HL Deb 01 April 1941 vol 118 cc928-30

My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord the Leader of the House if he has any information about the recent naval action in the Mediterranean? Before the noble Lord replies, may I, as a humble member of your Lordships' House, be allowed to say with what pride I have read the communiqués of the Admiralty with reference to this action. I am sure that England, the Empire, and our Allies will have been thrilled by the brilliant seamanship of the gallant Admiral, Sir Andrew Cunningham, who commanded the Fleet, and also by the splendid gunnery and services of the officers and bluejackets of His Majesty's ships who fought in this action, carried out largely under cover of darkness and, as I understand, with the loss of seven enemy vessels and without any casualties to ourselves. It is an outstanding event in our glorious naval history.


My Lords, all the information so far received about this most successful engagement has already been published in the official communiqués or in statements by the naval authorities in the Mediterranean. The Prime Minister announced to-day, in another place, that he intended to make a general review of the war situation one day next week, and it is probable that he will take that opportunity to move a Resolution of thanks to His Majesty's Forces. No doubt your Lordships will wish to take parallel action. Meanwhile the Prime Minister and His Majesty's Government have sent their congratulations to the Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet and to the Air Officer Commanding in the Middle East. I understand from my noble friend that it may be desired, to-day, to say a few words of congratulation and appreciation on one aspect of the very encouraging developments that have recently taken place in the Near East on land, in the diplomatic sphere, and on the sea. Today our minds are filled with the gallantry of the Forces engaged at Matapan and the brilliant skill of their leadership. This war has taught us no new lessons as to the courage and brilliancy with which we have maintained our sea power. These qualities are as traditional as the adaptability and originality which our seamen have shown in developing new tactics. The Battle of Cyrenaica was a model of combined operation between land, air, and sea forces, and the Battle of Matapan has offered a perfect example of cooperation between the Fleet, the Fleet Air Arm, and the Royal Air Force, which was based on the island of Crete.

At last the training and efficiency of the Fleet have had their reward. Throughout the war it has faced the devilish methods of submarine warfare by which the Germans applied what was previously looked upon as a system of indiscriminate murder. The Nazis have profited by the bitter experience of the "Graf Spee," with its heavier armament, being driven to destruction by the gallantry and accurate gunnery of the "Exeter," "Achilles" and "Ajax," and have since that experience taken care that Nazi and Italian surface ships never waited to meet their match in size or arms, but made it their practice to run from the smaller units to avoid disaster. The skill of Sir Andrew Cunningham's combined operation has completely defeated this method. Bombing from the air prevented the Italian units profiting as usual by their advantage in speed in flight, and enabled our ships to finish the work. We have become accustomed to such disproportionate casualties in Cyrenaica between victors and vanquished as reminded us of the wars between Persians and Greeks in the classic ground of the Near East, but not even the battle of Salamis, where the Persian losses were five times as great as those of the Greeks, can provide a precedent to the overwhelming disaster sustained by the Italian Fleet at the cost to the victorious of not a single man or a single ship.


My Lords, perhaps your Lordships will think it not out of place if I were to assure my noble friend the Leader of the House that if next week, or whenever it is, he submits a Resolution to your Lordships expressing the intense appreciation which Parliament and the country have of the courage, resource and success of our Forces, he will receive unanimous support from your Lordships' House. We shall be very glad indeed to welcome such a Resolution and support it to the best of our powers. As regards the week which has just elapsed, no doubt it may seem historically hereafter to be a turning point in the war. There has been not only great diplomatic success in Yugoslavia, but there has been this Battle of Matapan, which has just demonstrated the power of this country in the Mediterranean. None can doubt what that power is, and though there may be other experiences, some not so favourable, before us in the future, yet we may feel well assured that we know now, what indeed we always knew, that we can rely absolutely upon the courage and resource of our Forces on sea, in the air and on land. We are deeply grateful to those of our countrymen who have fought so well for us in this war.


My Lords, I have really nothing to add to what has been said by the Leader of the House and by the noble Marquess opposite in appreciation of the marvellous events of the last few days. It had always appeared that the task of His Majesty's Forces in the Mediterranean would be a very difficult one. Not much was known of the strength of the Italian forces in those waters and on land, but it was certainly supposed that they were exceedingly strong, and that it would be impossible to carry through a victorious campaign there without very heavy loss both on sea and on land. What has, I think, impressed everybody has been the marvellous combination which has been achieved by the Forces, sea, land and air, and I think it is impossible to overstate our appreciation and admiration of the Commands, sea, land and air, and also of all the men in the Forces of all kinds who have taken part in these great events. We shall await with deepest interest further details of the various actions that have taken place.

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