HC Deb 18 June 1940 vol 362 cc51-64

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

3.49 p.m.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Churchill)

I spoke the other day of the colossal military disaster which occurred when the French High Command failed to withdraw the Northern Armies from Belgium at the moment when they knew that the French front was decisively broken at Sedan and on the Meuse. This delay entailed the loss of 15 or 16 French divisions and threw out of action for the critical period the whole of the British Expeditionary Force. Our Army and 120,000 French troops were indeed rescued by the British Navy from Dunkirk but only with the loss of their cannon, vehicles and modern equipment. This loss inevitably took some weeks to repair, and in the first two of those weeks the battle in France has been lost. When we consider the heroic resistance made by the French Army against heavy odds in this battle, the enormous losses inflicted upon the enemy and the evident exhaustion of the enemy, it may well be thought that these 25 divisions of the best trained and best equipped troops might have turned the scale. However, General Weygand had to fight without them. Only three British divisions or their equivalent were able to stand in the line with their French comrades. They have suffered severely, but they have fought well. We sent every man we could to France as fast as we could re-equip and transport their formations.

I am not reciting these facts for the purpose of recrimination. That, I judge, to be utterly futile and even harmful. We cannot afford it. I recite them in order to explain why it was we did not have, as we could have had, between 12 and 14 British divisions fighting in the line in this great battle instead of only three. Now I put all this aside. I put it on the shelf, from which the historians, when they have time, will select their documents to tell their stories. We have to think of the future and not of the past. This also applies in a small way to our own affairs at home. There are many who would hold an inquest in the House of Commons on the conduct of the Governments—and of Parliaments, for they are in it, too—during the years which led up to this catastrophe. They seek to indict those who were responsible for the guidance of our affairs. This also would be a foolish and pernicious process. There are too many in it. Let each man search his conscience and search his speeches. I frequently search mine.

Of this I am quite sure, that if we open a quarrel between the past and the present, we shall find that we have lost the future. Therefore, I cannot accept the drawing of any distinctions between Members of the present Government. It was formed at a moment of crisis in order to unite all the parties and all sections of opinion. It has received the almost unanimous support of both Houses of Parliament. Its Members are going to stand together, and, subject to the authority of the House of Commons, we are going to govern the country and fight the war. It is absolutely necessary at a time like this that every Minister who tries each day to do his duty shall be respected, and their subordinates must know that their chiefs are not threatened men, men who are here to-day and gone to-morrow, but that their directions must be punctually and faithfully obeyed. Without this concentrated power we cannot face what lies before us. I should not think it would be very advantageous for the House to prolong this Debate this afternoon under conditions of public stress. Many facts are not clear that will be clear in a short time. We are to have a Secret Session on Thursday, and I should think that would be a better opportunity for the many earnest expressions of opinion which Members will desire to make and for the House to discuss vital matters, as I have said before, without having everything read the next morning by our dangerous foes.

The military events which have happened during the past fortnight have not come to me with any sense of surprise. Indeed, I indicated a fortnight ago as clearly as I could to the House that the worst possibilities were open, and I made it perfectly clear then that whatever happened in France would make no difference to the resolve of Britain and the British Empire to fight on, "if necessary for years, if necessary alone." During the last few days we have successfully brought off the great majority of the troops we had on the lines of communication in France—a very large number, scores of thousands—and seven-eighths of the troops we have sent to France since the beginning of the war, that is to say, about 350,000 out of 400,000 men, are safely back in this country. Others are still fighting with the French, and fighting with considerable success in their local encounters with the enemy. We have also brought back a great mass of stores, rifles and munitions of all kinds which had been accumulated in France during the last nine months.

We have, therefore, in this island to-day a very large and powerful military force. This force includes all our best trained and finest troops and includes scores of thousands of those who have already measured their quality against the Germans and found themselves at no disadvantage. We have under arms at the present time in this island over a million and a quarter men. Behind these we have the Local Defence Volunteers, numbering half a million, only a portion of whom, however, are yet armed with files or other firearms. We have incorporated into our Defence Forces every man for whom we have a weapon. We expect a very large addition to our weapons in the near future, and in preparation for this we intend to call up, drill and train further large numbers at once. Those who are not called up or employed upon the vast business of munitions production in all its branches—and it runs through every kind of grade—serve their country best by remaining at their ordinary work until they are required.

We also have Dominions Armies here. The Canadians had actually landed in France but have now been safely withdrawn, much disappointed, but in perfect order, with all their artillery and equipment. These very high-class forces from the Dominions will now take part in the defence of the Mother Country. Lest the account which I have given of these very large forces should raise the question why they did not take part in the great battle in France, I must make it clear that, apart from the divisions training and organising at home, only 12 divisions were equipped to fight upon a scale which justified their being sent abroad. This was fully up to the number which the French had been led to expect would be available in France at the ninth month of the war. The rest of our forces at home have a fighting value for home defence which will, of course, steadily increase every week that passes. Thus, the invasion of Great Britain would at this time require the transportation across the sea of hostile armies upon a very large scale and, after they had been so transported, they would have to be continually maintained with all the masses of munitions and supplies which are required for continuous battle, as continuous battle it would be.

Here is where we come to the Navy. After all, we have a Navy. Some people seem to forget that. We must remind them. For the last 30 years I have been concerned in discussions about the possibilities of oversea invasion, and I took the responsibility on behalf of the Admiralty, at the beginning of the last war, of allowing all Regular troops to be sent out of the country, although our Territorials had only just been called up and were quite untrained. Therefore, this island was for several months practically denuded of fighting troops. The Admiralty had confidence at that time in their ability to prevent a mass invasion, even though at that time the Germans had a magnificent battle fleet in the proportion of 10 to 16, even though they were capable of fighting a general engagement every day and any day, whereas now they have only a couple of heavy ships worth speaking of. We are also told that the Italian Navy is to come to gain sea superiority in these waters. If they seriously intend it, I shall only say that we shall be delighted to offer Signor Mussolini a free and safeguarded passage through the Straits of Gibraltar in order that he may play the part which he aspires to do. There is general curiosity in the British Fleet to find out whether the Italians are up to the level they were at in the last war or whether they have fallen off at all.

Therefore, it seems to me that as far as seaborne invasion on a great scale is concerned, we are far more capable of meeting it to-day than we were at many periods in the last war and during the early months of this war, before our other troops were trained, and while the B.E.F. was already abroad and still abroad. The Navy have never pretended to be able to prevent raids by bodies of 5,000 or 10,000 men flung suddenly across and thrown ashore at several points on the coast some dark night or foggy morning. The efficacy of sea-power, especially under modern conditions, depends upon the invading force being of large size. It has to be of large size, in view of our military strength, to be of any use. If it is of large size, then the Navy have something they can find and meet and, as it were, bite on. Now we must remember that even five divisions, however lightly equipped, would require 200 to 250 ships, and with modern air reconnaissance and photography, it would not be easy to collect such an armada, marshal it and conduct it across the sea without any powerful naval forces to escort it, and with the very great possibility that it would be intercepted long before it reached the coast, and the men all drowned in the sea or, at the worst, blown to pieces with their equipment while they were trying to land. We also have a great system of minefields, recently strongly reinforced, through which we alone know the channel. If the enemy tries to sweep passages through these minefields, it will be the task of the Navy to destroy the minesweepers and any other forces employed to protect them. There should be no difficulty in this, owing to our great superiority at sea.

Those are the regular, well-tested, well-proved arguments on which we have relied during many years in peace and war. But the question is whether there are any new methods by which those solid assurances can be circumvented. Odd as it may seem, some attention has been given to this by the Admiralty, whose prime duty and responsibility it is to destroy any large seaborne expedition before it reaches or at the moment when it reaches these shores. It would not be useful to go into details. It might even suggest ideas to other people which they have not thought of, and they would not be likely to give us any of their ideas in exchange. All I will say is that untiring vigilance and mind-searching must be devoted to the subject, because the enemy is crafty and cunning and full of novel treacheries and stratagems. The House may be assured that the utmost ingenuity is being displayed and imagination is being evoked from large numbers of competent officers, well-trained in tactics and thoroughly up to date, to measure and counterwork novel possibilities, of which many are suggested, some very absurd and some by no means utterly irrational.

Some people will ask why, then, was it that the British Navy was not able to prevent the movement of a large army from Germany into Norway across the Skaggerak? But the conditions in the Channel and in the North Sea are in no way like those which prevail in the Skaggerak. In the Skaggerak, because of the distance, we could give no air support to our surface ships, and consequently, lying as we did close to the enemy's main air power, in those waters we were compelled to use only our submarines. We could not enforce the decisive blockade or interruption which is possible from surface vessels. Our submarines took a heavy toll but could not, by themselves, prevent the invasion of Norway. In the Channel and in the North Sea, on the other hand, our superior naval surface forces, aided by our submarines, will operate with close and effective air assistance.

This brings me, naturally, to the great question of invasion from the air and of the impending struggle between the British and German air forces. It seems quite clear that no invasion on a scale beyond the capacity of our land forces to crush speedily is likely to take place from the air until our Air Force has been definitely overpowered. In the meantime, there may be raids by parachute troops and attempted descents of airborne soldiers. We should be able to give those gentry a warm reception both in the air and if they reach the ground in any condition to continue the dispute. But the great question is, Can we break Hitler's air weapon? Now, of course, it is a very great pity that we have not got an Air Force at least equal to that of the most powerful enemy within striking distance of these shores. But we have a very powerful Air Force which has proved itself far superior in quality, both in men and in many types of machine, to what we have met so far in the numerous fierce air battles which have been fought. In France, where we were at a considerable disadvantage and lost many machines on the ground, we were accustomed to inflict losses of as much as two to two and a half to one. In the fighting over Dunkirk, which was a sort of no man's land, we undoubtedly beat the German air force, and this gave us the mastery locally in the air, and we inflicted losses of three or four to one. Anyone who looks at the photographs which were published a week or so ago of the re-embarkation, showing the masses of troops assembled on the beach and forming an ideal target for hours at a time, must realise that this re-embarkation would not have been possible unless the enemy had resigned all hope of recovering air superiority at that point.

In the defence of this island the advantages to the defenders will be very great. We hope to improve on the rate of three or four to one which was realised at Dunkirk, and in addition all our injured machines and their crews which get down safely—and, surprisingly, a very great many injured machines and men do get down safely in modern air fighting—all of these will fall, in an attack upon these islands, on friendly soil and live to fight another day, whereas all injured enemy machines and their complements will be total losses as far as the war is concerned. During the great battle in France, we gave very powerful and continuous aid to the French Army both by fighters and bombers, but in spite of every kind of pressure we never would allow the entire Metropolitan strength of the Air Force, in fighters, to be consumed. This decision was painful, but it was also right, because the fortunes of the battle in France could not have been decisively affected, even if we had thrown in our entire fighter force. The battle was lost by the unfortunate strategical opening, by the extraordinary and unforeseen power of the armoured columns, and by the great preponderance of the German Army in numbers. Our fighter Air Force might easily have been exhausted as a mere accident in that great struggle, and we should have found ourselves at the present time in a very serious plight. But, as it is, I am happy to inform the House that our fighter air strength is stronger at the present time, relatively to the Germans, who have suffered terrible losses, than it has ever been, and consequently we believe ourselves to possess the capacity to continue the war in the air under better conditions than we have ever experienced before. I look forward confidently to the exploits of our fighter pilots, who will have the glory of saving their native land, their island home, and all they love, from the most deadly of all attacks.

There remains the danger of bombing attacks, which will certainly be made very soon upon us by the bomber forces of the enemy. It is true that the German bomber force is superior in numbers to ours, but we have a very large bomber force also which we shall use to strike at military targets in Germany without intermission. I do not at all underrate the severity of the ordeal which lies before us, but I believe our countrymen will show themselves capable of standing up to it, like the brave men of Barcelona, and will be able to stand up to it, and carry on in spite of it, at least as well as any other people in the world. Much will depend upon this, and every man and every woman will have the chance to show the finest qualities of their race and render the highest service to their cause. For all of us at this time, whatever our sphere, our station, our occupation, our duties, it will be a help to remember the famous lines: He nothing common did, or mean, Upon that memorable scene. I have thought it right upon this occasion to give the House and the country some indication of the solid, practical grounds upon which we base our inflexible resolve to continue the war, and I can assure them that our professional advisers of the three Services unitedly advise that we should do so, and that there are good and reasonable hopes of final victory. We have also fully informed and consulted all the self-governing Dominions, and I have received from their Prime Ministers, Mr. Mackenzie King, Mr. Menzies, Mr. Fraser and General Smuts, messages couched in the most moving terms in which they endorse our decision and declare themselves ready to share our fortunes and to persevere to the end.

We may now ask ourselves, In what ways is our position worsened since the beginning of the war? It is worsened by the fact that the Germans have conquered a large part of the coastline of Western Europe, and many small countries have been overrun by them. This aggravates the possibilities of air attack and adds to our naval preoccupations. It in no way diminishes, but on the contrary definitely increases, the power of our long-distance blockade. Should military resistance come to an end in France, which is not yet certain, though it will in any case be greatly diminished, the Germans can concentrate their forces, both military and industrial, upon us. But for the reasons I have given to the House these will not be found so easy to apply. If invasion becomes more imminent, we, being relieved from the task of maintaining a large army in France, have far larger and more efficient forces here to meet them. If Hitler can bring under his despotic control the industries of the countries he has conquered, this will add greatly to his already vast armament output. On the other hand, this will not happen immediately, and we are now assured of immense, continuous and increasing support in supplies and munitions of all kinds from the United States, and especially of aeroplanes and pilots from the Dominions and across the oceans, coming from regions which are beyond the reach of enemy bombers.

I do not see how any of these factors can operate to our detriment on balance before the winter comes, and the winter will impose a strain upon the Nazi régime, with almost all Europe writhing and starving under their heel which, for all their ruthlessness, will run them very hard. We must not forget that from the moment when we declared war on the 3rd September it was always possible for Germany to turn all her air force upon this country, together with any other devices of invasion she might conceive, and that France could do little or nothing to prevent her doing so. We have, therefore, lived under this danger, in principle and in a slightly modified form, during all these months. In the meanwhile, however, we have enormously improved our methods of defence, and we have learned, what we had no right to assume at the beginning, namely, the individual superiority of our aircraft and pilots.

Therefore, in casting up this dread balance-sheet, contemplating our dangers with a disillusioned eye, I see great reason for intense vigilance and exertion, but none whatever for panic or despair. During the first four years of the last war the Allies experienced, as my right hon. Friend opposite the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) will remember, nothing but disaster and disappointment, and yet at the end their morale was higher than that of the Germans, who had moved from one aggressive triumph to another. During that war we repeatedly asked ourselves the question, "How are we going to win?" and no one was able ever to answer it with much precision, until at the end, quite suddenly, quite unexpectedly, our terrible foe collapsed before us, and we were so glutted with victory that in our folly we cast it away.

We do not yet know what will happen in France or whether the French resistance will be prolonged, both in France and in the French Empire overseas. The French Government will be throwing away great opportunities and casting away their future if they do not continue the war in accordance with their Treaty obligations, from which we have not felt able to release them. The House will have read the historic declaration in which, at the desire of many Frenchmen, and of our own hearts, we have proclaimed our willingness to conclude at the darkest hour in French history a union of common citizenship. However matters may go in France or with the French Government or with another French Government, we in this island and in the British Empire will never lose our sense of comradeship with the French people. If we are now called upon to endure what they have suffered we shall emulate their courage, and if final victory rewards our toils they shall share the gains, aye. And freedom shall be restored to all. We abate nothing of our just demands—Czechs, Poles, Norwegians, Dutch, Belgians, all who have joined their causes to our own shall be restored.

What General Weygand called the "Battle of France" is over. I expect that the battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation. Upon it depends our own British life and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him all Europe may be free, and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands; but if we fail then the whole world, including the United States, and all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more prolonged, by the lights of a perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty and so bear ourselves that if the British Commonwealth and Empire lasts for a thousand years men will still say, "This was their finest hour."

4.25 p.m.

Mr. Lees-Smith (Keighley)

My hon. Friends on these benches have asked me on their behalf to say one or two sentences. They wish to say to the Prime Minister that in their experience among the broad masses of the people of this country never in their lives has the country been more united than it is to-day in its support of the Prime Minister's assertion that we shall carry on right to the end. One sentence can summarise what we feel. Whatever the country is asked for in the months and, if necessary, in the years to come, the Prime Minister may be confident that the people will rise to their responsibilities.

4.27 p.m.

Sir Percy Harris (Bethnal Green, South-West)

I have only a word to say. We have had the assurance of a full Debate in Secret Session—at any rate on Thursday, and I think some Members would have liked it to be to-morrow. Obviously the House cannot speak its mind on an occasion of this kind. All I want to do is to congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his brave speech and the leadership, the great leadership, he has given to his country, and I can undertake to say that the nation is behind him.

4.28 p.m.

Sir Hugh O'Neill (Antrim)

I should like to ask the Prime Minister a question about the Secret Session on Thursday. I think it is understood that that Secret Session is to discuss the question of Home Defence. There are a great many Members who desire to discuss that question, but I take it, in view of the far more serious matters which the Prime Minister has raised in his speech to-day, that the Secret Session on Thursday or to-morrow, whenever it is, will be devoted to the general question of the present very grave situation of the war.

The Prime Minister

The Debate will be upon the Motion for the Adjournment, and, therefore, of course, Members will have the regular freedom of such an ocasion, but I think Home Defence is the focus of it, and I certainly was not aware that the large topic on which I have expanded this afternoon has in the slightest degree displaced Home Defence from its primary position.

4.29 p.m.

Colonel Wedgwood (Newcastle-under-Lyme)

I think it would not be doing what the Prime Minister wants, but I feel that it would he desirable if, even in his absence, we did say a few words this afternoon on the general subject of the war—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."]—for this reason, that the country is at the present time extremely discouraged—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."]—and the speech to which we have just listened will be of inestimable benefit in restoring the sanity and courage of this country. I am certain that that anxiety in the country will be removed if people realise that something is genuinely being done to remove any risk of these casual raids.

The main reason for the anxiety in the country to-day is that all these people have joined up in the Local Defence Force and everybody is anxious to do something, but, so far, there has been no evidence that their voluntary effort has been met to any extent. We have to look forward to a time when, as the Prime Minister says, everyone will have to bear his part. It is distressing to the ordinary man in the street, when he is so anxious to bear his part, to find that the War Office does not need his services. If we could have from any Minister opposite—I certainly do not want the Prime Minister to stop in this House to listen to the Debate—some reassurance this afternoon that the Local Defence Force is not a mere stepchild of the War Office but is genuinely intended to act in the service of this country, not as an extra policeman to guard the German soldiers when they march through London, but as an active Defence Force, that this Force, if it cannot get rifles, will at least have hand grenades and that it will not be required to retreat but to hold the country. I can assure right hon. Gentlemen that assurances of that sort are needed. We have had our assurance from the Prime Minister that serious invasion cannot take place, but we want to be assured that, in the case of minor invasion, the people of this country will be used and that it will not be the privilege solely of the enrolled British Army to sacrifice their lives in the cause of liberty.

4.33 p.m.

Mr. Lloyd George (Carnarvon Boroughs)

It will be good to have a useful discussion upon the very broad and momentous questions which have been raised by the Prime Minister, but there is a real anxiety that those questions should be discussed in conditions where there will be no report, and in which the House of Commons will be able, without any fetters at all, to discuss the whole broad issue. I can assure my right hon. Friend that there is no desire that we should merely waste our time upon recriminations regarding the past. That is not the point, but we ought to have a very frank discussion as to where we stand now. There are very many Members here who have suggestions to make, but we cannot make them in an open Session without publishing them. We do not want to publish them. I should like to make a few suggestions myself which may or may not be valuable, but if they are valuable, they will be valuable also to the enemy. I hope that the Prime Minister will not consider it a breach of faith on the part of anybody who travels beyond the very important question of Home Defence and who raises general issues.

The Prime Minister

The Debate will be conducted under the general Rules of Order. Upon Debates on the Adjournment anything can be raised.

Mr. Lloyd George

That is what I meant.

The Prime Minister

I should certainly not regard it as being a breach of faith, but Ministers will be focussing their minds on the questions which Members wish to raise.

Mr. Lloyd George

I think that we shall have to go a little beyond the question of Home Defence. We have come to a tremendous crisis and, as far as we are concerned, to the greatest crisis in the war. It is something upon which the life of this country depends. Parliament is responsible for the nation, and the people of the nation expect us to discuss the very important issues which they are discussing themselves in their own circles everywhere. They are trusting to us to see that all these issues are raised and are faced. If we can get satisfactory replies, we shall be able, each in his own sphere, to assure the country that, at any rate, not merely is something being done but everything is being done that is humanly possible. If it is thoroughly understood that it will not be regarded as taking advantage of an opportunity allocated for one purpose for the purpose of raising other issues, I shall be satisfied not to say anything more in this Debate.

Mr. Clement Davies (Montgomery)

I would like to put one question to the Prime Minister following upon what the right hon. Gentleman has said. In view of the urgency and importance of this matter, would it be possible for the Secret Session to be held to-morrow, because I believe that this would meet the general wish of the whole House?

The Prime Minister

Much may happen before Thursday, and I think it would be more fruitful to have a discussion then, because there are essential facts which we do not know now.

4.38 p.m.

Mr. John Morgan (Doncaster)

I want to put it on record that we do wish the hon. and learned Member for East Bristol (Sir S. Cripps) "Good luck" in his new job, given to him by the Government, because we see signs that, whatever may be immediately in front of us, potentially the same fate is destined for another great Power. I would therefore like this House to recognise and signalise the arrival of the hon. and learned Gentleman in that great country, and to wish him well.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury (Captain Margesson)

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, "That this House do now adjourn," by leave, withdrawn.