HL Deb 13 March 1940 vol 115 cc831-6

4.1 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to ask whether His Majesty's Government have any statement to make in regard to Finland.


My Lords, His Majesty's Minister in Helsingfors was informed this morning by the Finnish Minister for Foreign Affairs that Soviet-Finnish peace terms were signed in Moscow last night and that an armistice had been arranged at 11 a.m. to-day (Finnish time) between the two armies. Throughout the Soviet-Finnish struggle, His Majesty's Government, in concert with the French Government, have furnished to the Finns large quantities of war material and supplies of all sorts, particulars of which have been made known as far as it was in the public interest to do so. His Majesty's Government have in fact made plain their readiness to give all possible help to the Finns in their gallant struggle against aggression, and had made preparations to throw the full weight of all our available resources into the scales, on hearing that this would be in accordance with the desire of the Finnish Government. It has always been understood that it was for the Finnish Government to decide upon the course of action which they considered best suited to their interests, in the light of all available knowledge. In their decision they may be assured that the people of this country are united in sympathy for the situation in which they find themselves and in admiration for the courage with which they have maintained for so long the struggle against overwhelming odds. This epic story will ever be recounted in the chronicles of their own history and will remain alive in the memory of all peoples.

4.3 p.m.


My Lords, your Lordships will have heard the statement which has been made with mixed feelings: first, with a feeling of satisfaction that the physical agony of a small, almost miraculous little people has now ended; and secondly, with regret that the spiritual injuries that they have received will endure, that right has once more been defeated and wrong has once more triumphed in the world. Those are the matters for regret. So far as the Finnish people are concerned, they may take comfort in the sympathy of all the free peoples of the world. They may take solace in the fact that they have done all that bravery and endurance could do, that they have set a new standard of valiant resistance against overwhelming odds, and, as the noble Viscount has suggested, have written a page in history that will be read with wonder through the generations that are yet to come.

We can only acknowledge and admire their indomitable courage and grieve with them in their defeat, a defeat by which both the world and themselves are the poorer. It must be a proud day for the Russian Empire. She has the honour, with her 180,000,000 of people, of celebrating the success of her attack upon a population which is less than that which resides within the area of the London County Council. Let Russia take her garlands and her gains, and with them whatever respect decent men can pay her. I shall not comment upon the position of the other Scandinavian nations; that is scarcely for me to judge. I feel sure, however, that if the day of their own trial comes the events of recent weeks and months will not be forgotten. I should only like again to express on behalf of my noble friends our complete sympathy in the tragedy which has fallen upon a brave little people.

4.7 p.m.


My Lords, in the absence of my noble friend Lord Crewe, perhaps I may be allowed to add a few words to what has been said by the Leader of the Opposition. We shall all feel deep regret at the severity of the terms which the Finnish people have been compelled to accept. The territorial losses that they have suffered will be heavy, and the strategic results may be formidable; but it is satisfactory to see that the Soviets have not been able to impose any political terms upon Finland. The claim that the workers of Finland were eager to welcome Soviet intervention in order to accept the principles of the Soviet Republics has been refuted by the gallantry of the Finnish people themselves, who have inflicted appalling losses upon the Russian troops by the united effort of a very gallant nation. All, and more than all, that patriotism and love of liberty and honour require has been done by the Finnish people in this epic struggle, which will carry the names of the Finns of this generation down to history as a nation small in numbers but in character very great.

The Finnish Foreign Minister this afternoon, according to reports which have just been received, attributed the disaster that has befallen his country in large degree to the decision which had been reached by the Governments of Sweden and Norway not to permit the passage through those countries of troops from the Allies. That decision, as my noble friend who sits above me has said, is not for us to criticise or even to comment upon. Those countries know better than anyone else what were the limitations imposed by their situation. That decision having been reached it would not be possible for Britain or for France to attempt to override it. To have proceeded in face of the protests of Sweden and of Norway would have been a gross breach of their neutrality and a clear infraction of International Law. Since the Arctic route was impracticable and since the Baltic is closed to our ships—if indeed we had bad command of the Baltic, as of the other seas, the results would have been very different, but that could not be asked of our Navy to attempt in existing strategic conditions; but those other routes not being open, it was obviously impossible for this country to render any effective assistance by way of sending an armed expedition. But there had been from the beginning, so it is understood, no objection on the part of Sweden and Norway to the despatch of munitions and to the transit of volunteers, and indeed that has been accepted as the policy both of this country and of France.

Whether that decision was arrived at here and in France in time, and whether, having been arrived at, it was applied with sufficient energy, no one knows who is not acquainted with the details of what had occurred. Only the Government and those who are in their closest confidence would know what measures were actually taken, and at what date. It may be that difficulties of transport caused serious delays and that the Government did their utmost, but there seems to be an impression abroad that the decision was arrived at somewhat late and was not carried into effect with the vigour and on the scale that the conditions seemed to have demanded. However, as to that the Government may be able, if they desire to make any statement, to throw a different light. But one fact which emerges from the events of yesterday in which everyone can take satisfaction, is that at last there has been a stoppage of the terrible loss of life and the appalling suffering that has befallen the Finns, in the first place, and also the rank and file of the Russian Army who have been sent, hundreds and thousands of them, by a ruthless Government, to death and mutilation. In the termination of at least one section of the wars which are being waged in the world, the whole of mankind may take satisfaction.

4.13 p.m.


My Lords, I desire to say only two sentences. Some of us are puzzled by statements which have been made. Some of us find it difficult to reconcile statements which have been made in France and figures which have been published in the newspapers here. The last thing any of your Lordships wishes to do is to make any statement which would be contrary to the public interest. I therefore want to ask the Leader of the House whether he will consider if he will give us the opportunity of discussing this matter in private, when noble Lords will be able to ask questions and get answers without danger of injuring national interests.

4.14 p.m.


My Lords, perhaps I may say one sentence by way of reply to an observation made by the noble Viscount, Lord Samuel, in the course of his remarks. I am not able, at this moment, to give him or to give your Lordships the detailed information by way of figures and the like with regard to the actual supplies of war materials sent to Finland by the Allied Governments. Accounts that have appeared in the newspapers from time to time have not been, so far as I have been able to follow them, always accurate; but I am able, I think, without hesitation at all at this moment to say this, that I am quite sure the Finnish Government would be extremely ready to testify to what has been the value of the materials so sent, and for my own part to say that I should not be afraid of the judgment of our fellow-countrymen if they had the full facts laid before them in regard to the contribution so made to the struggle of Finland.

But I would remind the noble Viscount of this, of which he will not indeed be in ignorance, that as that struggle proceeded it more and more became plain that one of the directions in which the pressure was heaviest, if not the heaviest of all, was that of man-power—actual reserves and supplies of man-power; and any one of us can well imagine what that involved by way of constant strain upon the same individuals day and night. Efforts were made—and I know that my noble friend Lord Balfour of Burleigh was associated with efforts in one direction—to supplement the Finn reserves of manpower by way of volunteer recruitment, to the passage of which to Finland the same objections did not apply as might have applied to other forms of military help. But inevitably that effort took time to organise, and could only be organised and could only be provided upon a scale that was the subject of rather severe limitation by circumstances. At that point the desire that was general among all sections in this country and in France, to render help that was effective to Finland, obviously encountered other difficulties of which it would not perhaps be my place to speak this afternoon.

As regards the request made to the Leader of the House by my noble friend Lord Balfour of Burleigh, that opportunity should be furnished to discuss these things in private, that naturally does not lie with me to answer; but I think I can assure the noble Lord that in no circumstances would the information that might be available in any session, public or private, lead to a conclusion different from that which I have endeavoured to lay before your Lordships this afternoon; and for my own part I would rather doubt whether any very useful purpose would be served on this occasion by that procedure.