HL Deb 12 November 1940 vol 117 cc667-74

LORD NATHAN rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether they are now in a position to state when it is proposed to publish dispatches on the campaigns in Norway, the Low Countries and France; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, the Motion which stands in my name on the Paper is an extension of a subject which I raised in your Lordships' House on August 20 last with relation to the publication of dispatches regarding the cam- paign in France. In the extended form which I have given it, the Motion on the Paper to-day relates also to Norway and the Low Countries, but, as the same question of principle is involved in all these points, I think that it will suffice if I address myself to the question of France and the Low Countries alone. I do so with the more readiness because I am not sure that I know, and I am not sure whether your Lordships know, who was the Commander-in-Chief in Norway who would have written the dispatch. As far as my information goes, the distinguished officer who was nominated as Commander-in-Chief never in fact had time to leave this country; and I do not know upon whom the duty would fall of writing a dispatch as to the campaign in Norway, or whether there has in fact been a dispatch presented to His Majesty's Government. It has, of course, certainly not been published. It would be interesting, I think, to know, from the pen of one in the best position to make a statement and an assessment of the facts, what did in fact happen in Norway. Perhaps if I leave the matter there the noble Lord who is to reply will bear that point in mind.

I have been very careful, both on the previous occasion when I addressed your Lordships on this subject and again in framing this Motion to-day, to ask for nothing relating to a pending campaign. It will have been observed, for instance, that, although the campaign in the Middle East has been proceeding for a long period, I have deliberately refrained from asking for any dispatch as to that; for I appreciate that there may be reasons, political, strategical and tactical, which would make it in the highest degree undesirable that any dispatch should be published with regard to a campaign still in progress and indeed only in its opening stages. Yet it is to be observed that in the war of 1914–1918, within six weeks of the opening of the campaign in France Lord French had written a dispatch, and a very short time after that the dispatch was issued to the public. It is noticeable—I think that it requires comment—that although this present war began so long ago as September 3 of last year, and although a campaign has been initiated, conducted and ended in France and in the Low Countries, no official statement thereon has been issued to the public upon the authority of the Commander-in-Chief re- sponsible for the operations. I do not think that a careful eye scanning the annals of our past history could find a precedent for that.

Since the outbreak of the war, of course, we have had many statements from Ministers, either on questions of general policy or on particular incidents. There have also been published in the Press from time to time official communiqués and reports from war correspondents; but from beginning to end there has been no coherent statement made with regard to the war in France and the Low Countries, dealing with the matter in all its aspects. There is only one person who can authoritatively present such a story to the British public, and that is the Commander-in-Chief. I should not like your Lordships to think that I am making any criticism of Lord Gort, still loss an attack upon him. Far from it. I have no doubt that he has prepared and presented to His Majesty's Government a full and detailed statement of what took place with the British Expeditionary Force under his command, from the start to the finish. The public, however, has been left in complete ignorance, and without any guidance at all from Lord Gort as to what took place in France and in the Low Countries.

It is not without importance that the British public should be informed upon such a matter, that they should have before them a complete story from the only person who is in a position to gather together all the threads and present the complete story to them. We have had no information as to the circumstances in which the magnificent feat was achieved of the transportation of our Expeditionary Force to France in the first instance. We have had no information as to where it was then located, and what were the strategic and tactical considerations underlying its disposition. We have had no information from the Commander-in-Chief as to those considerations which were in his mind in relation to his own position in regard to the Generalissimo—whether he regarded himself as being in the position of a subordinate commander, under the obligation to accept the decisions and judgment of the Generalissimo, or as part of a great Army of which, indeed, the Generalissimo was the military chief, yet as being responsible to the British Government and communicating his doubts, fears and anxieties to the British Government and asking for their guidance in his relations with the Generalissimo.

In other words we do not know whether in all the activities in France Lord Gort was acting purely as the Commander of an Army in a group forming part of a yet larger Army under the French Commander-in-Chief, or whether he was regarding himself as having a very special responsibility as the Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force, and responsible therefor to the British Government and to the British people. It would be interesting to know. It is important that we should know. It would be interesting to know whether some of the mishaps which arose, some of the strategic and tactical errors which perhaps took place—we do not know—had their origin in some conception of the relationship between the British Commander-in-Chief and the Generalissimo which attached perhaps undue importance to unity of command, or even in some misunderstanding as to what unity of command was intended to imply. I do not know. I merely say that that is one of the kind of questions upon which the British public are, I think, entitled to have the information, from the only man who can give it upon which they can form a judgment of their own.

We have heard nothing in any authoritative way of the reasons why the British Army was moved forward into the Low Countries. We do not know how it came to be that the Channel ports were not more heavily fortified. We do not know what representations were made to the French authorities with regard to bringing to their notice the vital strategic importance of the Channel ports to this country. We do not know what were the conditions or the circumstances under which the Belgian Army capitulated, or how much notice was given to Lord Gort, or the circumstances in which he found himself at that time. We do not know from any authoritative source, such as the Commander-in-Chief, what were the immediate circumstances leading up to the evacuation of Dunkirk, or how that miraculous deliverance was, in fact, effected. The British public are entitled to know because they sent with the Expeditionary Force to France some of their bravest and best. Many have not returned and those who have suffered bereavements are surely entitled to have some official information in a general sense of what happened in France. There are others who have since then given their husbands and their sons to the Army, who have many hard endurances to face, and it would be well that they should know that the circumstances in France and in the Low Countries were such as could be avoided elsewhere.

It may be said that we do not wish to give any information to the enemy. I wonder what information can be given to the enemy which he has not already with regard to a campaign completed now five months ago. Can it be said that he does not know how many troops we had in France? In approximate figures that is common knowledge, and how could it advantage the enemy now to know how many we had in France five months and longer ago? If it be said that it would inform the enemy of the nature and the extent and the quality of our organisation and equipment, why, that armament and equipment is in the hands of the enemy; it was left in France, and he knows as much about its nature, extent and quality as anyone in this country can do. Can it be said that it would reveal any of our dispositions or plans for the future?—a very material test. I cannot imagine that there is anything in a campaign long finished and in the reports of that campaign which could help the enemy. I should be interested to know whether it is suggested by the noble Lord who will be replying that the Government take that view, and, if so, upon what it is founded.

It is possible to fall into the error of being too cautious in these matters, of being so cautious indeed that it is felt that silence is always the best. Often it is, but silence is not the best when it is a question of maintaining the morale of the British people against whatever the future may hold. They would like to know what regiments were engaged in the various actions that took place, and how they fulfilled their parts. We have seen many paragraphs, epic paragraphs, as to honours won for valour and courage in the field, but those are only paragraphs in the story. What we wish to have is the whole story so far as it can properly be given.

I do not wish at this hour to detain your Lordships. I wish, on the contrary, to consult your Lordships' convenience, and I know this is the only matter upon the Paper before your Lordships to-day. I want to make clear to His Majesty's Government that if a statement of such a nature is to be withheld, it should only be upon the most compelling grounds. If the report made by Lord Gort to His Majesty's Government is, as I surmise, a full and detailed report, which may contain in it certain elements which conceivably it might be injudicious to publish at this time, whether for one reason or another, let Lord Gort prepare over his own signature a statement relating to these matters, upon which the British public are anxious for information and upon which I think they should have information, and let such a statement be published for their enlightenment. That would be in the line of the great tradition of the relationship between British Commanders-in-Chief and the British public. I beg to move for Papers.


My Lords, my noble friend the Under-Secretary is, I am sorry to say, away ill, and I have been asked to reply. I have to say that as regards dispatches on the campaign in Norway, it has been decided that these dispatches will not be published until after the war, for the reason that it would be impossible to publish them without giving useful information to the enemy, which must in the general interest be withheld. Similarly, it is not the intention to publish at present the dispatches on the campaign in the Low Countries and in France. Those dispatches were written with a view to giving His Majesty's Government a very full narrative of events. It is possible that at a later date a narrative covering the period will be prepared for publication. I wish, however, to state that the great mass of information in the dispatches and reports is being collated and co-ordinated, so that the lessons arising from it may be applied by the Service Departments concerned.

The noble Lord, in the course of his most interesting speech, entered into certain matters, such as the question of the status of the late Commander-in-Chief in France, Lord Gort, and other matters of rather high policy, into which I am afraid I cannot go to-day. I do not think that my noble friend, had he been here, would have been able to give any more in- formation than I can; certainly in my position I cannot attempt to do so. I can only add to what I have already said that this debate, like all others of the kind, will be, I have no doubt, noted by the Department responsible in the War Office, and in turn by the War Cabinet. I am afraid that is the only information I can give the noble Lord.


My Lords, whilst I recognise that that is the only reply the noble Lord is authorised to make, I think we must all feel that it is exceedingly unsatisfactory. I am not attributing any fault to him at all in that respect, but I think the case presented by my noble friend was not only a very good case but extraordinarily reasonable. If not all, then a sufficient amount of material could be made available. There are many public advantages which might arise from it, and I am sure it could be prepared, and we should expect it would be prepared, without anything being published in it which could be of the slightest use to our enemies. The noble Lord might pass on to his colleagues the suggestion to give renewed and somewhat more sympathetic consideration to the matter than his reply would seem to indicate it has received.


My Lords, by leave of the House I can only say I did not mean my reply to be in any way unsympathetic. I have noted what the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition has said, and I shall see that his remarks are conveyed to the proper quarter. Further than that I cannot go.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

House adjourned.