening the defences of their sector of the line. I am glad to say that all reports speak of the cheerfulness of the troops and of their friendly relations with the local inhabitants.

We must not forget our numerous garrisons overseas. Though distant from the immediate scene of war and without the stimulus which its proximity provides, they have to maintain a constant vigilance and to perform a routine of duty which can never be relaxed.

The war at sea has been comparatively uneventful. We have continued to take toll of the enemy's submarines and have, on the other hand, lost a certain number of merchant ships. Nothing has, however, occurred to shake our confidence in our ability to overcome the submarine menace.

During the week there have been a number of encounters with German aircraft engaged either in reconnaissances or in an attempted attack on a convoy. No damage was sustained in these encounters either by our aircraft or by our ships. The enemy, on the other hand, suffered some loss and the net result has been to confirm the high opinion we already entertained of the quality of our fighter aircraft and the skill and courage of their crews. A particularly gallant exploit was the successful reconnaissance flight over North West Germany during the week when valuable photographs were secured, some of them taken at a height of no more than 200 feet despite a heavy and concentrated barrage of anti-aircraft gunfire.

In the international field, the outstanding feature of the week was the speech made on 31st October by the People's Commissar for Foreign Affairs of the Soviet Union. M. Molotov's speech, which has been eagerly awaited in Berlin but which I imagine has occasioned some disappointment in that quarter, has been carefully studied by His Majesty's Government who have noted with interest its definition of the Soviet Government's future aims. I remember that in an earlier speech on 31st May M. Molotov issued a warning that his Government would not be drawn into international conflicts. He said also on that occasion: We stand for the cause of peace and for the prevention of any sort of development of aggression. That is also the position of His Majesty's Government, and I am not disposed to disturb myself over the flights of fancy in which M. Molotov indulged when describing the aims of the Allies. We have stated those aims ourselves in plain terms, and I am confident that they are fully appreciated by the great majority of the nations of the world.

We have had in the last few days a striking demonstration of the united determination of the Empire. From Canada, from the Commonwealth of Australia, from New Zealand, from the Union of South Africa and from India have come Cabinet Ministers and representatives who have travelled thousands of miles in order to make personal contact with Ministers in this country and to see with their own eyes the gigantic efforts in which we are engaged. Discussions with these representatives have already begun, and we are considering with them how best to co-ordinate the contribution which each of us can make to our common task. As hon. Members are aware, the Empire has already shown how generous and wholehearted is its spirit of co-operation. The fuller knowledge which we shall now gain of the plans of the different Governments as a result of the presence of their Ministerial representatives here will be of great value to us. And in their turn we are confident that the Dominion Governments and the Government of India will find that the first-hand impressions of their representatives will afford them invaluable aid in gaining a fuller appreciation of our common problems, and of the best and quickest means of solving them.

Equally striking is the whole-hearted co-operation that we are receiving from all parts of the Empire including Burma and the Colonies. I have expressed before, on behalf of His Majesty's Government, our great appreciation of the spontaneous messages of support which came immediately after the outbreak of war from every single territory of the Colonial Empire. We did not ask for these messages: the Colonies have not been forced into war by Great Britain against their will. The action of so many peoples of various races is a witness to their consciousness that a threat to Great Britain is equally a threat to that freedom and well-being which has been assured to them under British rule.

Although at the beginning of the war the effort of the Colonies will be mainly on the economic side, and every Colonial Government is doing its utmost to help us in the organisation of supplies of essential raw materials and foodstuffs, I should like to refer with gratitude to the numerous offers of personal service from residents in the Colonies. It is the intention of His Majesty's Government to employ the man-power of the Colonial Empire as may be most effective, and plans for doing this are being worked out. In many cases openings are already being provided in locally raised units. For example, in Africa, the strength of the Royal West African Frontier Force has been more than doubled and that of the King's African Rifles, in East Africa, more than trebled; and, in fact, the voluntary offers of service throughout the Empire have far exceeded our immediate requirements. As announced some time ago, British subjects from the Colonies and British protected persons who are in this country, including those who are not of pure European descent, are now placed for entry into the armed forces on the same footing as British subjects from the United Kingdom.

Such is the nature of the help we are receiving from the Empire. Eagerly offered and gladly accepted, it is a splendid example of free co-operation and ungrudging self-sacrifice in a noble cause throughout the lands which owe allegiance to the King.

3.56 p.m.

Mr. Attlee

I am very glad of this opportunity to say on behalf of the Opposition how very much we welcome the presence in this country of the Ministers from the Dominions and from India. I am quite sure that its value is not only on the material side, but on the spiritual side. They represent great democratic countries, great peoples, who are standing with us in a common cause. The more we can consult with them, not only on the pressing matters of the war, but also on how we are to get and preserve an enduring peace, the better I am sure it will be. I would like also to join the Prime Minister in his expression of the gratitude which we ought to give for the offers of help which have been received from so many parts of the Empire oversea. It is a striking demonstration of how the strength of the ties between peoples of different races, languages and creeds depends on freedom and not on compulsion. It is our duty to see that in everything we do, we keep alive that conception of freedom ever spreading further and further throughout the whole Empire.

I would like to mention one other occurrence of this week which, I think, is of extremely good augury. That is the visit of some Members of this House to the French Parliament. I believe that for Members of Parliament to get together in this time of war is extremely important from the point of view of understanding each other and the peoples on both sides of the Channel. I hope we shall soon be welcoming over here some representatives of our Allies. I think there is no other point in the Prime Minister's statement to which I wish to call attention. At this moment, I think we are all waiting, with very great anxiety, as to what are going to be the events of the immediate future, and I would only stress this point. We are, at the moment, at a sort of pause in actual warlike operations, but the organisation of war goes on and we have to look very closely to the home front, to organisation on the economic side and, particularly, to the keeping up of our national morale. A time when there is comparative quietude in warlike operations is perhaps more trying to the endurance of our people, and it is our duty to do everything we can to keep up our morale by bringing home to the people a full realisation of the principles for which we stand.

4.0 p.m.

Sir Archibald Sinclair

I agree entirely with what the Leader of the Opposition has said about the importance of keeping up morale and of attention to the grievances of people at home and the efficiency of the conduct of our domestic and commercial affairs; but I would like to say that I think it also very important that as much information as possible should be given to the people about the conduct of the war. We are grateful to the Prime Minister for making these weekly statements. At the same time may I express the hope that he will give us as much detailed information as he can? I do not want to criticise the statement he has made to-day. There has not been much going on at the front, and yet there has been a good deal about which we would like a little more information. I mention two examples. There was the Prime Minister's statement that we had taken toll of enemy submarines. There must always be a great deal of uncertainty as to how many, and I do not press for the precise figure. It was also stated that we had lost a certain number of ships. I think we might have been told how many and what the tonnage is. People do like to have as much information as possible of a kind which they know is ascertainable and which the Government has ascertained—as much as the Government can give.

I am glad to know that we are to have a statement from the First Lord of the Admiralty. No doubt he will give us more detailed information about the progress of the war at sea. I hope also that we shall soon have another statement from the Secretary of State for Air. There are certain things about the war in the air that are difficult for the ordinary layman to follow and about which a good deal of information might be given without damage to the national cause. I observed, for example, a day or two ago that there was a communiqué from the Ministry of Information about an air reconnaissance over Southern Germany, which lasted several hours. The communiqué stated that almost as soon as the aeroplanes crossed the German frontier they ran into a blanket of fog and snow stretching almost from ground level to a great height, and that from this they were unable to emerge until a moment or two before they landed. One cannot help wondering what good reconnaissance purpose was served by an operation of that kind in a heavy blanket of fog and snow. No doubt the Secretary of State for Air will be able to explain that, and I hope we shall soon have some account from him of the operations that are being carried out by our Air Force.

I would like to say that my hon. Friends and I welcome the references by the Prime Minister to the visitors of Indian and Dominion statesmen. We are always glad to see them here, but never more than when there is urgent and important work to be done and common dangers to be faced. Then I would like to say one word which arises out of what the Prime Minister said to-day and what I said a week ago about Russia. I am glad that in spite of the vagaries of Russian policy and the reckless inconsistencies of Russian criticism of British policy, with many of the declarations and, still more important, the actions of the Soviet Government itself, His Majesty's Government has decided to pursue a patient policy of negotiation, and in particular to explore the possibilities and the advantages to both countries of an expansion in trade between them. We attach great importance to these trade negotiations which we know are now going on, and we hope earnestly that they will be attended with success.