HC Deb 26 February 1940 vol 357 cc1716-7
2. Mr. Arthur Henderson

asked the Prime Minister the number of unarmed British merchant ships which have been bombed and machine-gunned by German aircraft since the outbreak of hostilities; and whether he will make it known that he regards these attacks as a breach of Herr Hitler's undertaking to President Roosevelt that the German air force would not bomb the civilian population?

Mr. Butler

From the outbreak of hostilities until 22nd February there had come to the knowledge of His Majesty's Government 128 cases in which unarmed British merchant ships and fishing vessels had been attacked by enemy aircraft. As regards the second part of the Question, in my Noble Friend's opinion the facts are already too well known to necessitate a statement such as the hon. and learned Member suggests.

Mr. Shinwell

Is not the only effective means of dealing with this situation to arm these trawlers and merchant vessels for their own protection?

Mr. Butler

That is being done.

11. Mr. Shinwell

asked the First Lord of the Admiralty whether, having regard to the fact that the Government have sent 100 machine-guns to Finland, he can account for the delay in providing machine-guns to trawlers and coasting-vessels trading in the North Sea?

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Admiralty (Mr. Shakespeare)

The defensive arming of trawlers and coasting vessels trading in the North Sea is proceeding with all speed. The weapons that have been supplied to Finland are not so suitable for the anti-air craft defence of our shipping as those which are being fitted in our trawlers and coasting-vessels.

Mr. Shinwell

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the First Lord has informed a deputation concerned with this matter that even Lewis guns of an obsolete character are of some advantage to seamen and fishermen for the purposes of protection, and why should guns be sent abroad when our own men are not being adequately protected?

Mr. Shakespeare

I think the position is as given in the answer, that the guns which are put in trawlers are considered more suitable than the guns sent abroad.

Commander Locker-Lampson

Does not the fate of freedom lie in Finland, and will my hon. Friend go on doing everything he can to send arms to Finland?

Vice-Admiral Taylor

Is it not clear that the suggestion that our fishing vessels have been neglected on account of what is sent to Finland is quite without foundation?

Mr. Shakespeare

indicated assent.

Mr. Shinwell

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that statement? Is it not the case that the First Lord has given personal attention to this matter, that he has given an assurance that within several weeks not specified he hopes to be able to man these vessels, and that many of them are not manned with guns? Is that not the case?

Mr. Shakespeare

The problem of arming with guns all our ships is clearly one of very great magnitude, and I can assure the House that it is going on always and is not being held up in any way by the fact that a number of guns have been sent to Finland?

Mr. Windsor

Does not the hon. Gentleman think that the addition of Lewis guns, where applications have been made by the men, would give greater protection to those at sea, particularly against low-flying aircraft?

Mr. Shakespeare

Yes, that is so.