HL Deb 09 April 1941 vol 118 cc1032-47

THE SECRETARY OF STATE FOR THE COLONIES (LORD MOYNE) rose to move to resolve, That this House on the occasion of the recent victories by sea, land and air in North Africa, Greece and the Mediterranean records with gratitude its high appreciation of the services of all ranks of His Majesty's Forces in these brilliant operations and also of those who by their labours and fortitude at home have furnished the means which made those successes possible.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, last week when I gave notice of the Resolution which stands in my name we had no indication that by to-day the Balkans would be ablaze with battle. It is fitting that at the beginning of this new phase of the war we should express our overwhelming debt to those in all the Fighting Forces and the munition factories who have helped to achieve such wonderful results in the various theatres of war and such a marked improvement in our fortunes as compared with a year ago. To-day we are at a tense moment of struggle. We know that a great battle is raging in the Balkans, but cannot yet tell how it will develop, nor, indeed, whether British troops are yet actually engaged. It may help us to get a balanced view of the position if we look back and compare the situation with what it was last year. Less than six months ago, Italy attacked Greece. After a long run of surrender on the part of small nations, it seemed almost unthinkable that the Greek people could stand up successfully to the well-found troops of Italy, seeing that that Power had long prepared this treacherous stroke. The astonishing leadership and courage of the Greeks, in spite of their inferior forces, have thrown back the Italians and caused heavy casualties; the numbers are unknown, but we know that 92,000 prisoners have been taken by far smaller Greek forces.

Four months ago, the position of our vital Suez Canal communications seemed precarious. We knew that we were faced by an Italian force, well-equipped with modern armaments and outnumbering us by about five to one. General Wavell had given ground on the Egyptian frontier, and our enemies were looking forward confidently to overwhelming Egypt by a flood of invasion from the Red Sea and Mediterranean possessions of Italy. It does our troops less than justice to speak, as many do, of the inferiority of the Italians as fighting material. The war of Italian liberation, and the Great War, in certain stages, have shown that when the heart of the Italians has been in the fight they have fought well and bravely. If their morale is now broken in their disciplined forces, it is a consoling thought that it is likely to be far worse in the civilian population.

In the African fighting, troops from many parts of the Empire took their place beside the British Army. The Dominions of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa were early in the field, and the Colonial Empire has cause for pride in the part borne by African troops. The King's African Rifles played a great part in the neighbouring Italian territories. In the last stages in Abyssinia they forced the crossing of the Awash river, which enabled Addis Ababa to be captured two days later. West Africans also played a great part in Somaliland and Abyssinia. The Gold Coast Brigade captured by the bayonet strongly held and fortified positions on the west bank of the Juba river, and the Nigerian Brigade led the advance along the Somaliland coast and, after showing great endurance of fatigue and hardship, were the first to enter Mogadishu. The Indian Army, too, performed great feats of gallantry in the advance into Eritrea and in the bitterly-fought struggle for the escarpment of Keren. These operations have now brought us in sight of complete liquidation of Italian power on the Red Sea. I must not, in this connection, forget to mention among the Colonial troops what has been done by the little territory of Malta, whose people's gallantry has in the last few days been recognised by awards.

These great achievements have owed much to our sea-power. In addition to the world-wide responsibility of keeping open our communications for munitions of war and food, the Royal Navy have been responsible for escorting our land forces and protecting them from the perils of submarines, surface raiders and dive bombers. It is a great achievement that they have brought across the Mediterranean, without the loss of a single ship or man, the Force now standing beside the Greeks. And in our gratitude, we must not forget the bravery and self-sacrifice of our merchant seamen. Our shipping losses, of nearly five million tons, are a measure of the terrible risks and casualties which they have incurred. I can imagine nothing more trying to human courage than the insistent danger of being sunk by lurking submarine or invisible mine.

The old-fashioned lighting between battle fleets and capital ships seems to play little part in the system of our enemies. The German surface raiders and the Italian Fleet turn and run rather than face inferior forces of better-trained British ships. In view of the high speed of the Italian Navy, it is a wonderful achievement that, owing mainly to the brilliant work of the Fleet Air Arm at Taranto and the recent Battle of Matapan, only two out of six of the original Italian capital ships have escaped destruction or crippling damage, and the Italians are known to have lost three out of their 8-inch-gun cruisers, two of their 6-inch-gun cruisers, sixteen destroyers and twenty-four submarines. This, of course, makes no allowance for the losses of which we have no complete evidence. Co-operation between the Forces in this war has developed to a pitch never previously known; and our Staff work in coordinating the intricate relations between land, sea and air operations has been beyond all praise. At the outset in the Near East our aircraft were far outnumbered by the Italians, but the quality of our men and material quickly reduced the enemy to impotence, and much of our force has now been spared to go over to Greece to fight the Nazis.

The growing strength of the Royal Air Force in the Eastern theatre has been accompanied by an increase in its relative strength as compared with the Nazis here at home, and its actual strength is. of course, immensely greater than it was at the beginning of the "Blitz." The day bomber has been driven from our skies, and there is a steady improvement in the destruction of night bombers through the skill of our pilots in operating improved technical devices. Our bombing grows heavier day by day on Nazi harbours and cities, and there is no doubt that in the case of this method, which was originally invented by the Germans, our sufferings and losses are gradually being surpassed by those of the Nazis. With the increasing output of the United States we shall soon be able to turn the tables on Germany, so that bombing advantage will be overwhelmingly in our favour.

The successes of our Forces in the Near East have brought a profound change in the world's conviction of our ultimate victory. During last year the will of the small nations to resist had become completely paralysed. The Nazis admitted no condition of neutrality. The most grovelling surrender has, however, not satisfied their appetite for domination. The neutrals have had to pass under the yoke and have been reduced to economic slavery. In the German system there is no fruitful collaboration by exchange of goods and services. Trade agreements are imposed to control the entire exports of occupied countries, and by rationing and the raising of price levels they restrict internal consumption and increase the amounts which can be exported for themselves. The system of plunder is well thought out. When Germany pays for supplies she recovers the funds by charging the victims a cash price for her benevolence in their own depreciated currencies or by levying indemnities and occupation charges. The results of this policy are poverty and destitution throughout occupied Europe. Its wide application is evidence that Germany is not self-supporting but is in desperate need of produce from the countries which she despoils and ruins. The so-called New Order is destructive in its action, and a system of taking everything and giving nothing but worthless paper in return must, first, mean inflation of the local currencies and, eventually, economic disaster.

It is a tragic fact that the heaviest contribution to German war needs is now passing through France. We are all moved by the sufferings of the innocent population of our former Allies, but we cannot forget that the present position is indefinitely prolonging the war. The Armistice Commission at Wiesbaden is daily increasing the resources which it is able to draw from the French Empire. Admiral Darlan is reported to have said recently that traffic between the French North African territories and the mainland of France is substantially equal to the traffic in time of peace, and in spite of the occasional interception of ships in the Western Mediterranean we have evidence of vast quantities of invaluable war materials such as ground nuts for oil, bauxite, metal alloys, wool, nitrates, rubber and food being carried across the Mediterranean and by the French railways to Germany. The Government are most anxious to avoid friction with our former Allies, and they are willing to go far in the rationing of foodstuffs for unoccupied France if proper security can be obtained against re-exportation to Germany. But on Nazi orders negotiations on this point have been broken off. It is, however, impossible for us to accept the position that our blockade of Germany is to be defeated by these indirect means, and we cannot possibly waive our rights as recognised by International Law and as practised by the Government of France when they were our Allies.

A vital feature in the efficiency of our sea communications is the growing help of the United States. As in the last war they are arranging for the production of millions of tons of new shipping by methods of mass production, and they have already made available to us very large shipping resources which have compensated, with the new building that has taken place here, for the greater part of our losses. Meanwhile we may hope that with the complete liquidation of Italian bases in the Red Sea, President Roosevelt will soon carry out the intention to which he recently referred of striking off the Red Sea area from the list of combat zones. When one remembers the vast shipping effort entailed in the ocean transport of modern troops with their heavy armoured equipment and munitions, twelve to fifteen ships per division, and also the problems of their provisioning, it will be invaluable to us if the generous help of America under the Lease and Lend Bill can be shipped straight by the Red Sea route to the Near East, which is about 12,000 miles either westward from San Francisco or eastward from New York. The avoidance of transhipment in Britain will save very much shipping and time and a great demand on our Fighting Forces.

Apart from the great Balkan battle of the last few days, which has to-day resulted in the capture by Germans of Salonika, there have been operations going on in Africa, and the capture of Massawa, which is, I think, the complete liquidation that I foretold a few moments ago, has been announced as some counterweight to the loss of Salonika. In Cyrenaica operations have led to the abandonment of Benghazi and the surrender of some ground which was in our occupation. This is a direct consequence of the reinforcement of the Greeks in Europe. At the time when that decision was reached in answer to an appeal from the Greeks to stand by them, it was evident that our Forces would soon be free from Abyssinia and Eritrea and would become available for reinforcing Western Egypt or the European theatre. The German advance has been a very daring manoeuvre, brilliantly executed in the way that their Panzer divisions are specially trained to do, but tanks, in spite of their massive build, have very delicate constitutions and need frequent rejuvenation treatment. Much of the armoured Force that conquered the Italians was for this reason withdrawn from the front when, these operations came to an end, and the Germans were able to make their swift stroke at a moment when we were not in full force. Their tanks, however, are subject to the same laws of exhaustion as are ours. It is therefore likely that, after the 600 miles advance from their base at Tripoli to Benghazi, they are right at the end of their reach, and facing growing difficulties of fuel, water and the supply of munitions without the sea power which enabled our spectacular advance to get over those difficulties. Our tanks and reinforcements are now returning, and by means of our sea power they have reestablished themselves in force in the strong fortifications of Tobruk.

It is important to remember that we are not fighting for the conquest of territory, but to destroy the power of our enemy to fight. The occupation of Western Cyrenaica is solely of value for this purpose, and I have no doubt that the falling back of our advance troops was a small price to pay for the decision to stand by the Greeks by diverting some of our armed resources. Totalitarian war has been the invention of the Nazis and means the subordination of all lives and all interests to the ruthless ambition of Hitler and Mussolini. Such a conception is, thank Heaven! outside our British experience or habits. Our growing naval, military, and sea power and the tremendous efforts which are being put forth in our munition factories are based on unity among the fighters and producers of the nation, which is resolved as never before to apply totalitarian methods to the destruction of the Nazi monstrosity. I beg to move.

Moved to resolve, That this House on the occasion of the recent victories by sea, land and air in North Africa, Greece and the Mediterranean records with gratitude its high appreciation of the services of all ranks of His Majesty's Forces in these brilliant operations and also of those who by their labours and fortitude at home have furnished the means which made those successes possible.—(Lord Moyne.)


My Lords, we shall all concur, I feel sure, in the opening sentences of the Leader of the House, referring to new perils and, later on, to new triumphs. It is right that Parliament should pay this tribute to-day. Knowing full well the dangers with which we are encompassed, and with no self-deception as to those that may still have to be encountered, we are justified in drawing encouragement from the achievements of those to whom to-day we seek in such way as we can to render thanks. The virtual conquest by the Navy of the Eastern Mediterranean against what might have been regarded as great odds, the destruction of the Italian Army that threatened Egypt, and the all but complete overpowering of the Italian forces everywhere in Somaliland, Eritrea, and Abyssinia are deeds which place the whole world of free men under a deep obligation. Time will reveal the importance of these successes, but, in concert with the resistance of the valiant Greeks, they undoubtedly mean the elimination of Mussolini as an asset to the alliance of the oppressors. I question whether history reveals a swifter exposure of a mean braggart who has become a burden to his own people and who is an object of contempt to the world outside.

All these enterprises on sea, on land, and in the air demonstrate that our men are matchless if they are adequately provided with three things—training, first-rate equipment, and skilled leadership. These three stand out in the actions of Admiral Cunningham's Fleet, in the dispositions of his ships, in the use of the associated Air Forces, and in the desolating efficiency of our sailors and our gunnery Similarly, General Wavell's campaign will probably come to be regarded as the first brilliant example of the use, in co-operation, of all three arms—naval, land, and air. Here, also, personal efficiency, line equipment, and brilliant Staff work stand out conspicuously. These things have been obtained in Libya. We can therefore have confidence that they will be obtained elsewhere. Swift as these movements were, they seem even to have been exceeded by the speed of the advance of the South African troops through Italian Somaliland and through the heart of Abyssinia into its capital city. Surely there never was an enemy more swiftly scattered. In these operations as well as in the horribly difficult country around Keren we find the same trinity of efficiency, equipment, and good leadership. In all these, as in the epic defence of Great Britain last year, we have the same daring and the same high quality of men and machines in the Air Force. They fill us with pride—I might almost say with grateful reverence. Time and reinforcement give us more confidence every day, that, in due season, Goering's Luftwaffe will be driven out of the sky as the Italian Air Force has been. In rendering our thanks to the Air Force I am glad that the Motion mentions the designers to whom the nation owes so much and the unequalled craftsmen who built the machines that made these triumphs possible.

Thanks in this matter are also being rendered by Parliament in equal measure not only to the sons of our own Homeland, but to the sons of our great Commonwealth, our associated Dominions, India, our West African and East African Colonies, and to the Free Frenchmen who fight with us. It is being proved that the fight for liberty brings men together with far greater enthusiasm and far greater readiness than they can be driven together by the methods of the Gestapo. Finally, whilst the names of leaders of these enterprises are in our minds, and we thank those we know—those whose names and achievements are before us, and whom we rightly honour—we are sure that these leaders would be the last to excuse us if we failed to pay grateful tribute to those whose names and units are as yet unknown to us, but whose efficient services throughout have been so vital to success. The distances have been so vast, the natural obstacles so great, the swiftness of movement so rapid that we are almost bewildered when we try to imagine what is owing to the ingenuity and labour of the engineers. Through the resource, the forethought and the organisation of the supply services, across the seas, from ship to shore, from one base to another, across deserts, through thorns and bush, over mountain passes, through precipitous ravines and over plague-infested rivers, they have brought water and food to every man every clay, munitions to every gun, and oil to every machine. In the same way we remember those responsible for the men's health, for the care of the sick and wounded, for communications and for the many other services that lie behind and are in shadow as we regard the brilliant victories that are the result of it all.

The pity is that our appreciation can only be rendered in this way to the multitude of men we cannot name. I hope the Government are taking care, and will take care, that the records of these exploits of the sea, of the Libyan desert, of Eritrea, Somaliland and Abyssinia, by that great company of men of many races and widely different homes brought together for the doing of these things, will be collected as soon as may be, and that the telling of them will be entrusted to those who are able to do justice to the brilliant stories. Meantime we know that grimmer tasks may lie ahead of these very men; but whatever comes we may be confident that the breaking of bonds over great regions in Africa will form the beginning of that wider emancipation from fear which in due time will be achieved.


My Lords, all quarters in this House will welcome the opportunity afforded by the Government for the House to express its gratitude and appreciation to all Forces of the Crown and also to the civilians concerned in the prosecution of the war and called upon to endure its hardships. The victories at sea over the Italian Fleet, as earlier in the Battle of the River Plate and in other encounters, show that the valour and efficiency of the Navy have not deteriorated in this modem age but maintain the same high standard that the Navy has exhibited throughout its history.

The land campaign in North and East Africa has not only again shown the efficiency of the Army but has also exhibited a skill in generalship which has not invariably been shown in previous wars and which here has been most welcome. The Italian losses in North and East Africa, together with those in Albania, certainly exceed 300,000 and probably reach 400,000. I am glad to think the great majority are prisoners. Our occupation of Cyrenaica was never contemplated originally, and least of all was it foreseen as possible after the collapse of France. If now there has been a setback there, that cannot be regarded as a grave matter, and I feel sure that public opinion will approve the action of the military authorities in diverting large forces from that part of the world to the assistance of our Allies in Greece. So long as the Nile Valley is not endangered, the events in Libya are not of profound strategic moment.

But this Resolution that we are invited to pass to-day refers not only to the Armed Forces of the Crown; it also pays tribute to the endurance of civilians. The civil population of this country has already lost no fewer than 30,000 lives. This is an exhibition of totalitarian war, as it is termed by our enemies, but others will name it wanton murder and so it will be named by the moral sense of mankind and by history. Yet our people do not flinch. London has suffered terribly. In the neighbouring capital of Paris the people sleep quietly at night. But there is no man or woman who would not rather be a citizen of London bombed and free than a citizen of Paris safe but enslaved. I was glad the noble Lord the Leader of the House paid tribute to our merchant seamen. The danger is very great. Our ships and the ships of our Allies at the present time are now being sunk—100 ships a month. If our seamen were to say that the seas had become too dangerous and did not re-engage, our position would indeed be a perilous one, but there is not the slightest sign in any quarter of a dearth of seamen to man the merchant ships.

The Resolution very properly makes no distinction between the United Kingdom and other parts of the Empire. It refers to His Majesty's Forces whencesoever they may come and wheresoever they may be. It is not always remembered that of the white population of the Empire one-third is now in the Dominions. For every two British citizens in the United Kingdom there is a third in one or other of the Dominions. Although Eire has played a not very noble part in this struggle for the liberties of mankind the great Dominions overseas have done valiantly. Australia, New Zealand and South Africa have already had abundant opportunity to show their valour. It is remarkable that a young Air Force such as that of South Africa should have been able to achieve such great things as it has done in the African campaign. A great Canadian Army is ready and eager to engage whenever the opportunity is extended to it. India, where again political controversy has been rife which ought properly to have been kept in abeyance at a time like this, nevertheless has sent vast resources to the assistance of the common cause. The noble Lord has, of course, paid tribute to the Colonies, many of whom have already rendered great services, particularly West Africa. Perhaps I may be allowed to draw attention to the very satisfactory fact that little Palestine also has helped in this war, and that both Arabs and Jews have been wise enough to put aside the bitter conflicts that have so long divided them and are now actively engaged in what they realise to be a common cause.

It is not in the terms of the Resolution, but there is also in the hearts and minds of all of us—and it should receive expression—the deep gratitude that we feel for the invaluable help that is being extended by the United States of America. The material resources of that great, highly-industrialised country with three times our population, may play, probably will play, a decisive part in this great conflict. In aeroplanes the help is, of course, invaluable. We entered the last great war with some hundreds of 'planes; we ended it with thousands. We entered this war with thousands of 'planes; we are likely to end it with tens of thousands; and since there will be enough of our incomparable airmen to man them all, it may be that they will be the weapons which will give the coup de grâce. To that end America is greatly contributing. Also in ships, of which we stand now in such urgent need. But all those material and economic assistances that we receive from the United States are not, I venture to suggest, the most important of all. Of greater value even than these is the fact that the American people, viewing this issue from the outside with full deliberation, have come clearly to the conclusion that our cause is a just and righteous cause and that we are, as we claim to be, lighting not only for ourselves, and not only for the British Commonwealth, but for America, too. and for all mankind. That, for us, must be a great source of pride and encouragement.

Nor should we forget that the American attitude has a great effect upon the situation in East Asia, where the heroic endurance of the Chinese people—to which also tribute should be paid—has an indirect effect on the whole world situation. Your Lordships may have observed that the Chinese Ambassador in London—who has been known to many of us during the years of his residence here, and is respected by all—has just been appointed to the honourable post of Foreign Minister in China. As he leaves us he goes, I am sure, with our best wishes that under his auspices his country may reach triumphantly an honourable and a lasting peace.

The noble Lord has also paid tribute to our Allies—the Free French, the Poles, the Czechs, Norwegians, Dutch and Belgians; all of them are playing their part to the utmost of their capacity. At this moment our thoughts go out especially to the Yugoslavs and the Greeks. The deliberate decision of the Yugoslav nation is one of the most inspiring events in modern history. They preferred every danger—and the gravity of the danger was not in doubt—to a dishonourable subservience. Belgrade has already felt the full ferocity of the attack; but it was a noble declaration that was made by the Yugoslav Government yesterday; on the ruins of Belgrade will rise a nobler and a greater capital for all the Southern Slavs. Those two countries, Yugoslavia and Greece, peaceful, inoffensive, through no fault of their own have been exposed to modern war and all its horrors, and the wanton aggression of the German and Italian forces. Greece, this David among the nations, has to face not one, but two Goliaths. I feel sure that public opinion here will approve the decision of His Majesty's Government to send, even at considerable risk, a powerful Army to their support. We remember the line "The glory that was Greece, and the grandeur that was Rome." The Roman Empire has passed away and the policy of a Machiavelli in the hands of a Mussolini is not likely to restore that grandeur; but over the mountains and the islands of Greece there shines again the light of ancient glory. These thoughts, my Lords, will not be absent from our minds when we endorse the Resolution proposed by His Majesty's Government.


My Lords, while we are rendering thanks, so wonderfully earned, to His Majesty's Forces, it may not, I think, be irrelevant to raise one point, details of which I ventured to give notice, arising from the statement on the war situation—namely, the situation following the defeat of Italy in Abyssinia. Those of us who have been in that country realise, perhaps, more than others the extraordinary achievement of General Wavell and General Cunningham and the Forces under them, the incredible speed with which Addis Ababa was reached and taken, and the superb efficiency of the campaign as a whole. The conduct of the war included, in regard to that country, the stating of our intentions as to the future of Abyssinia, which rallied the Abyssinian people Io fight. It was part of war diplomacy, part of the war of brains which is such an important part of any war. The Foreign Secretary some weeks ago took occasion to make the statement that we hoped for the complete restoration of the Abyssinian Empire and that we should aid the Emperor with advisory staff.

I would like to say a word on this point, having been in Abyssinia in response to the Emperor's invitation to the Anti-Slavery Society to discuss the question of slavery in 1932. We ought, I think, to help the Emperor in every possible way, and the responsibility for that has come now and even more quickly than we expected. There arc some who deprecate any action in this matter other than the restoration of the Empire unqualified by any assistance from us. The Foreign Office rightly sees that we have a duty which goes further than that. It has come already owing to I he rapidity of General Cunningham and his Forces. The machinery of administration must be set up. The old machinery has suddenly gone, and on top of the comparative disorder which has been normal in the past in Abyssinia, there are the feuds to be dealt with between those Chiefs who supported the Italian invaders and those who declined to recognise them. The Emperor has no organised force as yet except that with which we supply him. We arc in control.

How are we to do our duty in that situation, firstly, to the Emperor who has shown his zeal for reform; secondly, to the Abyssinian population; and thirdly, to the immense number—several millions—of skives who belong to them, and again to the subject tribes of the Abyssinian Empire conquered by the Emperor Menelik? Now, right away, many District Commissioners will be needed, and for a time no doubt they will be furnished by the Army. We shall not want the system to be a British system only in the end. We must not be charged with fighting merely to add to the Empire, but that ought not to deter us from giving what aid is needed. At first it must be of course British, but in the end I hope it will have something of an international character with officials especially drawn from the non-interested States.

We can get some guidance from the conditions which prevailed before the Italian invasion. British opinion and the British Government have been deeply concerned with the Abyssinian conditions, especially in regard to slavery. The well-known book of Lady Simon has informed a great mass of opinion in this country as to the vast scale of slave conditions which prevailed in Abyssinia, and it is many years now since the Foreign Office recommended to the Emperor an individual who had been in the Egyptian service and was serving while I was in Abyssinia as the adviser on slavery. The Emperor promised that the state of slavery should come to an end within a term of years, but the adviser, who in that case was British, found his advice was ignored, or it proved impossible to take it. In addition to the problem of slavery, there was that of serfdom. The provincial Governors, in default of a salary paid to them, remunerated themselves by reducing the black tribes to the condition of serfs, and that condition was hardly better than that of the slaves. In most parts of the country, of course, there was nothing like an efficient gendarmerie; slave-raiding and the kidnapping of individuals here and there were still common, even within a very short distance of the capital.

It is very difficult to see how there can be progress unless the advisers have a certain measure of authority. The problem at bottom, to put it shortly, is one of finance. The real cure for disorder is development of lawful trade, but that requires communications. There were practically no roads, but some have been built under the Italian régime, and they may come in useful. They need extension however. Officials with salaries paid are a prime need, otherwise they pay themselves by plunder. All this necessitates loans. There must be loans to get progress and loans will be unobtainable because they will be precarious unless there is foreign assistance and administration. I wish to urge that the Emperor is entitled to all possible help. He has enlightened ideas, but they are not shared by most of his Chiefs and provincial Governors. Some of them resented the fact that the Emperor appointed advisers from foreign States. Therefore, a very delicate situation exists for him. The Emperor with his enlightened views should welcome what he knows to be the way of progress. I venture to urge upon the Government that he is entitled to be furnished with all possible help.

On question, Motion agreed to nemine dissentiente.