HC Deb 22 April 1941 vol 371 cc28-31
Mr. Lees-Smith (by Private Notice)

asked the Prime Minister whether he has any statement to make on the war situation?

The Prime Minister

Might I be allowed to preface my remarks by expressing to you, Mr. Speaker, the very great satisfaction of every part of the House at your return after your indisposition, and also our satisfaction that your indisposition kept you out of your official residence on a recent occasion.

I have no statement which could be usefully made to the House to-day, beyond what I said before we separated or what has appeared since in the newspapers. Operations of many kinds are going on, and we have others to think of besides ourselves. I should deprecate any proposal for a Debate at the present time, and I hope the House will once again show its forbearance to those who are charged with the conduct of the war, and will display to the world those qualities of poise and steadiness which have been its characteristic on so many difficult and anxious occasions.

The only piece of news I have for the House which has not yet been published, is that the Mediterranean Battle Fleet, under Admiral Cunningham, at daybreak yesterday, bombarded Tripoli harbour for 42 minutes, inflicting very heavy damage both on the port and on the shipping in the harbour, the extent of which is not at present fully known. On the way there, our aircraft of the Fleet Air Arm intercepted five German troop-carrying planes, and shot down four in flames. I have not yet heard whether they were full or empty. The Fleet was not seriously molested and suffered no loss in ships.

Mr. Hore-Belisha

The House will, of course, show all the forbearance which the Government think necessary in this situation and particularly desires not to embarrass the operations of our troops in any way. Would my right hon. Friend bear in mind, however, the absolute necessity for a proximate Debate on this subject as soon as it can possibly be held? He will be aware of the anxiety expressed in Australia at the lack of authentic news and that Parliament there has been called together for the purpose of hearing a statement. May I also ask whether it would be convenient—because it would cause far less embarrassment—for the Foreign Secretary to make a statement, in any conditions that the Government might think appropriate, upon his recent visits? Finally, may I ask my right hon. Friend—who has just told us good news, or at least comparatively good news— whether it is true that the Germans have occupied Samothrace?

The Prime Minister

I should think it not unlikely, but I have not at the moment direct confirmation of that. With regard to a Debate, it is quite obvious that once the situation reaches temporary arrest a full statement should be made to the House as to what has happened in the past. As to scanty information being given, I must frankly say that we have had the very greatest difficulty in obtaining fuller accounts, or accurate accounts, of the difficult and intricate movement of our Forces in Greece. They have been of the most complicated character and have been carried out with extraordinary skill, but we have not received from day to day—even the Government—full information from the Commanders engaged. But that has not been any hindrance to the course of the action or operation, and I have asked that we may in the future receive fuller reports, if possible without prejudice to the interests on the spot. With regard to a statement by the Foreign Secretary on his tour, either in public or in Secret Session, I should deprecate that at the present time because I do not think that the materials are available for the necessary presentation of the Government's case to the House.

Earl Winterton

May I ask my right hon. Friend whether he realises the fact that the Foreign Secretary has been abroad on a most important mission presumably—because he is one of the key members of the Government—for no less than six weeks or two months, and that there are questions, such as the position of Iraq in relation to the British Empire and the position of Spain, about which there is most calamitous news this morning? Surely he does not wish to deprive the House of its right, if it wishes to do so, of having a full statement from the Foreign Secretary, either in private or in public, about the result of his visit?

The Prime Minister

No, Sir; if there is a desire to have a statement on foreign affairs, that is one question, but to have a statement on the recent tour by the Foreign Secretary would not, in my opinion, be convenient at the present time, either to the House or in the public interest.

Commander Sir Archibald Southby

In view of my right hon. Friend's remarks about the difficulty of obtaining news from Greece, which I quite understand, does the same difficulty apply to getting authentic news as to what is going on in Libya? The public are very exercised in their minds about what is going on there and ought to be reassured if possible.

The Prime Minister

I think one is very accurately informed of what is going on in Libya—

Mr. Wedgwood

Greece is much more important.

The Prime Minister

I do not think we must embark upon comparisons of the different classes of dangerous duties which are set to His Majesty's Forces. In reply to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Epsom (Sir A. Southby), I do not think any statement on the subject of Libya would be appropriate at the present time and, indeed it may be, for a little while to come.

Mr. Shinwell

Is my right lion. Friend aware that the public are very uneasy about the situation, and that a statement, in secret obviously, by the Foreign Secretary might remove some of the uneasiness?

The Prime Minister

As to the uneasiness of the public, I am bound to say that I have not formed that view. The public are showing all those qualities of stability and phlegm, when things are not going well, that have made us what we are and have carried us thus far.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

We cannot have a debate on this subject now.