HC Deb 15 July 1941 vol 373 cc463-7
Mr. Lees-Smith

May I ask the Prime Minister whether he has any information to give the House with regard to the Russian Agreement?

The Prime Minister

Towards the end of last week it became possible to make a solemn agreement between the British and Russian Governments, carrying with it the full assent of the British and Russian people and all the great Dominions of the Crown, for united action against the common foe. Both the British and Russian Governments have undertaken to continue the war against Hitlerite Germany to the utmost of their strength, to help each other as much as possible in every way and not to make peace separately. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and the right hon. and learned Member for East Bristol (Sir Stafford Cripps), our Ambassador in Moscow, were indefatigable in carrying matters to a swift conclusion. The Agreement which has been signed, the text of which has been published, cannot fail to exercise a highly beneficial and potent influence on the future of the war. It is, of course, an Alliance, and the Russian people are now our Allies. General Smuts has, with his usual commanding wisdom, made a comment which, as it entirely represents the view of His Majesty's Government, I should like to repeat now. He says: Let no one say that we are now in league with Communists and are fighting the battle of Communism. More fitly can neutralists and fence sitters be charged with fighting the battle of Nazism. If Hitler, in his insane megalomania, has driven 'Russia to fighting in self-defence, we bless her arms and wish her all success, without for a moment identifying ourselves with her Communistic creed. Hitler has made her his enemy and not us friendly to her creed, just as previously he treacherously made her his friend without embracing her Communism. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, in these busy days, has also been instrumental in bringing about a very great measure of agreement between the Russian Soviet State and the Polish Republic. These negotiations have not yet reached their conclusion, but I am very hopeful that, aided by the statesmanship of General Sikorski, another important step will soon be taken in the marshalling of all the peoples of the world against the criminals who have darkened its life and menaced its future.

The House will also have read, I have no doubt, the good news from Syria. A military Convention has been signed, in a cordial spirit on both sides, putting an end to a period of fratricidal strife between Frenchmen and Frenchmen, and also between Frenchmen and British, Australian and Indian soldiers, all of whom drew the sword of their own free will in defence of the soil of France. The fact that our relations, such as they are, with the Vichy Government have not been worsened during these weeks of distressing fighting, when the forces on both sides acquitted themselves with so much discipline, skill and gallantry, is a proof of the deep comprehension of the French people of the true issues at stake in the world.' It is a manifestation of that same spirit which leads them to wave encouragement to our bombing aircraft, although the bombs have, in the hard fortune of war, to be cast on French territory because it is in enemy hands.

We seek no British advantage in Syria. Our only object in occupying the country has been to beat the Germans and help to win the war. We rejoice that with the aid of the forces of General de Gaulle, led by General Catroux and General Legentilhomme, we have been able to bring to the peoples of Syria and the Lebanon the restoration of their full sovereign independence. We have liberated the country from the thraldom exercised by the German Armistice Commission at Wiesbaden, and from the dangerous German intrigues and infiltration which were in progress. The historic interests of France in Syria, and the primacy of those interests over the interests of other European nations, is preserved without prejudice to the rights and sovereignty of the Syrian races.

The conclusion of this brief Syrian campaign reflects credit upon all responsible —upon General Wavell, who was able to spare the Forces first to put down the revolt in Iraq, and afterwards to act in Syria, while at the same time making vigorous head against the German and Italian Army and its strong armoured elements which have for so many months been attempting unsuccessfully to invade the Nile Valley. The actual conduct of the campaign was in the hands of General Sir Maitland Wilson, who, it will be remembered, was the General who extricated our Forces from the very great dangers by which they were encompassed in Greece. He did not tell us much about what was going on in either case, but in both cases his operations constitute an admirable example of military skill. I hope it will soon be possible to give fuller accounts to the public than they have yet received of the Syrian fighting, marked as it was by so many picturesque episodes, such as the arrival of His Majesty's Lifeguards and Royal Horse Guards, and the Essex Yeomanry, in armoured cars, across many hundreds of miles of desert, to surround and capture the oasis of Palmyra. There are many episodes of that kind, of great interest, which I trust may soon be made public.

We are entitled to say that the situation in the Nile Valley has for the time being, at any rate, been considerably improved. If anyone had predicted two months ago, when Iraq was in revolt and our people were hanging on by their eyelids at Habbaniyah, and our Ambassador was imprisoned in his Embassy at Baghdad, and when all Syria and Iraq began to be overrun by German tourists, and were in the hands of forces controlled indirectly but none the less powerfully by German authority—if anyone had predicted that we should already, by the middle of July, have cleaned up the whole of the Levant and have re-established our authority there for the time being, such a prophet would have been considered most imprudent. The heavy and indecisive fighting at Sollum by our desert Army, and the stubborn defence of Crete in which such heavy losses were inflicted on the enemy's air power, must be judged to have played their part in arriving at the general result.

Mr. Lees-Smith

May I ask the Prime Minister when the Government expect to be able to let us know the terms of the Agreement with regard to Syria?

The Prime Minister

I had hoped to include them in my statement to-day, but they have not yet been released in their final form. There are, I believe, some minor amendments which have been agreed upon, but in substance they are entirely satisfactory to His Majesty's Government.

Sir Irving Albery

I wish to put a Question arising out of the right hon. Gentleman's reference to the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for East Bristol (Sir S. Cripps), who is a Member of this House and has gone abroad on duties which are, naturally, important, under the certificate of the right hon. Gentleman. Other right hon. Gentlemen have also gone abroad to other parts of the world in similar circumstances. I desire to ask the Prime Minister whether, when these right hon. Gentlemen return on visits to this country, they are to be considered as completely banished from this House, or whether they will take the opportunity, on such occasions, of making statements from their places here to the House of Commons?

The Prime Minister

They are by no means banished from the House. They have their full rights as Members of Parliament, but those rights are usually exercised in relation to the particular official functions which Members are, from time to time, called upon to discharge.

Sir I. Albery

This matter is one of some importance. Take the case of the right hon. Gentleman who has recently gone out to the East. He may return to this country from time to time. When he returns the House of Commons may desire an opportunity of hearing from him any information which he may be able to give regarding his important function in the East, and I should like to ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he intends to allow that.

The Prime Minister

He has only just gone out there, and so the case is not likely to arise for some time, but the Minister of State is a Minister of the Crown, and is therefore just as much entitled to speak on behalf of the Government in this House as any of us here.