HC Deb 22 November 1939 vol 353 cc1265-366

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

3.51 p.m.

The Secretary of State for War (Mr. Hore-Belisha)

By interposing a delay of several weeks, the Polish Army facilitated the concentration of the French Army, and during this time, as the House is well aware, the British Army was also assembling in its positions. It would be a mistake to suppose that the resistance then offered by the Poles was the last stand to be made by a valiant nation in these hostilities. Already, at this moment, their army is being resuscitated on friendly soil, and the cause which they are so resolute to vindicate attracts like a magnet their countrymen from all parts of the world. Thus is it seen that the spirit of a people is not lost in the ashes of its churches, its villages and its cities.

When I last spoke to the House we had T58000 men in France. Since then some thousands each week have followed them. By the spring of next year they will have been reinforced again by no inconsiderable armament. So will it continue till the cause is won. Although there is no distinction remaining, it must be said that we could not have completed our formations in France without the assistance of the Territorial Army, whose peacetime training has adequately justified the generous sacrifice of leisure which it entailed. Territorial units reached France at a very much earlier stage and in greater numbers than in 1914.

Do not, however, let this country pretend that within a proximate time Britain can furnish an army of Continental dimensions. The first men to be called up under obligatory service were summoned to the colours on 15th July this year. It was a timely innovation in our military practice and we shall owe to it the smooth and steady expansion of our effort. Nearly 1,000,000 men are under intensive training in Great Britain.

Our own defences by sea, land and air, and the barriers against aggression long since established by the prevision and provision of the French Republic, give safe cover to our preparations. The Maginot Line is some measure of the debt which free nations owe to the vindicated caution of a country which, even when beset with financial troubles, did not hesitate to divert to its construction an unstinted proportion of its economic resources. The major system of the Maginot Line—with its subterranean railways, its underground accommodation and its ingeniously emplaced batteries of guns—extends along the frontier which divides France from our enemy. That frontier is 200 miles in extent.

But the low esteem in which the given word of Germany is held, illustrated, as it has repeatedly been, by the world-wide credence that so spontaneously attaches to the slightest rumour of designs upon a neutral country, has necessitated that the defences of France should extend beyond these limits. Indeed, whereas Germany has to defend 200 miles of frontier against the possibility of attack by the Allies, France has had to envisage the possibility of aggression by Germany along 800 miles, from the North Sea to the Alps. We now share the task with them. There are French troops in the British part of the line and British troops in the French part of the line. The understanding and good relations are complete. The sector at present allotted to the British Army, while not comparable with the major system of the Maginot Line, was thus fortunately provided in advance with field works. The task which fell to our soldiers on arrival was to add to and improve upon these, and this task they are undertaking with a will.

This is a fortress war. The House can see in its mind's eye the busy work of our soldiers, digging and building. Under their hands blockhouses and pill-boxes take shape, and with digging machines and with squelching spades they throw up breastworks or carve out entrenchments. They are making battery positions, skillfully concealed, and obstacles to tank attack. Everywhere there is activity, and everywhere there is mud. Over hundreds of square miles of this bleak scene, British troops pursue their avocations. They animate the villages. They pass to and fro. Their lorries rattle along country roads, more accustomed to slowly moving horse-drawn farm carts. An organisation of almost inconceivably great dimensions has been established—a world within a world. The food, the clothing, the equipment, the correspondence, the amusements of a whole community are brought and distributed over a distance of hundreds of miles. Some idea of the ground to be covered can be vividly represented by a single figure. In the initial stages the British Expeditionary Force consumed 500 tons of petrol a day. Now alternative bases have been established, additional locomotives will be imported and permanent ways laid down. But still it is a question of vehicles, vehicles and more vehicles. We have already sent to France over 1,000 tons of spare parts and accessories.

If a letter is sometimes delayed in course of post, it will be recollected that in Britain communications pass through long-established channels with post offices, machinery for sorting, and static staffs. The British Expeditionary Force has an improvised organisation and is dealing with 270,000 letters and 17,000 parcels a day—in proportion, nearly double the quantity handled in 1918. At ports and railheads goods are unloaded, loaded, and despatched with meticulous efficiency by labour provided from this country. When one occasionally hears that a man in whom one is interested has not received a second blanket, it will be borne in mind that this is the first war which we have waged in which more than one blanket has been issued. The soldier, of course, must travel light. A soldier's life, while he is campaigning, is, as the House knows, never an easy one, and while everything practicable is being done to alleviate his lot, nothing can avoid the discomforts which are the inevitable accompaniment of active service conditions.

No man from personal experience understands better than the present Commander-in-Chief the circumstances of warfare and the requirements of his troops. His presence, inspiring confidence, is familiar in every part of the line. The ground which our Army occupies is also well known to him, and it is stimulating, as one stands upon some famous ridge or some hill once designated by a number, to hear his vivid description of a well remembered exploit or encounter. On the visit from which I have just returned I traversed with him almost the whole of the front and came into the closest possible contact with officers and men of many different units. I can render at first hand an encouraging account of the fortitude and good temper of the troops. Their health is exceptionally good, the sickness rate being actually lower than the peace-time rate at home. The billets are mainly in farmhouses and village buildings, but we have sent to France enough huts to house 36,000 men. We are building great hangars and depots for the accommodation of stores, and I hope that the House will realise that the organising ability of the Army in tasks, having no parallel in their magnitude and variety in civil life, is illustrated by those exceptional defects which prove the rule.

Meanwhile our Army grows. We despatch arms and equipment to other parts of the world. We are preparing for all eventualities. At home our antiaircraft and coast defences remain continuously manned by personnel whose conditions of service in many cases are as hard as and more lonely than those in France and whose duty is as important. We have taken, besides the Militia classes which have been called up, over 85,000 voluntary recruits since the war began. Every week we have absorbed over 300 officers from the Emergency Reserve. Over 7,000 men from the ranks have been recommended for commissions, of whom 2,500 have already been posted to officer training units. Those fit for active service in the divisions at home will be progressively relieved from duty at vulnerable points as the county home defence battalions are formed. There is room in these battalions, as in the pioneer battalions, for men past middle age.

Thus the Army offers occupation in patriotic national service to old and young. The raising to 40,000 of the numbers of the A.T.S.—that admirable regiment of women—is another means of releasing active men for active service. Those in munition factories are doing equally valuable work, for on them depends the speed with which additional contingents can participate in the war theatre.

Thus the war proceeds. It is a war of endurance, a quality for which the British people is renowned. Every day that passes finds us stronger. On the economy of the enemy the passage of time has not the same effect. To win, he would have to break through the Allied defences. An assault upon these is awaited with confidence by the Supreme French Commander. On our side we can afford to choose our opportunity. There is no dissension in our ranks; there are no conflicting counsels. Our strategy is predetermined, and so is the issue in this struggle.

4.7 p.m.

Mr. Attlee

The House will have heard with interest the account that the right hon. Gentleman has given of our Armies in the field and our Armies at home. It has been particularly vivid from the effects of his recent visit to our old friends and neighbours, the French. I am sure we all heard with satisfaction of the steady gathering together of the forces of the Polish nation, and I am sure we were equally overjoyed to hear of our close co-operation with the French. I was impressed with what the right hon. Gentleman said as to the magnitude of our effort and the magnitude of the material forces which we must have behind the spirit of our men. War, to-day more than ever, must take into account not only the fighting spirit of the troops and their skill, which are, of course, of first importance, but the supplies actually in their hands; and the organisation of the stream of supplies must be constantly flowing from this country to keep alive and equip our forces oversea and also fully equip our forces at home.

The right hon. Gentleman has given us an account of our troops in France down to the blankets, and so far so good, and he has spoken of the huge weight of spare parts that have to be sent. He has indicated that gradually our strength oversea will be increasing. We must be assured that we are going to utilise all our resources to see that those troops are ready in due time and are fully equipped. There must be abundance of essential supplies for the Army, for the Navy, and for the Air Force, and it is the duty of this House to see that those supplies are available. We have been critical from time to time of the organisation of supplies. We were critical of what we considered the long delay in constituting the Ministry of Supply. We still have those criticisms. We have no desire in any way to minimise the enormous efforts that have been made, and we certainly have no desire whatever to give any comfort to the enemy, but we do want to be assured that the resources of the nation, material and human, are being properly utilised to make their maximum contribution to the common cause. We want to be convinced too that we are making the fullest use of all the resources of supply abroad. We do not want to weaken the national effort—we want to strengthen it—but we do want to be satisfied. There have been criticisms, there have been apprehensions, and if those apprehensions are ill-founded, they ought to be dispersed.

I think the time has come when this House should be fully satisfied on the whole question of the organisation of supplies for our Forces in the field. It is a thing we cannot very well discuss to-day—it is very difficult to discuss it in the House in the course of our ordinary Debates—but I think the time has come when I should give notice that in the new Session we shall ask for a secret Session of the House at an early opportunity, in order that we may discuss improving our organisation and output of supplies and that this House may make its proper contribution to that subject. There are criticisms; there may be doubts. They ought to be dealt with, and this House has its responsibility, which it cannot leave entirely to the Ministry. We want to be assured that we are doing our utmost for the more energetic prosecution of the war, and in that matter the whole question of supplies is important, and particularly that of the increasing flow of supplies which will be necessary. We want to be sure that everything possible is being done.

4.13 p.m.

Sir Percy Harris

I wish to thank the right hon. Gentleman for his eloquent statement of the work of the Army. I know that the House appreciates these regular statements, and I hope the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for Air also will take an early opportunity to present a picture of the great work done by the Air Force. The right hon. Gentleman painted in vivid colours the 800 miles front that occupies the united efforts of the British and French Armies. I was glad particularly, and I am sure the House was, that the right hon. Gentleman paid a high tribute to the heroic sacrifices of our great French Allies. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition—and I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Caithness (Sir A. Sinclair) would endorse what the right hon. Gentleman said—about the problem of equipment. Obviously, with the best will in the world, in making a quick expansion there are bound to be deficiencies, and I know that my right hon. Friend has on many occasions pleaded for, and attaches importance to, a secret Session, not so much for the Government to give information to us as that Members of this House may have an opportunity frankly to speak their mind and impart information which they hear in the course of their work.

I think that visits of the civil head of the Army are much appreciated by the men at the front. The General Staff is responsible for strategy, but when inevitable deficiencies arise the responsibility lies with the Government at home, and it is a great thing for the Army to feel that the civilians are not sitting comfortably at home in armchairs merely reading reports, but are getting first-hand information as to the necessities and needs of the Army. I understand that the right hon. Gentleman has a scheme for welfare officers first of all for the Army at home, but I hope that something of the kind will be organised for the Army overseas. May I suggest that when opportunity arises visits of small parties of Members of Parliament to the front should be organised? In the last war small parties of half a dozen Members made regular visits to France. I remember going myself in company with the then Mr. Speaker, and we got great inspiration and help in our work from the first-hand knowledge which we obtained; and the friends of the men overseas do like to know that their representatives in the House of Commons are doing their best to obtain a knowledge of some of the difficult problems which the Army has to face.

The right hon. Gentleman gave us a vivid picture of what is going on in France. "All quiet on the Western Front," is constantly heard in the newspapers. That does not arouse much interest and excitement as would greater activities, but, none the less, the discomfort of the wet and slime of the men in France cannot be over-estimated. We suffer discomfort owing to the black-out, but it is nothing to the discomfort and the nerve strain which our soldiers are facing with remarkable patience and endurance. It will be an encouragement to the men to know that the House of Commons is conscious of what they are doing, and that the Secretary of State for War is active in looking after their interests. The right hon. Gentleman made a slight reference to the Army at home, and referred to the anti-aircraft work, the lonely jobs of some men who are defending our shores. The great expansion of the Army from 250,000 to 1,000,000 men must cause difficulties. The right hon. Gentleman has one fault, and a serious fault—he is very sensitive to criticism; he always takes it as a personal attack upon him. As an old colleague of his let me say that it is the wrong attitude. He should welcome and encourage criticism as long as it is inspired by a desire to help. You cannot improvise machinery for a vast Army in a few months without having difficulties and hardships. They should not be glossed over, and to suggest that any criticism is merely propaganda for the Germans is doing no good service to his Department or helping a solution of his problems.

Most of the camps and all of the billeting have been improvised in a few months. It is a wonderful achievement, but there must inevitably have been deficiencies. I went to a country town a few weeks ago just after the outberak of war. It was already crammed to capacity with evacuees, mostly children. Every bed and every room had been allocated. Three weeks afterwards a company of 250 soldiers came, wanting billets. They were crammed in somewhere. somehow, but it is all nonsense to say that they are living in the lap of luxury and have no grievances. It is the right of a Briton, and especially of a British Tommy. to grouse and grumble. He is immensely good humoured and long-suffering, but he has an inalienable right to grumble and grouse; and he is the right person to grumble and grouse. It is the duty of every hon. Member by question and speech to ventilate his grievances to the right hon. Gentleman who is the civil head of a great Army. We want to have a contented Army and to get the best service out of them by letting them know that their friends and relations are well looked after by the State, that their allow- ances are generous, that there is no red-tape, and that where grievances are revealed which can be satisfied, the people at home are doing their best to redress them.

4.22 p.m.

Brigadier-General Sir Henry Croft

The House, I am sure, has been interested to hear from the Secretary of State for War an account of the progress of our Army in France as a result of his recent visit to the Front. I want to exhort the right hon. Gentleman to concentrate on seeing that this great Army which he is building up is an Army which will be able to act under modern war conditions. He has admitted the difficulties with regard to guard duties, and so on, which have undoubtedly detracted from the training of the Army. I would urge that every possible step should be taken to raise the county battalions of older men which have been spoken about for some weeks. It is of supreme importance that the Forces should be brought up to strength. I should not have thought that the right hon. Gentleman would have neglected all publicity measures to achieve this. It surely is one of those occasions when you may have struck the imagination of the public by a great campaign asking men to join up in these county regiments, in order that they may be trained so that they may be more effective in battle and thus save the lives of men by this higher training.

I also want to emphasise the importance of taking supreme measures in order to bring our equipment up to date. It is remarkable what has been done considering the strain on our national resources in other directions. We should make it clear to our French ally, who are making such tremendous sacrifices and whose soldiers are engaged for a pittance compared with what we are giving, and whose dependants are undoubtedly suffering great sacrifices, that we are making a tremendous contribution on the sea and in the air, and that, in fact, this is a burden which certainly equalises the efforts of the two countries, even if it does not do more, when the burden of fighting at this moment is more upon the sea than anywhere else.

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will not allow a defence complex to influence him too much. Do not let us get the idea that this war must necessarily end in fortifications. The enemy, if he finds there is an absolute stalemate against the great fortifications on the Western Front, is likely to seek some other effort in order to have a fluid battle elsewhere, and we must be prepared for that. That is why I want to see our Army trained more and more for the conditions of modern warfare in the field, and that we should not allow our Army to get the absurd idea which it has never held before—the idea of Captain Liddell Hart—that you have only to sit still and win a war. That has never been proved in the past. The policy of the defensive has been spoken of too much. Where the British Army has always been successful is when there has been an opportunity of a break-through. I urge the importance of the British Army being prepared to take the offensive at any moment. I am not suggesting that our military commanders are not imbued with this spirit, but we must remember that no war can be won in the air or in the sea. If the enemy is going to sue for peace, it is because of the efforts of the military arm, and I hope the right hon. Gentleman will not allow the idea to go forward that we are merely concerned in digging ourselves in and defending ourselves against any great attack, but that he will speed up the offensive equipment for the Army, so that if it is possible it will be able to take the offensive, as it has done in the past.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury (Captain Margesson)

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

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