HL Deb 10 February 1942 vol 121 cc733-46

LORD DAVIES rose to call attention to the protection of vital public services; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, a few days ago we had a debate upon the subject of the protection of aerodromes. In the course of that debate my noble and learned friend, Viscount Maugham, drew attention to the fact that aerodromes were not the only vital places that ought to be defended in the event of an invasion, and he gave us a very grave warning as to what might happen unless the whole problem of protection was adequately dealt with. Now the Motion which I have ventured to put upon the Paper includes of course all vital points. It includes power stations, key factories, public utilities, key points in railway connexions, and, what I believe is the most important of all, the water supplies and the reservoirs of our country. I do not think it is necessary for me to impress upon your Lordships the importance of our water-supply. What would happen, for instance, if some of our major reservoirs were destroyed and there was a water famine in some of our big cities and industrial centres? Then there is also the factor that these works are not capable of being repaired in any short time. If they are destroyed, the time factor comes in, and it may take months, possibly, in some cases years, to restore the water supply.

I have ventured on three or four occasions to draw the attention of your Lordships' House to this very important question, and we have had promises from the Government that the whole question will be reviewed, but so far as I understand it, the situation is very much the same as it was twelve months or even eighteen months ago. Everybody, I am sure, will agree as to the importance of safeguarding water supplies not only for domestic purposes but, especially, for industrial purposes, because if anything happened to water supplies in our industrial districts it would mean a sort of creeping paralysis industrially; it would affect adversely the production of munitions, and seriously cripple our war effort. In the last few months we have seen the terrible results which may occur if a water supply is destroyed as it unfortunately was in Hong Kong. That destruction contributed, to some degree at any rate, to what happened, and to the difficulties of defending the port.

As was shown in the debate last week the Government have already recognized the importance of protecting our aerodromes. This has at last been recognized, and after many months steps are being taken to provide that protection. What I want to ask the noble Lord who is going to reply to-day is: If it is necessary to protect aerodromes then surely must it not be equally necessary to protect our major water supplies? I cannot help feeling that the view which was taken, at any rate some time age, and which was expressed in a letter which the Secretary of State for War wrote to the Press—I think it was to the Western Mail—indicates that the authorities are under a misapprehension in regard to the importance of this matter. In that letter, the Secretary of State for War states that There are something like 3,000 reservoirs in the United Kingdom, and it is, I think, fair to assume that the supply from at least half of them, that is 1,580, would have to be interrupted before the water problem became critical. That appears to ignore the fact of the importance which attaches to some—I think probably to only a few—reservoirs as compared to the vast majority of them. It all depends whether the major reservoirs, those which supply our big cities and industrial centres, are included in the 1,500 the destruction of which Captain Margesson apparently imagined would create a crisis.

As I have pointed out, there are 3,000 of these water undertakings and something like forty-five cities in this country with a population of over 100,000. I believe that there are eighty reservoirs each supplying more than 100,000 people. Therefore the whole problem of protection and defence applies only to these major or key reservoirs. I do not suppose there are as many as eighty or a hundred which need a considerable amount of protection. But it is obvious that there are a few, the destruction of which we could only regard as a national disaster. Of course, the destruction of the remainder, if it occurred, would create a certain amount of inconvenience and hardship to people who lived in the affected areas. But those people would have to put up with it—our production of munitions or our war effort would not be affected.

May I also point out that there are two possibilities which apparently are envisaged? One is sabotage, but here the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Home Security and the local authorities have been called in. I have no doubt it is quite right that they should be called in and that they can help in preventing sabotage. But there is the other problem of preventing the destruction of these undertakings by attack from the air. I cannot understand why it is that, apparently, the War Office have tried in the past, at any rate, to evade this responsibility. After all, in each of these cases, as I understand, there are three particularly vulnerable points in connexion with any reservoir. First, the control towers; second, the filter beds; and thirdly, the dams. These are three vital points which must be protected. I have never been able to understand why it is not possible, as in the case of aerodromes, to have a sort of fortified zone which will provide strong points—pill-boxes, and other forms of protection and defensive works—to protect these vulnerable points.

With regard to the question of how to provide a force which will be strong enough to deny access to these vulnerable points until such time as the mobile column arrives on the scene as a reinforcement, I know that one of the objections is, as I think Captain Margesson said in the letter to which I have already referred, that there must be no undue dispersal of the troops. If it were necessary to disperse them over 3,000 reservoirs, one could understand that statement; but all that I am pleading for this afternoon is that at any rate these major and key reservoirs should be protected, and that, I imagine, is not going to involve a tremendous dispersal of troops. In that connexion, I venture to ask why training and protection cannot be carried on together. We know that troops in training are scattered all over the country. Why cannot they be trained on sites sufficiently near the reservoirs to enable them, if necessary, to man these strong points, in order to prevent access to vulnerable areas as the result of a surprise attack from the air? I do not profess to be a military expert, but it seems to me to be a matter of common sense that these units which are being trained should be trained in such close proximity to areas liable to attack that, if there was an alarm, they would know exactly what to do and could man these defensive points, while at the same time their training would not be interfered with.

I suggest that some of the areas in which reservoirs are situated would constitute admirable training grounds. We must be training raiding parties in order that we may be able to assume the offensive on the 2,000 miles of enemy coast-line whenever an opportunity arises. Why should not these raiding parties be trained in embarkation and disembarkation at reservoirs, as a preparation for any raiding exploits which they may be called upon to undertake? I offer no apology for raising this question once again. We have been told that there is still the possibility of invasion. We are certain that, if invasion takes place, there will be further exploitation of the air, and there may—we do not know—be some surprises in store for us. We have read in the Press that an enormous number of gliders has been prepared in Germany, and they must have been constructed, I suppose, with only one object in view, which is to help in an invasion of this country. We know perfectly well that in the past the power of the air has been grossly underestimated by the military authorities. We cannot help hoping that they will not be caught napping again, because, if that happens, irreparable damage might be done to our war industries, and our war effort might be very seriously crippled. I make this appeal not to the War Office alone, because this is a matter not for the War Office alone but for the Government, since other questions are involved besides that of the training of troops. I appeal to the Government to reconsider their attitude on this matter, and to take every possible precaution for the security and protection of our water-supplies.


My Lords, I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord Davies, bases his criticism in this matter upon any particular instance of where some important water-supply of which he may have knowledge is not adequately protected; but, as one who has the privilege of being a platoon commander in the Home Guard, I should like to tell him that some of the key reservoirs are, to my mind, very adequately protected against those attacks from the air of which the noble Lord is so afraid. It is possible that not all our water supplies are so well protected, but I thought it might be of I some comfort to the noble Lord to know that at least some of them are.


My Lords, before my noble friend Lord Croft replies—and I presume that my noble relative, Lord Sherwood, will also reply with regard to the protection of aerodromes, which are vital services—I desire to say a word. I support my noble friend Lord Davies in drawing attention to these vital services. With regard to water supplies, I am aware from the information which I have, and which I think is common to your Lordships—in fact, it has been made public—that very special arrangements are being made for the safeguarding of our water supplies. However, fresh dangers have arisen, and I support my noble friend in drawing attention to that aspect of the matter. That, however, is not the most important aspect of the problem. There are vital services throughout the country which have to be protected, and which we have endeavoured to protect ever since six months before the war began, by arrangements then made, but the defensive arrangements for which are still faulty, because the number of vital points in this highly industrialized country is so great, and because the noble Lord, Lord Croft, has been unable to provide the Home Guard with as many weapons as he would wish. He humorously suggested that a pike is not a bad weapon. We know that, and we know that there are a great many weapons in the possession of the Home Guard; I am responsible for the arming of a very large number of them. At the same time, I know that the situation is still unsatisfactory, as the noble Lord has himself admitted.

The point which I wish to make is this. The noble Lord, Lord Davies, has drawn attention to the protection of vital services. Who is to protect them? In the case of aerodromes, we hope that it will be the new Royal Air Force Regiment, which I presume that the noble Lord, Lord Sherwood, is engaged in raising for this purpose. Who is to protect all the other services? The Regular Army is busy elsewhere, and indeed, as has been pointed out, it is difficult to have troops in cantonments or on the spot near a water supply, for obvious sanitary reasons. It is necessary to rely either upon the Home Guard or, I would submit, on the people in the neighbourhood. If the enemy knows that if he attempts to tamper with a vital spot every able-bodied man in the neighbourhood will at once fly at him with whatever weapon may be available, his task is made enormously more difficult. I do ask the noble Lord's attention to this point. In your Lordships' House only last week a noble Lord who knows what he is talking about said that in a particular area if a German started to commit a hostile act less than one able-bodied man in seven would be ready there to withstand him. Did your Lordships appreciate the extraordinary nature of the revelation made by Lord Buckmaster? So many men are exempted from the elementary duty of shooting a German when they see him that one in six or one in seven—so he told us, and no doubt that is true—is available for that purpose. I suggest, in fact I implore, Lord Croft and Lord Sherwood to get the Prime Minister to make a plain statement that this country stands in the same relation to this problem as the inhabitants of Russia stood when they were attacked by Germany.

Wherever a hostile man is encountered it is the duty and privilege of any man who meets him to fly at him at once with any weapon that he has. It is not as though the point I am raising is academic. It is just because this fantastic plan that Lord Buckmaster disclosed last week obtained in Holland, in Denmark, in Norway and in Belgium, and to a less degree in France, that those countries were overwhelmed. Tiny parties of Germans in each of those countries first infiltrated, and then they scored a victory. Of course it is true that Lord Croft may say we have made plans by which various vital points are protected by bands of Home Guards, in some cases by Regulars, and now there is the new Royal Air Force Regiment coming along. But let the Prime Minister announce that we, like the Russians, are fighting the men who come over in large or small numbers wherever we can find them, and that no one is exempt, not one man. For my part I draw the line at women; I do not think women ought to shoot. But I am quite sure that it ought to be the bounden duty and the rule, and ought to be openly proclaimed, and quickly, so that before the invasion comes—and come it surely will—every man, as in Russia, will know that he is bound and must be prepared to go and shoot the enemy if he has got a gun, or attack him with the leg of a chair if he has not, or with my noble friend's pike.

We have havered about this long enough. On the Continent of Europe, as I know, they are watching us; they are wondering if we are playing for safety, as they seem to have done in Holland, in Belgium, in Norway and in Denmark. Are we? Why is it that in a certain area out of seven men only one is ready to shoot the enemy who is going to destroy our vital property? I implore the Government to put an end to this mystery at once, and say that every man must put himself in touch with the military authorities, or the naval authorities at a seaport, or the Air Force authorities if he is near an aerodrome, and realize that it is his bounden duty to go for the enemy when he sees him. Put an end to this timid theory, whereby a policeman may say, "I cannot shoot a German because I am under the civil authority," and another may say, "I cannot shoot a German because I am only an A.R.P. Warden," or still another, "I cannot shoot a German because I am only in the Fire Service." Every man is bound to serve, and to attack the enemy as soon as he sees him. Will the noble Lord insist that a clear declaration is given?


My Lords, I should like on behalf of my friends to say a word in cordial support of Lord Davies. He has brought this subject up before, and I think I could almost tell in advance what the noble Lord, Lord Croft, is going to say in reply. He shakes his head, and perhaps he has got something better than one had been led to expect. But when I was listening to the noble Lord, Lord Mottistone, just now, and he exhorted every man to go for a German if he met one and to shoot him, what I was aware of—and I think he was, too—was that so very many men have nothing to shoot with. It certainly applies to a very large number of men, and I sincerely hope that, following our recent discussion, the noble Lord and his colleagues will do their best to see that the Home Guard is fully supplied as soon as possible. And there are other weapons besides rifles which are useful. Grenades can be made by the million quite easily, as I happen to know. They can be supplied, and people can practise with them, I would not say in the back garden, but at all events quite easily. These are very dangerous and effective weapons, which can be supplied everywhere.

But apart from that, I understand that the noble Lord will say, and will say rightly, that we are training our Armies in considerable units for offensive operations and equipping them accordingly, and that we cannot carry on our training if they are to be dispersed in little groups all over the country defending all sorts of important points, aerodromes among them. That is true, and it is obviously sound. But I do not think it rules out by any means the possibility, indeed the necessity, of doing what the noble Lord is urging in his Motion. Some time ago, as the noble Lord is aware, I brought up the subject of aerodrome defence, and I am still, I may say for the benefit of the noble Lord, Lord Croft, and his colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Sherwood, not at all satisfied with the arrangements which have recently been announced. We shall hope to hear more about them before long. But the real trouble is that it has been nobody's business, I think, effectively to organize or arrange for the defence of these vital points. The noble Lord shakes his head, but we will see. It has been left to certain people in the Regions and I think in the Commands to make arrangements about aerodromes, but information that has come to me of an authoritative kind leaves it beyond question that in respect of a number of important and vital points adequate arrangements for defence are not in being.

That does not mean that any of us would expect a dispersal of the first-line forces—of course not; but I do suggest that what is wanted is a plan drawn up according to the instructions of the War Department, and if the noble Lord will make himself responsible for getting a coherent plan drawn up, with driving force behind it, he will render an immense national service, because at the present time it seems to me that this matter consists of a large number of bits and pieces. You have certain elements of old defence battalions in various areas responsible for the defence of various points. The Home Guard in places where they have an enthusiastic officer practises at certain important spots, and where that happens it is all to the good. But it is largely by chance. There is not an organized scheme of defence. There is not, I am sure, an efficient well-thought-out national plan with authorities competent to see it is carried out.

I suggest that this should not be left to the initiative of any one in the area command. That is not good enough. Nor should it be left to the enthusiasm of the local Commander of the Home Guard. That is not good enough either. I am just adding a modest plea that the noble Lord should see to it that this thing is tackled as a whole with a thought-out scheme, and that people should be appointed adequately equipped to provide the necessary defence. I am perfectly certain it can be provided in the delaying sense, which is really all my noble friend is asking for, until a highly equipped mobile force can get there, without interfering with the first-line Army. There is no doubt that it can be, but there is no plan at present in operation and, so far as I can see, there is no plan devised to provide what is necessary. I am sure that if the noble Lord, Lord Croft, will turn his mind and energies to it, he will render an immense national service by putting this matter on a better footing, and there is no time to be lost.


My Lords, may I thank the noble Lord who asked this question for the manner in which he put his case—very powerfully as usual—on a subject on which he feels most sincerely. The arguments he used, if it is not impertinent for me to say so, were very helpful in the consideration of this most important question. Your Lord-ships will not expect me to-day to go into the important points with regard to the training, organization, and arming of men not at present armed, raised so eloquently by Lord Mottistone and supported by Lord Addison, which go far beyond the reach of the particular question Lord Davies has raised. I can only assure your Lordships that these problems are very much in the minds of His Majesty's Government. We had a discussion on this subject recently, and it would be improper for me in my humble position to add to the remarks made on that occasion.

On the specific point raised by Lord Davies—in particular, the question of vulnerable points, and, still more in particular, waterworks—the protection of waterworks, as will be realized, is a very complex problem and it is open to very considerable variations necessitating individual inspection. Although water schemes may be limited to two main classes, and portions which are actually vulnerable confined to three or four main items, the fact remains that it is impossible to dismiss any particular case without detailed examination. All water undertakings of a substantial character were classified as vulnerable points very early on, as the noble Lord mentioned, and subsequent to this they were inspected in detail and in many cases up-graded for priority. It will be appreciated, therefore, that the importance of protecting our water supplies has not been overlooked.

The noble Lord referred to Hong Kong in reinforcing his argument. So far we have no detailed information available in the case of this island, except that certain demolitions were carried out by our Forces, but I think the waterworks were not actually destroyed. Our troops ran out of water, and it may therefore be assumed that the Japanese gained control of that part of the island in which the reservoirs are situated. The noble Lord claimed that aerodromes and waterworks were of equal importance, and suggested we were now beginning to defend aerodromes. I must point out that aerodromes have always been defended, and that it is a different scheme that is now being adopted. Aerodromes are obviously of more importance than reservoirs, important though the latter are, as we rely on fighter protection as our first line of defence against either air-borne or sea-borne invasion. Aerodromes are therefore an essential part of the defence of waterworks. It has been suggested that there is no plan for the protection of waterworks, but I must point out that, so far as military protection is concerned, the protection of waterworks is the responsibility of the Commander-in-Chief, Home Forces. Obviously I cannot give your Lordships any information in regard to the method of defence as it is not in the public interest to disclose information which might be of use to the enemy, but, as I have already indicated, several of the more important undertakings have been up-graded as vulnerable points in our plan of priorities and are also supplied with static military guards.

While only these more substantial undertakings were classified in the first instances, many exceptions and recommendations have been made by the Vulnerable Points Adviser, who is responsible for the whole scheme of supervising vulnerable points in this country, at the request of those controlling the minor undertakings. These recommendations by the Vulnerable Points Adviser include not only the numbers and type of guard, but also the execution of work in order to protect specially vital points such as those mentioned by my noble friend—dams, control towers, pumping machinery, &c. As there are hundreds of undertakings, both large and small, it would not make for efficiency to provide them with the large number of troops considered requisite, perhaps by Lord Davies, without taking them from the defence of beaches and aerodromes, without preventing these troops from carrying out the mobile training which is absolutely essential in meeting a first-class enemy, and without preventing them from becoming acquainted with the district in which they have to perform their actual operational role.

My noble friend spoke about places for training, and he mentioned that the vicinity of waterworks might be useful for training troops in special kinds of work. I think he referred to Commandos. It is very dubious if reservoirs do, in fact, offer a good training ground for combined operations. The conditions under which such exercises could be carried out would paint an altogether false picture in that respect. There are very many points which will occur to your Lordships. If I might just mention two, there is the slope of the beaches compared with the level conditions at the reservoir, contrasting with the conditions in which the Commandos would have to fight, and there are also the conditions of the quiet, still waters of the reservoir compared with the sea coast and tidal waves in which operations would actually take place. If attack by air-borne troops is visualized—and it is very much in the mind of noble Lords—surely the necessity for the defence of aerodromes applies with even more force. Aerodromes surely must be given priority for such resources as we possess.

The noble Lord has made frequent representations with regard to certain types of objectives which he considers to be vulnerable, and I want to give him this assurance, that in every case he has related to me or to your Lordships' House his representations have not only received consideration but have been gone into on the spot. I may say further that not only has the Department which specially deals with vulnerability under the Vulnerable Points Adviser, a very distinguished officer, taken up the question he has raised, but Commanders-in-Chief have themselves looked into the problem from every angle. Taking into consideration the priority treatment I have mentioned, which I think your Lordships will agree is essential, we are of opinion that the preparations for local defence and reinforcement are dealt with as adequately as our resources permit. I may add that a scheme is at present under consideration whereby the protection which is afforded all vulnerable points is increased progressively when the signals of warning have been issued. But I must once again remind the noble Lord, Lord Davies, that the particular vulnerable points which he has so much in mind are only part of a very much larger number of vital points in the country requiring defence, and if regular static guards were supplied to all, it would make very serious inroads into our striking forces, I submit that to allow an exaggerated defensive plan to impair our offensive power-would not in the end be a contribution to victory.


My Lords, I beg to thank the noble Lord opposite for his reply. He has said exactly what I thought he probably would say. May I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, for his interest in this matter? I am sure he will have realized the difficulty that we labour under in discussing matters of this kind—namely, that we cannot allude to any specific case or any particular locality. One is glad to know that something has been don". In regard to the point my noble friend mentioned about static guards, that is precisely what I have been trying to suggest could be got over by training carried on concurrently with the responsibilities of manning the defences of a particular reservoir that is considered to be of vital importance. The noble Lord said these reservoirs have been put on the priority list and have been up-graded. I could tell him of cases where just the opposite has happened, and instead of being up-graded they have been degraded. I venture to suggest he should look into those particular cases.

With regard to the training on reservoirs, I suggested that it might be a preliminary training. I know some of these reservoirs, and I can assure the noble Lord that in a gale I have wished I was out of the boat. At the same time it is quite true that this kind of training is not the same as training on the beaches; yet it does offer a preliminary training. If it were adopted it would mean killing two birds with one stone, because you would be protecting the reservoir and at the same time giving the-men an opportunity of indulging in a wider form of training than troops have in some localities now. I do not want to go over the ground again, but I would appeal once more to the Government to recognize the vital importance of our water supply and our reservoirs. As to their relative importance to aerodromes, the noble Lord is probably right in saying that aerodromes, on the whole, are more important. And there again, in the case of aerodromes, I imagine some are far more important than others, and the protection afforded to these would be far greater than is afforded to some of the less important ones. I hope the noble Lord will appeal to his Department to reconsider the whole question and see if something cannot be done to ensure the protection of the major key water supplies, so that if an invasion should come we may be able to put up a good show and our war effort will not be crippled as a consequence of any disasters which may happen to our water supplies.


My Lords, before the Motion is withdrawn, I think this House of Parliament is entitled to an answer to a simple question which I have ventured to put in support of my noble friend on this question of protecting vital points. Do the Government advise the citizens of this country and order them to behave as the citizens of Russia have been ordered to behave, or do they advise them to behave as the citizens of Denmark were ordered to behave? In the one case only a small number of organized people were told to defend vital points, and as a consequence, as we know, the whole State collapsed. In the case of Russia, however, every citizen was told to attack the enemy wherever he was found. As I say, this House of Parliament is entitled to an answer. If my noble friend cannot give that answer now—and I hope he may—I will put down a Motion at the first possible opportunity to clear up the position.


My Lords, with the permission of the House I will only say this in reply to the noble Lord. I regret that it is not possible for me to go beyond the statement of the Prime Minister which I referred to in the debate last week. I have no doubt my noble friend's remarks will be noted, but clearly it is not competent for me to issue any new statement beyond that made by the Prime Minister.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.