HL Deb 15 July 1936 vol 101 cc854-68

LORD STRICKLAND had the following Notice on the Paper: To ask whether His Majesty's Government are prepared to cancel all undertakings restricting, in case of war, the use of poison gas and other weapons useful in self-defence and counter-attack; whether the education of the Air Force against the use of certain weapons will be altered; and whether it is realised that the efficient equipment of Malta as a point from which counter-attack in self-defence might be made irresistible, has been fully realised as the best safeguard of peace, and to call attention to British interests in the Mediterranean; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, life in Malta has been much closer to the dangers of war than in this country; so much so, that last summer it was in contemplation that the civil population should be evacuated and measures were actually begun for that evacuation. We are there in constant contact with rooms in houses and offices protected against gas from the air. Rehearsals and mock air-raids are periodical. Therefore I trust your Lordships will realise that, under that stress of thought, more has been done to work out what may happen in case of war and opinion has been formulated in advance of public opinion in this country. That, I think, deserves the consideration of your Lordships' House. I will endeavour to submit my arguments at this late hour as briefly as possible. Air-minded nations, and perhaps the majority of English people, have come to the conclusion that conventions against the use of poison gas and other lethal weapons will not be observed in future in war. This opinion is not formed merely because of regrettable incidents in Ethiopia. In Morocco, when the ink was hardly dry on the conventions signed in Geneva, the liquid which when it evaporates produces mustard gas was used around the wells of the Riff tribes to prevent the watering of their stock and to contaminate the water supply of the civil population. It ended rapidly the war that had lasted more than a century.

There is a decided opinion amongst the most educated and the most mercifully inclined that there should be no restriction as to what should be done in self-defence in case of war. The democratically governed nations will certainly not in future be aggressors. Their armament is no menace to anybody because it is for self-defence in case of aggression. The aggressor will not enter into war except with the pre-determination of using every and any means. It is obvious to anybody that unless the defence use the same means, the aggressor will be rapidly and certainly victorious. Let us remember the attitude towards the use of submarines at the beginning of the Great War. Public opinion was so formulated against the treacherous character of submarine warfare that it was determined not to follow that treacherous example, but that noble attitude, that Christian and altruistic attitude, could not last. We either had to be defeated, to have our food supply entirely cut off, or the submarine had to meet the submarine.

With regard to air warfare, I put it to His Majesty's Government that we cannot avoid realising that that is the position. The worst weapons now existing, the most treacherous, the most poisonous, will have to be adopted in self-defence if there is to be any self-defence, and they will have to be used for surprise in the greatest possible quantity and without restriction as to those against whom they are to be aimed. That is the opinion formed by the air-minded nations other, perhaps, than this country, but it is also the opinion of thinkers in this country. The real question before His Majesty's Government is whether we are by propaganda to enlighten, to open the minds of people in this country as to that which is inevitable.

It was recently thought expedient that Malta should be evacuated, face to face with the concentration within a few miles on opposite shores of tens of thousands of picked troops, when submarines were numerous in the waters around—though perhaps not so numerous as was depicted in the speech of a former naval Commander-in-Chief when he said that in his time they were observed on one occasion bobbing about amongst the ships like corks. Those conditions are changed. His Majesty's Government have since last summer seriously done their duty to the Empire and to their pledges to the population of Malta in arming with the greatest rapidity. I feel confident that that policy of His Majesty's Government has been a success and that at the present time Malta, if not impregnable, is as close to the position in which our greatest fortress should be as the means at present available allow.

The arguments put forward by those persons who think—and there have been people in authority in Malta who have so thought—that Malta could not be defended from the air, have also changed entirely in these twelve months. Propinquity of the concentration of possible hostile Air Forces and therefore the ease of attack was the main argument for the evacuation of the civil population and the abandonment of Malta, to be reconquered after a long war. Since then, the radius of action of aircraft has so increased that London is no more immune by reason of distance from air attack than Malta. Moreover, we know that more than one of the Great Powers has organised a section of its Air Force on the basis that a certain number of selected and specially-trained pilots are to go forth and not endeavour to come back; to do what their duty may be with the knowledge that their lives are to be forfeited. I do not know what they would be called in an Asiatic language, but in European language they are called piloti delta morte—pilots who are going to their death. That doubles the radius of action of a certain number of aircraft, and that diminishes the arguments in favour of holding that Malta is less defensible than other centres.

As to Cyprus being more defensible, that theory also is disappearing in view of the rapid and ever-increasing efficiency of aircraft. The expense of constructing harbours in Cyprus and defending them has been estimated at £20,000,000 sterling. Whatever the cost may be it will be so great as to diminish the money that should be spent on other and more efficient forms of defence, as for instance aircraft carriers, which could do all that could be expected from Cyprus, apart from many other localities which are strategically more important from time to time. The proximity of Malta to centres of hostile aircraft is also suffered by Cyprus in the concentration of aircraft in neighbouring islands, not far enough in these days to make any appreciable difference in the relative distance of hostile bases from Cyprus and from Malta.

I wish to ask His Majesty's Government to consider that any expenditure on shifting from Malta the principal base of defence and of British power in the Mediterranean could be better spent in Malta. No use could be hoped from bases in Cyprus and Haifa unless aircraft can be operated from Malta and supplies can be brought there with impunity backwards and forwards. Without Malta those bases would very soon be starved out and obliterated. It would be putting the cart before the horse and would be of no advantage. On the other hand, at the time when professional opinion in Malta held the view that the Island could not be defended from the air and therefore should be abandoned, so that it was neglected and its defences were in a most deplorable condition, the best brains in His Majesty's service were of the opinion that the defence of Malta was merely a matter of money, and not much money in proportion to the advantages to be gained.

I put it to His Majesty's Government, and I hope to have the support of your Lordships' House for the view, that Malta could be made so strong in defence by counter-attack that there would be no war. It is generally acknowledged that the only defence worth considering against air attack from any country and by any country is a counter-attack. The difficulty and the anxiety of the counter-attack is whether it will be possible to deliver it, and whether it will not be destroyed before it starts. In Malta there are conditions under which counter-attack can be so safely made and with such certain impunity that it will be made and can be made, not only at the beginning of a war but after the war has been going on for a considerable period, notwithstanding any concentration of adverse forces, that I think the organisation would be so deterrent to any Mediterranean Power—and that is the one place when there is danger at present—that there would be no war in the Mediterranean, and therefore no war in Europe in our time.

Malta is itself a rock of which the stone is of a porous character, soft and easily quarried, and we have a disused railway station at Valetta which is an enormous arch carved out of the rock. In Malta it is quite feasible, at small expense, to have underground hangars for aircraft cut in the face of the rock, and aircraft could be discharged not merely by slipways but even from down at the water's edge. That is all in favour of the organisation of a, certain possibility of counter-attack in self defence by air. What will happen in Malta, and everywhere at an outbreak of war will be attacks devised to convert aerodromes into a collection of craters and dust heaps, so as to make them impossible for the purpose of landings. Therefore a counter-attack which has to start from a land aerodrome may be rendered impossible by the adoption of those tactics even before the declaration of war.

Aerodromes for safe counter-attack must be so selected as to offer the possibility of alighting on the water, and taking off from the water. It may well be said that perhaps there is a slight diminution in the velocity when taking off from the water, as compared with taking off from the land, but that I venture to doubt. It is a matter to be dealt with by future developments. The bombers, however, who take off from the water have always the hope of alighting on the water when they return. It is not a matter of a forlorn hope. The record of forlorn hopes in the history of the English forces, naval, military and air, is a record of a series of brave deeds, but they have been performed with the hope of coining back victorious—undoubtedly against heavy odds, but the hope of return has always been there, and hope must always be kept there in a Christian country. If we organise for a counterattack that is to return to the water, flying boats would not only be able to land near their homes, but on a vast expanse of water, either under the control of their own Government or neutral. Therefore the organisation of counter-attack from the water should be cultivated, in order to give our air pilots a much greater chance of doing brave deeds, and being able to do them not once but several times.

In Malta Providence has provided a bay that can be closed at very moderate expense—less than the cost of a second-class cruiser. Taking off from the water has only one difficulty—the water must be sheltered to a certain extent against a rough sea—and therefore the construction of breakwaters for the purpose of making the taking-off easy or practical, is the one difficulty to be overcome in the organisation in Malta, and that very soon, of such a force for defensive counter-attacks. It has been said in another debate that flying boats on the water were just as open to attack as aircraft on land. That answer did not satisfy me, because I never suggested that the bombers should sit on the water like wild ducks asleep. My suggestion is that they should be in a hangar, so that, as can be easily effected at Malta, flying boats would be able to go off at half a minute's notice. The facility for providing hangars in hidden localities is absolutely unique in Malta. The land aeroplanes might be an adjunct to the bombers which take off from the water, but they will find it very difficult to operate, because in heavy and difficult country such as exists in Malta it is made very difficult for bombers to land with safety, except on aerodromes of large size.

In his maiden speech the present Minister for Air informed your Lordships' House that the opinion of the Government was not in favour of extending and relying upon flying boats in Malta, but that they had decided to help the construction of an aerodrome for aeroplanes for civil aviation—that is for aircraft to alight upon the land. That policy has been carried out with rapidity and efficiency; but I wish to congratulate Lord Strabolgi upon having obtained in the recent debate on the Air Navigation Bill an admission on the part of the Air Minister that his opinion had changed, and that he was now aware of the superior advantages possessed by the flying boat. That was an achievement and a consolation. The aerodrome being built now for aircraft which are to alight on the solid ground is a great additional asset to the defence of Malta, but it is more so to the development of civil aviation. Nevertheless, the construction of breakwaters to enclose a most inviting expanse of water most suitable for the purpose would be a much greater achievement, it would produce much more value for the money. And it is an achievement which would satisfy not only those who want defence—defence of the strongest description—but also of those who believe in the teaching of Holy Scripture that "When a strong man keepeth his house there is peace therein" (there are various interpretations of that text). But no one can be strong to-day unless he is ready to use the strongest weapons. Notwithstanding all that, the expenditure of money on the construction of breakwaters to make that unique bay, in the words of the late Lord Thomson, the "Clapham Junction of the air," would have a value which would be always increasing commercially. The air traffic of the old world must and will centre there. It will be remunerative, and begin producing interest before it is finished. That cannot be said of a cruiser, which does not produce any interest, and which, in perhaps ten years, has to be scrapped.

Now I come to the last point I have to make. These debates about the provision of underground hangars have been going on since ten years ago in another place, and have taken place every year in this House, but have met with very little encouragement. But times have changed. What was perhaps politely smiled at a few months ago is now realised as a necessity. I know that the best experts now fully realise that it is an urgent necessity to have these breakwaters and to construct these underground hangars in places which give easy access to sheltered water for alighting in. Without saying anything more as to the change in technical opinion, I wish to offer a suggestion from the point of view of administration. The Malta (Letters Patent) Bill has received His Majesty's. Assent. There can be now no question as to the validity of Ordinances that may have been passed, whether fully justified as dealing with reserved matters or otherwise, and the time has come for an Ordinance to be enacted appropriating the unearned increment for say, half a mile around the South-East bay of Malta. Such an Ordinance should make that unearned increment subject to an option, so that the Government could acquire it at any time in the next few years at a certain number of years' purchase, and prevent the enormous increase of value immediately these works are begun going into the pockets of private landlords. I am speaking against my own class, but that unearned increment, created by English money and by the enterprise of the Defence Departments, should remain for the benefit of the Empire and of Malta, where enormous sums will have been spent in giving work. An Ordinance of that description would greatly facilitate future calculations, future estimates and future operations, and need create no real grievance. It is only a question of deciding on the number of years' purchase—thirty-three or thirty-five would be very near the limit—and saving the trouble of litigation.

I will say no more on this occasion in view of the lateness of the hour, but the question is a great deal too important not to be taken most seriously by His Majesty's Government. I hope it will receive the support, and the growing support, of members of the House, and that the first step will be the diplomatic setting aside of all restrictions which prevent this country from using every means and every weapon in self-defence in conjunction with the democratic countries, who will only act in self-defence. Otherwise we are finished, and finished quickly, in the next war. I beg to move.


My Lords, this is a very late hour to have started a great defence debate.


I hope the noble Lord will propose the adjournment.


But on this occasion I hope His Majesty's Government will give the noble Lord no consolation or encouragement whatsoever, as far as regards the main part of his Motion. I am not going to discuss the strategical position at Malta at all. With regard to the noble Lord's proposal to denounce the Convention for the prohibition of poison gas warfare I want to speak on behalf of the Labour Party in this House and to say that we are utterly opposed to that proposal. Indeed, we feel that the Government have been most lax and most indolent in not taking more vigorous steps against the Italian Government for their disgraceful breaking of their signed treaties in Abyssinia. We do not at all despair of the possibility of bringing about a great measure of disarmament by agreement when the present mad fever has subsided. There is an absurd competition in armaments going on at present, but it cannot continue indefinitely because it will break the taxpayers' backs, and if we can get through this period without the danger of war materialising then there may be a great revulsion, and we can bring about a great measure of disarmament by agreement. Indeed, if we had not had the economic crisis between 1929 and 1931, which provided the opportunity to destroy the late Labour Government, and if the late Mr. Arthur Henderson had been allowed to continue his work, I believe we might have got a great measure of agreement with regard to disarmament, and had it carried out. We believe also that bound up with disarmament there must be a complete abolition of military aircraft—perfectly practicable—and a system of international inspection.

Many of the rules of war are of very ancient origin, and they have been wonderfully well kept. At sea we had certain recognised rules of warfare which, up to the outbreak of the last War, were maintained by the seamen of all nationalities. The Germans broke them by sinking vessels without the proper chivalrous conduct that had always been recognised, and what was the result? The United States came into the War and the Germans were completely defeated, whereas they might otherwise have managed to pull through with a stalemate. If the Germans had not broken their word and invaded Belgium I do not believe that this country would have been brought into the war, at least in more than a half hearted way. But we need not despair, because of the German misconduct in the late War and Italian misconduct on land in Abyssinia, of the rules of war being maintained and recognised, and I hope His Majesty's Government will make it perfectly clear in their reply that they do not countenance the breach by the Italians of the Convention with regard to poison gas and other breaches of the rules of warfare, and that they are firmly determined to maintain, and strengthen if possible, the rules of war. And I hope also that they will strongly support the abolition of war altogether, because if war breaks out you cannot make it gentlemanly. At the same time, there are certain barbarities you can deal with, and I hope that His Majesty's Government will show no weakness in that direction.


My Lords, I do not intend to enter into a somewhat academic discussion with the noble Lord opposite as to what might have happened if the economic crisis of 1931 had not taken place and the Labour Government had remained in office. Personally I shudder to contemplate what might have been the result in such a contingency. I want to confine myself to the issues which the noble Lord, Lord Strickland, has raised in his Question on the Paper and also in the discussion this afternoon. There is one point in regard to which I can certainly reassure the noble Lord opposite. The noble Lord, Lord Strickland, has suggested that the Government should cancel all its undertakings, restricting in the case of war the use of poison gas and other weapons of that description, which His Majesty's Government have entered into in various ways. I can tell him quite categorically that the Government are not prepared to adopt a policy of that kind. This country was a signatory of the Gas Protocol of 1925 which definitely prohibits the use of poison gas or other gases, and I wish to tell him quite categorically that His Majesty's Government have no intention of in any way trying to shelve the undertakings and the obligations which rest upon them in connection with that Protocol.

The use of poison gas by Italy during the war in Abyssinia was generally deplored, and deplored no less by His Majesty's Government than by any other Government or any other section of people throughout the world. We have expressed our views in regard to that matter times without number, and I do not think any further statement on my part is necessary; but I do want to say that if His Majesty's Government were to make any kind of suggestion that gas warfare should in future be legalised, I feel quite certain there would be widespread indignation on the part of the great majority of the people in this country and, indeed throughout the world. The Government intend strongly to support the maintenance of this Convention. That is our attitude. We want to do everything we can to support the Convention, not only because of the undertakings we have entered into, but because we believe the implementing of that Convention is in the fundamental interest of humanity. I want to add, as a corollary to that, that if any country were to break the provisions of that Convention, they would quite obviously cease to be entitled to rely on its benefits. I mean that if they broke the provisions of that Convention it is quite clear they would have to take the consequences.

But all this does not mean that the armed forces are not receiving instruction in defence against gas warfare. On the contrary they are most certainly doing so. I want to point out that the British ratification of the Gas Protocol, which took place in 1930, expressed a reservation to this effect, that the Protocol was only binding upon them so long as an enemy respected the prohibitions contained in it, and that reservation was made by the French Government as well, and by the Governments of many other countries. I would point out that the use of gas in Abyssinia during the last few months does not necessarily mean that the ban on the use of gas is likely to be disregarded in a war between western European nations. After all, in a case of that kind all parties to such a conflict would have at their disposal means of retaliation, and in my view this possibility of retaliation is the most cogent safeguard that we have for the observance of the terms of the Protocol.

Passing on to another portion of the noble Lord's Motion—that is, the efficient equipment of Malta with a view to its own defence and to what he terms "counter-attack," I can only draw his attention to the answer which was given in another place by the First Lord of the Admiralty not long ago. That answer was to the effect that we have no intention whatever of evacuating Malta, and we shall certainly take every practical means to make its defence secure against any possible attack. That seems to me to be a very unequivocal statement.


Unequivocal, but insufficient for defence.


At any rate, I do not think I can do better than reiterate that statement on this occasion. Furthermore, I can say that the policy adumbrated so clearly in that statement is being implemented by His Majesty's Government. So far as the air defences are concerned, the noble Lord has alluded to the fact that we are building a second aerodrome, which is estimated to cost some £28,000. The work upon it was started last autumn, and it is expected that the aerodrome will be completed some time this year. As the noble Lord has said, the existence of this additional aerodrome will undoubtedly very greatly facilitate the reinforcement of the garrison in Malta at short notice. In addition to that, work is progressing in the direction of a general reconditioning of the military defences in the Island, first of all, with the object of providing adequate modern equipment for training, and secondly, in order to replace other equipment which is gradually becoming obsolescent. I want to point out further that this is being done in the normal course of the policy of bringing our overseas garrisons up to the necessary standard. Further than that, the Royal Artillery and Royal Engineer garrisons are in the course of being increased. They are naturally those who actually man the defences of the Island, and if your Lordships have studied the Estimates for this year you will have seen an item of about £14,000 which is to be spent in the course of the year on accommodation for the increase in the garrison and for storage accommodation.

I was a little bit puzzled when I read the Motion on the Paper as to what exactly the noble Lord meant by "irresistible counter-attack" in self-defence; but it has become clear during the course of the discussion that what he alluded to was a matter that he has mentioned on a number of occasions before in your Lordships' House—namely, the provision of a large force of flying boats in Malta in conjunction with underground hangars. I can only say that this is a problem which has been investigated with the very greatest care by those who are competent to do so. I can assure the noble Lord that it is not a matter which has not been given sufficient attention. The matter has been investigated, but I can only tell him this afternoon that the Secretary of State for Air has not departed from the view which I expressed on his behalf I think almost exactly a year ago in this House, and that is to the effect that his technical advisers—and there are no more competent technical advisers in the country available—could not for a single moment agree with the noble Lord that the advantage would lie with flying boats as compared with land-based aircraft for the defence of the Island against air attack.

I do not intend to enter into an argument with the noble Lord over technical details. I do not think that we are either of us competent to do so, but I want to assure him once again that this is a matter which has received the very closest attention of the appropriate authorities, and they have definitely come to the conclusion that the best means of defence against air attack in Malta lies with land-based aircraft rather than with flying boats.


My Lords, the noble Earl who has just sat down made reference to proposals to enclose the bay in the South-East of Malta where aircraft could take off in any weather if breakwaters are provided. The noble Earl in reference to that proposition said that he was repeating the reply that was given last year—repeating what has been said by the noble Viscount, Lord Swinton, in his maiden speech in this House. But since then the whole strategic atmosphere has changed. Then the policy was to evacuate and abandon Malta because it was considered indefensible. Now the policy is to defend Malta at all costs because the First Lord of the Admiralty, as quoted by the noble Earl, has announced in another place that it cannot be abandoned, and that Malta will be retained at any cost. The fundamental principle of strategy having changed I should have thought that the reply of the noble Earl would also have been accordingly changed—


I do not accept what the noble Lord says.


I ask your Lordships' House to accept it, and I hope public opinion will accept it soon. As to the value of technical advice, may I say that technical advice given to-day and to-morrow must in the changed circumstances be different from the technical advice given a year ago. For one thing the reliance on flying boats has changed, and the speed of all aircraft has rapidly increased. The hypothesis for the report of experts is different. On the point that His Majesty's Government will also be inflexible in adhering to conventions for the non-use of poison gas, that is to be considered with new facts exactly on the same basis; inasmuch as more lethal weapons are daily developed. For instance, high explosives have become more destructive than gas, and other liquids have been invented and more poisonous gas in particular. On that point the noble Earl has given in reply a most valuable admission of which the publicity is worth a good deal more to this country and to the safety of this Empire than any propaganda. It is well worth the three quarters of an hour of this debate. The noble Earl has admitted possible exceptions and has informed your Lordships' House and enlightened our people on the fact—which, after all, is a psychological truism—that if in war nations break these anti-gas conventions then the conventions may be broken against them in self-defence: the aggressor will no longer be immune. Who, in studying the question in the light of human nature, is not perfectly certain that there are nations that may be aggressors and break these conventions? They must, if their mentality makes them aggressors, leave no stone unturned to win.

Their psychology is different from ours, and that is my main point. We are a religious nation, perhaps the most religious nation in the world. We keep our promises. Our trade and wealth are built up upon our keeping our pacts. We are trained to act as if our promises are bonds. Others are not or may not be in future. That is where the rub comes in, and that is where propaganda is necessary as to limitation of promises. The noble Earl says that if other people use poison gas we may perhaps do the same. Let us prepare for its use under such possibilities. Let us have thousands of containers of poisonous liquids in Malta. Let us have a factory for making poison gas under ground in Malta. Let it be known that we will use it if we know that poison gas is to be used against us. Let it be known that it is there as a deterrent against aggression, and that, if there is any breach of the present Convention, there may and can and will be effective counter action.


Order, order!


The noble Lord is really not, under the Rules of the House, allowed to make another long speech in withdrawing the Motion. It is not customary in your Lordships' House to do so, although he has done it on more than one occasion. It is contrary to the procedure of this House.


My Lords, I will certainly conform by very quickly bringing the reply to an end, although I have heard to-day (from the noble Earl, Lord De La Warr) that there are no laws of order in this House. Our customs are elastic, and I submit that this is an occasion that justifies a certain amount of latitude. Perhaps in reply I may be allowed to add one reference to what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, in regard to restraints at sea; he doubtless alluded to the Declaration of Paris. With reference to that Declaration the great Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, recorded a pronouncement that adhesion to that Declaration was a great mistake. I hope that authority will be referred to as a parallel and that it will be decided that adhesion to the Convention referred to in this Motion will be modified, as being equally mistaken. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.