HC Deb 14 March 1940 vol 358 cc1506-9

3. "That such additional numbers of Officers, Seamen, Boys and Royal Marines and of Royal Marine Police, as His Majesty may deem necessary, be borne on the books of His Majesty's Ships and at the Royal Marine Divisions,, for the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1940."

First Resolution read a Second time.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House doth agree with the Committee in the said Resolution."

10.38 p.m.

Mr. Ammon (Camberwell, North)

The proceedings to-day have been notable for two things; one is the patience with which the Secretary of State for War has sat through the Debate, setting a good example, I suggest, to other Ministers. We congratulate him. The other is that my hon. Friend the Member for Morpeth (Mr. R. J. Taylor) made his first speech from this Box, and I should like to congratulate him on that effort.

There are one or two points which I wish to raise, in order to give the Parliamentary Secretary an opportunity of making a little clearer the statement he has made concerning promotions from the lower deck. My right hon. Friend the Member for Hillsborough (Mr. Alexander) referred to a contemplated promotion of about 75 during the year. If, in that, are included promotions from the warrant rank, of which there are 20 in the executive branch, besides the engineering and other branches, that will leave only 40 for the sub-lieutenant branches, to be divided between the three branches. That, presumably, modified the statement made by the hon. Member when he was last discussing these Votes. He mentioned 46 ratings under training. That is just about the same number as was announced, and only about two dozen were actually commissioned. These figures, when compared with the number of commissions given to the lower ranks between 1914 and 1918, pale into utter insignificance.

In 1915 there were 139 mate and similar commissions awarded and in 1917, the number was 148. Twenty-five years ago there were three times the number of bona fide lower-deck commissions that there are to-day. With regard to the Parliamentary Secretary's statement, I would ask whether a very high standard of education will be demanded in connection with the 700 temporary commissions, to which reference was made. Is the standard to be that of the university or public school, or will the commissions also be open to persons who are not up to that standard?

There is another point to which I wish to refer and on which I believe the House will be in agreement with me. We have, rightly, paid tribute to the men of the Royal Navy and the merchant service but we sometimes forget another branch of activity at sea, namely, that of the lifeboat service. The men of this service are called out at all hours of the night. They have to show, what has been termed "two o'clock in the morning" courage. Their normal occupation is to undertake difficult and hazardous tasks. The House will be glad to know that the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty have recognised their services in a letter received recently by the Management Committee of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and the consent of the House, I would like to have this appreciation of their services on record. The Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty say: I am commanded by My Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty to inform you that they are deeply impressed by the fine services of the crews of the National Lifeboats, especially those on the East Coast, which already in the first few months of warfare have achieved the saving of so many valuable lives. They are aware that these services have been given in foul weather, high seas and bitter cold, with an exemplary spirit of courage and endurance, in which, without fear or thought of self, the lifeboatmen have never spared their strength and skill in helping their brother sailors in distress from the dangers of the sea and the violence of the enemy; and that in a long and great tradition the calls on their seamanship and hardihood have never been so heavy, or more gladly answered. On behalf of the Royal Navy, My Lords beg the Royal Lifeboat Service to accept, as from seamen to seamen, this brief tribute to the spirit and exploits of the life boatmen in time of war. The Debate this evening has largely turned on the Army, but perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary to the Admiralty can tell us whether the statement as to allowances to men in the naval services will be included in the White Paper. In conclusion, I am sure that the Secretary of State for War would be the very first to agree that the Army could not be maintained in the field if it were not for the work of the Royal Navy in keeping open the channels of communication, of supply of materials and food, both for the civil population and the military. Therefore it is essential that, just as we understand that promotions are being made from the lower to the higher ranks of the Army, an assurance should be given that the men in the Royal Navy are to have an equal opportunity, as far as possible.

10.45 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Admiralty (Mr. Shakespeare)

I should like to pay a tribute to the clear, precise and friendly way in which the hon. Member has raised this matter. I understand that the White Paper dealing with allowances covers the Army and the Navy. I am glad that he concluded by giving publicity to a letter written by the Board of Admiralty to the men of the lifeboat service; the whole country appreciates what they have done and the fact that they are engaged against a ruthless enemy—storms and bad weather. The hon. Member raised briefly the question, in which he has always shown great interest, of promotions from the lower deck and asked two questions. First, he referred to the promise given by my right hon. Friend that 75 men from the lower deck, for whom the Navy would be a permanent career, would receive commissions. My right hon. Friend said that 75 would be a minimum, and if we achieve this total we shall be very considerably accelerating the rate of promotion. Only three or four years ago the rate of promotion in all branches was eight a year, and if we achieve 75 this year we shall be on the right lines.

As regards his reference to men joining for the period of hostilities, we hope to promote some 700 men. The Navy is always growing, and already we have had confidential reports in respect of 400 men in training establishments and reports are coming in on men who have done three months at sea. I think that instead of 700 men receiving commissions from the lower deck, I should be surprised if we do not reach 1,000 in the course of this year alone, and many more next year. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the only considerations that will apply for promotion are merit and a gift of leadership.

I would like to apologise to the hon. and gallant Member for Epsom (Sir A. Southby). On reading the OFFICIAL REPORT, I found that I had done him less than justice in winding up my speech on the Navy Estimates. In referring to the Battle of the River Plate, I objected to what I thought was his use of the word "luck" in connection with that brilliant victory. I found that he did not use this word, but that, after congratulating the captains, he said they were fortunate in being able to get to battle.

Question, "That this House doth agree with the Committee in the said Resolution," put, and agreed to.

Ordered, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide, during 12 months, for the discipline and regulation of the Army and the Air Force; and that Mr. Stanley, Mr. Churchill, Sir Kingsley Wood, Sir Victor Warrender and Captain Balfour do prepare and bring it in.