HL Deb 19 March 1936 vol 100 cc154-66

My Lords, I rise in this debate to make a very few remarks, and I will only speak about what we really have to consider in this debate—namely, the White Paper. One has to remember that this is likely to be the only opportunity we shall have of discussing the question in this House. If, as I think is likely, the Government proposals are approved in this House they will go through without any further discussion of the subject here. Therefore I desire to raise one or two matters that I consider to be of some importance. I say at once that I am entirely in favour of the White Paper as a whole, but there are certain matters in it that I desire to criticise, and there are one or two points I want to raise that have not been mentioned. The first thing that strikes me about the White Paper and about the speech of the noble Viscount, the Secretary of State, is that for the first time the Government have realised that the really important matter in the air—and I am only dealing with matters in the air—is not so much to have a number of machines in the air as to organise factories where when the time of necessity comes aeroplanes may be made by mass production. The air is very young, and for that reason the type of aeroplane changes from time to time. An aeroplane which is the best to-day may be obsolescent or even obsolete in six months' time. It would therefore certainly not be a good policy to pile up an enormous number of aeroplanes and to have no organisation to make the latest types as and when they were wanted.

As far as that policy is concerned, I am whole-heartedly with it, but that policy is a difficult one to carry out, and I am bound to say that there are matters which do not seem to me at the present time to be likely to lead to the best results. In the first place the noble Viscount, the Minister for Air, was rather suggesting that new factories should be built additional to existing factories for the making of armaments, and that when the armaments were made these factories, as I think he rather picturesquely put it, should be locked up and the Government should take the key. It is quite true that he did suggest that when they were shut up they should have a certain amount of maintenance service; of course, if they did not, the whole of the machinery in those factories would be on the scrap-heap in no time. You must keep machinery going, turning over from time to time and looked after properly. But that seemed to me to be not going nearly far enough, and for this reason. When you are dealing with modern mass production and with the change of types of aeroplane or engine, the change of type very often means large changes in the machinery necessary to make it. New machinery put down from time to time becomes, as I said, obsolescent and obsolete. There is an old American saying, which is a very good one: "The richest man is the man with the biggest scrap-heap." It is perfectly true; you have to have a big scrap-heap if you are going to have efficiency.

That is the first difficulty which I find in this question of supply. The second one is even more difficult, and that is the question of the labour. Who are going to make these aeroplanes and these engines? Unfortunately, a rather mistaken idea is prevalent. In the old days, up to fairly recently, one of the very important people in the making and maintenance of aircraft was the rigger. The basic trade of the rigger was that of a joiner. But now we are more and more giving up stick and cloth and coming down to all-metal, in which case the basic trade becomes—as it does, of course, in the manufacture of engines—that of an engineer. Now, where are you going to get these engineers? "Oh," say a lot of people, including my noble friends opposite, "there are plenty of engineers unemployed at the present moment who can be employed." My Lords, that is not so. "Engineer" is a very wide term. When it comes to the manufacture of aircraft, it is a very specialised term, and a person who may come under the general denomination of an engineer is by no means necessarily a person who is competent to carry out the duties of an engineer in the manufacture of aircraft. It would take him some considerable time, perhaps even two years, before he was really competent on that particular work.

Furthermore, if you suddenly bring people in who have not been working together, they will not get to work together, and they will not know the particular job they are on. It will take them time to do that. May I make just one suggestion? Austins' works were mentioned. Let me mention another manufacturer of motor-cars; Rolls-Royce. Take the fifty best engineers from Austins and the fifty best engineers from Rolls-Royce; turn the fifty from Austins into the Rolls-Royce works and the fifty from Rolls-Royce into the Austin works; does anyone think for a moment that they would start off efficiently? They would not know the organisation and would not know the job. However good they were, they would take a long time to become happy in their work.

Having given that as a criticism, may I also venture to suggest a possible way out? If one looks at what has been done in other countries, one sees that they have most carefully considered which factories, which are making work for peace conditions, are most allied to each particular piece of armament which would be required in an emergency. They give out the whole time a small percentage of armament to these workers, so that they may perhaps have 5 per cent. of the total work they are doing on the armament work that they will have to do in an emergency. That lets the people know to what they have to look forward. It allows them to see what they will have to do, and it allows the heads of departments to look ahead and see how they would have to reorganise to do it. At the same time, they are using 95 per cent. of their labour and of their organisation for perfectly proper peace work in the ordinary course of business. It seems to me that there is a possibility of considering that method, which has been adopted in other countries, in order to get this idea—namely, that of organising factories and supplies for the manufacture of armaments when the emergency arises—to work better. It is a first-class idea but, as I say, an idea which in its present state I do not feel will work efficiently.

That is the first point I want to make to your Lordships. The second point is that there is no mention that I can see in the White Paper, nor was there in the speech of the noble Viscount, of any sort of defence against air attacks on large towns. I am not going to say over again what I have said so often, that there is an enormous danger of attack on the civilian population of great towns. When I first spoke to your Lordships about it and pointed out the terrible danger there was of a very large attack of poison gas, I was called a crank. I notice now that practically everybody is talking the same thing as I did then. Well, I do not mind. Being a pioneer has its consolations. There is no recrimination in feeling against the clever folk that follow. By my own, old marks and bearings— They will show me how to get there; By the lonely cairns I builded— They will guide my feet aright. But we have to realise this. The noble Lord opposite is quite right: there is no defence against a bombing attack, more especially on a town. He drew a picture of what would happen if hostile aircraft were attacking at 23,000 feet. That is not at all the attack which is suggested by a lot of the nations on the Continent. The attack that they have in mind is even a worse one to contend with, and I do not know of anybody who has suggested any sort of defence against it. They would not be attacking—at least if some of their people continue their present practices—at 23,000 feet, but at twenty feet over the housetops. What are you going to do then? You cannot dive at them, and all that your scouts can do is to remain above them and be shot down like sitting pigeons.


The low-flying aeroplane does not worry me. The balloon apron can stop them. It is the very high ones that I am worrying about.


You cannot have balloon aprons all over London. They have tried it, and ascertained that in France. There they are doing these attacks regularly. I do not, however, want to go into technicalities. I entirely agree with the noble Lord that there is no defence, whichever way you do it. It is a lamentable thing to have to confess, but the only defence against bombing is by reprisals; that is, by the threat of reprisals. You are back to the old truth again that there is only one way to deal with it, and that is: Be strong, show your strength, and then you will not have to use it.

Therefore we have got to be strong, and that brings me to my third point in the way of criticism of this Paper, and it is this. To a certain extent the Government have considered that we are below strength, and they have considered that other countries are stronger than we are. They have therefore got out a programme which will make us stronger three years hence. They also see that other countries are growing stronger too; but they fail to see that not only is the strength of other countries growing, but the rate of that growth is increasing. They are growing stronger much more rapidly every year. It is the old story of the snowball. You have got a nice little snowball on the ground and the other fellow has a much bigger one. You look at his bigger snowball and you think: If I start rolling my snowball it will soon get as big as his. But you forget that if he starts rolling his big snowball at the same time it increases in size much more quickly than does yours. The result of this programme of the Government is that at the end of the three years we shall find ourselves with more strength, but yet in relation to other nations we shall be even weaker than we are to-day. That is why I criticise this scheme, not that it goes as far as it does but that it does not go a very great deal further.

Of course I know that the noble Viscount, the Minister for Air, is in a very awkward position, because in all these cases one is faced by the fact that these things cost money and there is only a certain amount to go round. Therefore it may be that he is not in a position at the present time, and the Government of which he is a member are not in a position, to find sufficient money to make anything like an adequate programme. What I do rather emphasise, and what I hope may be realised, is that it does leave one with a rather definite feeling of fear that this programme, as put forward in the White Paper and by the noble Viscount, is a definite programme for three years. If it were only put forward as a programme which we can start on but hope to increase, year by year, up to three years and for ten years after, more and more, then I should feel very much happier. I venture to make these criticisms because, although they may seem in themselves small points, to my mind they are big ones, and we shall not have another opportunity of discussing the matter in this House before the White Paper is finally adopted. For these reasons I cannot say I am wholly in support of the White Paper, but I am so much in support of it, and so wholly against the Amendment moved by the noble Lord opposite, that I shall certainly vote for the Government's Motion.


My Lords, I will only detain you for a few moments, and before I touch on the subject of defence, I would like to say one word about the loss which this House and the country has suffered through the death of the noble and gallant Earl, Lord Beatty. It was my privilege to serve under him for some years on the first Chiefs of Staff Committee, and I can only say that I realise what a great man has passed. Now I would refer in a sentence to the Amendment which has been moved by Lord Ponsonby. If I understood the noble Lord's argument correctly, he seemed to be arguing that adequately prepared defence was no security against war. It may not be, but surely the British Empire should not be at the mercy of a dictated peace—dictated at the hands of a victor who was armed? I feel that if we were in such a position that we adopted Lord Ponsonby's principle of no arms, the peace dictated to us would be such that, beside it, the Treaty of Versailles would look most magnanimous. When I turn to Lord Swinton's speech in introducing this Motion, I should like to say that I feel that the appointment of this Minister for the Coordination of Defence is, as Lord Salisbury has said, a very great step and a very great appointment. I feel definitely, from what I have heard, that all the Services welcome it, and are looking forward to the solution of many problems. I do not think that in any way the appointment can be minimised.

I was glad to note also in the noble Viscount's speech his reference to the problem of the reserves, and particularly to the short-service commissioned officers. I would like to say on that question that I feel that this is one of the most important innovations in either of the Services. I was very glad to see it had been adopted by both the Army and the Navy for the medical services. I am certain that as the Services get bigger, and if they do not go up or down enormously, something on those lines will have to be adopted. You will get a reserve, and instead of throwing out officers at 40, with no hope of getting employment that they are really keen on, they will be able to get their appointments after five or six years. The more the Fighting Services develop the more officers you want in the junior ranks, and the fewer, owing to communications and other things, you want at the top. I believe it is the solution of the question of reserves and other matters, and I hope the Government will not forget it in these days of the expansion of all the Services.

I was glad to see the creation of the Auxiliary Air Force. I remember too well the opposition there was to starting that. I would like to suggest to the noble Viscount that he should seriously consider whether he cannot see his way to having one of these Auxiliary Air Force squadrons at every town of over 20,000 inhabitants in England. I am perfectly certain they would pull their weight. May I also suggest that the University squadrons should be doubled? I know that there have been a large number of undergraduates applying to get into them, and cannot. This would be welcomed in one or two places by the undergraduates. I believe that 300 or 400 applied at one place, and only 25 could be taken. I would also ask one other question that was put in another place by Lord Clydesdale, referring to a matter about which I have always been very keen, and that is whether it is not possible now, even in this emergency, to establish an O.T.C. for the Air Service. It would carry great weight, and would help enormously in recruitment. The value of the O.T.C. to the Army is well known. Is it not possible to establish something of the kind for the Air Force at a few of the public schools? I would ask the noble Viscount who will reply for the Government, if this is not too detailed a point, to remember that.

The noble and gallant Field Marshal, Lord Cavan, referred to science making one part of the ether safe so that aircraft could not get through it. Well, I know from my own experience at the Air Ministry and at the Committee of Imperial Defence that science is always investigating and being urged to examine into the question of defence. I will not go into the question here, as I feel that the noble Lord on the Labour Benches might say that the subject of offence and defence has been debated in your Lordships' House for over a hundred years. The scientists, I feel, are not watching the question of offence. I have no source of information, but I have heard rumours of scientific inventions for the purpose of offence, which sometimes I feel that we are neglecting, as we are always thinking that we cannot protect ourselves. The noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, referred to recruiting for the Army and to the great Napoleonic Armies and how successful they were. I would remind him, though, that the British Armies beat them.

A question by the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd, referred to the importance of destroyers for the Navy. I am much in agreement with his remark when he said that he looked upon it as the most vital naval question there was. Remembering the last War and the submarine menace I do hope that that is being pressed on. I am loath to refer to another subject, but the noble Earl, Lord Howe, said he was not going to bring up old controversies, and then promptly did. It was also referred to in another place on Monday last by two or three speakers, particularly by the Civil Lord of the Admiralty. I refer to the question of the Fleet Air Arm. I would ask the noble and learned Viscount who will reply for the Government, so as to try to stop this controversy when there are so many other important things to deal with, to deal with the question asked in another place on February 19. The Under-Secretary of State for Air was then asked whether any alteration in the degree of control by the Royal Air Force of the Fleet Air Arm or the coastal area is contemplated, and whether he could make any statement on the matter, and the answer given was in the negative. Can I have an assurance that that reply was given with the Prime Minister's authority?


I can give that assurance at once. That answer was given by the Prime Minister's direction.


That relieves me of part of what I was going to say, and I will not carry on the dispute. I would only point out in conclusion that the question of the defence of commerce is a very important one. It has been referred to two or three times. The range of aircraft is continually increasing and shore-based aircraft are always bound for technical reasons to be more efficient than aeroplanes on a carrier. In the narrow seas the shore-based aircraft will be the dominating factor. A carrier is only a bad aerodrome. And when I heard the noble Earl, Lord Howe, talk about the Americans having ninety aeroplanes on one carrier I hoped we should never be so foolish as to copy that. You would put all the eggs in one basket, and one bomb, if it did not sink it, would make it useless. I was also glad to see that Mr. Churchill said that the Americans can surely do something without our copying them, or even thinking of it. Finally, I would like to say that I recognise full well the colossal task that the Air Ministry and the nation in that connection have to do. It has amazed me to learn what has been done in the last two or three, or even four or five months, to speed up the work both in the training of pilots and the making of machines. I think it is most important that as long as peace reigns—and I hope it will reign for many years yet—the training of the pilot must be as thorough as it has been in the past, or the morale will be spoilt. It is all very well in war to cut down your training period in order to keep up your numbers, but you will ruin your morale and the morale is the greatest asset of the Royal Air Force. I do not want to keep your Lordships any longer, but I would like to congratulate the Government on the White Paper.


My Lords, I want to refer to paragraph 44 of the White Paper regarding the passive side of air defence, which, it is there stated, has not been neglected. As a soldier I am naturally very interested in the civilian's point of view. I do hope that every effort will be made to put the situation of the civilians and of the undefended towns and cities into some shape in which they will feel that they have some security and some knowledge of how to deal with danger. After all, this is a matter of defence, and things have so changed that, whereas during the last War there was a certain amount of warning of aerial attack, that warning would in future be very short, possibly a matter of an hour or even less. I feel that cooperation between the Territorial Army and the civilian authorities should be aimed at. Every Territorial unit has its home town. Most of these home towns are producing, or are likely to produce, something of importance, either for our defence or for the civilian population to exist upon, and we should take steps to minimise, as far as we possibly can, the chaos which does result from an air raid. I feel that the Territorial Army should have permission to work in with the civilian authorities in this respect, not as a scare measure, but with the idea of having a sound appreciation of what to do in case of aerial attack.

The arrangements which are being made for bringing the Army and Navy and the Air Force up to date show they are in excellent hands. I observe that there are to be more battalions than we had in 1914, but at the present moment there is not sufficient equipment, on our present standard, to go round our existing troops. I have been in the Yeomanry ever since 1920, and the last time I saw a gas mask was when I left France as a regular soldier. No doubt these things will be put right. The Yeomanry are supposed to be a very smart unit, but if the Yeomanry have not seen a gas mask, none of them can have had any anti-gas training; and the poor civilian is in an even worse plight.

There is one question which has been touched upon by several noble Lords, but not quite in the way in which I wish to bring it before your Lordships, and that is that out of these proposals industry should be benefited. Not only should it be benefited during the few rush years which lie ahead by producing extra quantities of much-needed war material, but, if possible, it should be organised to produce things which are equally necessary for backing up the war material and which can also be used in peace time, but which at the present moment we have to buy from abroad. By doing that you really will be helping industry and helping unemployment. Unemployment is a thing that everyone wants to help as much as possible, and it is somewhat disappointing, as far as one can judge from the White Paper, that unemployment is not going to be immediately lessened. Firms already producing war material such as aeroplanes and shells, or anything else for the use of the Army or Navy or Air Force, will take on extra labour, but that labour unfortunately cannot come from the Special Areas, where few if any of these industries exist. One section of industry that always is hard hit is the mining industry. It would be very useful if, out of the money that is going to be found, we could further the investigation of the production of oil or petrol by hydrogenation of coal or even by building refineries for refining crude oil. I hope, if it is at all possible, that civilian industries will have assistance in that way. Equally so, I should like to see some form of storing the commodities of life which would ensure, in the event of war, that Great Britain would not find herself in a situation similar to that of the last War when we ran so short of food.

Before I sit down, I should like to refer to what the noble Lord opposite said with regard to recruiting. He mentioned the officer class. Actually, I do not believe there is any shortage of recruits for officers. The shortage is in other ranks. I do not agree with the noble Lord that class distinction is a factor in the situation at all. If you take the Regular Army or Territorial Army, you will find that there is no difficulty in keeping up the strength in the matter of officers. In fact, I know some units where there are almost more officers than men. I should like to see, if possible, permanent brigade or regimental camps formed in the Special Areas. That move would not be at all popular, I know. Distressed areas are not very attractive places for soldiers to live or serve in, but such camps need not be very expensive. The wooden huts we had in England during the War were not very expensive buildings, and they were very comfortable. There is also the recruiting aspect. Recruiting sergeants going round the labour exchanges cannot put the picture before the public in the same way as a permanent camp would do.

Even if it was a camp only for annual training, used perhaps a few months in the year, it would enable the civilian to see Army life more clearly, and Army life, in spite of what one would like to do to improve it, is a very good and very luxurious life compared with that which I am sure so many thousands of young men have to live to-day. Not only that but those of them who are married would also be able to demonstrate to their wives the comparative luxury which the married soldier has through his Army benefits. I would like to feel that some of this expenditure was going to be spent on recruiting and in the direction of assisting these young men who, very likely, have never been to a recruiting office. Fifty thousand men were turned down last year because they were unfit. The noble and gallant Ear], Lord Cavan, urged that the standard should not be lowered. I am sure his Lordship is right, but I do not know whether the standard of size might not be lowered. There are a great many who, through malnutrition over a number of years, have poor health and who, I dare say, after a year in the Army, would pass any test. I have seen a great many men who were weak and poor both in mind and body and who, after a very short time in the Army, were literally twice the men they were.


My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Viscount Esher, I beg to move that this debate be now adjourned.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to, and debate adjourned till Tuesday next.