HL Deb 24 March 1943 vol 126 cc904-10

EARL MANVERS had given Notice that he would call attention to troubles arising from the absence of guide posts in country districts; and also move for Papers. The noble Earl said, My Lords, I must apologize for being unable to address the House at the length or with the eloquence of the Privy Councillors to whom your Lordships listen with such pleasure. I am a backwoodsman, and I want to call attention to a matter which is causing grave trouble and inconvenience amongst the forests from which I come, and probably in other parts of the country also. I refer to the absence of guide posts. I am emboldened to raise this matter by the thought that the noble Lord, the Minister of Transport, is not wholly hostile to me, although whether he will allow as much to be said in this debate I do not know.

Your Lordships will remember the situation in June, 1940. When France was invaded by Germany there was a scare—a probably well-justified scare—that this country might also be invaded. Various orders for the removal of direction signs were issued about that time. The idea was that parachutists might drop from the clouds, might be ignorant of their whereabouts, and might derive great benefit from the sight of a wayside finger-post which would enable them to find their place on the maps with which they would no doubt be furnished. In war-time we all wish to be led by the military authorities, but the military authorities themselves, it seems to me, owe a counter duty to the civil population, not to be—I reject the word "pig-headed"; military authorities are never pig-headed—but not to be obstinate, not to take the view that what they have once said is a law of the Medes and Persians which never can alter, however much circumstances may change. That circumstances have changed admits of no doubt.

I want to say nothing that may give valuable information to the enemy, but he is probably aware that our troops are somewhat snore victorious than they were at the time of Dunkirk and that this island might well prove a veritable hornet's nest to any uninvited visitors. Concessions have indeed been made in the matter of guide posts. In October last county surveyors were requested to reinstate the posts on main traffic routes in towns, provided these towns were not within twenty miles of the East Coast, and subject to the condition that the surveyors should be able to remove those posts again at short notice. But that plan referred only to built-up areas—areas in which drivers could in any case ask the way. It left the country road junctions entirely un-guide-posted except to travellers who were acquainted with the numbering on the secret military maps.

Various county councils and various branches of the Ministries of Information, Production, and Supply are keenly interested in the matter. Not unnaturally they do not wish their resolutions on the subject to be quoted; but I am informed that they regard it as one of major importance. A suggestion has been made that low posts, with sliding fingers, should be erected for the use of night lorry drivers who are wasting a good deal of time and petrol in trying to find factories in rural areas. My noble friend Lord Brocket has written to me. He is Chairman of the Land Union, and he has suggested that the guide posts should be erected immediately, but in case of emergency they should be reversed. That, he considers, would be more puzzling to the enemy than if there were no guide posts at all. That is a revolutionary proposal which I must admit had not occurred to me. But in either case, if any alteration to the guide posts were needed I think the Home Guard would be pleased to undertake the duty of doing what was necessary. I therefore hope that the Ministry of War Transport, in consultation with the Minister for Home Affairs, will lift the ban on country guide posts, remembering the old legal maxim Cessante ratione legis, cessat ipsa lex.


My Lords, the noble Earl who has just addressed you asked me to support him knowing my interest in this matter. I urged the abandonment of this plan of removing signposts long ago, and have not ceased to do so since. I am sure I interpret the views of everyone in this House when I say that after his very brief but brilliant speech the more we hear from the backwoods of old Sherwood Forest the better we shall be pleased. The noble Earl makes his points and sits down in a way to which we would all, I am sure, wish to pay tribute. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Croft, who is going to reply, is fighting a rearguard action. I think it is a shame the way the Government always put him into the Stalingrad and "hedgehog" places to fight these losing battles. I do not know what he is going to say, but I do know that the overwhelming majority of the members of the Government make no secret that they regard this taking away of the names from rural signposts as a moonbeam from the larger lunacy. It is indeed so.

In a few words I would say why I think so. I have pleaded this case previously, but now it has become much more acute. I would ask the noble Lord to tell this House and the country on what military grounds his Department did this extraordinary thing. We have been hearing a lot this afternoon about the U-boat war. Nothing that my noble friend who is to reply says, or the War Office says, can help the enemy at all. We citizens and the unfortunate people who have to travel at night on war purposes and cannot find their way, want to know why this policy is persisted in. I think I am entitled to ask on behalf of the public what is the military ground on which this is done. That is the first question. The second question I ask is this. Will he ascertain, as of course he can from the police of the United Kingdom, how much time, so far as the police know, and they have the figures, has been wasted and how many man-hours have been lost by lorries conveying vital war materials, referred to by my noble friend who moved this Motion, owing to the absence of signposts? I should like to ask also how much time has been lost by people taking the wrong road. I have some figures which I am furnishing to my noble friend from Hampshire, where I live and where he lives. It is really deplorable.

I ask him to answer those two questions. Then I ask, in anticipation of the reply to the first, what can be the reason why a vast amount of time is lost and a vast amount of trouble is involved to so many people who lose their way because of the absence of signposts? To remove the signposts was a foolish thing to do unless it was really necessary. I am sure there is somebody somewhere in some Government Department—he is not a Fifth Columnist but he is an embodiment of Alice in Wonderland or the White Knight in Through the Looking Glass. I know in fact there is such a person, who says: "Whatever is said when the war comes to an end, nobody shall be able to say that anything I did contributed to the loss of the life of any man. Suppose some German parachutist looks at a signpost, sees upon it the words 'To Winchester' and gets to Winchester before he is caught by the Home Guard" (as caught, of course, he would be) "and shoots somebody, it would be said that the fault is mine. Therefore I say that signposts shall not be re-erected."

That is the attitude of mind of the people who said: "We will always carry our gas masks." It is very unlikely that the Germans would drop gas in a gale of wind; nevertheless millions of people in this country carry their gas masks in a gale of wind on the off chance that something might happen, wishing to make quite sure they run no risks. I hope my noble friend Lord Croft is amending what he was proposing to reply while he listens to what I am saying. Perhaps he will be able to say that the War Office do not take the view that they will not in any circumstances whatever run any risks. I hope he will not say: "We will continue to ask the children to go to school in their gas masks so that they can play football with them on the way," or "we will not allow brides to go to the altar without gas masks."

Any night anyone who likes to go round the countryside in England will find people engaged on war effort cursing and swearing because they cannot find their way owing to the signposts having been taken down. This is, as one of His Majesty's Ministers said to me, a moonbeam from the larger lunacy. We are grateful to Lord Manvers for bringing forward this Motion. I hope the matter of which he complains will be put right now, and that we shall not have to wait till some extraordinary individual can advance some strange military reason why it would not be worth while to do what we ask should be done. So long as you continue to persist in this idea you cannot tell people that you have passed to the offensive. It cuts very deep. You cannot tell our Canadian soldiers and our United States friends, who are here in such large numbers, that we have got the offensive spirit when all the time you cannot help them to find their way about this small country of ours because of the lack of signposts. The things do not match. I quoted in this House a United States officer who said: "We simply cannot make these things square. You say you are passing to the offensive but you won't let me find my way through your country to go to fight the enemy."


Every soldier knows the sign from his map.


That is very interesting. So I suppose we are to say to the United States Higher Command and the rest of them: "Oh well, you see, we believe in the offensive spirit, but we cannot run any risks. You never can tell; a German might drop out of the sky, and if he knew the way he might go somewhere and helpless people might have to surrender to him. But you of course will have your map." No, that will not do. Let us boldly say: "Let 'em all come." I remember when I was in the Cabinet Mr. Asquith went on board a destroyer on a visit to the Fleet at Scapa Flow, the question of the fortifications being a topic for discussion at that time. There was written across the bridge of the destroyer, as some of your Lordships may remember, this quaint phrase: "Ut veniant omnes." Mr. Asquith was greatly amused, and said to the officer commanding the destroyer, "And what is that?" "Oh," said the Commander, "don't you know, Mr. Prime Minister? That is Latin." "What does it mean?" asked Mr. Asquith. "Why," said the Commander, "Let 'em all come." Should not that be our attitude here in this matter? Let us restore all the signposts. Let us put up the name quite clearly in every railway station. Let us abandon all this inferiority complex and proclaim that we have passed from this perhaps necessary phase of timidity to the stage of confidence, courage and attack. I cordially support the noble Earl.


My Lords, the point which the noble Lord raises in his Motion is one with which all of us have considerable sympathy. We should all like, if it were possible, to see road signs restored. It would obviously be for the greater convenience of the public generally, and would at the same time tend to avoid the very real loss of time and waste of material which results when vehicles take the wrong road. We cannot in these days afford any avoidable waste either of rubber, or of motor fuel, or, as my noble friend Lord Mottistone says, of time. For these reasons my noble friend the Minister of War Transport, for whom, in his unavoidable absence on business of national urgency, I am replying this afternoon, would naturally be only too glad if we could replace all the road signs, not only in the urban areas, but also in rural areas.

On the other hand, however, we must recognize that the matter which the noble Earl has raised this afternoon is one of those subjects where there is inevitably a conflict of national interests. For we must not only lake into account the convenience of the public in this case. There are also considerations of national security which must be borne in mind, and which, in war-time, must clearly predominate over all others. My noble friend will, I am sure, not desire that I shall go into detail about these areas while the peril is still with us. My noble friend Lord Mottistone wished to press me on this subject, but I think obviously I cannot give him in public those military reasons. I can, however, assure him that we have solid ground on which to make these decisions. When he tells us that, now we have passed to the offensive, we must no longer consider questions of defence as of great importance, must remind him that only two or three months ago he was telling us in eloquent speeches that we had not done enough for defence and that we were not sufficiently aware of the peril. I am sure he will agree, as a good soldier, that although we have seen encouraging factors in the military situation, the war is by no means over and, as we have seen in many theatres of war, counter attacks follow attacks. Those who are wise are prepared for every emergency.


Will the noble Lord forgive me if I intervene to say that my whole point is that you want to defeat the enemy by going for him, not that you should try to obfuscate him by attempting to prevent him knowing where he is? The offensive spirit demands that we should be armed, but it also demands that we should not be frightened.


I can assure my noble friend that there is no question of fright among the military leaders at this time. The whole world is impressed with the offensive spirit which dominates the British Army from top to bottom. From the point of view of public convenience, my noble friend the Minister of War Transport would be only too pleased to restore all road signs and guide posts. The Government have the matter under close examination and I hope that it will be possible very shortly to give a final decision. I am not in a position to do so to-day because the careful examination of the subject which is required is still proceeding. I should like, however, to assure the noble Earl who raised this question and the House that the Government are anxious to restore the guide posts in rural areas as soon as they are satisfied that this course can be adopted without prejudicing our national security. I may also add that the arguments which my noble friend used and the interesting suggestions which he made will certainly be conveyed to my noble friend.


My Lords, I want to offer my most cordial thanks to my noble friend Lord Mottistone for his very powerful support, and I want to thank my noble friend Lord Croft for making the best reply he could in the circumstances. It is a reply which leaves me not altogether without encouragement. As it is guide posts I want and not Papers, I have no hesitation in asking your Lordships' permission to withdraw my Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.