HL Deb 17 September 1940 vol 117 cc401-15

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


My Lords, London with its vast population is now bearing the chief weight of the Nazi fury. It must be presumed that it is in the vain hope of terrorising the citizens of this country into submission or His Majesty's Government into a mood in which they will be prepared to make peace. The attacks which have been aimed at the home and persons of Their Majesties—presumably to break their spirit and ours—have, of course, failed and new bonds forged out of a common experience now unite the whole Kingdom and Empire to our beloved Sovereign and the Queen.

There has been of course, as your Lordships have observed, damage at many points—some of it insignificant in its effect upon the war, some serious, but still out of proportion to the hordes of hostile aircraft employed; some, though relatively very small compared to these forces, may be ascribed to attacks on military objectives. What have been the consequences? Sleep has been disturbed, windows smashed, business interrupted, public services disorganised. But what has evidently not been broken is the public spirit, and that is as high as, if not higher than, ever. Speaking for myself I have yet to meet a complaint of the conditions under which we are living and working. The staff of the Civil Service, if I may be allowed to say so, has never more deserved than now our gratitude and admiration. In all grades there is a readiness to accept uncomfortable and even dangerous conditions, to forget weariness and discomfort and to give everything that is asked of them readily and cheerfully. The same mood pervades the public transport services and public health services, upon which so much depends. Your Lordships must have observed the good-natured readiness with which the members of these services perform their duties. No time is lost in repairing the damage which has been suffered. Energy, courage and ingenuity have all been employed in these measures; and although inconvenience has inevitably been caused by the enemy's promiscuous assault on civil as well as military objectives, the work of restoration is promptly and efficiently undertaken.

Apart from a very few facts there is little that I can state that will add substantially to your Lordships' knowledge. The enemy continues to employ his marine craft in preparation for invasion. When the attempt will be made will be judged by him. Meanwhile all our preparations will be maintained and are continually being strengthened, and the patience so characteristic of the British temperament will fortify the members of His Majesty's Forces who have to bear the heavy strain of constant watching and waiting. The Royal Navy and the bombing squadrons of the Royal Air Force have not spared the enemy's concentrations and assembly of ships, and I am in a position to inform your Lordships that undoubted and severe injury has been done on many occasions to the enemy's concentration of ships and barges in the ports over a long front.

For the last ten days the enemy has concentrated his attacks by day and by night in the London area. The figures which have been made public as to enemy losses comply with the tests which have already been described to your Lordships; there is no exaggeration in them. It must be realised, however, that neither side has yet employed more than a portion of its forces. At the same time inroads of a character grievous to the enemy have been made upon his forces and we may await whatever has to come with sober and increasing confidence. The casualty figures resulting from these air raids up to the end of August were given recently. I am not sure whether they were given to your Lordships or only in another place. It is the practice, as your Lordships know, to publish the figures monthly, but it may be convenient to give figures now for the first half of September. Rather over 2,000 civilians, including many women and children, have been killed and about 8,000 have been wounded by air bombardments. Four-fifths of these figures apply to the London area. Churches and hospitals have been damaged. In spite of the enemy's attack the increased flow of production, which was started after the war began, continues to expand.

I think I may say, with your Lordships' assent, that the air-raid precautions organisations have abundantly justified themselves and have earned the gratitude of us all for their devotion to duty and their steadiness in the performance of their duties. The fire brigades have in particular made a conspicuous contribution, but it must not be supposed that in any quarter there has been anything but the highest devotion to duty. When a bomb falls the men and women of the Civil Defence Services count no danger too great if they can save life or, in the public interest, property. They meet the danger and they continue their work, come what may, until they have dealt with it. Whether it is a fire which is raging or danger impending from a falling building, they continue their rescue or first-aid work even while the bombs are still dropping. For the week ending September 10, taking five boroughs in London, the rescue party services were called out on 169 occasions, on which they have saved 216 lives. Perhaps I may also mention the police in this connection. We are so accustomed to their good temper and to their efficient services that we may be in danger of forgetting that they do not lag behind any part of the Civil Defence Services in their readiness to face danger, and they have done valuable work in assisting in rescue and first-aid and in controlling the activities of the various services.

Meanwhile, the machinery of government has been maintained, in spite of the immense strain imposed upon it. Frequent adaptations have had to be made of arrangements to meet conditions never previously experienced. However lamentable the circumstances of the few may be, remedial measures are unceasingly taken, with good results. The county and county borough councils are running emergency rest centres for people whose homes have been destroyed or damaged or who have had to leave their homes because of unexploded bombs. Arrangements are made for the serving of hot meals, and the people can sleep in the centres until they can return home or other accommodation is found for them. The local authorities are doing their best in very difficult conditions to make the people as comfortable as possible in the centres, and they are being given a free hand to increase their provisions and, in particular, their staff for this purpose. They are assisted by Ministry of Health inspectors and, in London, by a number of specially appointed officers with wide experience of social work.

As far as can be arranged, after the homeless people have been received at the rest centres they are transferred to areas which have been less severely attacked and are temporarily accommodated in billets or empty houses taken over by the local authorities. Those who can go to friends or relatives, however, are helped to do so. There have been some complaints, I am told, of people being kept in the centres when there is a large empty house or a block of flats near at hand, but the difficulty here is that it may well take several days to make an empty house habitable and this, perhaps is not always appreciated. For this reason, the Minister of Health has asked fourteen of the more favourably situated London boroughs to requisition and make available as soon as possible accommodation in unoccupied houses for thousands of persons, and this work is in hand. So far as the immediate financial needs of these homeless people are concerned, they are met by the Assistance Board under the scheme for the prevention and relief of distress, and in certain circumstances the Board are also making advances of compensation to replace furniture, clothes and essential tools.

Your Lordships may possibly desire something to be said as to the arrangements with regard to air-raid warnings. As your Lordships know, some slight modifications of the first practice have been made. At the present moment experience seems to suggest that we should continue the existing system, broadly speaking, with such modifications as are necessary to meet particular local circumstances. It may be that further experience will lead to more modifications. The warning siren has been reduced to the status of an alert and not of an alarm and, as your Lordships know, it now lasts half as long as formerly, and a system of local and highly trained look-out men now gives an alarm of immediate danger. It is hoped with confidence that while these arrangements are in force every one engaged in any duty will be determined to see that the public services suffer only the least possible interruption.

On several previous occasions. I have referred to the invaluable co-operation and assistance which we are receiving from the Dominions in the common trouble. Perhaps your Lordships will allow me to say a few words on this subject. It is well known that the defences of this country include very substantial land forces from Canada, Australia and New Zealand. These forces are at present available to repel invasion, should invasion come. There are also with us units of the Royal Canadian Navy and a naval contingent from New Zealand. In the air it is common knowledge that a Canadian fighter squadron has helped us immediately to increase the enemy's losses and we have had invaluable assistance from a unit of the Royal Australian Air Force. More recently we have welcomed an air contingent from Southern Rhodesia. In our own Royal Air Force there are many pilots from all the Dominions and indeed from all parts of the Empire. Newfoundland also has made a most substantial and indeed a remarkable contribution to the Forces defending the British Isles by sea and by land.

Perhaps the most striking development in the recent weeks has been the coming together of the British Empire and the United States, as illustrated in the recent Agreement for the grant of defence bases to the United States in certain British territories and the supply of American destroyers for our Naval Forces. But this is not all. It has been coupled with and indeed preceded by the Agreement between the United States and Canada for the setting up of a joint Defence Force, and perhaps I may be allowed to repeat the tribute which the Prime Minister paid in a recent message to the Canadian Prime Minister, Mr. Mackenzie King, to the great part which he has consistently played in promoting a harmony of sentiment between the British Empire and the United States of America. I need not remind your Lordships how pregnant with possibilities this new development may well be for peace and freedom in the years to come.

I have mentioned on a previous occasion the great Empire air training scheme. I am still in the happy position of being able to say that it is in advance of the schedule. We shall very shortly be receiving a flow of highly skilled and trained pilots and air crews to redress the balance in the air and ultimately to give us that air superiority which will prove one of the decisive factors in the achievement of victory. In the Middle East theatre of operations an important part is being played by Forces from the Union of South Africa. Your Lordships will be aware that in recent weeks the South African Air Force has frequently been in action and has distinguished itself by inflicting heavy damage on the enemy. Strong Australian and New Zealand contingents form part of the ever-growing force ready to meet any threat on Egypt or the Sudan and, in addition, contingents from Southern Rhodesia, both on land and in the air, are ready to play their part in this theatre of war. Your Lordships will be well aware that the Dominions have not confined their help to military, naval and air contingents, but they are producing an ever-growing output of munitions and military supplies of many kinds.

The cutting off of the supplies of foodstuffs which used to reach us from Scandinavia and the Continent of Europe has made us value more than ever the Commonwealth's storehouse. At the same time, the inclusion of almost the whole of Europe in the war zone has deprived the Dominions of many valuable markets, and I must be allowed to pay a tribute to the unselfish readiness of the Dominions to modify their plans and their organisation so as to meet the needs of the United Kingdom, even though it may be to the prejudice to some extent of the wealth of the Dominions themselves. It must not be thought that the contributions which the Dominions have made have been achieved without stress and strain or that the Dominions are enjoying the benefits of a prosperous home production with no corresponding financial sacrifice. The very large expenditure which each one of the Dominions has made, and freely made, in resolute support of our common cause has undoubtedly imposed a great and increasing burden upon their Budgets and this in turn has involved their people in many sacrifices, but I am able to say they are sacrifices that are made without complaint and indeed with enthusiasm in the common cause.

On the work of the Navy in home waters there is very little I can say except that it is continually inflicting loss and damage on the enemy of a nature likely to impede any attempt at invasion. Abroad the main theatre of operations is, of course, the Mediterranean. Our Naval Forces recently swept the Mediterranean from end to end for six days without any naval action being taken by the enemy. Concurrently with these operations the Fleet in the Eastern Mediterranean has received important reinforcements. The Colony of Malta, for the fortitude of whose people no praise can be too high, has received fresh supplies, enemy aerodromes in Sardinia and Rhodes have been bombed by aircraft of the Fleet Air Arm with excellent results, and enemy aerodromes and bases in the Dodecanese have been bombed by units of the Fleet. The Royal Navy has done much to interfere with the sea communications and ports through which the enemy has to supply his armies in Libya. And while these operations have been carried on in the Mediterranean, convoys of troops and materials have arrived in the Near East bringing to the fighting men the supplies necessary to fill the gaps in that theatre of war left by the collapse of France. And if I pay a tribute to the work of the Royal Navy I may properly, I think, be expected to pay an equal tribute to the men of the Merchant Navy, of the fishing fleet and of the coasting craft, who carry on with daring and undaunted courage.

There are two parts of the Eastern world about which I may say a few words. With regard to Indo-China, His Majesty's Government have no definite information as to the course of the negotiations said to be proceeding between the Government of Indo-China and the Japanese representatives in Hanoi. In view, however, of current reports to the effect that Japan has been pressing the Government of Indo-China to allow the passage of Japanese troops and the establishment of air and naval bases in the Colony, His Majesty's Government have made clear to the Japanese Government their interest in the maintenance of the status quo in that area.

The question of the provision of petrol for the distribution of medical supplies in the interior of China has been actively pursued. As a result of informal exchanges with the Japanese Government, efforts have been made by His Majesty's Government to devise methods of supervising this distribution, and inquiries have been made as to the exact amount of petrol necessary for the purpose in view. Certain British organisations concerned with the relief of distress in China have been consulted, and it is hoped that it will be possible to make a definite proposal on these points to the Japanese Government in the near future.

There are some other things that I would desire to say to your Lordships, if your Lordships agree, in private. I shall therefore propose a little later that we should move into Secret Session for that and one other purpose, and I hope your Lordships will be prepared to agree.


My Lords, as the noble Viscount has said, since we last met the attack upon London, which everybody had talked about even before the war began as likely to occur soon, has now fully developed. I am sure your Lordships everywhere will be in agreement with the tribute which the noble Viscount paid to all those who have participated, and are participating at this moment, in the defence of the life of the people and of their homes; in particular with what he said as to the share Their Majesties are taking in the life and risks of us all and how we rejoice in their safety and in the example which they are setting to all of us. No praise could be too high for the people who are affected. As I came here this morning from a London station, near which many streets were roped off because of delayed action bombs on the roads, there was a woman with a packing case agitatedly asking the man at the ticket office the best way to Oxford Circus. She appeared to have been perambulating the streets in a vain endeavour to get outside the ropes for a considerable Length of time, but her only comment on the situation which I heard her make to the ticket collector was, "Well, I think our people are much too polite." She evidently wanted to give them more in Berlin. I make no observation on the lady's conception of military strategy, but, at all events, it displayed a fighting and undismayed spirit.

There is one other section of our Services which I am sure it would be inappropriate to fail to mention. I do not know what they do, but it fills me with wonder and admiration—I refer to the services of these men who deal with delayed-action bombs, the men to whom we owe the safety of St. Paul's Cathedral at the present moment. The coolness and heroism of these men I witnessed by mere chance when I happened to see some of them at work in a street one day last week. I went out of the way quite quickly as soon I found what was going on. They were attending to a delayed-action bomb buried in the street. I do not know what military rewards are open to these men, but I am sure they deserve whatever can be given to them.

On the matter of our London services, I would like in a friendly way to say a word or two. I think, myself, that quick action is not being taken always—I do not know why. I rather think it depends on the particular borough where the action is called for. I am inclined to think His Majesty's Government ought to appoint what I might call a housing dictator or, at all events, somebody with power that will transcend borough boundaries. There are lots of empty properties in some parts of London which have been more or less spared bombing, and they ought to be taken and made fit without delay. I do not think we ought to wait on the willingness of the fourteen different boroughs—I have no doubt they will be willing—to which the Minister of Health has referred. Action should be taken at once by somebody who has power to do it. Give him full power to make use of empty accommodation and move these poor people to it. In several parts of London people have been in shelters for four or five days. Whilst we admire their heroism we should not hesitate, even ruthlessly, to take any necessary steps to give them better accommodation quickly. Therefore, I hope more will be done than has hitherto been done in this direction of housing and providing comforts for the people who are driven from their homes. We all rejoice that charitable subscriptions are forthcoming, but we ought not to wait whilst formalities are gone through between the Lord Mayor's Fund and the boroughs or anybody else. It should be done straight away by somebody with power to do it. I am not quite sure whether that aspect of the case has been dealt with in the way the people deserve.

This is not by way of adverse criticism of our splendid A.R.P. services, but it is like everything else when these terrible events crowd upon us: we find some defects in our organisation. This is one which should be remedied and could be remedied quite quickly. One feels—atleast I do—immense relief at the relative smallness of the casualties which the noble Viscount mentioned. It is really amazing when you think what a target London is. Taking the figures up to the middle of September, four-fifths of the total means 8,000 killed and seriously wounded in London during that time. That, I suppose, would be the proportion; but seeing the character of the target, and what one has seen going about London—houses destroyed, windows blown in, and all the rest of it—it is amazing that the casualties are so small. The fact that they are so small is itself the finest tribute that could be paid to air-raid precautions services.

As to the noble Viscount's other comments on the rapidly-moving war situation, it was my duty and privilege before the House rose to make some comment on that, and I do not propose to add to them this afternoon except to associate myself finally with the tributes which the noble Viscount paid to these splendid young men and women in all our services who are contributing so ungrudgingly to our defence and to the defence, not only of us, but of the great cause that we represent.


My Lords, in the first place I should like to join with the noble Lord, Lord Addison, in echoing what has been said by the noble Viscount opposite in paying a tribute of sympathy and admiration to the King and Queen who have suffered the same misfortune as has happened to so many of His Majesty's subjects by the direct attack which has been made on their homes. I am certain that Their Majesties almost welcome the feeling that they are absolutely in the front line and are facing the same risks as so many of His Majesty's subjects. I am quite sure that that tribute will be repeated by none with greater enthusiasm than by the King's subjects in the Dominions where, as the noble Viscount pointed out, so great a contribution has been made to the Forces by sea, by land and in the air, but where the ordinary inhabitants of the country are not running the same risks.

The list of casualties which the noble Viscount gave us is indeed tragic, though it may be, as I think Lord Addison stated, less than might have been feared considering the extreme severity of the attack. I am glad to know from what the noble Viscount opposite said that a definite effort is being made to deal with those—and they are a very large number—who have had to abandon their destroyed homes. I quite share the desire which was expressed by Lord Addison for the greatest possible promptitude in dealing with this matter, but, as one who has had to deal with the affairs of London now for a great many years, I am not quite prepared to take the view that he expressed, which appeared to me to be almost a desire to override the authorities of the municipal boroughs and to take the whole thing direct into the hands of Government Departments. What I should hope would be done is that His Majesty's Government will use every possible effort to stimulate the local authorities into the most rapid and efficient action, but not attempt to take the whole matter out of their hands.

The only other matter on which I desire to say one word is to join in the satisfaction expressed by the noble Viscount in the Agreement that has been made with the United States. There are few things that we can think of in our lifetime that are in one sense more important and likely to be more fruitful of vast results in the future years, and it is indeed most satisfactory to feel that this country, the United States, and Canada have all played an equal part in the achievements of this great Imperial action, as I may venture to call it, using that word in its best sense. I will not attempt to cover any further part of the ground with which the noble Viscount so adequately dealt, but as it is, I know, desired that the House should proceed into Secret Session, I will say no more.


My Lords, I should not have risen to speak but for the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Addison, regarding the question of finding shelter for those poor people who have had to leave their homes on account of the bombing. I quite agree with what the noble Marquess opposite said when he stated that he was opposed to any Government Department overriding the local authorities. I can assure your Lordships that everything possible is being done by all the local authorities in London to provide a solution of this most difficult question. The noble Lord, Lord Addison, urged that power should be taken to take over empty houses. Well, for weeks and weeks in this district of Westminster, which is very large, as your Lordships all know, empty houses have been surveyed. The difficulty is to see that there are adequate water and light, that the boilers are all in order, and also the fireplaces and the gas heating apparatus. The next thing is the great problem of providing furniture. It is no use going into these empty houses until you can find sufficient furniture, and that is a very difficult problem, but I can assure your Lordships that everything possible is being done. One other point is this. It is very difficult to find sufficient staff, owing to the dislocation in the last fortnight or so, to go out and find out about these houses. The staffs have been depleted and it is very difficult, owing to constant air raids, to get them out to do their job. They cannot do a sufficient number of houses each day; but your Lordships need have no anxiety because everything possible is being done. In a great many cases evacuees have been billeted in all parts of Westminster as a temporary measure. Both the County Council and the metropolitan boroughs are doing everything possible, and no doubt as time presses more will be done.


My Lords, only wish to say a few words following on what the noble Lord, Lord Jessel, has suggested. I feel very strongly the importance of acting swiftly in this matter, and acting, if I may say so, not too carefully. If you go out to billet in a distressed area the important thing is to get people moved quickly rather than to provide for the most complete survey. There is another matter on which I should like to feel satisfied and that is that the whole of this work is—to use a horrible word—co-ordinated. If you have each of the metropolitan boroughs and perhaps the County Council acting more or less independently——


They are in unison.


Then may I ask this question: Is there being sufficiently taken into account the place of work of people whose houses have been hit? I have known cases of people living five or six miles from their work in the Whitehall area who have had their houses completely demolished. Obviously the best thing to do with those people is to put them into houses in Eaton Square. One of the great difficulties is to get people to their work. They are doing everything they possibly can and are walking miles to their work. I hope this aspect of the matter will not be lost sight of and that, in making arrangements for people whose houses are destroyed in outside areas, the authorities will take account not only of where those people live but of where they work. That is a matter that is going to become more and more important as the days grow darker. In that way we shall be able to solve not only the problem of the people whose houses are destroyed but the problem of getting essential people to work. I trust that the Government will look at this matter rather in the way that Army Commanders overseas look at billeting problems. Many of us have had to bring a brigade into a devastated area and billet it very quickly. The thing to do is to keep people as short a time as possible in temporary assembly places and to put them into houses.


My Lords, there is only one point I wish to bring forward and that is in regard to cooking arrangements. At the present moment, through the bombing of our streets, both electricity and gas supplies have been so greatly interrupted that in many houses there is no facility for cooking and no light. This is a difficulty which concerns local authorities as well as the Government, especially in the East End of London, with whose people we feel such great sympathy. They have lost their homes and they have had to go into other houses where there is no gas supply to enable them to provide themselves with the necessities of life.


My Lords, I should like to make one practical suggestion in regard to this matter and that is that there should be undertaken at once the manufacture on a large scale of paraffin oil stoves. Those stoves provide heat as well as facilities for cooking. I suggest that a certain number of factories should be turned over to the making of paraffin oil stoves and that those stoves should be distributed to people who have no access to gas or electricity supplies.


My Lords, I do not want to detain your Lordships more than a minute, but I should like to supplement what has been said as to the admiration due to the spirit of the common people of London. It so happens that night after night, some two hundred men, women and children from the poorest streets of London come for shelter to the crypt of my chapel and there they remain during the whole of the night. I see them with increasing admiration. They adjust themselves to sleeping with the most astonishing success and, if they are not sleeping, the good humoured patience with which they endure the intolerable noise and discomfort is really beyond praise. I should like Dr. Goebbels and his myrmidons to be present in that crypt on any evening. He would then see how ludicrously far from the truth is the picture he draws of London and how most encouraging and most delightful is the fact as I see it night after night. I think that these experiences, painful as they are, are bringing home to people the meaning of being members of one community. They teach also the worth of the common man and it is on the worth of the common man that the whole system of democracy rests.