HC Deb 23 May 1957 vol 570 cc1401-4
The Prime Minister

Mr. Speaker, with permission I will now make a statement on the question raised by several hon. Members regarding the circumstances which led to Admiral Sir Dudley North's relief as Flag Officer, North Atlantic, in 1940.

After careful study of all the papers, Questions and debates concerned with this affair, I am bound to say that there does not seem to be any difference as to the facts of the case. The orders that were given and the signals that passed backwards and forwards are on record. It has been suggested that there should be a new inquiry into the facts, but the facts are not really in dispute. The question at issue is the interpretation that should be put upon these facts and the wisdom and justice of the decisions reached by the authorities at the time.

I must recall to the House that the period was one of perhaps the most acute danger that has ever beset this country. The Battle of Britain was at its height, the French fighting power had collapsed, and grave uncertainty existed as to whether the powerful French fleet might pass into enemy hands, which, had it happened, would have turned the whole balance of naval power against us.

It is only fair to recall the memories of those anxious days in order to put ourselves in the position of those who had to make the great decisions. In the circumstances of that period, the authorities concerned formed the view that they needed a different naval commander at Gibraltar. I must insist upon the constitutional rights of the Admiralty, and, indeed, of all those in positions of supreme responsibility, to choose officers in whom they have confidence at moments of supreme crisis. Any other system would be dangerous in peace and fatal in war.

A careful examination of the records has led me to the conclusion that, so far as concerned the passing of the French ships through the Straits of Gibraltar, Admiral North cannot be accused of any dereliction of duty. He obeyed his orders as he interpreted them and some blame must rest on the fact that they were not drawn with complete clarity. Nevertheless, in those dangerous days the Admiralty felt that they required at Gibraltar an officer who would not content himself with strict adherence to his orders, but who would be likely to show a greater degree of resource and initiative in an emergency.

I am convinced that, while we all have a deep understanding for Admiral Sir Dudley North in what must have been a great disappointment to him at the height of his career, it is essential in the Services to maintain the principle that the authorities of the day should have unrestricted discretion in deciding to whom they will entrust high command.

I very much deprecate the use of the words "dismiss" or "remove" or, still worse, "sack". These are phrases which are quite inappropriate to these difficult decisions in conditions of war. Many officers of high rank in all the three Services were superseded in those harsh days by others who were regarded as more likely to be able to cops with the problems and burdens that confronted them.

In my view, a general distinction must be drawn between two things. On the one hand are definite charges of negligence and the like or reflecting on an officer's honour. Any charge of this kind against Admiral Sir Dudley North could not, in my view, be sustained, and I believe that is generally recognised. On the other hand, the Board of Admiralty have the right and duty to decide on broad grounds whether an officer possesses the qualities necessary for a particular command.

These qualities are not easy to define. One of them is the confidence reposed in an officer by his superior. The degree to which an officer possesses these qualities can never be the subject of an inquiry. It can only be a matter for the judgment of his superiors. And I must add that the country owes a great debt to the whole Board of Admiralty, political and professional, as it was constituted in that dark period which led to ultimate victory.

I am satisfied that Admiral North was not the victim of Service or political prejudice. He has nothing with which to reproach himself. He had forty-four years of long, distinguished, and devoted service in the Royal Navy, and there is no question of his professional integrity being impugned.

In these circumstances, I do not see that anything is to be gained by an inquiry regarding facts that are well documented and undisputed.

Mr. Gaitskell

Whatever our views may be of this matter, I am sure the House will agree that it would be very undesirable if it were to become in any way a party issue. May I ask the Prime Minister whether his statement really implies that he sees no reason for an inquiry because the facts are not in dispute and that he has endeavoured, in what he has said, nevertheless, to make a fair judgment for the whole country on this particular matter?

The Prime Minister

I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his question and the way in which he has posed it. I have tried to make a balanced statement and give what I think is a fair view, after very careful inquiry myself. I hope that it will be taken by Admiral Sir Dudley North, the House, and the country as a whole, as a fair account, as best I can make it, of the situation and of the position as it really ought to be summed up.

Commander Maitland

Can my right hon. Friend say whether he personally consulted the five very senior officers who have interested themselves in this matter and, if so, whether they agreed with the statement that he has made?

The Prime Minister

After I had time to study carefully this whole question, I thought that it would be not only courteous to the Admirals of the Fleet concerned but also very helpful to me to invite them to come to see me, which, I am glad to say, they were very willing to do, with the exception of Admiral of the Fleet Lord Chatfield, who was not well enough to come but sent me a memorandum expressing his views. I saw Admiral of the Fleet Lord Cork, Admiral of the Fleet Lord Cunningham of Hyndhope, Admiral of the Fleet Sir John Cunningham, and Admiral of the Fleet Sir Algernon Willis. While the decision and the statement that I have made are entirely on my own responsibility, I should like to express my gratitude to these distinguished officers for having, at my request, assisted me with their advice.

Mr. C. R. Hobson

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his statement is welcome in so far as Admiral North is absolved from any charges of dereliction of duty? Will the right hon. Gentleman consider some form of amende honorable so far as restoring him to the substantive rank which he held as Commander-in-Chief, Gibraltar?

The Prime Minister

I will look into that matter.

Dame Irene Ward

Will my right hon. Friend accept the appreciation of very many people for his having taken the time and trouble personally to go into the whole matter, which, I think, will be a source of great satisfaction to everybody concerned?

The Prime Minister

I am grateful to my hon. Friend.

Mr. Glenvil Hall

Would it be a fair summary of the right hon. Gentleman's statement to say that this admiral obeyed his orders when he should not have done so?

The Prime Minister

No, Sir. I have tried to make a balanced statement. It would be easy to try to summarise it into an epigram, but I think that it would be unwise of me to do so. I would rather leave it where it rests and hope that the whole Navy and all those who care so deeply about the Service will accept it as a settlement of a matter which has long troubled them.