HL Deb 23 June 1942 vol 123 cc467-72

My Lords, may I ask His Majesty's Government whether they have any statement to make on the position in Libya?


My Lords, the following communication has been received from General Auchinleck with regard to recent events in Libya. It is inevitably of a preliminary character, but I feel sure that the House will wish to receive such information as is available at the earliest possible moment. General Auchinleck says: An enemy attack during the last few days of May was expected and preparations had been made accordingly. The Eighth Army, on positions stretching from Gazala southwards to Bir Hacheim, was awaiting this attack. The Royal Air Force began counter-offensive action about a week beforehand. The enemy's first attempt to encircle Bir Hacheim and our forward troops was met by our armoured forces in the Knightsbridge-El Adem area. Most bitter fighting ensued in which the enemy was constantly attacked by our armoured and air forces. At first things appeared to be going well. The enemy, in spite of a gap he had forced in our minefield, was having difficulties with his supplies, and all our efforts, including intense air attack, were devoted to increasing his embarrassment. This was probably a crucial moment in the battle. The enemy Was exhausted and had literally fought himself to a standstill. Had we been able to take advantage of the enemy's condition we might have turned the scale. In point of fact, however, we were equally exhausted and this was impossible. On the 3rd June, the enemy succeeded in overrunning the 150th brigade and in establishing for himself a forward base in our minefield area. In an attempt to restore the position and to drive him out General Ritchie counter-attacked on the 4th June. On the information available at the time the chances of success in this attempt seemed good, and it was preceded by adequate and careful reconnaissance. But it is now clear that it was in fact premature. The enemy put in a fierce counter-stroke in the face of which we were forced to withdraw, with considerable losses. The enemy then concentrated his attention on Bir Hacheim, which was garrisoned by the Free French and had already been subjected to heavy pressure for a period of nine days. Every effort was made to relieve the pressure on this defended locality by the employment of mobile troops. Intense air support was provided by the Royal Air Force. In the event, however, General Ritchie decided that the risk of maintaining this isolated garrison was too great and he accordingly decided to withdraw it on the 10th June. The Free Frenchmen defended Bir Hacheim with the utmost tenacity and endurance; their efforts served to delay the enemy and to contain considerable enemy forces. With the fall of Bir Hacheim, these enemy forces were released, and the enemy pressed his attack in the Knightbridge to El Adem area. Heavy fighting ensued and, although our troops and air forces fought with the greatest skill, three days later we were forced to abandon some positions at Knights-bridge, which opened the way for the enemy to break through to the coast and to try to cut off the 1st South African and 50th Divisions in their position south of Gazala. General Ritchie decided rightly to withdraw these two Divisions—an operation which was carried out with skill, and was very largely successful. Under cover of our armoured forces, which held off the enemy Panzer Divisions, and under the covering protection which the Royal Air Force provided (in spite of the fact that they were at the same time engaged in protecting a convoy to Malta), both these Divisions succeeded in joining General Ritchie to the east of Tobruk. The enemy then pressed his attack in the El Adem area. A fierce battle ensued in which he succeeded in establishing himself east of the El Adem defended local area at Sidi Rezegh. For four days the enemy was held in the air and on land until eventually on the 17th General Ritchie decided to withdraw to the El Adem-El Duda-Sidi Rezegh area under the effective cover of our air forces, and concentrated his main forces towards the frontier, leaving what was considered to be an adequate garrison in Tobruk. On the morning of the 20th June the enemy attacked Tobruk from the south-east and succeeded in penetrating the perimeter and positions of that portion of the Tobruk area, east of the Tobruk-El Adem road. The garrison is still fighting hard and a gallant attempt to save what appears to be an impossible situation is being made. But the fall of Tobruk is imminent, if it has not already fallen. The battle is not yet over. Our Air Forces are still actively offensive and still maintaining the moral superiority they have gained over the enemy. The Eighth Army is still in the field and has already received, and is still receiving, reinforcements. This is the end of General Auchinleck's statement. Since then, as the House will be aware, we have received definite news of the fall of Tobruk. The attack on Tobruk commenced during the morning of 20th June. A heavy air bombardment was followed by an infantry attack, which succeeded in making an initial breach in the south-east face of the perimeter. Enemy tanks and lorried infantry passed through this gap and were brought to battle inside the perimeter during the afternoon. We lost very heavily in tanks and as a result the situation deteriorated rapidly. During the night the mobile portion of the garrison began to fight its way out. We have as yet no information as to whether any part of the garrison has been able to escape capture. There are in the garrison troops from this country, from India, and from South Africa. We deplore the loss of all these gallant troops. I am sure this House will join me in expressing our sympathy with Field-Marshal Smuts in the loss which he and the people of South Africa have sustained in the capture of forces which have played such a distinguished part in the campaign.

The position is difficult, but the fight for Libya continues. We still have strong forces in the field. Substantial reinforcements, both land and air, which have already been dispatched, are arriving, while others are on their way. Your Lordships may be assured that every possible step is being taken to stabilize the position. Any further advance by the enemy, who has also had heavy losses, will be steadily opposed by our ground and air forces. It is a situation that calls for the greatest courage and devotion from our soldiers and airmen, and for steadfastness and resolution among our people. We are sure that these qualities will be forthcoming.

It is not possible for me at present to give any further information on these events. It is clear that we have suffered an undeniable reverse, that we have sustained grievous loss of men, material, and territory. To attempt to ignore this would be foolish. I have no doubt that the House will wish to discuss these matters as early as possible, and the Government will welcome such a discussion as soon as the necessary information is available. At the moment I am quite sure it would be premature. The battle is still raging, the news reaching us is scanty. It would not be possible for me to add anything material to what I have already told your Lordships. In the meantime noble Lords will remember those very famous, even hackneyed, lines of Horace—"Aequam memento rebus in arduis servare mentem." I would commend them to-day to noble Lords. They are good advice to us all in times like these, to noble Lords, to the Press, to the people of this country, above all to the Government themselves. We have need to show to the highest degree those great qualities of wisdom and restraint for which this country has always been famous. The British Armies in Egypt have a hard fight before them. The time for a full discussion will come, and will come soon. To-day it is for us to show them that we are strong and united behind them, trusting firmly, in their courage and in the justice of our cause. General Smuts, in his inspiring message to the South African people which noble Lords may have read in the Press this morning, has said: "South Africa can take it, and South Africa will seek retribution." It is in that spirit that we, too, shall face the future.


My Lords, it is undeniable that our arms have suffered a grievous reverse. I am sure that the resolution and endurance of our people are not in question. I am sure also that we are willing to exercise wisdom and restraint; but I am not satisfied that the exercise of wisdom involves the postponement of the discussion of these matters for an indefinite period, or that restraint in recognizing our defects is wisdom. Therefore I am not disposed to accept the exhortation of the noble Viscount to the effect that a debate will be desirable "as soon as information is available," or words to that effect, and that until that time it will be "premature." That might mean postponing discussion of these matters for weeks. I am glad that the noble Viscount indicates dissent. I was anxious to evoke such dissent. I think, myself, that a frank discussion of these matters—and there are many which are obvious—should not be postponed until whatever "information" the noble Viscount may include in the term has been received. There are certain grievous defects which are obvious to the people, not to the soldiers only, and this country and this House have never been afraid of facing up to our defects—not for the sake of finding fault, but for the sake of getting them remedied. That is what we all want to do as soon as possible. Any discussion which I initiate or take part in will be with that sole purpose and for no other purpose. I hope the noble Viscount will accept what I say fully on that point. But I do feel that the indefiniteness of the recommendation of the noble Viscount, as to delaying the discussion, is not satisfactory. It should be arranged to-day that a discussion on these matters should take place as soon as possible and by "as soon as possible" I mean not later than during next week.

May I make one other exhortation? I am very sorry that my noble friend Lord Winster has withdrawn his Motion on shipping losses which was down for tomorrow, not that I do not think the Government had not good reasons for preferring that it should be debated in secret, but it was my desire to raise a general discussion as to the scope of Secret Sessions and their utility or otherwise. I only want to say in advance that I emphatically say that the discussion of this Libyan matter should be in public. I am sure there is not one of us who would say or suggest anything that would be helpful to our enemies. We want to help ourselves and the noble fellows who are fighting our cause, and to see that they are well equipped and well directed. We do no harm in facing up to the ugly facts. Therefore I hope the noble Viscount will say at once—I gather he will—that he will be willing to have a public open discussion on the matter. I know, of course, that these things cannot be arranged across the Table in a minute, but I hope he will be able to arrange for a day next week for a full and frank discussion of the whole matter.


My Lords, on behalf of my noble friends on these Benches, I desire to associate myself with what has been said by the Leader of the Opposition. The Leader of the House said that when the time came, when information is available, a debate should be held. That was very indefinite language. Clearly a debate cannot be held to-day, but neither ought it to be held after a month's delay, and I trust the noble Viscount the Leader of the House will be able to suggest some definite period. When that time comes, I earnestly hope that the Government will be able to say something on one specific point which arouses widespread anxiety and regret. The reports that have come from the battlefield state that the British armament was inferior to the German and that, apart from the General Grant tanks that come from America, our tanks were outgunned by those of the enemy. I think the country has a right to know whether that is so or not, and if it is what is the reason why, after nearly three years of war, our armament should still be inferior.


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Addison, and the noble Viscount, Lord Samuel, have expressed the need for an early debate. I can assure them that when I said a debate would be premature to-day, I did not intend to suggest that there should be an indefinite delay. I am quite prepared to agree to the proposal of Lord Addison, that it should take place in the next series of sittings, and that it should take place in public. All I meant to point out—and it is an important thing to say—was that if we were to have a debate absolutely immediately, I would not have any additional information to give to the House. There might be a number of points raised to which inadequate answers might have had to be given. That would have been satisfactory neither to this House nor to the country. But next week I shall be very pleased to deal with any matters raised.