HL Deb 24 March 1943 vol 126 cc863-904

LORD STRABOLGI rose to draw attention to the war at sea; to ask His Majesty's Government what steps have been taken to secure unity of Command in the Atlantic for the defence of shipping; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, my noble friends on these Benches attach importance to the Motion which I have put on the Paper on my own behalf and on theirs, as they consider that this matter ought to be discussed by your Lordships, and I propose to make a few observations with regard to it. Anyone who introduces a Motion drawing attention to the war at sea, however, should first refer to the able conduct and efficiency of the officers and ratings of the Royal Navy, and to the fortitude and heroism of the men of the Mercantile Marine. Any doubts or questions that I may venture to utter will refer only to the higher direction of the war, and not to the personnel engaged in this bitter struggle on the oceans. It is only right, moreover, that we should pay tribute to the splendid help which we are getting from our smaller Allies—the Poles, the Free French, the Norwegians, the Greeks, the Dutch and so on. They are giving us very great help indeed.

With regard to our greater naval Allies, I am sure that your Lordships would like to congratulate the United States Navy on their very successful and well-conducted campaign in the South Pacific, and on the number of very satisfying victories which they have won over the common Japanese foe. I am sure that your Lordships will await with great interest more details about the notable night action fought on November 12 and 14 off the Solomon Islands by a squadron of the United States Navy, which I think will be found to be one of the most remarkable battles in this or any other war. It was fought at night, with battleships and other warships on both sides. Under these very testing conditions—and a night action is most difficult to conduct—a smashing defeat was inflicted on the Japanese, who suffered very heavy losses, as compared with the comparatively slight losses, in spite of the fierceness of the battle, of our American friends. As to our other great naval Ally, the Russian Navy, the great achievements of the Red Army have, I am afraid, slightly overshadowed the no less important operations conducted by the Red Navy in the Arctic, the Baltic and the Black Sea. They have shown brilliant seamanship and high technical efficiency, and I know that the officers and ratings of our own Fleet recognize these qualities very fully and welcome them.

One cannot discuss the campaign at sea without referring to the attacks on our commerce, particularly by submarines. I gave notice to the noble Lord who replies for the Admiralty in your Lordships' House that I intended to ask him a very direct question, which I know that he will answer with complete frankness. The question is whether, in the arrangements for combating the submarine attack, the Royal Navy and the Admiralty are receiving first priority for all the labour, materials and weapons which they require. I do not mean equal priority, but first priority. On behalf of my noble friends I venture to press this because in the discussions in another place on both the Naval and the Air Estimates the First Lord and the Secretary of State for Air were somewhat vague on the question. Your Lordships are always franker and more honest than, some people in another place, and I am sure the noble Lord will give all the satisfaction he can on this matter. But equal priority, I repeat, is not enough, because unless the Navy have first priority we are not fully recognizing and acting on the principle that our victory in this war will be impossible without control of the ocean routes.

In this connexion there has been a lot of muddled and loose thinking, a lot of vague and inaccurate talk about naval power and air power—as if the two were in opposition or rivalry. Both those terms are inaccurate: what we ought to concentrate upon is sea power. The confusion arises out of thinking and talking of the weapons, and not of the ends for which the weapons are employed. It does not matter whether you control your sea routes by galleons propelled by oars, or by sailing ships, or by steam-driven ironclads, or by submarines, or by aircraft: the point is that you must control your sea routes, and a confederation of Powers separated by the ocean, as we are, and particularly an Island Power like ourselves, is ruined if we cannot do that. I fear that the failure to recognize that, and the implication which flowed from it at the beginning of the war, has led to much of our present trouble.

This confusion of talk is apparent too on the other side of the North Sea. It seems to have led to a lot of loose and inaccurate thinking in Berchtesgaden as well as in Chequers, in Whitehall and also in the Wilhelmstrasse. The Nazis, and particularly the Fascists of Italy, thought that the air weapon was all that was required. Obviously the air weapon and the surface warship are complementary, and they must both be used for the same purpose. The Nazis, unfortunately, found out their mistake first—that I think is quite obvious—and they have, from early on in the war, and especially since the fall of France and the survival of this country as a belligerent given first priority to the building and commissioning of submarines. We have only recently given—if we have given—first priority to the counter-measures. The result is that there is a shortage of escorts and hunting craft, and by escorts and hunting craft I mean vessels that float through the air or float on the surface of the sea.

This is a very annoying situation in which we find ourselves. At present our whole war effort may be thwarted—by what? By 200 submarines—that is the maximum: I do not think anyone would claim a higher figure—200 submarines at sea at a time, manned by 12,000 Nazis, a great many of whom to-day are landsmen, and seasick at that—because there has been a falling off in the submarine crews. They have not had enough sailors for the purpose, and they have sent these young Nazis to sea. They are quite useless. They have key men, trained submarine officers and men, for the important positions in their crews. But are we going to be ruined by 12,000 Nazis and 200 submarines? We have only to state the problem to find the answer. Of course we are not, with our resources, and our aptitude, and our traditions, and our skill at sea. And yet on March 20—only four days ago—the Minister of Agriculture, Mr. Hudson, who of course knows what he is talking about, because he is fully informed, made this statement in speaking to the farmers of Cambridgeshire: The shipping position is more serious now than at any period of the war. That is a very weighty statement, and a terrible indictment of the higher direction of the war.

Fortunately, there are certain assets which we have. The technical progress of aircraft, as your Lordships are aware, has been far more marked, and indeed revolutionary, than has the technical progress of the submarine. The submarines used in this war are not a great technical advance on the submarines used in the last war. That is a fact. The attempts to make a larger submarine of about 500 tons have been failures. They are too clumsy and too slow in submerging. It is true the present German U-boats have thicker plating to withstand depth charges, but their speeds are much the same. All this talk of very high speed submarines, so far, is just talk. We may have revolutionary advances, and we must not bank on the present technical limits, but so far the German submarines have only about the surface speed of the submarines of the last war—20 or 21 knots. Before the last war we had submarines, the steam-driven K class, which had a speed of 25 knots on the surface, and nothing has yet appeared from the German shipyards to equal that. And when they submerge they still have the same limitations—slow speed, only 7 or 8 knots, practically blind, and very vulnerable.

Those are the submarines. They really have not made great technical progress, despite all the researches and efforts of the scientists of all the naval Powers. On the other hand, they have an advantage in the system of radiolocation which we developed and, as your Lordships know, very generously gave to the French Navy. After the fall of France the traitors of Vichy gave, or sold, the system to the Germans, and now they are using it for locating our convoys at sea. That is the only real technical advantage the submarines have over the submarines of the last war. On the other hand we have the Asdic system—there is no secret about this; it has been spoken of and published—which enables submarines to be located below the surface by surface ships, and that is a great advantage. The other development is that so many submarines have been built as a result of this German concentration on building submarines that they are now able to operate in flotillas or packs, and that presents a rather difficult problem when you have not enough escorts for fully guarding your convoys.

How do the submarines attack a convoy? To begin with, the submarine is really a torpedo boat which can submerge, and if she can, she operates on the surface. The convoys, proceed at 7, 8, or 9 knots, and the submarines, finding them by radiolocation or informed of their positions by radio from their own stations or their own aircraft, try to get ahead, which, with their superior speed on the surface, they can do. They try to get right out of range of the escort, and then attack either at dusk or at dawn, but in the night, also, on the surface. They always operate on the surface if they can. Every submarine officer will bear me out there. The way to circumvent them is to make them dive. If you can force them under water their speed then becomes only the speed of the convoy, and the convoy alters course and they are finished. If you can keep them under water, they can never get into a fighting position again. When you send a fleet of battleships to sea—the Home Fleet goes to sea—or a convoy of troopships, you provide enough escorts to form a distance screen and a close screen, and you have aircraft as well. The result is that you make the submarines dive, and they cannot do much damage.

What is the remedy? The remedy is more escorts, and the provision of these takes time. They are being turned out very fast in this country and in the United States, but I suggest that there should be a greater diversion of four-engined bombers to naval purposes. We certainly ought to divert Lancasters or, if we cannot afford Lancasters, then when more Lancasters come into service, we can divert Stirlings, and as many Flying Fortresses and Liberators as we can persuade the Americans to release. That raises a sad question. There are people—the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, is one of them—who declare that bombing attack alone on Germany can win the war.


When have I ever said that? I ask for an answer. Also the noble Lord said he spoke for his friends. Which friends? Does he speak for the Labour Party or only some of the members who sit on the Front Bench? Is it the Labour Party, or only one or two?


I have no reason to suppose I am not speaking for the Labour Party in this matter. If the noble Viscount has never said that, I immediately withdraw. He did not say it, but there is, as he knows, a school which believes that bombing alone will win the war. There is no need to get excited about this; it is only a friendly discussion. This school declares that bombing alone will win the war. That may be so; I do not know; it has never been tried properly. There is a doubt; but what is absolutely certain is that if we lose control of the sea routes, not only can we not win the war, but we shall inevitably lose it. There is no doubt whatever about that. Unless this attack on shipping is defeated, all our plans are brought to ruin. Therefore, if it comes to a choice, I do not think there can be any real argument as to where first priority should go. I believe that if more long-distance, shore based aircraft are diverted to naval purposes—this can be easily done—you will do a very great deal to defeat the attack. You cannot have these large aircraft engaged in bombing German dockyards one week and on anti-submarine patrol or escort work the next week. That is impossible. They need special instruments, specially trained crews—that is very important—also depth charges instead of bombs, and camions instead of machine guns. Therefore they must be specialized. We have got to grasp this nettle and realize that we have to divert more of the four-engined machines which are coming along on both sides of the Atlantic to naval purposes. As soon as we can—I presume we are doing this—we should have more aircraft earners to operate in the central sections of the ocean which are out of effective range of shore bases.

The next question to which I wish to refer—and this I have put in the Motion—is unity of Command. One advantage which Admiral Doenitz, now the chief pilot of the Nazi cause, has is that he has complete control of all the forces operating against us in the Atlantic. His own surface vessels, his own aircraft, his own submarines and any Italian submarines which pass the Pillars of Hercules, all come under his complete unified control, or that of his staff, whereas, as we have learnt from questions and answers in this House, the campaign against Germany in the Atlantic—I am speaking only of the Atlantic, which is the critical ocean—is being operated by two separate Commands, geographically separated. We shall be told that there is liaison, and that my friend Admiral Stark is sitting in on the Anti-U-boat Committee here, and that sort of thing, and that Admiral Sir Percy Noble is in Washington in a similar capacity. That is not the same thing as one Combined Staff, conducting the whole campaign in the Atlantic Ocean, the vital ocean, against the enemy. Until we have that I am afraid we are under a handicap.

The other matter to which I must refer—I believe my noble friend Lord Winster has some particular points to make on this—is with regard to the Anti-Submarine Committee. I consider that this Anti-Submarine Committee, composed as it is of busy men, all with full-time jobs, is an absurdity: I can find no other word for it. This Committee, which ought to be sitting under the chairmanship of a suitable person giving his full time and thought to it, is actually presided over by the Prime Minister, with all his other diversions, including now, if you please, the Leadership of the House of Commons. He is Chairman of the Anti-Submarine Committee, and Sir Stafford Cripps, who has a whole-time job as Minister of Aircraft Production—Lord Beaverbrook will bear this out—is Deputy Chairman. Then there are the professional and political heads of the Air Ministry and the Admiralty. They have whole-time jobs as well, and so have the other members. The only officer with direct submarine experience is Sir Max Horton, who is called away from his Western Command duties for consultation. That is really Alice in Wonderland. It is not business at all. Such a Committee should be in constant session. I must also say this. I do not want to take up too much time, but one of our troubles is the geographical worsening of our position since the Germans overran Western Europe, and established bases on the Atlantic. We all know that. It is put forward quite justifiably as an alibi by the Government. They are perfectly justified in using that argument, but if my noble friend Lord Beaverbrook wishes an additional argument for the Second Front, there it is. The sooner we invade Western Europe, the sooner we may hope to recapture the submarine bases on the Atlantic and establish our own bases and aerodromes on the Continent for the defence of our vital shipping.

Lastly I gave notice to my noble friend, the spokesman of the Government, that I intended to ask whether reconsideration has been given to the eight or ten years' old project of floating aerodromes for the central Atlantic areas. This project was worked technically, scientifically, and even commercially some eight years ago in the United States. There are no technical difficulties at all in having a large floating aerodrome—none whatever. The plan was defeated in America only because the Isolationists did not want any landing places for aircraft nearer to the American Continent. Otherwise it was all ready to be put into operation. A floating aerodrome can be made of concrete, so that not much steel is used, and it can be made torpedo-proof and practic- ally bomb-proof, at any rate immune from heavy bomb damage. I believe it would be extremely useful at the present time. I understand from the experts in concrete to whom I put the problem that it would take six months to construct. Well, the Prime Minister talks quite comfortably of the war lasting into 1944 or 1945, so it might be worth while seriously considering it. It may have been reconsidered, but if it has not been I would ask my noble friend the Parliamentary Secretary of the Admiralty to send for the papers and look into it. I beg to move.


My Lords, I am well aware that I have not the qualifications to take part in a naval debate which my noble friend Lord Strabolgi possesses, and I do not make any pretence to speak with authority in this matter. Still it happens that I once had some experience, though only a very slight experience, of one phase of the U-boat war and that was during the last unpleasantness with Germany in the year 1916. When there was a shortage of King's Messengers I volunteered to take Dispatches for the Foreign Office to Malta and to Athens. I went on board the P. & O. boat at Tilbury and went round by the Bay and down the Mediterranean. The start of our voyage was rather depressing because, coming round the North Foreland and into the Straits, we saw wrecks and masts sticking out of the water, and things of that kind. I well remember a conversation during the first night at dinner. Somehow it got on to the subject of sharks, and someone remarked that a large number of sharks had recently been seen in the Mediterranean. A rather talkative lady at the Captain's table said "Oh, do tell me, Captain, why so many sharks have come into the Mediterranean." "Because," replied the Captain rather shortly, "the sharks get such a lot of good things to eat there." Well, that cast rather a gloom over the rest of the dinner and it was not a very auspicious start for my voyage.

I will not weary your Lordships any further with the story of my adventures on that trip. There were a good many enemy submarines operating in the Mediterranean. We had several alarms and I spent several uncomfortable hours on the boat deck, suitably attired for immersion, wearing warm clothing and a lifebelt. It happened that both ships on which I travelled were subsequently torpedoed, but I was lucky to get through to the Piraeus. I mention this because I learnt from that what it was to experience what I call that very unpleasant periscope sensation when, to the untrained eye of the landsman, almost any small object on the surface of the water seems to take the form of the periscope of a U-boat; when, for example, a bottle floating on the water may give rise in the mind of the landsman to feelings of acute alarm. Indeed if I might adapt a phrase of Dr. Johnson to conditions of modern war, I would say that it concentrates the mind wonderfully when at any minute a man may be torpedoed and sent to the bottom of the sea. So my sympathies are all with those who go down to the sea in ships in these trying times, particularly with the men of the Merchant Service and crews of the escort vessels. Sometimes I think that we who sit in comparative safety at home do not appreciate as we ought to do the courage and endurance of these brave men who now, for month after month and year after year, have been facing the deadly peril of this U-boat war.

I would like to say one word about the organization that exists to deal with this menace. In a letter which I wrote recently to The Times I pointed out that General Smuts, when he was over here last time, had advocated the appointment of, I think he called it, an authoritative special Supreme Staff to deal with this U-boat war. I expressed the hope that one Minister would be appointed to deal with this and that he would have a staff drawn from the best men in the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force Coastal Command and so forth. It seemed to me there would be many advantages in such an arrangement. In the first place I quite agree with what my noble friend Lord Strabolgi has said, that it should be a whole-time job of the Minister, who should be the best man we can get; and if the Minister, as was contemplated I think by General Smuts, was given plenary powers he would be able quickly to obtain the weapons, equipment and so forth that he wanted from the Service and Supply Departments. Further, he would have the advantage that he would be able to plan ahead. I do not think that in this sea war we have planned sufficiently far in advance. We ought to plan now for 1944 and 1945. It is only by planning well ahead that we shall ever catch up with this U-boat menace. However, the Prime Minister did not think fit to adopt General Smuts's suggestion. Instead a new Cabinet Committee was appointed and that Committee was to take over from the Atlantic Committee.

It would be rather interesting to know in what respect this new Committee differs from its predecessor, the Atlantic Committee. Judging from the number of times the Atlantic Committee met—I think I am right in saying it was eighteen times in twenty months—it does not appear to have been unduly overworked. Now we have learnt from answers given in this House that the present Committee meets regularly once a week, but that general and systematic control of anti-U-boat war rests with the Admiralty. We have also been told lately that the Government have set to work in earnest to tackle this U-boat menace and that the Admiralty now have first priority for the equipment and weapons they require. In passing, I should like to point out that I believe it is highly probable, if the Admiralty had had these priorities eighteen months or even twelve months ago, we should not have found ourselves in the serious situation in which we are placed to-day.

It is rather interesting to note the different opinions that Ministers have expressed about this U-boat menace. The Prime Minister, speaking in the House of Commons on February 11, was in a rather optimistic vein. He said: "We are holding our own, and more than holding our own" and described anyone who thought differently from him on this point as suffering from patriotic jitters. I think that was the term he used. I think he must include in this indictment some of the members of his own Government. I believe the First Lord of the Admiralty at least has always taken a serious view, and several times lately when he has spoken in public he has said that he took a very serious view of the situation. I also think that in fairness to him we should say that he was the first member of the War Cabinet to call attention to how serious this state of things was. As has been said by my noble friend Lord Strabolgi, the Minister of Agriculture, speaking last week, said that the shipping position was the most serious which we had ever been faced, and the Secretary of State for the Colonies spoke in somewhat similar terms. On Monday I read this from New York in the morning Press: Hitler's U-boat spring offensive has begun. Eight more cargo ships have been announced as lost in the Western Atlantic within the past seven days. All indications here are that the U-packs are sinking as many ships this month as they have ever done in any previous comparable period. Their successes are a subject of grave concern in America. From that it would appear that if we are holding our own the U-boats are also holding their own.

I pass from that to another point which the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, dealt with and that is the question of a unified Command. I entirely agree with what he said on that point. As he has dealt with it I will not say very much, but I would point out one or two facts. I have not the same dislike of Committees that pervades the mind of the noble Lord, Lord Beaver-brook. Perhaps "dislike" is a mild term to use. I think Committees have their uses in preparation for war, but in actual warfare, in campaigning on land or fighting on sea, I do not think Committees are of very much use. The Battle of El Alamein, for example, was not won by a Committee nor was the Battle of Cape Matapan won by a Committee. I do not imagine that the convoy action in the Bismarck sea, perhaps the most remarkable victory gained in this war, was won by a Committee. Yet we are fighting this war with a combination of Committees, Conferences and Councils. I submit that that is not sound strategy, and is not giving the best chance of success to the splendid fighting material we and the Americans have in the Atlantic at the present time. I have already expressed my great admiration for the men of our Services and I also have great admiration for the officers. I think we have splendid officers. Sir Max Horton, at present commanding the Western Approaches, is an example. Men of that type would be admirably qualified to fill the post of Commander-in-Chief in the Atlantic. If Americans preferred it, I believe our men would be willing to serve under American command, and equally I think Americans would be willing to serve under British command. The position is too serious and the stakes are too great to allow questions of Agriculture, speaking last week, said that the shipping position was the most serious with which we had ever been of prestige and precedent to prevent the unified Command which is so badly needed being established.

There is one other point. I suggest that more of the best modern and fastest destroyers should be used for convoy work. Speed, I am aware, is not everything in this kind of warfare, but it is a great asset, I believe, in holding our lifeline across the Atlantic. More of our best and fastest destroyers should be made available. The last point I would touch on is that of co-operation between the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force. Here I am aware that I am treading on rather delicate ground. Those of us who attend regularly the debates here know what kind of co-operation exists between representatives of the Services in your Lordships' House. It could hardly, I think, be described as brotherly love, though I believe it is the case that happier relations do exist a little lower down in the ranks of the respective Services. Nevertheless, there may be a spirit of rivalry between them which does not make co-operation easy to obtain. As we all know, aircraft plays a more and more important part in every phase of this war. That applies to the submarine war, as to other forms of warfare. Assistance from the Royal Air Force is absolutely indispensable. It is essential that there should be the closest co-operation between these two Services to deal with the U-boat war.

I have only one further observation to make in conclusion. I do not believe that in this U-boat war there is any short cut to success. We sometimes read in the newspapers of wonderful inventions and wonderful appliances. I do not believe that such things exist. There are certain new inventions, I believe, being tried out and there are certain older inventions like the helicopter being adapted for the purpose. These may all give good results, but it is by a combination of all the weapons and devices you possess, by bombing factories in Germany, by bombing U-boat bases, by attacking the U-boats in the sea lanes on their way to and from Atlantic ports, by more auxiliary aircraft carriers, by faster destroyers and escort ships, by the use of more aircraft and closer co-operation between the air and sea forces, and I would add by thorough training of the crews of escort vessels—it is only by a combination of all these and similar methods that the U-boat menace can be held in check.


My Lords, I rise with a certain amount of trepidation to address your Lordships because on the last occasion I was reproved for talking too often. As, however, the noble Lord who admonished me is not in his place I will refrain from any fire I might have had ready for him. In addressing your Lordships on this subject I am not concerned with any question of Command between the Services. I am going to endeavour to deal with principles and not personalities, and I will say this for myself, that if you have a properly organized unified Command I do not care whether a British or American officer, sailor or airman is in command, provided you give him a proper Staff. By that I mean a Staff that is representative of the interests concerned, and one that is sufficient in numbers. The principal members of it should, if possible, be chosen by the man who is going to be at the head of it. Moreover, he should not be interfered with by numerous authorities who are not fully cognizant of the situation. Having chosen your man, you must make up your minds to trust him. Give him the tools and let him carry on. Possibly the most valuable result of the visit of General Smuts to this country has been the increased attention that it has fixed upon the U-boat menace. The Conference recently held in Washington seems to show that the remedy suggested in this country of the reshuffling of a Cabinet Committee did not meet the case. I am not sure that this present discussion is not rather academic because the Conferences in Washington were about a unified Command. It is easy to be wise after the event; but I would point out that there were many people in this country who were wise before the event and who urged continually that we were following false gods and were being untrue to an old and well tried principle of British strategy, that our first object in war must always be to obtain the command of sea communications. By neglecting to do this thing early in this war we failed to build our house upon a rock, and it is now a bit rickety and we have to make haste to underpin it.

In a speech in this House recently which, if I may presume to say so, was a most valuable contribution which I regret having missed hearing, the noble Lord, Lord Geddes, pressed the necessity of a Great General Staff which the development of a third Service had made abso- lutely necessary. If I may I will quote to jour Lordships one passage from that speech. He said: If we had a Great General Staff, which in time would have men belonging primarily to one or other of the three Services, but trained in the technique and the specialities of the others, we should have what we have not got at the moment—aeronautical knowledge in the Army and aeronautical knowledge in the Navy strong enough to balance the aeronautical knowledge of the Air Staff itself. They would then be one Staff. Until we get that, I submit that we have no prospects of getting a really satisfactory arrangement. I heartily concur in that. I take it that it is from officers who have had that experience that we should draw those to take command of a combined effort. I had always believed that the Imperial Defence College; an institution with which I understand my noble friend Lord Hankey had much to do, had sought to impress that view on those who are trained there, but apparently after leaving, and when they have made progress in the Service, they forget it.

Had such a Great General Staff been brought into existence, I believe that you would have avoided much of the wrangling which has gone on between the Services, and which is unavoidable as long as they work in watertight compartments. If those concerned knew that these questions had been considered by a body of capable men representing all the interests involved, there would be much less reason and ground for discontent and decisions would be accepted more readily. But more important still, you would have avoided many of the shortcomings in cooperation that undoubtedly existed at the beginning of the war, because all these problems would have been considered in unison beforehand. The Navy would have known what assistance it wanted from the Air Force and what the Air Force could do for them and so on, while the Army would have known what it wanted from both and what both could do.

There is of course a cheap sneer often used against those who are no longer serving, but who interest themselves in these matters, that they are obsolete and out of touch and have no right to express their opinions. I would suggest to those who get out of quandaries by using this suggestion to escape from answering awkward questions, that young serving officers who cannot give vent to their views themselves, often go to their older friends in order to get them to express their feelings for them. This question of a unified Command in the Atlantic has been troubling many officers afloat for a long time. They feel that their efforts are not being used to the best advantage, and there is a very strong opinion that more offensive methods are required if the U-boat is to be defeated; that the mere safe conduct of convoys is not enough, but that more aggressive action is required in the direction of many striking forces being used to act offensively against these pests without being tied to a convoy. Where those on the shelf are likely to go astray is that they do not know what the Admiralty are doing, or perhaps I should say, would like to do. That is perfectly true, and naval officers are very ready to trust the Naval Staff, and believe that if they were given a free hand all would be well. They sometimes feel that somehow the recommendations of the Naval Staff are not sympathetically considered or given the weight that they deserve. They feel that the views expressed sometimes get to the top at the Admiralty and there they stop, for they are not received with the same welcome as views from other sources. All that would be overcome if you had the views of the three Services not wrangled over, but presented as a finished and fully-considered article.

It is not my intention to criticize our present war arrangements. They have been gradually built up as the war progresses. Necessity is the mother of invention, but it is quite certain that, whatever our arrangements may have achieved, arrangements for close cooperation between the three Services are not yet all they might be. The very communiqués show this. The smallest incidents seem to arouse a competition for credit by the Ministry or Ministries concerned. You get a trivial episode in the war presented to the public as though a Ministry was trying to claim credit for its own Service. The other day a German steamer, a raider, was sunk by a cruiser. The raider had been first sighted by an aeroplane which had summoned the cruiser. The cruiser came up and naturally the German ship was sunk. But it was thought necessary for three different Ministries to make this announcement because, I suppose, it was thought that if one did it, it might get too much credit. Well, are we all fighting the same war or are we not? Surely we are all fighting the same war, and we need not be jealous. Would it not be better if all these announcements came from some source which could give all credit to those concerned without conveying any idea of rivalry?

Some years ago I applied to the Admiralty for permission to read a paper at the Royal United Services Institution entitled "A plea for a Combined Staff." In that paper was a paragraph which pictured the three Chiefs of Staff leaving their respective Ministries for a Chiefs of Staff meeting, each accompanied to the door by his deputy urging him, directly or indirectly as the case may be, not to allow himself to be done in by the other damned Service—the Army, Navy or Air Force, as the case may be. I was refused permission to read that paper, and that particular paragraph was marked with three notes in red and had big exclamation marks against it. In my view one of the greatest of the many services my noble friend Lord Trenchard has rendered the country was when he made public the views on the Chiefs of Staff Committee, of which of course he had almost unrivalled knowledge. I am one of those who believe that the formation of a Special Staff to conduct combined operations should never have been necessary. Every British operation is to a greater or less extent a combined operation. I am, however, very glad it was formed, for it may prove a valuable foundation basis upon which to build a Great General Staff. If there is really need for another organization apart from the existing Admiralty, to conduct Britain's war at sea, it is surely a tremendous indictment of what we have been doing and of our organization during the last three years. But better late than never.

Let us hope that for goodness' sake when this unified Command is set up it will be on sound lines. I would say that it is no use to appoint and create a Command and then to refuse to listen to its representations. In a question of life or death—and the defeat of the U-boat comes under that heading very nearly—if more and faster corvettes, more modern and therefore better keeping destroyers, or more aircraft are required, they should be found until the crisis is surmounted. The only valid reason at all to prevent them being provided is that they do not exist. If they do not exist they should be produced, and meanwhile the best possible substitutes should be provided. We cannot afford to lose the Battle of the Atlantic; and if you cannot be strong on all fronts, you should see to it that you are strong enough on the front which matters most and where defeat would mean disaster. Raiding the enemy's rear and destroying his bases is not new strategy at all. It is a very old device and kept within bounds it is most valuable. But it should not be allowed to draw away forces and leave the decisive front too weak. Let me remind your Lordships of the cavalry raids of the American Civil War. What devastation and disruption they caused in the rear of the Federal Army. Yet the battle of Gettysburg was lost because Stuart—who had won much renown for these raids—was absent on one of them at a critical time. With the failure at Gettysburg virtually ended the hope of a Confederate victory.

I believe that our raiding of enemy bases and production centres has been overdone, and that too great a proportion of our available strength has been devoted to it. I further believe that had we had a real Combined Staff in the first place, this would have been avoided and the danger which now threatens would have been provided against. It is the weakness inherent in division which allows too much weight being given to one view or the other, and until we can substitute loyalty to the whole cause for loyalty to a Service or a Department, we shall be continually taking a wrong turn and having to halt even if not having actually to retrace our steps. It is because I believe that to be true on the grand scale that I wish to see the same system employed in the Battle of the Atlantic and a unified Command established to avert the danger that there exists.

House adjourned during pleasure, and resumed by The LORD CHANCELLOR.


My Lords, I feel that I should apologize to my noble friend who opened this debate because I was not present to hear his speech, but I had a business engagement which prevented me attending earlier. Although I am very intensely interested in the whole question of the war at sea, and especially in the anti-U-boat campaign, I do not feel that this is the moment to say very much. Since the subject was last debated publicly in this House, very great progress has undoubtedly been made, even if it is rather belated. Most of the points pressed for in this House have now been met. For example, on the big question of principle, we are now informed that the Government put the U-boat first in their thoughts, and they give the demands of anti-U-boat warfare first priority. Escort ships, corvettes, are being built in enormous numbers in this country, in the United Stales and in Canada. Canada has made a very remarkable effort in shipbuilding in this war. These vessels receive first priority, and emphasis is given to their construction as compared with merchant ships. All this seems to me perfectly sound and wise. Apart from escort ships, merchant ships have first priority, for a ship which is not sunk is better than a new ship, as I ventured to point out to your Lordships as long ago as July 2.

Then there is the question of air cooperation. That is now officially recognized as a major factor in anti-U-boat warfare. The Fleet Air Arm is being equipped with more up-to-date machines, and a helicopter is in the offing and I believe that, given time, it may prove to be a very important weapon. The Secretary of State for Air has announced that Coastal Command is to be improved to a point where there will be no time by day or night when air cover cannot be provided for the North Atlantic routes. There is to be a steady increase in the number of aircraft allotted to trade protection, and large numbers will be forthcoming during the year. All that is very much to the good. There is one point with regard to Coastal Command, however, about which I should like to be reassured. I have not been able to discover from any of the statements made that first priority is given to the allocation of aircraft to Coastal Command. On July 21 pointed out that the only big reserve of any kind for anti-U-boat warfare lay in the bombers of the Air Force, because escort ships take so long to build; and, in urging priority for anti-U-boat warfare, I pressed that this first priority should extend to the immediate allocation of aircraft of proper types and fitted, of course, with scientific apparatus. Had that been done, I believe that our position to-day would have been less disadvantageous than it is.

I feel bound to raise the point, because on March 10 the First Lord, in another place, was driven under pressure into the admission that, notwithstanding the fact that the position had improved, he could not say that we had all that we need. Considering that anti-U-boat warfare is first in the Government's thoughts and has first priority, that aircraft are admitted to be a major factor in anti-U-boat warfare, and that large numbers of aircraft of large size were available quite a time ago, I submit that that admission is a serious one; the more so because aircraft, to my mind, with their immense speed, are essentially the weapon of the offensive. They are not the only weapon of the offensive, of course, but, seeing that escort ships are so small, and therefore limited in their offensive possibilities, aircraft are tremendously important for the offensive. I hope, therefore, that my noble friend Lord Bruntisfield, who I am very glad to see is going to reply once again, will be able to give us some reassurance on that point.

I come now to another direction in which progress has been made, and that is air bombardment. There have been a number of air bombardments since the beginning of this year—two on Bremen (including the attack two days ago by the Americans on Vegesack), three on Hamburg, four on Wilhelmshaven (including the American day attack on Monday last), no fewer than nine on Lorient, including several day attacks, three on St. Nazaire, including one the night before last, and one on Brest. That is a total of twenty-two attacks this year, which is almost half the total number of attacks which have been made on all targets in Germany and the occupied countries from this country this year. There have been only one or two in Italy this year. The proportion of attacks on ports was lower in March, until a day or two ago, as compared with other attacks, but I feel sure that there are good reasons for that—the weather and so on—and I have not such a one-track mind that I do not see the advantage of a great many other forms of attack; but I should like to be reassured, if possible, that these attacks on ports still claim a high priority in the selection of targets.

Another good point is that the sinkings of ships of the United Nations are reported to have been lower in December, January and February, but during March there have been some very uncomfortable stories. The Germans have made some very large claims. I know it is said that their claims are always exaggerated, but I have noticed that there is generally some foundation for them, and these claims have been to some extent confirmed by an official statement in America. It looks, therefore, as though the greater effort which we were expecting the enemy to make this year has already begun. Yet another good feature is the waking up of public opinion. The very high level of the speeches in another place was most impressive, but I was sorry to see that a late speaker—I hope that I am not out of order in saying this—did say that the Benches had been very empty for a large part of the time.

Nevertheless, the Press have been absolutely first-rate to my mind in the handling of this rather delicate and difficult question. The publicity given to the subject of U-boat warfare has very much improved, and that publicity and the information that is given—the very full information, after all, as to the position and as to the incidents of the great battle that is going on—will help, I think, to steady public opinion rather than otherwise. I am not going to trench into the question of publication of losses because that would take me too long. I was very glad to see news about the Anti-U-boat Conference in Washington. That again was admirable. I was one of those who had hoped that out of it would come some kind of unified Command and Staff, but so far we hear nothing of the kind.

That brings me to what was said by my noble and gallant friend Lord Cork. It would be very difficult for me at short notice to traverse all his ground. I think he began on the Imperial Defence College, with which I was concerned, and which I played some part in founding and helping along its way. I am quite sure that that College has justified itself absolutely to the full. I can assure your Lordships that a meeting of the Chiefs of Staff Committee has no relation to the kind of account that my noble and gallant friend gave. I have worked with it for a great many years.


I hope my noble friend will not think that I was criticizing the Imperial Defence College, but those who went to it seemed rather to fall off in their ideas as to a General Staff when they got higher up.


With all deference to my noble and gallant friend, I do not think that is the case. The Chiefs of Staff Committee and the bodies that work under it, which nowadays are composed entirely, I believe, of people who have been through the Imperial Defence College, have always worked very well together. It is really very rare that any differences arise of the sort that your Lordships have heard discussed here in rather a cheerful atmosphere and sometimes rather an angry atmosphere; that sort of thing practically never occurs. The mass of the work that is done there is the steady work of building up plans, of working them out in detail, of extending them from plans into preparations, and so forth. They really are most orderly bodies, and they work most admirably. I have acted as secretary of the Chiefs of Staff Committee for many years under my noble and gallant friend Lord Trenchard's Chairmanship, and also under Lord Milne. They get through a tremendous amount of business. I am sure my noble friend would agree there. There were certain questions, and there are bound to be certain questions—I go so far as to say that there ought to be certain questions—which have to be thrashed out, and those questions may have to be decided eventually by somebody else if they cannot reach agreement, as is the case on almost any subject.


May I interrupt? My point is that in most cases they were not referred to other people for decision in my time.


Well, a great many were referred. I myself was mixed up with one matter that went to somebody else, and that was the famous Balfour Committee in, I think, 1923, on the question of the Fleet Air Arm. The Committee found themselves confronted with immensely strong arguments on either side. It was really a very near thing, and I thought that they were certainly going to decide in accord with what became the eventual decision in Lord Chatfield's time, the decision to put the Fleet Air Arm entirely under the Navy. But towards-the end of the inquiry they visited some the carriers and some of the aerodromes where the two Services worked together When they got away from Whitehall they found a completely different atmosphere. There was no quarrelling, they were a lot of good fellows up against hard and difficult problems, and helping one another for all they were worth. And that so influenced the Committee that I think I should not be wrong in saying that that was the decisive factor which brought them down on the side of the Report which is popular with my noble friend on my right (Lord Trenchard) and unpopular with my noble friend on my left (Lord Cork). But I do think the co-operation between the Services in the field all through the Libyan campaign has been very close indeed. I know from personal experience that it is very close indeed right through the Cabinet Office from top to bottom, from the Chiefs of Staff down to the lowest grade of sub-committee that works under them. There are not these incessant quarrels, and they work together because they have worked together at the Imperial Defence College.

I am afraid that has been a diversion. Now I am coming very near the end. I am not one of those who believe for one moment that the Government are complacent to-day. I am quite convinced that the Government realize, probably more strongly than any of us because they know the facts, how very serious the situation is. It is not the present complacency that troubles me, it is the past complacency, which has brought us to a rather serious pass. After all, say what you will, the conduct of this anti-U-boat war has been our great failure. It has been the only matter in which we have had almost continuous failure. We have had our ups, we have had our downs in it, but, broadly speaking, at the end of each year we have been worse off than we were at the end of the year before. Anything that we do now does not, I am afraid, much affect this year, 1943. Nothing in the way of escort ships will do it. The only way in which we can affect the situation now is with aircraft, and that is why I have pressed that so very strongly. My apprehension is that we have not looked ahead enough in the last year and that the enemy will always be one lap ahead, as he has been up to now and as he actually is today.

In any ordinary campaign when a commander is dogged with persistent failure he is relieved. That is why I for one would like to see some changes or, at any rate, some readjustments in the higher control of this U-boat matter, with unity of Command and rather more delegation of responsibility. I should like to see a whole-time Anti-U-boat Warfare Minister to keep all the Departments concerned up to the mark, and to jolly them along, and, above all, to lay out the future on such a grand scale that it leaves a margin. I think also we ought to have, if possible, an Allied Commander-in-Chief, but at any rate I should like to see a British Commander-in-Chief. There is a good deal of over-concentration in the higher levels of Government and in the Anti-Submarine Committee in particular. This is not the occasion to pursue that subject, but an opportunity may arise when my noble friend Lord Elibank's Motion comes before the House.


My Lords, this debate on the conduct of the war at sea takes place against the background of that announcement of our warship losses which was made to your Lordships quite recently. That announcement was a very valuable reminder to ourselves and to the world of the scale of our naval effort. When I was listening to that announcement one figure particularly rested in my mind, and that was the figure of 156 trawlers which had been lost. The trawlers are very game little ships, and the men who go to sea in them are some of the finest seamen you can find round our shores. That figure of 156 trawlers lost does indeed tell us that the trawlers and trawler men will take a very high place in the roll of naval honour when it comes to be written. That announcement of losses elicited a very noble tribute from America, from the New York Times, two-lines of which I venture to quote: They are sacrifices offered by Britain to keep the enemy from her shores and from ours. Our warships go further, with greater-hope of victory, than they could have done if the British Fleet had not held the sea lanes bravely for two tragic years alone. That is a very fine tribute indeed from America. We in turn recognize, I am sure, the tremendous naval effort of the United States at this moment and the impressive sweep and drive of her naval plans—the planning of a five-ocean Navy to be completed by 1945, and the authorization of nearly six million tons of warship construction in the past few years. It is a gigantic naval effort which the United States is making at this moment.

There is another point about these losses which occurred to me. It is very interesting to dissect from this list the losses which have been incurred on the Murmansk convoy route. If you were to add to this list of warships lost on that route, the losses of merchant ships we have already incurred there—in one convoy we lost 34 out of 38—and put these figures against the background of the hardships endured and the fortitude required, then, whatever may be the rights and wrongs on the Second Front controversy, nobody could deny the magnitude of the naval effort which has been made for Russia and which the Navy is proud to have made.

On the general issue of the war at sea it is agreed that the Naval Estimates had the roughest passage through another place this year of any of the three Service Estimates. The atmosphere was rather chilly and antagonistic, and there was a universal note of criticism and apprehension running through the speeches. These qualities were well exemplified in the speech of the cool and cautious Admiral Beamish, who said: I hope public anger, anxiety, and criticism will arise in consequence of what we have heard to-day. The anxiety centres round two main issues—the conduct of the anti-U-boat campaign and the Fleet Air Arm. There are two factors common to both. The first is that America has very largely got us out of the jam in each instance, and the second is that the troubles have come from faulty initial ideas and from subsequent failure to look ahead and profit by the experience of the war. This has been specially noticeable as regards the U-boat. The Admiralty prepared to protect shipping on a series of quite erroneous assumptions. They discounted attack from the air, they entirely failed to foresee the interlocking of the air and sea weapons in the protection of shipping, they discounted the menace of the U-boat. The Parliamentary spokesman, introducing the Naval Estimates of 1939, said that the menace of the U-boat would not be so serious as it was in the last war. The Admiralty completely overrated the powers of the Asdic. They told shipowners that we would get through on the basis of the slow ship in convoy, and all their strategic plans and preparations were laid down around these faulty ideas. Worse still, so were their programmes. Their programmes were based on these faulty ideas. They have had a very rude awakening. They have now found themselves carried away on the swift current of their own wrong assumptions. As shock has succeeded shock, we have watched them trying to strike out to get out of this current, to get ashore and on to firm ground. It is extremely difficult to recover from such initial mistakes.

Programmes, materials, labour, tools, equipment, all were budgeted for in accordance with these false assumptions. Because the Admiralty discounted the U-boat, they made no proper provision for escort ships. Those they built were far too few and far too slow. A very large proportion of shipping sailed independently as late as 1942, and millions of tons were sunk because they had no protection. Your Lordships may not be aware that convoy only exists in the North Atlantic. Except for troopships, convoy is very sketchy in the South Atlantic, where we have had heavy losses. There was no provision for fast ships, and consequently the whole marine engine industry in this country was affected. Why has it taken three years to discern that a 19-knot U-boat can fight a 10-knot corvette? By 1940 it was quite evident that the U-boat was fast and powerful and that the attack would be world-wide. A drive for numerous fast escort ships was obviously necessary. On the other hand, the Admiralty were content with small numbers of single-screw 16-knot corvettes.

We know that in bad weather in the Atlantic the escort sloop is one of the first ships to fall behind in the convoy. As long ago as 1940 it was quite evident that the U-boat would be mainly attacking on the surface, and that after they had exposed themselves by firing their torpedoes there was no need whatever for them to submerge and expose themselves to depth charges, because with their Diesel engines they could at once proceed at their maximum speed of 16, 18 or 20 knots while the coal-driven corvettes would require time to work up to their maximum speed. You cannot touch a 19-knot U-boat with a 10-knot corvette. Officers at sea appreciate these extremely simple facts, but they are not sure whether the Admiralty does. It is likely to upset the confidence of the officers of the Fleet in the administration of the Admiralty when they find these simple facts are not appreciated.

Now there is repentance. At long last we were told in the debates on the Naval Estimates that emphasis is to be laid on Escort ships. The fruits of repentance will take a considerable time to mature. We shall be ready to fight the war of 1941 in 1944. When shall we be ready to tight the war of 1945? New factors are always coming in. If the U-boat attack reaches a climax in the next six months we have, got to meet it, not on a basis of good intentions, but with inadequate resources due to the mistakes made two years ago. The mistakes which are being made to-day will similarly find us out in 1945. Assuming that the next six months are the critical ones—and we are told there may be anything up to six hundred U-boats at sea during this coming six months—what can we do? There seem to me to be only four possibilities at this late date and I put them in this way. Can any ships suitable for escort working in other theatres be brought to the vital theatre from elsewhere? Can the provision of long-range aircraft to close the "gap" in the Atlantic be speeded up, or existing aircraft be adapted for that duty? Is the allocation of o bombers between Coastal Command and Bomber Command the right one? And is the administration of the anti-U-boat campaign the best?

As regards bringing ships home from other theatres of war to the vital theatre, the answer would be certainly "Yes" if we had in the past developed the torpedo plane and the dive bomber so that they could control narrow waters instead of our having to call upon warships to exercise the control of narrow waters. Aircraft are more suitable for that duty than the warships at present engaged upon it. Provision of long-range aircraft—I should say that that offers great possibilities; probably that is our best hope of speeding up efforts to meet the attack during the next six months. The allocation of bombers between Coastal and Bomber Command—that I think is the vital matter. Nothing that I say is any criticism of or reflection upon Bomber Command. I have the highest admiration for Air Marshal Harris and for the work which he is doing. I believe that the bombing of Germany is having a really tremendous effect. I have no doubt whatever that the attacks on buildings and bases are very valuable, but in this respect let me call your attention to the case of Malta. Malta, I suppose, has been more attacked and more bombed than any other place in the world. It is a most important and a most vulnerable target, but it has never ceased to function as a submarine base. Let us look at one instance of what happened there. The main machine shop in Malta dockyard was hit by three 2,000 lb. bombs and by two 250 lb. bombs. The roof was blown clean off, and a certain number of machines were wrecked, but that machine shop continued to function under canvas hoarding. Let us take a fact like that into account when we are trying to estimate the damage to U-boat bases.

It seems to me that this question of the allocation of bombers between Coastal Command and Bomber Command is a matter that should be decided by the Commander-in-Chief Western Approaches and the Anti-U-boat Committee. There are presumably a certain number of bombers available for allocation to either Coastal Command or Bomber Command. Incidentally the fact that these two Commands cannot have all the bombers they want seems to be rather a reflection on the work of the Minister of Aircraft Production especially. The Minister told us that the production of bombers was considerably in excess of what it had been, yet neither of these Commands can get the bombers it wants. I should imagine that the scientists engaged in operational research should be able to inform the Anti-U-boat Committee as to how these bombers can be best employed to give the best results against the U-boat. That is not a matter for quarrelling between one Command and another or one Service and another. It seems to me to be a matter of operational research, and surely the War Cabinet should decide it in accordance with facts.

Then we have heard to-day about the question of a Supreme Staff for a unified Command. Those are very attractive ideas. If combined operations require a separate Staff of very, very large if not swollen numbers, one is rather puzzled to know why the anti-U-boat campaign similarly does not deserve a Combined Staff. I should want to hear a great many more details and arguments about what is proposed before I make up my mind. If a whole-time Minister is to take this work, what will be his relations as regards the Admiralty? That would require a bit of disentangling. Where would the headquarters of this Staff and Commander-in-chief be? Would America and Canada agree with these proposals? If you have a unified Command will the Commander-in-chief have command over the anti-U-boat operations in the Mediterranean or the Indian Ocean or the Pacific, or is it only intended there should be a Commander-in-chief for anti-U-boat work in the Atlantic? I should imagine that at the present moment the Commander-in-Chief Western Approaches has probably got something like 90 per cent. of the U-boat campaign in his charge.


Not the American.


I should say he has 90 per cent. but that is an estimate. I am open to argument, but I should say taking the campaign in the Atlantic that the Commander-in-Chief Western Approaches has probably something like 90 per cent. under his control.


Not the American.


Well, that is my opinion, I may not be right. But we have excellent men on each side of the Atlantic. We have Admiral Sir Max Horton at the Western Approaches and Admiral Sir Percy Noble doing such remarkably successful co-ordination work with the American authorities. It would be very interesting to know what they say about this question of a unified Command and a Supreme Staff. Do they recommend it? I recognize that so far the U-boat has had the best of it. The noble Lord, Lord Hankey, has pointed out quite clearly and properly that each year their results have improved and so perhaps it looks as if new machinery is required. But personally I always prefer changing men to changing machinery. These are old and not new problems. When things are not going well in wartime there is always a tendency to blame machinery but wars are fought by men and St. Vincent was right when he said, "Men not measures." We want to get speed into this affair. Committees have an innate tendency to avoid decisions. I think it is probably far more the question of changing men than of changing machinery.

In respect of this U-boat campaign one thing I would urge very strongly is that those who make speeches on the subject should speak with one voice and not confuse the public as they do at the present moment. Melbourne was quite right when he said: "It does not matter what we say provided we all say the same thing." At the present time, however, although the Prime Minister certainly uttered some warning, he spoke very optimistically. Then we have Admiral Snagge, who said: I can reveal that the problem of the menace of the U-boat is on the point of being solved, if it has not actually been solved already. I cannot say more at present. Colonel Knox immediately counters with this: There is nothing in the situation justifying any sanguine hope of an early end of the U-boat menace. It is still very grave. Then Headquarters of the Anti-Submarine Command of the United States says: Submarine warfare may be at a turning point. The number of Axis submarines destroyed has been high. On top of that we have Admiral Noble, who said that U-boats would probably grow bolder and more menacing. People should not regard the outlook with optimism because the danger was still great. The Prime Minister says that we are one and a quarter million tons up on losses; and Sir Arthur Salter is reported as saying that the situation could be called grave and anxious because building was not gaining sufficiently against losses.

All these conflicting voices make the public give up trying to understand the situation. The truth is, in spite of everything that has been said, it was a fatal error to give up publishing figures of our sinkings and U-boat losses. I think the refusal to publish these figures of sinkings and U-boat losses was decided upon because, in the one case, the authorities wanted to hide bad news and, in the other case, to cover unjustifiable Admiralty optimism. I believe the public are confused by this mixture of contradictory statements. I would urgently recommend that the matter should be reconsidered and that the Government should face up boldly to the situation and recognize that if they publish these figures there will be no need for this mixture of warnings and optimism and misleading statements.

I have only one thing to say in conclusion. I have certainly been critical about the past and I am not certain if the existing measures are the best possible, but I entirely agree with what has been said to-day that complacency no longer exists. I recognize and pay tribute to the need of greater urgency. I realize that at last many necessary things are being done and I think that anti-U-boat measures are being given priority. The Conference at Washington was more authoritative than the other Conferences and the new Committee is at any rate better in that it at least meets every week instead of eighteen times in twenty months. I feel that there is a greater sense of urgency in the handling of the matter. But the lesson of the past is that we must keep up pressure on the authorities in the present and in the future. We shall get through but we shall get heavy blows. We are facing the greatest challenge since 1917 and from now on our full naval strength is going to be challenged by the U-boat campaign. The German Navy is not fighting the Royal Navy. It is fighting the Merchant Navy. That is the challenge that we have to face and there is the call for the greatest urgency and the greatest energy in this matter.


My Lords, I had not intended to speak this afternoon and I hope the noble Lord will not think me discourteous in what I am about to say. In view, however, of the speech made by the noble Earl, Lord Cork, in which he spoke about a Combined Staff—with most of what he said I agree—I would like to point out that, in your Lordships' House, we have no Minister of Defence to deal with this subject. It is the noble Lord who speaks for the Admiralty who will reply to the debate. This debate, however, has dealt with more than one Service. I would like to ask the noble Lord whether he will represent to the Government—I regret that I have not had time to mention this to the noble Viscount the Leader of the House—that as there is no Minister of Defence here, the Leader of the House should find time, if possible, to reply when these most important questions come up for discussion. You cannot deal with only one Service in such debates and I think it would help to bring the Services together if such an arrangement were made.


My Lords, as was to be expected, in view of the terms of the noble Lord's Motion, we have had a most interesting debate, and so long as your Lordships continue to share the public view, and I am sure you will, that there is no more vital interest in our ability to wage war than the maintenance of our sea communications, I am quite certain we shall have debates as interesting as the present one. It is one thing to seek information upon as wide a subject as the war at sea, but it is quite a different thing to give that information. The noble Lord who moves the Motion will, I am sure, be the first to appreciate that the wicket on which he and I have been playing is much more suited to him who bowls the questions than to him who, for the time, wields the Government bat.

Though I shall do my best to satisfy the noble Lord and others who have taken part in this debate, I think it will be realized that in speaking for the Government on matters of this kind in which such vital issues are raised, and where a slip may have the most serious consequences to those carrying on the war at sea, the Government spokesman must of necessity speak with discretion and circumspection. My task is made none the easier by some of the remarks which have fallen from various lips during the latter part of the discussion. The noble Lord, Lord Winster, complains that representatives of the Government or others in position of authority, fail to speak with one voice. The noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, although I understand he has no intention of being discourteous to me and I did not take his remarks as being discourteous, complains that another voice than mine should have replied to the debate. In face of all that I can but do my best and this I will do.

Now I would answer some of the questions put to me by various noble Lords who have spoken. I will take first, if I may, those questions put to me by the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi. Before doing so, however, I would like to associate myself, as the Admiralty spokesman in this House, with those tributes which he paid to the men of the Royal Navy, the men of the Merchant Navy and those gallant seamen joined with us in the common struggle who represent our great and smaller Allies. I am quite certain that the noble Lord's remarks will be read with the greatest of pleasure by all to whom they were addressed. The first question which he put to me was: Are we receiving first priority for the Navy's needs? I think it is well known that for the purpose of combating the U-boat menace the very highest priority is accorded to the Admiralty for the weapons and equipment which they need. Merchant shipbuilding and naval shipbuilding have first priority, and within the naval programme the construction of escort vessels has priority over other forms of construction. So I can answer the noble Lord's question in the affirmative. The point about aircraft I will deal with later.

Lord Strabolgi referred to the Minister of Agriculture's statement, at Cambridge on March 20, in the course of which the Minister said that the shipping situation was now more serious than it had been at any time in the war. I read that speech and I took the Minister of Agriculture's point to be this: that in view of the fact that the U-boat war was being waged as hard as ever by the enemy, and that there are likely to be still further calls upon our shipping in the near future in consequence of measures which may be taken to invade the Continent of Europe, there would of necessity be less shipping available for the importation of food, and feeding stuffs required by the agricultural industry, and that an increased effort was therefore, required on the part of the agricultural industry. I do not think there is anything more significant than that in the speech of the Minister.

The noble Lord referred to the question of the allocation of aircraft for the anti-U-boat campaign. Several other noble Lords, including Lord Hankey, raised the same point, and it may be convenient if at o this stage I deal with that particular issue. Lord Hankey asked me to say whether or not the Admiralty have first priority for the long-range aircraft required for the purpose of patrolling the distant spaces of the Atlantic Ocean. If he will allow me to say so, he answered his question himself, for he went on to say that he had read some remarks made by my right honourable friend the First Lord of the Admiralty, in another place, in the course of which the First Lord said that he could not say that the Navy had all it needed. My Lords, that is so. It is however true that the number of long-range heavy aircraft allocated to Coastal Command for the use of the Navy has increased, and is steadily increasing. But mere provision of aircraft is by no means the whole story. These aircraft have to be equipped with anti-submarine devices; their crews have to be trained for the work which will be demanded of them over the wide ocean spaces; bases have to be constructed from which these heavy aircraft can operate; and so, as I say, there is more in this question that the mere provision of aircraft. But, as the First Lord has said, and as I repeat to-day, we are getting these machines in increasing, and steadily increasing, quantities.

Lord Strabolgi asked if I could give any information about a pre-war plan to construct an immobile seadrome in the Atlantic from which aircraft could operate for the protection of our sea routes. If I understood him correctly, he was inclined to view this proposal as one which did not contain what he called any technical difficulties. My information is not to that effect at all. Whether this particular structure were built of concrete or structural steel the question of constructing it, and of finding a site in which it could be constructed, is in itself a matter of great difficulty, not only in peace but more particularly in war. If you do not construct it as a single unit, you have got to build it in sections, then tow those sections out to where you are going to have your floating aerodrome, and there put them together. There are other difficulties connected with men and material and the time and labour required to construct such a seadrome. I can only tell the noble Lord that while, outwardly, the scheme does appear to have some attractive features, it has been very carefully considered, and on the whole the difficulties involved have been found to be such that it is really not practicable to proceed with the building at the present time.

Now may I turn to what I take to be the main point underlying to-day's discussion—that is the question of unity of Command in the Atlantic. At various times there have been four different proposals as to how this unity of Command should be achieved. The first proposal was for an Inter-Allied Committee. The second was for a supreme Commander of submarine warfare. The third was for a Super-Commander-in-Chief for strategic control of all anti-U-boat resources in the Atlantic. The last proposal, the fourth, was that a whole time Minister for anti-U-boat warfare should be appointed in charge of the Anti-U-boat Committee which, is was suggested, should be in permanent session. I will, if I may, deal with each of these four proposals separately. The first one is really very closely related to the proposal made some months ago by Field-Marshal Smuts for the setting up of an Allied Anti-U-boat Staff. This proposal was answered by the Prime Minister in his statement in another place on December 15, when he announced the setting up of the Anti-U-boat Warfare Committee, and stated that the Field-Marshal had attended the Committee, had visited the Admiralty and had had conferences with the Staff and experts there, and, as a result, had authorized him, the Prime Minister, to say that he was satisfied with the character and efficiency of the system.

It is perhaps appropriate to observe here, however, that the recent Conference which took place in Washington does in fact form a very striking example of inter-Allied co-operation. This Conference, as your Lordships know, and as was announced in the Press last week, was recently held in Washington under the Chairmanship of Admiral E. J. King, Commander-in-Chief of the United States Fleet, and the purpose of it was the discussion of anti-U-boat warfare. This was one of a series of Conferences which have taken place and which will continue to be held for the purpose of advancing new and improving existing measures to defeat the U-boats. Your Lordships may remember that the communiqué announcing the termination of the Conference stated that: Complete agreement was reached on the policy to be pursued in the protection of Allied shipping in the Atlantic and on the best methods of employing Allied escort vessels, anti-submarine craft and aircraft in defeating the U-boat menace. I think it will be agreed that for me to state in this debate in any sort of detail the decisions which were agreed upon at the Conference would be most unwise. The success of the measures to be adopted as a result of that Conference world not be enhanced if I were to present a full description of them to the enemy within a few days of the Conference adjourning. I do not propose, therefore, to lift the veil of secrecy; but I should like to take this opportunity of saying that as a result of these deliberations, and thanks to the help and co-operation of our American Allies and of the Canadian authorities, not only the organization of convoys in the Atlantic but their protection on the sea and in the air will be further improved and simplified. As we gain experience from these innovations it will be desirable, no doubt, to take part in further confabulations, and certainly it is intended to continue working in the closest touch with the American and Canadian authorities, in a spirit of cordiality and good will.

The second proposal, that a supreme Commander of anti-submarine warfare be appointed, presumably envisages the institution of an Anti-U-boat Command exercised by a Flag Officer with powers analogous to the present powers of the Commanders-in-Chief who are in command of the various areas in which U-boats operate. Without overriding authority, it is difficult to see how such a Command could operate effectively; and in fact the demand for a supreme Commander of anti-submarine warfare, like the other proposals put forward to-day, overlooks the fact that U-boat warfare is only a part of the task of keeping open our sea communications. That is a point to which I shall return in a moment.

The third and most sweeping proposal of all is to appoint a Super-Commander-in-Chief to command all anti-U-boat resources in the Atlantic. This proposal and the suggestion that a Committee in charge of a special Minister should be in permanent session, were effectively answered by the concluding words of the Prime Minister's statement on December 15, which were as follows: There is no question of appointing a Naval Super-Commander-in-Chief under the Admiralty or a special Minister to deal with the anti-U-boat campaign. The war at sea is all one, and the Admiralty organization has been adapted by continual improvement and refinement to deal with it as a whole. It would be impossible to disentangle the anti-U-boat warfare or its control from the general organization, and I should not recommend any attempt to do so. The defence of our shipping, of course, is a problem which involves far more than devising the most effective methods of dealing with the U-boat, immensely important though they are. Besides the U-boat, we have to face the German, Italian and Japanese Battle Fleets, the minelayers, the E-boats and the commerce raiders. All these dangers must be met with our available resources applied on the scale and in the area where they contribute most to the keeping open of our sea communications. In other words, we must be able, through an infinitely flexible and fluid central organization, to strike a balance from day to day in allotting forces to meet all the dangers which threaten us.

The noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, in his speech in this debate, and in an article which appeared in the Daily Express yesterday, mentioned Admiral Doenitz. If I may say so, he misinterprets the change which has taken place in Admiral Doenitz's Command. Rather would it appear that, after three years, Admiral Doenitz has found it necessary, in order to achieve the most complete co-ordination of all his forces for the prosecution of the U-boat campaign, to abandon his position as Commander-in-Chief of U-boat warfare and assume command of the whole German Navy, and thus of all German naval resources. Indeed, I take it as an implied compliment to our own measures of centralized direction that after over three years, the Germans have adopted the same methods as ourselves in order to try to achieve success. This is surely an endorsement of our methods rather than a criticism of them, and if we now attempt to establish a Super-Commander-in-Chief to control anti-U-boat resources we shall in fact be taking a retrograde step and playing into the hands of the enemy.

The question may still be asked whether centralized direction, at all events in the Atlantic, should not extend over the Fleets of all the Allied Forces involved. It must be remembered, however, that our relationship with our Allies is one of partners, and not of master and servant. The whole question of the machinery has just been thoroughly overhauled at Washington by representatives of the British, American and Canadian Staffs, and a solution has been reached in which we have the most complete confidence. I therefore come back to the Prime Minister's statement of December 15, in which he said that the war at sea was all one, and that he would not recommend any attempt to disentangle the anti-U-boat warfare or its control from the general Admiralty organization. I am aware that the noble Lord is unable to subscribe to this contention, and continues to complain of the lack of a Combined General Staff working as a team, but I cannot help thinking that he forgets the fact that there is a Combined General Staff, in the sense that the supreme executive body, other than the Prime Minister and the President when they meet together as the heads of their two Governments, is the Combined Chiefs of Staff sitting in Washington. These officers have an ample staff of officers of both nations and of all the Services, and they survey the war as a whole. It is not true to say that there is no Combined Staff reviewing the war situation. On the contrary, there is this most responsible body, a body which has got the full facts and figures at its disposal and complete staffs to discharge its work.

The Prime Minister said in the House of Commons on his return from Casa-blanca that "U-boat warfare takes first place in our thoughts … The British and American Governments have given the task of overcoming them (that is, the U-boats) first priority in all the plans." Whilst therefore, for the reasons which I have given, unity of Command in the sense envisaged by the noble Lord himself is not considered to be capable of practical application at present, I must make the point that complete agreement exists on the policy to be pursued in the protection of Allied shipping in the Atlantic and on the best methods of employing Allied escort vessels, anti-submarine craft and aircraft. Details of this policy, as I have said, I cannot disclose, but as I informed the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, in answer to a question last week, the world is divided into strategical areas, and the nation responsible for each area has full operational control of all United Nations' surface and air forces in each area. I am aware that the noble Lord takes exception to these geographical divisions of responsibility. In the absence of a Super-Commander-in-Chief of U-boat Warfare there must be geographical divisions of responsibility, but—this is the point I hope he will observe—the agreements under which we work these strategic areas of responsibility do in fact result in unity of command in each strategic area.

There were one or two further points which bear on this subject, which were raised, I think, by the noble Lord, Lord Hankey, which I should like to deal with. He told your Lordships that in his opinion the anti-U-boat campaign had been a failure, that it was the one issue upon which our organization had broken down. I think that is a somewhat sweeping and unjustifiable statement, if he will allow me to say so, in spite of the very friendly speech which he made. It is true that the U-boat menace is still a very great one, it is true that we have not yet swept the seas of these pests; but I think the noble Lord, in making that statement completely failed to remember the enormous responsibilities which have been laid at the door of the Admiralty from the very outbreak of the war. Had we not been burdened with the convoying of troops and stores to the Middle East, had we not been burdened with the responsibility of transporting that huge force to the coast of North Africa, the situation might have been very different.

Our resources in escort vessels are not limitless. Every time you call upon the Navy to transport vast quantities of men and material overseas it is inevitable that our resources, in escort vessels particularly, will be stretched; and the more you stretch those resources the fewer escort vessels you will be able to apply to any one particular responsibility. As I think Lord Strabolgi pointed out himself, quite correctly, you not only need escort vessels to escort your ships but you also need anti-submarine vessels to hunt the submarine, which is in turn hunting the convoys. The noble Earl, Lord Cork, I think it was, suggested that we should have what he calls striking forces—small groups of ships at sea to deal with these U-boat packs when they turn up. If do not disagree with him at all, but so long as you have not all the escort vessels which you require you will find that the organization of this sort of force is exceedingly difficult.


My point was that the Government had lacked foresight in this matter. I suggest that the Government should have foreseen that there were going to be expeditions. I do not know that they could have foreseen every expedition, but there was one thing quite certain. From less than a year of the outbreak of war it was certain that the war would get into the Mediterranean. I remember perfectly well the noble Lord, Lord Ironside, saying that to me when he was Chief of the Imperial General Staff quite early in the war.


I follow the noble Lord's point exactly, but considering that we started the war as weak as we did in escort vessels—and I do not think it is any use to try and apportion blame—it is remarkable that we have been able to scrape here and scrape there and find the escorts for these innumerable liabilities which have been placed upon our shoulders.

As I said, these are matters which are not very easy to deal with in Open Session. A great deal of information could be given to your Lordships which would add to my case which cannot be given for very obvious reasons, but I hope I have said enough to make your Lordships realize that the U-boat menace is a matter that is treated with the greatest possible sense of urgency, and that we shall not rest content until we have cleared from the oceans these U-boats, which are capable of doing inestimable damage to our shipping. But do not let it be forgotten that they are not the sole weapons which the enemy have to launch upon the seas. While we are responsible for defending our convoys against the U-boats we have to be looking over our shoulder all the time to see that the German Battle Fleet does not get out. Resources have to be held in reserve to meet that situation, and that is why, with all these complexities which face the Naval Staff, it is absolutely essential that the conduct of the war at sea should not be decentralized in respect of U-boats, but should be kept under central control, in order that the necessary flexibility should exist, and that forces can be moved from here to there according to the strategic demands of the moment.


My Lords, I am sure that your Lordships are very grateful to the noble Lord. He had no reason at all to apologize. As long as there is an Admiralty spokesman in your Lordships' House, in spite of what Lord Trenchard said, he is the man to deal with naval matters. I thought the batting of the noble Lord was very sound indeed. I also wish to thank those noble Lords who have taken part in the debate. I am very glad that Lord Hankey did not hear my speech, because there must have been some telepathy between us. If he will be good enough to read in the Official Report tomorrow what I said, he will see that he did me the great honour of supporting my argument to a considerable extent, whereas if he had heard my speech I might have said something to annoy him in some way, and it would not have been so obvious. Might I suggest to my noble friend Lord Winster—he and I are completely agreed in our arguments—that he made one slip? He spoke of the United States getting us out of the jam in U-boat warfare. I think he meant by their tremendous output of merchant shipping, because when the United States came into the war their East Coast naval defences, for obvious reasons, were not at full pitch, and we had to get them out of a jam. That was another responsibility of the Navy, which was gladly shouldered, in sending help to the other side of the Atlantic.

I only want to add this. What the noble Lord said about priorities for shipbuilding and materials was entirely satisfactory, but with regard to priorities for the supply of the available planes—large four-engined heavy aeroplanes—there was still that element of doubt. I understand from him that the Admiralty is getting at the present moment all the aircraft it can use—that is, for which it has trained crews, specialized instruments, special long runways, etc., and large aerodromes. But I was not quite clear that the Admiralty is able to plan ahead knowing that it will be able to get all the long-distance aeroplanes for naval purposes it is able to use. I do not want to press the noble Lord on this point, because it is one of those matters which he must not discuss in any great detail; but there is a doubt there. My noble friend Lord Hankey was good enough to point out that the statement that we are limited at the moment, not so much by aeroplanes, but by instruments and trained crews, shows that there has not been sufficient planning ahead in the past. If a year ago we had worked out this scheme, this obstacle would not remain. I repeat that I am not quite certain as to whether the Admiralty is able to plan sufficiently far ahead, knowing it will get all the aeroplanes it can usefully employ. I shall read the noble Lord's speech with great attention to-morrow, and I hope to find comfort in it. There is a tremendous output of big aeroplanes coming forward. Apart from our own and Canadian production, the figures of American production are very satisfactory—for February alone 5,500 aeroplanes, of which 65 per cent. were combat aeroplanes, presumably a substantial proportion of them bombers. Therefore, we are now getting substantial numbers of long-range heavy machines which could be easily adapted for naval purposes. I am very much obliged to the noble Lord, and I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.