HC Deb 29 March 1944 vol 398 cc1472-80
Mr. Sloan (Ayrshire, South)

It is my desire to raise the matter of a broadcast entitled "Scottish Airport" which emanated from the B.B.C. on 21st and, I think, 22nd February. I put a Question to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Information suggesting that in the interests of security these broadcasts ought not to have been allowed. In his reply, my right hon. Friend did not question the undesirability of broadcasting to the world the locus and activities carried on in this area, but he said that both these broadcasts were scrutinised by the authorities responsible for security in these matters and that they contained only information which had already appeared in the Press in Britain, in Canada and the United States of America. He also gave us the astonishing information that the Germans possess maps of Scotland, truly an amazing disclosure. I was formerly of the opinion that no one outside Scotland knew where that country was. They might also have picture postcards of Prestwick and Ayr, and therefore the general public should be able to discuss openly our land defences, our air stations and our naval ports. I would like to remind the House—and this is the point which has come under discussion since, both here and elsewhere—that this aerodrome is entirely in my constituency. A supplementary question was put by the hon. and gallant Member for Ayr Burghs (Sir T. Moore) which may have misled hon. Members and the public into the belief that this airport was in his constituency. He indicated that it was one of his brightest jewels, and he assured the right hon. Gentleman that if they were bombed the people in that area could take it.

Mr. MacLaren (Burslem)

He would not be there.

Mr. Sloan

My right hon. Friend the Minister of Information described the statement of the hon. and gallant Member as a sort of Moore's Elegy, and he might have occasion to remember it. I do not think I should have to resort to Old Moore's Almanac to prophesy what will be the reaction of the electors in the burgh of Prestwick the next time my hon. and gallant Friend has occasion to face them. The "News Chronicle" stated that I had been guilty of a breach of gentlemanly conduct—something like the hon. Member for West Fife (Mr. Gallacher) was accused of to-day, in raising matters relating to another Member's constituency. The "News Chronicle" evidently has not studied those maps that are in the possession of the Germans and has disclosed an inexcusable ignorance of the geography of Ayrshire.

Mr. MacLaren

It is an English paper.

Mr. Sloan

There is not one of the workshops or the aerodromes, not a single inch of the runways, in the constituency represented by the hon. and gallant Member for Ayr Burghs, it is entirely within the constituency of South Ayrshire. While it is inexcusable on the part of the "News Chronicle," it is entirely different in the case of the hon. and gallant Member for Ayr Burghs. I would not expect him to know. He is an Irishman who lives in London, and, by accident, represents a Scots constituency and is completely out of touch with the people in that particular area. He is as much a stranger to Prestwick as Prestwick is to him, and he could walk from one end to another without a dog barking at him, because he would be unrecognised. In regard to the broadcast itself, it can be classed as one of the most reckless, senseless and stupid productions that has ever emanated from the B.B.C.

Mr. Kirkwood (Dumbarton Burghs)

That is saying something.

Mr. Sloan

That is saying a lot. It is neither informative nor entertaining. It has become quite fashionable to boost the aerodrome since the B.B.C. broadcast, and an article boosting it appeared in the "Daily Record" on Monday of last week under the caption "Scottish Port of the Argosy of the Skies." The broadcast might easily be termed one of the idiocies of the air. The whole structure of it was designed for the purpose of giving somebody a boost. If it is objectionable to advertise anybody's liver pills over the wireless, it should be equally repugnant to put on show ability which has yet to be proved. The next effect of the broadcast was to cause unnecessary alarm and indignation amongst the surrounding population. The most intimate details were given. I could say, I think without fear of contradiction, that if any poor soul in a public-house bar, under the influence of Johnnie Walker, had said one-tenth of what appeared in that broadcast, or had disclosed half of the information given, he would have found himself in the police court on trial, and I would say rightly so.

To say that because the Germans had maps, or because information has been given in other parts of the world, it is quite legitimate to flaunt public opinion and give the most intimate information which would be of infinite value to the enemy, is an argument which I hope will not be sustained by my hon. Friend. I remember putting down a Question about this airport to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Air, and was informed by the Clerk at this Table that I must get the name of the locus out of the Question in the interests of security. We were informed to-day at Question Time that a Secret Session is to be held on the fourth Sitting Day to discuss the future sittings of this House. Does my hon. Friend suggest that the Germans have no maps to guide them to the location of the House of Commons, or does he think that the people of Ayr and Prestwick are of less importance than the hon. Members who lounge about the benches and smoke-rooms of this establishment?

We must be consistent. If it is helpful to the enemy to discuss openly the days and hours of Sittings of this House it would be equally helpful for them to know the locus of a very important airport. I have here the script of the broadcast, and it would serve the Minister right if I read it from beginning to end. It would be a perfect punishment for allowing it to be broadcast. [HON. MEMBERS: "What about us?"] That is the only reason I do not want to read it all, but to give an indication of what has led to the complaints by the Provost of Prestwick, magistrates, the Town Council and responsible citizens of all classes, I want to give one long quotation. One is staggered with amazement at the idea of giving to the Germans, over the air, such intimate details. Indeed our capacity for amazement is more than exhausted when we see in prominent places the words, "Careless talk costs lives," and "Keep a guard on your tongue." Evidently those words do not apply to the B.B.C. This is the quotation: It is now more than three years since the first lone venturer touched down at Prestwick. Many more followed in the ensuing months until a year later v0e welcomed the first Lend-Lease aircraft. There was little ceremony on the airfield when the crew disembarked and to-day we celebrate the third anniversary of that significant occasion. Since then aircraft have crossed the Atlantic to Prestwick in a steady and ever-growing stream, and since September, 1941, the British Overseas Airways Corporation has maintained a continuous ferry service to take pilots back to the other side. If you went, into the control tower at this minute you would see aircraft being brought in from the four quarters of the compass—British and American aircraft and so on. If you should stand for a few minutes at the reception desk in our entrance hall you will hear our receptionist welcoming and helping men of every Allied nationality, young Americans who have just brought their operational Fortresses across the Atlantic and who are on their way to bomber stations; Ferry Command pilots who have just flown across Lend-Lease operational aircraft from America; the captain and crews of British Overseas Airways Corporation, passengers and aircrews about to depart from Prestwick who will arrive at their next stop at such a variety of places as Iceland, Greenland, Labrador, Newfoundland, Canada and New York. Could indiscretion go further than that? It reminds me of the railway stations where young women broadcast the times of the outgoing and incoming trains. Here is an implied invitation to the Germans that here is a place where a bombing operation would be very helpful to them indeed. The general tone of the broadcast, apart from the security aspect, was extremely foolish. It set out to describe how two young men overcame immense obstacles in establishing the aerodrome. The pioneers of Canada and the explorers of darkest Africa pale into insignificance compared with these young men. After listening to this description of the difficulties which were encountered the population of Prestwick and district were more hostile than the Red Indians were to the early adventurers.

It was said that a local authority sent the police to stop the contractors from working. Was there ever such a fairy tale? Grimm completely fades out in comparison. There is only one authority which has any responsibility in the matter of planning in Ayrshire and that is the Ayrshire County Council, of which I am a member. I can assure the Parliamentary Secretary that that body never placed any obstacle whatever in the way. Is there anybody who imagines that the County Council of Ayrshire would be so stupid? If, in the B.B.C., they had had any elementary knowledge of what they were talking about they would know that no local authority was required to ask the police to stop the contractors from going on with their work. I remember a meeting of the Town Planning Committee at which it was said that a member was able to persuade the contractors to go forward. Every assistance has been offered by the County Council in regard to this aerodrome, from its very inception. As a matter of fact, the authorities have done their best, not only to get the airport into operation but to secure it as a terminal when the war is over. Every responsible person I know in the county has applied his mind and attention to this matter, yet this stupid statement is broadcast. One would think that the people of Ayrshire were half "barmy." The County Council closed by-passes and erected roads further East in order to get out of the way. The Water Committee of the County Council went to the extreme limit of directing water supplies into this area in their anxiety to do their best to secure this terminal airport.

The question of whether "we can take it" is entirely beside the point. In the event of the horrors of war reaching our county I suppose we shall have to take it in the same way as the 51st Division faced up to the fighting they have been called upon to do since the beginning of the war. We have not yet had any figures, but the consensus of opinion is that in this war, as in the last, the percentage of casualties for Scotland will be very much higher than those for any other part of the Empire.

Mr. Kirkwood

It was always so.

Mr. Sloan

In the event of bombing we shall have to take it as others have taken it, but what we do resent is this almost direct advertisement to the Germans—incase they might forget—that there is an airport at Prestwick which might be bombed. We consider that the broadcast was silly in the extreme, and that it was a dangerous practice that ought to be discouraged, and I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to assure us that such a breach of security will not be allowed to occur again.

The Parliamentary Secretary to die Ministry of Information (Mr. Thurtle)

I would like to clear away, at the outset, one or two misapprehensions under which my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Sloan) appears to be labouring. I do not think he realises that the Ministry of Information are under no obligation to pronounce on the merits of a broadcast of this kind—whether it is good or bad, or whether or not it is factually correct. What the Ministry are concerned with is whether or not the giving of the broadcast involved any breach of security, which was the point of a Question which my hon. Friend put to my right hon. Friend the Minister a few weeks ago, when he asked whether action could be taken in view of the breach of security involved, as he alleged. My case to-day is a simple one: it is that no breach of security was involved in this matter at all, and I will give my hon. Friend information in support of that case. If this broadcast had taken place at any time prior to October last it would have been a definite breach of security and it would not have been permitted. It is the duty of the Commander-in-Chief of the American Forces, every two years, to produce a report, and last October General Marshall produced his bi-annual report on the American Army, in which he made it quite clear that Prestwick was an Atlantic terminal for the landing of aircraft brought from America to this country.

Mr. Mathers (Linlithgow)

Is this report public?

Mr. Thurtle

Yes, and no doubt it could be obtained by enemy agents. When that fact came out the Air Ministry realised that there was no longer any effective reason for maintaining a security stop on the disclosure of the existence of this terminal. As a consequence, long before this broadcast, a great deal of publicity was given to this terminal in Canada, in America and even in Scotland. For example, in "The Scotsman" of 30th November there was a leading article devoted to the subject of this aerodrome. I will quote a sentence from it which I hope will convince the bon. Member that the fact of its existence and the kind of service it was performing very were very well known to the people of Scotland and must, presumably, have been known to the world at large. The anniversary dinner given last night by, Scottish Aviation, Limited, exactly three years after the first lease-lend aircraft landed at Prestwick, focuses attention on the busiest and most romantic air terminal in the world. The secret of Prestwick has been well guarded and it was only a few weeks ago, after General Marshall's striking tribute to the airport, that official permission was given to mention it by name in print. As Thomas Johnston, the guest of honour, said, the story of the development of this Scottish airport, when it is told, will provide an uncommonly interesting chapter in the record of Scotland's war achievements.

Sir Patrick Hannoh (Birmingham, Moseley)

Before announcements at this stage are made in America, even at the instance of the American High Command, what exchange of views takes place between this country and the United States Government as to the particular location of an air terminal? Surely there must be some co-ordination of intelligence between the two sides of the Atlantic.

Mr. Thurtle

I do not know whether any communication passed between the two Governments with regard to this terminal but, normally, there are co-ordination and co-operation between them as to what shall be kept secret and what shall be published. I am explaining what the position was as long ago as November, bearing in mind that the broadcast of which the hon. Member complains did not take place until three months later. I am trying to show, by means of this extract, that there was really, at that time, no secrecy involved and no question of security. That, I gather, is the charge the hon. Member makes against the Ministry of Information—that it permitted a breach of security Regulations to take place. I am here to tell him that no such breach was committed. In the final resort, in all these matters, we are not the arbiters as to what shall be kept secret or not. If any question of security arises, we, naturally, have to repose upon the particular Service involved, the Air Ministry, the Army or the Navy, and in all cases it is the Service involved which decides whether there is a security point or not. In this case the Air Ministry was quite convinced that at that time there was no question of security involved and that, therefore, the broadcast might be permitted. The hon. Member made much play about misstatements of fact and so on. I do not know how much or how little justification there is for that criticism, but the Ministry of Information is not concerned with that aspect of the matter at all. It is concerned only with the security point and, as far as security is concerned, we have a complete answer to the charge.

Sir P. Hannon

Surely the Minister has some better reply to make than that. Is there not some means by which exchange of essential intelligence is secured? Why should some announcement be made to the United States which would be prejudicial to security in this country? What sort of exchange of views takes place between the two sides?

Mr. Thurtle

The Service Departments are in a better position than I am to answer a point of that kind. I should imagine that there is a good deal of co-ordination and co-operation between America and ourselves in regard to questions of security, but mistakes happen in the best regulated families, and it may be that, occasionally, there is some lack of co-ordination, and a fact of this kind slips out when it would not have been desirable for it to slip out. Once a fact gets out in this way, the horse has escaped and it is no use locking the stable door afterwards.

Sir P. Hannon

We have, in this country, very large numbers of American troops. If any particular question arises as to the security of these troops, surely there is some exchange of views between the United States and ourselves as to how that security can be preserved. There must be some means of intelligence.

Mr. Thurtle

I have said that there is a great deal of co-ordination and cooperation between the two Governments.

Mr. Leslie (Sedgefield)

Did the Air Ministry see the script before it was broadcast, and, if so, did they make any inquiries as to the accuracy of the statements?

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

I am glad to answer the question. The script was carefully "vetted" for security, and competent authorities were consulted. As regards the accuracy of the statements and the emphasis put on various aspects of Prestwick life, it is not for the Air Ministry to offer any opinion.