HC Deb 08 February 1940 vol 357 cc443-9

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

3.50 p.m.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Chamberlain)

My last Statement to the House was made three weeks ago. I understand it is the wish of hon. Members that I should, in view of this lapse of time, make a further Statement to-day,and I am naturally very glad to meet their wishes. They will, however, acquit me of discourtesy if what I have to say on this occasion is shorter than usual for, in recent weeks, winter has gripped Europe, halting the operations of war and interfering even with the normal activities of the nation, so that there have been few events of importance to record.

Hon. Members will have seen in the Press that a meeting of the Supreme War Council was held in Paris on Monday last. They will not, I am afraid, have gained much information from the laconic communique which was all that we were able to issue after the meeting. I wish, indeed, that I could lighten the darkness and give to the House an account of our proceedings, but I know that no one will desire me to be guilty of the folly of making such a generous gift to the enemy.

Despite the fact that I cannot speak of the subjects discussed by the Council, it would, I think, be useful for me to say a little about the background of the meeting and the general impressions which I brought back with me from France. In the first place, the Council was, as hon. Members will have seen, larger than on previous occasions. I was accompanied by the Foreign Secretary, the First Lord of the Admiralty, the Secretary of State for War and the Secretary of State for Air, and His Majesty's Ambassador in Paris, the Chiefs of Staff and a number of Senior Officials were present. M. Daladier had with him three of his Ministerial colleagues, General Gamelin, and other high officers. In the result, the proceedings of the Council seemed to me to be even more valuable and businesslike than on previous occasions. I have, indeed, the impression that as the weeks go by the Council is steadily growing in importance and has become not merely a convenient means of harmonising the views of the two Governments but a vital instrument in the successful prosecution of the war. As M. Daladier said, the Council now conduct their business almost as if they were the Cabinet of a single Government. That is not to say that the Government of either country has in any way surrendered its responsibilities, but that an understanding has been reached which will prove to be an essential factor in the eventual victory of the Allies. I would add this, that the value of the proceedings of the Supreme Council is not, in my judgment, confined to the value of the business discussed at their meetings. Much else is gained from the friendly and informal contacts between responsible leaders of the two nations for which a Council meeting provides the occasion.

This time I have returned from Paris with the conviction that the bond between our two countries is something greater than even the close alliance which a common purpose and common dangers have enforced. It has become a deep and lasting friendship between the two peoples. Our enemies lose no opportunity, by every means of propaganda at their disposal, by the spreading of false rumours and by ceaseless lies, of seeking to divide Great Britain from France. In that attempt they have failed.

The short and sufficient answer to every endeavour of the enemy to sow dissension between us is the phrase which I have heard so often on the lips of my French colleagues: "Nous sommes ďaccord."

I turn now to events elsewhere in Europe. The Finnish people continue their heroic struggle against an enemy who is using his huge air fleets in a vain endeavour to shake their spirit by burning the homes of the poor, shattering with high explosives hospitals full of wounded men and pursuingdefenceless citizens with machine guns. The success which has hitherto attended the Finnish arms has evoked the admiration of the world and we rejoice to think that the help which has been given from this country has been of real value to Finland. I am glad to say that further aid is now on its way.

In Belgrade, there has been a meeting of the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of Turkey, Yugoslavia and Rumania and the President of the Council of Greece. As a result of this meeting, it has been announced that the Pact of the Balkan Entente has been renewed for a further period of seven years from February, 1941. This announcement indicates the determination of the Governments of these countries to do everything in their power to maintain stability and security in South Eastern Europe. The decision is most welcome, especially if, as I believe to be the case, the other States of South Eastern Europe have this important object equally at heart. His Majesty's Government warmly sympathise with these efforts, which they sincerely hope may be attended with success. We ourselves have also been engaged in friendly discussions with a Greek Delegation which included the Greek Minister of Finance and the Governor of the Bank of Greece. I am happy to say that, as a result of these discussions, satisfactory agreements have been reached on a number of financial and economic questions which are of mutual interest to the two Governments. These included a settlement regarding the service of the Greek external debt for the duration of the war negotiated between the Greek Minister of Finance and the Council of Foreign Bondholders and League Loans Committee.

Little has happened in the several theatres of war that is not already known to the House. There has been no change in the military situation on the Western Front. In the air winter conditions have exposed men and material during the last few weeks to the sternest test of their adequacy. The strain on our Air Force has been severe, but it has been borne without flinching. A great deal of active service flying must continue whatever the weather, and no praise can be too high for the men who have carried on their duties in the teeth of such conditions.

I need not repeat here accounts which have appeared in the Press of air activities, but I cannot pass over without notice the very skilful combined operation by which naval patrol vessels and a Royal Air Force flying boat succeeded in destroying a submarine which ventured to attack a convoy. Attacks by German aeroplanes on British and neutral ships, which have recently increased in intensity, are claimed by the enemy as great victories in the war against British shipping. These raids are generally carried out on days when low thick clouds cover the shipping lanes. They are made by aeroplanes singly or in pairs at widely separated points and it would appear that instructions have been given to enemy pilots to do their utmost to avoid contact with our defences. But on 3rd February our fighters were given their opportunity. The German wireless took the unusual course of admitting that three of the enemy aircraft out of the comparatively small number which were operating had been lost, and we know that at least one other was so badly damaged that it was probably unable to reach its base.

The extent of the successes claimed by Germany for this method of attack bears no relation to the facts. For example, on 3rd February it was asserted by the enemy that in the air raid on that day along the East Coast, no less than nine merchantmen, as well as other vessels, were sunk, and that the British ships sunk were all in convoy. The facts are that, in this raid, one Norwegian merchantman was sunk and no British merchant ship was lost.

These vauntings are poured out like a smoke screen to conceal stories of callous brutality as inhuman as any yet recorded of the enemy. The bombing of unarmed merchant ships and fishing boats from the air, followed by machine gunning of the crews at elevations which make it quite clear that there could be no doubt as totheir identity, are now all too familiar. The German wireless statement on 30th of last month that "The British Naval Patrol Vessel 'East Dudgeon' has been sunk by German aircraft" is a falsification intended to cover up from the world a deliberate and savage attack on a lightship. To seafaring folks of all nations the "East Dudgeon" is well known as a lightship, and its identity was unmistakable. She was, naturally, unarmed. We have always shared, with other civilised nations, the view that lightships because of the nature of their services are outside the scope of hostilities, and, in the case of British lightships, they are not even utilised to report the presence of enemy craft in their vicinity. On the morning of the 30th an enemy aeroplane was seen totally over the "East Dudgeon" lightship. The only survivor of the crew of eight tells his story simply in these words: We were not alarmed because on previous occasions German pilots had waved to us and left us alone. But on this occasion the bomber dived suddenly and sprayed the deck with machine-gun bullets, and later dropped nine bombs, the last of which hit our ship. That is briefly the story of the attack on the lightship "East Dudgeon." The dead bodies of seven of her defenceless crew were found next morning on the sea shore. The killing of fishermen, merchant seamen, and of lightship crews in circumstances such as I have related, is not war but murder. Such acts of pure gangsterism can have little, if any, practical effect on the outcome of the war. The horror and disgust which they excite in the minds of all decent peoples only make us the more resolved to carry on the struggle until civilisation is purged of such wickedness.

Let me conclude my short statement today on another note. I have not spoken of the Home Front because the problems which have there to be faced are well known to the House and can be more appropriately discussed on other occasions. I sought, however, in a recent speech to bring home to the country the magnitude of the effortwe are making in our factories and workshops to supply the war material needed by our rapidly expanding fighting Services. No one who studies the figures can doubt the determination of the British Empire to throw its resources into the fight against the rule of aggression.

We cannot tell how long the fight may last, nor what stern trials may yet await us. But we have no reason to be dissatisfied with the opening phases of the war, and we face the future with calm determination and unshaken confidence.

4.5 p.m.

Mr. A. V. Alexander

I think the House will have been very interested indeed in this periodical report of the Prime Minister's, and not in the least interested in his latest and official report to the House of our relationship with our great Ally, France. I am sure we shall all welcome the impression of the great spirit of unity and complete collaboration which he brings back with him from the last meeting of the War Council. I think it is also a matter for congratulation to ourselves that the tactics of the Germans have entirely changed in the last few weeks with regard to their attempts to separate Great Britain from France. I do not propose to comment in detail—because we want to discuss, I hope at some length to-day, another aspect of the conduct of the war on the home front—on the rest of the Prime Minister's statement, except to share with him the feelings of horror at the type of warfare which is being carried on, especially against our men in the Merchant Service and in the special services, such as lightships and lighthouses; and I only ask the Prime Minister in this respect, because of certain reports which have come to us, whether, without revealing any of the facts in public, he will have immediate inquiries made as to whether the mobile defences which can be attached to our merchant ships are all that they should be in these circumstances, and whether there cannot be some real expedition in completing the defence of those ships which have to face these wicked, barbarous, and repeated attacks. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will do that.

There is one other point, with regard to the propaganda of the enemy. It is to be observed that we now have on the Front Bench opposite, I think for the first time since the institution of the Department, a Minister of Information responsible to this House, and in these circumstances, and in view of the report which the Prime Minister has made upon the type of propaganda which is being put over so freely on the wireless here to our own people, I hope the Minister of Information will see that it is essential, not merely that we should answer in German to the German and neutral peoples, but that we should keep our own people fully informed as to the del ails in which this propaganda is deliberately false and misleading and is used only for the purpose of dividing our own home front. That is a piece of work to which the Minister of Information might well give very early attention. I will give only one example of what I mean. Some 10 days ago a responsible Member of the Opposition—in fact, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George)—quoted the comparative figures of shipping tonnage as they existed between August, 1914, and August, 1939, leaving out liner and tanker tonnage and showing the discrepancy, taking those two things out. Within about 48 hours the German broadcast propagandists were saying that the 6,000,000 tons deficiency which was then quoted by the right hon. Gentleman was in fact 6,000,000 tons lost in the war. We really must get all these points specially answered to our country and people, in order that we may keep their morale intact. On the question of the home front, I hope the Prime Minister will consider that it will not be too far ahead that we get a further and more detailed report from some responsible Member of the Government as to the progress of the productive side of our preparations in the war.