HC Deb 11 May 1943 vol 389 cc489-99
The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. Attlee)

Since this House last met a great victory has been won in North Africa. This striking success by the United Nations has, I know, sent a thrill of joy, not only through the hearts of our own people, but also through the hearts of our Allies and well-wishers all the world over. It has many messages for many lands. The country has been kept well informed of the progress of events from day to day, and I do not intend to-day to give a lengthy account of the operations. That must wait for the close of the campaign and the receipt of a full account from the Commanders in the field. It is, however, I think, appropriate that we should at our first meeting pay a tribute to the men who have driven the enemy from Tunis and Bizerta and inflicted such a crushing defeat on the Axis forces.

General Eisenhower and General Alexander, with staffs composed of men drawn from both sides of the Atlantic, have given a very practical example of Allied co-operation; and under their command the Forces of the United States, the British Commonwealth and Empire, and French North Africa have, with great courage, determination, and skill, carried out very successfully the well-laid plans of the Commanders. It is never easy to execute a plan which depends on the coordination of movements of large bodies of troops of all arms, fighting on a widely extended front of nearly 100 miles, in difficult and broken country, where the roads are few and communications are scanty. It is still harder to do this when the fighting men are drawn from several different countries, each with its own method and tradition of warfare. But in this battle drama the Americans, the British, French—both Metropolitan and Colonial troops—New Zealanders, and Indians have all played their appropriate parts. What has been accomplished could not have been done without skilful generalship, inspiring leadership, and the fine comradeship and fighting spirit of all ranks.

But this co-operation was attained not only between men of different nationalities; it was also effected most notably between the military, naval and air forces, British and American Air Forces in North Africa secured and maintained throughout these battles complete domination of the air. Throughout this period the sorties by our Air Force compared with those of the enemy were generally something like four to one. Besides the destruction wrought on the enemy's concentrations, on his bases and on his lines of communication, the close support given to the ground Forces was a factor of the utmost importance in achieving successes. I think this mutual understanding between fighters in the air and on the ground was brought in this campaign to a pitch of perfection never hitherto attained. No less necessary and invaluable work has been the work of the Navy in keeping open the long lines of supply which led from Great Britain and the United States to the shores of North Africa, while on the other side the Navy and the Air Force, working together, by the toll they took of the ships and planes by which the enemy tried to bring his supplies and reinforcements across the Sicilian Channel, cut down drastically resources which were available to meet our attack. Air-Marshal Tedder, Admiral Cunningham and the officers and men of all ranks of the nations under their command have well served the cause of the United Nations.

Before the opening of the present phase of these operations there had been, in some quarters, a certain feeling of impatience; there was a tendency to contrast the rapid advance after El Alamein with the seemingly slow progress of the campaign in Tunisia. But this was due really to a lack of understanding of the different conditions involved. It is one thing to fight in the open desert—and that requires special technique, so wonderfully exploited by the Eighth Army—and it is quite another matter to fight in the hilly, broken country of Tunisia, where there is an abundance of defensible positions, where roads are few and very bad, and the difficulties of supply and the length of communications have not always been realised, perhaps because we look at too small-scale maps. But I think, in our appreciation of this victory, we should do well to remember the services of the men who supplied those engaged in the fighting.

Naturally, the rapid advance of the Americans in the North and the breakthrough of our armour in the centre, that culminated in the capture of Bizerta and Tunis, have tended to overshadow the rest of the fighting. These advances were only possible by hard and difficult fighting in which British, French and American Forces were engaged against stubborn enemies, occupying positions of very great natural strength. Hard and bitter fighting at many points on this long front which the enemy had to hold pinned his troops down, extended him and prevented him from resisting successfully the hammer blows which fell in those areas where General Alexander had effected at the right point his most heavy concentrations of force. While fighting on the sector occupied by General Montgomery's Eighth Army has not been so spectacular as further north, active contact has been kept all the time throughout that last week, and on Tuesday the local operation south of Saouf was begun. Heavy fighting took place, but progress was slow, owing to the enormous extent of the minefields the enemy had laid. On the left flank of the Eight Army the French 19th Corps launched an attack last Tuesday aimed at securing the high ground by Zaghouan. In this difficult country progress was slow, but by the end of the week the towns of Zaghouan and Pont du Fahs had been occupied and the mopping up of the enemy in that region has been continuing ever since.

It was in the central sector that General Alexander achieved his final breakthrough, and his preliminary preparations included the strengthening of the First Army by switching round formations from the Eighth Army, including the 7th Armoured and the 4th Indian divisions. It was on Wednesday afternoon that General Anderson attacked and captured the much contested hill of Djebel bou Aoukas. With his left flank thus secured, General Anderson ordered forward the main body of his infantry, which was supported by a terrific concentration of artillery, and the whole weight of the Air Force moved forward towards their objectives between Djebel bou Aoukas and the Medjes el Bab Tunis road. When these key points were captured they opened the door through which immediately our armour passed to crush the enemy's remaining defences. That advance gathered increasing momentum, exceeded all expectations in its pace and culminated on Friday afternoon in the entry into Tunis, amid the cheers of the rejoicing population, of the Derby Yeomanry, from the First Army and of the veteran 11th Hussars of the Eight Army. The two Armies joined together in victory, and the Tricolour was run up over Tunis by French troops. The First Army covered the final 30 miles in 36 hours, leaving the enemy battered, demoralised and with little or no further organised resistance. In the words of General Alexander, it was "a real thunderbolt."

Meanwhile, in the north the Americans, whose capture of Mateur on 3rd May had been the first striking advance of the Allies, met with no less success. Aided by French units in the coastal sector, steady progress was made towards Bizerta. The entry of the American tanks into this city, at almost the same hour and minute as our armour was arriving in Tunis, marked the end of a very arduous advance in extremely difficult hilly country. On 10th May all fighting ceased in the area of the 2nd United States Corps. The German commander sent and requested an armistice. He was met with the demand for immediate and unconditional surrender, which he accepted. The House knows that among the great number of prisoners were included the Major Generals commanding the Fifth. Panzer Division, the Afrika Korps Artillery, the Flak Antiaircraft Division and the Lieut.-General commanding the Manteufel Division. In the area between Bizerta and Tunis all resistance ceased on Sunday morning, when the Divisional Commander and all that was left of the 15th Panzer Division surrendered to our own 7th Armoured Division. These two veterans of the desert have been at each other's throats for the best part of two years, but that fight is now ended.

It is estimated that from 5th May we have taken at least 50,000 prisoners, mostly Germans, and this number is continually increasing. The casualties to the First Army, amounting to some 1,200, have, considering the scale of our attack and the tenacity of the enemy's defence, not been too heavy. They bring the total for the First Army since 17th April up to 8,400, while the Eighth Army's casualties from 20th April to 3rd May are just over 2,400. The remaining Axis Forces, apart from small pockets which held out here and there, are now holding part of the high ground South of Hammen Lif, the Cape Bon Peninsula and the strip of coastal plain and hilly country as far South as Diebel men Goub, down to where the front of the Eighth Army is. In this area the Axis forces are still fighting strongly, but our advance South-Eastwards down the neck of the Cape Bon Peninsula is making good progress. Today we learn that yesterday evening Soliman was captured, and Grombalia, almost half-way down the neck on the way to where that road joins the coastal road, which is the only communication the troops have who are facing the Eighth Army in the Cape Bon Peninsula. Our tanks are driving on down that road. Thus far the battle has gone well. It is still too early to say how long the last act will last or to speculate on the enemy's hope of resistance or escape. But I think one can say that, with no towns or ports on which to base themselves, and only the Cape Bon Peninsula in their hands, their prospects are bleak. They have in front of them our victorious troops, above them our Air Force and behind them only the beaches and the sea, dominated by our naval and air forces. I know that I am expressing the views of the whole House in rendering our thanks to the men of all the United Nations who have borne their part in this splendid victory.

Mr. Arthur Greenwood (Wakefield)

I am glad the Government have thought it right at this stage, before the final completion of one of the greatest operations of the war, to offer our heartfelt thanks to the leaders and men of all ranks in all the Fighting Services of the Allies engaged. Because of the way they have heartened our people, they have encouraged our Allies who are still under the heel of Hitler, and, no doubt, because of their action, they have struck some measure of terror into the heart of the enemy. We must be for ever grateful to all those who have taken part in what has been a long and increasingly complicated situation. Two things stand out. The first is that, as regards the Army, there has been a measure of co-operation and comradeship in arms between the British, American and French troops without which this success would not have been given. The second is the magnificent co-operation that there has been between the Fighting Services. I have no doubt in my own mind that, had we not had overwhelming air superiority, and had we not got ever increasing strength from the Navy in the Mediterranean, the Germans would still have held those rocky heights and might have held them for months. I should like to say a word of thanks to those officers and men of the Merchant Navy who for months now have been facing storm, stress and danger in carrying over those supplies without which this great victory could not possibly have been won. I should like to say, finally, that I believe this victory will do much to hearten the men and women in all our factories who are engaged on the war effort. They themselves will feel a sense of pride that they have made their contribution. I have no doubt that the news that has been received over the week-end will spur them on to greater efforts. I hope I speak for all Members of the House when I say that our hearts are full of gratitude to and pride in these people, and we trust that in the future when they have come back they will be treated with proper justice.

Mr. A. Bevan (Ebbw Vale)

On a point of Order. What Motion is before the House on which these statements have been made?

Mr. Speaker

There is no Motion before the House. If there was likely to be a Debate, a Motion would have to be moved.

Mr. Bevan

As a number of statements are being made on the statement made by the Deputy Prime Minister, I am bound to ask you, Sir, to regularise the position. Either there must be a Motion, or the discussion must cease.

Sir Percy Barris (Bethnal Green, South-West)

It might be misunderstood if the Leader of the Opposition spoke and other Members were silent. My friends and I are satisfied with the very full statement of the Deputy Prime Minister, which expresses our feelings of heartfelt gratitude for the magnificent fight put up by the officers and men of the three Services.

Mr. Bevan

I am bound to press my point. This is really a most irregular position. A statement has been made by the Deputy Prime Minister without a Motion before the House, a statement has been made by my right hon. Friend, and a number of Members are rising to make further statements, and I submit that this is a most irregular position. We ought to know whether we are to have a Debate or not.

Sir William Davison (Kensington, South)

On the point of Order, May I submit that there is no desire for any discussion in the House with regard to merits or demerits? It is simply the case that the House is associating itself with the statement of the Deputy Prime Minister expressing gratitude to our men for what they have done.

Mr. Gallacher (Fife, West)

While the point of Order is being considered, may I ask the Deputy Prime Minister a question?

Mr. Speaker

I think the point of Order ought to be dealt with first.

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

Perhaps I might make a suggestion. I submit that the statement of my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister was, of course, perfectly in Order. It is in Order that such statements should be made by Ministers. If, however, the House wishes to have any discussion on that statement, we must put ourselves in Order, and, therefore, to enable any hon. Member who wishes to make comments to do so, I beg to move, "That this House do now adjourn".

Mr. Hore-Belisha (Devonport)

As my right hon. Friend has properly made this a testimony of thanks to the Army for its great achievement, will the House allow me to add to the expressions of pleasure and satisfaction which all who have ever served in the Army or been connected with the Army feel that the Army has, at last, come into its own? Those who have followed its fortunes knew always that its prowess would increase with its opportunities. Having been given, at length, all the facilities which an Army can desire, it has justified itself. It could not have done so, of course, without the support of the Air Force. The real lesson to be learned from this campaign is that no Army can hope to succeed without overhead support and that in the future armies must be increasingly air-borne. My right hon. Friend referred to the Navy, and, of course, our land effort, unlike the land efforts of Continental Powers, is dependent entirely upon the tonnage which we can put upon the seas and which can be protected.

This is not only a national victory. This is an Imperial victory. Troops from the Dominions and from India have played their part. This is not only a victory which is notable for its direct results, but it has shown what can be achieved by the co-operation of Britain and America, and this co-operation, so complete and wholehearted, must be of good augury for the post-war world. There was an omission from my right hon. Friend's speech, and he will pardon me if I call attention to it. It was not, I am sure, premeditated. This victory marks the resuscitation of France as a fighting Power. We have read with joy of the very valiant part played by the troops of General Giraud at Pont du Fahs and in the Northern sector. There is thus reconstituted that great alliance which brought the last war to a successful conclusion. The peace of the Western world must depend upon France, Britain and America, and it is pleasing that the Armed Forces of those three Powers are now once more united and that France is growing strong again.

May I add one word which was absent from my right hon. Friend's speech? I am sure he will not reproach me for doing so, because this sentiment is in his heart as much as in all of ours. Britain cannot only produce armies. It can, when the opportunity is afforded, produce generals also. This victory puts General Alexander upon the roll of the great commanders of history. I am sure that this message will be gratifying to the troops who have brought us decisive victory and are opening for us, under such a splendid augury, a new and final chapter of the war.

Sir Geoffrey Shakespeare (Norwich)

May I add a sentence to what has already been said? While we are all thrilled with pride at the successful conclusion of what will be considered, perhaps, one of the greatest military campaigns in our history, everyone knows, I think, that these campaigns are planned ahead. The success of a campaign depends on the plans laid months ahead, and I would like to express my own view which I believe is shared by the overwhelming majority of people in this country, that this campaign, while reflecting the greatest credit upon all concerned on the spot, also gives complete confidence to the country as a whole in the central war machinery, in the Prime Minister and in those military, naval and air force experts whom he has chosen as part of the war machine. I would like to put on record my opinion, which, as I have said, I believe to be shared by the overwhelming majority of our people.

Sir Edward Griǵǵ (Altrincham)

May I very briefly call attention to one further omission which I noticed from the admirable statement made by the Deputy Prime Minister? I am sure we all agree heartily with him about the importance of cooperation between Great Britain, the United States and France, and I echo all that my right hon. Friend opposite said on that point. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister did mention the fact that New Zealand and Indian troops also took part in this last phase of the African campaign. What I would call the attention of the House to is this—that the kernel of this co-operation, from the early days when every other nation outside the British Empire was either hostile, or prostrate, or neutral, or non-belligerent, was that the nations of the British family held together and held the firmament of freedom intact. That is the kernel of the whole thing. There would be no fighting alliance otherwise, at the present time, and I believe the first tribute to be paid by this House is to the other nations and peoples of the British Commonwealth who stood when nobody else was able to do so in the whole world.

Commander Locker - Lampson (Birmingham, Hand sworth)

May I ask my right hon. Friend whether his attention has been drawn to the speech by General Franco in which he offers mediation, and whether my right hon. Friend will do nothing to allow any interference on the part of this full-time Fascist?

Sir Francis Fremantle (St. Albans)

May I offer one further tribute to a Service which has not been mentioned hitherto? We have heard that there have been 10,000 or 12,000 casualties. Those of us who have been in touch with the sufferers recognise the immense debt which we owe to the medical and nursing services. From the beginning and all through this campaign, their work has been perfectly marvellous. There has been an immense extension of the success of that work, largely owing to the services of surgical teams right at the front and the use of transport ambulances and planes, which have brought men back to full hospital services within an hour or two and thus saved innumerable lives. They would have saved more if it had been possible to make further provision of this kind. The part played by the medical and nursing services has to be recognised, because it is at the bottom of the maintenance of the morale and spirit both of the fighters themselves and of the people at home. Those who fight are immensely strengthened if they know that these efficient services are at their band in case of need. We should be grateful to the medical services for what they have done for our valiant fellows who have gained this amazing victory.

Mr. Gallacher

A remark of an hon. Member on the other side about co-operation reminds me of the fact, of which Ministers should be reminded, that the consequences of Stalingrad and the winter campaign of the Red Army were an essential part of the co-operation which led to this success. May I ask whether the Deputy Prime Minister saw a report that a German military spokesman said that there was not only a superiority of numbers on the side of the Allies but also very much better equipment? In view of that, is it not desirable that in the official statement the workers of this country should be associated with the Army?

Mr. Turton (Thirsk and Malton)

I would like to ask whether the Deputy Prime Minister will consider the fact that many of the man in the Eighth Army have been absent from their homes for six years and that many of the units in the Eighth Army have been in constant engagement with the enemy for approximately 12 months. Would the Government consider, as an earnest of the tribute we are paying to the First and Eighth Armies, giving a reward to some of these soldiers in the way of home leave? I think that it could be done on reasonably small lines. If a few were given home leave, it would not only add to the great morale of the Eighth Army, but it would help the troops in this country to get into touch with men who had been in contact with the Axis forces.

Mrs. Hardie (Glasgow, Springburn)

It has been a great relief to me to learn that the casualties have been comparatively light in this campaign. I would like to ask the Deputy Prime Minister whether, as a gesture of our appreciation of the terrible experiences which these men have gone through, the Government will immediately consider the improvement of the pensions and allowances to those men who have been broken in the fighting.

Mr. Eden

The matter which my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) has raised will, of course, be considered. He knows the immense difficulties there are in the way, particularly difficulties of shipping, and I am sure that the men would not want it if it was going in any way to interfere with subsequent operations. In reply to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Hands-worth (Commander Locker-Lampson), there can be no doubt about our position, but I am afraid if I did not answer his question it would be misunderstood elsewhere. I can only repeat what President Roosevelt said some time ago, that we are not really interested in any attempts at mediation and that our terms are "unconditional surrender."

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, "That this House do now adjourn," by leave, withdrawn.