HL Deb 08 February 1940 vol 115 cc515-24

My Lords, I beg to ask His Majesty's Government if they have any statement to make on the international situation.

4.1 p.m.


My Lords, the last statement to the House was made three weeks ago, but nevertheless the statement to-day is shorter than usual, for in recent weeks winter has gripped Europe, halting the operations of war and interfering even with the normal activities of the nation, so that there have been few events of importance to record. Your Lordships will have seen in the Press that a meeting of the Supreme War Council was held in Paris on Monday last. You will not, I am afraid, gain much information from the laconic communiqué which was all that it was possible to issue after the meeting. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister would have been glad if he could have lightened the darkness and given to-day an account of the proceedings. No one, however, will desire His Majesty's Government to be guilty of the folly of making such a generous gift to the enemy. Despite the fact that it is impossible to speak of the subjects discussed by the Council, it would be useful to say a little about the background of the meeting and the general impressions which the Prime Minister brought back with him from France.

In the first place the Council was, as your Lordships will have seen, larger than on previous occasions. The Prime Minister was accompanied by the Foreign Secretary, the First Lord of the Admiralty, the Secretary of State for War and the Secretary of State for Air; and His Majesty's Ambassador in Paris, the Chiefs of Staff and a number of senior officials were present. M. Daladier had with him three of his Ministerial colleagues, General Gamelin and other high officers. In the result, the proceedings of the Council seemed to my right honourable friend to be even more valuable and businesslike than on previous occasions. Indeed, his impression is that as the weeks go by the Council is steadily growing in importance, and has become not merely a convenient means of harmonising the views of the two Governments but also a vital instrument in the successful prosecution of the war. As M. Daladier has said, the Council now conduct their business almost as if they were the Cabinet of a single Government. That is not to say that the Government of either country has in any way surrendered its responsibilities, but that an understanding has been reached which will prove to be an essential factor in the eventual victory of the Allies.

Moreover, the value of the proceedings of the Supreme Council is not, in my right honourable friend's view, confined to the value of the business discussed by their meetings. Much also is gained from the friendly and informal contacts between responsible leaders of the two nations for which a Council meeting provides the occasion. This time the Prime Minister has returned from Paris with the conviction that the bond between our two countries is something greater than even the close alliance which a common purpose and common dangers have enforced. It has become a deep and lasting friendship between two peoples. Our enemies lose no opportunity, by every means of propaganda at their disposal, by the spreading of false rumours and by ceaseless lies, of seeking to divide Great Britain from France. In that attempt they have failed. The short and sufficient answer to every endeavour of the enemy to sow dissension between us is the phrase which British Ministers have heard so often on the lips of their French colleagues: "Nous sommes d'accord."

I turn now to events elsewhere in Europe. The Finnish people continue their heroic struggle against an enemy who is using his huge air fleets in a vain endeavour to shake their spirit by burning the homes of the poor, shattering with high explosives, hospitals full of wounded men, and pursuing defenceless citizens with machine-guns. The success which has hitherto attended the Finnish arms has evoked the admiration of the world, and we rejoice to think that the help which has been given from this country has been of real value to Finland. I am glad to say that further aid is now on its way.

In Belgrade there has been a meeting of the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of Turkey, Yugoslavia and Rumania and the President of the Council of Greece. As a result of this meeting it has been announced that the Pact of the Balkan Entente has been renewed for a further period of seven years from February, 1941. This announcement indicates the determination of the Governments of these countries to do everything in their power to maintain stability and security in South-eastern Europe. The decision is most welcome, especially if, as we believe to be the case, the other States of Southeastern Europe have this important object equally at heart. His Majesty's Government warmly sympathise with these efforts, which they sincerely hope may be attended by success.

His Majesty's Government have also been engaged in friendly discussions with a Greek delegation which included the Greek Minister of Finance and the Governor of the Bank of Greece. As a result of these discussions, satisfactory agreements have been reached on a number of financial and economic questions which are of mutual interest to the two Governments. These included a settlement regarding the service of the Greek external debt for the duration of the war, negotiated between the Greek Minister of Finance and the Council of Foreign Bondholders and League Loans Committee.

Little has happened in the several theatres of war that is not already known to the House. There has been no change in the military situation on the Western Front. In the air, winter conditions have exposed men and material during the last few weeks to the sternest test of their adequacy. The strain on our Air Force has been severe, but it has been borne without flinching. A great deal of active service flying must continue whatever the weather, and no praise can be too high for the men who have carried on their duties in the teeth of such conditions. There is no need to repeat here accounts which have appeared in the Press of air activities, but it would be wrong to pass over without notice the very skilful combined operations by which naval patrol vessels and a Royal Air Force flying boat succeeded in destroying a submarine which ventured to attack a convoy.

Attacks by German aeroplanes on British and neutral ships, which have recently increased in intensity, are claimed by the enemy as great victories in the war against British shipping. These raids are generally carried out on days when low, thick clouds cover the shipping lanes. They are made by aeroplanes singly or in pairs at widely separated points, and it would appear that instructions have been given to enemy pilots to do their utmost to avoid contact with our defences. But on February 3 our fighters were given their opportunity. The German wireless took the unusual course of admitting that three of the enemy aircraft out of the comparatively small number which were operating had been lost, and we know that at least one other was so badly damaged that it was probably unable, to reach its base. The extent of the successes claimed by Germany for this method of attack bears no relation to the facts. For example, on February 3 it was asserted by the enemy that in the air raid on that day along the East Coast, no less than nine merchantmen, as well as other vessels, were sunk, and that the British ships sunk were all in convoy. The facts are that, in this raid, one Norwegian merchantman was sunk and no British merchant ship was lost.

These vauntings are poured out like a smoke screen to conceal stories of callous brutality, as inhuman as any yet recorded of the enemy. The bombing of unarmed merchant ships and fishing boats from the air, followed by machine gunning of the crews at elevations which make it quite clear that there could be no doubt as to their identity, are now all too familiar. The German wireless statement on the 30th of last month that "the British naval patrol vessel 'East Dudgeon' has been sunk by German aircraft" is a falsification intended to cover up from the world a deliberate and savage attack on a lightship. To seafaring folks of all nations the" East Dudgeon "is well known as a lightship and its identity was unmistakable. She was, naturally, unarmed. We have always shared with other civilised nations the view that lightships, because of the nature of their services, are outside the scope of hostilities, and, in the case of British lightships, they are not even utilised to report the presence of enemy craft in their vicinity.

On the morning of the 30th an enemy aeroplane was seen to fly over the "East Dudgeon" lightship. The only survivor of the crew of eight tells his story simply in these words: We were not alarmed because on previous occasions German pilots had waved to us and left us alone. But on this occasion the bomber dived suddenly and sprayed the deck with machine-gun bullets, and later dropped nine bombs, the last of which hit our ship. That is briefly the story of the attack on the lightship "East Dudgeon." The dead bodies of seven of her defenceless crew were found next morning on the sea shore. The killing of fishermen, merchant seamen, and of lightship crews in circumstances such as I have related, is not war, but murder. Such acts of pure gangsterism can have little, if any, practical effect on the outcome of the war. The horror and disgust which they excite in the minds of all decent peoples only make us the more resolved to carry on the struggle until civilisation is purged of such wickedness.

Let this short statement to-day conclude on another note. Nothing has been said of the Home Front, because the problems which have there to be faced are well known to your Lordships and can be more appropriately discussed on other occasions. However, in a recent speech, the Prime Minister sought to bring home to the country the magnitude of the effort we are making in our factories and workshops to supply the war material needed by our rapidly expanding fighting services. No one who studies the figures can doubt the determination of the British Empire to throw all its resources into the fight against the rule of aggression. We cannot tell how long the fight may last, nor what stern trials may yet await us. But we have no reason to be dissatisfied with the opening phases of the war, and we face the future with calm determination and unshaken confidence.

4.15 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Earl has reminded us that it is three weeks since we had a statement of this kind relating to the progress of the war and to the international situation. The statement that we have heard was a summary of events which more or less were already within our knowledge; nevertheless these statements are generally welcome to your Lordships. They help us, even if they are couched in designedly obscure language, and an altogether exaggerated ambiguousness. I do not complain of that, because the Government alone know what it is and what it is not wise to say. The subjects discussed in the statement included, of course, a well-deserved tribute to the Air Force and the extraordinarily fine work that they are doing, and to the Navy and auxiliary services. I am sure that we should all like to join in that tribute and to assure the men that they have our constant thought and our deepest gratitude. I did not notice any reference in the statement to the help that we are now receiving from the Dominions, from India and from the Colonial Empire, but we are in the same degree grateful for, and immensely encouraged and fortified by, their comradeship and their help.

I was a little disappointed in not hearing rather more in the statement about the situation in the Balkans. We were, of course, reminded that the pact of friendship had been renewed for a further seven years and that consultations had been taking place; but I should have thought that the situation in the Balkans at the present time was of such outstanding importance that a few words of guidance to Parliament could have been given on this occasion. Personally, I should have liked some assurance that what has taken place has been agreeable to Turkey and that our relationships with Turkey have not been disturbed by the events of recent weeks. I should also have hoped that the Government might have been able to say a word or two about the position of Italy in regard to the Balkans and also about the very difficult position of Rumania. We feel our way through the newspapers day by day, and we do understand what a very difficult task Rumania at the present time has to fulfil.

I should like to join with the noble Earl, as I am sure the whole House would, in the testimony that he paid to the Finns and their heroic defence of their homeland. I cannot help feeling that Finland is fighting the battle of civilisation at the present time, and I can only express a fervent hope that the help that we have sent and are still sending will not arrive too late to save them. There is no reference in the statement that we have heard to the position in the Far East. I hope that has not deteriorated in any way; indeed, the settlement of the "Asama Maru" affair suggests that a compromise has been reached which is to the credit, I think, both of Japan and of our own country. It was a situation full of difficulties for both nations. It was not possible for us, for example, to allow able-bodied belligerents to resume their service in Germany, and the seizure of these men was so near to Japanese waters that it created understandable difficulties for the Japanese people. I think both Governments have emerged from that controversy in a way that is creditable to them. The statement also said very little about the losses at sea, except in reference to the "East Dudgeon" lightship. That cannot possibly bring any credit, either now or in history, to the German nation. One cannot understand how a great people, with great traditions, can sink to baseness of that particular character. If it is an illustration of Deutsche Kultur, we may be very thankful that we do not have it in this country.

The only thing I would say further is a reference to the Home Front. Here I should like to assume a much more critical tone, but I will reserve those criticisms for a future occasion. I suppose the position of agriculture does not come properly within the purview of these statements, although the production of food is indeed a very important part of our national defence. I should have liked to say that this subject has been wickedly neglected throughout the past ten years, and one of these days I will say that, with some evidence to support the statement. Then I think we ought to have been assured that the production of armaments is going on satisfactorily, and that shipbuilding is also something from which we may take comfort. Before I close, I cannot help reminding His Majesty's Government that there are still a million and a half unemployed in the country, and I am sure that if we were in power, instead of His Majesty's Government, a Vote of Censure would be moved on us every day in every week that Parliament sat. The excuses that are now offered to us for the existence of this million and a half of unemployed would give us no kind of immunity. No Government at any time in any country ever had so considerate an Opposition as His Majesty's present Government have, but one of these days we shall probably have to revert to our old right to criticise on the traditional lines, and to try to do to His Majesty's Government what they would undoubtedly do to us if they were in our place. But for the time being I thank the noble Earl for the statement that he has made, and I beg to move for Papers.

4.25 p.m.


My Lords, I have very little to add to what has fallen from the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition, but I should like to express the great satisfaction I feel at the meeting of the Supreme War Council in Paris. My old association with France makes me particularly susceptible to the merits of the statement which the noble Earl has made on that subject. One feels that, as he said, the advantage arising from the meeting of the War Council is merely an illustration of the general friendship and alliance which we have with France in the domain of economics as well as in all matters concerned with the War, and we are delighted to think how happy the personal relations are, both between the statesmen of the two countries and the naval, military and Air Force leaders of both. I think there is no more happy augury of ultimate victory than the complete understanding which exists between France and ourselves at this moment.

It is impossible to speak on this statement without paying the same tribute that Lord Snell did to the gallant conduct of the Finns. I only hope that the further help which the noble Earl stated we are endeavouring to give to that heroic country will be on the largest possible scale, and that in the strange circumstances of what we are not allowed to call a war between Russia and Finland it may be possible to offer that assistance on a larger scale than would be possible if a regular state of war existed between the two countries. Like the noble Lord, I also should have been glad, had it been possible to say something in rather more detail about the recent Conference of the Balkan States, but I can understand that His Majesty's Government do not find it possible to enter into close particulars of that subject. It certainly does seem as though there was a real union of purpose and conviction between those States comprising the Balkan Entente, and the attitude of Turkey is of the first importance in that connection. I have nothing further to add. I listened with great interest to the final observations of the noble Lord about a possible debate on agriculture, which admittedly is not precisely germane to the statement that the noble Earl has made, but I quite agree with him that it is very desirable, and it should be, I think, of extreme interest when the discussion comes on. I trust therefore that the noble Lord will not defer it too long.

4.30 p.m.


My Lords, I do not know that I need say very much in reply to the two speeches which have been made, except to explain to the House that my noble friend the Foreign Secretary is unable to be here to-day, because I know he has an official engagement which he was unable to cancel or postpone. I can perhaps say this on his behalf, that, as regards the Balkan Conference, as the noble Lord opposite will realise, we ourselves were not present, and these countries are always proclaiming their neutrality, so we are naturally not in a position to know what happened at this Conference, which was necessarily private; but the noble Lord will see, not only from the communiqué which was issued, but from the speeches made that night both by the Foreign Secretary of Rumania and the Foreign Secretary of Yugoslavia, that these four countries were in complete agreement so far as the Con- ference went. He will recognise that, of course, Turkey was one of these four countries, and therefore the conclusions reached must have been satisfactory to Turkey, otherwise she would not have agreed to that communiqué. I can certainly give the assurance that anything that happened at this Conference has in no way minimised our friendship or agreement with our good friends in Turkey. As regards Japan, there is nothing further that need be said except to agree wholeheartedly with the noble Lord that the satisfactory conclusion of the "Asama Maru" incident shows that friendship between our countries is, at any rate, improving, and on that we may perhaps base further hope. I note that the old Adam of the noble Lord opposite may some day arise, and that he will attack the Government on agriculture and other subjects As regards unemployment, I am not quite sure it was not his Party that once, at a General Election, put up posters, "We can conquer unemployment."


It was the Liberals!


As it was not the Party of the noble Lord, that would not justify me in making the obvious retort. He will recognise, as time goes on, that the situation in regard to unemployment will get very different from what it is today, although he, too, realises that some of those who appear as unemployed are really not physically capable of taking on war industry, unfortunately not only for themselves but also for the country. Therefore in some ways these figures are misleading. I should like to thank the noble Lord and the noble Marquess for the way they have received the Government statement, and I am only sorry there was not more of interest to say on this occasion.


My Lords, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

House adjourned at twenty-six minutes before five o'clock.