HC Deb 20 November 1941 vol 376 cc467-8
Mr. Pethick-Lawrence

Has the Prime Minister any statement to make on the situation in the Middle East?

The Prime Minister

The House will, I am sure, have been interested to learn from the Cairo communiqué that an offensive against the German and Italian armies on the Libyan front has begun. This offensive has been long and elaborately prepared, and we have waited for nearly five months in order that our Army should be well equipped with all those weapons which have made their mark in this new war. There is nothing in the world quite like the war conditions prevailing in the Libyan desert, in which swift and far-ranging movements are only possible by an extraordinary use of armour, air-power and mechanisation. The conditions are in many respects like those of sea war. The principal units involved keep wireless silence while preparing or making their rapid and extensive movements. The encounter, when it is achieved, is like a clash of fleets or flotillas, and, as in a sea battle, all may be settled one way or the other in the course of perhaps two hours. If, in this case, the enemy armour is destroyed or seriously defeated, and his air power is dominated, the plight of his infantry and artillery, crowded in the coastal regions, would evidently become serious in some respects.

The object of the British and Empire offensive is not so much the occupation of this or that locality but the destruction of the army, and primarily of the armoured forces, of the enemy. For this purpose the Army of the Western Desert took up its preliminary situations on a broad front from the sea to the Giara ut oasis, and all was in readiness by nightfall on the 17th. At dawn on the 18th the general advance began. Very heavy and exceptional rains hampered the movements of our forces, which had great distances to cover. These rains, however, appear to have been far more heavy in the coastal regions than in the desert, and may well prove more harmful to the enemy than to us. During the 18th, our Armies' came into contact with the enemy outposts at many points, and it seems certain that the enemy were taken completely by surprise.

The Desert Army is now favourably situated for a trial of strength. I do not know, up to the present, whether this trial has actually Begun, or taken place, between the heavy armoured forces, but evidently it cannot be long delayed. It is far too soon to indulge in any exultation. General Auchinleck and General Cunningham, in command, under him, of the Eighth Army, have made a brilliant and successful strategic approach and obtained positions of marked advantage. All now depends upon the battle which follows. It is evident that the next few days will see developments which will include many highly interesting features. One thing is certain, that all ranks of the British and Empire troops involved are animated by a long-pent-up and ardent desire to engage the enemy and that they will fight with the utmost resolve and devotion, feeling as they all do that this is the first time we have met the Germans at least equally well-armed and equipped and realising the part which a British victory in Libya will play upon the whole course of the war.