HL Deb 11 December 1940 vol 118 cc94-102

LORD STRABOLGI had the following Notice on the Paper: To draw attention to the admittedly heavy losses of British, Allied and neutral shipping through enemy action; and, while expressing the continued confidence of this House in the devotion and efficiency of the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force, to ask His Majesty's Government to supply such information as can properly be given; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion which stands in my name. We feel that this matter of the attacks on our Mercantile Marine should be discussed as far as is proper and I would remind your Lordships—and the noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack will remember this very well—that in the last war when the attacks on our commerce were more serious than in this war, the matter was discussed very fully in another place, and I believe in your Lordships' House, on several occasions. There was a great public debate in the Press, and undoubtedly that did good; it stimulated changes which were advantageous. I do not pretend that we can have the same success at the moment, but there is another reason why I think this matter should be ventilated. I suggest that there is a danger, for natural reasons, that the public, and even perhaps the Government, should attach over-much importance to air attack on this country and not enough to the losses inflicted on our merchant shipping and on friendly merchant shipping by submarines, aircraft, surface raiders, and mines. The losses during the worst period of this year have been at the rate of 4,000,000 tons a year. This rate of sinking has happily been reduced, but it is nevertheless—there is no secret about this—still higher than our domestic building programme can make good.

I dare say the noble Lord who will reply for His Majesty's Government will have some comforting things to say, and one of them no doubt will be that, as was stated by Sir John Anderson in another place, the Prime Minister is giving his personal attention to this matter. I was not quite so pleased to hear that as some organs of the Press apparently were—not because I have not the highest regard for the abilities and knowledge of the Prime Minister but because this is a whole-time job; and while my Party have for many years been in favour of a Ministry of Defence I am not quite happy—and I have heard this argument put forward by those who oppose the setting up of the Ministry of Defence—at the idea of the Prime Minister being also Minister of Defence. It would mean that if he has to give a great deal of attention to this particular matter something else will be neglected. I am speaking quite frankly. If the Prime Minister with his very great ability devotes himself exclusively to doing his job in connexion with defence problems properly, then the economic side of our defence problems—for the two are interlocked—must suffer. I do not want to pursue that matter further; it is obvious.

The position, of course, is not desperate because of the large accumulation of stores which, through the foresight of the Government and the Civil Service particularly, on which I congratulate them, we were making before the war and the heavy cargoes which come through unscathed. Nevertheless, it is a serious position. The Prime Minister, in another of his burning phrases, has spoken of the "springs of our coming offensive" becoming compressed. One of the springs has been released with happy results already in Egypt. When the time comes to release the main springs of our offensive we shall need a great deal of additional shipping. I am making no sort of reflection on my right honourable friend the First Lord of the Admiralty, for whom I have a very high regard, which I know is also the case with the whole Service, and I am well aware of the unfavourable factors we have to meet.

If I may just summarise them, there is the loss of the French Navy apart from the not inconsiderable forces we have obtained from the adherence of General de Gaulle; but the rest of the French Navy is lost to us and also the use of the French bases. On the other hand, the Atlantic bases of France are available for our enemies. Then, with Italy intervening in the war, that added a flotilla of approximately 100 submarines. I may perhaps be allowed to observe in passing that the Italian submarine service is much older than the new German submarine service, and therefore the Italians will have had years in which to train submarine officers. As your Lordships know, it takes more years to train a submarine officer than to build a submarine. Then there is the new technique being employed against us, with the combination of long-range scouting aircraft and U-boats, sometimes acting in company. It is well known that the scouting aeroplanes of the enemy find the convoys and wireless the information to the lurking submarines. Then there is the German hold on the Norwegian coast which enables them to pass raiders out on the ocean trade routes more easily than in the last war, and there is the disadvantage to us of the non-availability of certain bases in Ireland. Lastly—this is not an exhaustive list for obvious reasons—the American neutrality legislation prevents American shipping from trading to our ports.

All these are grave disadvantages, and those who are dealing with the problem must have the sympathy of all of us. As to remedies, here again I would not suggest that what I am going to say is exhaustive, but some of the remedies are self-evident. The whole convoy system needs overhauling. There is always a danger, in war, of relying too much on methods which were successful in the previous war. That has been our history in all wars. I am told that in the Crimean War there were great complaints that the methods of the Napoleonic Wars were being used, in the South African War that the methods of the Crimean War were used, and so on. The same thing applies possibly to Navies. Secondly, I am going to suggest to your Lordships and to the Government that the same energy and an equal share of our resources should be applied to shipbuilding, both naval and mercantile, as we at present devote to aircraft production. I should like to see the same drive, the same publicity, the same appeal to the public imagination and therefore to the imagination of the workers, applied to shipbuilding as are happily the case now with the production of aircraft. In this connexion some of my friends, myself included, are not altogether happy about the new call-up of men for the Army. We hope the call-up will be very carefully made, because it seems to us there is greater need of employment in production in many directions than for more soldiers.

Now I am afraid I have a criticism to make. We have been too timid, too slow, for a long time past in buying or chartering available neutral tonnage other than American. I could give examples of chances lost again and again, of offers put to the Ministry of Shipping which are not even answered for six weeks, and in the meantime the offers have lapsed. I suggest that there should be a Purchasing Commission in every country with a Mercantile Marine, buying or chartering every available ship that is suitable for our purposes. It is agreed tacitly, at any rate, by the Government that there is a need for much stricter rationing in this country and that there should be tighter prohibition of all unnecessary imports.

We are—to come to another heading—bombing U-boat bases and the building yards where submarines are constructed, and I shall not attempt to make any further suggestions there. That is going on. I take it for granted that we are increasing our production of long-range escort aeroplanes and long-range patrol aircraft. That seems to me to be so obvious a need that I presume it is being met". I presume there is close enough cooperation between the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force, and in that connexion there was yesterday an important statement by the Prime Minister regarding the Coastal Command. This short list of steps we should take is, as I have said, by no means exhaustive, and there are certain matters which are best left undiscussed, but there is one last remark I wish to make. In all previous wars when things have gone not too well with us, when we have sailed into a crisis, we have changed both our men and our methods. I do not see why this war should be an exception. The situation is not one for pessimism at all. We have great wealth of talent and inventive genius to draw on, and we have the finest maritime population in the world. No praise, of course, could be too high for the spirit of the men of the Mercantile Marine and of the officers and crews of the Royal Navy. That is our great asset, and there is no reason to suggest we shall not defeat this sea offensive against our vital communications. I beg to move for Papers.


My Lords, in the unavoidable absence of my noble friend Lord Lloyd, who answers for the Admiralty in your Lordships' House, I have been asked to reply to the important Motion which has been moved by my noble friend Lord Strabolgi. I am sure that nobody would be disposed to deny that the losses of British, Allied, and neutral shipping through enemy action since the downfall of France have been very serious. At the same time, as I think the noble Lord opposite said or at any rate inferred, it is well that their seriousness should not be exaggerated. Comparisons have recently been made between the present time and early in 1917, when the shipping losses reached such enormous proportions that if they had not been checked we a few months afterwards could not have continued the struggle. No doubt something of what I am going to say has appeared in the Press and has been said by other people, but there is no harm in repeating it and in saying these things in Parliament, where, as I think your Lordships will agree, they ought to be said. I think there is danger in making a comparison with 1917 loosely without reference to the actual figures. Now, in only one month of the last six months has the monthly total of losses exceeded the average figure over the whole twelve months of 1917, and the average for the months June to November of this year is 120,000 tons less than the monthly average in 1917. I am glad to say that the figure for November shows a decided drop on the previous three months and is indeed over 100,000 tons lower than the figure for the month of October.

When we compare the effect of the enemy attack in 1917 with that in this year it is fair, I think, to compare the conditions under which the results just given have been achieved with the conditions in 1917, and if this is done there can be no doubt whatever that the task of the Royal Navy and ancillary forces is infinitely greater than it was in the last war. In the first place, as was said by the noble Lord, the collapse of France has put at the disposal of the enemy the use of bases and aerodromes in Northern and Western France which enable him to maintain a high concentration of U-boats in the approaches to this country, and enable the U-boats to operate far out into the Atlantic. Moreover, this enables the enemy to base aircraft within range of our shipping routes. We all see in the newspapers and hear on the wireless every day that our Air Forces have been continually bombing these U-boat bases and aerodromes in Northern and Western France. The noble Lord said just now that he thought possibly too much stress was laid upon the air attacks on this country. I do not think that is so in the minds of the Government, and I often ask myself, when I hear of these attacks on the enemy bases in France and other occupied countries, what they mean. They do not mean only that certain towns and villages in this country have been saved from a possible attack that night; they may mean also that a convoy then approaching our shores, within a few hundred miles perhaps of the Irish coast, is saved that night and perhaps next day from an attack and, possibly, from destruction. I think we should bear that in mind.

Secondly, in 1917 we had been at war for over two years and had amassed large quantities of destroyers and other auxiliary craft with which to guard our shipping. We also had the assistance of the very considerable Navies of our Allies. We had the assistance of the French Navy, the Italian Navy, the Japanese Navy and last, but by no means least, the Navy of the United States of America. We are now, of course, much less favourably placed in this respect, and, except for the small but very efficient and gallant naval forces of our present Allies, Poland, Holland, Norway and Free France, we fight alone and with ever-increasing demands on the Royal Navy. In this connexion I think we must all agree that the 50 destroyers which we have received from the United States of America will be of invaluable assistance. Furthermore, as we all know, in the last war we had, which we unfortunately have not now, the use of Water-ford and Cork harbours, Bantry Bay and the harbours in the West of Ireland, which are now denied to us. Lastly, we have to contend with air attack on our snipping in addition to attack by U-boat, raider and mine. To meet this added threat the Navy has the whole-hearted co-operation of the Royal Air Force of the Coastal and Fighter Commands. The Coastal Command also provides antisubmarine escorts for many of our convoys. I should like to emphasize, as was stated by the Prime Minister in another place yesterday, that substantial increases are being made in the Forces under the Coastal Command so that the Royal Air Force may play an even more important part than it has hitherto done in trade protection.

My noble friend opposite seemed rather to find fault with the statement that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister was giving his personal attention to this menace to our shipping. I should have thought that it was rather a matter for congratulation. I think it is only natural, when things are very serious, as they are now, that the Prime Minister should give his attention to this particular matter, but that does not mean in any way that he is giving his undivided attention to it. The Prime Minister is a very remarkable man, and I think your Lordships may rest assured that the fact that he is giving his attention to this matter will not mean in any way that any other department conducting the war will be affected. The noble Lord also suggested the overhauling of the convoy system, and said he hoped that the new call on men for the Army would be very carefully gone into and considered. I can assure my noble friend that these things are always in the minds of the War Cabinet and their advisers at the Admiralty and the War Office, and those two things which he mentioned will not be lost sight of. He also brought up the question of rationing and the prohibition of imports. I think he can be assured that that also has not been forgotten. I think we have had perhaps a foretaste of what may be coming in one or two of the admirable speeches my noble friend the Minister of Food has made lately. Those speeches have, I think, done a good deal to clear up the situation and in a way to put our minds at ease. It shows that the Government are fully alive to this very important point.

I am sure your Lordships will agree that it is not in the public interest to disclose facts which might be useful to the enemy, and I hope your Lordships will not expect me to go further into details than I have done already. The noble Lord can be assured that the most energetic measures are being taken and will be taken by the Admiralty and the Air Ministry against all the forms of attack to which our shipping is exposed, and, without being in any way complacent or denying the seriousness of the situation, I think that if we consider all the adverse factors with which we have to contend one can only be thankful that things are not worse. In this connexion we must, I think, stand lost in admiration every day of our lives at the wonderful deeds of the Royal Navy, the Mercantile Marine and our incomparable Air Force. The steps which have been and are being taken cannot be expected to achieve instantaneo is results, but, as our material resources increase, there is no reason to doubt that the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force will be able to counter effectively the serious menace to our seaborne trade and to defeat that menace. I have said all I can usefully say. I have no Papers which I can produce, and I can only hope that my noble friend will be satisfied with my reply and will see fit to withdraw his Motion.


My Lords, I am much obliged to my noble friend for his reply and I am happy to accede to his request. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.