HL Deb 18 December 1940 vol 118 cc153-62

VISCOUNT TRENCHARD had given Notice that he would ask His Majesty's Government whether they stand by their declaration of the 16th of October last on the organisation of the Royal Air Force; and move for Papers. The noble Viscount said: My Lords, I feel in a somewhat difficult position in addressing your Lordships on the Motion standing in my name. I put this Motion down as long ago as November 29 and I had hoped that it would be debated on December 3. I was twice asked to postpone it, the last time being on December 10. I was very seriously perturbed at the action which was then taken, but during the last eight days I have had time to think things over and, if I may say so, I have calmed down to some extent. I cannot help feeling that there has been some misunderstanding over this matter and that if the Government had heard the speech which I had originally intended to make on December 3, they would have recognised that it was in no sense an attack upon them, although it was a criticism of what was going on. They would have seen that I was merely advancing broad arguments about this very vital question and that I was the last man to say anything which would be of use to the enemy. I had intended to conclude my speech on December 3 with the remark that if any further questions on this very important subject were desired, I would suggest that a Motion should be put down to carry on the debate in secret. I did not think it would have been necessary, but I wanted to explain to your Lordships and to the public some very broad statements of principle on this matter, and to express the hope that in future this subject would not be allowed to be a continual bone of contention. I did not want to embarrass the Government, and I did not flatter myself that I could do so.

Having said that, I would ask permission to keep as far as possible to the speech which I had intended originally to make, apart from some changes which are necessary in view of the Prime Minister's statement on this subject in another place. I had intended to start by apologising to your Lordships for raising this question again so soon after the debate on the Army Air Arm. Although it was stated in the Official Report on December 10 that I said that I was speaking on behalf of myself, I thought that I had said that I was not speaking on behalf of myself alone. I am in fact speaking on behalf of a very large number of people who correspond with me and who, I know, feel very strongly on this matter. The nation feels much more strongly about it than is sometimes imagined.

The question of making a separate Army Air Arm was first brought up again in the middle of the war by a section of the Press. On October 16 I put down a Motion on this question, and the noble Lord, Lord Snell, who spoke for the Government on that occasion, gave a most satisfactory and definite reply in which he said: Your Lordships will be aware that some time ago the Fleet Air Arm was split off from the rest of the R.A.F., and that was not a decision which ought to be repeated.

Subsequently in the same speech he made it clear, as did others in another place, that the question of an Army Air Arm was not raised by the General Staff. His words were: This is not the view either of the Air Staff or of the General Staff.

He said that they were satisfied with the arrangements in process of being made for the natural development of Army cooperation work. However, within six weeks of that decision being given, it was almost torn up, and here again we have the same sort of question raised from the same quarters and apparently for the same purpose.

I should like to ask whether the Sea Lords initiated this demand for the Coastal Command to go over to the Navy, and that all the officers and men concerned should be compulsorily transferred to another Service. I cannot believe that they did, knowing, as everyone knows, the wonderful co-operation which has gone on between the Navy and the Coastal Command under that great commander Air Marshal Sir Frederick Bowhill. We have heard nothing but praise from both sides of how well it has worked. The Prime Minister himself said the other day: Excellent relations have been established since the war between the two Services, and the closest contact exists between the naval and air authorities.

No, I do not believe it was started by the Sea Lords. I have too much respect for the Sea Lords to doubt that they are doing all they can to co-operate with all the Services—not only the Royal Air Force—in anything that will help to win the war. I think they have felt that they have had all—and more than all—the necessary co-operation in the carrying out of all their demands on the Coastal Command.

It is no good now, after the Prime Minister's statement, my asking for the assurance from the Government in the terms of my Motion. The situation has been changed by that statement, but the Prime Minister in his statement used these words: I have come to the conclusion that, while there is no need at the present time to change the position of the Coastal Command as part of the Royal Air Force, it is necessary that the Coastal Command should play a more important part than it has hitherto done in trade protection.

To take the last part of that sentence first—"it is necessary that the Coastal Command should play a more important part than it has hitherto done in trade protection "—I have said that all parts of the Royal Air Force can play a more important part in all phases of the war than has been delegated to them. I have said it for over twenty years and I am glad to see the Prime Minister recognises it. Now with regard to the first part of the sentence. It would have been entirely satisfactory if it had not been for the words at the present time". I also see the Prime Minister said: I see no reason to give any specific assurance that would tend to impair the responsibility of the Government to Parliament for the proper conduct of the war.

I agree that the Government cannot tie their hands in any way for the proper conduct of the war, but they can—and I think should—recognise that so long as the Prime Minister's statement is governed by those words "at the present time" the Government might at any time allow this subject to be reopened by any or by all.

This brings me to the subject of organisation. I hope the Government will realise that organisation cannot be built in a day, but dis-organisation can, and has been many times in this war. That is important. Your Lordships accepted the other day, and I think certainly the country has accepted, that the one organisation that has come out well in this war and has stood the strain—not only the strain of the vast expansion, but the strain of fighting to defend this country in all those hard days of the early summer and the end of it—has been the Royal Air Force. It has stood the strain and shows no sign of breaking or of requiring any alteration, or of disorganisation in a day. But again I say that organisation takes time; it cannot be built in a day. Do the Government realise that to make this change work satisfactorily would take three or four years or more? Even if they worked as hard as they could and there was no war it would take more than that. Do they realise that even the Fleet Air Arm, which was started in 1937, is still not complete? Far from it—and it is no fault of the Admiralty or the Air Ministry; it takes time. It would not be in the public interest to go further into details.

But before leaving this subject of organisation I want to say this to the noble Viscount the Leader of the House. I shall always be definitely opposed to the breaking up of the unity of the Royal Air Force. I have said and must repeat that it is the unity that has made this organisation. In war or in peace it would be a most retrograde step to try to break that unity which has stood the strain. The three Services have co-operated in this war—and they can if they are left alone. Look at what has happened in the Mediterranean, look at what has happened in Greece and in Egypt. Look at the splendid co-operation that has gone on there between the Air and the Army, the Air and the Navy, the Navy and the Army. You cannot make each Service self-contained for war; that is impossible, but I will not go further into that side now except to say a word if I may about the wonderful victories in Egypt and Greece. I think we all admire and welcome the wonderful leadership of General Sir Archibald Wavell who is in command of the major operation in the Desert. We must all admire the wonderful weapon he has forged, first of all, the perfect co-operation of the three Services, and secondly, the wonderful timing of it—and it is not easy. It was only the other day that I tried to show that if you give the Army even a moderate chance they will do just as brilliantly, if I may say so, as any of the other Services. They do their work under their leaders just as well as the Navy and the Royal Air Force and I would like to offer my humble congratulations to them all for what they have done in the Middle East.

Now I come back to the question under debate. As I think your Lordships know, I believe thoroughly in the offensive. Surely events are proving to us every day that offence pays, and how our long sitting-down during the first six months of the war did not pay. But I have no desire to stimulate a controversy. I am only anxious to point out what a grave mistake it would be to do anything to undermine the unity of the Air Force. The Government, I suppose, will, in making their statement, undoubtedly make it on the lines of their statement in another place, which, as I understand it, means that there will be no change in the existing organisation and that the Coastal Command remains an integral part of the Royal Air Force as in the past. If the noble Viscount who leads this House will give me his assurance that he will convey my remarks on organisation to the Government, in which I tried to express the impossibility of altering an organisation in one day, and will give me the assurance that the Government recognise this, I should be;, I will not say quite happy, but much more content.

Finally, if the noble Viscount or any of your Lordships wants to go further into the many technical reasons against any change being made:, or for any change being made, I would thoroughly agree with the Government that further discussions should take place in a Secret Session and a Motion should be put down for the purpose, as I think it will be inadvisable for me to state in public any of the many reasons I should advance on the other side. I hope, though, that that will not be necessary. I would earnestly ask those noble Lords who were going to support me before to consider whether the suggestion I have made is not wise, and I hope they will see their way to agree with it. My noble friend Lord Mottistone has asked me to say that he has two important public engagements to-day and cannot be in his place but that he agrees with every word that I was going to say. I hope that the controversy, almost acute, which was not raised or initiated by me, nor do I believe it was raised by the Navy, will now stop and that the three Services will continue to work in perfect co-operation for victory as they have done in the last six months and more. Methods may change but sound organisation will not change. I beg to move.


My Lords, it would perhaps be convenient to your Lordships in the circumstances if I were to make one or two observations on what has fallen from the noble Viscount. The first thing that I would say would be to thank him for the effort that he has made—in which I hope I may be able to co-operate—in the removal of misunderstanding, if such there were, in regard to the handling of this matter by your Lordships' House. I owe him a word of apology for the unintentional inconvenience that was imposed on him by the action I felt it my duty to take last week and which I regret having been obliged to take without having had the opportunity of consulting with the noble and gallant Viscount about it in advance.

It is fair that I should also say that the noble Viscount who has raised this matter has not been the first to raise it in public, and that he has just made a speech to your Lordships from which, I am quite sure, he has done his best to exclude the note of controversy which we all desire to avoid. I certainly appreciate very much the way in which he has sought to find the middle way through our difficulties as regards procedure which I hope we may be able to tread. Your Lordships will remember the attitude I felt obliged to take last week in regard to debate on this matter, and it was with great satisfaction that I heard the noble Viscount say that he was, on reflection, in agreement with the view that, if any of your Lordships should consider it necessary to embark on a technical discussion of the matters arising from this subject, it would necessarily have to be done, as he thought, in Secret Session. His Majesty's Government, as I said last week, hold that view very strongly, and should that situation arise I would sincerely hope it may also be shared by your Lordships' House.

In his speech of last October in your Lordships' House, the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, asked whether it was the intention to maintain the present organisation of the Royal Air Force in order to enable the results so far achieved by that Force to be extended and developed. When he put that question he attributed the great achievements of the Royal Air Force that were then, as they are to-day, in all our minds, to the fact that it had been planned and developed on the basis of a unified Air Service possessing an organisation that was flexible and an organisation designed to meet all our needs in the air wherever and however they might arise. He referred to various reports that were then current of a proposal to establish an Army Air Arm, and urged His Majesty's Government to reaffirm their intention to stand by the organisation that had served the country so well in recent months. My noble friend Lord Snell, to whom it fell to reply to Lord Trenchard, then stated that the Government had no intention of changing the basic organisation of the Force, and explained the arrangements which had been made to meet the air requirements of the Army without detracting from the volume of our air effort.' As I understand it, what the noble Viscount is to-day, in effect, asking is whether the principles that were then set out in the speech made by my noble friend Lord Snell applied to the question of meeting the air requirements of the Navy or, in other words, whether it was the intention of His Majesty's Government to keep the Coastal Command as an integral part of the Royal Air Force or to transfer it to the Royal Navy.

I do not think that, in view of the severity of the present attacks on shipping, it is altogether unnatural that the question of the control of air units operating over the sea should have been raised at the present time. Your Lordships will, of course, readily appreciate that the air requirements of the Navy are of two kinds. There are first the aircraft carried in ships—the Fleet Air Arm. These are now a part of the Navy, and no question arises in respect of them. Secondly, there is the requirement for shore-based Air Force squadrons working in co-operation with the Royal Navy. That duty devolves mainly on the Coastal Command of the Royal Air Force, though calls are made on the Bomber Command and on the Fighter Command to an extent that necessarily varies from time to time with the prevailing tactical situation. A suggestion, as we all know, has been made that all these squadrons which are called upon to co-operate with the Navy should be transferred to, and should become an integral part of, the Royal Navy and, as is natural, and as your Lordships are also well aware, there are two sides to this question for each of which the respective advocates are of opinion they can advance strong argument. Into that argument I do not intend now to enter, and I hope, indeed, as the noble and gallant Viscount suggested, it will not in fact be felt necessary for this debate to cover ground that is inevitably very controversial.

My right honourable friend the Prime Minister made a carefully considered statement last week in another place, the terms of which are no doubt in all your Lordships' minds and which perhaps it is not necessary for me textually to quote on this occasion. I would only add to what he said this word, that I have no doubt that all of us, whether in the Government or out of it, can readily agree with the noble Viscount in feeling what a vital bearing and import upon all war like operations must be exercised by organisation. No doubt opinions may differ, but on the general question of the vital importance of organisation there should, I suppose, be no two opinions. I hope and believe, from what has fallen from the noble and gallant Viscount, that the statement made by my right honourable friend in another place will have been a reassurance to him and to others associated with him, and will lead him and, as I hope, will lead your Lordships, to feel that it is not necessary at the present time to enter more closely into the discussion of matters which, if they are to be debated in detail, cannot usefully be so debated in Public Session. It only remains for me to thank the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, once again for the way in which he has treated a matter that is certainly not free from difficulties, and to assure him, as he asked me to do, but as in any case I should have done, that I shall certainly make it my own personal responsibility to see that his observations are conveyed to the responsible quarters where they ought to be considered.


My Lords, I should think it will have given satisfaction to all parties to have heard the two speeches to which we have just listened. I confess that many of us were perplexed over what happened last week, and although perhaps the speeches now made have not altogether removed the grounds of our perplexity, still I suppose we must be content with them as they are. At the same time, I think it would be right for those of us who have supported the view advanced by the noble Viscount more than once in this House to say that we still share his misgiving at the existence of the words "at the present time" in the statement to which he has referred. That does not mean, I am sure, that any body of persons would wish other than to see that the Coastal Command should have more and more equipment, better and fuller maintenance, and that any defects, if there are any, should be remedied to the full. But we have in our minds all the time that the adequate supply and rational and proper co-operation evidently desired by all of us are quite different from suggestions that might mean the uprooting of an organisation that has taken years to build and elaborate—suggestions which, I am sure, would be viewed with grave misgiving. However, for the present I gather that we are all content to leave it where it is, but in doing so I would like to reiterate one's hope that the words "at the present time" do not mean that action will be taken which will undermine the confidence of those who have played so great a part in the organisation of the Air Force, and undermine their confidence in the continuation of their effort in all its branches.


My Lords, I desire in a single sentence only to say that the noble Lords on these Benches agree with the course suggested for our procedure to-day by the Leader of the House and endorsed by the Leader of the Opposition.


My Lords, having heard the noble Viscount, the Leader of the House, I will only add this. He said there are two sides to this question. Yes, I accept that, but I would ask the noble Viscount when I withdraw, as I propose to do, my Motion for Papers, to request the Government to bear in mind the fact that if ever they are considering this matter again they will give time to those who know why the organisation was built in the way it was built. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.