HL Deb 21 September 1943 vol 129 cc2-17

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


My Lords, nearly two months have passed since the House rose for the Summer Recess. They have been two months packed with stirring events, and it has seemed to the Government, and no doubt to noble Lords, clearly desirable that there should be given to Parliament at the earliest possible moment some account of the recent developments and, so far as possible, some assessment of the conclusions to be drawn from them. I once had the temerity, almost the impertinence, to suggest to your Lordships that any great conflict of this kind, once it has ceased to be a Blitzkrieg, once the first flood of aggression has been checked, becomes in the nature of a tug-of-war. It develops into a long drawn-out struggle, with both sides straining every nerve to attain an advantage. For a long time there is no decisive gain to either, and then suddenly one side begins to give. At first it is a matter of inches; the change in the situation is hardly visible; and then the advantage of one party over the other becomes more definitely apparent till, finally, it is clearly only a matter of time before that party wins.

The actual moment when the conflict passes from the first stage to the second and on to the final stage is, of course, seldom easy or even possible to assess at the time. It is only in retrospect that we can say that this or that event marked a crucial moment in the struggle and that then was victory decided. It is probable, if I may be allowed an historical reference, that the exhausted Greek troops on the field of Marathon did not realize, at the end of the day, that they had won one of the decisive battles of the world. It is probable that the British sailors on the morrow of the Armada had no certainty when, if I may use Lord Burleigh's own words, the great Navy of Spain, "with great wrack, passed homeward about Scotland and Ireland, "that the Spanish efforts to destroy England had been finally defeated. They knew that they had won one round in a long struggle and that is all they knew at the time. It was only later that they recognized the extent of the victory which had been gained and that the course of history had been changed. It is very much the same in the present war. Already we can see when the German Blitzkrieg was checked and the war of attrition began. The vital importance of the Battle of Britain and of the entry of Russia into the war are already recognized. They have become historical events. But the moment of transition from the second to the third stage is still a matter of conjecture.

Have we passed yet from the second to the final stage of this great struggle? Have the fortunes of war finally swung in our favour? I think it would be unwise to dogmatize. We have had in recent months many successes, one might almost say an unbroken series of successes, but it may be that yet severer trials and difficulties lie before us. At the same time, I think there is real reason to hope that we are at last entering, or at least approaching, the last phase of this war. The tide of enemy aggression is beginning to recede. Everywhere there are signs of this, in the south—in the Mediterranean —in the east—in Russia—in the Far East, on the sea, and perhaps most of all in the new dimension of the air. That favourable change started with the victory of Alamein and the invasion of North Africa, and it has been continuing with increasing momentum ever since.

When I last made a statement on the war situation to your Lordships the invasion of Sicily was approaching completion, the Russian Armies were approaching Orel and our Air Forces were bombing Essen and the Ruhr. Since then, in the European campaign, the Allies have advanced on every front. Italy has been invaded. Further remarkable progress has been made by the Russian Armies. The rubbing out (if I may use an expression which I believe was invented by Herr Hitler) of the City of Hamburg has been largely completed and the intensive bombing of Berlin has begun. In addition, there have been two most important events. There has been the Quebec meeting and the capitulation of Italy. The Italian situation, my Lords, indeed represents a really remarkable change in the position. What the Germans used to call the Fortress of Europe has at last been breached and one of the main bastions has surrendered, though savage and as yet undecided fighting is still going on in the ruins. The Germans used to talk in the years before the war of a wall of steel round Germany and said that it was strangling her. That was not true then. It was a mere travesty of the facts. It was an excuse to justify the expansionist policy of the Nazi Government. But it is becoming true now.

The latest news from the Italian front is certainly encouraging. Your Lordships will have read the epic story of the defence of the bridgehead at Salerno. I do not suppose there is any finer chapter in the whole history of this conflict than that of the British and American soldiers forcing a landing and hanging on under every conceivable disadvantage—bombed and blasted by an enemy dominating them from higher ground and yet containing the German forces until the Eighth Army had completed the occupation of Southern Italy and could race to their assistance. That race has been won. The Eighth and Fifth Armies have joined up. We are over the first Italian hurdle, thanks to the courage and endurance of those British and American troops to whom I feel sure your Lordships would wish me this afternoon to pay tribute.

And what of the future course of events? It would certainly be unwise for me to attempt to prophesy what will happen either in the next few weeks or even the next few months. It is even extremely difficult I think at the present stage to attempt to form a balanced view of recent events in Italy. At first, there was perhaps a tendency on the part of many people in this country to overrate the immediate possibilities arising from the Armistice and to assume that the whole of Italy would fall, like a ripe plum, into our lap. That was certainly not true. There is hard and bitter fighting ahead. The Germans know very well what the loss of Italy would mean to them. Not only would it mean the noose drawn closer round their necks, not only would the whole of Germany and Austria come within easy range of our bombing aircraft, but the Allied Forces would lie along the whole flank of the enemy-occupied Balkan countries, where already the Yugoslavs and Greeks are fighting heroically and with ever-increasing success. The position in the Balkans might well become untenable for the Axis and the blow to German prestige would be yet more disastrous. Clearly, Hitler and the German High Command are bound to fight for Italy with all the forces at their command.

There has been a suggestion in certain organs of the Press and in speeches in various quarters, that there was unnecessary delay in completing the arrangements for the Armistice and that that delay gave the Germans an opportunity to prepare for our invasion. I do not intend to deal in detail with this criticism this afternoon. There is, as your Lordships know, to be a debate at a later sitting which will give an opportunity for a full discussion. Indeed, after the Prime Minister's devastating reply in another place to-day, I would think that very likely no further answer would be' necessary. But I would say quite briefly that I do not believe such a view will bear examination. There was no avoidable delay in replying to Italian approaches for an Armistice. As soon as possible, they were given the reply—unconditional surrender. It should be remembered by your Lordships that unconditional surrender does not mean that there were no terms. It means that we imposed the terms, and that the enemy accepted them. In the present instance of the Italian Armistice there were in fact numerous terms. They have been published, and your Lordships no doubt have seen them.

But not only did the Italian Government have to accept those terms, they had to take steps to carry them out. They had to send out orders here and there, and if we had acted prematurely they could not have delivered the goods. For instance, under the terms we have gained control of the whole Italian Fleet. It is now in our hands, except for one or two ships which, as your Lordships know, were sunk on the way to Allied ports. These results would not have been possible unless adequate time had been given for the terms to be fulfilled. Nor did the necessary time for putting into effect the terms of the Armistice delay our operations. As the Prime Minister has explained to-day, a preparatory period was in any case necessary to complete our plans for the occupation of Italy. Indeed, as he indicated, so far from the operations being postponed to conform with the Armistice, in fact the Armistice had to be postponed to conform with the operations. I would suggest, my Lords, that these criticisms by certain sections of the Press only betray an utter misunderstanding of the complexity of modern war.

There is one matter in this connexion about which I feel sure your Lordships would like to hear something and that is the situation regarding our prisoners in Italy. From the moment of the fall of Mussolini His Majesty's Government impressed upon the Italian Government in no uncertain terms that the liberation of these prisoners and their return to Allied hands was an indispensable condition of any relationship between us and any Italian Government. There was full pro- vision for that in the communications which we made to the Italian Government. Unfortunately, many of these prisoners, especially in the centre and north of Italy, in parts of the country which were dominated by the German Armies, may have fallen into German hands. We have no precise information, in the present confusion, as to the exact position, but I can assure the House that His Majesty's Government have acted and will continue to act with the utmost resolution in this matter. We shall do all that is humanly possible to obtain the release of these prisoners. It is a matter to which we attach the utmost importance, as indeed I am quite certain does every one of your Lordships.

There is another incident also about which your Lordships will, I think, wish to be told. What happened about Mussolini? Why was he allowed to be rescued by the Germans? We have as yet no complete news of what occurred. It seems that the Badoglio Government put him in a place which they regarded as entirely safe. By some means or another—certainly not, I think, by means of the Badoglio Government, they are the last people who would wish to have him handed back—but by some means the Germans discovered his whereabouts and took successful steps to regain control of him. I understand his guard had received orders to shoot him, but they failed to do so. I do not pretend that I personally do not regard the escape of Mussolini as regrettable. I have heard some people say it does not matter at all. I do not personally share that view. At the same time I think it is unnecessary to attach too much importance to it. The rapidity and the completeness of the fall of the Fascist regime shows that it had completely lost hold over the overwhelming mass of Italian people, and if anything was needed to complete their disillusionment I should have thought that the pitiful cry of Mussolini himself, reported on the German wireless when the German troops arrived at his place of captivity—"I never doubted that the Führer would do everything to get me out of here "—would have done the trick. He did not say "My countrymen would do everything to get me out of here. "They had already repudiated him. It was the foreign tyrant. I should have thought that would have exposed him finally as the tool of the hated Germans. Where I think his rescue was unfortunate was that it gave the Germans a straw to clutch at just at the moment when they badly needed a straw. Their desperation is shown I think by the frantic use which their propaganda made of his escape. Probably the House will agree with me that the whole business was a pity. But I do not think we should take it too tragically and I believe it will soon be forgotten in the march of events.

Actually, if we try to strike a balance sheet, very, very solid gains have been obtained by this Italian Armistice. First of all, we have the Italian Fleet out of the way once and for all, and that has given us absolute naval control of the Mediterranean. Secondly, the Italian Army is denied to the Axis. It may be argued that the Italian Army was not a first-class fighting force, but at the same time it did represent upwards of 60 field divisions in Italy and overseas—in the Balkans and other places, the Greek Islands and so on—in addition to 30 coastal divisions. That creates a gap which the Germans will have to fill by some means or other. Thirdly, the Germans have been driven out of Sardinia and are reported to be gradually evacuating Corsica. Finally, and this I think is very important, the Germans are no longer fighting in an allied country. There is as yet not much accurate information of the situation in Central and Northern Italy, though there are rumours of strikes in Milan and Turin and clashes between Italian and German troops.

So far as Rome is concerned, about which the noble Viscount, Lord FitzAlan, asked me a question this afternoon, there is no doubt that there are German troops both in and around the city, though we do not know their exact disposition. Our latest information on good authority states that on September 18 the Osservatore Romano, the Vatican paper, published the following paragraph. I quote: According to reports published by the Italian Press a patrol of German soldiers has been on guard since September 13 in front of the Piazza San Pietro at the limits of the Vatican City. I understand that other more fantastic rumours, which have come principally from Swiss sources, are not true. It appears, therefore, that German troops may not actually have violated the territory of the Vatican City though they are certainly in very close proximity to it. That is the full information we have at the moment and I give it to the House for what it is worth. His Majesty's Government have asked Mr. Macmillan, our Resident Minister in Algiers, for further information on the situation in Rome and no doubt it will come in due course.

At any rate, whatever is the exact position in Northern and Central Italy, it seems certain that the population of that portion of Italy which remains to the Germans is sullen and even hostile to them. I think it will probably get more hostile after the broadcast by Marshal Badoglio which was reported in the Press this morning. The occupation of Italy undoubtedly represents an addition to the commitments of the dwindling German forces. If they are retiring on the Russian Front, as they certainly are, it may add to their need to shorten their line in view of the growing threats from other parts of Europe. At any rate, we have every reason to welcome the conclusion of this Armistice. The task of the invasion of Italy would have been far more formidable without it.

To turn for one very brief moment to another part of the world; in the Far East, too, though events are not so spectacular as they have been in Italy, steady progress has been and is being made. As your Lordships will have seen, Salamaua and Lae, the two Japanese bases in New Guinea, have been captured and that, of course, increases the threat to the great Japanese base of Rabaul. In addition, the surrender of the Italian fleet and the freeing of the Mediterranean makes it possible, or rather will make it possible in the future, to strengthen the Allied naval concentration in the Pacific. This will, no doubt, add to the already serious headaches of the Japanese High Command.

News of the submarine war is also good; very good. The U-boat campaign, to which Hitler attached so much importance, has been, at any rate temporarily, scotched. In the first two weeks of September, as the Prime Minister said to-day, there was not a single Allied ship sunk by U-boat action in any part of the world. That, I think, is a record which was never equalled in any period of the last war. The last two months have indeed been among the best we have had, although there is still need for constant vigilance, and for courage and endurance on the part of the Navy and the Merchant Service—courage and endurance of which they have already given us such magnificent examples. Finally, my Lords, there are the stirring developments on the Russian front. While the British Empire and the United States of America were delivering their blows in Southern Europe, the Russians have been advancing with giant strides on the Eastern Front. Their great offensive, which started with the capture of Orel and Bielgorod, has extended, as your Lordships know, over the whole front from Smolensk to the Sea of Azov. It used to be said by the Germans that the Russians could not conduct a summer offensive. The German High Command undoubtedly looked to the summer as an opportunity to regain ground which they had lost in the winter, and to extend further their gains. That illusion is finally shattered, and I think that the Germans can now expect no relief on the Russian front at any period of the year. One stronghold after another—Kharkov, Stalino, Taganrog, Mariupol, Bryansk, to name only a few—has been freed from the German yoke, and to-day the Russians are approaching Smolensk and Kiev, and threatening the Dnieper bend.

What is the cause of the increasing rapidity of the German retirement? I have suggested earlier in my remarks that it may be, partly, that the Germans are retiring voluntarily to a shorter line in view of threats in other parts of Europe. That would in itself be a confession of defeat; it would show their inability to maintain their gains in the face of growing Allied strength. But there if. no certainty that they retain even that measure of control of the situation. It is equally possible—and many military experts hold this view—that they have been beaten fair and square by the Russian Armies, and that their reserves are not adequate to protect all the danger spots even on the Russian front itself. How long it will be possible for the Russians to advance without a breathing space we do not know yet. In this war many prophecies have been falsified. What is certain is that it will be the aim of His Majesty's Government and of the United States Government to do| all in their power to lighten the burden that is falling on Russia, both with a view to helping a gallant Ally and with a view to bringing nearer the end of the war. The British Government, like the British people, are deeply sensible of the fact that Russia has borne the lion's share of the land fighting, and they must, obviously, consider it an obligation of honour to relieve, so far as lies in their power, the weight that lies upon her.

I know that that is the underlying motive for the renewed demand, made by wide sections of the public, for a Second Front. It is a chivalrous impulse which is shared by His Majesty's Government and by others. Clearly if the war is to be won, and won quickly, it is necessary, from every point of view, that we should equalize, so far as possible, the burden falling upon the various Allies. But in our desire to help more, it would, I think, be a mistake for us to under-estimate what we are already doing. That would be of no benefit to Russia or to ourselves. In the strictest sense of the phrase there is, of course, already a Second Front in Italy. This, as I explained earlier, has already eliminated 61 Italian field divisions, and it is bound to draw an ever-increasing number of German troops from other areas in Europe. That is in addition to the 513,000 German and Italian troops already destroyed or captured in North Africa, and not counting 165,000 German and Italian troops destroyed or captured in Sicily. I do not want to over-estimate the part that we have been playing, but surely that is a material contribution to the relief of Russia.

And then there is the bombing offensive against Germany. That is incomparably the heaviest attack that has ever been made from the air upon any nation in the history of the world. We should not under-estimate the contribution that this offensive is making to final victory. If German morale collapses it will be due as much as anything to our bombing; there is no doubt about that. Week after week, month after month, one after another, the great German centres of war production have been pounded into rubble. Let me give your Lordships, very briefly, one or two facts to indicate the extent of this offensive. At Hamburg, which is the greatest port in Germany, the devastation extends throughout the dock area and far out east and west on both sides of the Alster. Fires have spread uninterruptedly, and in large areas every building is left roofless and gutted. It is estimated that in this great port and industrial centre 77 per cent, of the houses are destroyed or damaged. Then take Düsseldorf, the leading commercial city of Western Germany. The central area of the town, which contains the chief business and administrative buildings, is two-thirds destroyed, and the damage spreads westward and eastward throughout the main industrial areas. Of Berlin we have not such detailed reports as yet, and the results of the last great raids—the really important raids—are not fully known, but it is already certain that the damage is very widespread, especially to important industrial plants.

These devastating attacks—because they are devastating attacks, in every sense of the word—will be continued and intensified in one industrial centre after another. It is already known that the output of submarines, locomotives and machine tools, to name only a few products, has been seriously delayed, and it is known, too, that the effect upon German morale has been equally great. There is reliable information both as to a state of despondency on the part of the population and as to increased criticism of Hitler and of the Nazi Party. Finally—and this is very important— there has been direct assistance to our Russian Allies by the diversion of large portions of the German Air Force to the Western Front to meet our attacks. To-day, 60 per cent, of the total first-line strength of the German Air Force, and a much larger proportion of fighters, are pinned down on the Western Front and in the Mediterranean; and this in spite of the violent campaign which is being waged on the Eastern Front. I cannot help feeling that that is some measure of the fear which is inspired in Germany by our bombing.

Finally—and this is a subject not so often mentioned—there is the contribution which is being made by the Allied Navies, not only in keeping the seas open for ourselves—that is the side which we hear most about—but even more in denying them to our enemies. Germany to-day is, as your Lordships know, short of many of the most essential materials of war—tin, rubber and so on—and if she is not able to import these from the Japanese-occupied territories, which are the great sources of production of these materials, that is because the Allied control of the seas renders it impossible. That is of definite and direct assistance to Russia as well as to ourselves.

Let us, then, do all in our power to help Russia as loyal Allies. But Russia will, I am sure, also recognize the help that is already being given. And do not let us conceal from ourselves or from others that there are limitations to what we can do at any one moment. We are a nation of 46,000,000. With the Dominions, we are a Commonwealth of about 80.000,000 of white people. We are maintaining a vast Air Force and a vast Navy. We have a ruthless and powerful enemy which Russia has not—Japan. We cannot, in the nature of things, concentrate our forces in quite the same way as she can. We and the Dominions are to-day mobilized as perhaps are no other nations in the world. But we must weigh carefully what contribution we can best make to the general war effort, when we can make it and where we can make it; and those are matters which must be finally decided by the Cabinet, on the advice of the Chiefs of Staff.

I think that we have no reason to complain of the advice which they have given us in the past; in the event it has turned out to be very wise. Last year, I remember, there was considerable criticism of the North African "adventure," as it was then called—now we call it the invasion. There was pressure for a Second Front in Western Europe. Would anyone now criticize the strategy of the North African campaign, which has completely transformed the war situation in our favour? If we had yielded to political pressure from uninformed quarters last year, what would our position have been to-day? Would it be anything like as good as it is? It is quite possible that we should have suffered a bloody reverse in Northern France. At any rate Italy would still be in the war; the Mediterranean would still be closed to us, or partially closed to us; North Africa would still be a potential base for new Axis threats to our communications round the Cape, and of direct attack upon Egypt. I think that our strategy has been amply justified by the events of the last month. We may surely trust our advisers, who have served us so well, to build up further plans for the future, and to decide when the invasion of Europe from the West shall take place. An invasion from the West, of course, is not ruled out. Far from it. It is merely a matter of timing.

And now, my Lords, I would say—and this is really the last point that I have to make—that what I have said does not mean that there should not be the closest possible co-ordination between the British Empire, the United States and Russia. Obviously that is to the interest of all, and we should seek by all possible means to promote it. It is not easy, in a war so vast and involving great Powers so distant from each other, to obtain personal consultation between those conducting the affairs of State of the three great Western Allies. Even the aeroplane has not entirely abolished space. But such meetings are desirable, and even necessary, from time to time. That was the reason for the Quebec Conference. Certain problems had arisen, notably regarding the conduct of the war in the Pacific and the recognition of the French Committee of Liberation, as well as other questions, on which personal consultation seemed to be desirable, and my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, with his usual energy, decided to go and clear them up. Statements with regard to the Pacific Command and the French Committee of Liberation have already appeared in the Press, and I do not think that I need elaborate them to your Lordships, except to say that I am quite certain that the recognition of the French Committee has been received with the warmest satisfaction in all parts of this country.

It has been suggested that it would have been more satisfactory if Marshal Stalin could have been at Quebec. I think that on this particular occasion it might have been rather an embarrassment to him, for the discussions, as your Lordships know, centred largely on plans for the prosecution of the war against Japan, with whom Russia is not at war; but in general His Majesty's Government would most warmly agree that the more often the heads of the Executives of these three great countries meet, and the closer the consultations between them, the better for all concerned and the better for the world. I do not pretend that such consultations are easy, or that they can take place very frequently. I understand that it is extremely difficult for Marshal Stalin and for the President of the United States to leave their countries; and, frankly, we do not want to see our own Prime Minister out of Britain more than is necessary. As the Prime Minister said to-day in another place, however, His Majesty's Government have a confident hope that a joint meeting between him, the President and Marshal Stalin will take place before the end of the year. Such a meeting would be of the utmost importance not only for the conduct of the war but for the planning of the post-war world. Certainly there is nothing that His Majesty's Government would welcome more wholeheartedly.

In the meantime, there is something which can be done. As your Lordships probably already know arrangements have been made for the calling of a Conference of the Foreign Secretaries of the three countries, or their representatives, and that Conference will take place at an early date. This country will be represented by Mr. Eden. In addition, Marshal Stalin recently proposed that an Inter-Allied Commission should be set up in the Mediterranean to deal with the Italian situation and with other similar problems. His Majesty's Government and the United States Government, I need hardly say, warmly welcome this proposal, and it will be put into effect as soon as possible. I would, in connexion with this Commission, quote some words spoken by the Prime Minister to-day, because they define its functions and the inevitable limitations of its functions: The Commission of course cannot supersede authority or diminish the responsibilities of Governments, but its members will be kept fully informed of all that passes and will have the power of individual or collective representation to their Governments. France will also, I am glad to say, be represented on this Commission. The British representative will be Mr. Harold Macmillan, the Resident Minister at Algiers. Such are the practical steps which are being taken to promote closer co-ordination between the Allies, and I am quite certain that, both in this House and outside, they will be very warmly welcomed.

I have kept you, my Lords, an unconscionable time, but, as I have said, it is nearly two months since we met, and they have been months of tremendous import. At a later date we shall have an opportunity further to discuss these events. To-day I have merely tried to sketch in the broad picture. There are clearly no grounds for complacency—indeed there are never, in this world, grounds for complacency—but there are, I believe, grounds both for confidence and for pride. Certainly the war is not yet won. But in the giant tug-of-war between the forces of liberty and the forces of brutal tyranny, in which we have all been engaged these last four years, there is definite reason for thinking, as I said earlier, that the enemy's feet are beginning to slide. This is the crucial moment. Were we to slacken off now, we might well lose the fruits of all our labours. We must set our feet and tense our muscles. If we do, I firmly believe that it is not inconceivable—I do not put it higher than that —that in this, the fifth year of the war, Hitler and all he stands for may yet be swept away into the limbo of the past.


My Lords, I am sure we all thank the noble Viscount for his statement, and I do not think there is anyone who would support his suggestion that it has been too long. In view of the magnitude of the world-wide operations with which he has had to deal it would have been almost impossible to make his remarks shorter. The noble Viscount consulted me as to procedure and expressed the view, in which I concurred, that in view of the length of the statement of the Prime Minister and of the fact that this House contains a very large number of exceedingly well-informed members, who would wish no doubt to consider a statement of this kind before speaking on it, it would be more convenient if we had a discussion at a later date. It was on those grounds that I concurred with the suggestion of the Leader of the House that there should be a special discussion on the subject later.


My Lords, in view of what has been said on both sides of the Table and of the forthcoming Motion, all I desire to do now is to congratulate the noble Viscount on having been able to make so full a statement— but by no means too full or too long— uniformly favourable in tone, with no tinge of complacency but with a high degree of confidence, and leaving us to look forward to a full discussion later on, which I am sure will be friendly in tone, and certainly not captious or too critical in manner or substance.


My Lords, I should like to be allowed to thank my noble friend for the kind reply he has made to my question. At the same time, while I am not attaching any blame whatever to our Government—I do not know that any blame can be attached to them—the fact that the Germans got into Rome in the way they did was a very smart stroke of business on their part, and they fairly jockeyed us in so doing. However, I do not suppose they are very happy there, because the length of their communications is considerable and they may not be able to maintain their position. All the same, they have got the best of us, and we have to admit a certain amount of humiliation on account of it.