HL Deb 15 June 1939 vol 113 cc518-42

LORD DAVIES rose to ask what steps are being taken to expedite the supply of munitions and armaments necessary for national defence and honouring our commitments to other countries; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move the Resolution that stands in my name. May I say at the outset that I have no intention of asking the noble Lord who speaks for the Government that any information should be given to your Lordships' House which he considers to be not in the public interest? On the other hand, I am sure that in these critical times your Lordships will welcome an assurance that everything possible is being done to expedite the production of munitions and to put this country in a proper state of defence. Your Lordships will remember that a few days ago the noble Lord, Lord Mottistone, told us that the people of this country would be willing, should the necessity arise, to face any emergency and to repel any attack, however sudden and devastating, which may be launched against them. I believe this is profoundly true, because when the crisis came last September the vast majority of men and women throughout the country displayed great coolness and courage. If people are again confronted by a similar emergency I venture to think they would display the same resolution and fortitude. Therefore, if I may be allowed to do so, I should like to appeal to the Government to take the nation into their confidence—within the limits, of course, enforced by prudence and the public interest—in the firm belief that whatever service or sacrifice may be demanded there would be an immediate and overwhelming response.

There are certain particular facts which I think must give us all grounds for some anxiety as to whether the most strenuous and determined efforts have been undertaken to make good the defects in our defensive system, and especially to expedite the production of armaments not only for the equipment of our own forces, but also, should the necessity unfortunately arise, for the purpose of assisting our friends and allies as we were compelled to do in the last War. Everyone I think realises that during the past five or six years some European States have been feverishly rearming themselves at an unprecedented rate. I have looked up the figures and I find that the estimated amount which has been spent by Germany during the five year period 1933–38 was no less than £2,800,000,000. The corresponding figure for this country and France put together was £1,340,000,000—about half the amount spent by Germany. I cannot help feeling that these figures show that there is a big leeway to be made up, and in considering the adverse balance we cannot forget that since last March the Axis Powers have acquired the armament works in Czecho-Slovakia which have always been regarded as the main source of supply for the States of South Eastern Europe.

Secondly, we are told that there is no unemployment in the Axis countries. Every available man, and I believe a great many women, are working long hours on fortifications, in munition factories and on other work of a military character. Moreover, there are, I believe, thousands of men who have been imported from further afield to assist in these military undertakings. Thousands of Czechs, for example, have been sent from their homes to work in Germany. Let us contrast this state of affairs with the conditions in this country. Here we have still, unfortunately, nearly 1,500,000 unemployed on the registers. It is true that there has been a decrease in recent weeks, but on January 16 the figure stood at 2,300,000. I imagine your Lordships will ask why is it that with so much leeway to make up the services of these unemployed people are not being utilised to provide alternative means of transport, better roads, to make provision for the storage of food and other things, and in other ways to expedite and to strengthen our national defences. I must confess that, having regard to the magnitude of the task with which the Government have been confronted during the past few years, I cannot understand why it is that the services of the unemployed have not been utilised, and why they have not been provided with work, which of course they would be only too willing and too anxious to do, in building up the defences of their country.

Thirdly, I sometimes wonder whether we realise the extreme gravity of the present situation. If we have realised it, why is it that we have allowed so many months to pass before creating a Ministry of Supply? Those of us who recollect what happened during the last War must realise how essential the establishment of such a Ministry is in order to avoid overlapping and in order to utilise our industrial resources to the best advantage. I cannot understand why the powers entrusted to the new Ministry have not covered the whole field of supply to all the Fighting and all the passive Defence Services—why the new Department has not been modelled on the old Ministry of Munitions which rendered such notable service to the country during the last War.

The apprehensions which I believe exist in the minds of some people—perhaps a great many people—are not allayed when we consider the armament policy which has been pursued by successive Governments in this country since the War. Roughly I think this may be divided into three periods. First of all there is the period which may be described as the unilateral period when we disarmed ourselves to what I think the Chancellor of the Exchequer once described as "the edge of risk." During those years unfortunately our Air Force, which at the end of the War was, I believe, the strongest and most efficient in the world, descended from the first to the fifth place in the list. The second period began in December, 1935, when the tension with Italy over Abyssinia reached an acute stage and apparently the Government at that time discovered that there were serious deficiencies in the equipment of the Fighting Services. I believe the noble Lord, Lord Chatfield, at that time occupied the responsible position of First Sea Lord. Perhaps he will be able to tell your Lordships what the position really was at that time and what steps were taken afterwards to make good those deficiencies.

The second period, I suggest, covers 1936 and 1937 and down to the crisis last September. It lasted for about three years when the rearmament programme which was announced during that period was supposed to be in lull swing. Your Lordships will remember that during the War it took us approximately two years—from August, 1914, to July, 1916, when the offensive opened on the Somme—to get the country into its stride so far as military preparation—especially the output of munitions—was concerned. Therefore one would have imagined that, even with all the handicaps which fifteen years of unilateral disarmament had imposed upon us, a resolute and determined Government could have placed our defences in an impregnable position during those three years from 1935 to 1938. But unfortunately, when the end of the second period came last September, more gaps and deficiencies were disclosed. In another place the former Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence said: Nobody … can be unaware of the fact that there have been gaps, serious gaps, and defects which must be remedied in our preparations. Of course the usual recriminations followed, new promises of speedy improvement were given, and we were told that the rearmament programme was to be accelerated. I agree that recriminations are useless at this stage and that it is no use crying over spilt milk. But what I think your Lordships want to know is how far these promises have been fulfilled and, in view of recent events and commitments, what steps the Government now propose to take in order to increase and accelerate the delivery of munitions, to build up a supply of reserve material, and generally to put ourselves in a state of preparedness.

In passing, may I say one word about the office of the Minister for the Co-Ordination of Defence? I assume that the function of the noble Lord, Lord Chatfield, is to co-ordinate the activities of those Departments which direct the Fighting Services. "Co-ordination," of course, is a blessed word, and sometimes, I fear, it is more honoured in the breach than in the observance; but may I ask the noble Lord if he can tell us how far he is able to co-ordinate the measures, not only for active but also for passive defence, undertaken by the A.R.P., the Home Office and other Departments in order as far as possible to avoid overlapping and confusion? I do not know, but I imagine that it is impossible to draw a hard-and-fast line between measures of active defence on the one hand and what is described as passive defence on the other, and that there are many points where the one impinges upon the other. The noble Lord will, I am sure, be able to reassure us that everything possible is being done to secure the closest co-operation, especially in the matter of supply, between the various Departments, and between these Departments and the local authorities, who are also involved in these arrangements.

It is not necessary for me to direct your Lordships' attention to the vast changes which have taken place during the last twenty years in what may be called the technique of war. We all know that a declaration of war has now become an anachronism, and that the initial blow may be delivered without the slightest warning and may come as a bolt from the blue. To-day, of course, there is no lag period, as in former times, between mobilisation and the actual outbreak of hostilities. This means, of course, that owing to the development of the air, the element of surprise has been exploited in a way which was hitherto deemed impossible. I do not propose to labour this point, because your Lordships are all familiar with it, but what I want to try to emphasize is that under these conditions, when it is or may be a question of minutes or hours, it is insufficient merely to have plans on paper for what we propose to do when war actually comes. Many, I suggest, if not all of these plans should be put into operation before and not after the event; otherwise, obviously, they will fail in the purpose for which they were intended.

The essential thing, and I am sure the noble Lord opposite will agree with this, is that what are described as nerve-centres or vital points, which include munition works, transport services, water supplies and industrial and power plant—all those concerns which are essential to the war economy of the country—should be protected now in some order of priority as the defensive equipment becomes available. I have no doubt that the noble Lord the Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence and his staff are alive to the importance of this aspect of the problem and are doing their best to speed up the delivery of the antiaircraft guns, searchlights and other equipment which are so urgently needed. But even if all this material is not yet available, I should like to ask the noble Lord if there is any reason why these vital points should not be guarded by troops capable of preventing acts of sabotage or raids, either organised by enemy agents in this country or undertaken by armed squads transported by aeroplanes from abroad.

I am sure your Lordships must be impressed by the extraordinary feat we read about a few weeks ago when several thousands of fully-armed men were transported in a few hours from Italy to Tirana, the capital of Albania. What is to prevent an enemy from launching a series of raids by air on vital points—our water supplies, for example—and inflicting enormous damage almost before the war has commenced? I understand that it is feasible for raiding parties to be landed either by parachute or on our lakes and reservoirs by aeroplanes, and the fact, of course, that such raiding parties may be completely lost and wiped out will not deter those who are responsible from sending them if they imagine that irreparable damage can be inflicted in the space of a few hours. Some of these places are no doubt remote and inaccessible, but that, I imagine, is all the more reason why they should be adequately protected. During the last two weeks I have visited some of these places, and I venture to draw the attention of the noble Lord to the risks which may possibly—I do not know—be involved. Of course I do not profess to be in any sense an expert on these matters, but surely, if certain contingencies which we have never had to face before and the consequences of which might be very disastrous are now in the realms of possibility, it is only reasonable to take such precautions as are feasible at this moment, and not to wait until the blow has been struck.

I do not want to enter into any details regarding the inadequacy of our military supplies and equipment, but only this morning I read in The Times the following passage from an account given by their special correspondent at present with the Territorial Army. This is what he said: Many special courses have been arranged for officers and men of the training units. One deals with the Bren gun carrier, but is somewhat hampered because only seven carriers are available for the whole brigade. Bren gun instruction is also much hampered in both training and recruits' units because of a scarcity of these weapons. The brigade has only a quarter of the number of Bren guns necessary for proper instruction. This only confirms, of course, the statement made a few days ago, at Llandudno, by Mr. J. C. Little, President of the Amalgamated Engineering Union, when he said that he had watched the output of munitions in this country for the past two years with some concern, and from reliable sources he had learned that the shortage of Bren guns was such in the Territorial Army that there was only one gun for every ten required. Similar apprehensions regarding other deficiencies have been expressed by Captain Liddell Hart, the military correspondent of The Times, Major General Temperley and Group Captain Payne in the Daily Telegraph, the military correspondent of the Manchester Guardian, and many other experts. Unfortunately I have not time to quote all these extracts to your Lordships. All I wish to do is to appeal to the Government, and especially the noble Lord, Lord Chatfield, to consider most carefully the points which have been raised, and not to dismiss them as merely uninformed criticism.

Now I come to my last point. There is one thing which I believe puzzles and mystifies every man and woman in this country. It is this. Why do the Government allow huge quantities of scrap metal to be exported to the Axis countries which may or may not, at some future date, descend upon us in the form of shells, bombs and other missiles? Last year, exports of scrap iron and steel from the United Kingdom to Germany, I understand, leapt from 4,500 metric tons in July to nearly 17,000 metric tons in August. The figure for September was 21,000, and it reached its peak in December, when 23,000 tons were exported. May I suggest that it would have been far better and wiser if all this scrap material had remained in this country, as a reserve supply in case of emergency, and that it was really the height of folly to have allowed it to go abroad?

The same is true, unfortunately, in greater or less degree, of many other minerals and commodities, such as pig iron, copper, lead, nickel, manganese and chromite, to mention only a few. For instance, the export of pig iron from the United Kingdom to Germany jumped from 305 metric tons in October last to nearly 10,000 in November, and reached its highest point of nearly 12,000 tons in January. France is an even worse offender. In August she exported to Germany 350 metric tons of pig iron, and in September this figure had leapt to 19,000. It reached a peak of 75,000 tons in November, and continued at a high level until March, when it stood at 67,000 tons. I. may say that these figures are taken from a German publication of the highest repute. Surely some arrangement can and ought to be reached with the Governments of the Dominions, France, and possibly the United States, to restrict in some way the export of these commodities, which add to the whole problem of armaments, and which in the event of war would probably be used against us.

There is one other matter, and that is the case of British ships which have recently been sold, I understand, to foreign Powers. The Government, I understand, have promised legislation to prevent these transfers in future. May I respectfully ask the noble Lord opposite how long we shall have to wait before the proposed legislation becomes effective? If the Parliamentary machine is so clogged up with business, surely it is high time to overhaul it, in order that urgent measures of this kind may be passed without delay, for we cannot afford to lose any time. Therefore I would beg leave to urge the Government to expedite and extend its programme, and to take whatever steps are necessary not only to ensure the safety of our country, but also to enable it to play its appropriate part in any collective system or peace front of which it is a member. I beg to move for Papers.

6.8 p.m.


My Lords, my noble friends have asked me to say a few words on this important Motion. I think your Lordships who have stayed to listen to the noble Lord will agree that he has raised very important matters, and for myself I think he has brought up points of some moment. In the very few minutes that I propose to detain your Lordships, I would like to support one or two of his arguments. I have just been over to Belgium. There I made some inquiries. I was glad to see that the Belgians were in very good heart. The country is very well prepared. Her technical people are mobilised, and the ordinary classes of the Army. I am told that all the vital points in Belgium, such as those which have been referred to, are guarded and adequately guarded, and that in case of sudden attack the charges are already placed where structures have to be destroyed. It must be remembered that in Belgium they are only a few miles away from certain of the greatest Army concentrations in Germany. They have therefore to be ready for instant action. I am told also that in Holland there is very much the same state of preparedness, and that all the dykes and bridges of any importance are already mined and guarded. The Dutch are much more confident than they were and say that now they could hold up any attack for a considerable time. I am told the same thing is true of Switzerland also. They are absolutely ready to blow up tunnels and bridges to hold up an advance.

With regard to France, I have also been in that country since I last had the pleasure of seeing noble Lords opposite, and I made some inquiries about the question of metal going to Germany from France. I ventured once before to raise this question of what I call the pig iron scandal. I do not blame the noble and gallant Lord opposite. I know who was responsible. It was the Treasury, who said there was no precedent for buying surplus pig iron. The iron trade begged the Government to buy and store it, but the Treasury would not sanction it, and so it went to Germany. The French say that if they stopped this metal trade it would create unemployment. I should have thought that that was a case for economic co-ordination, if I may use the word, with our French friends. Between us we could make a pool of metals, so as to prevent unemployment in France and at the same time accumulate a lot of this metal that will be required in this country in case of war. There is now a shortage of steel, as the noble and gallant Lord knows, and we are having to import scrap to make into steel. That metal situation does not make sense at all. But I know that the Government are now alive to it, and I only just mention it in passing.

I, like the noble Lord, Lord Davies, realise that one has to tread rather carefully in dealing with these matters, and we certainly do not expect the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Chatfield, to say anything which will give away information that would be of value to a possible opponent. I certainly do not intend to say anything that may have come to my notice that is not common knowledge, or that could not be obtained quite easily in any case. If I might give an opinion, our most vital need at the present time, and the most dangerous point in our whole defences, is our merchant shipping. I am thinking of the undeclared act of war, the bolt from the blue that the noble Lord, Lord Davies, spoke about. We must obviously have our merchant shipping scattered, doing its ordinary work of carrying our trade. It is most difficult to devise a means of defending it against the combination of the utterly unscrupulous act of war without the ordinary formalities, which seems to be the fashion nowadays, on the one hand, and the new weapons of aircraft and the long distance cruising submarines, and so on, on the other. It is quite obvious that the problem is complex and difficult, and I have been assured that the Government have that in hand, but I cannot lose this opportunity of again drawing attention to it.

The noble Lord, Lord Davies, spoke of the way we disarmed, or allowed our armaments to fall away, in certain years before the crisis with Italy in 1935. It is the fashion to hold the Labour Party responsible for that—I have never quite understood why. We held office for a very short time during the period that has elapsed since the end of the last War, and why we should be blamed I do not know. I know that the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Chatfield, himself does not speak, and never has spoken, in your Lordships' House as a Party politician, but in case he attempts to make that old score, I would like him to compare our strategical position to-day with what it was in 1931, when the Labour Party was jockeyed out of office. Compare our relative military and naval position and our strategical position generally with what it was then. The noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack, I am sure, would like to make that comparison. He was not responsible for any sort of Government at that time, and therefore he can look at the matter with a completely judicial mind.

I think the noble Lord, Lord Davies, rather underestimates the tremendous output of munitions which is now taking place. It is terrific, especially with regard to naval armaments, and I congratulate the Government on their long-term naval programme, which is formidable, and also on their aircraft production. The aircraft, we know, are now coming along at a tremendous rate. There is this point to be remembered also, that the fact that our programme has been somewhat delayed, perhaps dangerously delayed, has at least this advantage, that our equipment which is coming along now is much more modern than that of our possible opponents. They are cluttered up with a lot of obsolescent material, on which the immense sums mentioned by Lord Davies were spent in the years that are past. That is an advantage that cannot be overlooked. But I must say that I think the noble Lord, Lord Davies, is justified in drawing attention to the lack of Army equipment. That really is scandalous. I know it is coming along, but it is common knowledge—you cannot keep it from 200,000 men whom you have called up under the Military Training Act, and from all your Territorials now going to camp—that there is a woeful lack of equipment for the infantry. That seems to me the weakest point there.

I do not want to anticipate the discussion on the Ministry of Supply Bill which after many many months will reach your Lordships' House, but I must say I think the noble Lord, Lord Davies, was justified in his complaint about military equipment. Nor do I wish to anticipate the discussion on the Civil Defence Bill, which, after many, many months of discussion and delay, has eventually reached your Lordships' House; but I must say that I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Davies, that the anti-air-raid precautions are not proceeding fast enough. I believe we are ahead of other countries. I have reason to suppose that we are well ahead in civil defence of certain other very important countries on the Continent, but there are tremendous gaps still in the equipment needed for civil defence and in the organisation of civil defence. I know the answer will be that so much of this depends on the people themselves, on the local authorities, and so on. But there is more needed than that. There is a lack of drive at the centre in the preparations for civil defence in this country, and there is tremendous congestion in the hastily formed organisations that are trying to deal with it. Correspondence is held up, decisions are held up, and the complaints among the unfortunate people in business who are trying to deal with these matters are bitter and sustained. If I had the ear of the Prime Minister at any time, and it was my business to do so, I would beg him to look into that matter.

So much for the question of equipment. I think there is another weakness, and perhaps the greatest weakness of all; it is perhaps inevitable, but it can be dealt with. Our weakness in the general scheme of defence—I am talking now of grand strategy—is lack of co-ordination with our potential allies in the countries we guarantee. In this matter I exempt the case of France. We all know that there have been, and still are, very important Staff talks going on with the French, and there presumably will be Staff talks—or perhaps they have already taken place—with Poland, Greece, Turkey and Rumania, all countries who are guaranteed in one form or another, and there must surely be some co-ordination in case of a war in which they and ourselves are involved. There the two Axis Powers, Germany and Italy, have an advantage. They have been working closely together, for example in Spain, for the last two and a half years. They are used to working together and co-ordinating their efforts, and it is common knowledge now that the Germans are very well represented in all the Italian Defence Ministries—to the great annoyance of the more patriotic Italians, who feel that the Germans have far too much influence in their country. But, be that as it may, there is a very close welding together of all the forces of Germany and Italy for any kind of war in which they may become engaged. That is common knowledge. It is announced and boasted about, especially by the German leaders. The Italians do not talk so much about it now. Some of them say Mussolini was a very fine Dictator, and they much prefer him to their present leader.

But on the Staff side undoubtedly there has been great progress made in Italy and Germany, and the Minister for the Co-Ordination of Defence would never stand at that box and pretend that we had made anything like the same progress with the people with whom we may have to co-operate in the event of a great war breaking out. He could not say that because everyone knows it is not the case. That matter ought to be taken in hand now. And of course that also applies to Russia—very much to Russia. I am going to suggest to your Lordships it might have been better, looking backwards, if the Staff talks with Russia, which must take place in any case if we proceed with the proposed mutual guarantee, had preceded the political negotiations. I made that suggestion in your Lordships' House some time ago, and the noble Lord, Lord Chatfield, told us these Staff conversations had not taken place. If these Staff consultations with Russia had taken place before the political negotiations, we should have seen what difficulties stood in the way of the political negotiations. I throw that out now as a suggestion.

In that connection, may I make another suggestion which I made publicly before? It is this. We should use our Navy rather more as ambassadors. For example, I should very much like to see a squadron of some of our most modern ships in the Baltic during the coming summer months, visiting not only Russian ports but the Baltic ports generally. I would send them to German ports as well. Perhaps that has been arranged. Why not? Our naval officers and bluejackets are very good diplomats. They get on very well in these foreign ports, and they do a great deal of good. If you arranged a naval visit to the Russian ports the officers of the two Fleets would get to know one another, and would have an opportunity of making arrangements to work together in any necessity.

Finally, if I am not detaining your Lordships too long, I would again stress the importance of the noble Lord's Motion in view of events which are at present happening in Asia. I believe my noble friend Lord Snell intends to ask whether it will be convenient to put a Question on this subject on Tuesday, and I do not want to enter into the politics of it; but what is happening in Asia to-day reinforces once more the lack of co-operation with our potential allies in case of trouble. In this connection I should respectfully like to congratulate His Majesty's Government and the French Government on the Staff conversations taking place, I understand, in the East Indies. According to the newspapers—and I hope it is true—an important French Naval and Military Mission is visiting Singapore, and we are sending senior officers of the Services to French Indo-China as well. I am delighted to see that, and I hope the practice will be extended to other parts of the world where we can help one another in case of trouble.

I have never concealed the opinion I have held for many years, from my political friends or anyone else, that a far greater danger to the peace of the world exists in Asia than in Europe. That is still my considered opinion, and I am very glad we are taking steps, perhaps a little tardily, to co-ordinate our defence with our French friends in the Far East. There are other nations I could mention, but I will not do so on this occasion, because it would be most inadvisable to discuss such conversations as might take place. If I might summarise the view I know is held by my political friends in my party, it is that, while we have now a tremendous efflux of equipment and munitions of all kinds, there is still lacking the organisation of the grand strategy for the defence that may be required if the peace of the world is unhappily broken.

6.26 p.m.


My Lords, the Motion moved by the noble Lord, Lord Davies, which has been so usefully added to by the noble Lord opposite, has convinced me, if I needed convincing, of the enormous range of duties that fall under me as Minister of Co-ordination. Perhaps a generous interpretation of the terms of the Motion has been used by the noble Lord who brought it forward, but of that I have no complaint to make at all. On the contrary, where anxiety exists, it is much better that it should be expressed in your Lordships' House and that those who are responsible should take such opportunity as offers to reassure where reassurance is needed.

I do not propose to traverse the very many subjects that have been raised this afternoon. The noble Lord, Lord Davies, has given us a considerable dissertation on the history of the lack of armaments, the commencement of rearmament, and of rearmament in full swing—if he admits at all it is in full swing. I have found it best myself, in taking on my present duty, to give up soliloquising over the past and to confine myself rather to pursuing the present. I certainly had not got in my mind any idea of making any accusations against the Party that the noble Lord opposite (Lord Strabolgi) represents in the way he suggested, but it is astonishing how, when suggestions and hints are dropped, one's mind inevitably moves in a direction it had no intention of taking before. At any rate, I think I may say, in so far as the Navy is unready owing to the lack of the renewal of its important and vital Battle Fleet, the noble Lord must take a little responsibility for the fact that in the 1931 London Treaty the Government of which, I believe, he was a supporter deliberately agreed that the replacement of our Battle Fleet should be deferred for five years. As a result we were unable to build a single battleship until December, 1936, or January, 1937.


You built the "Rodney" and the "Nelson."


That was before. Battleships which had to be replaced, schedule by schedule, under the Washington Treaty were cancelled. Building was deferred for five years, and during those five years the country, I cannot help thinking, ran a risk we ought never to have run. I do not want to pursue that point or to be controversial. It was only because the noble Lord put these thoughts into my mind.


Might I remind the noble Lord that there was not a Labour Government at the time of the Washington Conference, but the Washington Treaty was on the whole a good thing?


Yes, but the important thing to remember is that in 1922 the Naval Conference, in which I personally took a part, laid it down that the Battle Fleet of all the signatory Powers should start replacement in 1931—that was the agreement—ten years after the Conference, and we decided each year how many ships should be laid down by each Power, so that by this time if that Treaty had been carried out, we should have nine or ten brand new ships instead of having them on the stocks. But in 1931 the London Naval Conference took place when the Party to which the noble Lord belongs was in power, and that Treaty was cancelled in that respect. The rebuilding of our Battle Fleet was deferred by agreement for another five years. I do not think I need deal with the question of the defence of shipping, for the noble Lord will not expect me to deal with that. I did deal with it to some extent when I was speaking in this House some months ago.

Similarly I do not think he will expect me to deal with pig iron or with civil defence, which is to come before your Lordships' House soon, and the Bill in regard to which I am afraid I shall have the responsibility of having to ask your Lordships to pass as quickly as possible so as to ensure that there will be no further delay in the Legislative Assemblies. I have also been asked to consider whether our legislative procedure should not be overhauled. That is a little outside the terms of the Motion, and perhaps I may be excused from dealing with that also. I would just refer to the important point raised by the noble Lord opposite about Staff conversations with our allies. He can be quite sure that I am fully cognisant of the very great importance of conversations of that type, and he can rest assured that those conversations will be carried out, are being carried out, and will be completed. When he says that we are behind in our conversations of this kind as compared with other nations with whom we are not allied, I would remind him of the fact that many of our responsibilities have only recently been entered into and that has naturally prevented us from making arrangements of that sort so early as those rations to whom he referred.

Now, if I may, I will come to the Motion itself. It is really divided into two parts. There first of all the question of the armaments necessary for national defence, and in regard to that very great stress was laid by the noble Lord, Lord Davies, on the question of home defence. The second question that he asks is as to whether we are really taking any steps at all such as we should be taking to meet the guarantee that we have given to certain countries. I think I will deal initially with his first point, the question of home defence. I am sure that your Lordships will realise, as indeed the noble Lord, Lord Davies, himself has pointed out, that I am in some difficulty in dealing with defence questions, because they must to some extent deal with dispositions for war, and I have to be very careful not to say anything that would be of value as information to any potential enemy Power. Otherwise, I am only too anxious to give such information as I can not only so that your Lordships may be able to judge for yourselves, but also, I trust, to satisfy you that every reasonable precaution that can be taken is being taken.

Lord Davies has asked to be assured that adequate protection is being created both to deal with air attacks and against sabotage in vital parts of this country. I think it is necessary, in order to explain what has been done, to give a very general but brief picture of the arrangements for home defence. It is so difficult for what I may call the local man to understand that he is being protected, whether it is in the air or on the sea, by far-flung forces. Local defence is always the thing that sticks most in the mind of the man in any particular locality, whether he is in Fiji, or, shall I say, in the Welsh mountains. We all know and we all have that natural feeling of anxiety about the spot where we ourselves happen to be. But the noble Lord has in mind a much bigger principle than merely any particular point.

So far as the active defences of this country against air attack are concerned, let me point out that in the first place, we have got numerous squadrons of fighter aircraft, ever increasing in number, so disposed as to be able to intercept the enemy at the earliest possible moment, which is the vital thing to do. Secondly, we have our high altitude guns, so disposed as to protect all important areas. Thirdly, there is an enormous number of searchlights so disposed as to ensure that enemy aircraft will be continuously illuminated, and to ensure that the fighter aircraft and the high altitude guns will operate effectively by night. Fourthly, we have balloon barrages at important vulnerable areas, in order to make the risk of low flying very much greater than it would otherwise be. Fifthly, there are light anti-aircraft guns, which are capable of a tremendous rate of fire, and are designed specifically to deal with this menace of low-flying aircraft which, if allowed to fly low, would drop bombs with accuracy instead of scattering them promiscuously from a height of 10,000 or 15,000 or 20,000 feet. Sixthly, there is the intelligence system, which includes, of course, the Observer Corps, which will enable hostile aircraft to be located and tracked wherever they go. That is the broad background.

Now let me try to explain the general principles which have guided the Committee of Imperial Defence and His Majesty's Government in deciding on the points to which special protection should be given, either against air attack or against sabotage. There are, of course, thousands of points in this crowded country, with its innumerable industries, which are of importance for the continuance of war or the maintenance of life of the community. There are, for instance, our power stations, our gas works, our water supplies, our railway systems, our docks, our oil supplies and factories of every kind, and so forth. It would obviously be strategically impracticable and wrong to use both our man power and our material resources to attempt to provide specific protection for each and all of these points, over and above the very substantial protection that is provided by the general defence system of the country to which I have just referred. Indeed it would be an unjustifiable dispersal of force. I understand that the noble Lord considers that we should have the whole of these thousands of points protected now in peace time. Your Lordships will remember that only the other day the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, initiated a debate, to which I had to reply, in which he endeavoured to use all the emphasis he had to induce the Government not to concentrate too much on the defensive, but to try to think of offensive action as a far more valuable means of saving ourselves from trouble and disaster. For the reasons I have given it has been necessary for the Committee of Imperial Defence to discriminate in these cases so far as specific protection against air attack is concerned.

The whole country has been reconnoitred by specialist officers during the last few years and the result of the reconnaissance has been completely reviewed by the Committee of Imperial Defence. It is always very difficult for the non-technical mind to understand the technical situation of to-day. So often we are told—I was told myself when I was Chief of the Staff—that Chiefs of Staff are always thinking of the last War. I think the only people really who can think intelligently—using that word in a Staff sense—on present dangers are those who are possessed of full technical knowledge. The noble Lord who moved the Motion this afternoon spoke about the experiences of the last War as indicating the perfectly clear course which is open, and obviously open, to His Majesty's Government as regards the setting up of a Ministry of Supply on the full scale of the old Ministry of Munitions. But we must understand that, whether the Government are right or wrong, these decisions that they are making are not political decisions but are decisions made on the advice of the best officers there are in the Service at the present time, and I think myself that the officers in the Service available to advise His Majesty's Government at the present time are certainly in every respect as competent to advise them as those who advised His Majesty's Government in the last War. The Government are bound to take their advice, and are taking their advice and are acting on it.

I will indicate the general principles which have to guide the Committee of Imperial Defence in determining whether specific protection should or should not be provided for any particular point and, if so, the extent to which it should be provided. In the first place you have to consider the geographical position of the point in question. Obviously there are places, say, in the north or the west, which are less attractive targets for the enemy, if there is one, than other places in the east or the south. Secondly, the relative importance of the point has to be considered—whether, for instance, if it was damaged it would cause a serious loss to the nation in conducting the war, or whether it is only one where damage would be regrettable and should be prevented, if possible, but would not appreciably affect the conduct of the war or the maintenance of the national life. Another factor, of course, is the size of the target, its visibility from the air and its vulnerability to attack. These are the kind of principles which have guided the Committee of Imperial Defence when making our initial dispositions, and they are kept under constant review. If war experience showed that we had erred—as no doubt we may err, or shall err—we can redistribute our forces, because in the first place the light anti-aircraft guns are mobile and can be moved at will; and secondly, there is a mobile reserve of guns of all types which can be moved to any particular types of target on which it may appear that an undue effort of the enemy is being concentrated.

Now let me turn to the question of protection against sabotage. Obviously the provision of such protection is simpler than that against air attack since it does not involve elaborate equipment. Nevertheless it would not be justifiable to attempt to provide 100 per cent. protection for each and every point which might conceivably be imagined as a possible objective of sabotage. Without in any way wishing to minimise the danger, I think it would be fair to say that the difficulties of the saboteur are often very much underrated. I may perhaps remind your Lordships' House that during the last War no attempt was made by the enemy to damage vulnerable points in this country. This immunity was due, perhaps, to the measures concerted before the War to provide protection for the most important points and for dealing with enemy agents. I would, however, emphasize that nothing is being left to chance.

The whole question of protection against sabotage has been under constant examination and review by the Committee of Imperial Defence for the past fifteen years, and arrangements have been made to provide appropriate protection for literally thousands of vulnerable points. As your Lordships will be aware, there is a special body, called the National Defence Companies, which exists for this very purpose. Their numbers have lately been very substantially increased and are now to be reckoned, not in terms of hundreds, but in terms of many thousands of men. May I give your Lordships my personal assurance that I have been into the whole matter of protection of important places against both air attack of every kind and against sabotage in any form, and I shall continue to do so? I have found, for example, that certain localities, which have formed the subject of correspondence between the noble Lord who moved the Motion and myself during the last month or so, have not been overlooked, and were in fact considered in great detail by the Committee of Imperial Defence some years ago. I can, in fact, give your Lordships the assurance that in so far as I am a competent judge every reasonable precaution that can be taken is being taken. I do not wish to set up ourselves as infallible, but we have these things continually under review. All the suggestions made by the two noble Lords who have spoken on that particular point will, I assure your Lordships, receive consideration and I will bear them in mind.

Now I come to the last part of the noble Lord's Motion, and that is what steps we are taking to deal with our new responsibilities. I am afraid the noble Lord gave your Lordships' House a somewhat depressing and gloomy picture of the great national effort that is being put forward at the present time. I think that a great deal of what he said has been already dealt with in innumerable debates during the last few years. Moreover, we have issued White Papers. I might remind your Lordships that in February last there was published a White Paper which dealt with the whole of these subjects. I hope the noble Lord will read that White Paper again, and make quite sure that he cannot get some consolation, however small, from what was the position up to last February. But I should like to say to your Lordships that since that time—during the four months when I myself have been in my present position—the progress made has been, in my opinion, at a highly reassuring and ever increasing rate.

Of course we have taken on new responsibilities which have necessitated our recasting our programme. We have had to set up new hypotheses as to the strength of our forces, and that has been done by doubling the Territorial Army, by the introduction of the Military Training Bill, and the setting up of a Minister with partial duties as Minister of Army Supply. All these steps are of great magnitude and importance. You may say that we might have foreseen these commitments a year or two ago: that we were going to guarantee Poland, Rumania and Greece, that Czecho-Slovakia would be invaded and so on, and that we ought to have done these things a long while ago. I am afraid we were unable to foresee events so clearly; it would have been an advantage if we had been able to do so. I know that the noble Lord opposite will appreciate that it would not be desirable for me to make public details of the extent to which that programme has been completed. But I should like to point out that during the last two months no less than thirty new factories have been started and are in course of construction, and another thirty factories of all kinds are approved and in the stage of preparation. Then there have been considerable extensions and modifications of various kinds to the existing works, and fresh capacity is daily being achieved by giving what are called "educational orders" to existing firms which can be called in if necessary to help in that programme.

Then I come to the fact that we have set up this Ministry of Army Supply. I do not wish to deal with that at the present time, and I am sure that both the noble Lords who mentioned it will not wish me to do so, because I shall be speaking on that matter later. We shall be having a debate on that Bill when it comes before your Lordships—I hope not, as the noble Lord said, in months' time, for I am sure the other House will pass it through as quickly as possible and we shall get it much sooner than he anticipates. But I agree that the Ministry of Supply, when it is set up with its limited powers, will meet a need. I told your Lordships, I may respectfully point out, in answering the Motion of the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, that there are always occasions which produce a need, and that one of those occasions would be if we were enormously to increase any of our forces; that it might then be necessary and better to set up such a Ministry than to swallow the disadvantages, the disturbances and the delay which are so apt to happen in the transitional period when we engage in an enormous programme and vast staffs have to be transferred from one Minister to another. But we are taking every step we can to ensure that no delay occurs in that way—no undue delay, at least—and I believe that the creation of this Ministry, giving a man a special task and special powers in order to deal with this problem which we have suddenly taken on, will cause a very considerable increase in the rapidity with which the equipment of the new Army will be carried out. In addition there is the fact that the Minister is going to be responsible for the accumulation of raw materials which up to the present have been divided between the different Departments. That will no doubt have advantages as well.

There is also the provision of articles of common user, which again will help: the demands for uniform, for instance, and that sort of thing. The Government have been very fortunate, I should like to mention, in enlisting to deal with this work the services of the expert Sir Frederick Marquis, whom I believe we shall soon welcome as a member of your Lordships' House. We have had some reference to shipbuilding, and I should like to mention that the assistance which has recently been afforded to the shipbuilding industry has, I consider, had the effect of very greatly improving the conditions in that industry, which was badly needed. This should have a beneficial influence on progress and construction, and on the maintenance of our shipbuilding labour generally. Another step that we have taken is to set up a Sub-Committee of the Committee of Imperial Defence to deal with the scientific and optical instrument industry, under the chairmanship of Sir Frank Smith. Although this is actually a long-range Sub-Committee, they will be making interim reports and recommendations, which I am quite certain will be of great value in expediting the present programme in that very important direction.

The last important point that I would mention is on this very difficult question of supplies to other countries. We have in this country at the present time, as your Lordships may know, distinguished representatives of other countries to whom we have given certain assurances and who are anxious to equip their forces in various ways. It is exceedingly difficult to gauge which is the best way to use your productive capacity: is it better to use it to equip your own Army or to equip the Army of a friend? That is a strategic problem, the question of how we are going to use to the best advantage the enormous productive capacity that we have in this country and which we are increasing at such a tremendous rate, but the Committee of Imperial Defence are already dealing with that. We are having our discussions with our friends, and I am sure we shall find what is the best solution for the common good.

I think I have dealt as fully as I can with the Motion of the noble Lord. I should like to say in conclusion that I believe there has never been a time when the plans for war have been so carefully laid or given so muck thought. We are well on our way to achieve our aim of being more ready for war in peace than we have ever been. By the energy and devotion of our scientific staffs, we have harnessed science in such a manner that the risks and anxieties of ten or twenty years ago are in many respects no longer of the same degree. In many instances the defence is rapidly catching up the attack. We have the men we need, and of a higher average physique and intelligence than ever before in our history. This human factor is the main asset we shall rely on with confidence in the future, as we have so successfully in the past. If ever we are to be tested, that is the factor that will decide our future.

6.59 p.m.


My Lords, should like to thank the noble Lord who has just sat down for his very exhaustive and very clear speech, and also for the reassuring statement which he has given your Lordships as to the general defence arrangements of the country. I am sure we are all very grateful to him for having dealt with all the points which my noble friend and I have endeavoured to bring forward. There is just one point that I would like to mention before I sit down. I think perhaps the noble Lord did not quite do me justice when he suggested that I was approaching the points which I raised in correspondence from a local point of view. I assure the noble Lord that that is not so. I was really concerned about the water supplies; of two of the biggest cities in this country, which happen to be in the locality where I live. I am sure he realises that, and that I have no local interest in the question that has been raised. Then he told us that he was not in a position to answer the question about iron ore. That I can understand, but I hope he will be good enough to convey my views to the proper quarter. He also said that he had no responsibility for the legislative speed with which the Government worked. There again I do not quarrel with him, but I am sure he will agree that he has a certain measure of what used to be called Cabinet responsibility, and the Cabinet as a whole are responsible, I venture to think, for pushing through the measures which they regard as of vital importance.


The noble Lord is under a misapprehension. I did not say I had no responsibility for improving our legislative machine, but that I did not feel, as Minister for Co-ordination, that he would expect me to respond to the invitation that we should do so.


Of course I accept that interpretation, and I shall be glad if the noble Lord will be good enough also to convey to the proper quarters the suggestion which I have ventured to make. We understand now what is to be done in the case of sabotage and of possible air raids, or by an armed force being dumped down in a particular place in order to do damage in a very short time. I am sure we should be reassured if what I think the noble Lord described as a National Defence Corps can be mobilised for that purpose. I am sure your Lordships do not wish me to detain you any longer. I am only sorry that the House is so thin, and that there were not a larger number of noble Lords present to listen to the speech which has fallen from the Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.