HC Deb 25 October 1939 vol 352 cc1404-7
Mr. Attlee

(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Air whether in accordance with the Prime Minister's undertaking, the Government have now reviewed the circumstances in which air-raid warnings are given?

Sir K. Wood

Yes, Sir. The House will be aware that orders to sound public air-raid warnings are given by the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Fighter Command. There are two possible lines of policy. One is to have the public warnings sounded in any district over which an approaching aircraft may pass, and to do so on all occasions; the other is to do so only when, in the judgment of the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, an air attack on the district is probable. The first alternative would result in frequent interruption of industrial activity, often without any real need. The other involves an element of risk, but recent experience shows that it is the right policy to adopt.

The House will realise that it is not the sounding of a public warning that brings our active defences into operation. This is done by quite other means. It follows that action against the enemy may be in progress without an air-raid warning having been sounded in the locality. If this occurs, the civil population should keep indoors, away from windows and preferably on the lower floors, so as to avoid being hit by falling fragments of shells or bullets. They should stay there until they judge from the cessation of firing that the fighting is over. Should the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief consider that the enemy is likely to develop an attack on the district, the air-raid warnings will be sounded and the action that normally follows will be taken. The Government have considered whether the police or some other local authority could be authorised to sound public warnings at discretion if they hear anti-aircraft fire or observe an air battle going on. Air attacks can, however, change their nature and direction so rapidly that no local authority can possibly have a comprehensive and continuous view of the situation which is possessed by the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief. The Government would regard the sounding of independent local warnings as definitely unsafe.

To sum up: the air defence of Great Britain must be controlled by the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Fighter Command, who directs this defence and he must also be responsible for bringing the civil defences into operation, including the sounding of public warnings. This officer will exercise his discretion in accordance with the general line of policy I have indicated. He has the fullest confidence of His Majesty's Government.

Mr. Mathers

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman if the undertaking given by the Prime Minister, that the question of trains upon the Forth Bridge during the air raid on the 16th of this month would be looked into, has been complied with and whether a decision has been arrived at?

Sir K. Wood

I have not dealt with that in the statement to-day. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will put down the question and I will answer it.

Mr. Henderson Stewart

The statement of the right hon. Gentleman indicates something of a change in procedure that we did not expect. Will he give an assurance that in the light of his experience he will be ready to reconsider the system which he has unfolded to the House?

Brigadier-General Sir Henry Croft

Before the right hon. Gentleman answers the question, may I ask whether it is not the fact that if unnecessary warnings are given this is exactly the object of the enemy, and is he aware that his statement will be received with great relief throughout the country?

Mr. Garro Jones

In order to prevent any public outcry against the policy which he has just announced, will the right hon. Gentleman cause a full explanation to be published of the complete disorganisation which would be created by a succession of small raids, extending over the whole country, with no substantial damage in any area?

Sir K. Wood

I will gladly see what I can do. Of course, I will review this question in the light of any experience which may be gained, but this arrangement has been carefully considered and I hope that it will be generally approved.

Mr. Gallacher

Is the Minister aware that this will not cause great satisfaction in the areas where the bombing has taken place? Is he aware that while the raid was on the people were outside, quite unconscious of the danger? And is he further aware that, while there was no air-raid warning when the bombing was taking place, there have been air-raid warnings practically every day since, when there has been no bombing?

Mr. Poole

In coming to his decision, has the Minister taken cognisance of the fact that many air-raid wardens and other A.R.P. workers receive warning of impending attacks only through the sounding of sirens, and that, as a result of this arrangement, in vast areas these people will be completely unaware of such attacks?

Sir K. Wood

I do not think that is so. I feel sure that this new arrangement is the best way of dealing with the situation.

Mr. Gallacher

Can I get a reply to my question? I have been four times in the area where the air raid took place. I have heard the most amazing stories of the danger that women and children were in, and of the bitter feeling—

Mr. Speaker rose

Mr. Gallacher

On a point of Order. I have been in the area, and have heard the most terrible and bitter complaints. I want to know whether I am not entitled to an answer to my question, and to an investigation.

Mr. Speaker

All the matters to which the hon. Member has referred are being taken into consideration by the Minister.

Sir William Davison

On a further point of Order. Is it fair that Ministers dealing with the Defence Forces should be cross-examined in this way in the House of Commons?

Mr. Gallacher

Why not? I want to know whether I am entitled to an answer to a question that is being asked by the people who have been affected by the bombing. Why was there no air raid warning when the bombing took place, though there have been warnings every day since?

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member has had an answer.

Mr. Woodburn

Is the Minister aware that the danger to the civil population arises not from their fear, but from their indifference. Does he realise that in the Edinburgh area the people regarded the raid as some curiosity which they should watch from the streets?

Mr. Speaker

We cannot debate this subject at Question Time.