HC Deb 04 March 1942 vol 378 cc749-75
Mrs. Tate (Frome)

I beg to move, to leave out from the word "That," to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof: this House, appreciating the handicap placed upon this country during the war through lack of vision in the pre-war development of British civil aviation, and realising how vitally Empire unity, trade and prosperity will depend upon rapid and efficient establishment of air communications upon the cessation of hostilities, urges His Majesty's Government to set up a small independent committee to consult with the Dominions and Allied countries and to prepare a scheme for post-war planning of aerial transport. The consideration of civil aviation may seem to the House to belong more properly to the post-war years. This is not so, and I make no apology for raising the matter to-day, even though the whole world is reeling under the impact of war. To a certain extent we depend even now on air transport, and we could have done so to a far greater extent and to our advantage had civil aviation not been so disgracefully neglected in the decade before the war. I do not want to dwell on the past, nor should I refer to it were I not obliged to do so now and then, in order to prove the extreme importance of a wholly different approach to this immense problem in the future from that which we have made in the past, if this country is to enjoy any measure of prosperity or trade in the post-war years. All future progress is indissolubly bound up with civil aviation and to a great extent it must be prepared for now. Kipling said in 1909 "Transportation is civilisation," and air transport after the war will be literally the life-blood of the Empire. I say without hesitation that unless the House will appreciate the gravity of the mistakes we have made and are making at the present time, of which they may not be altogether aware, then, even when the war is over, we shall be heading for disaster.

At the outset of my remarks I wish to make it abundantly clear that the criticisms I am about to make, which are many and of an exceedingly grave character, refer to those officials in the Air Ministry responsible for a policy the only consistent characteristic of which has been neglect. I criticise to a lesser extent the Board of the British Overseas Airways Corporation, because for them I feel pity rather than anger. For one moment I want to turn to the Air Ministry's record in civil aviation before the war and to give a few examples of its extraordinary ineptitude. They allowed the Dutch K.L.M. line to capture immense prestige, trade and air traffic lines in the East. Imperial Airways had not a very high record for either speed, comfort or punctuality, but, for some fantastic reason, whenever one criticised Imperial Airways or air policy in this House before the war, one was accused of being unpatriotic.

As long ago as 1934 the Air Ministry promised us an air route from Bermuda to New York. In the Air Estimates of 1934, £10,000 was allotted for the inauguration of that service. I inquired about it, year after year. We did start to attempt it in 1938, with one flying boat, and when we lost that the service was abandoned by us. We were told that the service was of great importance because it might form the first link in the Transatlantic service. Well, there is a Transatlantic service to-day. You can fly from here to America via Lisbon and Bermuda, but are we operating that line? Of course we are not. The only regular service we operate is from here to Lisbon, and that we are operating largely—at least to the extent of half, I think—with Dutch pilots and Dutch planes. Year after year we were also promised a route across the South Atlantic, and five groups were asked to tender for it, I think in the year 1936. I do know a little about that, because I belonged to one of the groups which tendered. We were told that we had to have the service ready by May, 1937. No scheme was inaugurated by May, 1939, although Germany had flown that route from 1934. It is very significant to note that Germany's exports to the Argentine doubled between 1934 and 1938, and her trade with Guatemala, to name one small State, increased 265 per cent. in five years. That is not a bad indication of the value to trade of civil aviation even in the pre-war years.

It is interesting for me to remember that the scheme I put forward for the South Atlantic route was turned down, for three reasons. We had to go in front of a departmental committee, the Fisher Committee. The scheme I put forward was turned down because I proposed to fly the largest expanse of water in the world with a seaplane, but the Committee thought it would be nice to fly it with a land plane. Secondly, I proposed to fly it with an American aircraft, there being no British aircraft obtainable to fly it by May, 1937, because no factory could give you one. Thirdly, I proposed to use a Diesel engine. The Committee informed me they knew the Diesel engine was no good, because the Germans told them so. I shall not go into the case for the advantages of the Diesel versus the petrol engine at this moment, but I would observe that only a Departmental Committee could have put forward such a reason for not examining a thing—that the Germans told them that it was no good. By 1939 we still had no air-line flying the South Atlantic, nor any signs of one. Obviously we lost trade and prestige in America because of that, and they went to the advantage of the Germans.

Those are two examples of our policy in the South Atlantic. Let us turn to what was happening in these Islands before the war. Suppression was the order of the day. Internal airlines were swept from existence, except where the influence of the powerful main-line railways could be felt. Machines were handed to men who were ill-used to handling them, and skill was thrown on the scrap-heap. Other hon. Members, more qualified than I, will doubtless develop this theme, but I repeat that there was no evidence of forward planning either at home or abroad, nor was there any sign of appreciation of the vital importance of air lines. Those few examples from the past should help the House to judge the incompetence of those officials of the Air Ministry who directed our policy. Undoubtedly, civil aviation suffered a shattering blow in the death of Sir Sefton Brancker, who was Director-General of Civil Aviation. He had courage, vision, ability and drive. He was succeeded by Lieut.-Colonel Sir Francis Shelmerdine, who was made not only Director of Civil Aviation but Director-General. He never showed a flicker of ability, and although he has now, mercifully, been superseded by a very able man, he is still—and this is what is so terrible—in a position where he may do irreparable harm, as I will show the House in a moment.

As far as we are able, we must look at what is happening during the war. At the outbreak of war, the Secretary of State for Air took over Imperial Airways and British Airways, which had been amalgamated under the name of British Overseas Airways Corporation, a very dull and uninspiring name, even rather a stupid name. Responsibility for the present ghastly plight of civil aviation must again lie at the door of the Air Ministry. The Act which set up British Overseas Airways Corporation was unfortunate, but civil aviation was in such a deplorable plight at the outbreak of the war that many of us were thankful that the Air Ministry showed any sign of taking an interest in it; but the Act put the Corporation far too much under the control of the Secretary of State for Air. His name appears in the Act no less than 137 times, and what is so terrible is the fatal Clause which vests in him the power of choosing the members of the Board of the Corporation. As a result of this, five men are, nominally, in charge of practically the whole of the merchant service of the air, five men who, with one exception, can best be described as tractable and unimportant. Obviously this Board is nothing but the creature of the Secretary of State for Air, or the creature of anyone to whom he delegates his powers.

I wish to make it clear that only in theory do I charge this Secretary of State for Air or the last Secretary of State for Air with neglect, because neither of them has been able to devote very much time to this matter; they, naturally, had to attend to the affairs of the Royal Air Force, which is indeed a full-time job. It is very well-known that the Under-Secretary of State made civil aviation his special baby, and, therefore, he is answerable to the House now for the ill-treatment and neglect which it has suffered at his hands. Of course, had the late Director-General, Sir Francis Shelmerdine, been possessed of any foresight or energy, he would never have permitted so much neglect or so much obstruction, but the Under-Secretary must give an explanation of what has happened to the Government's chosen instrument, the Corporation, since the outbreak of war.

It has fared extraordinarily ill. At the outbreak of war it had a fleet of about 24 flying boats. I am not absolutely certain of the number; the House will realise that it is very difficult to get these facts, but I think that is about the number. Of that tiny fleet, absolutely vital to us, two were packed off to Norway in the early days of the invasion of that country. Anyone who knew their lack of speed and armament, knew they would be useless. Of course, they never returned. I want to know why they were sent. We could not afford to lose them, and we could not afford to lose their crews, who only just escaped, and of whom three were wounded. Another three flying boats were taken from the Corporation many months ago. Futile attempts were made to use them in the Royal Air Force, and then they were returned to their original owners. Perhaps the Under-Secretary will tell me for how many months they were lost to the service, where every pound weight of capacity was of vital value to the war effort, how many thousands of pounds sterling were frittered away on conversion and re-conversion, how many days they flew for the Royal Air Force, and what was the opinion of their usefulness held by the Service officers concerned. Of course we shall be told that these craft and their fine crews were wanted for even more vital work than that for which they were intended and trained. Well, if the Royal Air Force and other Government services were in so bad a state that half-a-dozen aircraft and 20 or 30 pilots tipped the scale, then I can only say that the Air Ministry's pre-war planning was even worse than I had feared, and God knows that is saying something.

I ask the House to remind itself that the late Mr. Neville Chamberlain, on 16th March, 1938, when we were discussing the Cabinet Committee report, said: … the Government are not anxious to deny that there have been shortcomings in the development of civil aviation we cannot leave out of account the urgent necessity and the prime duty of the Secretary of State, while he has been in office these last three years, to push along, with the utmost diligence and speed and determination, the military programme."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 16th March, 1938, col. 435, Vol. 333.] In that case, there was no need to take away these few civil aircraft. You cannot argue both ways.

Now I turn to a far more sinister matter. It would be impolitic for me to be too specific, but I want to know what influence persuaded the Under-Secretary to follow such an inexplicable policy of appeasement and to mortgage so seriously our future in Africa? What induced the Under-Secretary to foster the interests in Africa of a great competing line, to the disadvantage of the Corporation? Why were our routes in Africa handed over to the greatest air line in the world; and what did we get in return? I want an answer to that question; and I think the British taxpayer has the right to an answer, considering that he paid about £3,250,000 for the service. The Under-Secretary has very great ability and a real knowledge of aviation. Therefore, for him to foster the interests of an outside company, against those of a Corporation whose interests he is deputed to safeguard, is inexplicable.

The Under-Secretary was once a director of British Airways, and I say, without the slightest hesitation, that had he been a director of British Airways to-day, and had our African routes been handed over, as they have been, to a competing air line, he would have come to this House and demanded that such a policy should be inquired into very closely. Surely, now that he is Under-Secretary of State and has the interests of the country to safeguard, he will not mind my inquiring what is happening to our interests in Africa. If the matter was arranged over his head, he had, in my opinion, only one course to follow—he should have resigned. If it was not done over his head, I want to know what interests carried such weight with him as to override the interests of the country. The results of his action will not be as serious as they might have been, owing to the entry of America into the war; but it is imperative that the Allies should show a comprehension of the vital importance of civil aviation in war, and set up a council to pool all civil aviation for the duration of the war. Zones could easily and conveniently be established, so as to keep the organisations as nearly as possible to routes which they know well and can be expected to serve efficiently. I think that the little I have been able to say in the time at my disposal will show that the whole of our policy and the handling of civil aviation has been inefficient and wasteful.

What of the future? Is the House to allow the matter to remain as it is? Before the war I advocated that civil aviation should be handed over to the Board of Trade. I no longer think that practicable. I think it is in the best interests of the country that it should be left under the Air Ministry for the duration of the war. Plans must be worked out for air routes to be operated the moment the war ends. This will be possible only if you use planes which were used in the war. You could use such military machines as are suitable for the carrying of mail and freight. If you had civil aviation under a different Department, you might delay the handing over of those machines. But you must have the routes; and, therefore, you must have forward planning. What are our plans for civil aviation? You have a new Director-General of Civil Aviation. I believe he is a man of vision and ability, and that he could do great things. But what chance is he to have? A committee is to be set up—an inter-departmental committee, always a fatal thing—and who is the chairman? None other than Sir Francis Shelmerdine, who has been so greatly responsible for the catastrophes of the past. I do not wish him any ill. I do not know him personally; I have only watched his ability. I have no animosity towards him. Let him eat and sleep in peace. Of course, he is always asleep. What I object to is that he should be allowed to talk in his sleep.

Is a chairman in that position likely to assist the efforts of the new Director-General of Civil Aviation? Of course not. An inter-departmental committee is an absolute farce, particularly with the power now possessed by the Secretary of State. Civil aviation is far too important to be left to an inter-departmental committee. We are fighting to build a better Britain, and any degree of Empire unity, progress, prosperity and trade will depend to a terrifying extent upon civil aviation after the war. The matter should be studied by an absolutely independent committee. The hon. and gallant Member for Erdington (Wing-Commander Wright), who is to second my Amendment, will go into greater detail as to the type of men who should be put upon that committee. I do not wish to detain the House any longer at this stage. I will leave that entirely to him. I know his ideas and I am in entire sympathy with him, but I beg the House to appreciate the immense importance to us of civil aviation after the war. Do not let its planning rest with an inter-departmental committee under Sir Francis Shelmerdine. Do insist upon an absolutely independent committee and upon it being set up now.

Wing-Commander Wright (Birmingham, Erdington)

I beg to second the Amendment.

It has been moved by the hon. Lady the Member for Frome (Mrs. Tate) in a very forceful manner, and I would like to assure the House that she has not overstated the case. I could amplify everything that she has stated and, indeed, add considerably to the list. For instance, there is the lack of proper guidance in the development of municipal airports, which caused a terrible waste of ratepayers' money throughout the country, and there is also the tragic farce of the much-advertised Civil Air Guard. These are both excellent examples of muddle arising from the lack of a correctly conceived and co-ordinated policy. Ever since the unfortunate accident to the R.101 which deprived us of the services of Sir Sefton Branker, a man who, as the Mover of the Amendment said, had courage and vision, the whole history of civil aviation, which I prefer to call aerial transport, has been one of incompetence and neglect.

There was no vision to see that the development of the military and civil branches side by side would have saved us endless headaches when war came and would have contributed greatly to the ability of both to play their part to the full from the very beginning of hostilities. The fact that only civil aircraft could fly to neutral countries was apparently overlooked, and one cannot help but speculate on what a difference it might have made, had regular air transport services been running to the Balkan countries. Twelve months ago the Under-Secretary of State for Air promised me in the Debate on the Air Estimates that the "Ensign" machines would be quickly fitted with the engines which had been purchased for them and had been lying unused for many months, although these aircraft were so badly needed. These machines are only now just coming into service. In February, 1941, and again in April the Secretary of State for Air promised me that the Transatlantic service operated by the British Overseas Airways Corporation was to be started again. We still await that. Long years of unfulfilled promises have evidently led the Air Ministry to believe that this House will swallow any story which will make it at least temporarily satisfied.

The hon. lady the Member for Frome has raised some important point which must be answered. As time is limited I do not propose to refer again, to them all. This is not the time for a general inquest. That can and will surely come when we have successfully emerged from the greater dangers which face us to-day. But I must add some more questions to those which she has asked about the handing over to Pan-American Airways of one of the most important routes operated by the British Overseas Airways Corporation. I refer, of course, to the Trans-African route. This is a matter which will not wait; it must be examined now. The House may not be generally aware that under this agreement the British Overseas Airways Corporation are to be first ousted and then excluded from running their established service across Africa from Lagos to Khartoum. What help has this agreement brought to us? What percentage of load capacity of the American operated machines has, in fact, been allotted to us? Is it not a fact that this privately owned, purely commercial, company has largely utilised the concession granted to them as a means of endeavouring to extend their line of world communications beyond Khartoum, rather than to build up a more frequent and, therefore, a more useful Trans-African service? This was an eventuality which was patently obvious to all except, apparently, the Air Ministry.

Is it not a fact that owing to this policy the working of this agreement has failed to obtain the only possible result which could have justified it, namely the release of our personnel and aircraft for use elsewhere. The British Overseas Airways Corporation are still there, thank goodness. Does not this prove that the agreement should never have been made and should be cancelled at the earliest possible moment? Assistance in ferrying aircraft can now be given by the United States Government and there is no necessity for an agreement with a private commercial firm. Is it not now crystal clear, even to the Air Ministry, that had it not been for the entry of the Japanese and, therefore, of the United States into the war, the post-war outlook of the British Overseas Airways Corporation in the Far East would have been very much worsened by this agreement? Is it a fact that this agreement was settled without the knowledge of the Corporation's officials? After all, the Corporation is the chosen instrument of this House. Lastly, why did the Air Ministry make an agreement with a selected, privately owned, commercial firm in America whose president, Juan Trippe, has been publicly acknowledged in the United States to be using the war as a golden opportunity of winning concessions and of obtaining a long lead over his future competitors?

So much for the past. It is a sorry story and this House must accept its share of responsibility. A few of us—a very few—have, year after year, endeavoured to raise an interest in what will be the greatest industry in the years after the war—an industry which must grow behind the development of this new and most revolutionary of all forms of transport. Last year, in the Debate on the Estimates, I was the only Member to refer to air transport and the necessity of immediate plans for the development of what will undoubtedly be the most urgent and vital factor in maintaining Empire unity, trade and prosperity in the future. What is needed, in regard to air transport, is the right plans now, and as a logical sequence, the right men to make and implement those plans. We need bold men of vision, for if this country is to take its rightful place in the development of the new mer- cantile air service and benefit from the huge industry that it will create, much money will have to be spent.

We must buy the best equipment, even if it is not British. We must provide the best possible navigational aids. Our services must fly by day and by night as the ship sails and the railway train runs. We must have perfect airports and hotels which give real comfort and even luxury. They must compare with our best hotels, and not our railway refreshment bars and waiting rooms. Our aircraft must provide every possible comfort, for flying is a tiring means of travel. We must think in terms of flights of 5,000 miles non-stop at heights of 30,000 feet and at speeds of 300 miles an hour. We must not be afraid to scrap and replace obsolescent types of aircraft and equipment. We must remember that air transport in the future will no longer be for the wealthy alone—if there are any wealthy. Because of the time it saves, it will soon become the poor man's means of travel. It is subject to the same economic laws that govern all costs, the greater the quantity the cheaper the cost. We must offer the facilities at the right price, and the traffic will be there. It will not be traffic stolen from other forms of transport. Personally, I do not care if it is. Air travel will open up something never before attainable to the ordinary man in the street. It will revolutionise his outlook through closer contact with foreign countries.

We must plan in two phases. The first plan must be ready to operate immediately on the cessation of hostilities. It will have to be improvised. We shall be compelled to fly converted bombers, and as far as this is consistent with fighting efficiency, this important point should be borne in mind by our aircraft constructors to-day. It will be necessary to use ex-Royal Air Force personnel. The second phase will be the natural evolution from the first phase, the bringing into use, as soon as may be possible, of new types of luxury air-liners embodying the lessons we are daily learning as a result of our war flying, the construction of first-class airports and the amenities to which I have already referred, the establishment of training schools for pilots and personnel. How are we to bring this about? Surely, not by leaving it in the inept hands of those who have so miserably failed in the past. Firstly, we want at once—the matter brooks no delay—a small independent committee under an unbiased chairman. I would suggest that this committee should consist of a representative of the Associated Chambers of Commerce; a representative appointed by the Trades Union Congress; probably two Members of this House, preferably one who is much travelled and another who has a knowledge of aviation; a good ex-Foreign Office man, if available—who, again, might be a Member of this House—and possibly a really good man from the Royal Aeronautical Society. But it is the men we want and not the societies which they represent.

This committee should at once consult with the Dominions and our Allies as to the pooling of all our resources and the zoning of spheres of influence, which would be operated, each country linking up into a composite whole. In the postwar world we can obtain security and employment for all only by planning commerce so as to kill for ever the insane international competition of the pre-war period. We want a strong, able Board for the British Overseas Airways Corporation, under a chairman with drive and initiative. It was a severe blow to this Corporation when it lost Lord Keith. Why not persuade him to take on this job again? It is one worthy of his great organising ability. In any case the chairman must be full-time and paid. The present Board, with the exception of the Director-General, is obviously unable to tackle the job. As trustees for the public, they have neglected their manifest duty. One wonders whether their attitude would have been so docile if they had still represented private shareholders. We have seen something of the pressure exerted on the Government by other financiers when they thought their vested interests were to be interfered with, but the lucky shareholders of British and Imperial Airways have passed the buck on to the long-suffering British public, who have no one to fight their case except the Members of this House.

I now come to my last point, and it is the only point upon which I am not in complete agreement with the hon. Lady who moved this Amendment. I say it is vital for the future conduct of air transport that it should be removed without delay from the clutches of the Air Ministry. The hon. Lady thinks that to do so would make it more difficult to obtain aircraft and personnel at the end of the war. I think she is wrong. If we have the plans, the urgency of implementing them will be so great that the transference of the necessary equipment and personnel will be a matter for Cabinet decision. Air transport cannot operate as an adjunct to a fighting Ministry. It is essentially commercial and can only thrive in a commercial atmosphere. In any military organisation, except in action, only the complete "Yes-man" may succeed. If our air transport is to compare with that which is provided by such an organisation as Pan-American Airways, it must be run as a business where young men are encouraged to voice their opinion and to take responsibility and are rewarded for doing so.

Hard things have been said about the late Director of Civil Aviation. I would not spare him, for he has failed, and failed badly, judged by commercial standards, but not so in the eyes of the Air Ministry, for there he has been the perfect, no-trouble "Yes-man." He is so highly prized that our sighs of relief that he had reached the age of retirement were turned into gasps of horror, for so dear was he to the Air Ministry that he was put in a position where he can seriously cramp the style of his successor. On all hands one hears most excellent accounts of the new Director, and this House must see to it that he is rescued before he goes the way of his predecessor. The only way to be certain of that is to remove civil aviation from the Air Ministry, divorce it from the discipline of the military machine and give it the freedom of the commercial enterprise that it is.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Air (Captain Harold Balfour)

I think the House will agree, whatever viewpoint we may hold as regards the past, that the recommencement after the war of civil air communications is as important as any other aspect of national and world reconstruction, and therefore I was glad when this Amendment appeared on the Order Paper. I listened with interest to the speeches of the mover and seconder. I should like to congratulate the hon. Lady on her interesting speech, which dealt mainly with the past and which was as full of force as it was of inaccuracy and was as full of statement as it was empty of fact.

We shall not start off after the war where we stopped when the war broke out. We shall all have learned much, technically and politically, which will enable us to aim at preserving the best of the past—and, in spite of what the hon. Lady said, I think there is a great deal of good in the past—even though we need not be afraid of cutting away dead wood for the sake of its roots. We have all to be ready as a nation with open minds, firstly to settle a policy and then to drive it through to completion. Here, after all, is a great opportunity in the post-war world for many young men now engaged in warfare still to have scope for their wish for adventure and achievement in helping to make the shape of the peace.

I do not want to job backwards, as the hon. Lady did in most of her speech, because I do not think it is really very profitable at present, unless it is to prevent a repetition in the future of the mistakes of the past, but I do not think present air communications in war-time are suffering from quite such a disadvantage as she would have us believe when we look at what is happening at present. The war has not killed civil air communications, but it has forced a concentration of effort, without thought of cost, on how civil communications can best help the war effort. We are not thinking of the present or future commercial position. As transport facilities due to enemy action decrease, so we and our Allies see the growing importance of maintaining overseas air communications. The British Overseas Airways Corporation has done and is doing splendid work in the operation of these services, and the whole of the undertaking under the relevant section of the British Overseas Airways Act is at the disposal of the Secretary of State for war needs. The Corporation is flying many millions of miles, and I would like to pay a tribute to the employees of the Corporation, who are doing maintenance work not only in respect of their aircraft but in respect of Service aircraft. Yesterday there came into my hands a letter sent spontaneously by the commanding officer of a ship that carried Walrus type aircraft. In it he said: The British Overseas Airways Corporation worked throughout the week-end and holiday time and carried out tests for damage to engine and thorough inspection of all spars and unions with the result that repairs were completed and a satisfactory test of the engine was carried out and the aircraft returned to the ship ready for service between p.m. Friday 3rd October, and a.m. Tuesday, 7th October. I would like to record how particularly helpful this firm has been especially in an area where replacement is very difficult or impossible. When we remember that many of these men are working voluntarily in their own time, we can say at any rate that the employees of the British Overseas Airways Corporation have a great sense of responsibility. In 1940, 5,500,000 miles were flown by the Corporation in aid of the war effort. In 1941 there was an increase, and in 1942 the figure will be round about 8,000,000 miles. I cannot give details of the routes which are flown or the equipment that is used. The hon. Lady went into some detail about certain equipment which was handed over to the Royal Air Force—flying boats that went to Norway and certain other boats that went to the Royal Air Force. These were the subject of a Cabinet decision taken in the light of the war circumstances then ruling, and I think the House will be satisfied with that explanation of this transaction. The hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Erdington (Squadron-Leader Wright) asked about Ensigns. Again, in the interest of security I cannot say where they are, but they are not by any means all in this country, and they are performing valuable work.

Both the mover and seconder asked questions about the African route. The hon. Lady asked me what led to the decision and said that if I had taken the decision it was wrong and that if it was taken over my head I ought to resign. The trouble was she did not describe accurately what the decision was. It was not to hand over British Overseas Airways Corporation routes to a private enterprise in America. The President of the United States offered co-operation and help to our war effort in the Middle East and the Far East before America came into the war, and directed the United States Army Air Corps to tell Pan-American to drive an additional highway across Africa. We had gained materially from those facilities.

Mrs. Tate

Will the Under-Secretary mind telling me, if it was so greatly to our advantage to hand over these routes, how much of our mail was carried on those routes after they were handed over, and whether it is not a fact that Pan-American carried only their own mail and none of ours? How is that to our advantage?

Captain Balfour

The hon. Lady must accept a few facts. Pan-American Airways do not carry American mail across Africa. They have been concentrating on carrying our military requirements to West Africa and across Africa. They have performed the task in an efficient manner. We hope to continue and to increase the frequency of service of that line. It has relieved us of a great load, because our civil aircraft resources are not sufficient to enable us to serve the ever-increasing forces in the Middle East and the Far East with the necessary supplies by air, and we are grateful to the President of the United States for his offer of co-operation.

Wing-Commander Wright

I do not want to interrupt the right hon. and gallant Gentleman, but I did ask him the same question. Can he tell us what percentage of their load capacity has in fact been allotted to us?

Captain Balfour

One hundred per cent. of the load capacity is for war effort purposes. The answer to another question put to me is that British Overseas Airways Corporation were aware of what was happening. The American company has not been carrying commercial traffic, but if there is any possibility of it trying to obtain a commercial position for the post-war years, I can only tell the House that Pan-American Airways has been militarised by order of the Administration. I think, therefore, we can look to any such moves being checked, because this line has been and will be run in the interests of the combined war effort of America and ourselves.

Mr. Simmonds

The right hon. and gallant Gentleman will be aware, of course, that there has been considerable disquiet lest the Secretary of State for Air may, by innuendo or by unwritten obligation, have agreed to give some concession to this American company on this route after the war. I feel that he would clear this doubt up if he could give a definite undertaking to the House that there is no written or unwritten obligation of this sort to this company.

Captain Balfour

On behalf of my right hon. Friend, I can say that the contract is not even for the duration of the war, but for one year only, and if it is renewable, it has been mutually agreed that in all circumstances it will terminate at the end of hostilities. British Overseas Airways Corporation at the present time are working entirely on behalf of our war effort. We link up at present by running from here to Portugal. From West Africa we have a land plane service across the African Continent. They link up with flying boats which run from South Africa through Central Africa to Iraq and India, and hitherto they have gone right through to Australia. Services operate between Egypt, Turkey, Persia and Eritrea. We fly backwards and forwards to Sweden, and also to and from Lisbon in co-operation with the Dutch Government and K.L.M., and we fly our great flying boats regularly across the Atlantic. I have flown across the Atlantic seven times since the war started, and no fewer than three times in British Overseas Airways Corporation boats, which have been running and are running regularly, but it will be appreciated that in the interests of security we cannot run to time-tables or tell people where we are running from. Every load that is carried has absolute priority for military or general war requirements.

I said something just now about the ground personnel of British Overseas Airways Corporation. The Secretary of State to-day paid tribute to the Royal Air Force personnel, and I think it is appropriate that the House should also pay tribute to the captains and crews who are running daily on those routes which I have just briefly sketched to the House. They are operating week in and week out, regardless of weather, driving their aircraft along these routes, facing not only the very frequent hazards but the inevitable risks of enemy interference. I can tell the House—again, for reasons of security I cannot say more—that there has been a toll among the personnel, from enemy action. They have given their lives; they have died in the country's service, in common with those in the Royal Air Force with whom they share the air.

As to post-war, I was particularly interested in the remarks of my hon. and gallant Friend who seconded the Amendment. I agree with his brief sketch as to how we shall have to approach the post-war position. Technically, we shall have gained much from the urgent work which has been carried on for the Royal Air Force during the war. When we have finished the war, engines will do more for the same weight, and radio and other devices will open up an era of safety for commercial flying such as we would never have conceived at the beginning of the war. When we have finished the war there will be fine aerodromes with broad runways constructed throughout the world. What a chance for us. As to man-power, we shall have masses of men skilled in aircraft production as well as pilots and air crews from the Royal Air Force ready to continue their work in the air in peace-time as in war. Nations too will have watched civil air communications develop during the war and will have seen improvements in them; and, just as they have had to develop them during war, so Governments will be bitten with the air bug for peace.

Where is to be the power house, the nerve centre of our own post-war civil aviation reconstruction? There is criticism as to whether civil aviation should or should not remain with the Air Ministry. Hon. Members will not ask me to make any declaration on such a matter as that. I think I face that question with an absolutely open mind. So far as lies in my power, I am determined that civil aviation shall find a future home of direction and administration where it will be untrammelled in its development by any vested interest, past or current. Neither shall any fear of bold new measures, very different from what may have existed in the past, deter me from doing my utmost to see that civil aviation is given its essential freedom from any form of shackles, Service or civil.

We cannot forecast the political policy that is to be followed in this country in the world of civil aviation, for we do not know the shape of the world with which we shall be dealing politically or economically when hostilities are finished. Essentially, our policy will have to fall into line with these factors. We do not know whether the aggressor nations will be allowed the responsibility of an aircraft industry and their own civil aircraft, which events have shown can be turned to war purposes. We do not know what will be the policy of the new world in helping to rebuild the old, or whether there will be some form of European international organisation or world cooperation between a European system, an Imperial system and an American system. All these are unknown factors, but I only throw out a reference to these thoughts about unknown factors to show that great issues will have to be decided. When those issues are clear, bold decisions will have to be taken. We shall have to plan and spend for civil aviation in the world of post-war communications, as in other things, upon a philosophy of plenty. We shall have to think big; for the days of "back-yard" flying rights have gone and the policy of the "open sky" will have to take its place.

During the war we have seen measures of collaboration between ourselves and other countries which will not be lightly thrown aside, I hope, when peace comes; and with this experience to guide us we must plan for close co-operation between nations on a truly world scale if swift communications are to make their fullest contribution to our post-war world. These words will, I humbly hope, be held to accord with the spirit of the Atlantic Charter.

As my hon. and gallant Friend said, when we finish the war we shall have large numbers of Service aircraft and Service personnel. On the other hand, we know it takes three years to build new commercial aircraft on sound and solid foundations, specially designed for maximum economy and efficiency. It is, however, unthinkable that we shall be three years before we start again. We shall have to improvise in that interim period. The countries of Europe will demand contact with each other. I hope we shall start on a dual line. First, with the improvisation of war equipment and war personnel, even though it may be uneconomic, and parallel to that put our best designers and manufacturers on to the job of building a few selected types of the finest civil aircraft the world has ever seen, embodying all the best war developments in engines and radio equipment.

I can only conclude with this: In every direction of our national life we have to remember air power as a weapon in war and as an aid to peace. If we look at history, our traditional foreign policy has been based on sea power, the possession of naval bases and the protection of our sea commerce. Now, post-war minds will have to think in a new dimension. When directing our foreign policy we shall have to incorporate into it the knowledge that we must preserve civil air communications for the benefit of ourselves in particular and humanity in general.

Sir Francis Shelmerdine's name has been mentioned, and I can only regret the terms in which he was referred to by the Mover of the Amendment, because a civil servant, as regards his Civil Service life, is always considered as immune from criticism in this House as an individual. None of us is perfect; we all have many faults, and no one is more conscious of his own faults than I am myself. Sir Francis Shelmerdine has done great work in many directions. He is Chairman of a Departmental Committee, but do not let the House think that that is a Committee to settle the future of civil aviation. It is a Committee to explore the position and advise the Minister who was previously in charge of post-war reconstruction. To-day there has been announced a new appointment. The Solicitor-General has been appointed Paymaster-General, and he, aided by a Parliamentary Secretary, will take on the job of looking after the various aspects of the reconstruction of our national life. He will presumably have the benefit of the work of this Committee. It is far too big a job for any Departmental Committee to take decisions upon; it is a job upon which a Departmental Committee can rightly look at the past, draw the lessons from its experience, and present them to those who will have the responsibility for decisions of policy.

Mrs. Tate

Do I understand that the Departmental Committee is the only body which, will give advice to the Paymaster-General on the future of civil aviation? Is he, or does he pretend to be, satisfied that it is suitable for a Department to set up a committee to advise as to its own future, when the past has been so very regrettable? Will he have anybody better than this Committee to advise him?

Captain Balfour

The Committee consists of representatives of no fewer than 12 Government Departments, and it will not have to settle policy. The Paymaster-General will presumably call for advice from everyone who he thinks can give advice of any value. I have seen some of the research work of this Committee, and I venture to submit that its advice will be very valuable, although no doubt it will not be the only advice the Minister will have. Decisions on policy, however, will have to be taken by the Cabinet, and submitted to and approved by the House, when I trust they will have the enthusiastic support of the country.

Captain Plugge

Is the House to understand that the whole consideration is devoted to the post-war position, and that at present we do not contemplate increasing our civil aviation lines, which are so necessary for military purposes, as much for the transport of personnel as for that of goods?

Captain Balfour

Oh, no. Obviously, I could not give details; all I can say is that the expansion of civil aviation for our war effort all over the world is something tremendous.

Mrs. Tate

In accordance with tradition, but with no feeling whatever of confidence or satisfaction, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question again proposed, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair."

Mr. Simmonds (Birmingham, Duddesdon)

I do not propose to delay the House for any length of time, but I want to draw attention to three important matters of policy with regard to the Air Ministry. I join with my hon. Friend the Member for North Aberdeen (Mr. Garro Jones) in emphasising that, when we criticise the policy of the Air Ministry, we dissociate from that criticism most wholeheartedly the operational squadrons, officers and crews, of the Royal Air Force. No words which can be used in this House would be adequate praise for the services they have rendered to this country and to humanity. My first point concerns the equipment of the R.A.F. Is the Air Ministry taking wise, long-sighted decisions with regard to the equipment upon which the R.A.F. will be mounted to-morrow? Before the war, the decisions made by the Air Ministry in regard to equipment were largely deplorable. We continued to regard the slow biplane even as a fighter aircraft long after we should have adopted the monoplane types, as did other nations. But, fortunately, there was one decision of paramount importance made by the Air Ministry at that time which was not made by any other nation, the decision to have the eight-gun, or multi-gun, type. That decision, possibly, saved this country in the Battle of Britain. No praise can be too high for those responsible for pressing that decision upon the Air Ministry and for those responsible, politically and in the Air Council, for implementing that proposal. But we should be careful to find out whether, in fact, that decision was typical of the far-sightedness of all decisions on equipment, or whether it was a fortunate decision among others not so fortunate.

As I think of the operational types in the Air Force, I am not entirely filled with the confidence which the decision on the eight-gun fighter might give one, if it were typical of the decisions on equipment as a whole. One serious lag during hostilities has been in respect of troop-carriers. It is abundantly clear that the Air Ministry did not place in its programme of aircraft construction, or, since the Ministry of Aircraft Production has been formed, of aircraft requisitions, the troop-carrier in its right place. It may well be said that the question of the troop-carrier was intimately bound up with the development of civil aviation, and indeed it was. If the Air Ministry had seen to it before the war that there was an adequate fleet of civil aircraft, as Germany did, then this aircraft could have formed the nucleus of a troop-carrier force. I feel, therefore, that as regards the troop-carrier the decisions have not been as wise as the decision on the eight-gun fighter.

I now turn to the question of cannon aircraft. Other nations adopted cannon in their aircraft long before we did. The Air Ministry was pressed, so I understand, by those who were interested in the supply of cannon to the Royal Air Force many years before the war, but the Air Ministry did not see that cannon would be an important piece of the air equipment of the future. Thirdly, I turn to the question of the dive-bomber. I have seen that the hon. Member for Swindon (Mr. Wakefield), who may he presumed to know something of the mind of the Air Ministry, has been ridiculing the idea that we want dive-bombers, but I am told by those who have had to stand up to the enemy's dive-bombing, that it is a most terrifying and effective form of attack, and that at the moment we have nothing with which to replace it. Once again, the decision not to have any type of aircraft at all similar to the dive-bomber did not show very strong foresight with regard to the type of equipment that would be necessary.

Fourthly, I refer to another exceedingly important type of aircraft—the glider. Germany has already manifested in her several actions of invasion how important the glider can be to the airborne troops with which we may come in conflict in the course of the war. Again, as far as I know, the Air Ministry did not interest itself to any great extent in gliders. I think there was a puny £5,000 per annum vouchsafed to the Air League of the British Empire before the war in order to encourage the art of gliding, but certainly that did not in any way contemplate the construction of troop-carrying gliders, but was merely to try to educate the youth of the country in the art of gliding. Therefore, in the light of the fact that of five important decisions four were wrong and only one, that with regard to the eight-gun fighter, was right. We should be chary of thinking that concurrent decisions of the Air Ministry upon the future equipment of the Royal Air Force can be accepted without the most careful thought and review by this House.

I am thinking of two particular types of aircraft which must be in the minds of all hon. Members at this time. First I would refer to what I would call the Army assault. It may be a dive bomber, it may be a cannon aircraft—I do not want to lay down a specification—and, of course, if it be a dive bomber, we may perhaps be told that we have ordered from the Vultee Company in America the "Vengeance," which will perform dive-bombing duties. But that aircraft has been ordered more as a concession to the clamour for some aircraft of this kind than from any basic conviction on the part of the Air Council or Air Ministry that this type of Army assault plane can be made a feature of our air equipment. I regret to say that I believe that aircraft is being pressed much less than it should have been if we are to test out for ourselves the successes which the German air force and, indeed, the Japanese air force have had with the dive bomber.

Again, if that be not the type for Army assault, are we pressing sufficiently with the cannon plane? Here again, I am not at all satisfied that the Air Ministry is showing all the initiative which it might have done in regard to these new types of aircraft. Another type of aircraft which is referred to at length in many interesting, although sometimes misleading, articles which we read in the daily Press from aeronautical correspondents is the long-range high-speed dive bomber. The hon. Member for North Aberdeen (Mr. Garro Jones), earlier in this Debate, was emphasising the importance of the day bombing of individual targets if you are to achieve successes. Have we really put into this problem of long-range high-speed day bombing the consideration, thought and initiative that are essential for so important a problem? May this not be an essential counterpart of the long-range multi-engined night bomber, of which we have heard so much during the Debate? Here let me emphasise that this is not a matter which the Air Ministry can properly put to the Ministry of Aircraft Production for decision. I feel that where you have an operational service separated from the Department of supply—as, for example, the Air Ministry and the Ministry of Aircraft Production, the War Office and the Ministry of Supply—there is grave danger of our development falling between two stools. It must be not the Ministry of Supply that will offer new equipment to the Ministry but operations that will tell the Ministry of Supply the type of equipment that is needed for the operations contemplated. I am quite satisfied in my own mind that the War Office has failed lamentably to insist that the Ministry of Supply should provide what is required in the way of tanks, and I am not at all certain that there is not a comparable failure on the part of the Air Ministry with regard to the Ministry of Aircraft Production.

I would like to ask my right hon. and gallant Friend, therefore, if he would give this matter his very careful thought, lest we may not here be losing the benefits of the separate supply side of the Air Ministry. Clearly there cannot be the same closeness between the operational and supply sides now as there was when they were under the same Ministry. Let us not fail to see that the right type of aircraft for operational needs is forthcoming, and forthcoming in the right quantities at the right time, rather than have to appeal to the Ministry of Aircraft Production as to what may be available at any juncture.

The second point I want to make briefly refers to the multi-engined night bomber. I shall not follow the hon. Member for North Aberdeen in suggesting that the policy of the big night bomber is wrong, and I think that he may have cause, in the course of time, to review his own ideas on this point; what I want to emphasise is that for every night bomber that you build you prevent, the hon. Member suggested ten, but I think that too high a figure, and I suggest six fighters, from being constructed. I hardly take up my newspaper any day without seeing that some newspaper man has discussed operations in some part of the world with officers and men of our Forces; or those of our Allies, and has written these words: "If only we had a few more squadrons of fighters." Let us be quite clear on this point. We could have had these squadrons of fighters, but we did not order them from the Ministry of Aircraft Production. We have ordered too few fighters and too many bombers. I would like to ask my right hon. and gallant Friend the Under-Secretary whether he can give the House an assurance that the question of the relative production of fighters and bombers is relentlessly kept under the review of the Secretary of State and himself. It is not a matter that can be left until the hostile operations are upon us. It is something that has to be developed with constant foresight, and, I would say, always erring in favour of having rather too many fighters than too few. For I think it is quite faulty logic to argue, as sometimes those who are too enthusiastic about bombers do, that the fighter is not an offensive plane. As I read the accounts of the war, our offensives have been prejudiced because we have not had sufficient fighters and because the armament of our fighters has not been sufficiently heavy. If there had been more fighters with heavier armament in both battles of Libya, I believe the result could have been different, and what might have happened in Crete if we had had a stronger fighter force no man can say.

I listened the other day to my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Privy Seal; he promised that the question of the balance of the fighter and the bomber would be looked into, but he claimed that the big bomber policy was born of our being isolated from Allies, and that we had to rely upon this one weapon to blast our way into enemy territory. With me, at any rate, that did not carry great conviction, because I recall that in the months when it was certainly presumed that America might shortly be in the war, the whole of American aircraft production was based on the same philosophy, namely, that the big bomber was the air weapon which eventually would win the war. I am certain that all the current thinking in the light of changing day-to-day factors has not been put into this question in the way that is necessary. I think that this issue, which is of vital importance to this country, needs some quick decisions, because, as the House will know very well, both in this country and in America the big bomber programme is now under way to such an extent that if you wanted to reverse it, you possibly could not get fighters from those factories for nine or 12 months. Therefore, we have to think quickly if we have thought erroneously in the past.

The last point I want to make is on the question of co-operation between the Air Ministry, the Admiralty and the War Office. I will not suggest any partition of the Royal Air Force, but I think that we have all to consider this matter dispassionately, with an eye on the present and the future rather than on the past. When I listened to the Secretary of State for Air saying how unnecessary it was that there should be any air arm of the Army, I was bound to recall the similar statements which were made on behalf of the Air Ministry at the time of the agitation for the formation of a separate Fleet Air Arm. All sorts of dire results were predicted if sea-borne aircraft were taken away from the control of the Air Ministry and placed under the Admiralty. In fact, those dire results have not occurred, and I believe that the Navy and the Air Force have worked out that system with commendable ingenuity.

The Air Ministry should be more interested in warfare in the air being carried on effectively, than in making sure that it is carried on by the Air Ministry. I am a little doubtful how the War Office and the Army can be enthusiastic about the use of the air, which is essential if we are to surpass our enemies in this respect, unless there is some degree of control of the Army air weapons. That may mean some concessions on the part of the Air Ministry from the Army point of view, and it may mean concessions to the War Office from the Air Ministry point of view, but if my right hon. Friend tells the House that all is well with Army co-operation and that we are forging ahead with the Army air arm equal to the enemy, I can only say I have seen no evidence of such a state of affairs. I believe it is essential that the War Office and the Air Ministry should put their heads closer together in order to try and solve this problem. I understand that my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Rugby (Captain Margesson), who has rendered a distinguished service at the War Office, threw himself with great energy into the question of the use of aircraft by the Army. I believe he has left something which can be worked upon and developed, and I should like to feel that the Air Ministry is going to take a very broad view on this question. Let the House not speak in terms of dismembering the Air Force. There are many other methods by which to ensure close co-operation. I do not press the Under-Secretary to reply, but rather to give thought to these questions, which, in my view, require the most urgent thought.

Question, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair," put, and agreed to.

Supply accordingly considered in Committee.

[Sir DENNIS HERBERT in the Chair.]