HC Deb 27 January 1943 vol 386 cc475-81
19. Mr. Arthur Duckworth

asked the Secretary of State for Air whether he has any statement to make on the daylight air-raid made on a London district on 20th January, resulting in severe casualties at a school; and the reasons for the delay in sounding the air-raid warning before the attack took place?

20. Sir Herbert Williams

asked the Secretary of State for Air whether he has made any inquiries into the cause of the delay in sounding the air-raid sirens on the occasion of the daylight raid on London on Wednesday, 20th January; and whether he has any statement to make?

21. Major Lyons

asked the Secretary of State for Air whether, in view of public anxiety at the alleged absence of the protection of balloon barrage against enemy aircraft at low levels, in connection with a recent raid, he can now make a statement on the matter?

22. Mr. W. H. Green

asked the Secretary of State for Air whether he has considered the petition signed by a number of local residents complaining that no warning was given recently prior to bombs falling and that the local balloon barrage was not in operation; and what action he proposes to take to prevent such omissions in the future?

23. Mr. Ammon

asked the Secretary of State for Air whether he is aware that on Wednesday last an enemy air-raid on South-East London was in progress before the alert was sounded, the balloon barrage sent aloft and the shelters unlocked; whether there has been any investigation into this, and with what result?

Sir A. Sinclair

With the permission of the hon. Members, I will answer these Questions together.

Mr. Ammon

Before Question 23 is answered in this way, I want to put a point to you, Sir. This Question covered more than one Department—

Sir A. Sinclair

Perhaps my hon. Friend will allow me to finish what I was going to say.

Mr. Ammon

No; this is a question of the rights of the House. Question 23 was originally addressed to the Prime Minister, because it covered more than one Department. I was asked to withdraw it, and to address it to one Departmental Minister. I took advice from the authorities at the Table, and was told that I was right in addressing it to the Prime Minister. Under those circumstances, Sir, is it right that the Question should be so altered and addressed to one Departmental Minister? This is a matter which might raise a serious issue concerning the rights of hon. Members of this House.

Sir A. Sinclair

I think I ought to mention, with regard to that part of the Question which deals with shelters, that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Health will make a statement at the end of Questions.

Mr. Ammon

It was to the Prime Minister, as the head of the Government, that I addressed the Question.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member for North Camberwell (Mr. Ammon) is quite correct. The Question should have been left as it was.

Sir A. Sinclair

On Wednesday, 20th January, 60 German aircraft crossed the South coast at various places between Bexhill and Dungeness. They did not fly straight to London. They moved in such a way as to indicate that their intention was to drop their bombs in Sussex or Kent. It is a long time since German aircraft have ventured to attack London in daylight. Hon. Members will recall that the subject of air-raid warnings has been frequently discussed in the House. There are, broadly, two systems which can be adopted. One is to issue a warning immediately to all areas which might be affected when an enemy aircraft is first detected. The other is to restrict the warning to those areas on which it seems likely that an attack is actually impending. The first system exposes the country to repeated and needless warnings, and enables the enemy to dislocate the civil life of the country at very little cost; inevitably it would lead to public indifference to the warning, and this would itself increase the likelihood of casualties when an attack developed. The second system which involves the exercise of discretion on the part of Fighter Command, was therefore adopted, and it was explained to the House at the time that it must entail the risk that on occasions bombs would be dropped without warning. Attacks on coastal targets are not at all uncommon, and the House will appreciate the difficulty of deciding whether aircraft reported in the vicinity of the coast are likely to remain in that area or to continue their flight to London. Hostile aircraft can be over London within very few minutes of crossing the coast.

On 20th January some 12 German fighter-bombers detached themselves from the main body which had crossed the coast, swept over the South-Eastern suburbs of London, and dropped bombs promiscuously. From the military standpoint the raid was a failure, but grievous casualties were inflicted, especially on the children at a school in Lewisham. It is true that over a certain area of London the balloons were close-hauled. As I informed the House yesterday, this was not due to any negligence or default. The reason was that indispensable work connected with the air defences of London was then in progress. This work has to be carried out in day-time, and it was necessary for the balloons to be down while it was going on.

The best deterrent to such attacks as that on 20th January is the infliction of heavy casualties on the attackers. Of the 60 aircraft which crossed the coast, 10 were certainly destroyed. Four of the enemy aircraft which supported the operation in the Channel were also destroyed. In addition, three aircraft were probably destroyed and eight were damaged.

Mr. Ammon

I want to put two short questions. First, was there any failure in the radiolocation; and, secondly, would it not be advisable when the balloons are being attended to in the manner described by the right hon. Gentleman not to take so wide an area of adjacent boroughs as was done in this case, when almost the whole of South-East London was covered?

Sir A. Sinclair

On the first question, I am glad to be able to tell my hon. Friend that those who worked the radiolocation system performed their duties admirably. On the second point, I am afraid that I conveyed a misleading impression yesterday. I am afraid the House thought I was referring to work on the balloons when I referred to maintenance work. That is not so. The work was of a character that requires the balloons to be close-hauled.

Mr. Thorne

I take it that the Minister knows that among our aircraft was a Typhoon, which brought down at least four?

Sir A. Sinclair

The Typhoons did very well indeed.

Mr. Cocks

When this maintenance work is being done would it not be possible to have fighter aircraft circling over London?

Mr. A. Duckworth

While thanking my right hon. Friend for his reply, might I ask whether he is taking every possible step to make known throughout the world the nature of this raid, in which a school was singled out for low-flying attack?

Wing-Commander Hulbert

Is it not a fact that when the orders to fly balloons reached the sites they were carried out with the usual promptness and efficiency; and did not the W.A.A.F. personnel on balloon sites justify the confidence placed in them?

Sir A. Sinclair

Yes, Sir, that is quite true; and the W.A.A.F. acted admirably with the balloons.

Commander Sir Archibald Southby

If they had not acted admirably, ought they not to have been severely dealt with?

Mr. Guy

I note that the Minister specially speaks of the South-Eastern area. Might I pay great tribute to—

Hon. Members


At the end of Questions

The Minister of Health (Mr. Ernest Brown)

In reply to Question 23, local authorities, except in coastal areas liable to raids without warning, have been authorised to lock air-raid shelters, provided that adequate arrangements are made for the shelters to be opened on, or immediately after, the sounding of the alert. This action has proved necessary to prevent extensive damage and pilfering. I am informed by the London Regional Commissioners that they have not heard of any case of a public shelter in London being locked on 20th January when the public wished to gain access. My hon. Friend, the Member for North Camberwell (Mr. Ammon), may refer, however, to communal shelters which are allocated for the use of individual families. The keys of such shelters are issued to members of the families concerned, duplicate keys being kept at the nearest warden's post. In the case of one of these shelters, it has been ascertained that the person with whom the key was lodged was away from home ill on 20th January. But adjacent to this shelter there is a sign directing persons caught in the street to a public shelter which is open at all times and which is 50 yards away. In many cases a notice is exhibited in the entrance of communal shelters indicating where the key can be found. The Regional Commissioners are advising all local authorities in the London Region to adopt this practice.

I should like to take this opportunity of saying how much I regret the necessity for the policy of keeping shelters locked, but, as the House knows, the irresponsible behaviour of a certain section of the population in certain areas has made it unavoidable.

Sir William Davison

Is not this a policy of defeatism that shelters should be kept locked and the public exposed to danger, especially from our new shells, because there are a lot of hooligans about who are not under control? Does not the right hon. Gentleman think that much more drastic penalties ought to be imposed at once on anyone wilfully damaging shelters? The Royal Borough of Kensington, which has lost thousands of pounds' worth of material in shelters, is now advertising a £5 reward at each shelter for any information as to persons damaging the shelter.

Mr. Tinker

Would it not be better to keep the shelters unlocked and take the risk of what is happening?

Mr. Brown

If the hon. Member was aware of the extreme difficulty that local authorities have had and the enormous amount of labour and material that the Minister of Home Security has had to provide to repair damage, he would not put that question. It is a very serious matter, and I regret it. It is not merely that the shelters are open, but they must also be clean, decent, healthy, lighted, and ready for occupation.

Colonel Sir A. Lambert Ward

Does the right hon. Gentleman consider it satisfactory that a shelter with room for 40 people should be allocated to two families aggregating six or seven people?

Mr. Brown

There is a very great variety of shelters, and what we have done is to try to meet the individual needs of the largest number concerned.

Mr. Evelyn Walkden

In all fairness to Civil Defence workers and local authorities, ought it not to be stated that when these new missiles are coming down 95 per cent. of the people, for some reason best known to themselves, prefer to take the risk of being out rather than use the shelters even when they are unlocked?

Mr. Brown

The great bulk of the people have shown a wonderful morale throughout the raids.

Sir John Wardlaw-Milne

Would it not be possible to have an electrical device whereby shelters can be opened from a central point?

Mr. Brown

If the hon. Gentleman examines some of the shelters, he will see that there are devices, such as keys in boxes with glass fronts. There are also special smash devices. In the light of our experience, we have made every possible attempt to solve the problem of making the shelters available, and of keeping them fit for healthy use. There is, however, a very small reactionary body of people in certain areas who can only be described as saboteurs.

Sir W. Davison

Will the Government consider my proposal as to imposing heavy penalties on people who wreck shelters?

Mr. Brown

There are penalties now. It is difficult to carry out the idea of a continuous patrol of every shelter in the country, but in areas where there has been extensive damage the local authorities are keeping a continuous watch, and I have assisted them with the loan of inspectors from my own Department, but despite that there are cases where it is impossible to stop the damage. Therefore, we have to take these precautions in order that the shelters may be ready and fit.