HC Deb 02 May 1940 vol 360 cc906-13
Mr. Attlee (Stepney, Limehouse)

Is the Prime Minister now able to make a statement on the position in Norway?

The Prime Minister

I should like first to thank the House for their indulgence in not pressing me to make a statement earlier in the week upon the operations in Norway. I know how many must have been longing for news even of the most meagre description, but hon. Members have realised the difficulty of making any such statement without disclosing information which would have been of value to the enemy, and they have refrained from asking those questions to which they and the country have naturally been so anxious to obtain an answer. I am afraid I must ask them to exercise their patience a little longer before I can give them a full story, for it is impossible to make public as yet plans and movements which are not complete. I can, therefore, only make an interim statement to-day but I hope that the First Lord of the Admiralty and I may be able to say a good deal more early next week when, no doubt, the House will desire to debate the whole subject in the light of the information before them.

The House will, of course, remember that some three months ago we had made preparations for the despatch of an Allied force to the assistance of Finland. The possibility of reaching Finland was dependent upon the collaboration of the Governments of Norway and Sweden and, realising that even their acquiescence in the passage of Allied troops might involve them in an invasion by Germany, we prepared other forces to go to their assistance in that contingency. It did not escape our attention that in such a case Trondheim and other western ports of Norway as well as the aerodrome at Stavanger might well be the subject of attack by Germany, and accordingly further forces again were made ready to occupy these places. I should, however, make it clear that the instructions to the commanders of these forces provided that they were only to proceed to the occupation in one of two conditions: either that they were invited to do so by the Norwegian Government, or that Norwegian neutrality had already been violated.

The House is aware that permission to send troops to Finland through Norway and Sweden was refused; and, after a certain period, the greater part of the forces which had been accumulated were dispersed, since both they and the ships which were allocated for their transport were wanted elsewhere. About a month ago, however, it was decided that certain small forces should be kept in readiness to occupy Norwegian Western ports at short notice, in case of an act of aggression by Germany against South Norway. It will be noted again that any action contemplated by us on Norwegian soil was conditional upon prior violation of Norwegian neutrality by Germany.

It has been asked how it was that, in spite of these preparations, Germany was able to forestall us. The answer is simple. It was by long-planned, carefully-elaborated treachery against an unsuspecting and almost unarmed people. We had been aware for many months that the Germans were accumulating transports and troops in Baltic ports, and that these troops were constantly being practised in embarkation and disembarkation. It was evident that some act of aggression was in contemplation, but these forces were equally available for attack upon Finland, Sweden, Norway, Holland, or this country, and it was impossible to tell beforehand where the blow would fall. If we had known that Denmark and Norway were to be the victims, we could not have prevented what happened, without the co-operation of those countries. But, in the belief that their neutrality would save them, they took no precautions, and they gave us no warning of an attack, which, indeed, they never suspected.

It will be remembered that in the early days of April, His Majesty's Government decided that they could no longer tolerate the continued use of Norwegian territorial waters as a long communication trench by which Germany could obtain constant supplies of iron ore and other contraband, and they had decided that on 8th April minefields would be laid at three points within Norwegian territorial waters, which would force this traffic out on to the high seas, where it could be intercepted. It is a curious chance that this date of 8th April, decided upon by His Majesty's Government for this minor operation, should have coincided almost exactly with that chosen by the German Government for their long-prepared invasion of Norway.

The Norwegian campaign opened on Sunday, 7th April, when we got information that a large German naval force was moving towards and along the West Coast of Norway. That evening the main Battle Fleet and the Second Cruiser Squadron sailed from Scapa and Rosyth in the hope of engaging the enemy. On Monday, 8th April, the First Cruiser Squadron sailed to join in the operations. On the morning of 9th April German land forces entered Denmark, and, aided by internal treachery, prepared long beforehand, naval forces seized and landed troops at Oslo, Stavanger, Bergen and Trondheim.

On the same day His Majesty's Ship "Renown," which was accompanying the destroyers watching over the minefield near Narvik, engaged the German battle cruiser "Scharnhorst" off the Northern coast of Norway opposite Narvik in extremely bad weather conditions and low visibility, inflicting considerable damage, although full reports of this were not available until the 11th. In the meantime, our destroyers had discovered a number of enemy vessels which had entered the Narvik Fjord under cover of a snowstorm, and on the next day they fought the action in which their gallant Commander, Captain Warburton Lee, lost his life, and other losses were sustained, but in which heavy damage was inflicted on the German destroyers and the merchant vessels in the Fjord.

In view of the obscurity of the situation in Central Norway and the import- ance of securing Narvik, our first military forces, which we had promptly assembled, sailed direct to the Narvik area, arriving there on 15th April. In the meantime, the very successful naval attack on 13th April completely destroyed the enemy's naval forces at that port, and made it unnecessary to utilise for the capture of Narvik all the forces originally earmarked for that operation.

In deciding upon our further action, the objectives which we had in view were:—first, to give all the support and assistance in our power to the Norwegians; second, to resist or delay the German advance from the South; and, third, to facilitate the rescue and protection of the Norwegian King and Government. It was obvious that these objectives could be most speedily attained if it were possible to capture Trondheim, and, in spite of the hazardous nature of the operation, with the Germans in possession of the place and in occupation of the only really efficient aerodrome in South-West Norway, at Stavanger, we resolved to make the effort. Since any landing would probably be opposed, it was essential that the first contingents should go as light as possible, to secure bases to which the heavier equipment could subsequently be transported, and two landing places were selected, respectively North and South of Trondheim.

At Namsos in the North, Naval forces landed on 14th April and were followed by British troops on the 16–18th. A few days later, the French Chasseurs Alpins landed, and the arrival of these staunch and experienced troops was a welcome support to our men. Part of (his force advanced rapidly to the neighbourhood of Steinkjer to support the Norwegians who were known to be holding that place. South of Trondheim, the Naval party landed at Andalsnes on 17th April, followed by troops on 18th and 19th April. These advanced to the important railway junction of Dombaas, and a contingent went on to the South and joined the Norwegians who were opposing at Lillehammer the main German advance from the South.

I cannot to-day give any details of the fighting which has taken place on both fronts since the landing took place. All that can be said at present is that our troops fought with gallantry and determination, and inflicted heavy losses upon the enemy. Nevertheless, the Allied forces in these regions were faced, as we had realised that they would be faced, with serious difficulties. Foremost among these was the fact that the available aerodromes were already in enemy hands. The most effective defence against air attack—the use of fighter aircraft—was thus largely denied to us, and any hon. Members who have suffered the experience of being bombed from the air by low-flying aeroplanes will know how greatly the supply and movement of troops are hampered.

In the circumstances, it became evident to us some days ago that it would be impossible, owing to the German local air superiority, to land the artillery and tanks which would be necessary in order to enable our troops to withstand the enemy drive from the South. It must be remembered that, in spite of the magnificent work by British submarines and a French flotilla in the Skaggerack and the unceasing efforts of the Royal Air Force, particularly in bombing the aerodromes at Aalborg, in Denmark, the starting point, and Oslo, the landing place, of German troop carriers, it has always been possible for the Germans, with their usual disregard of life, even of their own people, to send reinforcements to Norway at a much greater rate than would be open to us with the inadequate landing places that we have to rely on.

Accordingly, we decided last week that we must abandon any idea of taking Trondheim from the South and that we must, therefore, withdraw our troops from that area and transfer them elsewhere. The operation of withdrawal in face of the enemy is one which has always been recognised as among the most delicate and difficult of military operations, and the action of Sir John Moore at Corunna, though accompanied by heavy loss of life, including the Commander, has taken its place among the classic examples of British military skill. In the present instance, we have been more fortunate. Thanks to the powerful forces which the Navy was able to bring to bear and the determination and skilful dispositions of General Paget, in command of the British land forces in the area, backed by the splendid courage and tenacity of the troops, we have now withdrawn the whole of our forces from Andalsnes under the very noses of the German aeroplanes, without, as far as I am aware, losing a single man in this operation. I should like to express my profound admiration for the mannerin which all ranks have performed their tasks in the area South of Trondheim. I cannot yet give the House particulars of the casualties which our forces have sustained in the various operations, but I hope, and I have some reason to believe, that they have not been heavy in proportion to the scale of operations. I expect that we shall be able to get more detailed reports before long, and I trust that this most distressing but inevitable period of uncertainty may not be prolonged. Although in the face of the overwhelming difficulties of the situation, it has not been possible to effect the capture of the town, I am satisfied that the balance of advantage lies up to the present with the Allied Forces.

It may be useful if I examine this point in somewhat greater detail. I have no doubt that the Germans expected a walk-over in Norway, as in Denmark. That expectation has been frustrated by the courage of the Norwegian people and by the efforts of the Allies. After three weeks of war, in which heavy losses have been sustained by the enemy on the sea, on land and in the air, Norway is not conquered, while the considerable supplies of ore which Germany was formerly obtaining from Narvik have been indefinitely suspended. During the period of just over three weeks the German Naval losses amount to a serious figure. They include two capital ships damaged, certainly three, possibly four, cruisers sunk, eleven destroyers sunk, and five U-boats sunk. Thirty transports and store ships have been sunk, scuttled, or set on fire, with a loss of several thousands of lives. A further ten transport or store ships have been struck by our torpedoes and probably sunk.

The losses sustained by the Royal Navy in the same period are: Four destroyers, three submarines, one sloop and five trawlers sunk. Five other warships have been damaged by air attack, and one store ship has also been sunk by U-boat torpedo. It will be seen from these figures that, whereas the strength and efficiency of the Royal Navy have been little, if at all, affected, the injury to the German Navy has been so substantial as to alter the entire balance of naval power, and to permit an important re-distribution of the main Allied fleets. In this connection, I might mention that it has been thought possible to revert to the more normal distribution of ships in the Mediterranean, which has for some time been affected by our requirements in the North Sea. A British and French battle fleet, with cruisers and ancillary craft, is already in the Eastern basin of the Mediterranean on its way to Alexandria.

Returning to the Norway campaign, the German losses in men, whether from the sinking of war vessels, from the destruction of transports or in the course of the fighting in Norway itself on land and in the air, cannot be estimated with any accuracy, but they must have amounted to many thousands. At this moment, I would say to any who may be drawing hasty conclusions from the fact that for the present we have not succeeded in taking Trondheim, "It is far too soon to strike the Norwegian balance-sheet yet, for the campaign has merely concluded a single phase in which it is safe to say that if we have not achieved our objective, neither have the Germans achieved theirs, while their losses are far greater than ours."

But I would take this opportunity of addressing a warning both to this House and to the country. We have no intention of allowing Norway to become merely a side show, but neither are we going to be trapped into such a dispersal of our forces as would leave us dangerously weak at the vital centre. We know that our enemy hold a central position. They have immense forces always mounted ready for attack, and the attack can be launched with lightning rapidity in any one of many fields. We know that they are prepared, and would not scruple, to invade Holland, or Belgium, or both. Or it may be that their savage hordes will be hurled against their innocent neighbours in the South-East of Europe. They might well do more than one of these things in preparation for an attempt at a large-scale attack on the Western Front or even a lightning swoop on this country. It would be foolish indeed to reveal to the enemy our conception of the strategy best calculated to secure their defeat. But this can be said—for it is obvious—that we must not so disperse or tie up our forces as to weaken our freedom of action in vital emergencies which may at any momentarise. We must seize every chance, as we have done and shall continue to do in Norway, to inflict damage upon the enemy, but we must not allow ourselves to forget the long-term strategy which will win the war.

Mr. Speaker, let me repeat that what I have said is only an interim statement. Certain operations are in progress, and we must do nothing which might jeopardise the lives of those engaged in them. I would, therefore, ask the House to defer comment and question until we can have the Debate next week, when I anticipate that that particular difficulty will not arise.

Mr. Attlee

In normal conditions, in view of the very important statement that the Prime Minister has made, one would have liked to have had a full discussion in this House on the issues which are raised, but the safety of our men must be the paramount consideration, and the Prime Minister has said that an opportunity will be afforded for a wider discussion next week. In those circumstances I think it would be inadvisable and wrong for me to put any Supplementary Questions to the Prime Minister.

Sir Archibald Sinclair

While my hon. Friends and I are grateful to the Prime Minister for the statement which he has made to-day, for which the House and the country have been anxiously awaiting, I agree with him that it would be inadvisable to have a discussion to-day. I am glad that he has given us this assurance, that we shall have an opportunity to do so at a very early stage. May I only say this before I sit down, that I hope we shall have more than one day's Debate? I am quite sure that there are Members in all parts of the House who will want to take part in the Debate, which must not be one which is confined to a few leading speakers. Therefore, I hope there will be ample opportunity for Members of the rank and file in all parts of the House.

The Prime Minister

I shall be quite prepared to discuss the suggestion which the right hon. Gentleman has made, through the usual channels.

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