HL Deb 16 January 1940 vol 115 cc299-313

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


My Lords, although some weeks have passed since the last statement was made to the House, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, in his speech at the Mansion House last week, gave the country a general picture of the progress and prospects of the war. Your Lordships, I have no doubt, will have read that speech and will not expect me to repeat all that was said on that occasion, but will only desire that I should give a short general review of the position as it exists to-day.

The past week-end brought renewed anxiety about German designs against Belgium and the Netherlands. Reports show that both the Belgian and Netherlands Governments have taken a number of precautionary measures. From the Netherlands it is reported that all Army leave has been stopped for the time being, and that in Belgium all soldiers now on I leave have been ordered to return to their units, and a certain number of fresh troops and technical experts have been called to the colours. These are no panic measures, but the natural and wise precautions of two Governments, both of whom have repeatedly affirmed their determination to defend their territory against any act of aggression and who, in spite of their obvious interest in the maintenance of peace, find themselves confronted on their own borders by a formidable concentration of overwhelming military power. We cannot but admire the calm and courageous attitude both of the two Governments and of the Belgian and Dutch peoples. Owing to their exposed geographical situation their position is not always an enviable one and they are undoubtedly wise to neglect no measure which may contribute to their security.

In Northern Europe we have been watching with profound sympathy and admiration the gallant Finnish people who, in the face of overwhelming odds, are resisting with such heroism and, I am happy to say, such success, the brutal attack of which they have been the victims. The policy of His Majesty's Government with regard to Finland is founded on the Resolution adopted by the Assembly of the League of Nations on December 14, appealing to every Member of the League to provide Finland with such material and humanitarian assistance as may be in its power. Arrangements have been made by which export licences are being granted for the release, consistently with the needs of His Majesty's Government, of certain war material of which the Finnish Government are in need. It would not be in the public interest to give particulars of the war material concerned, but your Lordships may rest assured that the amounts involved are substantial.

The Mediterranean area has happily been spared so far the suffering and horror inseparable from war. His Majesty's Government trust that this will long continue. Certain dislocations of normal life have been, and will remain, inevitable, but it is our aim, while pursuing the war with all determination, to avoid as far as is consistent with that object, inflicting injury upon the interests of neutral powers. The situation in the Far East continues to be dominated by the hostili- ties between China and Japan. While there are as yet no definite indications that might warrant any optimistic forecast of a peaceful settlement in the near future, we have welcomed recent action by the Japanese Government in the direction of relaxing some of the restrictions which have from time to time caused difficulty and tension in relations with third Powers.

In the Near East the disastrous earthquake in Turkey followed by unprecedented floods in the neighbourhood of Smyrna, have taken heavy toll of life and property. We sought at an early stage to give concrete proof of the deep sympathy which the people of this country feel for the Turkish people in their misfortunes by contributing a sum of money to the relief of the victims. The French Government have done the same. Since then both Governments have informed the Turkish Government of their desire to give more help and His Majesty's Government have sent supplies of food, medical stores, and blankets. Further assistance of this nature has been offered.

His Majesty's Government are glad to express their great satisfaction that the negotiations which have been proceeding successively in London and Paris with the Secretary-General of the Turkish Ministry for Foreign Affairs have been satisfactorily concluded and that various agreements of an economic and financial character were signed in Paris on January 8. Under these agreements, His Majesty's Government and the French Government undertake to lend to the Turkish Government £25,000,000 sterling for the purchase of armaments in this country and in France; £15,000,000 in gold and £2,000,000 which will liquidate the arrears in the Anglo-Turkish clearing and £1,500,000 which will liquidate the arrears in the Franco-Turkish clearing. The £25,000,000 loan for the purchase of armaments will hear interest at the rate of 4 per cent. and the remainder of the loans will hear interest at 3 per cent. They are repayable in twenty years. The interest and sinking fund will be paid in Turkish pounds to be used for the purchase of Turkish goods—including in particular Turkish tobacco. His Majesty's Government and the French Government, have undertaken also to purchase annually Turkish dried fruits to a value of £2,000,000 for the duration of the war with option on either side to terminate this arrangement in March, 1943, if the war is still continuing at that date. The Turkish pounds received for the service of the £25,000,000 loan will be available towards this purpose. The agreements are evidence of the close collaboration and association in every sphere which, after the signature of the Treaty of Mutual Assistance in Angora in October last, His Majesty's Government and the French Government have been able to establish with the Turkish Government.

The relations between Great Britain and France themselves are, as the House knows, more close and cordial than ever before. In the field of supply the closest co-operation exists between the Departments concerned in this country and those in France. The machinery of the Anglo-French Co-ordinating Committee and the various Executive Committees provides, among other things, for the preparation in common of their programmes of imports and thus enables the material resources of the two countries to be used to the best advantage in the prosecution of the war. Parallel to this Anglo-French organisation in Europe, a joint purchasing organisation has been established in America. This close collaboration between the British and French Departments is well illustrated by the welcome visit of M. Dautry, the French Minister of Armament, who is at present over here for discussions with the Minister of Supply. As a result of the Financial Agreement concluded in December last, the unity of action of our two countries in the prosecution of the war has been made complete. Indeed, it is our hope that the system of collaboration which has been thus evolved may in time lead to closer relations in the economic and financial sphere between the nations of Europe and of the world, and so facilitate the work of peaceful reconstruction to which we look forward after the successful termination of the war.

In the several theatres of war there have been no major engagements. Patrolling and artillery fire have continued on the Western Front, and the British troops in the Maginot Line sector have taken their full share in these activities. During the last month air activity has been hampered by short daylight, high winds, frost, fog and snow-covered landing grounds; yet our air forces have none the less been continu- ously in action, in particular over the whole battle area of the North Sea. Every week considerable bomber forces have swept the Heligoland Bight and the approaches to the Baltic in search of such units of the German Fleet as might venture to put to sea. Reconnaissance has been regularly maintained deep into German territory, in part by aircraft based on this country, in part by those of the British Air Forces in France. This long distance reconnaissance has now been extended to Eastern Germany, and to Austria and Bohemia.

The House will have read with profound regret the communiqué issued by the Admiralty this afternoon announcing that during the past week H.M. Submarines "Seahorse," "Undine" and "Starfish" have failed to return to their bases or to report and must now be regarded as having been lost. Your Lordships will wish me to express the admiration which we all feel for the courage with which the officers and men of these vessels faced the hazardous duties on which they were engaged and our deep sympathy with the relatives of those who have been lost. We understand that the German wireless indicates that some survivors from the "Undine" and "Starfish" have been picked up, but we have as yet no further information as to possible survivors.

In the war at sea, the lack of success attained by the U-boat campaign was followed by the indiscriminate and un-notified strewing of mines on the high seas, careless alike of the conventions of civilised warfare and of the consequences to innocent passengers and crews. It would not be in the public interest to say more on this subject at present than that this latest threat is already coming under control and that we have every confidence in being able presently to defeat it. Your Lordships have already been informed of the introduction of the system of offensive patrols carried out by our aircraft over the operating bases of the German seaplanes. These patrols have been maintained throughout the hours of darkness on every night during which weather conditions would allow seaplanes to operate; bombs have been dropped whenever lights have been exposed to enable aircraft to take off from the water, and a rigid black-out has been enforced upon the enemy's bases. During the hours of daylight enemy aircraft have rarely ventured within reach of our fighter forces and our patrols have repeatedly gone up to seek for aircraft which turned back when encountered and evaded pursuit. Our reconnaissance patrols have, however, had frequent encounters with these wandering German aircraft out over the North Sea and though not themselves equipped as fighters have invariably taken the offensive and have pressed it home by every means at their disposal.

In the last few weeks we have been horrified by the calculated brutality involved in enemy attacks from the air on unarmed and unescorted trawlers. In December, thirty-two attacks of this nature were made and took the form of the bombing and machine gunning of crews. Six trawlers were sunk and four damaged; twenty-two escaped undamaged. During the present month, there have been no less than thirteen similar attacks from the air on unarmed trawlers. Two of these were sunk. A further outrage, wholly incompatible with the universally accepted principles of warfare between civilised peoples, was committed against a lightship and against a Trinity House tender carrying men on lightship relief. These are men whose lives are devoted to the service of their fellowmen of every nation and who might claim to be immune from attack. Yet they were brutally machine gunned, two of them were killed and thirty-two were wounded by machine gun bullets. It is significant that all these cowardly attacks were made in weather conditions which increased the difficulties of interception by our aircraft and that they died down as soon as improved conditions made it possible for our standing patrols to press home their pursuit.

Since the last statement, there have been many examples of the important part which the oversea Dominions are taking in the war. The circumstances of naval warfare make it difficult to reveal the duties on which the Navies of the Dominions have been constantly engaged, but there has happily been no need to conceal the heroic action of His Majesty's Ship "Achilles," one of the two cruisers of the New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy, in the brilliant engagement which led to the destruction of the "Graf Spee." The recent arrival in this country of two contingents of the Canadian active service force is further proof of the determination of the Dominions to play their full part in the struggle for freedom. The special forces raised in Australia and New Zealand for service overseas have now received intensive training and will shortly be able to take their places in the theatre where their services are in most immediate demand. Agreement has been reached between the Governments of the United Kingdom, Canada, the Commonwealth of Australia and New Zealand on the details of the Empire air training scheme, and there is now no obstacle to the development of that great enterprise. The House is aware of the extent to which pilots and other personnel from the Dominions are serving in the Air Forces here and the valiant exploits which they have already performed.

The training of both land and air forces in the Union of South Africa is being rapidly developed, and these forces are in a position to assist in African defence when the need arises. In Newfoundland several hundred men have been recruited for patrol duty in the Royal Navy; some 200 of these have already arrived in this country. Newfoundland has also been asked for help in the provision of loggers and is recruiting 2,000 men for this service, 300 of whom have arrived. The Southern Rhodesia Minister of Defence is at present in London, and discussions are proceeding with him as to the best method of using the further contribution in land and air forces which Southern Rhodesia has generously offered to make. In India preparations go steadily forward and it is clear from the large numbers of persons who have offered themselves for enlistment, many more than it is possible at present to accept, that eagerness to assist the cause for which we have taken up arms continues unabated. A certain number of Indian troops, mainly companies of the Royal Indian Army Service Corps, and the Royal Indian Army Veterinary Corps, have, as your Lordships have read in the newspapers, taken their place in the Expeditionary Force in France.

The Colonial Empire still continues to bring valuable reinforcement of many kinds to our war effort. The first Colonial contingent has now arrived in France in the form of a transport unit from Cyprus. It is representative of all those Colonial military forces which are ready to defend their own lands and liberties against the common enemy. Even in those territories where enemy propaganda has been at the greatest pains to produce a reaction in Germany's favour, these efforts have met with strikingly little success. This is particularly the case in Palestine where, despite an intensive drive by the German Ministry of Propaganda, the situation is now calmer than it has been for some years.

There is little needed to complete this statement. I am speaking this afternoon at the first meeting of Parliament after an adjournment of several weeks, and on one of the early days of a new year and a new decade. On such an occasion it is natural to look into the future and wonder what strange drama we should see on the stage of time if we were able to draw aside the curtain. Yet there could scarcely be a more difficult moment at which to indulge in speculations of this kind. From the viewpoint of today it would be idle to try and picture the course of history in the 1940's or even in the present year. At the moment there is a lull in the operations of war, but at any time that lull may be sharply broken and events may occur within a few weeks or even a few hours which will reshape the history of the world. We, in this country, hope as do the peoples of every nation that the just and lasting peace which we are seeking will not be long delayed. On the other hand it may well be that the war is about to enter upon a more acute phase. If that should prove to be the case, we are ready for it, and in common with our Allies we will spare no effort and no sacrifice that may be necessary to secure the victory on which we are determined.

4.20 p.m.


My Lords, my first duty is to thank the noble Earl for the statement he has made, even though I am not able to congratulate him upon the liveliness of its contents. I am at a disadvantage in commenting upon it immediately after having heard it. But it does appear to be restricted to matters with which we are at least partly familiar. Our attention to the Press in these days is very keen and therefore there is nothing new which His Majesty's Government have thought it right to bring to our attention. I cannot help feeling, however, that these reports are not designed to sustain the still excellent morale of the country. There is no outlook indicated in them and we are left to feel our way from week to week with the rather dull and passing events at the present time.

I should like, very briefly, to comment on what the statement has said in regard to Finland. I hope that the help that is to be given will be given quickly, that it will be adequate, and that it will be of the right kind. The Government are able to take the necessary steps without complications because no declaration of war has been made, but we must remember that should the Finns be beaten in this struggle the strategical position of Europe would be immediately altered and probably to the very grievous disadvantage of our own country. It is easy and it is cheap to praise the valour of the Finns and to admire their endurance, but it would seem that David in meeting the Goliath before him has, at the present time, scarcely a stone to his sling. When history comes to tell the story of the gallant stand that they have made, I hope it will not have also to record that the world remained either indifferent to their fate or failed to render them sufficient help. In regard to Turkey, the whole country, I am sure, will be glad at the action which His Majesty's Government have thought it right to take, and though four per cent. philanthropy does not seem to be over generous, I nevertheless hope that it will be effective and I am sure that the sympathy of the Government and of the nation will be very welcome to the Turkish people. Then what has been said about the help from the Dominions, from India and from the Colonies, is also highly welcome. I do not think we even now sufficiently realise how wonderful the contribution is that is being made by all parts of the British Commonwealth. From this side of the House we share very closely the tribute that has been made.

That is all I wish to say to-day respecting what has been said in the statement, but I should like to say something about what has been omitted from it. There has, as your Lordships are aware, been some change in the composition of the Government, and one perhaps expected that a passing word at least might have been devoted to that subject. I do not propose, this afternoon, to speak very long on this matter, but I should like, if I may, to lament in a passing word the disappearance from office of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Macmillan, who inherited a very difficult task and who, I am sure, is quite happy to be relieved of it. The other matter is one which we cannot let pass by without a word of comment—that is the dismissal of the Secretary of State for War from his great position. I have not heard the statement that he has made in another place or the reply that was made to that statement. The personal aspect is one which the right honourable gentleman is quite well able to deal with himself, and I do not doubt he will do so, but there are a few public considerations which I feel your Lordships' House has a responsibility to consider.

The Press, especially that section of it which is the very obedient servant of His Majesty's Government, has assured us that there have been acute difficulties between the late Secretary of State for War and the high military command and that, in one way or another, his dismissal has been secured. 1 do not say that those statements are correct, but I do say that, if they are correct, if there has in fact been any interference with Ministerial appointments by the high military command, that raises an issue of very great magnitude which Parliament cannot ignore. Soldiers are servants of the Crown and they have their own task to perform. All that the nation asks from them is that they should try to do it with diligent efficiency. For my own part I say they will not be allowed, no matter by whom supported, to say what Ministers shall remain in office and who shall be dismissed. Parliament will look after that.

But there are a few questions of principle upon which I should like to say a word. I should like to know from His Majesty's Government whether the reforms recently initiated through the War Office are to stand or whether they are to be reviewed, modified or perhaps cancelled. I should like to ask whether this change of Ministers which has taken place is a prelude for a general reconstruction of the War Cabinet. There is, so far as I can see, no evidence at all on that, and once before I have pointed out in your Lordships' House that on the War Cabinet there was no economic expert available, and there appears to be a dwindling number of those who have political experience. The War Cabinet is rapidly developing into an inner circle of functionaries and of representatives of big business. I do not know why Members of Parliament could not have filled these positions. If the Government wish in that way to confess that the Tory Party has not any men in it able to perform these important tasks, Heaven knows I should not disagree with that opinion, but it does seem as though the situation required to be reviewed.

I should have liked to say something about the step which has been taken by the Prime Minister in this matter, but as I have not had the opportunity of hearing or reading what he has said in another place this afternoon, I prefer not to do so. I should like merely to express my own opinion, which is that the economic warfare is at present almost as important as any other aspect of our undertaking. I believe—so far as I know, at least—that the Minister for Economic Warfare is doing his best in a very difficult position. I also believe that the whole economic policy of His Majesty's Government is wrong and that the day will come, and not be too long delayed, when it will have to be reviewed. That is all that I wish to say on this occasion, and I will conclude by thanking the noble Earl for the statement that he has made. I beg to move for Papers.

4.35 P.m.


My Lords, I desire in the first place to join in thanking the noble Earl opposite for the statement that he has made—in one sense the very full statement, but, as the noble Lord pointed out, one with certain omissions. It is undoubtedly true that during the weeks since we last met here there has remained a general sense of a certain stagnation in the war, doubt, mainly to the fact that the vast land forces of all the belligerents are for the time being relegated to comparative inactivity. On the other hand, as has been pointed out, there has been much activity as well. It is since we last met that the country has received the full account of the naval action off Montevideo, and we all feel that that action was of the highest importance in more senses than one: in the first place from the material advantage gained by the destruction of a very important enemy ship, but still more by showing that the great tradition is maintained of almost reckless enterprise, joined to consummate seamanship, which has filled so many chapters of the glorious history of the British Navy. Also, of course, we cannot forget the work which is done day by day by the submarines, and it was with distress, I am sure, that we all heard the statement which the noble Earl made on the recent losses in that force. Of course, all this time we have been admiring the perpetual and brilliant actions of the Royal Air Force, carried out under conditions of almost incredible difficulty, as they must be in the weather which has existed lately, and carried out with a degree of success for which we are all most grateful.

I entirely agree with what fell from Lord Snell on the subject of Finland. There can be only one opinion: of admiration for the gallant resistance of that little nation, a resistance to which in the whole of history there can be only two or three parallels. I join also in hoping that the help which His Majesty's Government are able to extend to Finland may be on the most generous possible scale. It must be limited, as we know, by the fact that we are ourselves engaged in what is perhaps the greatest war in which this country has ever had to take part, but subject to that I hope it may be given on the most just and generous possible scale. It is almost ironical to reflect that the fact that there is nominally no war between Russia and Finland may possibly be of assistance to the form of help which we are able to render. I do not attempt to touch on what the noble Earl said about the position of Holland and Belgium, which we have all been watching with keen interest and anxiety during these last few days, because it would be idle in the absence of any knowledge to attempt anticipations of the course which the Germans with their mysterious plans—or absence of plans—may think it possible to take.

Therefore I touch for a moment on the subject which, as Lord Snell observed, has not so far been mentioned from the Front Bench opposite: that of the recent Ministerial changes. Speaking only for myself, I know that it is possible at times of crisis like these to attach excessive importance to the tenure of a particular office by any particular person. I think it is only in cases where some great principle of action is involved that changes in the occupancy of a particular office are of first-class importance. Like most of your Lordships, I have not heard or known what passed in another place with regard to the War Office, but I think that the noble Lord, Lord Snell, may have gone too far in thinking that there was any real foundation for the view that the change in the Secretaryship of State was due to pressure placed on the Prime Minister by the military authorities. So far as I know, there is no warrant for that belief and, from such experience as I have had of these matters, I should greatly hesitate to believe it to be possible. As I say, I speak subject to the explanation made in another place.

But I should like to pay a tribute to the qualities which I believe that Mr. Hore-Belisha has shown, both as Minister of Transport and at the War Office—great originality of mind and, I have no doubt also, willingness to accept new ideas put forward by others and to translate them into action. I hope, therefore, that his services may not altogether be lost to the country, but that in time he will be able to take a conspicuous part in public affairs. I hope also that in occupying the same post Mr. Stanley may be able to carry on the remarkable traditions of his family in holding the highest offices in the State, and I look forward to seeing him play a really important part in the office on which now so much depends.

I would also join with Lord Snell in shedding a tear over the loss to our discussions here of the presence of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Macmillan, as Minister of Information. The whole history of the Ministry of Information has, in a way, been a singular one. The collection of information in ordinary times has always been the business of the Press, and has been well carried out by the Press, with close communication with, and access to, the public offices, particularly, in time of peace, to the Foreign Office. It was evident when war broke out that a system of censorship was required. In ordinary times the notion of any general censorship of the Press is altogether odious to the British mind, but in war time it is felt to be absolutely different. But then the Censorship, we were told, had little or no relation to the Ministry of Information, and, though the widest source of all information to the public was broadcasting, we were again— at least I was—thoroughly puzzled by the intimation that broadcasting had nothing whatever to do with the Ministry of Information. Therefore I confess I am still somewhat in the dark. I am sure that everybody is grateful to Lord Macmillan for having taken a most difficult task at a most difficult moment, and I trust now that the remarkable qualities which Sir John Reith has shown elsewhere will be developed and exhibited in a form which will make the Ministry of Information what we all have long hoped that it might really be.

I have nothing really to add, except again to thank the noble Earl opposite. In his concluding grave words he made us all feel that the Government are aware that, although the political and international weather is rough, the storm has not yet really broken, and it may break at any moment. All we can say is that we look forward to that time with a feeling of confidence, which is anything but light-hearted, but most serious, but it is real confidence because we know that the spirit of the country is and will be upheld.

4.50 p.m.


My Lords, I can speak again only by leave of the House, and I do not know that there is anything very much that I can say in reply to the two speeches which have been made by the two noble Lords who lead the Opposition. I think your Lordships will all feel that the situation between the Prime Minister and the late Secretary of State for War is one that primarily concerns those two individuals, and therefore it would obviously be right that your Lordships should wait to read what has been said in another place and what has happened there. I can only add one remark. The noble Lord opposite asked for a guarantee that the changes that have been made in the Army should not now be thrown aside. I can certainly give him that guarantee. He will realise, of course, in the first instance, that the majority of those reforms, at any rate, were proposed to the Secretary of State by his own military advisers, and therefore it is very unlikely, with the same military experts at the War Office, that there are going to be changes simply because there is a new Secretary of State in that Department.

I do not think there is anything further that I need say in that direction except that, if the noble Lord has ever tried to bring pressure on the present Prime Minister, he will realise that that is the very last way in which he is likely to get what he wants. The Prime Minister is not a person who is moved by pressure which he would be the first to consider wrongly applied, and he would probably go in exactly the opposite direction if such an attempt were made. Therefore I think the noble Lord can rest assured that there was no such pressure as he suggested in regard to this particular change in that appointment.


My Lords, I beg your Lordships' leave to withdraw the Motion which stands in my name.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

Control. Controller. Number of Staff.
Treasury Exchange Control The general system of Exchange Control which is in operation is a direct function of the Treasury and the Bank of England. There is no controller.
Capital Issues Control. No controllers have been appointed. The Treasury is advised by the Capital Issues Committee as to the giving or withholding of its consent under the Defence (Finance) Regulations.
Ministry of Supply. Alcohol Mr. A. V. Board, D.S.O., M.C. 24
Aluminium The Hon. G. Cunliffe 66
Cotton Sir Percy Ashley 51
Other Fertilisers Mr. H. U. Cunningham 12
Flax Sir Harry Lindsay, K.C.I.E., C.B.E. 54
Hemp Mr. A. M. Landauer 42
Iron and Steel Sir Andrew Duncan, G.B.E. (succeeded on the 9th January, 1940, by Colonel Sir Charles Wright, Bt., K.B.E., C.B.). *
Jute Mr. G. Malcolm, C.B.E. 30
Leather Dr. E. C. Snow 54
Non-Ferrous Metals Captain O. Lyttelton, D.S.O., M.C. *
Paper Mr. A. Ralph Reed 68
Silk Mr. H. O. Hambleton 4
Industrial Ammonia Mr. F. C. O. Speyer 9
Sulphuric Acid Mr. N. Garrod Thomas 21
Timber Major A. I. Harris 583†
Wool Sir Harry Shackleton 909
*Definitive arrangements for staffing not yet determined.
†Excluding Department II (Home Grown Timber), which is mainly staffed by Civil Servants of the Forestry Commission.

There are, in addition, a number of other controls of which examples are Toluene and Mercury, operated from the headquarters of the Ministry of Supply.