§ Order for Committee read.
§ 12.2 p.m.
§ The Fist Lord of the Admiralty (Mr. A. V. Alexander)
I beg to move, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair."
It is my privilege once again to give the House some account of the services which the Navy has rendered to the country, and to the cause of the United Nations, during the past year. A year ago I spoke of three events which stood out like peaks on the road to victory. This year, all other events have been overshadowed by the operation which brought Allied forces once more to the coast of France, and started for them the last campaign in Europe, which will end only when Germany is defeated. This operation was described by the late Admiral Ramsay in an Order of the Day, as the greatest amphibious operation in history. That description is the simple truth.
The object of an assault operation of this kind, is to secure a lodgment on hostile shores, from which offensive operations can be developed. The naval problem is to break the strong crust of the coast defences by assault, to land the fighting army formations, promptly to reinforce those formations, and to continue to do so, without pause, for five or six weeks at the highest possible rate.
The naval forces required for the assault landing consisted of four main classes: minesweepers, to clear the way for all the ships and the craft which would follow; landing craft and ships of all kinds to carry the soldiers and the guns, tanks, the transport and the other equipment with which they would fight; bombarding ships, whose task, with the Air Force, would be to destroy the enemy's opposition to the landing, and enable the Army to gain the lodgment which it requires before it can begin to deploy its 2042 own weapons; and finally, escort and antisubmarine forces. The minesweepers, the bombarding ships and escort vessels already existed, of course, in the Fleet, though they were required in exceptionally large numbers for this gigantic operation. The landing ships and craft did not exist. They have all had to be developed and provided during the war from our own resources and from those of our Allies.
The process was started as soon as the armies of the United Nations were driven from the Continent, many months before it became fashionable to chalk up on the walls demands for a "Second Front." In the days of the Battle of Britain, however, and for many a month thereafter, our resources had to be devoted mainly to the defensive battle for existence. The urgent need for more and more escort vessels for the defeat of the U-boat, on which all else depended; the need for fighter and bombing aircraft; the need for re-equipping an Army denuded of its weapons—all these had to take priority over the production of the vessels, which one day would carry the fight back to the enemy. Nevertheless, even in the days of the Battle of Britain, a start was made on the special craft and ships which were to make landings in North Africa and Italy, and ultimately the landing in France.
This vast additional programme of construction and conversion, could not be undertaken without interference with existing naval programmes, to repairs and refitting, and to merchant shipbuilding. That interference had to be accepted. Even so, the great numbers- of craft required could not be provided by existing shipbuilding resources. There were not sufficient men in the industry, and the war against the U-boat was making heavy demands. The Admiralty, therefore, turned to firms of structural engineers for tank landing craft, and to joinery and woodworking firms for the smaller landing craft. These firms and their workers up and down the country, far removed from the sea, and without knowledge of shipbuilding, have, nevertheless, since built hundreds of the craft used on the beaches of Normandy. In the first quarter of 1942, four times as many major landing craft were built as in the first quarter of 1941; in the first quarter of 1943, ten times as many, and in the first quarter of 1944, sixteen times as many.
2043 The larger landing ships, however, could not be provided by this typically British method of adaptation and enterprise. The first two tank landing ships were merchant ships, converted first by Greenwell's, of Sunderland, and Vickers, at Walker-on-Tyne. The first new construction tank landing ships were built by Harland and Wolff at Belfast. But, with all the other demands on the industry, it was clear that the full programme was beyond the resources of the United Kingdom at the time. Once again the great resources of the United States came to our aid under the Lend-Lease arrangements, both for the larger ships and for very many landing craft. Our pioneer experience was placed at their disposal, and I would like the House to know that the design of many types of United States built landing ships and craft came from Britain.
In this way, the great new Fleet, to include ultimately thousands of ships and craft, was created. While the Fleet with which we are familiar—the battleships, the carriers, the cruisers, the destroyers, the escort vessels, the minesweepers, the submarines and the coastal forces—was still being built and maintained, and was carrying out its traditional and unceasing task of keeping the seas open to ourselves and our Allies, and, of course, denying them to our enemies, this strange new Fleet, containing ships of all sizes and the oddest shapes, each designed and developed for its special purpose, was brought into being. It included ships and craft for landing tanks and infantry, for giving close support fire, for landing guns and transport, for making smoke and even floating kitchens and craft fitted with extending fire escape ladders to put men up cliffs. In all, 4,066 landing ships and craft of over 60 different types took part in the operation.
The creation of a new Fleet was, however, but one part of the Navy's share in the preparation of the assault. The coasts from which the armada would set forth, and which were to maintain the ships supplying the Army when it gained the far shore, had to be so prepared and equipped as to ensure not only that our military power should be firmly established, but should be reinforced thereafter more rapidly than the forces of the enemy. Reinforcement across that unstable and 2044 treacherous element the sea, is much more hazardous and complicated than reinforcement by land. The task was formidable. The ship repairing resources of our country are continuously and heavily engaged in war-time, but special preparations had to be made on a large scale to deal with the shipping casualties to be expected in an undertaking of this kind. An appeal to specialist shipyard workers in the North, to volunteer for repair work in the South, met with a ready and generous response. Men engaged in building new ships and small craft in the South, were drawn on to help with repairs, and the labour force was still further augmented by transfers from local industries of skilled men who, although they had no experience of work on board ship, rapidly adapted themselves to the new conditions. The repair facilities for warships and merchant ships alike employed in the operations were pooled and administered by a central organisation.
Shore works costing several millions of pounds had to be provided before the assault could be launched. These included massive concrete "hards" for embarkation at various points on the coast, with dolphins for mooring the landing craft whilst loading and fuelling, and watering installations for supplying the craft; suspense stations in the back areas and assault stations nearer the embarkation points, to accommodate the personnel of the naval forces before the operation; maintenance bases and repair yards, with slipways for the repair and maintenance of landing craft; bases and areas for training and rehearsal; operational headquarters and miscellaneous requirements, such as covered storage for landing craft, dredging, and emergency dumps. An extensive organisation was set up for the repair of damage to the shore installations during the assault period, manned by Royal Marine engineers and civilian workmen. The whole of this great programme, requiring months and months of planning and labour, was completed by D-Day.
Another massive enterprise, with which several Departments and agencies were associated, was the creation of the two artificial harbours, upon which the success of the whole operation depended. Adequate ports on the enemy shore were essential, to enable the Army to be reinforced sufficiently rapidly to make head against the enemy. Assault against an 2045 established enemy port, however, was certain to meet the most powerful opposition, which would probably delay the gaining of a lodgment sufficiently long to enable the enemy to bring up reinforcements, which would drive our forces back to the sea. An assault over open beaches, much less strongly defended, offered by far the best hope of getting a large force ashore quickly. But this was only half the problem. Once ashore, the Army had to be reinforced more rapidly than the enemy. To rely on the quick capture of an established port was to run great risk of disaster. The only answer was an assault over open beaches, accompanied by the creation of ports for rapid unloading and reinforcement.
The conception, like all great conceptions once made, seemed simple. Its fulfilment was an immense task. It required the preparation and sinking of 60 old ships, which provided breakwaters for both the British and American forces by the fourth day of the assault. In addition to these shelters for shallow draft vessels, two full scale ports, the "Mulberries," as we now call them, were constructed from 6,000-ton concrete caissons towed across the Channel The British port alone used four and a quarter miles of these caissons, weighing approximately 550,000 tens. On the twelfth day of the assault, 1,600 tons were discharged at this port, and by the thirty-fourth day an average of 6,000 tons a day was discharged at that port. One hundred and thirty-two tugs, including British, American, French and Dutch, were employed in towing the units of this harbour from sheltered anchorages in the United Kingdom to the Normandy coast. Nearly 1,000 tows were made for this purpose in June and July. Tugs were mobilised from far and wide to accomplish this mighty task, made the more daunting by the rough and unseasonable weather in the Channel. The moorings in the British area alone included 242 buoys, requiring the handling of 3,265 tons of mooring gear.
Another important part of the preparations was the provision of large coastal areas for combined amphibious assault training. These areas were taken over at the end of 1943. All the inhabitants, with their property and live-stock, had to be removed, in order that training could be carried out under completely realistic con- 2046 ditions. This was vital to the success of the operation. The requisitioning of these areas inevitably caused great inconvenience to the inhabitants, but all possible steps were taken to prevent unnecessary hardship. It may be some satisfaction to those who suffered discomfort and hardship to know that their sacrifices were not in vain.
I have told the House something of the material preparations for the assault of liberation. There is so much more that I could tell, but I must not stay too long over a subject which will be fully described in the histories. I must, however, mention the highly successful operations which were carried out by Coastal Command of the R.A.F. and antisubmarine vessels against enemy U-boats before and after D-Day. These operations so smashed the U-boats that very few penetrated to the convoy routes. Sea mining by the Navy and Bomber Command is continuous, but for some months before the assault the mining programme was planned to give direct assistance to the operation, and achieved considerable success. I must also mention the hazardous and lonely reconnaissances which were made in the very area of the assault to check the depths of water and to examine the nature of the beaches. These highly adventurous missions were carried out with great courage, skill and success right in the face of the enemy for many weeks before the operation and were largely responsible for the smoothness of its execution. The proportion of the total number of landing ships and craft actually available for operations on D-Day was substantially higher than even the high figure assumed in the plan, and reflected very great credit on the maintenance and repair organisations and the men who had volunteered to help.
Apart from the material and operational preparations there was, of course, an immense amount of complicated and detailed thinking and planning to be done over many months, both at the headquarters of the Allied Naval Commander-in-Chief, Admiral Ramsay, and at the Admiralty. An operation of this complexity and magnitude could not possibly have succeeded without long hours of study, conference, and co-operation between all the elements of the great administrative machine which directs the modern Navy.
2047 With this inadequate survey, however, I must leave the stage of preparation of the operation and come to the assault itself. No single topic was more anxiously debated in the planning of the operation than the date and hour at which it should take place. The appropriate choice depended on conditions of tide, conditions of light, the possibility of postponement for bad weather and other considerations, all of which were most carefully weighed. The date finally chosen was 5th June, with the 6th and 7th as possible alternatives. It was realised that the decision which the Supreme Commander would have to make actually to launch the operation would be one of the most difficult and far-reaching of the whole war. Not only was good weather necessary for the assaults, but also for the period immediately following them, to ensure a good start for the build-up. The decision was made harder by the fact that one Force had to sail 36 hours before arriving at the point of assault, and we know what changes of weather can take place in so long a period.
No one, however, expected the decision to be as difficult as it actually was. Even those of us who were in London may remember the week-end before D-day, as we watched the low scudding clouds and heard the squalls of wind, as a time of almost unbearable anxiety. For those on whom lay the responsibility for the decision it must have been agonising indeed. The first meeting to discuss the weather forecast for D-day was held on 1st June. The outlook was not very good, and it deteriorated during the next three days. On the evening of 3rd June, however, the Supreme Commander decided to allow the forces to move, despite the unfavourable outlook, in order to gain the many advantages of launching the operation on the first possible day. At 4.15 on the following morning, however, it was clear that conditions the next day would not be acceptable, and a postponement of 24 hours was ordered.
By this time, the whole of one force and a portion of another were at sea, and all these ships and craft had to reverse their course, and return to harbour with some difficulty against a head sea. To make quite certain of their return, aircraft and destroyers were sent after them at full speed. On the evening of the same day, the forecast stated that weather conditions 2048 were very unsettled, and quiet periods were likely to be of short duration. There was a chance of suitable conditions on 6th June, but it was quite impossible to forecast the weather to be expected on 8th June. On the morning of 5th June, the forecast stated that developments overnight showed slight improvement in the general situation, which appeared at that moment more favourable. On the strength of this forecast, the irrevocable decision to make the assault in the early hours of 6th June was taken.
The decision was a terribly hard one. Events leave no doubt that it was right. Had the opportunity been missed, the operation could not have taken place for another fortnight, and by then the weather was even worse. In its combination of high winds and cloud June, 1944, was the worst June of the present century. Nevertheless, it seems likely that the wildness of the weather may have led the enemy to believe that we should not launch the assault, and it may therefore have contributed to his apparent unreadiness, and hence to the astonishing success of the assault. We have every reason to be thankful to the Supreme Commander and his advisers for their courageous decision to launch the operation when they did.
When the assault forces again sailed on 5th June the weather was still unfavourable for landing craft, and the waves were 5 to 6 feet high in mid-Channel. These conditions made the passage difficult, and certainly caused considerable discomfort to the troops embarked in the landing craft. Nevertheless the assault forces all drove on, and almost without exception arrived off their beaches to time. The performance of the leading groups of one of the United States Forces was particularly praiseworthy. Some of them had been unable to enter harbour after the postponement, and by "H" hour their Commanding Officers had been on their bridges continuously for about 70 hours.
Admiral Ramsay said in his despatch that during the passage of the assault forces across the Channel there was an air of unreality, curiously similar to that of the day before the assault on Sicily. The achievement of tactical surprise in the operation against Normandy had always seemed extremely unlikely. But as our forces approached the French coast, without a murmur from the enemy, it was slowly realised that once again almost complete tactical surprise had been 2049 achieved. This can be attributed to a number of causes, amongst them the great air superiority attained by our air forces, which drastically reduced the enemy's air reconnaissance; the bad weather, which caused the enemy to withdraw his E-boat patrols to Cherbourg; and the very high standard of security which had been maintained, although many hundreds of people necessarily knew the details of the plan.
To the minesweepers fell the proud and dangerous honour of leading the assault forces to the beaches. The sweeping of ten approach channels was the largest single minesweeping operation ever undertaken in war. Three hundred and nine British, 16 Canadian, and 22 United States minesweepers took part in these operations. It was only possible to provide all the minesweepers required by drawing upon some which had had little opportunity of practice, though it was realised that to carry the minesweeping operations through successfully would demand a high degree of skill from all. The problem was aggravated by the fact that the strong Channel tides ran east and west, and happened to change direction during the actual passage of the assault convoys. All flotillas were compelled to change sweeps during passage, to avoid sweeping with an unfavourable tide. Because the minesweeping flotillas had to lead the convoys, the accurate navigation of every convoy fell on the senior minesweeper officers. Moreover, the numerous assault convoys all had to arrive simultaneously at a given point, although their speeds of advance must vary. The whole of this phase of the operation went without hitch—a great achievement. It was only the beginning of the task of the minesweepers, which then had to widen all the approach channels and to sweep areas off the beaches for the reception of the vast numbers of ships needed to keep the Army supplied. This was in the face of the heaviest concentrated minelaying attack ever carried out by the enemy, and-sustained against us for over two months. For the minesweepers the operation was the greatest single achievement of a never-ending labour in which they have now swept over 15,000 mines in the swept channels and the port approaches since the beginning of the war. If every one had taken a ship we should not now have any ships. The mine-sweeping forces have, indeed, throughout performed their duties with an efficiency and gallantry 2050 deserving high praise, or in other words, so often roughly summed up by the naval officer as having been "correct conduct."
The next forces to go into action were the bombardment ships. These comprised several battleships, including the old and trusted warriors "Warspite" and "Ramillies," 22 cruisers, and many destroyers and gun support craft. These forces took part in the drenching of the beach defences immediately before the assault. Their fire was accurate and heavy, and the defence was neutralised and demoralised, except on one beach, where for special reasons the opposition was much stiffer than elsewhere. As one of the bombarding forces arrived in position at 5.15 a.m., four enemy E-boats and some armed trawlers from Le Havre made a half-hearted attack, and sank one Norwegian destroyer by torpedo. Our forces sank an enemy trawler, and damaged another, and the attack was not renewed. The fire from enemy batteries was generally not over severe. At first it was directed against the bombarding ships only, and was largely ineffective. This no doubt reflected the success of the bombing carried out before D-Day, and the heavy air bombardment in the early hours of D-Day.
Then came the moment for which the whole world had waited: the moment when Allied Forces again set foot on the soil of France. Our stricken Allies on the Continent had waited with never dying hope; our enemies with dread; ourselves with an impatience which might have provoked leaders less resolute and wise to rash and premature enterprise. But now the hour was ripe. Now did our Forcesstand like greyhounds in the slips.Now the flood would roll on until a whole Continent was cleansed. The landings went closely to plan, though in one sector the rough sea impeded our forces, and enemy opposition was particularly severe. The support destroyers and gun support craft, however, stood close inshore during the fiercest fighting on this beach, and gave support to the American troops, whose gallantry and determination won unanimous tribute from the naval forces who observed them.
The outstanding fact of the day was that, despite the unfavourable weather, the naval operations were carried out in every important respect as planned. 2051 Tactical surprise, which had not been expected, was achieved. Losses of ships and landing craft of all types were much lower than had been expected, though damage to tank landing craft and smaller craft, aggravated by the rough weather, was higher than had been estimated. Before the operation, we had to count on heavy and bitter casualties as part of the price of gaining a foothold on the Continent. The smallness of the actual casualties is something for which we can never be sufficiently thankful. Of course, to the relatives of those who were lost, the loss is none the less grievous. To them I beg to offer sympathy. Their grief is the heaviest part of the burden of rescuing the world from a monstrous evil. I only hope that the greatness of the cause may comfort them in their sorrow.
No air attacks were made on our shipping or on our landing beaches during the day. This was striking witness to the air superiority attained before D-day. By the end of D-day there was immediate anxiety on one score only: whether the weather would improve sufficiently quickly to enable the build-up to start as planned. The main tasks of the Navy after D-day, were to bring the Army and its supplies across the Channel, and to support the Army in its progress inland by fire from naval guns. The military supplies and personnel were carried in a great number of naval landing ships and craft, in some 250 British and American ocean-going merchant ships and troop transports and in about 500 British and Allied coasting vessels. This mass of shipping had to be loaded at widely separated ports and bases, sailed to join convoys to the far shore, to be discharged and then to return in convoy for reloading, at a rate far greater than any similar movement by sea previously attempted. During the first three days of the operation, 38 convoys, comprising 743 ships and major landing craft, were sent across the Channel for the build-up. This, of course, excludes the assault forces. A convoy system of such complexity and speed could only be maintained by the untiring efforts and devotion to duty of the naval and military shore stations, and, of course, of the crews of all the warships and merchant vessels employed.
I do not claim that everything went precisely "according to plan." The weather alone prevented that. On 19th 2052 June a great gale blew up and at once stopped all unloading to the beaches. The sea did not finally go down until 23rd June, and, meanwhile, we had suffered severe delay in unloading and damage to a great number of craft. The Army were naturally urgent in their desire for the maximum rate of reinforcement and supplies of all kinds, but it may be said that the position of the Expeditionary Force was never in doubt after the third day of the assault. On 1st July the Chief Administrative Officer to the Supreme Commander was able to report thatthe Commanders in the field had complete freedom of action so far as the administrative arrangements were concerned.I think therefore that it can be claimed that, in spite of all difficulties, the Navy had met the Army's requirements of reinforcement and maintenance. Naval bombardment of enemy targets was maintained until our forces had passed beyond the range of the Naval guns. By common consent, including the, enemy's, this fire was of great weight, accuracy and effectiveness. A total of 56,769 rounds of ammunition of a calibre of 4/" and over was expended in bombardment in the course of the operation, including nearly 3,000 rounds of battleships' heavy ammunition. The great value of this form of bombardment is that it can be maintained against a given target as long as required. The naval fire undoubtedly helped the Army greatly, in gaining sufficient ground to assemble its forces and material for the attack which was finally to flood across France and Belgium.
The Royal Marines found full scope for their unique qualities in an amphibious operation of this kind. They discharged a variety of tasks in a manner befitting the highest traditions of the Corps. In the Fleet, they manned a quarter of the main armament of battleships and cruisers. They manned two-thirds of the assault landing craft which landed the first waves of infantry on the beaches. They manned all the minor landing craft in the build-up squadrons. They provided the, gunnery officers and guns' crews for support landing craft, gun landing craft and flak landing craft, which gave close support to the assault and helped to defend shipping in Seine Bay. Five Royal Marine Commandos were employed in the assault. Amongst other tasks, these assaulted and captured Porten-Bessin between the initial bridgeheads 2053 of the British and American forces. This particular Commando lost one-third of its assault craft by mines in the landing. Many personnel, however, swam ashore and re-equipped themselves with enemy weapons, which they captured while fighting their way ten miles across country towards the port, which they then took by assault on the second day. At a later stage of the operations the Royal Marines, as the House will remember, carried out a most gallant and successful attack against Walcheren Island, for the clearance of the Scheldt, which I have previously described.
With sixteen convoys and about the same number of landing craft groups at sea in the Channel at any one time, open to attack by mines, E-boats, aircraft and U-boats, with an enemy on both flanks using light naval forces and shore guns, the days did not pass without incident. Every day a number of actions would be fought, and our ships would suffer casualties and damage. But no matter how the enemy tried to sink our ships, he was fought generally with success. In spite of all, the build-up went on quickly. By the tenth day half a million men and 77,000 vehicles had been landed. The one millionth man was landed by 6th July; by the end of July over 1,600,000 men, 340,000 vehicles and 1,700,000 tons of stores had been landed. The volume of stores handled on the beaches of Normandy in June and July was more than one-third of the total imports of dry cargo into the whole of the United Kingdom during the same period. These astonishing results could not have been achieved, of course, without great exertions and good organisation by the Home Commands, with Portsmouth in the central position. Admiral Ramsay paid a notable tribute to their co-operation and smooth working.
There are many other features of this great operation which I could describe to the House if there were time. For example, the great labours of the salvage organisation, and the work of the members of the Royal Observer Corps who were specially appointed to merchant ships to assist in aircraft recognition. All these matters will find their place in the histories, and become an imperishable part of our country's story.
Although the operation itself was carried out so smoothly, and although 2054 success has attended our arms since that time, for the people of the occupied countries the joy of liberation has been tempered by the sacrifices which they have been called upon to make. The driving of the foe from their territory has not meant the end of privation, of shortages of food and of other necessities. These sacrifices have been necessary in order to free their countries, and they have been accepted as such. One of the great difficulties has been the shortage of shipping, and it is a big problem to find enough ships to supply our forces in Europe and other parts of the globe, and to take supplies to stricken Europe. The repair yards of our country, too, have had an enormous extra strain put upon them by the concentration of shipping which has had to be made in United Kingdom ports over the last year. Great efforts will be called for to make every possible ton of merchant shipping available for the many tasks that confront us, and I ask the help of both employers and workers in the yards.
I have made few specific references to the work of the Americans, the Canadians and our other Allies in this operation. This is not, of course, because I do not recognise the tremendous part which they bore in the enterprise, but because the enterprise was essentially one of the United Nations, and not of any nation in particular. It would not, I think, be the wish of that great and generous man, General Eisenhower, and it is certainly not my wish, that we should attempt to estimate the exact share of each of the Allies in this crusade for the liberation of Europe and mankind from the German plague. Let it suffice that all bore their part bravely, and worked together as one company.
Before I turn from this part of my account, I should like to ask the House to remember with me for a few moments the distinguished Admiral whose loss we mourned a few weeks ago—Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay—who, under General Eisenhower, commanded all the naval forces taking part in this historic mission. The record of Admiral Ramsay in this war is truly remarkable. Recalled from retirement at the outbreak, he found himself in 1940 in command of the naval base at Dover. Thus it fell to him to be the chief organiser of the withdrawal from the Continent of our Army and the remnant of its equipment. It had seemed impossible 2055 that we could rescue these men from their desperate plight after the fall of France. By a supreme effort 335,490 officers and men of the Allied armies were brought back to England, under fire and in the face of great difficulties, in about a thousand of His Majesty's ships and other craft between 27th May and 4th June. Admiral Ramsay's courage, drive, and skill as an organiser enabled us on that occasion to retrieve sufficient from the wreck to begin to build again, and to carry on in faith at a time when the world believed that we were defeated.
After planning the invasion of North Africa in 1942, Admiral Ramsay was appointed Naval Commander of the Eastern Task Force, to plan and conduct, under Admiral of the Fleet Sir Andrew Cunningham, the British naval part of the operations against Sicily. He planned wisely and carefully, he executed skilfully, and the operation was a conspicuous success.
It was supremely fitting that the man who brought the Army away from the Continent at a bitter time should have the task of organising the naval assault which was to place our soldiers once more in contact with the enemy in France, re-equipped and superbly confident. The withdrawal from Dunkirk was made in every kind of craft, with every kind of crew, hastily brought together from all the rivers and ports of the island. The return to the Continent was made in a fine new fleet of craft, each specially built for its purpose, manned by crews who had undergone prolonged and rigorous training. The whole enterprise was planned to the last detail, so that not even bad weather could seriously divert it. If Dunkirk was a miracle of improvisation, the naval assault on Normandy was a masterpiece of organisation, and Admiral Ramsay was the architect of both. Deeply though we must deplore his loss, we cannot but rejoice that he lived to see the full cycle from the desperate days of Dunkirk to the triumphant return to France.
A year ago I described to the House the decisive turn which had taken place in the war against the U-boats. The mastery which was then achieved has been maintained. At the beginning of 1944 the main U-boat effort was in the North Atlantic. Here the U-boats were so harassed by surface forces and by shore- 2056 based and carrier-borne aircraft that they achieved very little, and suffered heavy losses. In the Spring the U-boats began to withdraw from the North Atlantic convoy routes, probably to re-train and re-equip after their defeat, and to prepare against the threat of our landings on the Continent. During these operations they suffered a severe defeat at the hands of the Allied Navies and Coastal Command. With the loss or neutralisation of the Biscay ports, the U-boats were withdrawn to operate from the Norwegian bases, and they are, as a result, considerably further from their old hunting-ground in mid-Atlantic. The enemy has, however, managed to maintain small numbers of U-boats in widely separated areas with the object of dispersing our anti-submarine forces. The U-boats have operated off the Canadian coast, West Africa, Gibraltar, Iceland and in the Indian Ocean. From Norway they have made their biggest concerted effort against the North Russian convoys, with results inconsiderable to them in proportion to the forces they employed. In spite of appalling weather during these convoys, heavy casualties have been inflicted on the enemy.
The Prime Minister and the President of the United States announced last August that more than 500 German U-boats had already been sunk. The number continues to increase satisfactorily. We have also destroyed a number of enemy midget submarines. Despite these continued and encouraging successses, however, it must certainly not be assumed that the war against the U-boat is over. The enemy is employing new equipment, and new types of U-boat may be used at any time. With this new equipment we may be sure they will develop new tactics. In recent months, after a long period of comparative quiet, U-boats have appeared in the coastal waters around the United Kingdom. So far their successes have been small, but we believe that the enemy has been making great efforts to renew the U-boat war on a big scale. It is highly significant that after the trouncing which the U-boats suffered in 1943, the enemy should consider it worth while to continue to devote so large a part of his resources to this form of warfare. It shows that he still considers it to be his best hope of averting defeat against a nation which lives by sea-borne supplies. This is a highly im- 2057 portant fact which will, I trust, never be forgotten by future First Lords, future Boards of Admiralty, or future Governments, or by the people of this country.
The Home Fleet, now under the command of Admiral Sir Henry Moore, had no opportunity during the past year to compare with the sinking of the "Scharnhorst" in 1943. The "Tirpitz" was finally disposed of by Bomber Command, after being immobilized for long periods by midget submarines, by the Fleet Air Arm, and the R.A.F. Nevertheless, the Fleet has by no means lacked occupation of the most arduous and hazardous kind. It has carried out a further regular series of convoys to North Russia, in which a remarkably high proportion of the merchant ships have been brought safely to port with their precious cargoes. Merchant ships, warships and aircraft have, however, been lost in these operations, at a cost to the enemy of both U-boats and aircraft. The Navy is ready to pay this price and to face appalling weather in order to bring aid to our Russian Allies in the offensives which have amazed the world. A total of over 4,000,000 tons of supplies has been delivered in convoy to the U.S.S.R., through the North Russian ports, of which over 2,000,000 tons have arrived since the beginning of 1944.
Apart from the protection of North Russian convoys, some 30 operations were carried out by ships of the Home Fleet during 1944. These included attacks on the "Tirpitz" by carrier-borne aircraft before she was finally destroyed, minelaying operations on the coast of Norway, and attacks on enemy shipping by both naval aircraft and surface forces. For example, the "Tirpitz" was successfully bombed on the 3rd April by Barracudas from His Majesty's ships "Victorious" and "Furious," and put out of action for several months. On 12th November an enemy convoy off the Norwegian coast was destroyed by a force of cruisers and destroyers.
The submarines, British and Allied, have carried out patrols and operations in many parts of the world. They have robbed the enemy of merchant ships, large and small, and U-boats and other warships. They have mined enemy waters; they have bombarded shore targets. In a different role they have rescued friendly airmen. In the Far East they are doing work that only a submarine can do. Their 2058 areas are well outside the range of our shore-based aircraft and surface ships cannot operate in the inland waters into which submarines constantly penetrate. There is no service which calls for more technical skill, cooler heads and steadier nerve than these lonely exploits. The light coastal forces, that dashing company in which nine out of ten officers and men were civilians before the war, have had another successful year, in world-wide activities, sinking, destroying, capturing and damaging supply ships, escort vessels of all kinds, destroyers, E-boats and other enemy vessels. The proportion of continuous service ratings in coastal forces is being increased in order to preserve wartime experience for peace.
The Mediterranean, which for some four years was the scene of some of the grimmest and most desperate naval warfare in history, has had a quieter year. From Spring to early Summer no major operations took place in this theatre, and the Navy was principally occupied in supporting the advance of the Armies in Italy, and carrying out minor harrying operations in the Adriatic and the Tyrrhenian Sea. Minor vessels assisted partisans operating on the Dalmatian coast and islands. Six weeks after the assault on Normandy, however, United States and French troops launched an attack in the South of France supported by naval forces of the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Greece and Poland, including battleships, escort carriers, cruisers and many smaller vessels. I might mention that the Prime Minister saw the operation from the bridge of a destroyer. There was little enemy naval opposition, and that was speedily extinguished.
With the complete success of this operation, major naval activity in the Mediterranean came to an end. To no one can this consummation have been more welcome than to the present First Sea Lord, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Andrew Cunningham, who had led our woefully inadequate forces through the dark days in that theatre with incomparable courage and tenacity. I must, however, mention the operations in the Aegean in September by our escort carriers with cruisers and destroyers in which the enemy's sea-borne communications with Crete were almost cut, and a number of his transport and other ships sunk. In October the Fifteenth Cruiser Squadron with destroyers and 2059 minesweepers led the re-entry into Greece, carrying troops, jeeps and stores to the Piraeus. Afterwards the Navy played a notable part in carrying relief to the liberated population.
Meanwhile we have been building up the British share of the growing might against Japan. The Eastern war is fought across enormous ocean spaces, and brings problems of maintenance, supply, repair, and welfare of a kind quite different from those, for example, of the assault on Normandy. Provision for these problems cannot be made by hasty improvisation, and cannot be left until the German war is over, if the Navy is to play its full and worthy part alongside the United States Forces in the speedy overthrow of the Japanese Empire. Thus, all the time these great events have been taking place close at home, we have been steadily massing Forces for the Far East, with the great Fleet Train of supply, accommodation, repair and amenity ships which they will require to sustain them.
Early in 1944 it was possible to send considerable reinforcements to the Eastern Fleet. Up to that time this Fleet had succeeded in keeping open the vital lines of communication in a vast ocean, although it had at times been very weak, in spite of occasional reinforcements lent from other Fleets. The Fleet now included amongst other vessels the battleships "Queen Elizabeth" and "Valiant," the battle cruiser "Renown", and that fine French battleship the "Richelieu", United States and British aircraft carriers, several British cruisers, Her Netherlands' Majesty's ship "Tromp" and British, American and Dutch destroyers were also included.
With these Forces, Admiral Sir James Somerville launched an offensive against ports, aerodromes and vital oil refineries. On 19th April, an air attack was made against Sabang and North Sumatra, in which two destroyer escort vessels were set on fire, two merchant ships heavily damaged, 23 aircraft destroyed, and port facilities damaged and dislocated. On 17th May, the Japanese naval base at Surabaya was attacked, and the enemy suffered loss or damage to 10 ships, two floating docks and 21 aircraft, and the destruction of an oil refinery. In this operation—which will illustrate the difficulties of the area—our Forces steamed as far as from Southampton to New York 2060 and back. A strike against Port Blair, the bombardment of Surabaya, and the bombing of aerodromes in the vicinity, and a strike on the Indaroeng cement works, and Emmahaven in Sumatra, all followed in quick succession.
In August, 1944, Sir Bruce Fraser succeeded Sir James Somerville as the Commander-in-Chief of the Eastern Fleet, and in November became Commander-in-Chief British Pacific Fleet, flying his flag in H.M.S. "Howe." He will doubtless have renewed opportunities in this capacity to display the leadership and foresight which enabled the Home Fleet under his command to destroy the "Scharnhorst." At the same time Admiral Sir Arthur Power assumed command of the East Indies Fleet. In the Indian Ocean, the Navy has supported the successful operations of the Fourteenth Army in Burma, and has maintained a series of harassing attacks, including an air strike on the railway repair centre at Sigli in Sumatra, and bombardment and air attacks against targets in the Nicobar Islands on a number of occasions. In December the harbour, railway yards, and oil installations at Belawan Deli were bombed by carrier-borne naval aircraft, and in January an oil refinery in the same area was successfully attacked. On 22nd and 29th January, the vital oil refinery at Palembang was attacked with great success. The Fleet by then included the battleship "King George V" and the aircraft carriers "Indomitable," "Indefatigable," "Illustrious" and "Victorious." These operations are but the beginning of the tasks of the British Pacific Fleet and the East Indies Fleet, which will continue to be reinforced and supplied, so that they may play an ever-growing part in the defeat of Japan.
The Navy's air power has continued to grow, and to make the most of its opportunities. In the first few months of 1944 carrier strength was considerably increased, and new types of aircraft, both British and American, came into service and enabled the Fleet to destroy and harry enemy supply ships off the Norwegian coast. Operating from escort carriers they had Signal success in sinking U-boats and downing aircraft attacking the convoys to Russia, and the smallness of the losses in these convoys was largely due to their efforts, In all the major assault operations, naval aircraft have provided fighter protection and have 2061 given support to the Armies. A naval fighter wing assisted the Royal Air Force in the Normandy landings, and spotted for the bombarding ships. Most valuable experience was gained in co-operation with the Americans, in providing air cover for the landings in the South of France, and supporting the Army. This experience will stand us in good stead in our united operations against Japan. We hope and expect that, in the Far Eastern war, the Naval Air Arm will have greater opportunities and greater successes than ever before.
The Dominion Navies have grown in numbers and strength, and co-operation between the Naval Forces of the Empire has never been closer. A notable example is the mutual assistance of the Royal Navy and the Royal Canadian Navy. During the past two years we have placed at the disposal of the enormously expanded Royal Canadian Navy a number of warships, and large numbers of corvettes, minesweepers and frigates have been built in Canada and transferred to the Royal Navy. Canada has concentrated her warship production resources on ships of the escort vessel type, and the addition of cruisers and Fleet destroyers from United Kingdom construction, has enabled the R.C.N. to attain a balanced force of modern ships. The following ships have been transferred to them:
- 1 new construction 6-inch cruiser,
- 1 modern 6-inch cruiser of the "Fiji" class,
- 2 new construction Fleet destroyers, and
- 6 escort destroyers.
Units of the Royal Canadian Navy and the Royal New Zealand Navy are operating in the British Pacific Fleet, under the command of Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser.
A large force of His Majesty's Australian ships, including cruisers and many other vessels, is operating in South West Pacific waters. The South African naval forces have been able to pay off numerous coastal craft. The experienced seamen so provided are manning three frigates to be employed on ocean escort work. South African naval personnel are to be found in many parts of the world, serving alongside the Royal Navy. The Royal Indian Navy has contributed several ocean-going escorts to the East Indies Fleet, in addi- 2062 tion to its normal work on the Indian coast. It also took a prominent and successful part in the capture of Akyab and in operations on the Arakan coast.
I have confined myself in my account to the House to-day almost entirely to the operations which the Royal Navy has carried out in all parts of the world in the past year, and I have left myself no time to speak of the administrative problems which underlie every operation that is undertaken, and whose solution is the first necessity for their success. During the past year we have seen a great part of the results of the planning and toil of the years before, and I thought therefore that the House would be glad to hear in some detail about the operations which have been our goal, and which are now encompassing the enemy's downfall. The administrative problems which I have mentioned include the provision, the training, the health, the welfare and the equipment of the officers, men, and women, upon whose courage and efficiency all else depends; the development and production of ships and weapons, constantly changing, in the never ending battle of the scientists and technicians; the problems of transport and supply; of labour and administration. All these demand unceasing attention. I trust that the account I have given to-day is sufficient demonstration that these problems have, in the main, been successfully solved in past operations. Similar problems are engaging the closest attention of the Board of Admiralty, to ensure the success of future operations for the defeat of Japan. The morale and welfare of our men in the Pacific and Indian Oceans take the highest place in our administrative planning. A large share of the task of defeating Japan will fall upon the men of the Royal and Merchant Navies. They must not be forgotten when war in Europe ends. They, and their dependants, will deserve the full support of their countrymen. We are doing, and shall continue to do, all we can for their welfare.
It is sometimes suggested that the Admiralty is deliberately and unnecessarily reticent in telling the world about the deeds of the Navy. I assure the House that this is not so. The Board of Admiralty is certainly not deficient in parental pride. We are at least as anxious to proclaim the deeds and successes of the officers and men of the Royal Navy as 2063 the world is to hear of them. But the announcement and description of naval operations is subject to limitations which do not always apply to the sister Services. Operations frequently take place far away in the ocean spaces. Wireless silence cannot be broken to send an account of them home. It may be several days before the Forces return to base and can tell their story, and by then some more immediate event may make a greater claim on the attention of the public. When an escort vessel sinks a U-boat it is rarely possible for a photograph to show the loss; the U-boat is rapidly swallowed in the deep. The Navy cannot show by arrows on a map a front advancing against the enemy; its only front is the boundaries of the oceans themselves. A great part of its service to the nation is unspectacular, the endless sweeping of mines, the dogged patrol, ever alert against the U-boat, the ceaseless watch of the escort vessel against aircraft.
I do not think, however, that this paucity of photographs showing the destruction wrought by the Navy on the enemy, or lack of maps to show its progress against the U-boat, will cause the House or the people of this country really to forget or under-rate its services. The stirring successes of our Armies on the Continent, the tremendous havoc spread by our Air Forces, the very food by which we live, all serve to remind us, daily and hourly, that without the Navy to ensure the safe arrival of supplies in this country we could undertake no offensive against the enemy. We could not even live. I therefore ask the House to-day, not only for money for the naval Service, but for a renewal of that confidence, pride and affection for naval officers and men which is, surely, their due, which they have received so generously in the past, and on which they rely to sustain and strengthen them in the remaining stages of the long and toilsome road to peace.
May I be allowed a personal word? I have just submitted for the fifth time in the course of the war the report of the work of the Navy. It may be that political exigencies in the course of the next year may mean that I shall no longer stand at this Box as First Lord in this type of Government. What the future has in store no one can tell, but I should not like to complete the task of reporting to the House to-day without 2064 saying, first, how enormously grateful I am to Members in all parties, for five years of very great and sympathetic consideration. We could not have done as well at the Admiralty if you had not given us a great deal of "veer and haul." May I say, too, how much I am indebted to the civil and naval staffs at the Admiralty. I should feel that it would be a great remissness on my part if at this stage I did not make a special point of the grand way in which they have backed up the Government and the Forces at sea, in the air and on the land.
May I also record my personal faith? I have never been more convinced in my life of the continuing need of this country for the maintenance of its Navy. We have had five years experience of war, which has shown exactly how the Navy has had once more to fight a long defensive battle at sea, sufficiently long to regain the confidence of the world in us, sufficiently long to get the sea routes clear, sufficiently long to gather Allies and to mount up our land Forces, and finally to throw them on the Continent against the land monster which had encroached upon it. That was the story, in Napoleon's day of Samuel Hood and Nelson. This has been the story, in Hitler's case of Cunningham, Tovey, Fraser and Ramsay. I hope we shall never forget.
§ 1.8 p.m.
§ Major F. W. Cundiff (Manchester, Rusholme)
We have listened this morning to a moving and glorious account of our Navy at war and I think no one could tell the story better than the First Lord himself. I have listened to him on many occasions, and I think I have always ended up with the same feeling, the thrill of a school boy. The First Lord has to-day expressed his gratitude to the House, but I think this House would be only too glad and too willing to express its gratitude to him. I should like to tell the House, and the First Lord, a story. Some time ago, I joined a minesweeper for the purpose of an instructional sweep. It so happened that, some little time before, the First Lord himself had been a guest aboard this ship and actually carried out an operational sweep with them. Not unnaturally, I asked the commander how he liked having the First Lord aboard. I should like to give the commander's reply verbatim to the best 2065 of my ability. He said, "Well, the First Lord came aboard with a few Staff blokes and we put out to sea. Admittedly the weather was very bad. The Staff members very soon started to throw up their hearts into the buckets provided, bust not so the First Lord. He went down into the little wardroom and had a jolly good meal and a cigar. He stayed with us for the whole sweep. He spoke to every man in the ship and we were thrilled to have him. The weather continued bad up to the time of getting back into port. The Staff members were still doing their stuff with the buckets and the First Lord again went down into the little wardroom and had another good meal and another cigar. By that time he had pinched most of our cigars, but we thought what a grand fellow he was." This is our Navy at war—cheerful, hospitable, efficient, a Service which has never given anything less than its best and its utmost.
I should like to go back to the early part of 1940, when we fought our first naval action, the Battle of the River Plate—the "Graf Spee," a fast, heavily-armed cruiser against a very much lighter squadron. At no time was there a question that we could out-range or out-gun the "Graf Spee" but, nevertheless, she was battered, she was out-fought by smaller guns—a brilliant, tactical display of grand courage. I think I am correct in stating that the fighting efficiency of that light cruiser squadron was so high that, at no time during the action, was any operational signal sent from the flagship. So the naval war went on. We had destroyer actions off Norway, we had the Navy's part in bringing home our men from Dunkirk, we had many actions in the Mediterranean, and the whole of this time we were fighting an enormous U-boat battle in the North and South Atlantic, coupled with very heavy convoy duties. Perhaps the grimmest job of all was the Russian convoys with the intense cold, the long night watches, the enormous strain on watch-keeping officers going ahead at full speed, and suddenly imagining another ship crossing one's bows when in reality there was no ship there at all, and the losses we sustained. I hope that some time in the near future we shall tell the world what we have done for Russia, and the enormous effort which the Navy has put out. It is one of the grandest things which has been done in this war.
2066 I have intervened in this Debate to make two points, and I want to make them in the form of pleas to the First Lord. I know that his judgment is very highly thought of in technical quarters, and I would ask him whether he will do what he can to make sure that we learn the technical lessons in ship construction and armament which this war has taught us. With regard to guns, sometimes I think that our ships have not always been armed in the best possible way. I have no experience of big ships, but with regard to smaller ships, it has always seemed to me that we were much better off with a multiplicity of small quick-firing guns in preference to medium and larger armaments. I think, too, that we might have had a more generous number of depth charge throwers, and I think that there is room for improvement in deck armour and deck protection. Then there is the question of watertight bulkheads. I raise this last point because in battle it is inevitable that some ships will be lost, but what I think is the greater tragedy is the very quick rate at which some of our ships have gone down. I wonder whether anything can be done in the way of more watertight bulkheads so that, if a ship is going down, she will sink at a slower rate and it will give us a chance to get the men up from below decks.
My last point is one which has caused me and many of my friends a good deal of anxiety, and I would plead with the First Lord to give it his serious consideration. I refer to the question of another naval and air base in the Mediterranean, and I make no apology for repeating what I have already said in the House. Never again must Malta be let down as she was in the early part of this war. It has been definitely proved that Alexandria as a port is of very little use where aircraft are employed when we have to consider Malta's protection. Therefore, it seems to me that we require another naval and air base somewhere in the Eastern half of the Mediterranean on the African coast. I am not concerned whether we have to take something off Italy. We have fought this war for our own preservation, and never again must the Mediterranean be closed. Therefore, if it is thought that a strip of land round Tripoli and another round Benghazi is necessary for our future protection, we 2067 should take those strips. We fought for ourselves; we have not fought for the preservation of Italian colonies.
§ 1.21 p.m.
§ Mr. Dobbie (Rotherham)
We have listened to-day to a statement from the First Lord of the Admiralty full of confidence in the future and pride in the past accomplishments of the Royal Navy. We all share that confidence and pride. In view of the fact that I am a layman and that there are a large number of Members who are experts with experience in the Admiralty, some of whom are still serving, I would like to borrow some of the self-confidence of the First Lord which he showed in presenting his case to-day. I feel rather hesitant in face of all the experience of the experts, one of whom we have just heard. The position of the First Lord in presenting his statement to-day is unparalleled in modern times, if not in the history of our nation. Never in modem times has a First Lord, in asking for the necessary money to maintain the Navy, been able to present such a remarkable record of achievement. He has told us in some detail what we already knew in outline, how the Navy has kept our sea communications in all the seas, from the Arctic to the Indian Ocean, so that the British war effort overseas has been enabled to develop without interruption and the armies of liberation to be landed against the West wall. I wish that that story could be broadcast in its entirety to the homes of the people of this country. They would then understand that the enemy's sea power, which is a combination of U-boats, aircraft, and heavy surface ships, which reached its zenith in 1942 and early 1943, has to-day been practically shattered.
The Minister has issued a word of warning about the likelihood of a resurgence of U-boat activity. Again I speak as one who has very limited knowledge, but I have a tremendous confidence in the power of our Navy, and it seems to me that our sea communications will not be menaced again to the same extent as in the years through which we have just lived. The greatness of our danger and the smallness of the resources with which we had to meet it, has made a story which nothing in the traditions of the Royal Navy excels, and it will, I believe, go down on record through posterity as 2068 one of the most magnificent fighting organisational achievements of all times. I believe that, and I believe that it has convinced opinion of the people of the country behind it. If the U-boat should come back in strength with new devices, new apparatus and a new determination at this late stage of the war, I think that, with our experience and the courage and capacity of those at the Admiralty and those who man the ships, we need not doubt that, though we may suffer some losses, we shall once again master it. There is one thing about the U-boat war which is worth noting. Although so terrible and so drastic, it is very unspectacular. It is an aspect of the Navy's work which, by its very nature, cannot be adequately presented at the moment when it takes place. When it is presented to the general public it has not lost its value to the nation, but, so far as the Press and the general public are concerned, it has lost news value. I am confident, however, that the House will permit me to say that we in the House of Commons and those we represent are under no illusions about the nature of the threat to our freedom and to victory. We are under no illusions either as to the skill, bravery, courage and determination by which it has been surmounted.
Twice in a generation we have been attacked, and on both occasions our shipping losses have been so great and the situation has been so desperate that verily we might truly say we have passed through the valley of the shadows. Let it be a lesson to us that in future we never under-estimate the threat and never reduce the Navy below what the Board of Admiralty assures us to be the minimum of preparations essential to deal with U-boat warfare, no matter what Government is in power, unless we have machinery of an international character in existence which is determined and has the power to prevent war altogether. That is the hope which all men and women of good will have, in all parties, although at the moment it seems a little bit far off. The First Lord made it clear that in 1944 the U-boat menace, which was ever present, locking up large numbers of men and ships, was never a real menace to eventual victory.
Probably the greatest naval achievement of 1944, at which the world wondered, was the landing of the Allied Armies on the Northern coast of France. 2069 The First Lord has dealt with the topic at length and has taken us behind the scenes and shown us the brilliant planning which took place, some of it months before the operation. The first part of the operation was the crossing of that 100 miles of sea. That was a naval matter and its successful accomplishment was a naval victory of the most decisive kind. Behind that victory lay another, about which I am speaking, the maintenance of our sea communications, without which everything would have been lost. The safe transport of the Armies to France was a culmination of the Navy's work, which began when the war broke out and reached its first climax when our Army was withdrawn from Dunkirk. It continued under conditions made immensely more difficult by the occupation by the enemy of the Atlantic coast of France.
In circumstances like those, reviewing the position again, thinking of those dark days, one can understand—and I can understand it a little bit, having spent some time in France during the last war—how supremely confident the enemy would feel that he could not be dislodged from the situation, because of the strength of his position on that coast. I have sometimes thought, although not in a critical way, that I would like to have the professional opinion of men who knew the situation because of their long experience and study, military geniuses, men who had authority in the Navy and who were specialists in tactics. What would their view have been if they had been asked about the possibility of successfully sustaining resistance to Germany, with the whole of the coast of Europe, from the North Cape to St. Jean do Luz, in the hands of the Nazis? Many times I have wondered what the opinion of those knowledgeable experts would have been if the problem had been put to them.
My right hon. Friend is in a unique position, in that he presides over a Department which not merely administers a Fighting Service, but is responsible also for its equipment. The Board of Admiralty has the responsibility not only for planning the operations of the British Naval Forces which took part in the assault on D-Day, but for constructing the enormous masses of special naval equipment which in these days is so necessary for the success of any landing where the enemy may show opposition in strength. The variety of that equipment is bewildering. 2070 There are large landing craft of various types for infantry and so on, smaller landing craft for personnel and guns, certain components of artificial harbours. What a story there is for the future historians to write of the building and the making of the artificial harbours and their ferrying across the sea. The production of naval designs, on the top of other vital warship programmes, had to be undertaken, and they had to be ready at the appointee time. That must have called for research, ingenuity and ability of the highest order.
When we think of these things, we are inclined to say that we do not often enough put all our own goods in the window, and are prone to underrate ourselves. That is why I am glad that the First Lord has to-day stated in a most emphatic way a story which must have made everybody in this House, and will make the people in the country, feel proud not only of the Admiralty, over which my right hon. Friend presides, but of the Navy itself and the nation which is ready and willing to give everything that the Admiralty and the seamen need and desire. We understand that 4,066 landing ships, and craft of more than 60 different types, took part in the operation. The figures are really more than one can grasp. One has to read and think to try to find what the different types of craft were, and what resources were behind the organisation of building and preparing as well as leading them to their destination. Is not this fact alone a devastating answer to those who say that State planning is inefficient? If ever that story got the lie it has had it to-day. This is a definite demonstration.
§ Mr. Pickthorn (Cambridge University)
What a pity there is only one Member of the hon. Member's party interested in it.
§ Mr. Dobbie
They are all so sure that they do not need to be converted. We believe it. We have told this story so often.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Mr. Charles Williams)
I do not think that political conversion can have anything to do with the Navy Estimates.
§ Mr. Dobbie
I am very sorry. I was very foolishly dragged off my course by the hon. Member opposite, but I do not think he will do it again. What we have heard to-day goes to show that State planning is not inefficient, and that the fight- 2071 ing Services are not dull or unimaginative and are not bound up in red tape. If we have men who can organise such programmes of production in war time, cannot they do equal wonders in peace? If we have the skill and ability at the top and at the bottom—we have it in both places—to achieve these wonders, need we doubt that the same skill and ability can reap the reward of these momentous enterprises when the time comes to create in this country conditions in which all men and women can live a full and happy life?
§ Mr. Dobbie
I congratulate the Minister and his Department on what they have done towards bringing Hitler and his satellites to the verge of defeat. I congratulate them on having shown what a Department of State, well-organised and well-conducted, can do, though the stimulus be not private gain but the welfare of the nation. To the men, British, American—all the Allies, not excluding the Soviet—who man the warships and those who have manned the landing craft which have done their duty in dangerous seas during the war, many tributes to their unbelievable courage have been paid. I cannot let the occasion go past without adding my tribute to the courage, the doggedness and the unfailing good humour which are always met with in these men who go down to the sea in ships.
When the war in Europe ends, as we all hope it will before very long—and it will make still further calls on our Services before it ends—there will remain the enemy in the Far East against whom, as the First Lord has said, a substantial portion of our naval forces is even now engaged. They have to be defeated before our men can settle down with their families, back in the ways of peace. As the war in Europe draws to a close it spells the doom of the Japanese Empire. The power of America creeps nearer to the homeland of the barbarian people. Our men will be there at the finish. Let us hope that the finish will not be so far off as it seemed only a short while ago. The record of foresight and planning which my right hon. Friend has given to the House leaves us no room to doubt that the Admiralty have carefully taken into consideration plans for dealing with 2072 Japan. At the conclusion of his statement, the Minister made reference to the probability that when we assemble here next year we shall hear from him or from his successor a continuation of the story. I fear that we must contemplate that this may be the last occasion on which my right hon. Friend will give an account of the work of his Department in this Government. If I may say so, I think he has presided over the Department with much distinction in very strange times. We shall, I hope, when the next account is given, hear of how the surrender of the German Fleet, or what remains of it, has been carried out, and how our Forces have been in decisive action with the barbarian Navy of Japan.
In conclusion, I would say that at many gatherings, and in many places, not least here, great tributes have been paid to the men who go down to the sea in ships, beside which anything that I may have said here, or may say, would seem very modest. There is something we must do, if there is a desire to pay a lasting tribute to the efforts of those men and women who helped to make it possible for the Navy to do its work, the men and women in the shipyards who built and repaired the ships of the Navy, the crews of the Merchant Navy, those brave, fearless men, who in the days of terror, when the protection for them was not very good, kept the "Red Duster" flying. They sailed the seas, carrying help and succour to our Allies, and bringing to this country the food which probably saved us from capitulation through starvation. We must present to them conditions of life worthy of the services rendered, new social services of a kind never known before, opportunity of employment for those able to work, rehabilitation services for those who need them, and pensions of a more generous character than are envisaged at the moment. Then only will we have proved sincere in the tributes paid to those who have served the nation so well.
§ 1.47 p.m.
§ Viscountess Astor (Plymouth, Sutton)
I wish to congratulate the First Lord on two things, first, his complete loyalty to the Admiralty. He has served it well and we should be deeply grateful to him for it. I also congratulate him on the very interesting account which we heard from him to-day. I deeply regret that the 2073 House was not full to hear it, but I am not surprised, when speaking on the Navy Estimates, to speak to an empty House. It has always been thus. For 25 years I have represented a naval port, and I have never known the House of Commons take its proper interest in the Navy. Down in their hearts Members are very grateful, but they do not realise it. I hope that the First Lord, who has done such good work, will go on doing it. We know that he has great influence in the party of which he is such a distinguished member. The First Lord might explain to the hon. Member who has just spoken that it is possible in war-time to do things which are not really so easy in peace-time.
One thing I should like him to do is to make every co-operator in the country read his speech. That he can do. As the House knows, I am not a great believer in newspapers, but I must tell the House an instance of what a good, honest Press can do. I remember in 1918, when my husband was fighting the election at Plymouth, going down one night and seeing some of my naval friends. They rather avoided me, and I asked them what was the matter. They said: "You will not like what we have to tell you." I told them I would like to hear anything they had to say, and invited them to see my husband. They had to come after dark to tell him of the condition of the Navy. The Navy was in a very parlous state in 1918. My husband took a list of their complaints and promised then and there to get them to the Prime Minister. The night after I took the train to London, and gave the complaints to the then Prime Minister, now Earl Lloyd George, and he guaranteed to look into the grievances of the Navy. We did not stop at that; we got "The Times" to publish articles about what the Navy had done, and its grievances. The Gerram Committee was set up, and made a great advance in regard to the Navy. I am grateful to that kind of Press. I know what good articles in responsible newspapers can do. But I also know there is a certain part of the Press of the country which never reports anything unless it is what I call bad news, exciting news, sensational news, and which fails to tell the people of the country the magnificent work which our men and women in all the Services are doing. I recommend the First Lord to get the Co-operative papers going, and 2074 to use all his influence to have his speech given to the country.
I am also grateful to him and to the Government for standing steady when we heard all this talk about "We want a Second Front," a slogan which was also printed and posted up. I had to suffer from that campaign, because it was brought to my constituency. It must have been very difficult to stand firm, but thank God they did. Those agitators who wanted a Second Front did not know what a Second Front meant. I hope that they too will read the speech of the First Lord because everybody in the country ought to realise what a Second Front meant, and what a difficult and magnificent job the Admiralty have done. They did it because they kept their heads and stood steady.
I have suffered a good deal from this kind of thing. I have been one of the chief targets of propaganda, in the Navy, the Army and the Air Force. To my utter horror I heard it was said that "Lady Astor was responsible for taking the hard-lying money from the men of the Navy." As a matter of fact I did not know at the time what it was, and I was so busy at Plymouth that I did not stop to deny it. The second thing I heard only the other day, which was brought to my notice by a Labour friend, was that "Lady Astor had said that the men of the Navy should stop at some island off Cape Town." It was said that I had been there and that I said that it was good enough for the British Navy for two years. I do not know where the propaganda comes from, but it is uncomfortable. It does not very much matter, because nobody in the world is more proud of the British Navy than this particular woman I have just mentioned.
I was bold enough, in the very worst years, when things were not going so well in America, to go there and speak, and I said there that the Monroe Doctrine would not have been worth the paper on which it was printed but for the British Navy. It took some saying, but it is true. The world can never be grateful enough for the British Navy, and I hope they will never forget. I have had to sit in the House and see efforts made to try to do away with Singapore. We had an awful fight to get the Singapore Docks. All the House, and all the parties, are keen on the Navy when it is fighting. It is when we are at peace that we have to look out, and 2075 when we must not forget the work of which the First Lord has told us. That is when we must keep our consciences bright and clear about it. Then we can do a great deal.
I put a Question to the Chancellor of the Exchequer the other day, but it was badly expressed. It looked as if I wanted to save money for the Revenue at the expense of the Navy. That is the last thing I want to do. My aim was to do what I think the present First Lord did when he was previously in office, in regard to the rum ration. He enabled the men in the Navy to choose money instead of the rum. I remember what a fight it was. It is always the same old story of the pride of the working man, of his freedom, and so on. My Question the other day was designed to see whether we could not do something for the officers in the Navy who do not drink, and there are thousands of them. Their numbers are growing every day. I wanted to see whether, instead of the concession which is made to those who drink, there could not be a division of the money which the Chancellor of the Exchequer gains on that drink. I do not know how much it would amount to, but it ought to be done. I do not know if the House realises how difficult it is for married officers to live on what they get. We had an awful time trying to get officers' allowances, and I know that a few shillings would be a great help to them. I do not want to give a wrong impression. I know that the Navy is sober. I know that it is not possible to get very far in the Navy unless one is sober, its requirements are too technical, both for the upper and the lower decks. One has to be very alert and very sober indeed, and the last thing I want to do is to appear to be saying that the Navy is drinking too much. I do not believe it is, but I do not want drinking made easier for anybody, whether in the Navy or out of it. I hope that the First Lord will see—I think it was he who got the rum ration turned into 3½d. a week for the men instead of the rum—
§ Lieut.-Commander Gurney Braithwaite (Holderness)
The Noble Lady has used the analogy of the rum ration for the lower deck, and has suggested that similar machinery might be introduced for officers in the ward room. But there is no spirit 2076 ration in the ward room. How is it possible to contract out of something that does not exist?
§ Viscountess Astor
A bottle of gin costs 5s. 6d. on land and 1s. 3d. on a ship, I believe. I want to know if that difference cannot be divided in some way for those who do not drink.
§ Colonel Viscount Suirdale (Peterborough)
Will the Noble Lady disclose the source of supply from which she can get gin at 5s. 6d. a bottle?
§ Viscountess Astor
All I can say is, "Join the Navy." What I want may be difficult. That is what I want to know, and I hope I shall get an answer. Equally important and of vital interest is the question of putting dieticians in naval hospitals. It is perfectly amazing that of two hospitals, in one good food can be obtained at all times of the day, while, in the other, half the food is wasted. I know how difficult it is to change anything in the Navy but I think there is a chance now, if the First Lord would take it, of getting dieticians in naval hospitals. The food is monotonous. I do not say it is always badly cooked but very often it is.
When the war is over we wish to do something for our sailors, and I mean the Merchant Navy as well as the Royal Navy, because they are more or less one now. It would be a good thing if, in ports, we could get those people who are grateful to the Navy, and want to do something for it, to build flats for officers and flats for men. The position is awfully difficult in ports. I know it is in Plymouth. Before taxation got so high and one had to pay 19s. 6d. in Surtax I had hoped to get some model flats built at Plymouth in which officers' wives and children could live in comparative comfort. Something of that sort would make a far better memorial than anything else we could provide. I would like to say how proud the women are of what the W.R.N.S. have done, but they are not more proud than the men are. I saw a very young thing down at Plymouth looking a little weary. Another girl said: "If it were not for Iris you would not have had D-Day." This frail slip of a thing was one of the girls who carried the messages from the big ships to the little ships on the night before D-Day. The work these girls are doing is beyond praise. The officers and the lower deck men appreciate it, and have 2077 treated them with the greatest respect and courtesy. May England always have a Navy.
§ Viscountess Astor
It is about time some Members became keen about the Navy. When the war is over I will remind them. I ought to have said the British Navy, but so much of it comes from Devonshire that I had really forgotten about the rest of the country.
§ 2.3 p.m.
§ Mr. Kirkwood (Dumbarton Burghs)
I want to pay my tribute to the First Lord of the Admiralty. I come a good deal in contact not only with the First Lord but with the Admiralty in general, and no one can come in contact so much as I do with the Sea Lords and with the ordinary rank and file of the Navy without having a great regard for them, apart from all the romance that surrounds our wonderful Navy. The First Lord said to-day that he hoped that we should never see again what happened after the last war, the depletion of the Navy. I have always been a supporter of the Navy—there is no greater supporter in this House. It means bread and butter to my constituency. That is why I am so sore when people talk about the English Navy. We build the Navy—that part of the Navy that matters—in my constituency.
The finest ships that sail the seas are built on the Clyde. It is that aspect that I wish to speak of to-day. The last great ship that we hunched was the greatest battleship that has ever been built—we can talk about it now, but it was launched secretly. The First Lord was there, and with him were the Sea Lords. One and all told me that the workers, the shipbuilders, the engineers, had never let them down; there was nothing that the Admiralty had asked for that they had not provided. Not only that, but the First Sea Lord told me: "And never have we had finer ships than you are producing at the moment." It is for the future of those ships and for the future of the British Empire that I ask the House to bear with me. I have seen, with the Minister of Supply, a good deal of the building up of those wonderful harbours that enabled our Forces to land in Normandy. They were built all over the country, but tribute has to be paid to 2078 the Firth of Forth—to Leith. The Minister of Supply said that what they asked of Leith they could never forget. It was considered an impossibility by the Admiralty at the time, but they met the demand.
Everyone knows about the wonderful battleships, but what is the situation of the workers to-day? We cannot have those battleships without them. There is a seething discontent, because of the wages paid to those workers, the engineers, who produce the finest machinery in the world. Last June they started an agitation for increased wages, in order to find the necessaries of life, to supply their women and children with food. I am not speaking of Russia, or of Germany, or of Greece, but of our own native land. In every shipyard in Britain overtime was stopped; the men were put back to 47 hours a week; and what did that leave them with? Here are the pay rates, sent to me from the different shipyards in Britain. My union, the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, has now almost 1000,000 members. What are the wages paid? A wage of 1s. 11⅜d. per hour—fancy, ⅜ths of a penny—is paid to the men on whom we depend to build the engines for our ships. At 47 hours a week, that works out at £4 11s. 8d. We shall not get many millionaires on that.
§ Mr. Kirkwood
Income Tax on that £4 11s. 8d. amounts to 14s., leaving £3 17s. 8d. National Insurance costs 1s. 10d., hospitals 3d., and war fund 9d. These deductions amount to another 2s, 10d. and so the men go out of the shipyards with £3 14s. 10d. These are the wages that are paid. Is it any wonder that the shipyards are a seething mass of discontent? What aggravates the situation is this. They started the agitation for increased wages in June. The House has heard me say time and again since the war started that the present-day machinery for negotiation is out-of-date, at any rate so far as the war is concerned. It took them from June until Thursday, 18th January, to reach the negotiating stage between the executive of our union and the employers. Here is the statement made by the president of our union to the National Engineering Employers' Federation, in London, on Thursday, 18th 2079 January, 1945. After he had made his statement Sir Alexander Ramsay, who used to be a member of this House, got up, on behalf of the employers, and said—remember the date, 18th January: "Of course, Mr. Tanner, you will not expect a reply from us to-day. We shall have to take it back to our constituents, and as soon as possible we will send you a reply." The engineers of Britain are still wating for that reply.
§ Sir Granville Gibson (Pudsey and Otley)
I am sure that my hon. Friend did not intend to mislead the House, but did he mean that 1s. 11⅜d. per hour is the rate for a skilled engineer? Yesterday, I read that the average wages paid in the shipbuilding industry, over the whole of the country, were more than £7 a week.
§ Mr. Kirkwood
I thank my colleague for doubly drawing attention to this fact, because,—facts are chiels that that winna ding,An' downa be disputed.Those are the figures, and my hon. Friend can have a look at them.
§ Mr. Kirkwood
Well, the first one has had 20 years as a fitter—a time-served man. I will quote others. The engineers' basic rate is 1s. 11 3/8d. Hon. Members should get that firmly into their minds, because they can take it from me that it has been burned into those who have nothing else but their labour power to sell. That is all they get in return for a complete week's work—£3 14s. 10d. I have difficulty in getting people to believe that these are the wages being paid to the men who are producing the most wonderful machines that one hag ever seen. Just see what it really means. Three weeks ago, as the result of all this pushing them back—