HL Deb 02 August 1944 vol 133 cc104-10

LORD STRABOLGI had the following Notice on the Paper: To ask His Majesty's Government whether it is intended that personnel transferred from the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force to His Majesty's Army will he formed into their own units under their own officers, and wearing their own distinctive uniform and badges; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I apologize to my noble friend Lord Croft for giving him rather short notice of this question, but I thought it was rather urgent and that this would be the last opportunity of raising the matter with His Majesty's Government before your Lordships dispersed. I have found some complaint and criticism amongst the serving personnel of the Royal Navy—and I hear from the noble Marquess, Lord Londonderry, that the same thing applies in the Royal Air Force—on account of the impression among sailors and airmen that they are going to he transferred to the Army and lose their identity. If that is the case, I suggest that a mistake is being made and that a very valuable quality of esprit de corps and tradition will be lost. I was talking at the week-end to a very distinguished young officer from the submarine service—who joined for hostilities only—who said he and his colleagues would rather be shot than be drafted into the Army, but if they were invited to volunteer or were detailed to a Naval Brigade or Naval Division they would do their duty with alacrity and willingness.

That is the whole crux of the matter. If you take sailors and keep them together-I cannot speak for the Royal Air Force, although I feel sure the same thing would apply—and let them serve under their own officers, they will do remarkably well as soldiers, but they must be a group with their own officers. My noble friend Lord Croft knows perfectly well the great tradition of the Naval Brigade which served in the Boxer Rebellion in China and in the South African War and of the Royal Naval Division in the last war. But they were called Naval Brigades or Royal Naval Divisions and you could tell on sight that thy belonged to those distinctive corps.

It is not oily in our own country that this experience has resulted. In the last war the French used naval units in the line in France with excellent results. They gained a great reputation for themselves. In this war the Russian Marine Divisions and Brigades have done excellent service. But they are called Naval Brigades and Divisions. They keep their uniforms and their badges and so on. Take the ease of the Germans. They found apparently that there was a redundancy of ground personnel in the Luftwaffe, and my information is that hey formed no fewer than twenty divisions—I have heard the figure put as high as thirty—from ground personnel taken from the Luftwaffe. I am told that some of these divisions serving in Italy gave us a good deal of trouble. But they again retained their identity as Luftwaffe Divisions. That is the point I am endeavouring to make. I am surprised that there should be a surplus of men in the Loyal Navy—I should have thought that with the Pacific War the Navy would need all fully-trained seamen—but if there is a redundancy it is right use i hem on land provided you keep them together under their own officers and preserve the magnificent tradition of naval forces in many wars. I would be proud to serve in the Army, but if as a sailor I were compelled to go into the Army, I think I should feel a grievance and I believe that these men will feel aggrieved unless the matter is put right.


My Lords, I need hardly say that I have listened with great sympathy to the remarks of the noble Lord, a sympathy enhanced by the fact that, having a family tradition with the sea, I know how very strong are the feelings of those who serve in the Royal Navy and how strong is their love of the Service. I must point out, however, that transfers, even within a Service, are always avoided if they possibly can be, and the transfers which are now being carried out from the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force would not have been carried out unless all the factors involved had been most carefully considered and unless it had become clear that no other measure was open to meet the particular need which has arisen in the Army at this moment. This need is for men who, after a relatively short period of training, can fill gaps torn by battle in a number of existing Army units and sustain them for the battles which still lie ahead. These men, which the other Services have been good enough to transfer to the Army, are already partially trained and are therefore considerably more suitable on this score alone than completely untrained civilians would be.

One may certainly sympathize with the noble Lord's suggestion that the men should be formed into separate units with their own officers and distinctive badges and uniforms. In view of what I have just said the noble Lord will, however, appreciate that such a project would not meet the purpose for which these transfers are being carried out. If the noble Lord's suggestion were adopted, the fighting units and formations which are now in existence fully trained and tried in battle might have to be broken up for lack of reinforcements to make good their battle casualties. It is this process which these transfers are designed to prevent. Moreover, if we suppose that the Naval and Air Force units had been formed and had gone into battle they, in their turn, would suffer casualties, and, in due course, they would be faced with precisely the same difficulties. They might then have to be broken up with all the losses, moral and physical, which such a process inevitably entails.

The noble Lord specifically referred to the Royal Naval Division—a very gallant Division which I had the honour of lying next to. I would remind him that the process I have been describing was what happened to that Division. They did not have enough naval battalions to make up their losses after they had suffered casualties, and other British units, of one of which my own brother was in command, had to be sent to fill up the gaps. That sort of thing would inevitably happen if my noble friend's proposal were deemed possible of adoption. I hope that I have convinced the noble Lord that the case against his suggestion is conclusive on these grounds. There would, of course, be other difficulties to all of which I need not refer now. I however, just mention one of them. No officers are being transferred, and no men with N.C.O. or equivalent ranks are being transferred unless they volunteer and are prepared to forgo their ranks. It is hoped, however, that it will be possible—and this was the point which I think the noble Lord really had most at heart—in most cases to transfer the men in groups, at any rate in small groups, rather than as individuals. They are being asked to express their preferences for arms and regiments, and, as far as practicable, these preferences will be followed. The deficiencies in men which these transfers are to make good are naturally much greater in some arms than in others, and in some units than in others, and I am afraid that some of the men are hound to be disappointed. Men who have family connexions with certain Army units will, as far as possible, be given special consideration.


Will they wear their own badges?


I did not have notice of that question. As the noble Lord very kindly mentioned, I only received notice of this question last night, and I wish that it had been possible to give him a fuller answer. My belief is that, generally speaking, when these men are absorbed into Army units they will wear the badges of the units into which they are absorbed. We have had this question raised in other cases, and I expect that that is a practice which will be followed in this case. I would not, however, like my words to be taken as binding. The fact remains, though, that wherever men have been transferred within the Service they have assumed the badges of the units to which they have been transferred.


My Lords, with reference to the answer which the noble Lord, Lord Croft, has given, may I be allowed to say that he has only touched on one part of the matter? I should like to refer to another factor connected with this question and to make one point. I am concerned for the pre-entry boys at the present time. They have had the whole of their outlook altered, and we are now having to tell them something quite different from what we told them before. As your Lordships know, I am professionally associated with the Air Training Corps. The whole presentation of the case to the boys of that Corps has had to be completely altered. I would suggest to the noble Lord, Lord Croft, that he might make representation upon this matter to those in higher places. This is a question of man-power, and such questions have been considered from the very beginning of the war. Accurate computations can be made, and have been made, and I contend that these changes in the attitude of the Government and the plans they told us they were making ought to be notified to those who will be affected at the earliest possible opportunity. I think the noble Lord is aware of the difficulty with which we are faced in the Air Training Corps. We have recently had to go to these boys and explain to them that the situation with regard to their future is radically altered from that which we outlined to them when the Corps was originally recruited a few years ago.


My Lords, with the indulgence of the House, I would like to support what the noble Marquess has just said. I am President of our local Air Training Corps and only last week this very point arose. It really was rather a difficult question with which to deal. Without rhyme or reason that the boys could understand, they had to be told by us that everything that we had told them before was now changed. They had to be told that in the future they would be drafted to wherever it was decided they were needed and not to the particular branch of the Air or the Naval Service, or wherever else it might be, to which they might wish to go and for which they were trained. Naturally, this has created a good deal of feeling among tile boys. I can only speak from the point of view of the Air Training Corps in my own part of the country, but the feeling there on the part of the boys is definitely that they have not received the treatment they deserve in view of what they have done. They have tried to carry out the Government's wishes by joining that Corps and they have done all they can to make themselves efficient and to take full advantage of its training.


My Lords, if the House will permit me I will reply very briefly to the point raised by the noble Marquess and the noble Viscount. This aspect of the matter had not been put to me before, and I did not know any question of this kind was going to be raised. I will certainly see that the views which have been expressed by the noble Marquess and the noble Viscount are brought to notice in the proper quarters. I think that your Lordships will appreciate that this problem with which we are dealing is a very immediate problem. We are, we all hope, out to force as early a decision as possible. To maintain the supply of trained men is absolutely vital, but I cannot conceive that in the very near future the lads to whom the noble Viscount in particular was referring will be immediately called up. However, I will as I say look into this and will see that these expressions of opinion are passed on. We have all of us in every part of the country, owing to the man-power situation, to make great sacrifices in order to achieve speedy victory. Exactly the same sort of argument which we have heard now applies to the Army Cadet force in which I am very deeply interested. The members of that force have been told that a great number of them must regard it as likely that they will be directed into the mines. These sacrifices are general, and we must all be prepared to make our share of them.


May I point out that surely this faulty appreciation of the man-power situation has existed all through the war, and that it is not something that is entirely new?


My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Croft, will not take it amiss or regard me as making any personal reflection upon him when I say that I consider his reply astonishing and very disappointing indeed. Our casualties in the Army happily have not been heavy in this war. They have been on nothing like the scale which came within the experience of the noble Lord himself during the last war. I cannot understand why it is necessary to transfer personnel from the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force as groups or as individuals into the Army and absorb them into line regiments, or wherever it is that they may be taken. By doing this you may get a few semi-trained men, but generally speaking they will have to learn soldiering all over again. And in the process you lose something you cannot replace—the tradition of the old Naval Brigades, the tradition of the gallant Naval Division of the last war. I think a terrible mistake has been made. I cannot speak too strongly about it. I thank the noble Lord for his reply and for his expression of sympathy. But I do hope that this matter will be reconsidered. It is a fact that you have surplus officers in the Royal Navy who hake been trained in combined operations—I make you a present of that point—and they will be able to take charge of brigades or battalions of naval personnel who, I assure the noble Lord, would give a tremendously good account of themselves. I hope that this matter will be open for reconsideration; otherwise immense harm will be done and a terrible mistake made. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.