HC Deb 05 September 1940 vol 365 cc28-48

4.19 p.m.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Churchill)

The memorable transactions between Great Britain and the United States, which I foreshadowed when I last addressed the House, have now been completed. As far as I can make out, they have been completed to the general satisfaction of the British and American peoples and to the encouragement of our friends all over the world. It would be a mistake to try to read into the official notes which have passed more than the documents bear on their face. The exchanges which have taken place are simply measures of mutual assistance rendered to one another by two friendly nations, in a spirit of confidence, sympathy and good will. These measures are linked together in a formal agreement. They must be accepted exactly as they stand. Only very ignorant persons would suggest that the transfer of American destroyers to the British flag constitutes the slightest violation of international law or affects in the smallest degree the non-belligerency of the United States.

I have no doubt that Herr Hitler will not like this transference of destroyers, and I have no doubt that he will pay the United States out, if ever he gets the chance. That is why I am very glad that the army, air and naval frontiers of the United States have been advanced along a wide are into the Atlantic Ocean, and that this will enable them to take danger by the throat while it is still hundreds of miles away from their homeland. The Admiralty tell us also that they are very glad to have these 50 destroyers, and that they will come in most conveniently to bridge the gap which, I have previously explained to the House, inevitably intervenes before our considerable war-time programme of new construction comes into service.

I suppose the House realises that we shall be a good deal stronger next year on the sea than we are now, although that is quite strong enough for the immediate work in hand. There will be no delay in bringing the American destroyers into active service; in fact, British crews are already meeting them at the various ports where they are being delivered. You might call it the long arm of coincidence. I really do not think that there is any more to be said about the whole business at the present time. This is not the appropriate occasion for rhetoric. Perhaps I may, however, very respectfully, offer this counsel to the House: When you have got a thing where you want it, it is a good thing to leave it where it is.

The House has no doubt observed—to change the subject—that Rumania has undergone severe territorial mutilation. Personally, I have always thought that the Southern part of Dobrudia ought to be restored to Bulgaria, and I have never been happy about the way in which Hungary was treated after the last war. We have not at any time adopted, since this war broke out, the line that nothing could be changed in the territorial structure of various countries. On the other hand, we do not propose to recognise any territorial changes which take place during the war, unless they take place with the free consent and good will of the parties concerned. No one can say how far Herr Hitler's empire will extend before this war is over, but I have no doubt that it will pass away as swiftly as, and perhaps more swiftly than, did Napoleon's Empire, although, of course, without any of its glitter or its glory.

The general air battle, of which I spoke the last time we met together, continues. In July, there was a good deal of air activity, but August has been a real fighting month. Neither side has put out its full strength, but the Germans have made a very substantial and important effort to gain the mastery, and they have certainly put forth a larger proportion of their total air strength than we have found it necessary, up to the present, to employ against them. Their attempt to dominate the Royal Air Force and our anti-aircraft defences, by daylight attacks, has proved very costly for them. The broad figures of three to one in machines and six to one in pilots and crews, of which we are sure, do not by any means represent the total injuries inflicted upon the enemy. We must be prepared for heavier fighting in this month of September. The need of the enemy to obtain a decision is very great, and if he has the numbers with which we have hitherto credited him, he should be able to magnify and multiply his attacks during September.

Firm confidence is felt by all the responsible officers of the Royal Air Force in our ability to withstand this largely increased scale of attack, and we have no doubt that the whole nation, taking its example from our airmen, have been proud to share their dangers and will stand up to the position grim and gay. Now is the chance of the men and women in the factories to show their mettle, and for all of us to try to be worthy of our boys in the air and not make their task longer or harder by the slightest flinching. That, I know, is the temper of the nation, and even if the average attack is doubled or trebled—which last is most unlikely—and however long it continues, we believe that we can stand it and that we shall emerge from it actually and relatively stronger in the air than we were before.

Our Air Force to-day is more numerous and better equipped than it was at the outbreak of the war, or even in July, and, to the best of our belief, we are far nearer to the total of the German numerical strength, as we estimate it, than we expected to he at this period in the war. I asked that the German claims of British aircraft destroyed during July and August should be added up. I was curious to see the total to which they would amount. I found them to make the surprising total of 1,921 British air-craft destroyed. That total is rather like the figures we heard about of losses among our Fleet, many ships of which have been sunk several times over. The actual figure of British losses, which we have published daily for these last two months, is 558. Our loss in pilots is, of course, happily very much less. I do not know whether Herr Hitler believes the truth of his own published figures. I hope he does. Ons is always content to see an enemy plunged in error and self-deception. How very differently this air attack which is now raging has turned out from what we imagined it would be before the war. More than 150,000 beds have stood open and, thank God, empty in our war hospitals for a whole year. When the British people make up their minds to go to war they expect to receive terrible injuries. That is why we tried to remain at peace as long as possible. So far as the air attack is concerned, up to the present we have found it far less severe than what we prepared ourselves to endure and what we are still ready, if necessary, to endure. One thousand and seventy-five civilians were killed during August in Britain, and a slightly greater number seriously injured. Our sympathy goes out to the wounded and to those who are bereaved, but no one can pretend that out of 45,000,000 people these are losses which, even if multiplied as they may be two or three times, would be serious compared to the majestic world issues which are at stake. Apart from minor or readily reparable injuries, about 800 houses have been destroyed or damaged beyond repair. I am not talking of what can be put right very quickly or what is worth while to put right, but 800 houses were actually damaged beyond repair out of a total in this island of 13,000,000 houses.

This, of course, is very different from the estimate of damage which was given to the War Committee which considered and decided against the possibility of an insurance scheme against air-raid damage to property. It would, in my judgment. be worth while for a further examination of such a scheme, particularly as it would affect the small man, and to make this examination in the light of facts which we now know and also of future possibilities about which we are in a far better position to form an opinion than we were before the war began. I have therefore asked my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to consider the best way of making such a review in the light of the facts as they are to-day. It is very painful to me to see, as I have seen in my journeys about the country, a small British house or business smashed by the enemy's fire, and to see that without feeling assured that we are doing our best to spread the burden so that we all stand in together. Damage by enemy action stands on a different footing from any other kind of loss or damage, because the nation undertakes the task of defending the lives and property of its subjects and taxpayers against assaults from outside. Unless public opinion and the judgment of the House were prepared to separate damage resulting from the fire of the enemy from all those other forms of war loss, and unless the House was prepared to draw the distinction very sharply between war damage by bomb and shell and the other forms of loss which are incurred, we could not attempt to deal with this matter; otherwise we should be opening up a field to which there would be no bounds. If, however, we were able to embark upon such a project as would give complete insurance, at any rate up to a certain minimum figure, for every one against war damage by shell or bomb, I think it would be a very solid mark of the confidence which after some experience we are justified in feeling about the way in which we are going to come through this war.

In the meanwhile, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who has to give so many halfpence and take so many kicks, and upon whose wisdom and practical good sense those who have been his colleagues have learned to rely—and I can assure the House that it is no mere flattery in order to get the money out of him—has agreed to the following arrangements, in addition to the satisfactory provisions which have already been made in respect of the personal injuries and immediate needs of those smitten. At present in cases where the income of the claimant's household does not exceed £400 a year and his resources are limited, payments are made to cover damage to essential household furniture up to a maximum of £50, and similar payments are made in respect of personal clothing up to £30, subject to income limits of £400 where there are dependants and £250 where there are no dependants. It is now proposed to abolish these upper limits of £50 and £30 respectively, so that payments for damage to the furniture or clothing of persons of limited means will now be made up to 100 per cent. of the damage, whatever that amount may be. Hitherto there has been no provision to enable workmen to replace tools which are their personal property and the use of which is vital to their employment. It is proposed to remedy this hardship by making provision for payments for these purposes, subject to the same income limits which apply in the case of the clothing advances. Similar payments will be made to professional people within the same limits of income. Finally, there is the case of the small retailer who is not insured under the Board of Trade Commodities Insurance Scheme. Here payments up to £50 will be made within the same income limits as for clothing and tools, in order to enable those retailers to replace stocks essential to the continuance of trade. I may say that in all these three cases appropriate mitigating measures will be taken in the borderline cases lying just above the income limits.

Then there is the case of the coast towns which have been declared to be evacuation areas for the purpose of the Defence (Evacuated Areas) Regulations. Upon this a number of Members, as was their duty, have made representations to the Government. The Ministry of Health will be prepared, upon an application from the authorities of these areas, to make advances out of Exchequer funds to enable the authorities to meet liabilities for which collectable rate revenue will not suffice. These advances will be free of interest. The term "advances" in this case is understood to mean that the Government retain the right to call for repayment, but the question how far this right will be exercised will be considered after the war in the light of the financial circumstances then prevailing, both in the areas interested and in the country generally. These advances must be conditional upon the examination of the estimates of expenditure and of revenue, and for this purpose my right hon. Friend the Minister of Health will arrange for officers of the Ministry of Health to visit the towns concerned and to confer with the mayors and principal officials—very plucky fellows, some of them; one is proud to meet them. Such conferences will afford an opportunity for advising and assisting the local authorities upon the best means of securing reasonable economy consistent with the maintenance of essential services, and they will also advise them about the collection of revenue. These local authorities will not in the present circumstances be required to increase their existing rate of poundage as a condition of financial assistance. It is recognised that the shortage of rate income will involve a deficit in the sums collected by rates levied for meeting county council precepts. It is understood that some of the local authorities are, in fact, proposing to limit their payments in respect of county precepts to that proportion of the total rate which represents the county rate which they have been able to collect. The Government propose to recognise and validate these arrangements, and if in any case an unreasonable burden was thereby thrown upon the country's resources, the Government would not refuse to consider the possibility of extending to the county council some measure of assistance.

I think the House will see that we have been endeavouring to meet the cases both of individuals and of local authorities as they are affected by the conditions into which we have moved. We must expect for some time to come to have to live our lives and to carry on our work under these strange conditions, but they are conditions to which the fortitude and adaptiveness of the British people will not, we feel, be found unequal. If, as was suggested in a recent oration, there is to be a contest of nerve, will-power and endurance in which the whole British and German peoples are to engage, be it sharp or be it long, we shall not shrink from it. We believe that the spirit and temperament bred under institutions of freedom will prove more enduring and resilient than anything that can be got out of the most efficiently enforced mechanical discipline.

In the light of what we have learned so far with regard to the arrangements for air-raid warnings—here I come to the point on which I have been asked by the hon and gallant Gentleman opposite me —we have come to the conclusion that the arrangements for air-raid warnings and what is to be done when they are given, which appears to be another question, require very considerable changes. There is really no good sense in having these prolonged banshee howlings from sirens two or three times a day over wide areas, simply because hostile aircraft are flying to or from some target which no one can possibly know or even guess. All our precaution regulations have hitherto been based on this siren call, and I must say that one must admire the ingenuity of those who devised it as a means of spreading alarm. Indeed, most people now see how very wise Ulysses was when he stopped the ears of his sailors from all siren songs and had himself tied up firmly to the mast of duty.

Now that we are settling down to the job, we must have different arrangements from those devised before the war. It is right that everyone should know now that the red warning is more in the nature of a general alert than a warning of the imminence of danger to any particular locality. In many cases it is physically impossible to give the alarm before the attack. Constant alarms come to be something in the nature of no alarm. Yet while they give no protection to very great numbers of people, who take no notice of them, they undoubtedly exercise a disturbing effect upon necessary war work. All our regulations, and much preaching, have taught people that they should take a whole series of steps, mostly of a downward character, when they hear the siren sound, and it is no use having official regulations which point one way and enjoin immediate respect for the alarm when exhortations are given, unofficially or officially, to disregard them and go on working. In our own case to-day, it was felt that the red warning should be taken merely as an alert, but that if special circumstances indicated the proximity of danger then the conditions of alarm should supervene. That is exactly what we did on receiving information that there was danger of a particular kind in the vicinity; and when that special condition departed we immediately resumed our work under the conditions of alert until the "All Clear," which has now sounded, restored us to normal. Something like this unrehearsed experiment may well give us guidance in our future treatment of the problem. All our regulations require to be shaped to the new basis which is being established by actual contact with events.

The responsibility to give clear guidance to the public in time of war is imposed upon His Majesty's Government. In order to preserve the confidence shown them by the House and by the public, the Government must act with conviction. I have, therefore, asked the various Departments concerned to review the whole position as a matter of urgency. In these matters one must expect to proceed by trial and error, and one must also try to carry public opinion along. What we want, on the one hand, is the greatest measure of real warning that is compatible with what all our people are resolved upon, namely, the active maintenance of war production. I will not make any specific announcement to-day, because we are in negotiation with very important bodies concerned, employers and employed, throughout the country. We want to move in these matters with sureness, precision and clarity, and no uncertainty or doubt, and I would like to have the opportunity of a little further consultation with the different bodies that are now in touch with the Government. This is a matter, of course, which affects scores of millions of people. Therefore, I will not attempt to make any specific announcement to-day, but such an announcement must be made within the next week, at the latest. I think I have given the House a pretty clear indication of what is in our thoughts, and of the direction in which we are thinking of moving at the present time.

There is another point which I should like to mention, and that is this business of lighting the streets, the centres of the cities of our country. [An HON. MEMBER: "Motor cars."] Well, it is a difficult question. When my hon. Friend says, "Motor cars," he does not simplify it, but raises a point which has to be borne in mind. Winter is coming along, and I hope we are not going through all that gloomy business that we went through last year. I have, therefore, asked a committee of persons deeply versed in this matter, responsible people in the Departments, to meet together, and to see in what way we can make more light and cheer in the winter months, and at the same time subserve the purposes of alert and alarm. Such a course is not at all impossible, and I hope to come forward with some proposals, necessarily of a highly detailed character.

I do not mean to trespass at any length upon the time of the House this afternoon, because our affairs are evidently very largely in the region of action. No one must suppose that the danger of invasion has passed. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War—to whom I would have gladly paid some compliments if he had not already forestalled me, in a very charming manner, and probably robbed any compliments of some of their intrinsic value—is absolutely right in enjoining the strictest vigilance upon the great and growing armies which are now entrusted in this country to the command of Sir Alan Brooke. I do not agree with those who assume that after the 15th September—or whatever is Herr Hitler's latest date—we shall be free from the menace of deadly attack from overseas; because winter, with its storms, its fogs, its darkness, may alter the conditions, but some of the changes cut both ways. There must not be for one moment any relaxation of effort or of wise precaution, both of which are needed to save our lives and to save our cause. I shall not, however, be giving away any military secrets if I say that we are very much better off than we were a few months ago, and that if the problem of invading Great Britain was a difficult one in June, it has become a far more difficult and a far larger problem in September.

Indeed, while all this preparation for home defence has been going forward on a gigantic scale, we have not hesitated to send a continuous stream of convoys with reinforcements to the Middle East. In particular, a few days ago we found it possible almost to double the effective strength of our Fleet in the Eastern Mediterranean by sending some of our most powerful modern vessels to reinforce the flag of Sir Andrew Cunningham, the admiral in the Eastern Mediterranean. This movement, while plainly visible to the Italians, was not molested by them. Some of our great ships touched at Malta on the way, and carried a few things that were needed by those valiant islanders and their garrison, who, under a remarkably resolute Governor, General Dobbie, are maintaining themselves with the utmost constancy. We must expect heavy fighting in the Middle East before very long. We have every intention of maintaining our positions there with our utmost strength, and of increasing our sea power, and the control which follows from sea power, throughout the Mediterranean, not only in the Eastern basin but in the Western basin. In this way, both at home and abroad, we shall persevere along our course, however the winds may blow.