HC Deb 23 June 1942 vol 380 cc1819-32
Mr. Attlee

It is now just three weeks since the Prime Minister made a statement to the House upon the battle which was then developing in Libya, as the result of the attack upon our positions by the Axis forces. He then read to the House a statement which he had received from General Auchinleck as to the situation on the preceding day, in which it was stated: Fierce fighting is still proceeding, and the battle is by no means over. Further heavy fighting is to be expected, but whatever may be the result, there is no shadow of doubt that Rommel's plans for his initial offensive have gone completely awry and that this failure has cost him dear in men and material. The Prime Minister, after summarising the latter part of General Auchinleck's telegram, added: From all the above, it is clear that we have every reason to be satisfied, and more than satisfied, with the course which the battle has so far taken, and that we should watch its further development with earnest attention."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 2nd June, 1942; cols. 532–3, Vol. 380.] That statement took the events up to 1st June. Unfortunately, after this initial check to General Rommel, and after the fight had swayed to and fro for some days, events have gone against us, in spite of the splendid courage and morale of our troops, which still remain unbroken. When the noble Lord, on Thursday last, asked for a statement on the Libyan campaign, I asked for and obtained a report from General Auchinleck. This gives an account of the events up to 20th June, which I propose to read to the House: An enemy attack during the last few days of May was expected, and preparations had been made accordingly. The Eighth Army, on positions stretching from Gazala Southwards to Bir Hacheim, was awaiting the attack, and the Royal Air Force began counter-offensive action about a week beforehand. The enemy's first attempt to encircle Bir Hacheim and go Southwards was met by our armoured forces in the Knightsbridge-E1 Adem area. Most bitter fighting ensued, in which the enemy was constantly attacked by our armoured and air forces. At first things appeared to be going well. The enemy, in spite of a gap which he had forced in our minefields, was having difficulty with supplies, and all our efforts, including an intense air attack, were devoted to increasing his embarrassment. This was probably a crucial moment in the battle. The enemy was exhausted. Had we been able to take advantage of the enemy's condition, we might have turned the scale. In point of fact, however, we were equally exhausted, and this was impossible. On the 3rd June the enemy succeeded in overrunning the 150th Brigade and in establishing for himself a forward base in our minefield area. In an attempt to restore the position and to drive him out, General Ritchie counter-attacked on the 4th June. On the information available at the time, the chances of success of this attempt seemed good, and it was preceded by adequate and careful reconnaissance, but it is now clear that it was, in fact, premature. The enemy put in a fierce counter-stroke in the face of which we were forced to withdraw with considerable losses. The enemy then concentrated his attention on Bir Hacheim, which was garrisoned by the Free French and had already been subjected to heavy pressure for a period of nine days. Every effort was made to relieve the pressure on this defended locality by the employment of mobile troops. Intense air support was provided by the Royal Air Force. In the event, however, General Ritchie decided that the risk of maintaining this isolated garrison was too great, and he accordingly decided to withdraw it on June 10th. The Free Frenchmen defended Bir Hacheim with the utmost tenacity and endurance, and their efforts served to delay the enemy and to contain considerable enemy forces. With the fall of Bir Hacheim, these enemy forces were released, and the enemy pressed his attack in the Knightsbridge to El Adem area. Heavy fighting ensued, and although our troops and air forces fought with the greatest skill, three days later we were forced to abandon some positions at Knightsbridge, which opened the way for the enemy to break through to the coast and to try to cut off the 1st South African and 50th Divisions in their position south of Gazala. General Ritchie decided rightly to withdraw these two divisions, an operation which was carried out with skill, and was very largely successful. Under cover of our armoured forces, which held off the enemy panzer divisions, and under the covering protection which the Royal Air Force provided (in spite of the fact that we were at the same time engaged in protecting a convoy to Malta) both these divisions succeeded in joining General Ritchie to the East of Tobruk. The enemy then pressed his attack in the E1 Adem area. A fierce battle ensued, in which he succeeded in establishing himself East of the E1 Adem defended local area at Sidi Rezegh. For four days the enemy was held in the air and on land, until eventually on the 17th, General Ritchie decided to withdraw to the E1 Adem—E1 Duda—Sidi Rezegh area under the effective cover of our air forces, and concentrated his main forces towards the frontier, leaving what was considered to be an adequate garrison in Tobruk. On the morning of the 20th June the enemy attacked Tobruk from the South-East, and succeeded in penetrating the perimeter and positions of that portion of the Tobruk area East of the Tobruk—E1 Adem road. The garrison is still fighting hard, and a gallant attempt to save what appears to be an impossible situation is being made. But the fall of Tobruk is imminent if it has not already fallen. The battle is not yet over. Our air forces are still actively offensive and still maintaining the moral superiority they have gained over the enemy. The Eighth Army is still in the field and has already received and is still receiving further reinforcements. This is the end of General Auchinleck's statement. Since then we have received definite news of the fall of Tobruk. The attack on Tobruk began during the morning of 20th June. A heavy air bombardment was followed by an infantry attack, which succeeded in making an initial breach in the South-East face of the perimeter. Enemy tanks and lorried infantry passed through this gap and were brought to battle inside the perimeter during the afternoon. We lost very heavily in tanks, and as a result the situation deteriorated rapidly. During the night the mobile portion of the garrison began to fight its way out. We have as yet no details of the results of the fighting, nor have we any information as to what part of the garrison has been able to escape capture. It is not possible to give the House any further information at this stage of the battle.

The fall of Tobruk and the capture of a large part of its garrison is a heavy and an unexpected blow. There were in the garrison troops from this country, from India, and from South Africa. We deplore the loss of all these gallant troops. I am sure this House will join me in expressing our sympathy with Field-Marshal Smuts in the loss which he and the people of South Africa have sustained in the capture of forces which have played such a distinguished part in the campaign. The position is difficult, but the fight for Libya continues. We still have strong forces in the field. Substantial reinforcements, both land and air, which had already been despatched, are arriving, while others are on their way. The House may be assured that every possible step is being taken to restore the position. Any further advance by the enemy, who has also had heavy losses, will be stoutly opposed by our ground and air forces. It is a situation that calls for the greatest courage and devotion from our soldiers and airmen and for steadfastness and resolution among our people. I am sure that these qualities will be forthcoming and that we shall all meet this setback in the spirit that inspires that fine statement made yesterday by Field-Marshal Smuts.

I turn now to the second part of the noble Lord's Question, relating to the operations in the Mediterranean. The gallant resistance of Malta deserves every possible effort we can make to sustain the people and garrison in their great fight. The passage of convoys for this purpose has for a long time been a hazardous operation. Whether these come from Gibraltar or from Alexandria, their assembly and departure become known to the enemy and he can lay plans for their interruption. Whether from the East or the West, they must steam about 1,000 miles, mostly through waters under constant enemy air and submarine reconnaissance and within easy striking distance of the enemy s main sea and air bases. Thus they must fight their way through. On this occasion it was decided to sail two convoys, one from the West and one from the East. The enemy must then either concentrate on one or other of the convoys, or attempt to attack both with smaller forces against each. That, in effect, is what happened. The Western convoy, under the command of Vice-Admiral Curteis, was sighted and shadowed by enemy aircraft before it reached the Sardinia-North Africa Channel, but in spite of violent air attack and the threat of attack by two enemy cruisers and four destroyers, which were driven off, this convoy reached Malta, although with serious losses, in the early hours of Tuesday, 16th June. During this passage 43 enemy planes were destroyed for certain and 22 probably destroyed, as well as many others damaged, by A/A gunfire from the convoy and escorts by naval aircraft and by aircraft of the R.A.F. Attacks were made on the enemy cruisers and destroyers by our aircraft, which claimed several hits, and a large enemy destroyer was seen to be hit by torpedoes both forward and aft and to suffer a violent explosion amidships.

After supply ships had been passed into Tobruk, the Eastern convoy, under the command of Rear-Admiral Vian, was steering towards Malta on Sunday, 14th June, when our air reconnaissance reported an enemy force consisting of two battleships of the "Littorio" class and four cruisers and at least eight destroyers, which was evidently attempting to bar the passage of the convoy to Malta. Avoiding action was accordingly taken by Admiral Vian, and meanwhile air striking forces were despatched from Malta and from the Western Desert to attack the enemy fleet. These attacks developed at intervals during the forenoon of Monday, 15th June. One of these attacks was witnessed by one of our submarines, who saw a 10,000-ton cruiser of the 8-inch gun "Trento" class hit, set on fire and stopped. The submarine closed in and sank this cruiser by torpedo. It is certain that other damage was inflicted upon the enemy. In particular, one of the enemy battleships was hit by a torpedo. During this day the enemy main fleet cruised between the Eastern convoy and Malta, but by nightfall the arrival of the Western convoy was ensured. The delay during the air attacks on the enemy battlefleet resulted in an expenditure of fuel by the Eastern convoy which necessitated the return of this convoy to Alexandria. Full reports of the losses inflicted on the enemy air forces during air attacks on this convoy have not yet been received, but it is known that at least 15 aircraft were shot down by anti-aircraft gunfire of His Majesty's ships and that R.A.F. fighters alone accounted for seven enemy aircraft certainly and damaged several others. The House will have already gathered that the relief brought to the Malta garrison by the convoy was not carried through without considerable loss. In summary, the balance-sheet of naval and aircraft losses is as follows:

Royal Navy losses: One light cruiser, four destroyers and two escort vessels sunk.

Enemy losses actually known: One battleship torpedoed, one 8-inch cruiser sunk, two destroyers sunk, one U-boat sunk.

It is also known that the enemy lost at least 65 aircraft. As against this, our losses amounted to 30 aircraft, including those both of the R.A.F. and of the Fleet Air Arm. General Lord Gort has expressed great appreciation, on behalf of Malta, of the gallant men of all Services who made it possible to replenish the supplies of the island and has specially mentioned the officers and men of the Merchant Navy. The Government also desire to express their grateful thanks for the help rendered to the Royal Air Force and the Fleet Air Arm by the American bombers, who took part in the operation with success.

The House will, I think, desire to have an early opportunity of discussing these events and the situation in the Mediterranean theatre of war. Should this be so, the Government will, of course, meet the wishes of the House. As I have already pointed out, our information about the events in Libya is incomplete. The battle is still in an acute stage. The men in command are very fully occupied in dealing with the immediate and pressing needs of the situation, and Members will wish to be put in possession of all the facts that could be given, before coming to any judgment on these events. In those circumstances, I suggest to the House that it would be well to wait a few days in order that as full a statement as possible may be made and a fruitful Debate take place.

Earl Winterton

While thanking the right hon. Gentleman for his very full reply, may I ask him to convey to the Prime Minister one point with which many of us would like the right hon. Gentleman to deal in the Debate? In view of the fact that the principal factor in this defeat—as I call it, and not "setback"—as in the case of Malaya, Singapore, and Burma, was the fact that the enemy possessed superior gun-power, more suitable tanks and more suitable planes than we had, and that the right non. Gentleman, although he may not be morally responsible—because that responsibility must rest with other Ministers who are in or have held office, and events may be due to circumstances over which the Government have no control—is, as Defence Minister, constitutionally responsible to this House for this state of affairs, will my right hon. Friend be good enough to convey to him a request that he should make a very full statement on how it arose? Will he also convey to the right hon. Gentleman a further request? Some of us are in possession of information from unimpeachable sources, which goes to show that the Defence Minister and the Secretary of State for War need to inquire very closely into the armament and hitting power of the armoured divisions at home, because if these divisions and American divisions are sent overseas without armament equality, it will be one of the greatest catastrophies in our history.

Mr. Attlee

I will, of course, convey the noble Lord's points to the Prime Minister, but I must not be taken as accepting the noble Lord's judgment with regard to these events. I will certainly convey those points and the request that they should be dealt with in the Debate.

Mr. Greenwood

On a question of procedure and Business. While I think the House would wish to have the fullest amount of information available before the Debate, do I take it that there will be no undue delay in holding the Debate, that it will be a full-dress Debate with ample time for discussion, and further, that any statement which the Prime Minister may make on the result of his mission to Washington will be taken as an entirely separate item of Business?

The Lord Privy Seal (Sir Stafford Cripps)

It is the intention of the Government to give the House the fullest opportunity for a Debate at the earliest possible moment, consistent with what my right hon. Friend has said. The House need be under no anxiety; they will have the fullest opportunity for discussion.

Mr. Lawson

Can the Deputy Prime Minister state plainly to this House and to the world that the conduct of our fighting men in this battle has been worthy of the best traditions of the British Services?

Mr. Attlee

Certainly. There is no doubt whatever that the troops, whether British, Indian, South African or Free French, have all fought magnificently. Their morale has been splendid.

Sir H. Williams

May I ask the Deputy Prime Minister whether articles published in the London Press coming from correspondents in Cairo and the Middle East generally are subject to censorship, and whether, if they are subject to censorship, he can explain the cause of the very optimistic tone of the articles published in the Sunday Press?

Mr. Attlee

The hon. Member was good enough to give me notice that he wished to raise this point. All messages from Cairo are subject to censorship. They are censored only for security. For two or three days until yesterday criticism-of the handling of the battle was held up, but only as a temporary measure, on the grounds that it would be helpful to the enemy. This ban was released yesterday, with the result which will be seen in all this morning's papers. The ban, however, referred only to criticism and not to any news of a pessimistic or discouraging character. The sources of war correspondents' messages are various. They are compiled from personal observation at the front and from information given at the daily military conference in Cairo. The purpose of the military conference is, I believe, generally to expand and explain the communiqué, which must always be the backbone of the news of the day. Questions, however, may be asked, and a good deal of the information derived is probably in response to questions. It is quite impossible from this end to say what was the source of various messages in the Sunday Press of 21st June. It is worth pointing out, however, that the terrain and defences of Tobruk are very well known to every war correspondent there and that, if the strength of the garrison being left was stated, appreciation of the possibilities of defence was probably based on the independent judgments of the correspondents. All these men there have been studying Libya for a long time, some since the early beginnings, in General Wavell's days, and are thoroughly well informed.

Sir H. Williams

The Sunday papers and these correspondents at Cairo made the definite statement that the defences of Tobruk could hold out for a long time, though at the moment these words were being written part of the defences had, in fact, fallen.

Mr. Attlee

That was not an official view. That was the correspondent's view on the facts known to him under the conditions I have mentioned. The Government could take no responsibility for that.

Sir Percy Harris

Has the right hon. Gentleman seen the statement by Mr. Hughes the well-known Australian political leader, suggesting that the soothing syrup that is being poured out, particularly in reference to this campaign, is not according to the wishes or desires of his country and that they would rather be supplied with hard facts?

Mr. Attlee

I do not know exactly to what particular writing Mr. Hughes was referring, but you cannot have a free Press and at the same time have instructions to prevent optimistic or pessimistic statements being made.

Major C. S. Taylor

On the question of procedure raised earlier, in view of the large number of former Ministers who will wish to take part, will the Government be prepared to grant two days or if necessary three days for this Debate, in order to give back-benchers, who so rarely have the chance of speaking in these Debates, an opportunity of doing so on this occasion?

Sir S. Cripps

It is the intention of the Government, as I have already stated, to devote two days to the Debate, and no doubt we can suspend the Standing Order if necessary. I am sure the Government would be anxious that all back-benchers who desire should, if they speak shortly enough, have an opportunity of taking part in the Debate.

Viscountess Astor

Would it not be a good idea if former Ministers, a good many of whom have been tried and found wanting, came last in this Debate?

Mr. Stokes

May I ask the Deputy Prime Minister whether he is in a position to give any particulars or make any general statement with regard to the merchant shipping losses of the two convoys to which he referred; and whether he is able to say anything to this House at this moment about the gigantic reserves we were apparently piling up in Libya at the expense of Malaya and Singapore, and what has happened to them?

Mr. Attlee

I think I should have both those questions on the Paper.

Mr. Henderson Stewart

May I ask the Leader of the House whether, in view of the vital part played by air power in the Middle East and the doubt whether it was effectively used, the Secretary of State for Air will speak during this Debate?

Sir S. Cripps

It is impossible to say, I think, at this stage which Ministers will speak, but I think the Secretary of State for Air will be here and, if necessary, will no doubt take an opportunity of addressing the House.

Mr. A. Bevan

It was difficult to catch the interchange between my right hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood) and the Leader of the House. Is the House quite clear that the Prime Minister's report upon his American visit and the Debate upon Libya are to be taken separately?

Sir S. Cripps

Certainly. Obviously, I think it would not be convenient for the House to mix these two things together.

Sir John Wardlaw-Milne

Is not the Deputy Prime Minister making the same mistake as has been made before of believing that the House requires to have a detailed description of what has happened from generals in the field before we can discuss this disaster? As I see it, it is not that which we want to discuss; what we want to discuss is where the blame lies for one of the most serious disasters that has ever fallen upon this country, following upon other disasters. What is wanted by the House is an opportunity of discussing the conduct and military direction of the war. Certain Members with whom I have had conversations will desire to put upon the Order Paper a Notice of Motion that, while having the highest admiration for the work of the troops and for their endurance, they have no longer confidence in the central military direction of the war. That being the case, I would ask the right hon. Gentleman to consider whether this matter can be left open until some indefinite date during the next series of Sitting Days, or until later. Surely in a case as serious as this the House wants to discuss the matter at once, and I suggest that the third Sitting Day of our present series is a suitable day for beginning this discussion. The Business on the Paper for that day—important as it is, no doubt—is purely a domestic matter, and I suggest that the grave war situation is not a matter which, in accordance with the dignity and rights of this House, should be put off for an indefinite period.

Mr. Attlee

I am quite sure that the hon. Member, desirous as he may be of finding a scapegoat [HON. MEMBERS: "No"]. Well, the hon. Member said he wanted to place the blame somewhere. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why not?"]. I am agreeing, but surely it is best to know the facts. You want to know the facts before you condemn either the Government, generals, or anybody else, and the only point I made—and I think it was generally accepted by the House—was that we want to give the House the fullest amount of facts available. We have not got them, and it is difficult to get them right away at a moment when events are moving fast there, and generals are so heavily engaged. I am quite sure, however, that my hon. Friend will be given the fullest opportunity, as the Leader of the House said, of debating this and voting on it and, if there is blame, of placing the blame in the right quarters.

Mr. Maxton

If the House agrees to this postponement, shall we actually have more facts than we have to-day? That has not been our experience hitherto.

Mr. Attlee

We shall seek to get all the available facts.

Mr. Garro Jones

Quite obviously, these events require new and vital decisions with regard to such matter's as the high command, equipment, reinforcements and so on. Can we have an assurance that these decisions, having regard to the control of the Minister of Defence, will not be held up pending his return?

Mr. Attlee

All decisions regarding reinforcements are being taken at once. Nothing is being held up.

Sir J. Wardlaw-Milne

Leaving aside the insinuations of the right hon. Gentleman, with which it is not necessary to deal, is it not within his knowledge and the knowledge of everybody in the country that the real reason for our defeat in Libya is that we were out-gunned and out-tanked? Is not that already clear from the despatches that have come from that quarter? Therefore, is it really necessary that the House should be put off until we get some further detailed description of the operations, when the facts are already known?

Mr. Gallacher

Will there be any further and more definite statement prepared for Members of this House before the discussion takes place? Is it not about time that the Labour members of the Government aroused the people of this country against the 1922 Committee?

Mr. Price

Has the Prime Minister been informed that his presence in this country at a very early date is considered desirable by this House?

Mr. Attlee

The Prime Minister is well aware of that. He is engaged on extremely important business for the prosecution of the war, but the House can be assured that he will be away no longer than is absolutely necessary.

Mr. Shinwell

On Business, may I ask my right hon. Friend whether, in view of his statement last Thursday in reply to a Question about the publication of shipping losses, and his reply that he would consult the First Lord of the Admiralty, he has now done so, and whether the Government are now prepared to publish shipping losses?

Mr. Attlee

I am afraid that I have been very much pressed, as my hon. Friend will realise, by these events and have not had time to discuss the matter with my colleagues. I will do so, however, during the next few days.

Mr. Shinwell

While I appreciate that my right hon. Friend and other right hon. Members of the Government have been very much pressed during the last few days, and no doubt very much disturbed, and while appreciating that the gravity of the situation, as it has been disclosed in many quarters, calls for an immediate statement on the part of the Government—I gave notice that I would raise this matter on the Adjournment—would he prefer, as no doubt many others would, to have a set Debate on this subject? If so, would he afford facilities for such a Debate?

Mr. Attlee

I should have thought that was much the better course. I do not think that a matter of this importance should be debated casually for a short time on the Adjournment. It would do no good at all to the war effort. Everybody realises the importance of the shipping position. In answer to the question as to whether it is advantageous or not to publish shipping losses, that is a matter which can be debated. It must be considered. Quite obviously, I cannot take a decision on that at the present moment. It must be a matter for grave consultation, because it has been decided by the Cabinet after very full thought.

Mr. Shinwell

I am sorry to press the point, but does my right hon. Friend realise that the publication of shipping losses in the United States does convey much information not only to the people of the United States but to the people of this country and to the enemy? Is it not desirable that the publication of shipping losses should be co-ordinated among the United Nations?

Mr. Attlee

I think that gives an added reason why hasty action should not be taken. Obviously, it is a matter which should be discussed with the United States Government. I am not aware that there have been any official figures, or any official publication there—

Mr. Shinwell


Mr. Attlee

I think not. But, as I have said, it involves not ourselves alone. I think my hon. Friend's suggestion of a full Debate is much the best way of dealing with it rather than raising the matter on the Adjournment.

Colonel Arthur Evans

Will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind that Dr. Goebbels, on the radio the other night, deplored the fact that we did not publish the news to the world?

Mr. Attlee

It is always necessary to watch what Goebbels and Co. want and not necessarily to do it.

Mr. John Dugdale

Will my right hon. Friend consider the possibility of asking the Russian Government to send the best available Russian general to Cairo in the shortest possible time?

Earl Winterton

Send him to this House; he will do much more good.

Sir George Hume

At a time when this House and country are faced with a position such as the present, when we have just received news which has undoubtedly touched everyone very severely, is it not well that we should give a lead to the country by showing that we can remain calm in the face of these conditions? We have been warned that we shall have difficulties. I think there is a tremendous responsibility on this House that we should not show any signs of panic whatever. We ought to be drawing closer together and strengthening the hands of those who have this big responsibility, and not talking of passing votes of censure which can only be translated to the world at large as meaning that we are feeling ourselves more or less beaten, when we are not.

Mr. W. Brown

Cannot the Leader of the House give, at least, an approximate time-limit within which this Debate will be held? Some of us do not forget that we are still without information from Singapore, and we hope that we are not going to have another delay like this in regard to Libya. Cannot the Leader, of the House give, at least, an approximate time-limit in which the House can debate this matter?

Sir S. Cripps

I think one can say that we shall be able to debate it in the course of the next series of Sitting Days.

Mr. Stokes

In support of what my hon. Friend the Member for Kidderminster (Sir J. Wardlaw-Milne) said, may I ask the Leader of the House whether there is any real reason for not holding the Debate during the present series of Sitting Days? Is it that the Government hope to evade the situation by letting events overtake them?

Sir S. Cripps

I should have thought the reason why it should not be held during the present series of Sitting Days was quite clear from what my right hon. Friend said. It is equally clear that the decision to hold the Debate during the course of the next series of Sitting Days shows that the Government do not wish to evade it.

Commander Locker-Lampson

Is it not a fact that no war was won by a debating society?