HC Deb 24 November 1942 vol 385 cc685-94

Order read for resuming Adjourned Debate on Question—[11th November]: That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty, as followeth:

Most Gracious Sovereign, We, Your Majesty's most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in 'Parliament assembled, beg leave to offer our humble thanks to Your Majesty for the Gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament."—[Mr. A. G. Walkden.]

Question again proposed.

Mr. Stokes (Ipswich)

It would be out of place to start a speech to-day without offering congratulations to the new Leader of the House. I personally wish him an enjoyable voyage through what will certainly be very stormy waters. I find myself to-day in an unexpected position, having attempted during the last five Sittings to catch your eye, Sir, after having risen on no fewer than 39 occasions. It was not until the gathering gloom of Thursday afternoon that your Deputy caught my eye. I naturally with some humility wondered whether I should continue to-day, but I consulted some of my hon. Friends, and they insisted that one or two of the things I wished to say to the House were of such importance that I ought to continue.

Therefore, I crave the patience of the House for a few minutes and wish to assure hon. and gallant Members who are here to discuss the Army that I shall not stand long in their way, and as they are here in such large numbers they can surely force the Government to suspend the Rule if they really choose to do so. There are only four points with which I wish to deal: one is a personal one, one has to do with the Army, and two are what I call burning questions of national importance. I do not want to waste time in indulging with others in the various congratulations which have been expressed by speakers throughout this long Debate, but it would be churlish if I were not to include myself among their number by congratulating everybody, including the critics, over what has happened.

To deal first with the personal matter. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Holderness (Lieut.-Commander Braithwaite), with his usual courtesy, told me he was going to say something about me in the Debate, and I think I ought to get myself straight with the House and the country on the point he raised. In part of his speech he said: Germany…is now receiving unpalatable and ever-increasing doses of her own medicine, a fact which is causing great satisfaction throughout this country, though it is viewed with displeasure alike by Dr. Goebbels and the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Stokes) I hope I am not doing the hon. Member an injustice, but I received a communication from him on the subject of night bombing and I gathered that he disapproved of it."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 12th November, 1942; col. 117, Vol. 385.] My hon. and gallant Friend did not quote the document, and I have never had an opportunity of seeing him until to-day, but I need only quote from a speech which I made, I think it was at Carnarvon, in June of this year: Churchillian strategy of bad tanks and bombing planes should give way to the production of ships and fighting planes. The bombing of Cologne in my view was morally wrong, as no real effort was made to limit the targets to military objectives, but it was strategic lunacy if it called away from the protection of our fast dwindling fleet and merchant shipping one single plane needed for their protection. I do not withdraw from that position for one moment. I know that I hold an unpopular view on this subject, but women and little children are women and little children to me, wherever they live, and it fills me with absolute nausea to think of the filthy task that many of our young men are being invited to carry out. I know this is a minority view, but what is more important in the eyes of the House is the question of protecting our battle fleet and our merchant shipping, and no less authorities than Lord Hankey and Lord Winster, in another place, and Sir Percy Noble and Sir Max Horton have all been pressing that more and more bombing planes should be allocated to them in order to safeguard the Western and South-Western approaches, which are really the only places where we can lose this war.

This Debate is to deal with the Army, and my second point concerns the Army. The Prime Minister, speaking of the Forces in Egypt and Libya, said "the bright gleam has caught the helmets of our soldiers." That is a sufficiently romantic term, but I wonder whether our soldiers, sailors and airmen would not as well like to catch the gleam from the glitter of gold and silver in the Chancellor's Treasury. Time and time again in this House during the past six or eight months questions concerning Service pay and allowances have been raised, and we have had no satisfaction from the Government. I do hope that at the earliest possible moment the Government will deal with this matter, and will not forget the R.N.V.R. among others. The Prime Minister said that "we are entitled to rejoice only on condition that we do not relax." That is a view with which I entirely, concur, and I can assure my right hon. Friend that the critics will not relax. The matter that I want to deal with concerns tanks. I have been into battle across, the Floor of the House with the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for War, and the Production Departments on "this question, and would like to remind the House of some of the things that have been said. In Washington on 26th December, 1941, the Prime Minister said: For the first time we have fought the enemy with equal weapons. He came back from his successful American trip to repeat on 27th January, 1942: Upon the whole we have met him (Rommel) with equal weapons. On 11th November, 1942, after his visit to the troops in Egypt and Libya, he said: Alas, they had no weapons adequate for the fight. So now we have the truth. It is exactly what his critics have been saying all the time. My only conclusion is that the Prime Minister was deceiving the enemy. How he succeeded in doing that, having regard to the number of tanks they had captured already, I altogether fail to understand. In so far, at any rate, as heavy tanks go, the battle was a success in Egypt and Libya this time, very largely on account of supplies from America, and it is a disgraceful thing that we are not so far advanced in oar tank design and production even yet to have a machine comparable to the German Mark III and the German Mark IV. On 2nd July this year he said that he had consulted the highest authorities in 1940 when deciding on the new tank, which ultimately turned out to be the Churchill tank. I can only tell the House that, on authority which I have seen and shall be glad to show to any hon. Member, though I am not going to quote it here, in May, 1940, the Government were assured that the Churchill tank, known then by a number, would not be very good when produced, and I think when Service members speak we shall hear something about its performance in the field. I do not want to go into a long dissertation on tank production, although I have a lot of notes on the subject, but it is an appalling thought to those engaged in production that some sum of the order of £50,000,000 or £70,000,000 has been expended on a machine which was never properly tested before being put into production and which has absolutely cluttered up the workshops of this country. While "unbattleworthy" may be too strong a word, it is very near it. While still on the subject of tanks I would remind the House that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War said at Cardiff the other day: We have new tanks coming into production that are better than any our forces have had before. That would not be difficult: I have seen them and they are better even than anything produced by the Germans, the Italians or the Japs, and better than any tank in the world, and the effect of this tank on the future of the war is incalculable. That speech was made on 20th September, 1942. The simple question I wish to ask my right hon. Friend—and I will give way to him if he wishes to reply—is this: Is he quite sure that he is right?

The next point with which I wish to deal concerns the losses that certain sections of our troops, the sappers particularly, had in Libya, and on that I wish to ask why there is as yet no minesweeping tank. In the last war the tanks used to go on in advance to clear the way for the infantry, but now the infantry have to go ahead to make way for the tanks, although in 1939 proposals were put forward to produce a machine which would go out and clear the mines from minefields. It did not need a great military genius to see that one of the answers to tank attack was a minefield, and I want to learn some day from the right hon. Gentleman why it was that such a machine was not proceeded with. As my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Cocks) has said, "The whole of tank production is in a muddle." It is in a muddle for one reason and one reason only, and that is that it has been left in the hands of what I call a half-baked crowd of motor mechanics when it should have been in the hands of people who understand the engineering industry and shipbuilding. I suggest that what is wanted and what we should insist upon is an inquiry into this whole matter, an inquiry which would report to this House and not merely to the Prime Minister.

The first of my two burning questions is one which is exercising the minds of everybody up and down the country today. It is, "Why Darlan?" It is no use burking that question. The country had better know the kind of person we are dealing with, and I do not think I can do better than read the Order of the Day issued on 6th May, 1942, by Darlan to the French troops when we went to Madagascar. This is a free translation of the French version—the Foreign Secretary will correct me if it is wrong: Once more the Anglo-Saxons instead of fighting their enemies are looking for an easier victory by attacking a French Colony far away from Paris. The Marshal has ordered you to defend Madagascar and I know that you will patriotically respond to this appeal. Hold high and strong the honour of the flag. Defend to the limit of your ability and make the British pay as dearly as possible for their highwayman's act. All France, all the Empire are with you at heart. Never forget that the English betrayed us in Flanders, that they traitorously attacked us at Mers-el-Kebir, Dakar and in Syria; that they have murdered civilians in Paris; that they have attempted to starve the women and children at Djibouti. Defend the honour of France. One day, England shall pay. Long live France. The question which I want to ask is whether the B.B.C. will be allowed to re-broadcast that to the nation to-night so that the people may know, or whether the Prime Minister, with his red-headed Goebbels, will sit on it and prevent the nation from learning the truth and of having a realisation of the kind of man whom the Government are allowing to hold French control in North Africa?

That brings me to my next point. This is a very grave matter. It has come to my knowledge within the last 48 hours that it was intended on Sunday that General de Gaulle should broadcast to Europe in the European service. By a long-standing arrangement with the Foreign Office and the Secretary of State for War, the script, I am informed, was submitted for approval and after some discussion apparently was approved. [HON. MEMBERS: "By whom?"] By the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. What happened subsequently? It was suppressed by the Prime Minister, and so no broadcast took place. [HON. MEMBERS: "Is this correct?"] This is correct so far as I know. I have not access to all the archives of the Foreign Office, but my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is in his place, and can tell us.

We on this side, I may say, are very seriously disturbed at the sudden appearance everywhere of the forces of reaction, and I want to ask to what part of that script did the Prime Minister take exception? There cannot have been anything very bad in the script, otherwise my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary would not have agreed to it. I think the House of Commons ought to know just what it was the Prime Minister thought was bad, so that we may know where we are upon this matter. We ask why General de Gaulle, the head of the Fighting French in this country, and recognised as such by the Government, is disallowed from broadcasting at this moment. It is very humiliating for a man in his position When, even after having got my right hon. Friend's approval for what he proposed to say, he should be prevented from speaking. All the time Darlan is broadcasting from Africa without even mentioning the name of the man who is the leader of the Fighting French. Everybody is very uneasy about this. What it comes to is this, that people are saying, "Why should we sacrifice our lives and all we have got, just to make the world safe for the Darlans and others of that ilk?" It is necessary that that matter should be cleared up at once.

During the week-end we had some Cabinet changes. The last time we had Cabinet changes five people who had nothing whatever to do with the disasters which then occurred went out, and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for East Bristol (Sir S. Cripps) came in. Now my right hon. and learned Friend goes out. He was the only man there who had nothing to do but to study the war, and who comes into replace him? My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and Minister of Home Security, for whom I have the greatest regard, but I would point out that already he has the cares of two heavy Departments on his shoulders, and it seems to me an astonishing move. Why has it been made? Is it the case that the forces of reaction are at work again? I am wondering whether the next victim is to be the Archbishop of Canterbury, and whether, some time or other, an attempt will be made to unfrock him. If so, I should be glad to rally to his side. But the whole situation at present is one which is puzzling the nation.

That brings me to the second burning question which I desire to raise. It is, What are we fighting for? Are we fighting for the Darlans of the world? We all know, and those of us who sit on this side of the House have studied closely, the astonishing paradox that when war is on there is plenty for everybody. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has no difficulty in raising money; there are plenty to eat and materials available in abundance. In this connection I call the attention of the House to some remarks made by the Prime Minister on 12th October. He said: Here in the fourth year of a world war more people in Scotland are to-day getting three square meals a day than ever before. He went on to say that Glasgow boys of 13 were to-day nearly three pounds heavier than boys of the same age before the war. I suppose fattening for the slaughter. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh" and "Shame."] It was a disgraceful remark to be able to make. What does it mean? Are we fighting so that when the war is over we can go back to two meals a day and to children who are three pounds lighter? Then the Prime Minister has said, "What we have we hold." What a silly remark. Would it not have been a more statesmanlike remark and a great encouragement to everybody to have said to all the world, "What we have we will pool with anybody who will come in and collaborate with us"? [Interruption.] I am not going to be led aside by any interruptions, and I propose to conclude very shortly. It is all very well to sing as they sang at Edinburgh, "Keep right on to the end of the road." It is a grand song, and Sir Harry Lauder, I am sure, sang it well. But we know that the road before us is a pretty thorny one, and we would like to know where it leads to. It is time that the Government woke up and gave us a policy. When I and some of my hon. Friends here were pressing the Government for a statement of peace aims, we were told, "We cannot do anything about that now; we should embarrass the Americans, and they might not come into the war." Now the Americans have come in and this Government do not dare to do anything, because they have to move to the tune which is played by the piper in New York.

I shall not delay the House further today. I hope on some other occasion I shall have the good luck to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, and then I may have an opportunity of developing some of the philosophies in which I believe and the economic changes which I desire. But I warn the Government that we are tired of waiting and that we want a little on account now. It is no use my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for East Bristol standing up at that Box for 50 minutes and talking absolutely nothing to us, telling us that we have to compromise, that we have to do without, and that we cannot do anything in war-time. What nonsense. What you cannot get done in war-time, you will never get done in peace-time, and the Government will have to take action now. If they fail to do so, it will be a betrayal of all the fighting men who are asking just the sort of questions which I am asking. A little time ago a constituent of mine, a very capable young man, brilliant at his work and in every way qualified to speak for the youth of the country, wrote to me that he was perfectly willing to fight—[Interruption.] I do not understand the interruption, but if the hon. Member who made it will repeat it, I will gladly reply. This young man, as I say, wrote to me: I am only too willing and glad to join in the common effort but the awful thought which I have is this that the same old men who ruined the world for my father have now ruined it for me. If you and your colleagues in the House of Commons allow those same old men to have anything to do with the making of the peace, they will lose it, and you will have betrayed one and all of us. It is our responsibility to see that that betrayal does not take place.

The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Eden)

One is tempted to reply to the speech that we have just heard, but I beg, Mr. Speaker, to call your attention to the fact that—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."]—I must keep to the arrangement that has been made.—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."]—Will hon. Gentlemen allow me to make my statement? A reply will, of course, be made to the speech to which we have listened, in the course of the general Debate. Certainly it is going to be made, but at this moment we must go on with the Debate.

Mr. Maxton (Glasgow, Bridgeton)

I understand that we are to go into Secret Session and that the right hon. Gentleman's purpose in getting up was to call attention to the presence of Strangers; but surely the speech made by the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Stokes) is not to go out to the world without some reply from the Government Front Bench.

Mr. Eden

The hon. Gentleman knows very well that if I were to reply here and now to it, I should exhaust my right to speak in the forthcoming Debate. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Of course, I am in the hands of the House. It is my duty to interpret the wishes of the House. An arrangement has been come to, and Members have come here for the express purpose of discussing a particular subject. I have said that they shall have that opportunity, and, as far as I am concerned, they shall have that opportunity. Therefore, I beg to call attention—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."]

Mr. Shinwell (Seaham)

May we have one point cleared up now? I quite appreciate the right hon. Gentleman's intention. He wants to keep to an arrangement, and that is the proper thing to do; but at what part of the general Debate does he propose to intervene? Obviously it cannot be today. How does it come in? Will he explain that?

Mr. Eden

Certainly. I shall see that an opportunity is made for that. It is perfectly fair and proper to do it. I should like to do it now. I have the choice of doing that and depriving hon. Members of a good deal of the time for which the arrangement has been made. I say to the House that if hon. Members will be good enough to accept my assurance—I will try to put it as clearly as I can—that speech will, of course, be answered. I will make myself responsible for seeing that it is answered at the earliest possible moment. I had no notice from the hon. Member. I wish he had given me notice that he was going to suggest there has been a breach between myself and the Prime Minister. I think he should have given me notice.

Mr. Stokes

Is it true?

Mr. Eden

As it is, there is no difference between myself and the Prime Minister—none whatever. I should like the House to stand by the arrangements that we have made. I will undertake that, at the first opportunity, if necessary by some rearrangement, a reply will be made to that speech.

Mr. Granville (Eye)

If a private-notice Question is put down for the next Sitting Day, will the right hon. Gentleman give the House, the country and the world a comprehensive reply on this subject?

Mr. Eden

I will certainly consider what I can say in reply to a private-notice Question. I want to keep my word and the promise I have given to Service Members and I now beg to call attention to the fact that Strangers are present.