HC Deb 03 March 1955 vol 537 cc2305-18

Original Question again proposed.

6.34 p.m.

Mr. Edward Shackleton (Preston, South)

Without fully understanding what has happened, it appears that my hon. Friends have won a considerable victory by the use of conventional weapons. I should like now to turn to the subject of thermo-nuclear weapons. It appears to me somewhat as if we have go away from the original statement by the Government in the White Paper that overshadowing all else in the year 1954 has been the emergence of the thermo-nuclear bomb. Although hon. Members, on both sides of the House, have talked about the thermonuclear bomb, none the less the hon. Member for Gillingham (Mr. Burden) in particular appeared to carry on with his views of naval strategy as if the thermonuclear bomb and the fission bomb had not been invented.

It would be quite wrong for us to discuss the future defence of this country unless we are prepared to say frankly and freely what we think. It is right that we should criticise, and it does not necessarily follow, as the hon. and gallant Member for Merton and Morden (Captain Ryder) seemed to think, that some of our criticism is not only ill-informed, but is malicious. I assure the hon. and gallant Member that all hon. Members, I hope, even when they may indulge in scoring a point here and there in a defence debate, are surely concerned in the long run, not with trying to serve a particular vested interest, but, according to their beliefs, with achieving the best defence for this country and for the preservation of the peace of the world. If I have criticisms to make of the White Paper and of the nature and role of the Royal Navy, I hope that hon. Members who think that I am being biased against the Navy in saying that it should be cut down will listen to the debates on the Air Estimates, when they will hear also that I have criticisms to throw against my own Service in the matter.

The fact is that the thermo-nuclear bomb has so decisively altered the nature of our affairs that it makes the proposals in the First Lord's Memorandum completely out of date. Indeed, I regard the thermo-nuclear bomb as such a decisive weapon that it seems to me that there is nearly no choice but a position of complete pacificism, and the temptation to move to that position today is a very strong one.

I am sure that my hon. Friends will not think that it is a love of war that makes me not take that course, but if we delude ourselves in talking about the type of conventional war that we have been talking about today, we are confusing the real horror of the situation and are also weakening our capacity for building up the real and powerful deterrent, which is the hydrogen bomb.

My hon. Friends may disagree with me, but I believe—and this appeared to be the view of the Government in the Statement on Defence—that the main instrument today for preserving the peace of the world is the deterrent, and the deterrent in the shape of the hydrogen bomb as at present, presumably, delivered by bombers and in 10 or 20 years' time, or possibly sooner, delivered by rockets.

It may well be that if that policy is successful and peace is preserved, we may even find that in time the hydrogen bomb takes on a social significance, and each nation has its token hydrogen bomb which is regarded as the symbol of peace —I do not know; that might be optimistic. But if the primary strategy of the Government—and I believe it to be the right one—is the use of deterrents by the threat to deliver the hydrogen bomb, it seems to me that we must look very carefully, not merely at its general rôle,but at what particular jobs the Royal Navy has to do. The same thing applies to the other Services.

I fully concede that the Royal Navy has an important rôle in the cold war. I concede that there are a number of jobs to be done and that nobody else, as far as operations allow, can do them more efficiently or more successfully than the Royal Navy. But when it comes to a hot war, I still remember last year's White Paper, in which it was clearly indicated that the main rôle of the Navy in a hot war would be during the period of broken-back warfare; that was a horrible expression, but it is true, because I believe that there would be a period of broken-back warfare.

When, therefore, hon. Members question the use of the aircraft carrier, we are thinking about it not in terms of whether a carrier, if it exists, is a useful instrument, but whether there will be any carriers or any bases from which they can operate. It may well be that the Fleet puts out to sea the day before war breaks out and then we would have a certain number of mobile landing fields and so on. But it would be very limited, because I. believe that if the hydrogen bomb war breaks out and we do not win it—it is extremely doubtful, and I do not know whether we will——

Mr. George Thomas (Cardiff, West)

Nobody will win it.

Mr. Shackleton

—then quite apart from the rest of the country, there will not be the dockyards to which the Fleet could return.

The conventional anti-submarine warfare about which the hon. Member for Gillingham spoke is not on. If hydrogen bombs and fission bombs are dropped, they will be dropped, among other places, on the ports. One cannot operate submarines for very long without port facilities. I believe that even now the Russians have only limited port facilities, and all hon. Members who know the Submarine Service know that ports are of fundamental importance. The expansion of the German effort in the last war was entirely related to their acquirement of certain ports on the Biscay coast of France. I do not believe that the existing Russian ports are adequate to launch big submarine attacks.

I want to refer to the misleading propaganda—and I use the word "misleading" deliberately—that the Admiralty Public Relations Department put out. In the summer, the Department put out a statement about 500 Russian submarines. The First Lord knows as well as I do that the majority of these submarines must be obsolete submarines, many of which have been shown in "Jane's Fight- ing Ships" for the last 30 years. If the Russians have any of the new type submarines, they have very few. The hon. Member for Gillingham was talking about the German type 21, or an adaptation of the Walther type with H.T.P. propulsion. The H.T.P. type may be able to put in tremendous bursts of speed for a short while, may be even for 24 hours, but on passage it is a more vulnerable duck than the conventional submarine, and modern developments in submarine hunting can take care of it to some extent.

I come back to my essential point, that if we accept the Government's belief in thermo-nuclear and fission bomb warfare, then the alleged threat at sea will be most effectively met at the ports from which the submarine set out. I believe that a number of hon. Members of naval persuasion would probably largely agree with me about that. There are many points I should like to make regarding the actual shape of the Navy and the question of guided missile cruisers, but my essential point is that the deterrent is the main thing and that £350 million is too large a proportion to devote to a branch of the Services which cannot have a decisive effect in preserving the peace of the world in accordance with the Government's basic philosophy.

If hon. Members agree with me on this —and I hope that a number of them do—we have to look at what is to be the future of the Royal Navy. I think that the hon. and gallant Member for Croydon, East (Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett), who spoke in a very moderate and reasonable way in his maiden speech in the defence debate, is as much aware of this as I am. He will agree that however much we admire the Royal Navy and think that of all three Services it is the one which above all should be preserved because of its traditions, fine qualities and splendid history, it is out of the big league in defence.

If that be so, then we have to look at what the future structure and organisation of our naval forces ought to be. It would be an absolute tragedy if that Service tradition were lost or allowed to fritter away against a background of frustration, disappointment and anxiety. One obvious solution of the problem which must at all costs be avoided is that by a process of surgical operation the Royal Navy should pinch bits of other Services. I think that all Service empires are inclined to do this—not least the Air Force—and I shall have something to say on the subject of the Air Force's pinching guided missiles.

On this subject, the hon. and gallant Member for Merton and Morden referred to a statement attributed to the future First Sea Lord, namely, that he would not be back in England for two months without getting hold of Coastal Command. This rumour is extremely widespread. I have heard it from a variety of people. It may not be going round the Admiralty, but I have heard it from ranks ranging from air marshal to flight lieutenant at the Air Ministry. I have satisfied myself that it is a very widespread rumour. When I raised it, the First Lord was good enough to write to me to say that the rumour was far from true, which I take to mean that it is untrue. Obviously discussions of this kind take place in Service circles, but I hope that we can be assured not only that the rumour is untrue, but that the Navy would not contemplate such a solution of its problems.

Mr. J. P. L. Thomas

I will not deal with the last few words. So far as the First Sea Lord-designate is concerned, I wrote to the hon. Member today. I have not heard the rumour. I was not in a position to check it during the defence debate, but I have taken the opportunity of checking it in the intervening time. The rumour is far from true, which means completely untrue. Lord Mountbatten had a private meeting with his staff officers before leaving Malta and asked them to suggest matters he might raise at the Admiralty. One of a large number of subjects discussed was Coastal Command, but neither Lord Mountbatten nor anybody else made the remark attributed to him.

Mr. Shackleton

That is a gratifying statement. I am sure that the First Lord will agree that I did not raise that to cast reflection on a very distinguished officer. I hope that he may be the person who may help to solve these difficulties and these Service problems. I am only sorry that the First Lord is not prepared to go further and give a categorical undertaking that no member of the Board of Admiralty harbours such intention in his breast.

I should like to turn to the subject of what the future of the Royal Navy should be, and especially to the theme taken up by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan). He will forgive me if I do not congratulate him on his speech. All of my hon. Friends say what a wonderful speech he makes. That seems to be a needless glimpse of the obvious, because I always expect a first-class speech from the hon. Gentleman. His views regarding the fusion—perhaps an unfortunate word—of the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force, which was also argued with great eloquence by certain other hon. Members, particularly the hon. and gallant Member for Croydon, East, led me to believe that this was a very strange way to solve the problem and I should like to give my reasons.

The hon. and gallant Member for Croydon, East put his case extremely moderately, but I thought that he drew a number of false analogies between the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force. One of the most important aspects of the Royal Navy is its long and splendid tradition, and I think that the hon. and gallant Gentleman would agree that it would be vital to avoid destroying or in any way impairing that tradition. I believe that the basic rô1es of the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force are entirely different. I think, as I have said, that the basic rôle of the Royal Air Force for the time being is to deliver the deterrent. The Navy thinks in terms of sea power, and the argument which has always been adduced in the past for the Navy taking over Coastal Command is the belief that those who fly over the sea ought to be sailors.

Indeed, the hon. and gallant Member for Croydon, East himself appeared to be thinking in terms of sea power. He said: There is a wide field in which the functions of the two Services overlap. The defence against invasion, the defence of our trade routes, the blockade of an enemy, the carriage of troops…. That may be the main rô1e of the Royal Navy, but it certainly is not the main rôle of the R.A.F. The main rôle of the Royal Air Force today is to deliver the deterrent, and in my opinion we should confuse and detract from that important function—which is indicated in the Government's statement of policy—by bringing the Navy and the Royal Air Force into one body.

Indeed, I think it could only be done effectively—in the light of the fact that, as I believe, and I think most people believe, for the time being the R.A.F. has the major rô1e—if the Royal Navy were very heavily subordinated. I do not think that would be a particularly good thing for the Royal Navy. It may be that there are some members of the Royal Navy who think that they would get hold of the Air Force, but I am sure that the hon. and gallant Member for Croydon, East was not thinking along those lines. He made another statement. He said that there is a lot in common in the training required by both an airman and a seaman. Both require knowledge of navigation, of radio communications, a ground work in electronics and engineering, etc…."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 1st March, 1955; Vol. 537, c. 1924–25.] We might also say that most of that applies to a soldier as well. And when we talk of an instinctive eye for the appreciation of relative velocity, I would point out that the relative velocities are rather different. There may be a similarity between the 30 knots of a ship and the landing speed of an aircraft. It is only of the order of three- or four-to-one. But when it comes to the modern development of aircraft and 1,500 miles an hour and 15 knots, I think that the velocity is rather different.

Vice-Admiral John Hughes Hallett (Croydon, East)

We have hundreds of naval officers who fly aeroplanes, and many more are testing them, and the same speeds are involved.

Mr. Burden

I am at one with the hon. Member for Preston, South (Mr. Shackleton) on this. Probably, as former members of the R.A.F., we are inclined to appreciate the difficulties of both Services vis-à-vis the Royal Air Force, much more than an Army or naval man, and we can assess the difficulties of integration much better than they can.

Mr. Shackleton

The hon. and gallant Member now says that it is naval officer pilots. But he was not talking about that. He referred to seamen and pilots.

The basic rôle of the Navy is still obvious today and concerns vessels that go on the sea. I think it would be unfortunate if we had a situation where within the one Service we had two such different branches. It would be ludicrous. I can assure the hon. and gallant Gentleman—indeed I am sure that he would concede it—that the complications involved in mounting the delivery of the deterrent on a selected target involves years of training, such as is also necessary if a man is to be able to be a competent commander of ships at sea. There are at the moment two totally different rôles to be played, and I believe that this solution is out for various reasons.

Mr. de Freitas

If my hon. Friend is so certain that the argument will go his way, why is he opposed to an inquiry?

Mr. Shackleton

I am not opposed to an inquiry. I am about to propose one. I have never said that I was opposed to an inquiry. I am opposed to an inquiry on a narrow field.

There is one other argument. I think that the Army would have something to say. If it is thought that by reducing the number of "empires" from three to two we shall improve the relations between the remaining two, I would only say that that is a thoroughly unsound view. I think that the Air Force has a fundamental rôle to play alongside the Army apart from its basic deterrent rôle —which I keep emphasising because it is the Government's own statement of policy.

Let me say what I believe the solution might be. In the short run I think that something has to be done to improve the prospects of those men in naval aviation who are not likely to command ships. They are not basically sailors, but they may be very good pilots. It would not be unreasonable, in my opinion, for the Air Force to open its ranks to them, if they wished to join the Air Force. I suggest that discussions might take place between the Admiralty and the Air Ministry with a view to extending the careers of these men in the Air Force, if necessary. It does not matter which uniform they use, they could be entitled to wear both. But I think that the ultimate solution—and this is where I urge an inquiry—must be the complete reorganisation of what are the functions of the Services and the weapons of defence today.

If someone sat down and planned the defence of this country now, without there being any Army, Navy or Air Force, I am doubtful whether they would start by creating such Services. There might be a corps of signallers and other organisations of specialists. There might be a guided missile force, but I do not think that we should have the present Navy, Army and Air Force, which I believe is increasingly becoming an obstacle to a sensible approach to proper provisions for the defence of this country.

I do not believe that the unification of these three Services is possible overnight, or within a few years. But I am certain that, within the next 20 or 50 years, the present views held in the three Services will be completely out-of-date, even if they are not out-of-date today. I urge that some inquiry be held into this matter. It should be an inquiry not into the possibilities of uniting the Navy and the Air Force, but into the whole structure of the three Services. If we widen it that far we might arrive at some answers; but the other solution will not prove to be that fundamental solution which we must find in the long run.

One simple thing might be done meanwhile; it has been proposed in many quarters. Movement between the three Services, inter-changeability, particularly between senior officers, should be made a great deal easier. That is one obvious step. I urge the Admiralty to take the initiative in approaching and discussing this with the other Service Departments. I believe that would be the first step towards unification. Meanwhile, do not let us think that we have found the answer to our problem merely by joining the Navy and the Air Force. We must do much more thinking about it.

In the long run we have to think again that if the deterrent is the main weapon —and I hope that in time the hydrogen bomb will become the symbol of peace— the other aspects of war and war-making are ancillary only, and are cold war techniques. In those circumstances there is a great deal of reorganisation to do but we have to think in the totally new state of affairs of absolute weapons, which bear no relation to the warfare of the past.

7.0 p.m.

Commander J. W. Maitland (Horncastle)

Each time I take part in these Estimates debates I become far more humble. I feel that I am no longer competent to discuss technical matters. Ten years ago I had a considerable knowledge of them, but today I have not. I do not want to become one of those hon. Members who are treated with contempt by the Navy, Air Force, and the Army for the nonsense which they talk in Parliament. It may not really be nonsense, but I can assure hon. Members that it is considered to be nonsense by the Services.

I want to discuss the future—and nobody can catch me out there because it has not yet happened—and I start where the hon. Member for Preston, South (Mr. Shackleton) started. The great fact which has emerged in the presentation of the Defence White Paper and the White Paper on the Navy Estimates is the Government's decision to pin their faith upon the deterrent. We have talked a lot in the past about the deterrent. It was not so obvious when we had only the atomic bomb, but it has become much more obvious during this terrible year, when we have discovered all the horrors of the hydrogen bomb.

This White Paper is a very satisfactory one. Like most other people who are honest with themselves, I have been extremely worried and anxious about the future of the Navy. The White Paper, even if it looks forward only into dreams, at least looks in the right direction. That is where I depart from the argument of the hon. Member for Preston, South. I believe that it will do a tremendous amount to re-establish in the Navy a sense of its own future.

Having said that, I must also say that some of the arguments contained in the White Paper seem to muddle the future and the present. I prefer the statement contained in the Defence White Paper, which says: The Navy also makes its contribution of heavy carriers to the allied striking fleet whose great mobility and offensive power, to be augmented by guided missiles and by the other modern equipment which is under development, will add powerfully to our ability to hit the enemy either independently or in support of allied land forces and land-based air forces. That view is supported by the "Economist," in the excellent article on defence which appeared this week. The White Paper also says: The development of shipborne guided weapons systems is well under way. The success of the recent developments in aircraft carriers and their equipment will make it possible to use at sea heavier and faster fighter and strike aircraft, the latter being capable of carrying atomic bombs. When one ceases to be a technical officer one has to rely upon reading or being told things, whether by an admiral, a shop steward or an air commodore. That is not nearly as good as living in the Services and knowing about these matters from one's own experience. One is apt to be biased, and to hear only one side of the argument. I am trying to rely upon the information given by the Government. It seems to me that the idea of carrier-borne air striking forces in an atomic age is a practical one.

Nevertheless, one of the greatest dangers is trying to be strong in every direction. We must decide between an offensive rôle—which is the one that I favour—and a defensive rôle, of concentrating upon small craft to defend our trade routes. I cannot conceive of a situation where, if there were an intense submarine attack upon this country, there would not be a hot war at the same time.

We have to decide upon one rô1e or the other, and it is nonsense to do as was suggested during the defence debate yesterday, namely, to indicate that we shall use the hydrogen bomb only if the hydrogen bomb is used against us. If we pin our faith to the principle of the deterrent, then we must go all out for it. I believe that the Admiralty should concentrate upon the development of the offensive as opposed to the defensive rôle.

The hon. Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan) talked about dockyards and their extension. There is a great deal in that, and it may seem madness to extend them now. But I am not so sure. When war breaks out we have to be ready. Everything has to be completed. The extension of the dockyards may be advisable in order to enable the "Navy to become equipped for its rôle, but surely the great lesson which we have to learn is to be ready at any moment. But once war starts all our preparations must be complete. The ships at sea in active commission may be the only ones we have. We must try to reorientate our ideas and have small efficient groups capable of making war at literally an hour's notice.

I agree with the hon. Member for Preston, South that the Navy has a very peculiar and particular task—and great powers of being able to carry it out—in the cold war. But if the deterrent is going to work we may certainly expect a "hotting-up" of the cold war, and that is another reason why the more ships we can have in the active line the better we shall serve both the purpose of the present cold war and the possibility of a hot war.

I leave that subject now and come to some simple, homely remarks about the Navy.

Mr. Paget

If the Navy is to have an offensive rôle—and I entirely agree with the hon. and gallant Member on that point—the offensive instrument should be the submarine, equipped with a rocket launcher, which can lay off and destroy every enemy port within 12 hours. Is the hon. and gallant Gentleman not going to mention the one instrument of offence which is particularly naval, and which the air cannot use?

Commander Maitland

I agree with the hon. and learned Gentleman. I have not mentioned submarines, although I had a considerable amount to do with them during the war. They certainly form part of my general theory about the offensive role of the Navy. I was arguing that even though we should like to build up our escort service, that is not the proper way in which we should spend our money. We should, rather, concentrate upon what we need to carry out an offensive rôle.

Mr. Paget

I entirely agree.

Commander Maitland

I should like to talk about more simple things that have not yet been mentioned. This is the first Estimates debate I have taken part in in which we have not talked about an officer or a man until 7.10 p.m. I am going to start to do so, and the first thing I shall do is to speak of the conditions of the junior officer.

There is here an astonishing set of circumstances. Owing to the fact that it is difficult to get petty officers and chief petty officers to stay in the Navy—very largely because of doubt about the Navy's future—those who are there are pretty young. As a result of that we get the anomaly of an officer getting less pay than a man of his own age on the lower deck. That situation causes considerable anxiety among junior officers, and I am not blaming them.

I heard of a case the other day of two young men who entered the Navy as artificers. One did very well indeed and became an officer. The other did well, but not quite as well, and continued on the lower deck. In due course when they were about 22 or 23 years of age, they met in the same ship. One was a lieutenant in charge of a watch,with all the responsibility that that entails, and the other was an artificer. The artificer earned more money than the officer. By any sort of reckoning that is wrong.

If we are to recruit officers from the lower deck and to make the stream of recruits as full and as easy as can be, in the interests of the Service, the question of payment for responsibility should receive more attention from the Admiralty. I checked that point about pay by consulting the Estimates. It is in the First Schedule. It is perfectly correct. Any hon. Member who wishes can do so too.

The other point is promotion on the lower deck and for the officer. I have spoken about this matter before, because I feel very strongly about it. We should never put a man into a position where he has no chance of promotion. It is important that we should always promote the best men. I do not believe in any system in which so many years' service entitles one to promotion. I believe that to be bad. The best man always should be taken, but if a man misses one shot he should not be shut out for ever.

Take the example of the petty officer. He has possibly failed to become a branch officer, and he has no chance now of becoming a branch officer. I do not believe that is good. During the war we promoted many chief petty officers to be branch officers. One of my strongest recollections is that competency and efficiency of a high order seemed to develop in these men after a very short course, and almost immediately after they had changed their uniform. Promotion should never be a closed door. People should always be given hope.

I was very glad to hear that the whole officer structure is to be reconsidered. It is desperate for a comparatively young man of 35 to find himself finished, so far as the Navy is concerned. This is what happens. I know that the hon. and gallant Member for Croydon, East (Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett) during his time in the Service had a particular interest in this point. It should be possible to keep the opportunity for further service, not necessarily in the highest ranks but in a higher rank, in front of a man at every stage of his career.

That is all I have to say. I have read in the "Economist" the remark that at last the Navy has been given a vital rôle. I believe that to be true, and that is why I welcome the White Paper. Whenever the Navy has been given a job, at no time in the past that I can think of has it not fulfilled it, honourably and efficiently.

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