HC Deb 15 December 1942 vol 385 cc1769-71
45. Rear-Admiral Sir Murray Sueter

asked the Prime Minister whether his attention has been called to the speech of Field-Marshal Smuts which emphasises the need for the rapid and intensive development of important clues now under consideration by Service and scientific experts in connection with anti-U-boat warfare; and whether, to ensure adequate concentration on this issue, he will consider improving the present scheme under which the co-ordination of the various means of counter-attack has been placed in the hands of a Minister simultaneously charged with the responsibility of an important war-time department of State?

46. Mr. Salt

asked the Prime Minister whether, in view of the vital importance of the work of the Committee; set up to co-ordinate and develop anti-U-boat war fare, he will consider the desirability of appointing a whole-time chairman or vice-chairman; whether he is satisfied that the Minister of Aircraft Production has sufficient time to spare for this function as well as his own Department; and whether it is possible to make public any further details about the composition of the Committee and the frequency of its meetings?

The Prime Minister (Mr. Churchill)

The prime and direct conduct of the war against the U-boats rests with the Admiralty, who have at their disposal the full assistance of the Coastal Command of the Royal Air Force. However, various other Departments are also closely involved. All this proceeds under my responsibility as Minister of Defence. In February, 1941, I formed the Battle of the Atlantic Committee and instituted meetings under my personal direction, in order to focus and emphasise the need for supreme exertions and to make sure that there was proper concert between all authorities. Meetings were held at first weekly, and later at longer intervals. Eighteen were held in 1941 and 1942. As the House knows, a very great alleviation of our losses occurred up till December, 1941, and I was satisfied during 1942 that the organisation was running with complete smoothness and efficiency.

In October, 1942, I felt that a new, additional effort was needed on account of the ever more important part which the air has begun to play in anti-U-boat warfare, and of the consequential and complicated technical developments of air weapons of all kinds. I therefore reconstructed the Battle of the Atlantic Committee in a new form and with a somewhat different grouping of Departments, under the title of the Anti-U-boat Warfare Committee. The first meeting of this Committee was held on 4th November. I asked the Minister of Aircraft Production, who at that time was Lord Privy Seal, to act as my Deputy on the Committee on account of the special aptitudes which he possesses in forming a sound lay opinion upon these highly technical issues. I invited Field-Marshal Smuts, who rightly realised the prime importance of the U-boat war, to attend the second and third meetings of this Committee. Although the Committee had been set up before Field-Marshal Smuts' speech, to which reference has been made, and was not in fact due to any representations on his part, several important decisions were taken at the third meeting, and this is no doubt what he had in mind in the passage in question. In order that the Field-Marshal should be thoroughly acquainted with our machinery for combating U-boats, I arranged not only that he should attend the Committee but that he should visit the Admiralty and confer with the experts there both on the technical and tactical aspects. He was impressed with what he learnt, and has authorised me to say that he was satisfied with the character and efficiency of the system.

It is not usual to give the exact composition of Cabinet Committees, but I am willing as it is not a formal Cabinet Committee (as others who are not Ministers are on it), and provided if is not taken as a precedent, to make an exception in this case. The members of the Committee are:

  • The Prime Minister (in the Chair),
  • Minister of Aircraft Production (Deputy Chairman),
  • Minister of Production,
  • First Lord of the Admiralty,
  • Secretary of State for Air,
  • Minister of War Transport,
  • The First Sea Lord,
  • Chief of the Air Staff,
other technical advisers being present as required. The meetings normally take place once a week; so far there have been six of them, at all of which I have presided. It must not, however, be supposed that this Committee in any way supersedes or replaces the regular and systematic control of anti-U-boat warfare by the Admiralty.

There is no question of appointing a naval super-Commander-in-Chief under the Admiralty or a special Minister to deal with the anti-U-boat campaign. The war at sea is all one, and the Admiralty organisation has been adapted by continual improvement and refinement to deal with it as a whole. It would be impossible to disentangle the anti-U-boat warfare or its control from the general organisation, and I should not recommend any attempt to do so.