HC Deb 30 November 1939 vol 355 cc255-7
Mr. Attlee

(by Private Notice) asked the Prime Minister whether he can give the House the latest information regarding the Russo-Finnish situation?

The Prime Minister

The House will be aware that for some time past there has been an exchange of views between the Soviet and Finnish Governments on certain questions, mainly of a strategic character, raised by the former. Some apprehension had been expressed by the Soviet Government at the proximity of Leningrad to the Finnish frontier, which is in fact only some 20 miles distant, and a proposal was made by them for the realignment of this part of the frontier in exchange for territorial compensation further North. Claims were also made for the acquisition of certain Finnish islands in the Gulf of Finland and of a Finnish port at the entrance to the Gulf, in order, it was stated, to assure the position of the Soviet Union in the Gulf of Finland. A further claim is believed to have been made for the Finnish side of the Rybachi Peninsula, which overlooks and dominates Finland's sole Arctic port of Petsamo.

The attitude of the Finnish Government was from the outset unprovocative, though governed by their determination to do nothing which would impair their country's sovereign status. It is known that a Finnish note delivered in Moscow immediately before the announcement of the rupture of diplomatic relations was of a most conciliatory character, and the Finnish Government proposed to submit the dispute which had arisen to arbitration, and offered meanwhile to withdraw all troops from the Finnish frontier in the Carelian Isthmus with the exception of ordinary frontier guards and customs forces. Nevertheless the Soviet Government on Tuesday night denounced the Soviet-Finnish Non-Aggression Pact, which had been expressly designed to ensure the settlement of disputes such as this by peaceful means.

His Majesty's Government have observed these developments with increasing concern and they have found it difficult to believe that strategic measures of such scope and importance as were suggested should have been considered necessary to protect the Soviet Union against a country as small as Finland.

Late last night M. Molotoff broadcast a statement in the course of which he is officially reported as having denied the suggestion, which he attributed to the foreign Press, that a Soviet attack on Finland was intended. Yet, only a few hours after this broadcast, it is understood that Soviet forces have invaded Finnish territory on several sections of the frontier and have dropped incendiary bombs on an aerodrome in the neighbourhood of Helsingfors. It is later reported that Helsingfors, Viborg and other centres have been bombed, in some cases with loss of life.

His Majesty's Government warmly welcomed the offer of mediation made by the United States Secretary of State, since in their opinion the questions at issue between Finland and the Soviet Union were not of a nature to justify the resort to warlike measures. They deeply regret this fresh attack upon a small independent nation, which must result in fresh suffering and loss of life to innocent people.

Mr. Attlee

May I ask the Prime Minister whether the Government have received from the Government of the U.S.S.R. any statement as to the reason for what appears to be an indefensible act of unprovoked aggression?

The Prime Minister

No, Sir, none at all.

Sir William Davison

Is it not a fact that the Russo-Finnish Pact was determinable only on six months' notice and could not be determined by immediate notice in the way it has been?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir, that was one of the terms of the Pact.

Mr. Gallacher

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his predecessor said that our frontier was the Rhine, and with that conception of strategy in view—

Mr. Speaker

That is quite a different part of the world.

Mr. Gallacher

I want to ask the Prime Minister whether it is not the case that in the early stages of the negotiations the Finnish Prime Minister, in a declaration, stated that the Soviet proposals did not in any way interfere with the independence and integrity of Finland, and can he say what forces have been in operation since to get the Finns to change their attitude?

The Prime Minister

A threat to their territory might constitute a complete change.

Mr. McGovern

Can the right hon. Gentleman say whether it is not the case that the Finns have threatened to besiege Leningrad and assassinate Stalin?