HC Deb 25 June 1940 vol 362 cc301-7
The Prime Minister (Mr. Churchill)

The House will feel profound sorrow at the fate of the great French nation and people, to whom we have been joined so long in war and peace, and whom we have regarded as trustees with ourselves for the progress of a liberal, cultured and tolerant civilisation in Europe. There is no use or advantage in wasting strength and time upon hard words and reproaches. We hope that life and power will be given to us to rescue France from the ruin and bondage into which she has been cast by the might and fury of the enemy—[An HON. MEMBER: "And by the politicians"]—and from other causes. We hope, however, that the French Empire, stretching all over the world, and still protected by sea power, will continue the struggle at the side of its Allies, that it may become the seat of a government which will strive steadfastly for victory, and will organise armies of liberation. These are matters which Frenchmen alone can decide. We find it difficult to believe that the destiny of France and the spirit of France will find no other expression than in the melancholy decisions which have been taken by the Government at Bordeaux. We shall certainly aid, to the best of our ability and resources, any movement or any action by Frenchmen outside the power of the enemy, to work for the defeat of Nazi German barbarism and for the freedom and restoration of France.

What our relations will be with the Bordeaux Government, I cannot tell. They have delivered themselves over to the enemy and lie wholly in his power. He may do much by blandishments or by severities, by propaganda, and by the choosing of pro-German Ministers to make our relations difficult. We do not know whether we shall be allowed to have any British representative in the restricted region called "unoccupied France," because that is entirely surrounded by and under the control of the enemy; but, relying upon the true genius of the French people, and their judgment upon what has happened to them when they are allowed to know the facts, we shall endeavour to keep such contacts as are possible through the bars of their prison. Meanwhile we must look to our own salvation and effectual defence, upon which not only British but French, European, and world-wide fortunes depend. The safety of Great Britain and the British Empire is powerfully, though not decisively, affected by by what happens to the French Fleet.

When it became clear that the defeat and subjugation of France was imminent and that her fine Army, on which so many hopes were set, was reeling under the German flail, M. Reynaud, the courageous Prime Minister, asked me to come to Tours, which I did on 13th June, accompanied by the Foreign Secretary and the Minister for Aircraft Production, Lord Beaverbrook. I see that some accounts have been given of these conversations by the Bordeaux Government which do not at all correspond with the facts. We have, of course, a record kept by one of the Cabinet secretaries who came with us, and I do not propose to go into this now at any length. M. Reynaud, after dwelling on the conditions at the front and the state of the French Army, with which I was well acquainted, asked me whether Great Britain would release France from her obligations not to negotiate for an Armistice or peace without the consent of her British Ally. Although I knew how great French sufferings were, and that we had not so far endured equal trials or made an equal contribution in the field, I felt bound to say that I could not give consent. I said that there would be no use in adding mutual reproaches to the other miseries we might have to bear, but I could not give consent. We agreed that a further appeal should be made by M. Reynaud to the United States and that if the reply was not sufficient to enable M. Reynaud to go on fighting—and he, after all, was the fighting spirit—then we should meet again and take a decision in the light of the new factors.

On the 16th I received a message from M. Reynaud, who had then moved to Bordeaux, to say that the American response was not satisfactory, and requesting the formal release of France from her obligations under the Anglo-French Agreement. The Cabinet was immediately convened, and we sent a message, of which I do not give the exact text, but I give the general substance. Separate negotiations, whether for Armistice or peace, depend upon an agreement made with the French Republic and not with any particular French administration or statesman. They, therefore, involve the honour of France. However, in view of all they had suffered and of the forces evidently working upon them, and provided that the French Fleet is despatched to British ports and remains there while the negotiations are conducted, His Majesty's Gov- ernment will give their consent to the French Government asking what terms of armistice would be open to them. It was also made clear that His Majesty's Government were resolved to continue the war, altogether apart from French aid, and dissociated themselves from such inquiries about an Armistice.

The same evening, the 16th, when I was preparing, at M. Reynaud's invitation, to go to see him, and I was in fact in the train, I received news that he had been overthrown and that a new Government under Marshal Pétain had been formed, which Government had been formed for the prime purpose of seeking an Armistice with Germany. In these circumstances, we naturally did everything in our power to secure proper arrangements for the disposition of the French Fleet. We reminded the new Government that the condition indispensable to their release had not been complied with, the condition being that it should be sent to a British port. There was plenty of time to do it, and it would have made no difference to the negotiations: the terms could hardly have been more severe than they were. In order to reinforce the earnestness with which we held our views, we sent the First Sea Lord and the First Lord as well as Lord Lloyd to establish what contacts were possible with the new Ministers. Everything was, of course, fusing into collapse at that time, but many solemn assurances were given that the Fleet would never be allowed to fall into German hands. It was, therefore, "with grief and amazement"—to quote the words of the Government statement which we issued on Sunday—that I read Article 8 of the Armistice terms.

This Article, to which the French Government have subscribed, says that the French Fleet, excepting that part left free for the safeguarding of French interests in the Colonial Empire, shall be collected in ports to be specified and there demobilised and disarmed under German or Italian control. From this text it is clear that the French war vessels under this Armistice pass into German and Italian control while fully armed. We note, of course, in the same Article the solemn declaration of the German Government that they have no intention of using them for their own purposes during the war. What is the value of that? Ask half a dozen countries what is the value of such a solemn assurance. Furthermore, the same Article 8 of the Armistice excepts from the operation of such assurances and solemn declarations those units necessary for coast surveillance and minesweeping. Under this provision it would be possible for the German Government to reserve, ostensibly for coast surveillance, any existing units of the French Fleet. Finally, the Armistice can at any time be voided on any pretext of non-observance, and the terms of Armistice explicitly provide for further German claims when any peace between Germany and France comes to be signed. Such, in very brief epitome, are the salient points in this lamentable and also memorable episode, of which, no doubt, a much fuller account will be given by history.

The House would naturally not expect me to say anything about the future. The situation at the present time is so uncertain and obscure that it would be contrary to the public interest for me to attempt to pronounce or speculate upon it, but I may well have more to say should the House permit me to make a further statement next week. In the meantime, I hope that the House will continue to extend their full confidence to His Majesty's Government and will believe that neither patience nor resolution will be lacking in the measures they may think it right to take for the safety of the Empire.

Mr. Hore-Belisha

Has not the state-merit to which the House has just listened shown the absolute necessity in these times of carrying Parliament with us at every stage? Is it not inconceivable that this great surrender could have been made had the French Parliament been in session and public opinion, as expressed through the Press, not been subjected to a rigorous censorship? Will my right hon. Friend assure us, as I am sure he has this matter in mind, that in this country Parliament and a free Press will be maintained, so that the Government may not be cut off from the stimulus and inspiration of these patriotic elements in the country?

Mr. Churchill

It was certainly not the fault of the French Parliament—

Mr. Hore-Belisha

I agree.

Mr. Churchill

—and it was certainly not the fault of the French Press, that they were not able to comment on these matters. They were driven, pell-mell, from their seat by the rapid advance of the enemy. I trust that the measures which we shall take will prevent any similar experiences overtaking my right hon. Friend or the British Parliament. Arrangements are being made—which I cannot conceive will be necessary, but are very carefully worked out—to enable Parliament to continue to be the guide, director and support of His Majesty's Government, and for the Press also to fulfil its function in all the grave vicissitudes which may lie before us.

Mr. Maxton

The Prime Minister indicated that this was the only statement that we were to have on this particular happening until the historians came along. [HON. MEMBERS: "Next week"]. Is the Prime Minister able, at this moment, to explain more fully what he dealt with only in a word, namely, how the Reynaud Cabinet was removed and from where the Petain Cabinet derived its authority?

Mr. Churchill

I could not explain that, and certainly not in a word. It is a very difficult matter to understand the politics of another country. It is sometimes even very hard to understand the politics of one's own country.

Mr. Stokes

The Prime Minister has told us on two occasions that it was due to lack of appreciation of the position by the French High Command that the British Expeditionary Force and the rest of the French Northern Armies were not withdrawn after the break-through at Sedan. Will the Prime Minister tell us whether General Gamelin was in favour of their withdrawal, or in favour of their maintenance in Northern France?

Mr. Churchill

I do not think I could attempt to disentangle the relative responsibilities of the French High Command.

Sir Percy Harris

Can the Prime Minister give an assurance that, at an early date, there will be an opportunity for a full, free and frank discussion of the situation?

Mr. Churchill

I am very much in favour of such a discussion. I hope it will be possible.

Mr. Gallecher

Is the Prime Minister aware of the fact that the events in France have given rise in this country to the most terrific demand for a further re-organisation of the Government, in order to bring about a real people's Government, and will he take any notice of that terrific feeling which exists in the country?

Mr. Churchill

Our relations with Russia are in so agreeable a condition that I do not permit myself to make the obvious retort.