HC Deb 11 October 1939 vol 352 cc342-53
The Secretary of State for War (Mr. Hore-Belisha)

I am able to inform the House that we have fulfilled—and more than fulfilled—our undertaking recently given to France to despatch to that country in the event of war a British Expeditionary Force of a specified dimension within a specified time. Nor are the contingents at present across the Channel the last that will arrive. Within six weeks of the outbreak of war in 1914 we had transported to France 148,000 men. Within five weeks of the outbreak of this war we had transported to France 158,000 men. During this period we have also created our base and lines of communication organisation, so as to assure the regular flow of supplies and munitions of every kind and to receive further contingents as and when we may decide to send them.

The major operation is thus over and it is possible to speak to the House with frankness. I wish it had been prudent to do so previously. Night by night we have waited at the War Office for tidings of the arrival of the convoys. These have averaged three every night. It would have been encouraging to have shared at every stage the news, as we received it, with the nation, so uncertain of what was transpiring and so naturally eager for reports about its Army. The Press, like Parliament, willingly observed a reticence which in itself was a safeguard for our contingents. There is no need for further silence and a body of war correspondents has just arrived in France with the object of keeping us all informed of day to day impressions and happenings.

It was a small body of specially selected officers in the War Office who with seven confidential clerks and typists, secretly worked out every detail of this plan for moving the Army and the Royal Air Force to France. They foresaw and provided for every need: the selection of ports and docks, of roads and railways, of accommodation of all types, of rest camps and depots, of hospitals and repair shops, at every stage on both sides of the Channel. Their ingenuity, their precision and their patience would have baffled Bradshaw. Those who belong to the military profession, having in their arrangements to adjust themselves always to the unexpected and the unforeseen, have to show in the preparation and execution of complicated projects, a resource and efficiency which can rarely be exacted from those engaged in civilian enterprises. The Expeditionary Force has been transported to France intact without a casualty to any of its personnel.

May I describe to the House some aspects in which the task on this occasion has differed from that of 1914, although, as one watches the process, continuing with the smoothness of a machine, one finds it hard to believe that there has been a break of 25 years in the passage of these two Armies. Then, the men marched on to the ships, the horses were led and a light derrick could lift what the soldier could not carry. In those days there were only 800 mechanised vehicles in all, and it was a rare load that exceeded two tons. We have on this occasion transported to France more than 25,000 vehicles, including tanks, some of them of enormous dimensions and weighing 15 tons apiece and more. Normal shore cranes could not raise them, special ships were required to carry them and highly trained stevedores to manipulate them. Consequently, as contrasted with 1914, where ordinary vessels took men and material together from the usual ports, in this case the men travelled separately and the heavier mechanisms had to be transported from more distant ports, where special facilities were available. The arrangements for the reunion of the troops and their material on the other side made an additional complication. Similarly, and for other reasons also, more remote landing places had to be selected in France, thus making the voyages much longer.

Internally, as a precaution against air attack, more devious routes had to be taken than in 1914. Vehicles and men were dispersed in small groups, concealed when they halted by day and moving onwards as far as possible by night. As with transport, so with maintenance, the problem has become greater than it was a generation ago. Every horse eats the same food and can continue, like man, to move though hungry. Vehicles come to a standstill when their tanks are empty. There are in France 50 types of vehicle and most of them require a different grade of fuel and lubricants. Great reserves have had to be conveyed and stored. There is a ready way of dealing with a lame horse. The veterinary surgeon's outfit is now replaced by a series, of completely equipped workshops in France.

None of these problems existed, except in embryo, in 1914. It was a light army that travelled then. Nearly 60 per cent. of the fighting troops in 3914 were infantrymen, relying on their rifles and bayonets and two machine guns a battalion. Now, only 20 per cent. of the fighting troops are infantrymen with 50 Bren guns, 22 anti-tank rifles and other weapons as well with each battalion. It will be seen by this one example, how much more effectively armed with fire power is the present Expeditionary Force.

There is, however, one respect in which our Army has not altered. Its relations with our Allies, who have welcomed the men so generously are as good humoured. The catchwords of the soldiers are as amusing. I was fortunate to see some of them myself on my recent visit to G.H.Q., and I would like their parents and wives to know that they are in fine spirit. The only serious short-comings at the moment are an inadequacy of cigarettes and a slowness in the delivery of letters. The Commander-in-Chief and his Corps Commanders report of them in terms of the highest pride. At this moment they are busily engaged in fortifying their positions in the line. Civilian skill and machinery are augmenting our military resources. We are determined to perfect existing defences and to supplement them speedily by every means.

To all those who have co-operated in this military movement, to the various Government Departments, both in this country and in France, the gratitude of this nation is due. Especially, however, should the achievement be recorded as evidence that the maritime might of Britain is unimpaired. The Navy has not lost its secret and the Air Force has held its protecting wings over another element of danger. It is not only to France that British soldiers have been transported. The Middle East has been strongly reinforced and also our garrisons elsewhere, both in material and in men. One part of our Army, however, remains stationary in this country, waiting and watching, in little groups. In isolated stations the Anti-Aircraft Units have been on guard since before this war began, and that their vigilance is not forgotten, under-estimated or unrecognised by this country and by this House must be their great encouragement.

We have a numerous Army. In that respect we were at the outset of hostilities better situated than we were in 1914. We had in peace-time on this occasion taken a precaution, for which we must now be thankful, of instituting a system of universal military training, and thus the even flow of recruits became as well assured to us as to the Continental countries. We had the foundation on which, after the declaration of war, we could build an even more comprehensive system, and we passed the National Service Act, placing under an obligation to serve all male British citizens resident in Great Britain between the ages of 18 and 41. In peace-time also we had doubled the Territorial Field Army. Altogether, at the disposal of the Army in this country alone, including the Reservists and the Militia, we had at the outbreak of war, the best part of a million men on whom we could call.

Never had the number of the armed forces in the United Kingdom approached anywhere near such a total in time of peace. The growth had been rapid and had placed a great burden of organisation upon the Regular Army. When I first introduced Army Estimates to the House in March, 1938, we were preparing out of our strategic reserve five Divisions—none of them upon a Continental scale. By the time of the next Army Estimates in March this year, the Government had decided, in view of menacing developments, to prepare 19 Divisions—all upon a Continental scale. Subsequently the European tension increased and in April the plan for 19 Divisions became a plan for 32.

This will not be the limit of our effort. It is plain that great calls will be made upon our man-power. How do we intend to proceed? In the first place we have the method of calling up classes. His Majesty has already proclaimed the classes between 20 and 22. Those within the classes proclaimed are being called up in batches, and with each batch we are taking an additional quota of volunteers. Any man desirous of being a volunteer in the Army, and being above the age of the class called up, may register his name at either a Recruiting Station or a Ministry of Labour Office and he will be treated in exactly the same way as the classes proclaimed.

The upper age limit for volunteers varies according to the purpose required. Tradesmen may be taken generally up to the age of 45, non-tradesmen up to the age of 38 and a limited number for certain employments up to the age of 55. We accept as volunteers, subject to the schedule of reserved occupations, any British subjects in the United Kingdom and non-British subjects resident here, if approved by the Home Office. Once registered, volunteers receive a notice, as do the militiamen, bidding them to attend a medical examination.

I may say that since the beginning of the war, we have taken into, or are in process of taking into, the Army, nearly 50,000 volunteers. In the month of September it so happened that we took in twice as many volunteers as militiamen. The volunteers have been of all military ages and this should dispose of the supposition that we are confining entry into the Army to young men of the first age groups. The Government fully understand the enthusiasm which so fervently inspires the people of this country to serve in or with the fighting services, and they understand equally the determined motive which lies behind this zeal. All may register and few who are fit and who are outside the scope of the reserved occupations will be disappointed as the war goes on and the expansion continues.

There is an even greater inducement now than in previous wars to join the Army in the way prescribed. Apart from specialist appointments, virtually all commissions will be given from the ranks. It must be remembered that the nation is in arms and there is no dearth of ability in the ranks. One of the best men who has reached the top for the leader's course on the way to a commission is a labourer's son. The look-out for talent is continuous, and all commanding officers are instructed to search for it. In this Army the star is within every private soldier's reach. No one, however humble or exalted his birth, need be afraid that his military virtues will remain unrecognised. More important, no one, who wishes to serve in the Army need consider his status minimised by starting on the bottom rung of the ladder.

From this source then—from the ranks —we shall mainly derive our junior officers. For officers in the middle piece and for specialists we have other sources open to us. We have the Regular Army Reserve. We have the Territorial Reserve of Officers, and we also have the Army Officers Emergency Reserve, which is a register on which anyone with military or specialised experience can put his name. We have in the last six weeks taken 2,000 officers from this register. It will be unnecessary to remind the House that it is of the essence of Reserves that they are not all used up at once, and upon the assumption that this will be a three years' war, many of those with suitable qualifications, who feel a natural impatience, will, I can assure them, in due course have their opportunity. The splendid women of the A.T.S., already 20,000 strong, are about to augment their numbers and extend their invaluable service in replacement of their brothers in arms.

Further openings for the older men will be given in two new directions which I shall outline. We propose to form Home Defence Battalions. Each one of these will be a Battalion of its County Regiment and will be composed of officers and other ranks, now serving in the National Defence Companies; officers and other ranks found permanently or temporarily unfit for service overseas; officers and other ranks awaiting drafting and young soldiers not available by age for service in a theatre of operations. It will be possible for some of the older ex-officers who are seeking employment and some older men to be absorbed into these battalions.

We are also in process of forming an Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps, to be organised in battalions which will take over military pioneer work, both overseas and here. It will not be composed of the men of the earlier military ages and all will be volunteers. Here then is another outlet for that military service which it is so generally desired to give.

But, pari passu with this pressure upon us to take men into the Army, is a pressure in the reverse direction. We have tried to deal liberally with industry, whose needs we fully recognise, just as industry will recognise that an Army is a skilled profession and must also for the safety of the country have within it men of specialised knowledge. We have temporarily released about 10,000 Regular reservists and we will shortly, in addition, have released 12,000 Territorials, either temporarily or permanently. In so far as these releases are helping to accelerate and enlarge the output of our war industries, the loss will have been repaid to us.

Any words of mine that can stimulate and electrify these industries of the country which are engaged on the output of munitions to put their last ounce into the task of meeting the needs of those in the field and of hastening the day when others can join them, will, I am sure, be endorsed by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Supply. It is the output of factories making equipment and munitions for the field which will be the ultimate measure of our effort.

I will tell the House in a word or two what is being done for the Army to train as many men as possible to become technicians and thereby to spare industry the full drain which would otherwise be made upon it. In the first place, the Army is training such men itself. Secondly, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour has plans in mind for enabling some of his training establishments to assist in the provision of Army requirements of skilled tradesmen. In the third place, with the help of my Noble Friend the Minister of Education, we hope to use the polytechnics, technical schools and universities for the same purpose. Industry will doubtless in its own ways be making provision to augment its resources of skilled personnel. We can look with confidence to these developments.

In 1914 appeals were made for recruits who had neither clothing, nor equipment, nor instructors, nor accommodation, and men were taken, regardless of their civilian occupations. The feat of the first few months of the last war we had already achieved in the months of peace preceding this war, and experience had taught us to avoid many of the errors of the last occasion. Thus at the beginning of September we had in being an Army which was daily acquiring new strength, better cohesion, and greater efficiency.

It has been a privilege to speak of it to-day and to reveal that while the world was reading of the German advances into Poland, British soldiers, resolved to rectify this wrong, were passing silently and in unceasing sequence across the Channel into France. There we may think of them in their positions along a countryside, whose towns, whose villages, and whose rivers are as familiar to them by memory or by tradition as their own. How strange it is that twice in a generation men should take this journey and that sons should be treading again upon a soil made sacred by their fathers. They are grumbling about the same things, mis-pronouncing the same names, making similar jokes and singing songs which seem to be an echo over the intervening years. And we may rest assured that they will acquit themselves with the same tenacity, courage, and endurance. However long the struggle and however great the ordeal, they will, as our soldiers did before, take our arms and our cause of freedom to victory.

Mr. Lees-Smith

I should like to put two questions to the Secretary of State, but before putting them may I express our satisfaction at the safe arrival of our troops in France, and, in particular, as a result of the statement which he has just made, I would like to express our recognition of the remarkable piece of military organisation which has secured their arrival and which has just been described to the House, a feat which, I may say, looking to the future of the war, is as reassuring in its testimony to our capacity to wage war as many of the more dramatic episodes which have been described. Now I will put the two questions to the Secretary of State, largely for the satisfaction of the country, and I only want answers in the most general terms. He has spoken of the equipment to be taken to France, and I would ask him whether he is satisfied that that equipment is sufficient, both the light and the heavy equipment, and I would also ask whether he is satisfied that we have sufficient of the reserves of all this equipment in this country to secure us from any repetition of the episodes which marked the earlier stages of the last war?

Sir Archibald Sinclair

On behalf of my hon. Friends and myself, I should like to thank the Secretary of State for War for his statement and to associate us with the tribute which he paid to the spirit of the troops and to the efficiency of the Staff arrangements which has enabled them to cross the Channel. I would like also to ask him two questions. The Secretary of State spoke of the fact that the Reserve of Officers, the Territorial Reserve of Officers, and the Emergency Reserve of Officers were essential reserves, and said that those who belong to them must possess themselves in patience until their services are required. May I ask whether my right hon. Friend has realised that a great many of these officers have domestic and other responsibilities to consider, and have private affairs to put in order? They want to have some rough idea of when they are likely to be called up, and will it not be possible to classify these reserves so that men would know approximately the time when their services may be required? In the second place, now that the Secretary of State has told us the number of troops we have in France, it is not a very difficult sum for us to do to make an approximately correct guess of the number of divisions there. Would it not be possible for the public now to be told the names of some of the officers who command these formations, such as the divisional and corps commanders, and the name of Lord Gort's Chief-of-Staff?

Mr. Garro Jones

Will the right hon. Gentleman state whether complete unity of command has been established, and whether the British Expeditionary Force is under the command of the French Commander-in-Chief? Are there any restrictions on the extent to which the British Forces are under the French Commander-in-Chief; if so, what is the nature of those restrictions?

Brigadier-General Sir Henry Croft

Can my right hon. Friend give us an assurance that the Home Defence county battalions will be organised immediately in order that Territorial units may no longer have to provide large quotas of officers and other ranks in order to carry out pre- cautionary duties, such as guarding vital points, aerodromes, etc. As the greatest importance is attached to this matter, may we have this assurance in order that Territorial units may really train for war?

Lieut.-Colonel Sir A. Lambert Ward

With regard to the point raised by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Caithness (Sir A. Sinclair), let us not forget that one of the first questions asked of British soldiers who are taken prisoners of war is as to the names of their brigade, divisional and corps commanders, and that it is, therefore, possible, by complying with the request of the right hon. Gentleman, to give information to the enemy which may prove of great value.

Lieut.-Colonel Acland-Troyte

What is the age limit of the officers of the new county defence units?

Mr. Hore-Belisha

I am obliged to the right hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Lees-Smith) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Caithness (Sir A. Sinclair) for the tributes they paid to the Army organisation. The first question of the right hon. Member for Keighley was whether I was satisfied with the equipment carried to France by the British Expeditionary Force. May I perhaps refer to neutral testimony? The hon. Gentleman has probably read what Americans who have seen this Force have said. I would prefer to give that rather than my own opinion. It is generally felt that they are equipped in the finest possible manner, which could not be excelled. Of course, no army is ever fully equipped; there can always be more of everything, there can always be new developments, and I do not pretend that everything is absolutely perfect down to the last gaiter button or that there are not certain deficiencies. I think that on the whole, however, our Army is as well if not better equipped than any similar army. Most people are highly pleased with the equipment in general.

The second question was whether they would have enough reserves to keep them in the field. We shall send no divisions to France until we are satisfied that they can be kept in the field. We shall not make the error of putting them into battle when their supplies are likely to run out. One cannot avoid every happening in life, but that is our policy. My right hon. Friend the Member for Caithness asked whether it would be possible to classify officers in the various reserves. I will look into that to see whether it is possible. Naturally it will not be practicable to give them dates when they will definitely be called up. That depends on the rate of expansion of the Army and also on the rate of casualties. It is difficult to say in advance, but I will see what I can do to relieve the anxieties of officers who may be waiting expectantly for news.

I see no objection to giving the names of the corps commanders. Lieut.-General Sir John Dill commands the First Corps, and Lieut.-General A. F. Brooke commands the Second Corps. The Chief of Staff to Lord Gort is Lieut.-General H. R. Pownall. The hon. Gentleman the Member for North Aberdeen (Mr. Garro Jones) asked whether unity of command was assured. The answer is, Yes, it is. The British Army is under the French Command. The Commander-in-Chief has the right of appeal to the Cabinet, but I imagine that it will not be normally necessary to exercise it, because the understanding is so complete, good and whole-hearted in every particular. Unity of command is assured in that way, and it is even possible that French troops may be under the British Commander-in-Chief.

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Bournemouth (Sir H. Croft) asked whether the Home Defence battalions would be organised at once. We shall proceed with that organisation with all possible speed. In reply to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Tiverton (Lieut.-Colonel Acland-Troyte), I am not anxious to give an age limit, because I want it to be as high as possible compatible with efficiency. We shall have to vary it a little, and I hope that my hon. and gallant Friend will not press me on that point.

Sir Francis Fremantle

May I ask my right hon. Friend whether he is equally satisfied that full provision has been made for the health of the troops on the medical and sanitary sides in view of some of the disasters that occurred in the South African war?

Mr. Hore-Belisha

The answer is that the Director-General of the Army Medical Service is acknowledged by the medical profession, I think, to be a man of the highest reputation and capabilities. I think that civilian doctors upon the whole are satisfied with the skill and powers of organisation of the Royal Army Medical Corps.

Sir F. Fremantle

Yes, but is it not the case that the distinguished directors of the medical service were not given a proper hearing when they tendered their advice, and that that was the reason of the disasters in 1901?

Mr. Hore-Belisha

I gather that the hon. and gallant Gentleman is talking about the Boer War. I do not think it is denied that deficiencies did occur on that occasion, although I was not personally responsible. I appreciate my hon. and gallant Friend's interest in this matter, and no one is better able to give advice, and if he has any suggestions to make I shall be glad to have them. He can be assured that the medical profession has a free hand to do everything that is of advantage, and I will most willingly hear his suggestions, because his objective is exactly the same as that of the Government.

Sir Richard Acland

Could the right hon. Gentleman hold out any hope that the present delays in the delivery of parcels sent out to men serving abroad will be overcome in a short time?

Mr. Hore-Belisha

I think that difficulty has been to some extent cleared up. While the Army was on the move it was, of course, extremely difficult to ensure quick delivery, but I hope that the arrangements which have been made will become more and more effective.

Viscountess Astor

May I ask that married women should get their allowances? Members are interested about the troops getting letters and cigarettes, but it is far more important that the married women at home should get their allowances than that the men at the front should get their letters.