HL Deb 20 January 1942 vol 121 cc412-41

My Lords, in the absence of my noble friend Lord Addison, who had given Notice that he would "call attention to the adequacy of the means proposed for the defence of aerodromes," and move for Papers, but who, very much to his own regret, has been held up by the weather and cannot be here until later, I beg to move the Motion standing in his name.


My Lords, I am not anxious to add to the difficulties of the Government over this question, and I am not proposing, in the remarks which I shall make, to criticize the Army or the Air Force; my contribution—if it can be called a contribution—to the debate is really to try to point out some of the points that I think all should appreciate and realize when they are examining this question of the defence of aerodromes. A great deal has been said and written on the subject of the defence of aerodromes. From the statements made by responsible Ministers and others, the public, I feel, is inclined to draw the entirely wrong conclusion that, because we lost certain aerodromes in Greece, in Crete, and more recently in Malaya, the arrangements for the local defence of these aerodromes were necessarily inadequate. From this conclusion, together with the fact that outward and visible signs of defence arrangements are not readily apparent at many aerodromes in this country, the further deduction is often drawn that the protection of our vital home aerodromes—and I should like to emphasize those words, because I shall refer to them later—is not being carried out efficiently. In my opinion, it is essential that these wrong impressions should be corrected.

There are certain very important factors which must be known and appreciated before any direct lessons can be learnt from what has happened in Greece, Crete, Malaya and other parts of the world. First of all—I have referred to this before, but I fear without much effect—the geographical position affects the power of the air arm much more than it affects the other two Services, because the short-range fighter is superior to the long-range fighter, and always will be as long as gravity lasts. There is no getting away from that. That point is of first importance, and must be borne in mind in all arguments, as the true defence of aerodromes in this country is the responsibility of the short-range fighter. Secondly, the importance of having sufficient machines and air bases lies in the need of obtaining what is absolutely necessary, superiority in the air.

Bearing those two important factors in mind, I now turn to the local defence of aerodromes. The local defence of aerodromes cannot be regarded as an item by itself; it is an integral part of the defence of the whole of the: surrounding territory, and is profoundly affected by everything which influences the fortunes of the campaign as a whole. As is now clear to everyone, local air superiority can and does play a vital part in nearly all surface battles, whether by land or by sea; and local air superiority depends, to a great extent, upon the availability of fighter aircraft. The employment of the necessary number of fighter squadrons itself depends upon a number of factors, and, as I have already said, not the least of these is geography; and all fighter squadrons must not be in the battle zone or in the lighting zone.

We did not lose the campaign in Greece because vital aerodromes were captured, but because at the outset the enemy was able to employ vastly superior air forces and won virtual, though not undisputed, control in the air. That was the reason for our setback in Greece. After he had obtained air superiority, he could blast his way forward by his dive bombers, by his low-flying fighters, by his parachute troops and by his Panzer columns. He was able to bomb our aerodromes, to overwhelm our air forces in the air, and to drive our Army backwards into the sea, largely because we could not operate sufficient fighter aircraft to prevent it. One of the main reasons for our lack of fighter cover was geography. Hitler had the whole of the Luftwaffe to draw upon, and the vast and continuous network of Central European landing-grounds to use as staging points to concentrate his squadrons, together with the many care-fully-prepared Bulgarian aerodromes as operational bases. We could not supply or reinforce the Grecian theatre of war with air squadrons direct from our home bases in this country; the distances were much too great. We could only draw from our existing resources in North Africa and send squadrons across the whole breadth of the Mediterranean, basing them upon the comparatively few aerodromes which Greece possessed. These squadrons, as all will admit, fought gallantly, but they were hopelessly outnumbered, and therefore we lost Greece. The capture of aerodromes in Greece was only incidental. It was inevitable when we lost, first of all the air battle above them, and then, as a result of that, the land battle around them. We were bound to lose those aerodromes directly we lost the air battle above them; the local defence arrangements at those aerodromes had no bearing on our defeat.

In Crete our failure was due, even more emphatically, to the same causes, and particularly to geography. Crete is an island with few aerodromes. It was within the operational range of powerful enemy fighter forces based on the mainland of Greece and on the islands to the east of it, and it was beyond the range of our own fighters based on Egypt or Cyprus. Such of our fighters as we had been able to spare to operate from Crete had to be withdrawn before the attack, but only after consultation and in agreement with the Military Commander. Had they not been withdrawn, they would equally have been blasted out of existence by enemy bombers operating with strong tighter escort, just as the anti-aircraft ground positions and the defending Army forces were in fact blasted and hammered. Consequently the enemy possessed complete local air superiority not only over the island itself but over the waters surrounding it. This enabled them, in spite of the efforts of the Navy and the garrison, to bring overwhelming numbers of air-borne troops to attack quite unhindered, and eventually to make our hold on Crete untenable. In such circumstances the most perfect defence arrangements on the ground could not have altered the final result. In the same way the joint Axis forces in North Africa have now lost practically the whole of Cyrenaica. They have lost it because our British and Dominion Air Forces have won local air superiority over the battle zone. They have lost all their country and all their aerodromes. Therefore, our Air Forces have been able to support General Auchinleck's forces on the ground throughout their forward drive.

Now I turn to Malaya. Before I deal with the Malayan aerodromes I should like to say a few words on a remark made in this House on January 8. I am sorry the noble Lord to whom 1 wrote to say I was going to raise this question is not present, but I must continue in spite of that, because it is time this was said to the world after what has gone on in the last fortnight. I was surprised that the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition, Lord Addison, who I had always thought was fair in his criticisms in all the debates in your Lordships' House, thought fit to criticise Air Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham so severely on the subject of Hong Kong and Malaya. I think all will agree that it is most regrettable—I should like to put it more strongly—and most to be deplored by all your Lordships in this House and by all right-thinking people. I regretted it intensely, and even more so when the noble Lord said he had no apology to make for the language he used in referring to this very distinguished officer who has done such great work in the last war and in this.

I hope we shall not copy in this House the practice that is growing up of abusing Service heads whether they are Admirals, Field Marshals or Air Marshals, who cannot defend themselves as they are public servants. If I may quote a letter I wrote some months ago at the time of the Dakar affair, when referring to that question, I said. Such setbacks as we have suffered necessarily damage the prestige of all concerned in the plans, and the serving officer is naturally debarred from giving his account at the time of his part in the affair, with the result …the blame tends to stick to him, and it is the Service Head who earns the reputation of being wrong. I am not talking about retired officers— you can abuse them as much as you like —I am talking about officers who are still serving. I am talking about officers of distinction in the Government's service, who give all they can for the service of the country in the Fighting Forces and who have, I must ask your Lordships to remember, appalling responsibilities on their shoulders. I read far too many headlines in the Press and hear far too many remarks about "Admiral So-and-so sacked," "General So-and-so sacked," "Air Marshal So-and-So sacked." I do not like it.

Why did the noble Lord criticize the Commander-in-Chief in the Far East? What did this distinguished officer say that so roused the ire of the noble Lord? Was it because he said, more than a year ago, that "any idea that Hong Kong would be captured in a few days or a few weeks was erroneous"? Or was it because, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour, he said, "We are fully prepared, come what may"? What would the noble Lord expect of a Commanding Officer who at times has to make speeches? There is no doubt that Commanding Officers in these big positions in the far parts of the Empire are called upon from time to time to make speeches. They have got to make some public announcement, and they are far away from the hub of the Empire in London. Would the noble Lord expect such a Commanding Officer to get up and say that Hong Kong will fall and must be evacuated, or that Malaya cannot defend itself? If we are going to criticize people for giving these assurances there are many who could be called "nincompoops" who are neither Admirals, nor Field-Marshals, nor Air Marshals. It would be invidious if I chose to name a few who have said some place will not be given up, or words to that effect.

I was more than pleased to see the other day on the tape at a club that Mr. Menzies, speaking in Australia, said: Whoever is to blame for the shortage of aeroplanes at Singapore and in Malaya it is certainly not Sir Robert Brooke-Popham. When I was passing through Singapore early last year, Sir Robert from first to last spoke to me about the urgent and predominant need for air strength, particularly fighter strength. He is a brave man, but he was in a state of the greatest possible emotional disturbance about our air weakness. Sir Robert Brooke-Popham knew the facts. The Australian Government knew them, and the British Government knew them. Again one of the important things to be remembered is that if a man has been occupying a great position, and then retires because he is not considered by the Government of the time—though they may be wrong—to be competent, possibly through temporary sickness or long active service, let us not try to ruin his reputation. That affects all the men under him whom he has tried to lead and to help. It tends to lessen the prestige of Commanding Officers, and it is fatal to the maintenance of confidence in the professional heads in themselves and in their power to instil confidence in those whom they have to lead. I must say I should like to have heard the noble Lord the Leader of the House, on behalf of the Government, the other day say something to defend this great public servant who, in the last war and in this, as 1 have said, has done a great deal of work for his country. It may be that my noble friend did not hear the remark made by the Leader of the Opposition. I was in the House myself, and did not hear the expression "nincompoop," and only became aware of it when I read the report in the Press.

I should like now to return to the aerodrome question in Malaya where, I believe, none of the aerodromes which we have recently lost was captured by air attack. My interpretation of the communiqués which have been issued is that they were all evacuated in turn in the face of an advance by superior enemy forces. Our troops could not hold them for the same reason, in fact, as the Russians lost innumerable aerodromes last summer and autumn, and the Germans in their turn are now losing them on the Eastern Front. The aircraft were withdrawn from Kota Bahru and the aerodrome demolished before the Japanese forces, which had landed from the sea. ever reached it. Our continued withdrawals and reverses in that part of the world are again in a measure due to lack of local air superiority. Again if we had sufficient air striking forces there, and sufficient fighters to protect them, the successes of the various Japanese landings and the maintenance of their tenuous sea communications would have been very difficult. But, as has been said elsewhere, we cannot be strong everywhere at once. In this first phase of the Far Eastern struggle the garrisons of our Imperial outposts are up against the sea, land and air forces of a major Power engaged in carrying out a carefully prepared plan launched as a strategic surprise. Therefore, I would like to say quite definitely that in the defence of aerodromes, except in small details, no new lessons are to be learnt from Greece, Crete and Malaya. They have no bearing on the question of the defence of aerodromes at home.

Now I come to the situation in England. I hope I am not taking up too much time. The enemy cannot attack us overland; he must come by sea. or by air, or both. Air-borne invasion is a threat and I know that both the Air Force and the Army are fully alive to it. Again our primary defence, and our best defence, is our fighter squadrons. We possess in this country a strong Fighter Force—which, in winning the Battle of Britain, has already frustrated one projected or possible invasion—and plenty of aerodromes from which that Force has to fight. The aerodromes in this country are very numerous, there must be five or six hundred or more of them, and the enemy cannot possibly attack them all. It is true that nobody can tell which he will select for attack if he comes; therefore practically all must have ground defence of some kind. But it must be obvious that some of them, by reason of their own intrinsic importance or because of their geographical position, are most likely to be attacked and to be more vulnerable than others. It is, therefore, the business of the Service authorities to decide which of our aerodromes are more vital to us, and which we think it is probable the enemy will attack. There can be no doubt that this is being done, and most carefully. All our aerodromes must be, or should be—I hope and I think that they are; and I hope the noble Lord will be able to tell us they are—so to speak, graded for local defence. Taking into consideration the many factors which affect their need for protection, and whether they are most vital to us, whether their loss would affect our offensive or our defensive power, the defence measures must be graded accordingly.

Our resources are not unlimited, and if a proper economy of effort is maintained there will be many aerodromes with very small local garrisons indeed, if any, outside it may be the men employed upon them, who are trained in use of arms. To make each one of these hundreds of aerodromes that 1 have mentioned completely capable with its own local resources, of defeating any possible scale of attack which the enemy might be able to bring upon it would require more than the whole strength of the British Army. Moreover, that is utterly unnecessary. The loss of some of these aerodromes, though very regrettable, would not affect the issue of the attempted invasion of this country one iota. Though, as I say, it would be regrettable, even if we lose some temporarily, and even if damage were done to a good number of others, it docs not matter provided the most vital ones to which I referred earlier in my speech are securely held so as to enable the bulk of our fighters and some of our bombers to remain free to operate. With our fighters still able to take the air to destroy the enemy and to protect our bombers, and with Army forces, including the Home Guard, attacking the enemy on the ground wherever he was to be found, few of the captured aerodromes would remain long in enemy hands.

Another point that I want to refer to is that no aerodrome used by the Royal Air Force is defenceless, even if there is no sign of its having been provided with a garrison of regular fighting troops. The airmen who work with spanners and screwdrivers and the others who ply the many different technical trades required to keep aircraft in the air, do not go about their daily tasks openly grasping tommy guns or flourishing bayonets. There can be little doubt though that such weapons are there, in the majority of cases just round the corner, ready for instant use in an emergency. There is also little doubt that the men have been trained to use them, and would use them to good effect if required. Things are not always what they seem. A casual glimpse over the hedge surrounding an aerodrome, or even an unauthorized stroll on the premises, will often given a totally wrong impression of its defence arrangements. Many people seem to think that if they cannot see with their own eyes battalions of troops with bayonets at the ready, and guns and tanks lurking round every corner, no arrangements whatever have been made to defend the place they are looking at.

It is here too that another popular misconception so often arises. People fail to differentiate between the measures taken for the defence of an aerodrome against attack by the armed forces of the enemy, and those which may or may not be taken to provide anti-sabotage guards, and to prevent the entering of casual "snoopers" or Sunday afternoon busy-bodies. No one will deny that the former is infinitely the more important task of the two, and it is to meet it that the aerodrome garrisons are provided. Moreover, to provide 100 per cent. security against occasional individual intruders is not only virtually impossible but quite unnecessary. The harm such people can do is negligible. The harm they actually do is equally negligible; and to ensure that they are kept away altogether would be a stupendous task. Think of it! Five hundred aerodromes, each with a perimeter of four to six miles, round which the buildings and aircraft are widely dispersed for protection against bombing, many of them with nothing but a barbed-wired fence separating them from an adjoining stretch of public road: to provide guards or sentries continuously watching over every aeroplane, every building and every yard of aerodrome boundary would require not only the whole of the British Army but most of the vast Russian Armies as well. Even to attempt such a task would be ridiculous.

When a party of small boys can get into an aerodrome and do some petty pilfering it is unfortunate. The aerodrome police are not perhaps as wideawake as they should be, but they cannot be everywhere. Possibly the ordinary aerodrome personnel are not as suspicious-minded as they should be. Such things must and should be looked into. But it is not a very serious matter, and it does not mean that the aerodrome is inadequately defended. The garrison is not there to act as a police force. At normal times, when there are no indications of any impending attack, it should be training intensively for the day when it will have to fight in grim earnest against hordes of armed parachute troops. A man walking up and down on sentry-go watching for impudent school boys or inquisitive visitors is not training for a fighting role. But an aerodrome commander, worried by ignorant public criticism, may well be tempted to use up the men of his regular garrison on such futile tasks, just to keep up appearances. If he succumbs to that temptation, his aerodrome will not be adequately defended. The new Royal Air Force regiment—which, in order to simplify problems of local command and co-ordination of effort actually on aerodromes, is being formed to replace the local garrisons at present provided by Army units—will, it is hoped, be a powerful and highly-trained fighting force. It will be neither of these if its units are employed on police work or useless guards.


My Lords, I had intended to make a few remarks somewhat on the lines of the earlier remarks made by my noble friend Viscount Trenchard, but he has spoken with such authority as to make it quite unnecessary for me to go over the same ground. I should, however, like to take the opportunity of associating myself with the remarks he made about the attack made in the last debate upon a distinguished officer, Sir Robert Brooke-Popham. Sir Robert Brooke-Popham is a most distinguished officer. He has spent the whole of his active life, or the greater part of it, in forwarding the interests of the great Service to which he belongs. He has done more than that. He was for two years Commandant of the Imperial Defence College, and I can speak from personal knowledge of the wide views he used to take on cuestions in which the three Services and other Government services were concerned. He has now been branded for all his life by having been called a nincompoop in your Lordships' House—branded by somebody who, great though he may be in his own line, has no more idea of the conditions under which Sir Robert Brooke-Popham was acting than any other uninformed man in the street.

There appear to be certain people who seem to think that they can sit in London and criticize all that goes on in the Arctic and the Antarctic and on the Line, and that their prevision would have taught them how to prevent disaster. It is unfair to a man who cannot answer back. It is unfair to criticize anybody unless you know the whole conditions, and nobody except 1he Government can know what representations were sent home by Sir Robert Brooke-Popham. If Sir Robert Brooke-Popham did not get all he asked for—I do not know whether he did, but suppose he did not—and the Government were unable to give all that he asked for, are we going to put the fault upon him or upon the Government? I say, No; the fault goes further back than that. You must look to the people who deluded the country and taught the people that there would be no more war, and opposed any armaments. The main reason for the disasters in the Far East is that in the Pacific we lost command of the sea in the first place, and we could not have kept command with the cut-down Navy that we are now allowed. For years some noble Lords and Members of Parliament have been telling the country that there would be no more war. Some of your Lordships may have noticed in the Daily Telegraph last Saturday a little letter which purported to give a story of the noble Lord, Lord Addison, when he was contesting a Parliamentary election with Mr. Wakefield. Mr. Wakefield advocated a strong Air Force, and the following day there appeared posters with the letters "W. W. W.—Wakefield wants War." That was the sort of thing that was going on all over the country. That is what deluded the population and led to this sort of thing. I suggest that if that story is true we need not go out to Singapore, because Singapore has no monopoly of nincompoops.

House adjourned during pleasure.

House resumed.


My Lords, I would like to express my regret that, owing to the late arrival of a train, I was not able to be here at the opening of the debate. I regret it particularly because I did not arrive in time to hear the remarks of the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard. But he did write to me beforehand telling me in substance what he proposed to say, and so 1 was warned in advance. I thank him for doing that. When I spoke on January 8, in using the harsh term which I did use, I spoke, as I warned your Lordships, deliberately. I did so because I am terribly impressed with the danger in these times, that we are too complacent with inefficiency. I have shared in Parliamentary life for more than thirty years, and I think no one can assert that it has been a habit of mine to say harsh things. It was only because I was so exceedingly impressed with the dangerous tendency that is being displayed that I did so on January 8. It may well be that the expression I used was harsher than many people would think, in the circumstances, would be fairly applicable to this officer, and I knew when I was speaking that I should incur much displeasure. I did it, therefore, well knowing that that would be so; and on a careful review of all the facts I cannot yet see why this officer should have made these speeches to which I have referred.

He could not have expected that he would mislead the Japanese General Staff. They would be guided by the facts of which they would have abundant opportunities of informing themselves. There was no need to say soft things to comfort people at home or in Australia. If there had been any necessity for these public statements, which I question, he would have done well, I suggest, to have learnt from the superlative wisdom of the Prime Minister in confronting our people with the hard realities of the situation. The whole calamitous sequence of events in Malaya, including the circumstances of the evacuation of Penang and the presentation, almost, to the enemy of valuable supplies, and of vessels which I have no doubt have been very useful to them in their landings on the West coast, bespeak, in my honest opinion, a serious underestimate of the power of the enemy, procrastination in preparation for defence and an inexcusable inefficiency. Some of those who have written to me in protest appear to have the impression that soldiers are in some way sacrosanct and immune from criticism. I know from very painful experience that this has never been so with politicians, and I cannot admit that it ever should be so with soldiers either. I suggest that to-day, if ever in our history—and I feel it passionately—it is the duty and high privilege of Parliament to help and encourage those who are rendering able service by all the means at their command, but to be no less determined that there should be no hesitation and no regard for sectional rivalries in removing from their positions very highly-placed men who have proved themselves unfit to occupy them.


When you know the facts.


I should illustrate something of what I have said with reference to the subject of our debate. I take it that there are certain governing facts to which the noble Viscount called attention: that it is true that unless aerodromes are captured successful invasion of this country cannot be made, and that it would never do to split up our field divisions and first-line troops into larger numbers of groups for use in defence of aerodromes. It is also true, as the noble Viscount pointed out, that certain aerodromes are much more vital than others and must be defended at all costs, and that on all aerodromes there are considerable ground staffs and numbers of technicians who, if suitably equipped and well trained, could certainly put up considerable delaying resistance to air-borne invasion. In order to be effective, as the new scheme recognizes, there should be a number of properly equipped, highly mobile units; but there must, I suggest, be unity of direction and training and control over the practice of these troops in the use of arms, and in the work which they may be required to do.

I should like to call attention to the statement made by the noble Lord, the Leader of the House, on January 8 of this year, and I will call attention, first of all, to what he said as to the ground troops of the aerodromes: The Royal Air Force on an aerodrome possesses a large fund of disciplined manpower, primarily for serviceing aeroplanes but also of very great value, when armed and trained, for local defence in an emergency. … After careful examination by all three Services, it has been decided that, while Army responsibility for ground defence as a whole must be maintained, the Royal Air Force under military direction and as agent for the Army shall undertake the entire local defence arrangements at its aerodromes. We have had these ground forces on the aerodromes, so far as they have been created, for about two years; and I believe that, notwithstanding what the noble Lord said—with the idea, I suppose, of comforting us—it is a fact that in many aerodromes these station troops have not been adequately trained even in the use of the rifle. If they were adequately trained in the use of rifles, grenades and simple weapons of that kind—and we can supply grenades easily enough—they would, at all events, be a very effective force for resisting an air-borne attack; but I suggest to the noble Lord, the Leader of the House, that there has been procrastination in securing the efficient training of these station troops in the use of such arms and equipment as would be appropriate for them for delaying purposes. I shall come back in a moment to the question of whether that should be the function of the Air Force or not; that is another question.

In addition, there is to be a Royal Air Force Regiment. I am sure that we all welcome the decision to provide a special force, and we all hope that it will be given the opportunity and the equipment to make it well trained and efficient. I should like to invite your Lordships, however, to look a little more closely at what the noble Lord said about this force. I myself would suggest that this highly mobile force must be exceptionally well- equipped with appropriate weapons; it must be provided with transport, and it should be composed of men already trained in infantry work and officered by the most competent—and, as far as possible, young—officers who can be provided. The whole of this force should be organized on a uniform scale, and in such a way as to secure easy handling and rapidity of movement. It must be equipped so as to ensure extreme mobility and a standard of offensive power superior to that likely to be possessed by air-borne invading troops. It should be subject to such a standard and uniformity of training that it can carry out operations, if need be, in conjunction with the station troops with perfect and well-planned co-ordination. I suggest that those attributes should attach to this new force.

If we now turn to the statement by the noble Lord, the Leader of the House, I hope that he will be able to say something to-day to remove certain misgivings which I think that that statement inevitably aroused. He said that the executive and administrative control of this force is to be under the Air Council, but that they will not exercise operational control. I should like to ask the noble Lord who will be responsible for training this force: will it be the Army authorities, or will it be the officers of this new regiment? Will they be responsible for training the new force, and for training the station troops, so far as they need to be trained? Who will be responsible for equipment? Will the Royal Air Force Regiment, if it is decided that they need certain mortars or machine guns, or even light tanks, have to wait their turn until after the Army is supplied, or what will be the arrangement for securing the adequate and prompt equipment of this force, sc that it will not be a question of the Air Force having to pull against the Army to obtain the necessary equipment?

I suggest that training and equipment, if they are to be the functions as I think that they are, of the officers of the new regiment, ought to be inseparable from operational direction. How is it possible to get the proper training of these forces, either independently or together, for the purposes for which they would be required in war, if they were attacked, without control over their operational dispositions and exercises? Surely those things are inseparable; and therefore I suggest that the separation of operational control, which would be under the Army, from the training and other organization of this force, which would be under Air Force officers, is a separation and duplication of control which is essentially faulty. I do not profess to be a soldier, but I do not think that one needs to be a soldier in order to assume that the defence of our land is essentially an Army job. It should be the duty of the Army; and I suggest, therefore, that if the Army is to be given the chance of defending our aerodromes, the whole business, including the training, equipment and management of all the forces concerned, should be under Army officers too, responsible to the Army for their work and for their efficiency.

One cannot help feeling at the back of one's mind that behind this sub-division of training, the station troops under an Air Force organization, although they will not be in charge of them in the event of invasion, there is an attitude of "You keep off the grass" so far as the Army is concerned on the aerodromes. More than once I have been a modest supporter of the noble and gallant Viscount in supporting the Air Force with its independent organization, but I cannot see that in this case we shall be doing the right thing if we agree to this duality of command and duality of direction and, finally, of operational direction of this Force. I do hope that the Government will see their way to establish what surely we should have, a unity of direction and command right through.

We welcome the plan as a great improvement on what has gone before, but I would return—although I may place myself wrongly with many of your Lordships, to my intense regret; still, I have been unpopular before—to the matter which has been referred to. We have been two and a quarter years at war. This subject of the defence of aerodromes has been a subject of debate periodically for considerably more than twelve months, and I suggest that now we have these proposals in response to some of our bitter experiences and to some extent to public demands. They are, I think, another unfortunate and distressing illustration of procrastination, and I believe that it is the duty and privilege of Parliament to call attention to this in the interests of the Service and of the defence of the State.


My Lords, the noble Lord has rendered a service to the House I think, in raising the question which is involved in the matter which we find on the Order Paper, and he has in particular been fortunate enough to elicit a speech from the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, which has, I venture to think, put the difficult tactical problem of the defence of aerodromes in this country on a proper footing and has reduced some of the criticisms which can be made with regard to it to a proper proportion. With some of that which has fallen from Lord Addison I entirely agree, but there are matters which I think he would not have expressed in the way he did if he had been fortunate enough to listen to my noble and gallant friend Lord Trenchard before he made his speech. Moreover, he returns to a subject which is really not directly in issue to-day, but which is a matter of very great interest to a great number of people—namely, the criticism of an officer in the Far East, and he still supports his view, and I heard him do so with regret.

Surely it is not a question whether soldiers, sailors or airmen shall be exempt from criticism. He says they ought no more to be exempt from criticism than a politician. Politicians are certainly not exempt from criticism, and even the humble person who addresses your Lordships has found himself on a recent occasion very much criticized not only in the Press but in this House. But there is all the difference in the world between the case of a politician and the case of a soldier. Politicians can answer. If I am attacked, or if a politician is attacked—because I do not consider myself one—if I am attacked and attacked unfairly, I can speak for myself as I did in this House quite a short time ago, and a politician can, of course, always speak for himself either in one of the Houses of Parliament or in the public Press. But the unfortunate position about an attack upon an officer upon active service who is far away in the East is that, in the first place, you do not know all the facts which are relevant before you can deliver a really well-founded criticism and, in the second place, he is unable to reply.

Being, as I must admit, a lawyer, I thought fit to look up the word "nincompoop" in the dictionary, which is always my way when I do not quite understand the real significance of a word. I shall also look up, when I have an opportunity, the strict meaning of the word "procrastination," which is a word which the noble Lord has applied to the Government in respect of the defence of aerodromes. Without going into all the details to be found in the Oxford Dictionary I would say that I found nothing in it to justify the use of the word "nincompoop" as applied by the noble Lord to two optimistic statements which that soldier made in the course of the war; and I do not expect to find anything which will justify in its strict sense the use of the word "procrastination" as applied to His Majesty's Government with regard to aerodromes. But that, of course, must depend purely on facts of which your Lordships are not, generally speaking, aware, any more than I am—namely, what the Government have done in reference to the protection of aerodromes, and what they could have done with the materials which they were able to dispose of.

That is all I have to say with regard to my noble friend Lord Addison, who is the last person to object to criticisms of his language because, as we all know, there are few better speakers than the noble Lord, and few who can express themselves with more accuracy if they are inclined to do so. But now let me come to something which is—though it may not seem to be so at first sight—more directly relevant to the matter which we are discussing; and what I propose to dwell on very shortly is not any question of the active measures for the defence of aerodromes but something a little different. In the first place it is clear—as I think the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, has pointed out, and I will emphasize it because I think it is very important—that this question of aerodromes is only one of the various questions which arise with regard to the defence of all sorts of places and institutions—I have not got the right word there, but it does not matter—in this country, such as the defence of bridges and tunnels of important railway lines, which may of course be very severely damaged by attacks from the air, the defence of reservoirs, to which the noble Lord, Lord Davies, has more than once called your Lordships' attention, the matter of protecting as far as you can the means of communication in this country by high potential cables, and the protection of factories from having their means of power interfered with in the same way, namely, from the air. All these questions have got to be considered, and all these points have, so to speak, to be protected as far as it is possible to protect them. The problem is one of extraordinary difficulty, and for my part I should be unwilling to dwell upon anything which might have been done before and am only going to make such observation as I desire to make in reference to the present position.

There are two things I want to point out. The first rests on the answer to the question: Why was it that Herr Hitler thought fit last June to attack Russia? To that I venture to think we are now in a position to give a perfectly clear and very important answer. It was well known to all the experts that Germany started this war with very considerable stores of petrol and oil. It has been well known for a long time past that these reserves have been very rapidly sinking. The expenditure of petrol in the air and on the ground—very largely through the enormous use of it for traction purposes and for the use of tanks—has been such that it is certain that, whatever views the Germans had with regard to the amount of oil they would need, their views were insufficient, and the reserves have been diminishing with great rapidity. Germany took steps to get control of Rumanian oil, but it is known that the production from Rumania, instead of having been increased by German effort, has been very largely falling, owing to the fact that the right thing was to have sunk other wells, and to have undertaken a lot of subsidiary works to increase production, and for that they have not been able to get the proper machinery. The result is that it must have become apparent, before Russia was attacked, that it was absolutely necessary for Germany to obtain other oil resources at an early date.

There can be no other explanation of Hitler determining to invade Russia over a line of eighteen hundred miles, with millions of men engaged, except that he had to get from the Caucasus or elsewhere large supplies of oil, including petrol, for the future. I would add that it is known that the Rumanian supplies are not of a quality which enables high- grade lubricating oils, which are practically as essential as petrol, to be obtained. Hitler has said a great deal about Russia at different times, and some of your Lordships know that I have had particular occasion to make a study of all that is known about Hitler's statements not only in Mein Kampf, but also to Dr. Rauschning and to a number of other people. I have not the smallest doubt that he attacked Russia at the moment when he did because it was absolutely essential for him to do it, and he had no other course than to take it, whatever losses it might involve, and however long a complete victory might take. Therefore it is, as I think, comparatively clear that in the view of Hitler this shortage of lubricating oil and petrol is one which he has got to restore if he can, and, if he cannot, he is faced with this, that before the end of this year all his war efforts will be subject to the great disadvantage that he will be working with an insufficiency of these necessary materials for the conduct of war.

But the matter does not rest there. There is the other point to be considered, and that is that when Hitler made war on Russia his view was that the United States would never come into the war. They were going to help us with all sorts of assistance in the way of materials and things which could be leased or lent to us, but he did not expect America to fight. Nor in all probability would the United States have thought fit to come into the war as combatants unless Japan had taken the step which we all know she did take not so very long ago. The point I wish to emphasize is this. Hitler is well aware of the enormous powers of the United States, and the enormous contribution which she is at this moment getting ready to make in the greatest manufacturing country in the world. He knows also very well the vast number of troops that were actually landed in France from the United States in the last war—many, many times more than ever reached the front line; six million troops, I think, actually landed there before the war came to an end. I have already expressed my opinion in writing about Herr Hitler, and I have not got any opinion at all of his character for veracity, for decency, for humanity, or for any other of the qualities we should expect to find in a man ruling in a great country in the present year of Our Lord. But nobody who knows any- thing about his work thinks that he is a fool, and I would observe this, that nobody with any sense can believe that Hitler will put off his attack on this country till a date after the American contribution to this country has begun to be effective. After a million American troops have landed here, Hitler's chance of successfully attacking this country, with a constant stream of reserves coming over from the United States, is gone, and gone like the wind.

The thing I want to impress upon your Lordships, and, as far as is possible for me to do so, to impress upon the Government, is that what we do to defend this country must be done at once. There is no occasion for thinking that we have a year. We have not a year. There is no reason for thinking that Hitler is going to give us time to put all our defences in order. On the two grounds I have mentioned, it is as certain as can be that the attack on this country, if ever it comes at all, will come as soon as ever Hitler has stabilized his line in Russia, and it will come before the United States can render us any substantial assistance in the way of men and arms in this country. Therefore we are open to this—and this, if I may respectfully say so to the Government, is something which possibly they have not fully appreciated—that it is not a question of full training for men or full supply of the best weapons you can get in order to defend all the places I have mentioned as well as the aerodromes: it is a question of getting such defences as are possible put in the best conceivable condition as early as you can. I forgot this fact, which may prove to be of great importance in the defence of aerodromes, that obsolete weapons may be just as important upon an aerodrome as if the weapons were in full up-to-date condition, and that an obsolete weapon now will be much more valuable than the best weapon that was ever produced which will not be ready for a year.

Those, my Lords, are the considerations which I thought might be worth your Lordships' consideration. The fact that time is vital is something which I hope the Government will consider and take very closely to heart in the work which they do in getting their aerodromes and other places ready to meet the very serious prospect of an enormous invasion from the air which may be expected at a comparatively early date. There were some other suggestions of a practical kind that I had prepared to make to your Lordships, but, having represented them in the proper quarter, I have been told it would perhaps be unwise to raise them in the open before your Lordships. I am glad to say and happy to acknowledge that the three points which I was going to suggest as points of a practical character are all under the consideration, at this present moment, of the military and other authorities, and that they have not been forgotten for a moment.


My Lords, at the previous sitting of this House, the noble Lord, the Leader of the House, informed us of the formation of the Royal Air Force Regiment. I should like to support this action on the part of the Government very strongly, and for a reason which I do not think has been brought out up to now, and that is a psychological reason. If in my remarks I speak more of naval aerodromes, it is because in my capacity as an officer in the Fleet Air Arm I am more qualified to speak about them. At the last sitting, in reply to a question which I put, the noble Lord, the Leader of the House, said that similar arrangements were being made for naval air stations, and I think there is no harm in stating that the means for giving effect to this in the case of naval air stations is that the aerodrome defence should be carried out by that very fine regiment, the Royal Marines. I have discussed with officers in command of naval air stations the question of defence, and I may say that they are now very happy that this scheme is coming into play.

In the past one had a body of officers and men, as one Station Commander said, living on, or close to, the station, who felt that they were away from their regiment and were not performing the duty which they considered fitted them in the best way as soldiers. Now, in the Royal Air Force Regiment and the Royal Marines, we have a body of men who, as one Station Commander puts it, feel they are at home, are part of "our own show," think in the same way as we do, and talk in the same language. After all, the defence of every aerodrome is a different problem, and who knows that problem better than the Station Commander on the spot? Now, under this new scheme, he has the Royal Marines or a detachment of the Royal Air Force Regiment. He can work oat his defence scheme with those men, and the first line of defence means co-operation on the part of the ordinary station personnel—the fitters and the riggers and the technical men. I feel sure that His Majesty's Government will do all that they can to see that these new aerodrome defence forces have adequate automatic weapons, and also transport to enable them to move quickly to any threatened point.

There is only one other matter I would like to mention. I hope that the artillery will come under the general direction of the Station Commander. On the siting of the guns depends the whole state of defence of an aerodrome. I know that many stations have suffered in the past through Army defence commanders with entirely different ideas succeeding each other and completely reorganizing the defence of an aerodrome, with resulting confusion to those living on the aerodrome. I listened with very great interest to the speech by the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, and I was very glad to hear his explanation regarding what has been happening overseas and the lessons to be learnt therefrom in relation to this country. I believe it is true to say that as far as aerodrome defence went the aerodrome of Maleme in Crete was very wonderfully defended. As a result of that defence the Germans had to embark on sea-borne invasion much earlier than they had intended to do, with great less to their troops in consequence. I was also very glad to hear what the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, said about Sir Robert Brooke-Popham. I must confess that I was very disappointed that he did not get up at our last sitting to speak when the statement about Sir Robert Brooke-Popham was made, and I felt so strongly about it that I nearly rose myself, although I am not really qualified to say anything. I am very glad, however, to find that the noble Viscount was only holding his fire until to-day. I feel that in the Far East we had, by necessity, to try to pull off a gigantic bluff. We could not produce strong enough forces in every part of the world and I feel that it is wrong that Air Chief Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham should be made a scapegoat.


My Lords, I ask your indulgence on the occasion of my addressing your Lordships for the first time, and I must add that although I first became a member of another place some 19 years ago this is the first time I have ever spoken, except in opposition. I am glad to be able to speak on this occasion when the noble Lord, Lord Addison, has given us an opportunity of discussing this very difficult question of aerodrome defence, because it seems to me that not only is it of the highest importance but there is a great deal of muddled thinking and muddled speech going on concerning it. This debate has been of advantage in that it has provided us with the speeches to which we have listened. In referring to those speeches I would like to say immediately that I associate myself entirely with what noble Lords have said from every quarter of the House in reference to the abuse which was uttered in this House by Lord Addison. I associate myself with what has been said by Viscount Trenchard, the Earl of Cork, Viscount Maugham, and Lord Gifford. It is absolutely wrong, we feel, to attack a Commander-in-Chief. It is the Government who bear responsibility in this country—it always will be so—and not the Commander-in-Chief holding high office from the Government of the day.

Several points were put to me by the noble Lord, Lord Addison, and I would like to deal with them. The first speech of the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, went a long way towards clearing up some of the muddled thinking that there is at the present time as to what is really meant by aerodrome defence. I must stress the illustration given by the loss of Kota Bahru. There is an idea that we lost the whole of North Malaya because we lost Kota Bahru. We did not lose it that way. We lost Kota Bahru because we lost North Malaya. The general advance was made possible for the Japanese by their being able to get closer in Siam and to launch this attack which swept away our defences, both at the aerodrome and in that part. The problem we are faced with at home is a different one. I think the loudest criticism among the public and in the Press and in your Lordships' House is based on the fear of divided control. People are asking, now that we are going to have this new arrangement in the future, should an aerodrome have to be evacuated due to invasion, will it be the responsibility of the Secretary of State for War or the Secretary of State for Air? The answer is, and always must be, the Secretary of State for War. That must be so because the Commander-in-Chief of the Home Forces is under the War Office and is responsible for the land defence of these islands. It is he, therefore, who must decide whether a withdrawal should be made from any particular district and whether an aerodrome in that district should be evacuated or held. There is no divided responsibility there.

Responsibility on an aerodrome must be with the Station Commander who is responsible for the flying operations. The great part which fighters, bombers and reconnaissance aircraft will have to play in repelling an invasion must be obvious to us all. If it is necessary to cease flying on an aerodrome that decision must be taken by the flying officer in charge. On the aerodrome of to-day you have got between, say, 1,500 and 2,000 airmen, highly trained, skilled tradesmen, and these must be used for its defence if it is attacked. These men are what we call the backers-up. It is the Station Commander, and he alone, who can say when they can be spared from their normal duties to be trained in the defence of aerodromes and when they have to be used on flying duties. No one but he can give those commands. You also have at an aerodrome, this core, this kernel which is what was the Army garrison. The Army sent so many men and they were commanded by an Army officer. This garrison was largely used in static defence and manning posts. Here there definitely was a question, if you like, of dual control on the aerodrome itself, which, after all, is the place where the fighting is going to be. It is to avoid that that we have had to go into this question. We have had to decide whether in the future this garrison should be a garrison of airmen or a garrison of soldiers. I am sure that we were right to come to the decision that the garrison and backers-up should constitute a single force under a single commander. That can only be done if it is going to be the Royal Air Force Regiment. That is why we believe—and by that I mean that the Army Council, the Air Council, the Chiefs of the Staffs and the Commander-in-Chief of the Home Forces all agree—that it is right that we should have this Royal Air Force Regiment.

As has been said by the noble Viscount, Lord Maugham, the question is what is going to be required of these garrisons. There are two possibilities. Either the aerodrome may be the object of a sudden, isolated, direct attack—perhaps by parachutists—or it may be involved in a general attack on the district. Now, as to the first of those two things, it is the duty of the garrison to hold out until either the attack is repelled or the Army can bring relief. In the second case, it must co-operate with the Army and the Home Guard in the plans that have been made for the defence of the whole of the area. In the Royal Air Force Regiment the aim and idea will be to provide a body of tough men armed with specialized weapons for the special purpose of aerodrome defence. They will be men highly trained in the special use of their weapons. That is why we wish to have this separate force, and I think that your Lordships will agree with me.

It will also provide the organization necessary to ensure the liaison and co-operation with the Army and Home Guard which is so necessary. It will give the Commander-in-Chief, Home Forces—and I wish to keep on stressing that phrase, "the Commander-in-Chief, Home Forces," because he is the man who is in charge—should an invasion come here, the means to ensure that the aerodrome garrison meets his requirements, both with regard to its own defensive arrangements and from the point of view of co-operation. I do not wish, particularly, to go into details as to what the armament is going to be, nor do I wish to go too much into the organization of the Force. In Libya we have not been without success in attacks on enemy aerodromes. We know that the enemy have had trouble over the defence of aerodromes, and we believe that the system which we have evolved is better than theirs. I see no point in giving them information which would help them in the future.

There have been suggestions that this new Force will be very slow in coming into being. Of course, we cannot change over in a night. You cannot suddenly say: "Now here is a date and upon it this Force is going to be ready." But until this Force is ready the Army men will not go out of the aerodromes or lay down their arms in any way. The takeover will have to be gradual; it will have to be done, aerodrome by aerodrome, and only when the Commander-in-Chief, Home Forces, is satisfied that this Regiment can take over the defence of an aerodrome will it do so. When it does so it will relieve the Army troops, and that of course is one of the advantages of this scheme.

It was Lord Addison, I think, who said that there was inter-Service jealousy on this question of aerodrome defence. I wish to say a word in order to try to dispel that illusion. It really is with the complete good will of the Army that the Air Council have undertaken this new task. The Army will give, and are giving, at the present time, the full benefit of their knowledge and experience in the training and preparing of the Royal Air Force Regiment. Army Officers will be seconded to this Regiment, and the Army have already, as you know, released Major-General Liardet, who will have his headquarters at the Air Ministry. His duties will be executive and advisory. There has been criticism on the question of his not being Operational Commander. I should think it must be clear that he, of course, can never be Operational Commander, because the operation which will take place will take place on an aerodrome, where the Station Commander is the officer who must be in charge. That is why Major-General "Liardet is not Operational Commander in the ordinary sense of the term.

I should like to make it clear that Major-General Liardet is a man who has studied this problem. He has been doing so now for a considerable time, and he has the confidence of the Chiefs of both the Air Staff and the Army. His knowledge is being used at the present time for the training and bringing into being of this Regiment. Now the benefits which we are going to get from this new Force are, as I say, close liaison and unity of direction from the top downwards, and we shall have on the aerodromes bodies of specially trained men, with special weapons for this special job. We shall in this way effect an economy in man-power, and soldiers will no longer be tied as they are to aerodromes all over the country. This tying-up of the troops prevents them getting on with their training, and after all the policy of the Army must be that of training men to fight the enemy. It is not to their advantage to have so many training on lines which are not altogether Army lines.

Numbers, of course, I cannot give your Lordships, but when one is dealing with the question of aerodrome defence there are one or two points which are of special importance. I do not know if people realize how great the problem really is. When you think that it used to be, and is still, said that a battalion can cover and hold a front of about 800 yards, and when you realize that modern aerodromes go from anything up to five miles in circumference, and some even up to nine miles, one gets a better appreciation of the matter. I do not know whether everyone quite realizes what the size of the aerodromes to which I have referred really means. If one recalls, however, that Hyde Park is only three miles in circumference, that will give an idea of some of the difficulties which we have to overcome in guarding these great places. It will also give, I hope, some idea of the big difficulties with which we are faced on the question of dealing with saboteurs, and on the question of unauthorized people getting on to aerodromes. In this connexion I should like to say a few words. You have read in the Press how-little boys have got on to an aerodrome, and have damaged an aeroplane. You have also read how more distinguished people have got on to an aerodrome, and have walked about without being challenged. Of course, that is bound to be possible. We take a most serious view of it, and we do all we can to stop up these gaps where they occur. I assure your Lordships that we are fully alive to the importance of this aspect of protection. I must, however, mention that there has not been a single case of sabotage by enemy agents in this country since the war. As for these other cases, I should be quite prepared to go into them in detail if any noble Lord desired me to do so, but I think there will be questions about them in another place. There is nothing for us to be ashamed of in the fact that in some cases people have gained access to certain aerodromes; the difficulty, as I have tried to explain, arises from the size of the problem with which we have to deal.

I am not going to follow the noble Viscount, Lord Maugham, on the question of what was in the evil mind of Hitler when he went into Russia. The noble Viscount, however, made a point of the greatest importance in referring to when this attack may come on us: that it may come at almost any time, whenever Hitler decides. We are fully aware of that, and we also agree with the noble Viscount that, if the best weapons are not available, there may be others which will help. We have always had a difficulty with regard to weapons in this country, because we are still a long way from being in a state of what could properly be called real preparation for war. There can be no question but that we are short of weapons; but we shall get these weapons. It must not be thought that the Royal Air Force has urged that it should be allowed to take on this new task. We know what it means to us in the matter of training, and we are fully aware of the heavy responsibility which the training of this new Air Force Regiment entails; but we are convinced that, with the full co-operation of the Army, which we are obtaining, and with the necessity for the best use of the whole of the man-power of this country, this is the proper thing to do. Unless we get co-operation, and unless we use our man-power to the very best advantage, we shall not win this war. This is one of the problems which we are facing today. When this new Air Force Regiment is put to the test—and the test may come at any time—it will be found, I am certain, that the decision to form it was a sound and wise one for the people of this country.


My Lords, I am sure that every one of your Lordships will wish to extend a friendly welcome to the noble Lord who has just addressed us for the first time, and many of us will feel that he sets us all a good example of forthright and clear diction. It is always gratifying to hear so distinct an utterance. I wish, I confess, that I were as humble as some noble Lords would wish me to be, but we are all recalcitrant sometimes, and I should like to ask the noble Lord who has just replied to reconsider one or two matters. I do not propose to make another speech. The noble Lord pointed out to us, however, that the question of whether an aerodrome should be evacuated or not in case of attack was to be the responsibility of the Secretary of State for War, and not of the Secretary of State for Air. I would urge him to reconsider that reply. I suggest that it is not the responsibility of either; it is the responsibility of the Secretary of State, subject to the sanction of his colleagues, to appoint a competent Commander, and it is for the Commander to decide.


I said that it would be through the Commander-in-Chief.


I understood the noble Lord to argue in favour of its being the responsibility of the Secretary of State. I am sorry if I have misunderstood him.


The Secretary of State appoints the Commander-in-Chief.


That is his responsibility, yes. To order the maintenance or evacuation of an aerodrome is not his responsibility. I still do not feel as comforted as I should like to be by what the noble Lord has said. It is a pity—though it is no use harping back to that now—that it has taken us two years to get so simple a thing done as the arming and training of the large number of station troops on an aerodrome so that they will be adequate, at all events, for an emergency and for delaying defence. It seems to have taken us a long time to decide on that, and a longer time than it ought to have taken. I am glad we have reached a decision on that point, but I still do not think that the noble Lord has answered my questions quite as fairly as I deserve to have them answered. I will only ask him to reconsider the matter, and perhaps we may have other opportunities of obtaining answers. I want to know who is going to be responsible for equipping these troops, and who is going to be responsible for their training in service operations? I also want to know how the co-ordination of that war-time practical training is to be effected with the area military command which, of course, will take over when an attack takes place. I do not think that we have adequate answers to those very vital questions, on which so much depends; but perhaps the noble Lord may give us a further opportunity of listening to his explanations.

Finally, I should like to return to what the noble Viscount, Lord Maugham, said, and to say how sincerely and wholeheartedly I agree with him that time is of the essence of this business. We have been too long in making the best of what we could have done in the defence of aerodromes; and, if indications are anything to go by, I should not think that we have too long in which to make this Force well equipped and competent. At all events, I am sure that the noble Lord, as representing the Government, will agree with me that there is no time to lose. I think that this debate, although it has brought some reproofs on myself, has served a very useful public purpose, and I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn .