HC Deb 11 May 1943 vol 389 cc585-94

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Major Sir James Edmondson.]

Major Lyons (Leicester, East)

I rise. in pursuance of notice I gave on 10th February of this year, to my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Aircraft Production, to raise one or two matters in relation to cargo-carrying aircraft. On that day I asked my right hon. and learned Friend whether he could make a statement on the progress that had been made in the manufacture of such aircraft, and he replied referring me to the answer given by his predecessor on 9th September last. The Question I put on 9th September last to the Minister who was then in the place of my right hon. and learned Friend was as follows: Whether he can give an assurance on the satisfactory progress of cargo-carrying aircraft production. The answer was: Orders have been placed in this country and a suitable production programme arranged. With these aircraft and the assistance we hope to get from the U.S.A. a substantial number of cargo-carrying aircraft should be available. I then asked whether he could: give us an assurance that the great importance of this mode of transport is fully realised in his Department, and that it is sympathetically giving consideration to the provision of cargo-carriers, ambulance carriers and the like, expanding the numbers of these aircraft in all possible ways? The answer was: The importance of this programme is fully realised. [OFFICIAL REPORT, 9th September, 1942; cols. 130 and 131, Vol. 383.] My object in dealing with the matter is to put one or two questions to the Minister and to submit to him that it is one in which this simple, placid, assurance cannot suffice. I ask for no answers and information which would in any way endanger any aspect of national security, but the House is entitled to know something more, and in some detail, about this very important and vital means of communication as a war arm.

We all know that flying has stirred the imagination of the people. It has, indeed, become the symbol of the new age, and its extreme advantages in flexibility and speed need no explanation to-day. Its vast potentialities, technical, political, social and economic, are being increasingly grasped, and air transport is not only assured of a great future at the end of the war, but it can play, and should play, a great part in the operations in which we are now engaged. I would like to deal, if I may, with the building, supply and distribution of transport planes for the use of all three Services for the purposes of the rapid transport of personnel, cargo, oil and the sick and wounded in every one of the spheres of operations. It may be—I hope not—that Departmental tempo is far too slow in the present struggle, and I hope the Minister will not mind if I ask him one or two questions in order to get some reassurances on this very vital matter.

Anybody who casts a distant eye over the various theatres of operation, whether in Africa, Syria, Iraq, Iran, India, Assam or China, cannot fail to see the great need for the quickening of these transport facilities. It may be that real lack of imagination and forethought has been displayed, but I hope it will not be so found in this connection, and I would like the House to have some assurances which will dispel for all time any such suggestion. It may be that American transports are coming through, but it should not be left to America entirely in this particular way. I would like to read one quotation from a recent American magazine. Of course, I cannot vouch for its truth; I can only read the quotation, which states: A vast air force cannot be maintained in China if it must be supplied by air alone. That was the clearly implied meaning of Lieut.-General Henry H. Arnold's report after his visit to China. Speaking at the Manhattan Rally for Madame Chiang Kai-Shek recently he said that President Roosevelt had sent him to Chungking with instructions to find out how best to build up air strength in China. He gave the reason why it could not be done by transport planes—there are not enough planes. Are we to rely upon American supplies when there are not sufficient for America's own use? Movement of troops and supplies by air has definitely come into the operational strategy and has revolutionised mobility. Where is our driving force in this mechanised sphere? Why cannot air frames be made and assembled in India, South Africa and elsewhere, engines and the necessary equipment being supplied by this country and Canada, and shipped overseas? Cannot designs of materials be simplified and standardised, even localised? It is absurd to say that there are not sufficient men and women, irrespective of race and colour, throughout the Empire, ready and willing, with sufficient confidence and competence after training and instruction, to undertake such work. Are we relying wholly upon wheels? Rubber is a great difficulty, and there are different railway gauges in different parts of the Empire, making all such transport difficult of operation. We must not rely wholly on wheels in an air age. Railways need coal and are vulnerable to hostile aircraft. With the proper supply of rapid, big, cargo-carrying liners distances can be overcome. A new era of transportation can be introduced. I hope this will be no case of too few or too late. What can be done in other countries surely can be done here.

It being the hour appointed for the interruption of Business, the Motion far the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr.Pym.]

Major Lyons

As far as I know, at no time has this House ever been given really reassuring information upon this question. Not one of us would ask the right hon. and learned Gentleman to divulge anything which would in any way infringe security, but I ask him if he can give some reassurance on this great new facility of transport, that it is being used and pressed with the energy that it should in order to make itself felt as a real arm of the war operations. Civil aviation was making rapid progress, but the war necessarily stemmed it. The great terminus at Southampton, which was getting into its stride before the war, cannot, of course, operate in the same way to-day. On the other hand, the war has altered immeasurably the outlook on aviation as a whole. The size, range, speed, safety and general performance of aircraft in every direction have vastly increased since 1939. Can the Minister tell us the authority with which he speaks of cargo-carrying aircraft being made regularly, rapidly and with the same advancement in design which singles out so markedly the great strides in the manufacture of other types of aircraft? It has gone a long way, and it cannot be said to-day that we are just getting into our stride. This should have been put into operation long since. The mere placid self-satisfied assurances given by the right hon. and learned Gentleman's predecessor, and more or less repeated by him a few weeks ago, do not inform the House of the strides which have been made, which ought to have been made and which we are pressing should be made in this new method of transport. I do not think its urgency can be questioned, and the need cannot be minimised. What has delayed the adequacy of the machinery and the supplies that we want for this vital war need? I hope the Minister will be able to give us an assurance that this great facility in transport and communication is being properly recognised and pushed ahead.

Group-Captain Wright (Birmingham, Erdington)

I intervene to put a point which has not been made by my hon. and gallant Friend. We are all hoping that when hostilities cease we shall be able to employ large sections of our people in the manufacture of aircraft in the magnificent factories which we have set up. I do not think it is appreciated how far we are behind in the matter of design for modern civil air liners. I do not think I should be exaggerating if I said that we are at least five years behind the United States of America, and it is ludicrous for us to propose that when hostilities cease we are going to compete for the passenger traffic of the world in converted bombing aircraft while our friendly rivals on the other side of the Atlantic are using the magnificent aircraft which they are producing in such enormous quantities to-day.

Therefore, I would ask the Minister whether he will not consider setting up at the earliest possible moment the necessary department of research and design. It will occupy only a comparatively small number of people, and the result will be to bring us so many years nearer being able to employ the vast number of skilled artisans who are working in the factories. Otherwise we shall arrive at a period when we must cease ordering machines which we are now manufacturing and which are only suitable for war purposes and we shall not be ready with designs to order the machines which will be necessary if these people are to be kept in continuous production. I appreciate the difficulties of war-time and the acute man-power position, but I submit that to utilise the services of a comparatively few people to-day may be well worth while when we consider the necessity of having designs if we are to keep these factories going when hostilities cease.

Mr. Stokes (Ipswich)

It seems to me that the vital question of providing against the immediate post-war period is not receiving adequate consideration. So far as I understand the situation, it is this: It takes something of the order of four years from drawing board to construction before you have an adequate machine of the type which will be required for transport purposes. We have nothing of any kind whatever which meets the post-war needs on the drawing boards of this country, so far, as I know. Of course, the Minister may be able to tell us otherwise. Perhaps he will not tell us. The Minister laughs, but I do not think it is a laughing matter. I asked the Parliamentary Secretary of his Department not lone what was being done with regard to commercial aircraft which will be necessary for transport purposes after the war. I received the ridiculous answer that we were going to convert bombers for the purpose. That is simply nonsense to anyone who has the remotest conception of aircraft design or of the difference between bombers and commercial aircraft. I am not going into technicalities, because my right hon. and learned Friend is sufficiently knowledgeable on these subjects to know all about them without my having to give him any hints on the subject, but I do ask that we shall receive some assurance from the Government that this matter is in hand now—not that it is going to be put in hand and is under consideration. If he likes to say that the war is going on for another 10 years, then it will be all right to start now, for something can be produced in five years. If, however, he accepts the Prime Minister's conception that the war may end in 1945, it is of paramount importance that we should be preparing now to have something with which we can go into friendly competition with our brothers across the ocean. We have not the remotest chance of doing that so far as I know until 1947, even if we start now, so I hope the Minister when he replies will give a very specific assurance on the subject.

The Minister of Aircraft Production (Sir Stafford Cripps)

The hon. and gallant Member for East Leicester (Major Lyons) stated that he did not ask for any information that it would not be safe to give. I am afraid I must tell him and the House that it is not safe to give any information as regards any specific types of planes. Quite obviously, as I think he will appreciate, transport planes of all sorts and kinds, as we know from experience in North Africa, are very vital weapons of war, just as vital as bombers or fighters. It is a little difficult to know exactly what are referred to as cargo-carrying planes. All planes are cargo carrying; it only depends on what is the cargo.

Mr. Stokes

A legal quibble.

Sir S. Cripps

It is not at all a legal quibble. I regard the valuable cargo to be carried at present as bombs, and planes which carry bombs can, if it is so decided, alternatively carry anything else. The hon. Member shakes his head, but he is wrong for once.

Major Lyons

Let there be no misapprehension. I did refer to the transport of personnel, cargo, oil, sick and wounded, so I think it is obvious that I referred to cargo on a large scale.

Sir S. Cripps

I appreciate that, and I am referring to cargo on a very large scale when I speak of bombs. It is naturally a question which has to be decided not by myself but by the Secretary of State for Air and the Defence Committee as to how capacity shall be allocated as between planes that are to carry either fighters and guns, or bombs, or any other loads, such as—

Mr. Stokes

May I interrupt the right hon. and learned Gentleman to ask if I am to understand that he endorses the view of the Parliamentary Secretary that our post-war commercial aircraft needs will be met adequately by converting bombers into commercial planes?

Sir S. Cripps

I had not come to that point. When I do come to it, I will deal with it. I am dealing at present with the hon. and gallant Member for East Leicester, who was, I understand, addressing his remarks to the question of cargo carrying for war purposes and not cargo carrying after the war. That is another problem altogether. I was pointing out that from the point of view of cargo carrying during the war the question is what you are going to carry. That is a strategical matter which has to be decided by those responsible for these matters. I can give him this assurance, that we have mobilised the whole capacity for building such planes. We could allocate some of them, and we do allocate some of them, for the purposes he has mentioned. We could allocate many more to that purpose if that was the decision taken, but it is necessary for us—and he must agree that it is wise and proper—to fit in our plans with the plans of our American Allies. If they provide a type of plane which happens to be particularly suited to do transport work, whereas ours may be more suited to doing bombing work, we shall use ours for bombing and theirs for transport or, vice versa, if ours were more suited for transport, we should use ours for transport, and if theirs were more suited for bombing we should use theirs for bombing. The whole programme of the two countries is now knitted together so as.to make the most useful programme in the light of all the strategical requirements of the two countries, and of course they vary very widely. There are, as the hon. and gallant Gentleman mentioned, requirements in the Pacific and there are also requirements in North Africa, and there are our own home requirements.

All these matters are considered in the planning of the two programmes, and then the types which are built are made in such a form—and very often it is a question of form and nothing more—that they are adapted to the purpose that is required. Indeed, practically all the bomber types we have in this country now built, and the transport types, are adaptable for either bombing or for transport or for carrying wounded or whatever the purpose may be, and very often by making a comparatively small modification in the fuselage you can change from one purpose to another—by taking out guns, if you do not want them, and by making variations and alterations of that kind. So I think the hon. and gallant Member can be satisfied that the maximum capacity which is available to cover these varying purposes is being fully utilised, and the allocation to the different purposes is such as in accordance with the American make, is best suited in the views of the General Staff to the immediate strategical purposes of the war. I do not think I can give him any further or better assurance than that general assurance.

The hon. and gallant Member for Erdington (Group-Captain Wright) raised the point as to the preparation for the postwar period. I want to repeat what has been said often before, that we are not prepared to sacrifice war necessities to any advantage we might gain after the war. We regard the war purpose of victory as the first and overriding purpose for the present. We are, in this country, very much shorter of technicians and highly-skilled research workers and draughtsmen than are our American Allies. That is partly our fault from the point of view of education in the past, but it is a fact which we have to face. There is not to-day any considerable surplus of those highly skilled persons that we could set aside in order to create, as it were, a department of civil aviation design. Nevertheless, we are taking steps to get what we can started without interfering with many projects which are necessary in order to maintain the quality superiority of our Royal Air Force, which is the first consideration and which absorbs a very great amount of design effort, because it is not only the completely new planes which are required, but it is the thousand and one modifications in order to keep each type up to the very latest developments, so that it may be able to meet the enemy with success.

The hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Stokes) asked me whether I thought we could take our proper place in civil aviation after the war simply on the basis of adapted bombers. I do not. I never have thought so. On the other hand, there may be a great deal of useful cargo-carrying work, and so on, which can be done by such planes, and I think it would be stupid to neglect those possibilities in view of the difficulties there are. We shall certainly do all we can to expedite the preparation of civilian planes for the postwar period, but not, as I have said, at the expense of the efficiency of our Fighting Forces, and we shall hope that we shall not enter into a period of competition with our American Allies. We hope we shall be able to come to some sensible and friendly arrangement by which each of us can make our contribution to what we hope will be a great and very beneficent service after the war. One has become rather accustomed to looking upon planes as engines of destruction. I hope the world will look upon them as engines of help and progress and advancement in the years that are to come, and I hope that in that advance we shall do all we can to play a distinguished part fitted to our position in the world.

Mr. Stokes

Before the right hon. and learned Gentleman sits down, may I ask him a question? During the Debate on the Air Estimates it was suggested to the Secretary of State for Air that due attention should be paid to the fact that quite a large number of experienced and able draughtsmen were in the Forces not being used for the purpose for which they had been trained. Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman consider getting some of these men out, for the particular purpose of keeping design up-to-date?

Sir S. Cripps

Yes, Sir. I can tell the hon. Member that something is being done, but he will also appreciate that it is sometimes difficult to find or to extricate these persons.

Ouestion, "That this House do now adjourn," put, and agreed to.