HL Deb 04 March 1943 vol 126 cc473-82

LORD WINSTER had on the Paper a, question to ask His Majesty's Government, what are the losses to date, February 28, 1943, in each category of warships already announced by the Admiralty during the progress of the war and what are the total naval casualties, officers and men, to the same or some recent convenient date. The noble Lord said: My Lords, in view of a request which has reached me from the Admiralty with regard to my question I feel that I must say a few words about it. May I say how very happy I am to see the noble Lord, Lord Bruntisfield, in his place again in order to reply to a question of this nature? It is always a great pleasure to discuss any naval matter with him. The noble Lord's father gave me my first class certificate for seamanship when I passed for lieutenant, and therefore I am not likely to quarrel with the noble Lord on any naval matter. This letter asking me to withdraw my question refers to the two parts of it, and I will deal with the second part of it first—that part which asks for a summary of the total casualties suffered up to some recent convenient date. I am informed that this information cannot be given on security grounds, that the question of publishing casualties has been considered by the three Services, and that it has been decided that if the information about casualties were given, with separate casualty totals, the enemy might be able to draw some useful inference. I am sure the noble. Lord will believe me when I say that I would never wish for one moment either to ask for or to give in the course of a speech any information which would be likely to afford any comfort to the enemy.

But I am not prepared quite to accept a flat statement of this sort without some explanation of what security would be infringed if the information were given. I am utterly unable to understand how security in any way could be endangered if this information about casualties were given. And I am strengthened in my belief that security would not be endangered by the fact that on Sunday night, in the 9 o'clock News, I listened to the official American figures of casualties being broadcast, and they were printed in The Times newspaper the following morning. The total is given but the total is dissected into the casualties suffered by each branch of the American Armed Forces to date. I must say I find a very great discrepancy between these two things. On the one hand the Admiralty asks me to withdraw my question about casualties on the specific grounds that the enemy would be able to draw some useful inferences from them, and on the other hand the Ameri- can authorities publish and broadcast their casualties to date. I am always willing to do what I can to accede to any request, if what I am asking for infringes security, but I think one is entitled to some explanation of how security would be infringed; all the more so as apparently the American authorities, who surely are just as anxious as are our own authorities not to afford any assistance to the enemy, see no objection whatever to publishing their casualties.

The first part of my question is a request for a summarized version of warship losses as already announced by the Admiralty, that is to say, I am asking for no information which has not already been published in the Press. I am only asking for a summarized version of that information. Again I have been asked to withdraw my question, and the grounds upon which that request is made seem to me not only insufficient but almost frivolous. One reason given is that, while it is agreed that the information has been published, "the man in the street"—those are the words used—will not have taken the trouble to add the information up. The Admiralty apparently think it is undesirable to present to the man in the street a summarized version of the information, the idea apparently being that the nerves of the man in the street are so feeble that they would not be able to withstand the shock of hearing in one lump sum of what they have already been informed piecemeal. These Jitterbugs at the Admiralty have very little knowledge indeed of the state of nerves of the person they call the man in the street. If they went about week-end after week-end addressing the workpeople in our war factories on the question of our war effort, believe me, they would know a great deal more about the nerves of the man in the street than they appear to do. And, believe me, the man in the street is quite able to stand up to information of this sort. The only thing that ever does affect his nerves is the feeling that information is being withheld from him for purely departmental reasons. The man in the street is perfectly able to stand up to being informed in one lump total of these losses of warships of which he has already been informed piecemeal.

The second reason given is, to my mind, even more feeble. The Admiralty do not feel inclined to publish this summarized statement of warship losses unless they can put it against what they call the proper background of We losses we have inflicted upon German U-boats. I suggest that that is pure exhibitionism and nothing else. To say "We have lost so many ships, but look at what we have done to the other fellow," is merely like a child saying, "Look, I can jump higher than you can." If this information is not to be given, it should be withheld on worthier grounds than that. I know that the losses of German U-boats are not to be published. If that is the Admiralty attitude, we must defer to it; but I am sure that if we did publish the figures of U-boat losses they would make a satisfactory total, and no doubt the man in the street is aware of that. To decline to publish a summarized version of our warship losses unless we publish at the same time something that is favourable to us is a feeble ground on which to withhold this information.

The interesting thing is this. I have asked for a summarized version of information that has already been given, and I am told it is undesirable to give it; yet the First Lord of the Admiralty gave it at Sheffield on October 20 last year. The First Lord represents one of the Sheffield constituencies, and he made a speech in Sheffield last October. He then said that over a period of two and a quarter years all the warship losses we had suffered had been made good. I was very interested in that statement because the First Lord chose a period which happened—I am sure it was quite a coincidence—to exclude the loss of the "Royal Oak," the "Courageous" and the "Glorious" They were outside the period which he selected for examination. In making that statement that during the last two and a quarter years all the losses we bad suffered had been made good, the First Lord gave specifically, by name, the very information for which I am asking in my question. I do not know if the noble Lord would like to see the newspaper cutting, but here it is. Here is the very information given; the ships are named and summarized under their classes. In other words, the First Lord gave to his constituents in Sheffield the very information I am told to-day I cannot have. That is really a most unsatisfactory state of affairs. I am told that if I withdraw my question I may be given the figures for my private information. I do not happen to ask questions in order to gratify my personal curiosity. If I put a question on the Order Paper, I am asking for information to enable me to fulfil the Parliamentary duties which I have been sent here to carry out. This suggestion that I put questions on the Order Paper out of personal curiosity, and that I may be given the information in private but not in public, is really very unworthy.

May I say this in conclusion? I am not raising this as a personal matter. I have no personal feelings whatever on the subject. But I do say to your Lordships that, as a matter of principle, from the point of view of carrying out one's Parliamentary duties, it is really not right that one should be refused one section of information, on the broad statement that security would be affected, without any explanation given of how it would be affected, and that it is also quite wrong that a member of One of the Houses of Parliament should be denied information which has already appeared in the public Press, upon no stronger ground than that it does not serve the convenience of the Department concerned to give it. We have had discussions in this House about secret debates, and we have now arrived at, in my opinion, a more satisfactory position about secret debates. Recently we have been able to debate certain matters in public and I believe no harm has been done by it. If I understand the position now taken up in regard to secret debates it is that if a matter is debated in secrecy it is by the decision of the War Cabinet and not through Departmental pressure. That I believe to be the right and sane point of view. In the matter which I have brought to your Lordships' attention I suggest that this information is being withheld upon no valid grounds of public interest or public security but simply because for the reasons I have stated it does not suit Departmental convenience to give it to me. I protest against that attitude.


My Lords, I should like in a word to thank the noble Lord for his kindly reference to myself and to say that I apologize to him and to any other member of your Lordships' House to whom I may have caused inconvenience through my recent absence. The noble Lord has retailed the story connected with the placing of this question on the Order Paper, and he has quoted from a letter he received, sent on behalf of the First Lord of the Admiralty, from which he asks your Lordships to draw the conclusion that he was invited not to press this question because it is a matter of inconvenience and embarrassment to the Admiralty. That is true, but the interpretation which the noble Lord has put upon that request is not in accordance with the facts and not quite fair to my right honourable friend the First Lord of the Admiralty.

First of all, let me deal with the second part of the question, which relates to casualties among personnel. The noble Lord asks why he cannot be given figures concerning the number of casualties in the Royal Navy and he questions whether there can be any grounds of security for denying him this information. I can only say that it is the Government's firm decision not to give casualties for each separate Service. The noble Lord asked what possible security objection could there be to giving these figures and he quoted what he had heard on the wireless about United States casualties. It is not for me to defend or answer for the Government of the United States, but his argument would have been a little stronger if he had been able to say he had heard on the wireless accurate figures concerning enemy casualties. That he certainly has not heard, and presumably he has not heard these figures because the enemy consider there is a security objection to giving such figures.


They are frightened to let their own people know them. There is a very great difference.


So long as the Government are convinced that the enemy could deduce useful information from casualties presented in this particular form, I am quite certain that the Government will persist in their decision not to give figures. So far as the first part of his question is concerned let me say this. It is perfectly true that it was intimated to the noble Lord that my right honourable friend the First Lord would prefer him to withdraw his question, but the reasons which led my right honourable friend to take that step were not those to which the noble Lord has referred. In his letter, which I think rather unfortunately the noble Lord did not quote in full, my right honourable friend makes it perfectly plain that the chief reason why he does not want to give lump figures of naval losses at the present time is due to the fact that he has already approached two members of another place who put down very similar questions with a request to withdraw their questions, and on the representations and on the grounds which my right honourable friend put to them these honourable gentlemen in another place did so withdraw their questions. Naturally, therefore, it is somewhat of an embarrassment to my right honourable friend now to give figures to a member of your Lordships' House which he has already explained to members of another place he would rather not give in public and has not done so.

That really was the main reason underlying the request which was made to the noble Lord opposite and if he will re-read the letter he will see that this was the chief ground on which the request was made. My right honourable friend certainly had no fears that the British public would not be able to take the figures if they were published. That in itself would be nonsense because any industriously-minded citizen in this country could perfectly well extract these figures for himself from the newspaper records.


May I point out that I understood from my reading of the speech of the First Lord in introducing the Navy Estimates yesterday, that he gave these figures in another place, that he gave the details of ship losses?


The noble Lord need not get excited, because I am going to give the figures. What I am trying to do at the moment is to put the whole of this situation in its proper perspective as I do not wish your Lordships to have the idea, which you certainly might derive from the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Winster, that the Admiralty are unwilling to publish these figures because they fear the British public may be unduly perturbed.


I do not wish to interrupt, but I think it is fair to myself to say that the letter does agree that my question is different from the other two questions that were put in another place to which the noble Lord has referred. My question is not similar to those, it is a different type of question and that fact is admitted in the letter. The letter does specifically refer to the fact that the man in the street has never taken the trouble to add up these totals for himself. Therefore I do not know what inference I can draw from that except that it is undesirable to give the total in the lump.


I think the noble Lord is making mountains out of molehills. I shall satisfy the noble Lord's curiosity by giving him the figures straight away but I would like to say this before I do so. I am glad the noble Lord himself recognizes that it is a pity that these figures will have to be published without it being possible to place alongside them the losses which the Royal Navy has inflicted upon enemy vessels. Were that possible for instance in the case of U-boats, and it is plainly recognized that it is not possible, these figures would appear in a very different light.

Now, my Lords, the following is the information which the noble Lord asks for in the first part of his question. Of capital ships 5 have been lost; aircraft carriers, 7; cruisers, 25; armed merchant cruisers, 14; destroyers, 94; corvettes, 14; submarines, 44; monitors, 1; sloops, 8; minesweepers 22; trawlers, 156; drifters, 14; minelayers, 1; yachts, 3; gunboats, 5; and cutters, 3. In conclusion, I would ask your Lordships to consider these figures in the light of the statement which was made in the First Lord's speech on the Navy Estimates in another place yesterday. It will be within your memory that the First Lord made it quite clear that to-day, in spite of our losses which have been heavy, the Fleet is much stronger than it was a year ago, that we are as strong in capital ships now as we were at the beginning of the war, that the weight of aircraft which can be launched from shipboard has largely increased, that, despite heavy losses in cruisers, replacements have very nearly equalled losses, and that in respect of destroyers and submarines we now have a good many more in both classes than we had when the war started. I am sorry I cannot fulfil the noble Lord's request as far as personnel is concerned, but I hope he will accept the reasons which forbid me from doing so.


My Lords, before we leave this matter completely, I thank the noble Lord for telling me not to get excited, and I can assure him that there is nothing to excite me in his statement or in my noble friend's speech. That is a very proud and terrible role of warships lost which he has given, but I am glad it has been published now. I am glad, too, that it has been published in a form Which brings home to the people what is the price we have paid for our part in the naval war, and what is the contribution our Navy has made to the Allied cause. I think, however, that as soon as possible the Admiralty should consider publishing a list of the enemy warships that have been lost. With regard to submarines, that has been given in statements made by the First Lord on one or two occasions. There are always uncertainties about the loss of submarines; we cannot help that, but we can certainly give a list of the surface ships lost by the German, Japanese and Italian Navies. It makes a very formidable total and will show that our men took some good ships down with them.


I am very grateful to the noble Lord for his answer.

House adjourned.