HL Deb 18 June 1940 vol 116 cc585-91

My Lords, may I ask the Leader of the House whether he can make any statement on the international situation?


My Lords, yesterday at mid-day Marshal Pétain broadcast a message to the French nation saying that their Armies must cease to fight. He had already, through General Franco, asked if Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini would be ready to sign the means to end hostilities as between soldiers in honour. The events leading up to this tragic utterance must be narrated. Fourteen days ago the French Amies, reorganised under General Weygand, awaited the German onslaught on the lines of the Somme and the Aisne. In spite of all their efforts, magnificently supported as they were by the Royal Air Force, the French Armies were overwhelmed. His Majesty's Government lost no time in sending troops to support the French Armies immediately after the Dunkirk evacuation. The tide was not stemmed.

On June 14 Paris was abandoned by the French Government, and the French Armies, exhausted by ten days of incessant fighting and marching, found themselves holding an extended line in which breaches had already been made west of the Seine and on the vital front in Champagne. On the same day, June 14, M. Reynaud made his last appeal to the President of the United States of America. He made it clear that the continuation of the struggle was dependent on increased moral and material support from those who shared the French faith in democracy. His Majesty's Government responded in terms which your Lordships will all remember. On the following day, June 15, the President of the United States pledged his country to refuse to recognise any infringement of the independence or territorial integrity of France, while at the same time he made it clear that any questions of military commitments were matters for Congress. Meanwhile the French Government left Tours to go to Bordeaux. On June 15 and 16 the French Government faced the question of the abandonment of the struggle. His Majesty's Government left nothing undone to show their determination to give France every support and to continue the struggle to its victorious conclusion. On June 16 His Majesty's Government offered to make the solemn declaration published this morning, in pursuance of which the two nations were to be fused into one great weapon for the accomplishment of their common purpose. The French Government did not accept this declaration.

At half-past eleven on the night of June 16 M. Reynaud resigned and Marshal Pétain took his place, with General Weygand as Vice-President of the Council. There immediately followed the request I have mentioned for terms of peace; but it is right to say that the new French Foreign Minister broadcast last night a message in which he made it clear that the French Government will never accept shameful conditions which mean the end of their spiritual freedom. If it was a choice between existence and honour, he said, their choice was already made. In these circumstances it would seem that some fighting is still continuing, although the German troops have surrounded the Maginot line and approached the Swiss frontier. The purpose of the declaration was not achieved, but the resolve of His Majesty's Government stands rock-like. As long as the resolution of their Allies abides, the British Empire is shoulder to shoulder with them. If, on the other hand, we stand alone to defend the right and the future of our own homes and the nations that have been soiled and ravaged by the German invasion, then I hope our courage will match our pride in a great hour.

It is a dark hour for France, and the sufferings of the French people have been immense. They have been tortured beyond endurance. But whether they cease to fight or not, we are persuaded the French authorities will do all in their power to remove every hindrance to the continuance of the struggle by their Allies. Our course is plain. The foe has to break the spirit of our Imperial race or he must fail. The centre of our resistance now lies in these islands. Our power to defend them and, in defending them, to defend the Empire, will decide this struggle.

I hope your Lordships will allow me to attempt to survey the resources with which we meet this challenge. Our superior sea-power is sufficient to defeat any attempt at sea-borne invasion, provided the co-operation of the Naval and Air Forces can ensure, as we believe it can, interception at sea. It is well to remember that in 1914 those who were responsible faced the risks of overseas invasion without keeping troops at home that were needed elsewhere. Then the Germans possessed a battle fleet of ten to our sixteen; to-day they have only two heavy ships which are worth mentioning. We can meet more confidently, even than during the early months of this war, sea-borne invasion on a great scale—that is to say, great enough to succeed. It is to be remembered in connection with the matter that I mentioned—namely, the power of the Royal Air Force, together with the Navy, to detect approaching invasion—that the resources of science have immensely aided the work of the Air Force in interception and are at this moment being yet ever more highly developed. Undoubtedly restless vigilance in action as well as in research must never be relaxed. Given that, we have every reason to count on success, and we may feel confidence in our own strength to resist such invasion.

Invasion from the air is a new factor of which we have to take the most serious account. Dunkirk saw an intensity of air operation which surpassed even the activity of the preceding months of the war. Day by day our fighters and bombers worked with each other and with their French comrades. Every day our patrols have operated over the narrow seas and on French soil. Each night our bombers have hammered at the enemy's columns and lines of communication as well as at their sources of supply in German territory. And, be it remembered, this last offensive is at the most yielding part of the enemy's line. The physical exhaustion of their people and the depletion of their stocks have been daily increased. In France, I am informed, where we worked at a considerable disadvantage, our Air Force inflicted losses of two or two and a half to one upon the enemy Air Force, and over Dunkirk a loss of three or four to one was suffered by the enemy. The very pictures of the Dunkirk embarkation, which all your Lordships have seen, are eloquent to describe the superiority of our airmen and our machines. Fighting over British soil we will have an advantage which is not generally recognised. All the crews whose machines are injured but who reach the ground safely will no longer be lost to the war; they will be available for yet more services on behalf of their country. Only as to numbers is there any further question. I am happy to say that our fighter strength to-day is stronger relatively to the Germans than ever before. The bomber force of the enemy is, in mere numbers, in excess of our own. But make no mistake about it, my Lords, we have a large bombing force and we shall continue to strike at the military targets in Germany.

No doubt we have to face in this country an ordeal by fire which will call up all our native reserves of endurance and fortitude. Fear is a traitor that must be expelled from our counsels. The greatest qualities of our race will now be called upon to play their part. It is unnecessary to speak of our Army's gallantry. Many soldiers lately back from France, where they had a searching and a testing experience, are anxious for only one thing, and that is to achieve on other fields or the same fields the victory of their country to-day. In this country there are one and a quarter million men now under arms in addition to the Local Defence Volunteers, though, of course, many of these are not equipped. Very large supplies of new weapons will very soon be made available.

But, my Lords, I have left till the last the mention of one great and unfailing source of confidence The Dominions have made a magnificent contribution to our strength. We have received many messages from each of them. If I quote two of them your Lordships will not misunderstand me; they are but examples which might be multiplied over and over again. I refer to one which has been received by the Prime Minister from the Prime Minister of one of the smallest Dominions, New Zealand: If His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom decide to fight on, we pledge this Dominion to remain with them to the end and we are confident this policy is unchangeable in the Dominion. At the same time we again pledge New Zealand to every form of assistance within our power, and, with the sole desire to render the maximum help, we will gladly and sympathetically consider any suggestions of any kind and at any time that His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom may think it desirable to make. Let me make one other quotation from the youngest of our Dominions, the Union of South Africa. The Prime Minister, in a telegram, says: Whatever the difficulties and trials ahead, and however long the road to victory may be, we hope to follow it to the end in company with our Commonwealth friends and other Allies. From Canada and Australia messages of equal determination to stay with us, to fight with us, to endure with us, and to win with us, have been received. My Lords, we have a fiery ordeal in this country through which we must pass. The faith of our fathers will sustain us however scorching the fire may be. To fight and endure for freedom's cause even more than our fathers endured will be a noble chapter in the history of our race, and I know that the people of our land will not fail.

4.17 p.m.


My Lords, the statement of the Leader of the House will not come as a surprise to any one of us, least of all the note of resolution which runs through it. The statement of Marshal Pétain and the French Government, wrung from them by anguish, I am quite sure touched the heart of every lover of liberty in every land. We reverence their heroic sacrifices, and it was a great comfort, I am sure, to all of us to read in the statement this morn- ing that they regarded their honour above all things and would accept no degrading peace. But it does mean, not for the first time, that we stand alone for the time being. I am quite sure that there is not a man or a woman in the land whose resolution is abated, indeed there is not one but who is more resolved than ever. We have stood in a similar position before, and seen the conquest of liberty in Europe ultimately turned back by Britain, but at that time we did not have, as the noble Viscount has reminded us now, the great Dominions for our support. Indeed, at that time we did not have the promise of the priceless material support of that very great people across the Atlantic.

I will only say that it seems to me there are two plain lessons for us all. We cannot fight mechanical Armies unless we have superior equipment. I do not think there is any man or woman in the country who is other than willing to help to obtain that. That demands—as I am sure from the Prime Minister we shall receive—efficient leadership. The times demand efficient leadership regardless of persons. Above all I feel sure we may confidently look for that leadership in the great service which is our first line of defence, never broken. With this leadership provided for us there is, I believe, no limit to the self sacrifice and service which our people are prepared to render.

4.22 p.m.


My Lords, the news from France came as a deep grief to us all, most of all to those of us who love France, who have some knowledge of the country, who have spent happy years there and enjoy many French friendships. On one thing we can be all united, in admiration for the valour and endurance which the French soldiers have shown against overwhelming odds. It seems that, so far as they can, they are continuing to show those qualities. It is useless to speak of the past. There is no more futile and feeble way of encountering misfortunes than to spend time in the discussion of who is most to blame for them, instead of devoting all energy and all thought to deciding how misfortunes can be repaired. To attempt to consider now on whom the responsibility rests—it may go back for years—for the fact that Germany has achieved that vast mechanical superiority which has been the one secret of her success would be idle. We must think of the present and of the future. We were all heartened last night by the staunchness of the Prime Minister's broadcast, and the whole spirit of that was reproduced in the statement which we have just heard from the noble Viscount. We have to think, as he did, of the unstinted support which we are receiving from the whole Empire. Those messages from the Dominions might, as he said, be repeated over and over again. I have no doubt that they could be repeated in similar form from many of the great Colonies. Therefore we are able to feel that, though these events may have set the end further off, perhaps much further off, yet the end is equally sure.