§ Order for Committee read.
§ Mr. A. V. ALEXANDER'S STATEMENT.
§ The First Lord of the Admiralty (Mr. A. V. Alexander)
I beg to move, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair."
The House meets to-day to review the work of the Royal Navy and its administration in the midst of a battle for sea 370 power now being conducted in every ocean and almost every sea in the world. Never has the fundamental need of this nation of adequate sea power been more fully or painfully demonstrated. For two and a half years the Navy has been fighting every day and every night, with heavy casualties. I am reminded of the lines:We have fed our sea for a thousand years,And she calls us still unfed;Though there's never a wave in all her waves,But marks our English dead.If this be the price of Admiralty,Lord God we ha' paid in full.And so I would like to begin my narrative to-day with a tribute to the work of our personnel at sea. Never in our history have British sea traditions been more worthily exemplified than in the gallant, loyal and dogged endurance of the officers and men of the Royal Navy. This is in spite of the fact that the expanded manning of the Fleet during the last two years and a half by as much as three or four times its peace strength, has called into sea service hundreds of thousands of young civilians from all sections of the nation. This has been a more rapid expansion than in any previous war. The variety of dangers to be met has been far greater, yet so keen has been the desire of our manhood to serve in the Fleet, that thousands who wished to join have had to be disappointed. In every class and category of naval service, great work has been done. Thousands of our men have proved themselves as fine as ever our race produced. In the battleships and carriers, in the cruisers and destroyers, in the submarines and the corvettes, in the minesweepers—and, lest I forget, I would like to say what a magnificent job the minesweepers have done in face of new and deadly forms of mines; they have swept thousands of mines although at the cost of casualties to themselves—and in the armed trawlers, the new varieties of motorcraft and auxiliary vessels, and in the Fleet Air Arm, we have, without exception, the same record of faithful, unswerving performance of duty in face of all hazards. Whatever criticisms, therefore, may be uttered with regard to the present state of the war at sea, I feel sure I shall carry the House with me when I say that there is nowhere any desire to do anything but honour the self-sacrificing work of the officers and men of the Navy. What I have said in regard to the Royal Navy will, I believe, 371 in every respect, find an echo in all our hearts when we think of their brother seamen in the Merchant Navy. Of course, Members of the House have said, as the Press have said, that judgment must be by results. That submission is well understood, and in every sphere accepted. On that, however, I would make a further submission, and that is that before you pass judgment you must, in all fairness, assess the nature and the breadth and the weight of the task which was undertaken, the forces and the dispositions of the forces arrayed against you, and the forces with which you are equipped to meet them.
Certainly the task of the Fleet has been enormous. Since the defeat of France, and the defection of the French Fleet, which was the second largest in Europe, accompanied by the entry of the Italian Fleet into the war against us, it has been one of continuous strain. First and foremost, our defensive task was to protect vast sea lines all over the world, without which we could not maintain our Island fortress here, and indeed would be powerless to wage war at all. The combined length of our shipping routes runs into many tens of thousands of miles on the broad oceans, where the great distances and the volume of traffic necessarily limit the protection which can be afforded. At no time have we fewer than about 2,000 ships at risk upon the oceans, sailing, in the main, to and from the relatively restricted number of ports which can handle traffic of these dimensions. The German and Italian navies, on the other hand, have to protect nothing but a relatively insignificant coasting trade, varied only by the short sea route across the Mediterranean on which their Army in North Africa must rely. Except for isolated blockade runners, Axis trade has no need to depart more than a few miles from its own or a neutral coast. It can remain in waters which can be completely covered by enemy air forces, where anti-submarine measures and protective mining can readily be organised with great intensity and where the freedom of manœuvre of attacking warships is dangerously cramped. These are, of course, all known facts to people who understand Naval warfare, but they are nevertheless fundamentals which must be thoroughly understood if we are to appraise our own efforts and achievements.
372 Let us now examine, as closely as the time permits, the comparative performances of the Royal Navy and the enemy in the main spheres. I take, first, trade protection. The Battle of the Atlantic, which was our principal preoccupation for the greater part of the year, has now developed into what I may call the Battle of the Seven Seas. Both in the Pacific and the Indian Oceans a new threat to the trade of the British Commonwealth and its Allies has arisen. The year 1941 opened with losses running at a heavy rate. Enemy submarines employing the new pack technique were taking a heavy toll, enemy aircraft operating both in coastal waters and far out to sea, seemed at one time likely to prove an almost greater menace than the U-boats. In addition, the surface forces of the Germans were sweeping out from time to time and reaping relatively large hauls, whilst every night their aircraft sowed new forms of mines round our coasts and in our estuaries. This unfavourable tendency continued until April, when losses reached their peak owing to the large amount of tonnage lost in the Greek and Cretan campaigns, though obviously all of this was not then available for the general carrying trade of the Allies. In May, however, losses on the broad ocean lifelines began to fall, and they continued to do so more or less steadily until December, when a new phase of the war at sea opened.
As to the fall in our losses at that time, Hitler has recently endeavoured to explain away the relative failure of his ever-growing U-boat fleet in the latter half of last year, but in fact there were a number of important and significant reasons for the results. First, the improvements in escort organisation and in anti-submarine methods constantly being introduced as a result of constant thought, planning, research and experiment. Secondly, the growing skill and experience of officers and crews, and, of course, the increasing number of convoy escorts flowing from the large construction programmes which were put in hand on or shortly after the outbreak of war. Thirdly, from a date in September, we commenced to receive American assistance with convoys, for which we are duly grateful. In addition, and by no means the least important, was the help given by the anti-submarine patrols of the Royal Air Force, whose 373 Coastal Command passed under the operational control of the Admiralty at the end of 1940. These aerial sweeps have proved of great value, not merely in the protection of individual convoys, but in harassing and hampering the U-boats in the Western Approaches to these Islands. On top of these air patrols directed against the submarines themselves, we took practical and effective measures to counter the air attack on shipping and the air reconnaissances far out to sea on which the U-boats have clearly proved they depend so considerably for the detection of their prey. Not only has air escort been provided on a higher scale within the limits possible from shore bases, but we have also begun in some measure—and by various methods—to provide ship-borne fighter protection with the convoys. Great efforts have been made too, to improve the anti-aircraft protection of the merchant ships themselves. The post of Inspector of Merchant Navy Gunnery was created, and the Inspector, Admiral Sir Frederick Dreyer, by his thoroughness and with the co-operation of crews, masters and owners, has already brought the general standard of efficiency to a high level. In this, as in all operations of war, training and instant readiness are essential for success. At the same time, we have gone on building up the general scale of the anti-aircraft armament in both British and Allied merchant shipping. During the year 1941 there were fitted in merchant ships no fewer than 12,988 anti-aircraft guns of one kind and another and 4,843 ships were fitted with anti-aircraft devices other than guns. Merchant and fishing vessels alone have now shot down 76 enemy planes, probably destroyed another 40, and damaged 89.
By these means we had by the autumn reduced losses to a level far lower than it had seemed legitimate to hope for in the early part of the year, and this success was reflected in a steadily rising trend of imports, so that by the end of last year the Navy were able to reap a tangible reward for their efforts in the fact that the estimate of imports for the twelve months was exceeded and the programme, which at one time seemed likely to be on the optimistic side, was fully achieved. In assessing this result, we must be careful not to under-estimate the great efforts being put into the U-boat campaign. 374 U-boat construction is undoubtedly on an unprecedented scale, and the U-boat fleet expands month by month. The U-boat fleet have, as before, shown, and continue to show, ingenuity and organising skill in their operations and great flexibility in their tactics. They have tried operating in the Middle Western Atlantic, they have moved to the South Atlantic, they have operated in the Gibraltar area, and they have been in strength in the Mediterranean. Nevertheless, although since the beginning of the war, the total number of ships convoyed is very large indeed, losses in convoy are still just under one-half of one per cent.
§ Mr. Ammon (Camberwell, North)
I wonder whether my right hon. Friend could put that percentage into actual figures?
§ Mr. Alexander
I could say this—[HON. MEMBERS "No."]. Very well, I accept the sentiment of the House. The steadily improving prospect which I have described was at once clouded by the entry of Japan into the war. With her large submarine fleet and her powerful air forces trained for operations against ships, it was clear that vast new dangerous areas for allied shipping would be created. The losses sustained in the Far East and Pacific up to the present have been considerable, but a proportion of the ships lost out there were designed solely for the local trade of the China coast and would not have been of great value in the transoceanic traffic of the Allies. At the same time, enemy U-boats have also concentrated off the Eastern seaboard of North America in order to take such profit as they could from a sudden incursion into waters which had hitherto been immune and against shipping much of which had been at peace. These tactics have had a measure of success which has seriously affected the trend of losses in an adverse direction. Yet there is ground for hoping that these unfavourable developments will not be of indefinite duration. In the Pacific the treacherous method which the Japanese chose for entry into the war naturally gave them certain special advantages for operations against trade, but from the start precautions were put into force, and we are doing all we can to keep losses down. As Allied naval strength in the Pacific recovers from the blows suffered in the 375 first few days of the war with Japan, the power of the Japanese Navy for evil in that area should diminish, though naturally at this stage I do not wish to indulge in any prophecy on the fortunes of war in that area. Similarly as regards the North American coast our Allies are putting measures in hand which will make the task of the U-boats more difficult.
I come now to commerce raiders. The past year has been better than we had at first expected. In the first few months converted merchantmen and the German battle cruisers had a period of fruitful activity. But after seeking refuge in Brest last March the battle cruisers, thanks to the sustained efforts of the R.A.F. against one of the best defended bases in the world, remained immobile until their recent rush to their home ports. The German navy made a determined effort in May to send another force out on to the trade routes, but the Royal Navy and the Fleet Air Arm frustrated this attempt and sank the "Bismarck," without any merchant ships being lost, though not without loss to themselves. For nearly a year, therefore, there were no mercantile losses at all from German warship raiders. The converted merchant raiders have continued to operate spasmodically but with little success. During 1941 22 such raiders and their supply ships were put where they could do no more harm. To this record of achievement I must add the warning that we may now be near the beginning of a new period of raider activity, both German and Japanese. These possibilities are naturally under close study, and we must make such plans and dispositions as lie within our power to restrict and defeat such threats.
So much for the protection of our own trade. How have the enemy protected theirs? I would remind the House once again that the enemy have virtually nothing but coastal trade to protect. Yet our aircraft, submarines and surface warships in 1941 captured, sank or seriously damaged no less than 2,500,000 tons of German and Italian shipping and other shipping under Axis control. This figure takes no account of the substantial losses inflicted by our Russian allies. Of the few enemy vessels which attempted to run the blockade, with the whole of the Western seaboard of France and the 376 French West African Colonies open to them, very nearly half were intercepted, notwithstanding the preoccupation of the Navy with the more immediate and vital task of protecting our own supplies and convoying our troops.
I come now to the second part of the Navy's task. It has more to guard even than the essential flow of food and raw materials to these Islands. I wonder whether it is generally appreciated in the country how great and widespread are its duties in support of the Army and R.A.F. We have done our part in building up and maintaining an Army of 750,000 in the Middle East. We have kept Malta supplied under the very noses of the enemy. We have sent reinforcements to the Far East, and we have taken, in very difficult winter weather, very large supplies to Russia. We have covered troop convoys to this country, to Iceland and to Northern Ireland, as well as providing protection for a great number of smaller movements all over the world. When one considers the great distances involved and the volume and complexity of the equipment which modern armies need, this is obviously an achievement which cannot be overlooked, in that we have provided for the security of all this sea traffic on which our Forces depend, out of the limited strength of the Navy under the strain at sea. I may, perhaps, be permitted to illustrate it still further by giving the House a comparison of the losses sustained by ourselves and by the enemy in maintaining our respective armies in North Africa. From Sicily to Tripoli in a direct line is about 240 miles and even by the roundabout routes which the enemy ships may choose to follow in an attempt to evade attack, the distance can still be numbered in hundreds of miles. From the United Kingdom round to Suez via the Cape, the distance is some 11,000 miles. Yet according to our calculations, in 1941 the Axis lost nearly twice as much shipping employed in the maintenance of their North African front as we did out of the tonnage engaged on a like purpose in the interests of our Middle East armies.
Apart from these movements on what one may term the plane of higher strategy, the Navy has been called upon, during the last year, to undertake on several occasions the more hazardous business of close co-operation with forward troops. In the operations for the 377 defence of Crete the Navy drowned 5,000 German troops and rescued 16,500 British troops, but they did it at great cost to themselves. Think also of the part which the Navy played in maintaining our garrison at Tobruk for eight long months. During the siege many thousands of men were moved by sea either into or out of the beleaguered town, and in addition 7,000 prisoners of war. Vast quantities of stores amounting to tens of thousands of tons were moved into the beleaguered town, with an endless variety of other cargoes, ranging from tanks to sheep. These operations, sustained over such a long period, past a coast in the possession of the enemy with strong air forces within easy striking distance, naturally exacted their toll and called for great endurance. In all, 50o men of the Royal and Merchant Navies lost their lives in this service. These and similar operations, proportionately more expensive than most of the protective duties of the Navy, have, it should be noted, practically no counterpart in the tasks performed by the Axis fleets.
While I am on that part of our operations, perhaps the House will allow me to say that I have received this morning a message that the work of our submarines goes on. I have just received a message that one of our submarines obtained three hits two or three days ago on the last Italian convoy going to Africa. I should also like to pay a special tribute at this point to the Royal Marines, who have done so much in the Mediterranean. In most of the naval operations the Royal Marines have continued to give the high standard of service which has always been expected of them, in addition to which they have done continuous and useful work in mounting land batteries, both coast defence and anti-aircraft. Royal Marines, who had been mounting such batteries and searchlights, turned themselves into infantry, and shared with the Australians and New Zealanders the duty of conducting the rearguard action in Crete last May, and it goes without saying that they did so with great distinction.
So much for the task we have been facing. What of our resources? From the beginning of June, 1940, to September last the naval forces of the British Commonwealth stood alone, with the exception of 378 the small but gallant naval contingents of our Continental Allies whose countries had been overrun. We were opposed by the German and Italian fleets, which from their late dates of construction, possessed a relatively high proportion of modern ships. In the stress and strain both of maintaining our ocean life-lines, and of supporting the Army in their operations, heavy casualties were incurred in all categories of ships. To be frank with the House, it is to me an amazing thing that during that period the Naval Staff, always having to try and obtain the use of about four quarts from a pint cup, so disposed our forces that we have been able to maintain the flow of food and raw materials to this country to secure the high standard of life which persists here well after two and a half years of war, and at the same time to have carried out the tasks in support of the Army and the Air Force which I have already indicated.
The House knows, I am certain, how many fewer cruisers we had at the beginning of the war compared to the last war, when we were in alliance with four other powerful fleets, and how heavy our losses have been, especially in such operations as that in the seas around Crete, at times without sufficient air cover. The magnificent work of our destroyers in this war has been done with a Force far too small for the numberless duties to be performed. I need only remind the House of the contrast between our position now in this category and that of the last war, at the end of which the Allied Navies had between them over 900 destroyers whilst facing only one hostile navy. What would the Navy have given for a Force relatively as strong for the task which they now have to face?
A rather brighter side to that picture, however, has been the proved success of the corvette policy. These ships were able to be built at a much greater rate than any others which could have been provided for their task, and they have been splendidly operated. I think the House would like to know that more than 80 per cent. of these ships are commanded by reserve officers, with great credit to themselves and the Navy. I must remind the House too that we have had to labour under the handicap of possessing far less productive capacity in shipbuilding than during the last war, with fewer yards, many fewer berths, and with a smaller labour force. Nevertheless, a very great 379 deal has been achieved. The labour force has been expanded by nearly 100 per cent. since the war began, and continued to expand during the last twelve months.
I submit that it is remarkable that, in spite of the capacity handicap I have referred to, casualties to the Fleet have been and are being well replaced. The total of naval tonnage delivered in 1941 was not so very far below that of 1916, although the output of merchant tonnage last year was very much greater than in 1916. This has been in spite of the fact of the burden of repairs occasioned by the heavier steaming demands upon our ships, in addition to the larger superficial damage and under-water damage that we sustained in this war compared with the last from aircraft attack. We now have in hand bigger programmes than we had in the last war, and a larger number of building berths are in operation than we found available at the beginning of the war. There has been, from time to time, expression of some uneasiness occasioned by the loss of heavy ships, as to whether our building and construction of naval ships were standing up to the modern strain of naval warfare.
There are two points which I would mention in this connection. First, that comparisons I have seen made with the "Bismarck" should take into account the fact that we had adhered to Treaty limits and the Germans had not. Nevertheless, it is true to say that a large number of our heavy ships have sustained major damage during this war and yet have been safely brought into harbour, repaired and put into service again. The "Barham" which was subsequently lost, was mined, brought in and repaired. The "Nelson" has twice sustained heavy under-water damage and has been brought in and repaired, and the "Resolution", the "Malaya", the "Illustrious" and the "Formidable," all heavy ships, were all very heavily damaged, but all stood up to it and were brought safely to port and repaired. At the same time, as always, the Admiralty makes a careful study of war experience and constantly strives to meet new factors. The Admiralty has arranged in fact for a special investigation to be made into the evidence concerning the losses of capital and other heavy ships since the war began, in order to make certain that 380 there should be no question of missing any lesson, large or small, which ought to be learned and acted upon.
The hon. Member for Cambridge University (Prof. A. V. Hill) referred on Tuesday last to the work of the Scientific Advisory Panel which I announced last year would be assisting the Admiralty. I have received a number of reports on investigations by the Panel. Some of these reports have been very favourable as to the work of the Admiralty technical departments. In other cases where recommendations have been made for improvement, these have been most carefully considered with a. view to introducing every possible improvement. A number of them have already been put into effect.
Perhaps the House may find it convenient if here I say a word on the question of man-power in relation to the Service and the Report submitted by the Beveridge Committee, a subject in which hon. Members have shown great interest. I think the House will have noticed that the remarks of that Committee were distinctly favourable towards the arrangements in force in the Navy for ensuring that the best possible value is obtained from its skilled men. The Committee suggested that there might be some skill among our reservists which was not being fully used. We are doing what we can to make improvements in this direction, but I am certain that Members who have come into contact with their constituents will not forget that a considerable proportion of our naval reservists are entered under special engagement entitling them to serve in the particular branch of their choice and that in such cases a transfer can be made only if the men consent to the change.
I have referred to some of the losses that we have suffered in the past year. The House will probably expect me to refer briefly to the loss of His Majesty's ships "Prince of Wales" and "Repulse" in the Far East. There is no attempt to minimise the serious blow that this has been to the Navy and to our cause. The events which led up to the despatch of the ships to the Far East have already been communicated to the House by the Prime Minister, and the matter has been discussed both in open and in Secret Session. The House will understand how tremendously the situation was changed 381 in Far Eastern waters by the Japanese, who, while still negotiating for peace, attacked the United States Fleet at Pearl Harbour. This meant, of course, that it was impossible to follow the plans which has been devised. The news flashed to Singapore simultaneously of the crippling of the United States Fleet, and the threatened landing of Japanese at Singora left the Commander-in-Chief with a most difficult decision to take as to what action to follow, and on that I have nothing to acid to what the Prime Minister said on 11th December. [An HON. MEMBER: "Is the inquiry proceeding?"] There was no special inquiry. There was a careful investigation on the spot to marshal all the facts which could be obtained, and the report of this is now being examined in the Admiralty from every point of view.
§ Mr. Shinwell (Seaham)
There is a little doubt about this matter. I was under the impression that the Prime Minister conveyed to the House a suggestion that an inquiry of a departmental character was being undertaken and that at some stage the Prime Minister would decide whether in his discretion it was advisable to communicate certain facts to the House. Are we to understand that nothing further is to be done and that nothing further can be said?
§ Mr. Alexander
I did not say that. What I said was that the Commanderin-Chief had to make a difficult decision in the circumstances which I have put to the House, and that on that issue I have nothing to add to what the Prime Minister said on 11th December.
§ Sir Percy Harris (Bethnal Green, South-West)
Is there not always a court-martial on the loss of a ship?
§ Mr. Alexander
That point has already been dealt with several times. A court-martial does not take place automatically in every case of the loss of a ship.
§ Rear-Admiral Beamish (Lewes)
What has become of the ships' companies that were saved? Are they at Singapore?
§ Mr. Alexander
Many of them served at once in most useful spheres after they 382 arrived at Singapore. With regard to individual cases, I should like to have notice of inquiry about individuals and what has happend to them.
§ Rear-Admiral Sir Murray Sueter (Hertford)
Can the right hon. Gentleman give the House any details of the torpedo-dropping aircraft used by the Japanese? Did they have twin torpedoes, what is the size of them, and why have not we weapons like that?
§ Mr. Alexander
I was commencing to say a word about the torpedo bombing attack. The heavy weight of the torpedo bombing attack by the Japanese is a matter of great importance. It must not be forgotten, however, that the initiative in torpedo bombing attacks against ships has lain with the British Fleet and that heavy and severe punishment has been inflicted upon the enemy on numerous occasions and has resulted in the victories at Taranto and Matapan and in bringing the "Bismarck" to book. But the experience in the case of the "Prince of Wales" and "Repulse" points to the fact that every possible drive has to be put into further equipping ourselves for the development of this form of attack. I have strong views on the question.
§ Mr. Hore-Belisha (Devonport)
Before the right hon. Gentleman leaves the "Prince of Wales" and the "Repulse," will he say what is the result of the inquiry? Are we not to have a consecutive narrative of what has happened, so that we can form a proper judgment of these events? I think everyone understood that that was to be the case, and the Debate was suspended upon this incident on that understanding.
§ Mr. Alexander
I do not know whether I am permitted to refer to proceedings in a Session which was not open. [Interruption.] I will, however, certainly look into the point and see whether anything remains due to the House which they may have understood would be given to them. My impression is in fact that they have had the narrative asked for by the right hon. Gentleman.
To come back to the work of the light forces in that area since the loss of those two ships, they have done splendid work. As has already been indicated to the House, no fewer than nine convoys were escorted into Singapore, and the House 383 already knows of the sharp and brilliant action fought by the "Vampire" and "Thanet" against a superior Japanese force of cruisers and destroyers. This superior force was engaged and pursued, and one Japanese destroyer was sunk and another damaged. We lost H.M.S. "Thanet," but the Australian destroyer "Vampire" returned undamaged. May I say here also that our Forces have stood up well against the bombing attacks of the enemy while escorting convoys and have also attacked Japanese submarines with some success? We have all been filled with admiration at the very courageous and able work done against the enemy in the Far East by the Dutch Naval Forces. None of us would desire to withhold from them their need of praise.
I turn to another matter which has greatly exercised the mind of the House and large sections of the public, and that is the abandonment of their refuge at Brest by the "Scharnhorst" and "Gneisenau" with the "Prinz Eugen" and their journey as rapidly as they could to German ports, under the cover of the German Air Force and poor visibility. As the secret inquiry under the Chairmanship of Mr. Justice Bucknill has not yet completed its sittings, it would not be right for me to make any comment, except to say that the inference which the German statements were designed to convey, that these vessels arrived in Germany scatheless, is not true. Reliable reports have been received that both German battle cruisers received severe damage when on passage from Brest. Photographs show that one battle cruiser was in dry dock at Kiel, while the other has been located in the dockyard at Wilhelmshaven. Thus we have confirmation of the statement made by the Prime Minister on 17th February. I would add one thing further. His Majesty's submarine "Trident" subsequently attacked a cruiser of the "Prinz Eugen" class off the coast of Norway on 23rd February and obtained a hit. Aerial reconnaisance subsequently showed that a ship of the "Prinz Eugen" class was at Trondjheim in tow of tugs and damaged aft. In view of the date when this attack took place it is probable that the ship was the "Prinz Eugen," in which case all the ships which escaped from Brest have been damaged.
384 I would only add that we appreciate very much the tributes that have been paid in the House to the gallantry of the officers and men of our Forces which attacked the enemy. Criticisms have been uttered in the House this week of the fact that only six Swordfish attacked the enemy during the recent channel battle. I would remind the House that this was not the only air-borne torpedo attack which was launched—there was a much larger number of torpedo bombers of the Coastal Command which also attacked the enemy.
The review I have to give to the House to-day would not be complete without a reference to the work of the Fleet in the Mediterranean. The position has, of course, been extremely difficult since the campaigns in Greece and Crete, leaving the whole of the North flank in the hands of the enemy with power to launch his air attacks from numerous bases on that side as well as from Tripolitania. The Prime Minister, in his speeches to the House, has painted the picture in better terms than I could hope to do, but there can be no doubt of the gallant work which the Fleet has done in supplying our armies in Cyrenaica and in Malta. It has also engaged in a number of brilliant actions. The destruction of two Italian cruisers by a division of destroyers was a remarkable feat, and the exploit of Captain Agnew and his small squadron in annihilating a complete convoy of Italian transports, was an outstanding achievement.
Our submarines in circumstances far more difficult than those encountered by the German U-boats attacking numerous targets in the wide ocean, have been most successful in reducing the weight of reinforcements which would otherwise have reached General Rommel's army. In this, of course, they have been daily assisted by pilots of the Fleet Air Arm and the Royal Air Force. It might be convenient to mention here that during the war, since September, 1939, our comparatively small fleet of submarines has sunk or damaged no fewer than 326 ships, 64 of which were warships of one kind or another, whilst the Fleet Air Arm, also since the beginning of the war, has carried out 120 attacks on warships and convoys at sea, 200 attacks on warships and ships in harbour, 260 raids on shore objectives, and 600 air combats. They have shot down, or severely damaged 270 enemy aircraft 385 over the sea; they have sunk or seriously damaged 45 enemy warships of all kinds, and 335,000 tons of enemy shipping. Considering the resources at the disposal of the Fleet Air Arm I consider this a remarkable achievement.
After this brief survey of the achievements—and setbacks—of the past, the House will expect me to take stock of our present situation, so far as it is possible to do so in public. There was a time—but eighteen months ago—when all that stood between us and immediate defeat in these islands were the remnants of our army, our then small number of squadrons, and our Navy with its light forces sadly depleted for the time being. I have told the House of the number of destroyers lost off the Dutch and French coasts, and immediately after, before we had any corvettes. 73 of our destroyers were then laid up in dock. Indeed in those desperate days many of our shore defences, including sometimes even the men, were provided from naval sources. For a year we bore on our shoulders alone the whole burden of the fight for human freedom in every quarter of the globe except the Far East, where it was sustained by the enduring courage of China. The spirit of the British and Chinese peoples was all that remained to hold open the door of human hope against the blasts of Axis fury. All we have done since, all we have suffered since must be viewed against that background.
During those 12 months, the British Navies of the Commonwealth preserved and sustained this vital bastion against the Axis and kept supplies and in being the only enduring front against Italy and Germany in the Middle East. It may also be pointed out that at the same time, by preserving the freedom of the seas they kept open the only remaining supply route to China. In this fearful task, in which failure meant almost certainly irretrievable disaster, we were encouraged and fortified by the Dominion Navies, and by those small Allied contingents I have previously referred to, and always by the flow of seamen from all parts of the British Commonwealth. We must not, and shall not, forget the contribution from Australian and New Zealand cruisers and destroyers, from Canadian destroyers and corvettes, from South African minesweepers, Indian sloops and patrol vessels, and from the men who have come from Newfoundland, the Crown Colonies and 386 elsewhere to help man vessels of the Royal Navy. We are similarly grateful for all the work of shipbuilding and of equipping, which has been done in the Dominions and India, and certain Colonies.
The naval help of our European Allies has also been of the greatest value, and has gone on increasing steadily. The Dutch, with their cruisers and their destroyers, and especially their submarines, have added a new page to their naval history ranking with those of the seventeenth century. The other navies which have been recruited from countries overrun by the enemy have loyally supported us, and whenever possible we have supplied them with ships and equipment. We are also deeply grateful for the help received from the Merchant Navies of these Allies, especially the Dutch, Norwegians and Greeks.
In the last six months, the picture of the struggle has completely changed. When the Germans attacked Russia, they brought into the fray against them not merely the mighty Russian Army and Air Force, but also a considerable Fleet. By its constitution and the geographical situation of its bases, the Russian Navy is not designed nor readily able to operate extensively in the broad oceans. Nevertheless we must recognise the part it has played in local offensive and defensive operations in conjunction with the Russian Army, and the blows which it has struck against the enemy's supply lines within range of its large submarine flotillas. Its spirit is exemplified by the submarine which went right into the hostile harbour of Petsam itself, in order to find its target.
A much greater change still, however, occurred on 7th December last, when the American and Japanese navies of the world were plunged into the conflict. Thanks to the surprise which they were able by treachery to achieve at Pearl Harbour, and to their skill and good fortune in their encounter with the "Prince of Wales" and "Repulse," the Japanese were able, in a matter of days, as I have said, to falsify all the bases on which the existing strategical plans had been founded. The onward march of their armies has added steadily to the gravity of the position and we must squarely face the situation that with the main forward base on which we had relied now in the hands of the enemy, he possesses freedom 387 of entry so far as raids are concerned into the Indian Ocean.
These are great and grievous threats. But it is not the custom of the Navy nor of our people to weaken in adversity. On the contrary, we must and shall heighten our resolve and magnify our effort to the measure of these new strains and perils. The successes of the Japanese have been great but have not been gained without some cost. They have already suffered substantial losses in warships and transports at the hand of the Dutch, American and the British Navies and Air Forces. The British and American Navies are recovering from the heavy blows they suffered, and with the great programmes of construction being pressed forward they should go on expanding until they surpass all-in-all the strength which they could muster when Japan rushed headlong into the war. By those means we must labour to restore the sea power in that area which is essential to victory. On the shipping side, an equally vital factor, the considerably higher rate of Allied losses which has obtained since December 7th, even if it should persist—which I trust will not be the case as we are able to deal with it better—should be more than off-set by the vast programme in the United States and the not inconsiderable effort in this country. The House has recognised that shipping is a most vital issue not only to us here, but for supplies to Russia, and the movement of troops and supplies to all the theatres of war.
§ Mr. Benjamin Smith (Rotherhithe)
Is it the intention of the right hon. Gentleman to give the House any figures of merchant shipbuilding?
§ Mr. Alexander
The House is in possession of the figures. I am sorry if the hon. Member did not happen to be present when they were given. I do not wish to give them to-day.
§ Mr. Shinwell
In possession of what figures? I know the occasion to which my right hon. Friend refers. Is he referring to British replacements or to the actual figures of American construction?
§ Mr. Alexander
Figures on all those points are in the possession of the House. They were given freely and frankly. I am surprised the hon. Member did not know about it.
§ Mr. Alexander
Let me end this review of this vital question of shipping. Shipping is essential to American reinforcements, it is essential to our own reinforcements, it is essential to the maintenance of our own war effort here and in the Dominions, and it is of the greatest importance that everything should be done to bridge the most dangerous period of the shipping crisis, and that is the year 1942. On that I would say that we were able to exceed our programme of building last year, that the volume of repairs, in particular repairs to ships which were immobilised while under repair—in dock—was greatly reduced, and that we are doing all we can to make the maximum use of our shipping in this difficult year as well as to urge upon all who are in the industry or engaged upon the organisation of it further to expand their efforts. Such a time as we are passing through calls for the loyalty and the energy and the undivided purpose of us all to achieve, in face of what has undoubtedly been in certain areas a disaster, a recovery which will take us through to the end and to the victory which we all desire.
§ Mr. Ammon (Camberwell, North)
The House has listened with interest to a very interesting review of a Service which is vital to all of us at all times, and particularly in time of war, and everyone will want to join in the tribute that has been paid to the gallantry, the bravery and the endurance of the officers and men of the Royal Navy. I am also particularly glad that the right hon. Gentleman said a word for the man who is "soldier and sailor too" the Marine, who has such a very splendid record of service. But interesting and exhilarating in some respects as the First Lord's statement has been, I believe there is a little feeling of disappointment that in regard to some of the matters in which we are particularly interested and on which we wanted further information it has not been thought proper to reveal it to the House, though on the other hand some things which I thought might not have been included have been touched upon. Having said that, I think the first thing I ought to do is to congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on the fact that his Department appears to have escaped the storm that has swept some other Departments. So far from his having 389 suffered any losses he has gained another junior Minister, now giving him three, and I trust that that means that we shall see more of the right hon. Gentleman him-self in the House than has been the case for some time past.
The recent Debate in Secret Session and the many subjects which have been remitted for inquiries do somewhat restrict the discussion of the Vote which we are now considering—I only hope that inquiries are not to be taken as substitutes for victories—but some things will be said by way of criticism or by way of inquiry, and though, of course, it will be understood that the Government may not always find it discreet to give full replies, those matters are being raised in the hope that they will be given full consideration. I want to give some expression to the feeling of considerable disquiet which undoubtedly exists in the country as to the shipping position generally and the many things that have happened to the Royal Navy itself. The right hon. Gentleman gave us a very encouraging retrospect of the manner in which the Navy have been able to deal with the submarine menace in the past, how by various devices they have been able to meet it and overcome it, but all that has been rather upset by the statement made by the Prime Minister in the last day or two, when he said:In the past few months there has been a most serious increase in shipping losses."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 24th February, 1942; col. 43, Vol. 378.]That is the matter with which we are concerned. While our appreciation of what has been done to meet past difficulties is in no way diminished, we are concerned to know what is being done now to meet the present situation, which, so far as we see, is growing to a very alarming extent, so much so that we have been informed by the Prime Minister himself that it is straining our offensive and defensive powers to the very limit. It is on things of that sort that we hope we shall get some enheartenment.
We must keep in mind when we are discussing the general war situation that this is still primarily a naval war, that it has got to be won primarily at sea, and therefore it is essential that we should have some assurance that the lessons of the past are being learned. For instance, the right hon. Gentleman gave us an account of what happened at Crete and how cover 390 was lacking. Of course, that is a long while ago, and the Navy ought to have had cover there. That was a fundamental mistake at the very commencement, but it has been repeated in more recent times. As regards the tragedy of the "Prince of Wales" and the "Repulse" and in other matters, we have still to learn whether any effective steps are being taken in this particular matter. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will give us some information as to the connection and the cooperation between the Air Force and the Navy and also the strength, composition and equipment of the Fleet Air Arm. Then came the spread of the war and the bad luck to the United States Navy. These things have thrown additional burdens on the Royal Navy and have increased the difficulties in the way of safe convoy of merchant ships and the flow of essential commodities to this country. The right hon. Gentleman has said that our position might have been much worse. One hesitates to think what it might have been but for the gallant assistance given by the Dutch Navy in the Far East.
I do not propose to consider our shipping and shipbuilding position, and matters germane thereto. In a former Debate it was pointed out by the Prime Minister that we had added 1,000,000 men to our munitions industry more than we had at the end of the last war. That is not the position with regard to the Royal Navy and the building and repair of ships. We are still down very considerably in those respects. I hope that the First Lord, or whoever will speak later, will tell the House frankly what difficulties he may be facing, so that we may give what help and take whatever steps may be necessary to meet the situation. Are there any difficulties in regard to the labour situation or in regard to organisations in that respect? Are all the shipyards fully occupied—even the limited number that we have? We know that numbers of them were swept away by Shipping Securities, Ltd. Again and again we have drawn attention to the loss of shipping, and this has now been underlined by the Prime Minister. We want to know whether that loss is being overhauled. We have every reason to think that we may be facing a dead loss. Is it possible to tell the country what the difficulties are? It may be that greater risks are run by fearing to give information to 391 the enemy than by disclosing to the House and the country the real position.
§ Mr. Alexander
That is a rather important statement. I have already indicated to the House what the American shipbuilding programme is as well as our own, in order to show how we intend to try and recoup our losses.
§ Mr. Ammon
Up to now we have not had a lot of encouragement from the flow of shipping from the United States. We should be pleased to have information as to the nature and kind of shipping being sent to us. We are left in some doubt, when pictures are conjured up and hopes are stirred up, and when, a few months later, we find there has been no basis for them. The reaction is much worse than it might have been if the full facts had been given to us earlier. I have already asked whether the First Lord will let the House and the country—and I am not so concerned about the House—know what the difficulties are, if there are any, in regard to the supply of labour. Are there difficulties in getting on with repairs as fast as we can? It is no use communicating the facts privately to hon. Members who are not in a position to make use of them in the quarters that are desired. I will leave that aspect of the matter. I can see that there is a delicate position to handle, and that the First Lord may be placed in a delicate position in this respect.
In a former Debate I asked whether there was any co-ordination of war strategy. That question was met, but only in a measure, by a statement given by the Dominions Secretary, who said that the necessary steps had been or were being taken to concert military plans among the major Allied Powers. We must, of course, accept that statement, but we are concerned to know what steps are being taken to concert our own different arms, so that they may co-operate together in the most advantageous manner. Is there any such co-operation between our own arms? Is there a joint operational staff? Obviously there could not have been when the three German ships escaped from Brest. Every mark of divided control was displayed. Matters like that arouse very strong feelings of unrest and dissatisfaction. This does not mean that our people are nervous or 392 afraid, but they want to know whether our arms are being used as efficiently and as co-operatively as they should be.
We now look back over a period in which there has been a series of disasters in the Royal Navy, and many of them still await explanation to this House. We still have the right to ask whether the persons responsible for those disasters are still in positions where they can repeat those blunders or whether disciplinary action has been taken against them. We have never had an answer to such questions, although they have been asked ever since the loss of the "Royal Oak." The First Lord admitted that somebody was to blame, but we never knew whether anybody had been brought to account for it. The same observation applies to a series of other incidents, down to the escape of the ships from Brest. Was it part of the plan that six Swordfish planes should be the first to engage three enemy ships equipped with powerful anti-aircraft armament, overhead protection to serve as a screen, and everything tuned up to meet the expected attack? The First Lord said in a speech the other day:I hear criticism in regard to the fact that two or three ships got through the English Channel the other day.I do not think that was the proper way in which to refer to that kind of event.
§ Mr. Ammon
I happened to be at the gathering which was addressed by Mr. Harriman, and I found myself seated beside the wife of one of the most distinguished representatives of one of the Governments now taking refuge here. She asked me if I had read the First Lord's speech, and I had to admit that I had not, but I read it when I got home, and then I. understood. He had referred to three great battleships, first-class ships, as "two or three ships," and thereby aroused a feeling which ought not to have been aroused. I would like to suggest, with great respect, to the First Lord that it would be very much better if he did not run about all over the country so much to secondary meetings. One orator in the Government is quite enough. The position of the Navy as the "silent Service" was much better, and he lays himself open to much criticism by reason 393 of his frequent absences addressing Warship Week gatherings and that sort of thing when other people could do it quite as well in the circumstances.
§ Mr. Ammon
It would be possible for the right hon. Gentleman to say "No." There are other things which can be said in this connection. The way in which these disasters and setbacks have been handled by the Government has annoyed the House and the country. I thought it was extraordinary when the Prime Minister tried to tell us that it was to our advantage that those ships had got out of Brest and had rejoined their base. It was one of the most amazing utterances that I could possibly imagine on the subject of an incident which was humiliating to our own Fleet. The German ships had been able to carry out a very daring and brilliant piece of seamanship. It was very much on the lines the Prime Minister has followed in times gone by, of trying to bulldoze this House, when we have had a very serious reverse, that it was really a victory. That sort of thing will not do. The reaction in the country is very bad indeed. I notice that a very distinguished admiral in another place paid particular attention to this and pointed nut exactly what an absurd thing it was to say when the enemy navy had been able to unite its forces.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Dennis Herbert)
I must remind the hon. Member about the Rule concerning quotations from speeches in another place.
§ Mr. Ammon
I will say no more about that, except to say that it raises the question of the equipment of our own Fleet Air Arm. The only torpedo bombers the Navy seems to possess are these old Swordfish machines, with a speed when loaded of about 100 miles an hour, carrying one small 18 in torpedo incapable of inflicting vital damage on a modern battleship unless it is fortunate enough to hit the propeller, as happened in the case of the "Bismarck." The only thing one can say regarding the attack of the Swordfish is that, like the charge of the Light Brigade, it was splendid, but it was not war. It put us in a very difficult position. I freely admit that the disaster which befell the American Navy added tre- 394 mendously to our burden. It has made the duty of convoying more difficult for our Fleet. These criticisms are no reflection whatever on the gallantry and skill of the men engaged, but it is the duty of the House to inquire whether these people who are carrying out their duties on the high seas are receiving from the higher command that protection, help and guidance to which they have every right.
There are one or two other points I want to put to the right hon. Gentleman in the hope that answers will be made to them. A good deal of anxiety is being felt regarding the design of our ships. Whether it is by accident or otherwise, we have to notice that our ships have gone down very much more quickly in action than have the ships of the Germans. They seem to have sunk more easily. The "Ark Royal," the "Hood," the "Prince of Wales" and the "Repulse" all went down quickly, whereas we remember what a number of hits were necessary to sink the "Bismarck" and others of our enemy's ships. No doubt there is a large element of luck in the matter, but nevertheless it is a question which is being discussed again and again. I hope we may have some assurance that the question of design is being given keen consideration.
I would also like to ask whether there is any prospect of the Fleet Air Arm getting suitable machines at an early date to replace the somewhat obsolete ones. Also, what about torpedoes? The torpedoes we use seem to be a very great deal behind in power and efficiency compared with those used against us. Our 18 inch torpedoes seem very ineffective compared with the enemy's 21 inch torpedoes. That seems to indicate a lack of foresight. It is no use talking about the quantity of any weapon if its power and calibre are less than are being used against us. We have a right to receive answers in regard to this sort of thing. The results obtained from our motor torpedo boats are so far disappointing. Can we not be told what is wrong? If there is anything which the right hon. Gentleman wants which the House can give him, it will be given to him gladly. There will not be the slightest trouble about that, but we have the right to ask what the difficulties are and to ask further that they shall be brought to the House 395 so that we may have the opportunity of reviewing them.
There is one further suggestion which I wish to make and which has already been made again and again by my hon. Friend the Member for Seaham (Mr. Shinwell), namely, that we should do everything possible to reduce the work of our Merchant Navy by taking more vigorous action to cut down unnecessary imports. I was glad to see that yesterday the Lord Privy Seal made a statement which seemed to indicate that something might be done in that direction. But this point has been hammered at for 18 months; it has taken all that time to come to a decision, and then only because of the Lord Privy Seal, who has been away for a couple of years and has heard what is going on outside, so that he comes back with a fresh point of view. Even so, I saw in one of the papers to-day that he did not mean what he said and that nothing is to happen. But the cutting down of dog-racing and so forth means, after all, a reduction in petrol consumption and in the quantities of other things which have to be conveyed from overseas. Rationing should be put on a uniform system for all of us, and greater encouragement should be given to increasing home production, both here and in the Colonies. Everything possible should be done to reduce the demands on shipping space and to reduce convoying work, so that the Navy can attend to its other duties more than it does at the present time. I hope attention will be given to the question of providing faster vessels, particularly for the Merchant Navy. I understand that some of the convoys can hardly be seen to move. That is alarming, and one only wonders that our casualties have not been even greater. We should like some information on these points.
§ Mr. Ammon
We get statements, but they are never implemented. The First Lord himself has said, over this Table, that he wholly agreed about rationing and all the other suggestions I have made, but it was only yesterday that we got the announcement. It is no good Ministers saying that they quite agree if nothing is done, and if in twelve months' time we are in the same position. I have had handed to me a statement about the re- 396 vised subsistence allowances to certain naval officers. A request was made that the allowance of 18s. 9d. a day for lieutenant-commanders, when they go away on official duties, should be increased. They have gained the magnificient increase of 1s. 3d. a day, bringing the allowance up to £1. I understand that that allowance, in view of their position as officers, is far from adequate to meet their expenses. They have to do more travelling than commanders, but the commanders get 25s. a day. The First Lord might see whether they could be placed on an equality. The First Lord was subject to interruptions, but we have been too long associated for it to be suggested that there was anything personal intended. We have a duty, however, to bring forward our criticisms forcefully and plainly. It is no reflection on the personnel. We simply desire to ease the burden on the very gallant officers and men who are engaged on this dangerous work on the high seas, and to provide them with better ships.
I came up the other day from Liverpool in a railway carriage full of naval ratings. To hear what they said about the Government was most astonishing. I was the only civilian there, and they did not concern themselves about me. What they said about this Government would have been an education to the First Lord had he heard it; and that is the best test of what the men think. They have a feeling that they have not had proper consideration, and that the Government have not done the necessary planning. I bring these matters to the notice of the House in the hope that something will be done. Above all, I ask that the results of the inquiries now going on may be communicated to the House. It is no good fobbing hon. Members off with the statement that there is to be an inquiry, in the hope that as time passes the matter will drop. We want to know whether the same people who have been responsible for the undoubted blunders are still there to commit more. After all, a serious situation has been created by the appointment of the new Secretary of State for War. The First Lord does not know now how far he may be let down by the man immediately under him, in the hope of succeeding him. If only for that reason, the First Lord might have a good look round, to see if all is well in his Department.
§ Rear-Admiral Beamish (Lewes)
The First Lord opened his speech with a remark which gave us cause to think of the burden of Admiralty. I will quote something which describes the spirit animating the Navy, which I am sure the House will appreciate, and so will the First Lord. What I am going to read came from the pen and the heart of Lord Baldwin, when he was Prime Minister. He said:Courage, hazard and hardship can give a quality of human happiness undreamed of by those who sit secure and at ease in Zion.That is the spirit of happiness which pervades the Navy. I am not sure where Zion really is, but is certainly includes the hotels in Park Lane, the benches of this House, the dog-racing tracks, and a large number, if not all, of the cinemas up and down the country. I do not think that even now our people appreciate what the British Navy has done for them and for the world. I am sure, judging from the letters I get, that they do not. The first thing I want to mention in this connection is the enormous importance of giving the Admiralty the utmost priority. I believe they have not had anything like the measure of priority which the situation demands—I mean priority not only for warships, but for merchant ships, and certainly for the necessary aircraft without which the Admiralty cannot hope to function efficiently. To support that, if it is necessary to support such a statement, which to my mind is self-evident, I would just remind the House—the First Lord touched on it—that never in any period of history has the Navy had so much to do, in such tremendous circumstances, and if I were to base my criticisms, as so many do, on naval failures and my natural fears and anxieties there would hardly be an end to my criticism.
I have no intention, however, of basing my criticism on my fears and anxieties. Instead of that I say, let us and let the people of this country thank God that this House can meet to-day and survey the situation, and that our population is better fed and better clothed than any in Europe, Asia, Africa and America, with the single possible exception of the United States. But I would say that the Admiralty is desperately and dangerously shackled and is handicapped very severely in certain basic respects. It has 398 been said and published that the Admiralty think that the Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen are better in German ports than at Brest. I beg leave to doubt whether they ever said any such thing unless it was loyally to support a wholly wrong and disastrous policy forced upon them, namely, divided control of sea power. That is the whole evil which lies at the root of that disaster in the Channel.
I see in the newspaper to-day, as one sees constantly, that aircraft of Bomber Command—and may I say in passing that the term "Bomber Command" is not only an anachronism but an anomaly —have been laying mines. They can only have been laying mines on behalf of the Admiralty. Coastal Command have been doing something else. This seems to me, and I have thought so for years, to indicate that the Admiralty have had to ask the Air Ministry to do some of their work. The Admiralty ask, presumably, because they have not the weapons or the aircraft with which to do it. That, to my mind, is a most serious, grave and fundamental issue. In speaking of what I call the anomaly of the term "Bomber Command"—and it affects the Navy too—I would say that one might just as well speak of the Submarine Command or the Destroyer Command. That would be as bad for the efficiency of the Navy as it is to speak of the "Bomber Command."
In connection with what I call the disaster in the Channel I am perfectly certain that however sorry and anxious and even depressed I may be, there is not a soul on the Board of Admiralty who is not deeply sorry and humiliated that it should have happened. I see the First Lord here, and I frankly commiserate with him in the feelings that must have passed through his mind when he heard that those craft he had been longing to destroy for so many months were all but through the English Channel, and that nothing had been done either to report or check them. One could talk about it and compare it with naval disasters that have occurred in the past, but I say that is a waste of time now. It will be a very proper thing to do at some future time and no doubt it will be done. I have however had certain considerations forced on my attention, whether I liked it or not. I do not go about asking for evidence which will 399 enable me to make critical speeches and attack the Front Bench, but for one reason and another certain points come to my notice, and I am going to put them as politely as I can to the First Lord.
First, we have heard something about these half-dozen Swordfish planes. That is bad enough but I hope the present arrangement is in process of rectification. I hear that the Admiralty had to rely on the Air Ministry for seaplanes carrying torpedoes with which to attack those German ships going up Channel. That, in itself, is fundamentally wrong. I am also told that the crews of the planes in question had never made an operational flight, and that they had had barely any practice at dropping torpedoes. Further, I am told that it was as late as three o'clock in the afternoon when these tremendously-wanted seaplanes carrying torpedoes left a mid-Channel Port, and we know that the report of these ships moving up Channel came through somewhere about 11 a.m., or towards midday. I am told that that mid-Channel Port was—I will put it mildly—150 miles astern of the escaping ships; further, that the information conveyed to the crews was to the effect that a convoy was passing up Channel and that it was to be attacked. This is conveyed to me by someone who says: "I can assure you that my information is founded on perfect truth and perfect honesty." That is how he puts it. I am not prepared to say that that was what occurred but I am prepared to say that something of that sort did happen. Not only were these crews told merely that there was to be a convoy attacked; I would say that, in general, the reports on and information in regard to these escaping ships were incomplete and too late. As we know, they were entirely disastrous in their consequences. I must ask the House to forgive me for feeling very deeply the humiliation we have had to suffer in this disastrous event.
I wish to say a few words about the fall of Singapore and to support by every means I possess the point of view put forward by the First Lord. It is another disaster, but it cannot be said too often that Singapore was a fortified base which could only hope to remain undefeated and untaken if we were able to exercise sea-power for its protection. I am constantly questioned by people about the fortifica- 400 tions and so on. I say, quite frankly, that if it had ever been suggested in this House or on any public platform in the country that we were to organise land protection for the Malayan Peninsula it would have been laughed to scorn at any time in the last 15 years. Therefore, I congratulate the Government and the Board of Admiralty on having kept Japan out of the war in some way or another, for as long as they did. Once Japan came into the war, it seemed to me that the fall of Singapore was practically inevitable and its retention, as I said, depended, and must depend in any similar circumstances, on command of the sea, with adequate air support.
Another point to which I would like to draw attention and one which is conveniently forgotten is that Singapore never would have fallen, nor would we have got into that position if it had not been for the defeat and defection of France. That leads me, not very happily but truthfully, to point out that the position in the Mediterranean—the focus of the war from which we cannot detach any of our power without the gravest risks of losing Egypt and the oil and everything else which is so important—is a very serious one indeed. Again, this is due to the most unhappy and unfortunate defeat and defection of France. I refer in this connection to the fate of Malta. Malta may fall. I do not know—I can only read between the lines in the Press, look at my map and think of what I have learned from history. After all the attacks on Malta the British public might just as well begin to think about the possibility of Malta falling. If it is possible for German ships to pass up Channel as they did recently, it ought to be possible, if the First Lord receives all the support he wants and his powers are not diverted, depleted and watered down, by demands from other parts of the world, to prevent Malta from falling. With adequate sea power and an adequate number of surface ships and aircraft, I see no reason why Malta should fall, but unless that tremendous pressure and power can be provided, there is a great possibility that Malta may fall.
My hon. Friend the Member for Camberwell, North (Mr. Ammon) was very critical, and, after all, he is entitled to be critical. We all feel critical and sorry about what is happening. He said some- 401 thing about the First Lord going around the country and making admirable speeches—many of which I have heard—on the subject of warship weeks and so forth. I have to do the same, and I am sure that I do not reduce the power of the Navy or of the Admiralty by my efforts in that respect. I do my best to explain to the people the enormous importance of sea power and how grateful they should be to the Royal Navy. I want to say, in connection with the First Lord's travels, that in undertaking them he pays a high compliment to the First Sea Lord, because he has to be away for a good many hours at very critical times. Tremendous events happen at five minutes' notice, and although I have heard and have often had pressed upon me the suggestion that the First Sea Lord should be replaced, the First Lord must have the greatest confidence in him if he feels safe and in a position to go away and make those very admirable speeches in the country. I say that, because it is desirable that the hints which are so constantly dropped about the growing incapacity of members of the Board of Admiralty should be checked.
There are two or three other things, important but minor by comparison with the tremendous events that surround us, to which I would refer. They concern pay and pensions and so on, and I want to record them in order that the Admiralty may give consideration to them. A system of post-war credits has been introduced in the country and I believe it now applies to the men of the Navy. I want to know whether it would not be a good idea to popularise the post-war credits and establish a system of such credits on behalf of the officers of the Navy. That is just a suggestion.
I want to clear up another matter. The country has lost a number of senior, officers in command of convoys—retired officers of great experience, courage, bravery and zeal. Some 11 or 12 of them have laid down their lives. They had been recalled, having reached the rank perhaps of vice-admiral or admiral. These officers are recalled—or they offer their services; I am not sure whether that is a distinction—and they have to take up the rank of commodore or commander, Royal Naval Reserve, or some lower rank than that which they had acquired by 30 or 40 years' service in the Royal Navy. If they are killed in action the pensions for 402 their wives should be based upon the rank which they reached while they were serving in the Navy rather than upon the lower rank in which they were serving when they lost their lives. The question is complicated and I could not hope to be dogmatic about it, but the Admiralty ought to be more sympathetic. I realise the difficulties, but it really is time, in view of all the Questions that are asked in the House, that a Departmental committee should be set up, if there is not a Standing Committee in existence for that purpose, to consider the pay, pensions and allowances of the officers of the three Fighting Services. I do not wish it to be thought that I am not considering the point of view of the men. I consider it very much indeed, but, at the moment, my impression is that this question has rather passed out of the minds of the heads of the three Fighting Services, and I ask, therefore, that the Financial Secretary to the Admiralty shall give the matter consideration.
During the last war three great ships, which I knew very well indeed, were destroyed completely by the deterioration of the cordite for their guns—the "Bulwark," the "Vanguard" and the "Natal." It is possible that there were other cases. This was largely due to the fact that the Admiralty, at least during the last war, did not retain full control over the supply and inspection of their armaments, and particularly of their explosives. I hope that such a thing is not likely to happen again in this war, and I ask the First Lord whether, when a reply is made, the representative of the Admiralty will give some consolation or information on this subject in the hope that similar disasters may not happen as those which occurred in the last war.
I want to say a word on the subject of the serious increase in shipping losses in the last two months. Nothing could exceed the brilliance of the service, courage and zeal of all those who are protecting the shipping lanes and lines and the convoys, but it is rather an extroordinary thing that these heavy losses should suddenly have come about since the entry into the war of the United States of America. Far be it from me even to attempt to put my finger on the right spot—I do not know what is the cause—but I cannot help feeling that it may be because the urgency of the war, 403 as it appears to the United States, has possibly resulted in a reduction of the admirable convoy protection which they provided up to the date of their entry into the war. I hope that I am not unjustified in asking the First Lord to be good enough to let us have a word of explanation in that connection.
Something was said about the Beveridge Committee. In the course of my work as a Member of Parliament I receive, like every other hon. Member, a great many letters. Very often these letters come from people who want to join the Navy, and who say, "I am an internal combustion engineer. I am this, that, or the other"—something rather special. They ask me whether I will insist upon the Admiralty finding a square hole in which they may place their services, which are square. I have discussed this matter with many of these people. I have told them that I could hold out no guarantee, and that I thought it was entirely wrong for people to expect to find a perfect niche in one or other of the Services simply because their own peace-time job had come to an end. Recently, in conversation with a young man in a reserved occupation, I was told by him, "Admiral, you ought to be able to find a place for all these people. What is the Navy going to do with an economist?" I said, "I do not want to cast any slurs on economists, but it seems to me it is the economist's job to fit himself for the Navy and not for the Navy to fit the Service to the economist." That is what I think about that matter, and it is there that I think the Beveridge Committee are at fault. I think they have not been entirely practical in their consideration of these matters.
I want now to say a word or two concerning the reliability of our ships, their unsinkability, or whatever you like to call it. Desperate disasters occurred during the last war because of faulty design, and I was delighted to hear my right hon. Friend the First Lord say that the most stringent steps are being taken to impress upon the designers of ships the necessity for making ships as nearly unsinkable as possible. In this connection, I would like to mention a rumour—it is nothing more than a rumour. The other day somebody said to me, "Didn't you know that they were never able to 404 sink the 'Bismarck'? The 'Bismarck's' crew knew that they could not go on fighting, steaming, or escaping, and they were determined that the ship should not fall into the hands of the British because she was torpedo-proof, and therefore, they opened the seacocks and sank her." I am not prepared to support that assertion, because I really do not know.
In conclusion, I want to remind the House of the great possibilities of the future. I can foresee—I should hate to see it happen—the fall of Trincomalee and even the possibility of the occupation of Calcutta. I end my remarks on the same note as I started. Whatever we may think, whatever we may hope, and however much we may admire the Army and the Royal Air Force, it is wholly wrong to suppose that either one of those Services alone, or the two Services in combination, can win the war. The surest way of winning the war is to provide the utmost possible strength of sea-power in all its forms and aspects; if that is done, we can look forward with confidence, hope, and certainty to victory.
§ Squadron-Leader Donner (Basingstoke)
I want to begin by paying a tribute to the officers and men of the Royal Navy. I was glad to hear the First Lord's generous tribute to these officers and men who have had to run the gauntlet of torpedo and mine, shell and bomb. It is one thing to face acute danger for a short time; quite another order of courage is required to carry on month after month under conditions of extreme danger and physical discomfort. I think that our hearts go out particularly to the men in the trawlers and minesweepers, many of them from the Royal Naval Reserve and the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. I believe that too many people outside the House fail to realise that the men of the Royal Navy, alone of the three Services, are in constant danger. In this war the soldier's battles have been short and sharp. The airman, when he returns, returns to his aerodrome and to a warm bed—although perhaps not so warm, as some of us know from personal experience—at any rate, he returns to his mess and to comfort. But the sailor is in danger during the whole 24 hours of the day. Even when he returns to harbour, he is in danger of being bombed while his wife perhaps lives beside a neighbour who is married to a man working in industry and whose pay 405 is many times greater than that of her own husband.
The First Lord referred to the Battle of the Atlantic and the Battle of the Seven Seas. I should prefer the expression "Campaign" of the Atlantic and "Campaign" of the Seven Seas, for that would be more accurate terminology. Arising out of the Battle of the Atlantic, my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Lewes (Rear-Admiral Beamish) referred to the passage of the "Scharnhorst" and the "Gneisenau" and "Prinz Eugen" up the Channel, and spoke of that as being a disaster. I dissent from that interpretation of the event. It is very understandable that a great many people felt emotional on the subject. The passage of these ships appeared to be an affront perpetrated on our very doorstep. It seemed a sad naval reverse, following upon many other reverses in the Far East. It savoured almost of the occasion when the Dutch, in the time of Charles II, sailed up the Thames with broomsticks attached to their masts.
What, in fact, does the event prove? Surely, it proves that capital ships, provided they are given full air support, a full air umbrella, can operate in narrow waters. It proves only what our Mediterranean Fleet has proved again and again during many months in the Mediterranean. Given that air support, capital ships can so operate. Suppose the boot had been on the other leg, suppose we had had a spectacular success in the Channel, suppose we had sunk two of the ships, and that a third had limped home to a German base mauled and battered. I believe the House and the country would have rejoiced for a very short time, for that temporary, spectacular success would have brought with it the implication that great capital ships could no longer, even with air support, operate in narrow waters. Surely, that implication, for our Island Empire, dependent as it is on the seas, would have been an implication of the most grave and grievous consequence. Therefore, although it was a great disappointment to us that those ships were not sunk, that they did not sustain even greater damage than they did, I think we can find some consolation in the fact that they were damaged, even though they were not sunk.
My submission is that this event proves that in this war no single Service can act successfully on its own. We must 406 have the closest possible co-operation between the three Services. While the inquiry which has been instituted is going on, I hope that the First Lord will go into one particular point. A great number of people are wondering whether in fact our torpedoes are as effective as those of Germany and Japan. I know nothing about it, but I think it is a matter which would be worthy of immediate investigation. There is a feeling too that a great deal of our productive effort has gone into making heavy bombers and the Navy and the Army have had to make do with what is left. Surely the time has come when we should consider the position and ascertain whether in fact the Navy is receiving the numbers and types of aircraft it requires.
This Channel affair raises one other question, and that is the question of the future use of the assembled German fleet at Wilhelmshaven and Kiel. Obviously the Germans are bound to try and intercept our supplies to Russia; they can creep up that long coast of Norway and threaten the supplies. In any case they will menace them in a very real way, but that will give us an opportunity to destroy their ships, and I only hope that the Board of Admiralty will see to it that that is done. There are various other points in this connection which are worthy of attention but which are not suitable for Public Session, and I wonder whether the First Lord will consider giving the House an opportunity to debate these matters in secret. There is the whole question of future construction which should be discussed in secret. We have lost command of the sea in the Pacific, and our position has been aggravated there by weakness in the air. The only way to wrest back our command is by the use of our battle fleet in conjunction with the American battle fleet, but the support which we can send to the Far East is limited by the remnants of the German and Italian navies, and the perpetual uncertainty of the future use of the French navy. Therefore we come to this question of construction, and whether in fact battleship building to-day is being given the priority it requires. I think that the House would appreciate an assurance on that point. After all, we started this war with only 15 capital ships. We have lost five, the "Royal Oak," the "Hood," the "Repulse," the "Prince of Wales," and the "Barham," which 407 leaves us with 10. We have added the "King George V" and the "Duke of York," but the ships which we have include five old "Royal Sovereigns." I think that the House should be told in Secret Session not only what is happening to the "Anson," the "Howe," the "Lion" and the "Temeraire," but above all whether any further capital ships are being laid down. A study of the rate at which our new battleships are being commissioned leads, I think, to the conclusion that the Prime Minister when he was First Lord of the Admiralty in the first winter of this war slowed down the rate of battleship building. I do not criticise him for that, because the conditions which appertained at that time were quite different from those which exist now. At that time there was an overwhelming need for escort ships, destroyers and small ships of all kinds, whereas to-day, after the loss of Singapore, the need is for a greater number of capital ships. The House would appreciate therefore if necessary in Secret Session further information on what we are doing in this regard.
It was said in the last war that Jellicoe was the only man who could lose the war in half an hour; I believe that we can lose this war if we squander our battle fleet piecemeal. That leads me to the point which the First Lord made on the loss of the "Prince of Wales" and the "Repulse." We know that these ships were sent out as a political move and in the hope that they would act as a deterrent on Japan.