HL Deb 14 June 1945 vol 136 cc596-9

2.29 p.m.

LORD WINSTER asked His Majesty's Government whether any arrangements have been made for writing the naval official history of the war. The noble Lord said: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Bruntisfield, very courteously informed rue yesterday that he would be unable to be present to-day to deal with this question because he is in the hands of the dentist—a state of affairs in which I am sure we can all extend our deep sympathy to the noble Lord; but while the dentist is extracting a tooth from him I understand that I have to extract my answer from the Captain of the Yeomen of the Guard. We have yeomen at sea, and I have always found that yeomen are very responsible and reliable men, but I have never found that they knew much about naval history. Perhaps the Yeomen of the Guard do make a study of that subject—I do not know. I ask this question because for some time now I have been informed by what I regard as authoritative sources—and I would not put my question if I was not satisfied that my information had come from authoritative sources—that an invitation has been issued to a certain author to write a naval history of the war. The gentleman in question is Mr. Arthur Bryant.

I do not know if this is an official history or an unofficial history hut, in any case, if this invitation has been issued, it would indicate that he is to have certain special facilities accorded to him by the Admiralty for writing it. I can hardly believe that if the invitation has been issued it would refer to the official history of the war, because surely the question as to who is to write the official naval history must be a matter for a Cabinet decision. I feel, however, that equally in the case of an unofficial or semi-official history of the war, a history for which facilities are accorded by the Admiralty, historians ought to be consulted on the choice of an author. The public at large will certainly not read the official naval history of the war. It will be a work in many volumes and the general public will not read it. Therefore it is important that a semi-official history for which facilities are given should be written by a professional historian. I think that is only fair to the Navy, since the work of the Navy will be judged by what is written in such a book.

What one wants to aim at is accuracy. I have been told that even in the case of the official naval history of the last war, distinguished officers and distinguished students of naval history are not at all satisfied that in every respect that official history is a completely accurate account of certain events. Here and there they feel that a gloze has been put over certain happenings of the last war. History is an exact science and I do net think we want a history of the war to ix written by an author, though very distinguished I am sure, who writes popular work rather in the nature of best sellers. From what I have seen of Mr. Bryant's work I would say that he is a man who writes about history; he does not write history itself—just as one might say that Dr. Joad is a man who writes about philosophy but not one who writes philosophical works. There a great deal of difference between writing about a subject and writing the subject itself. What we want in the history of the naval war is a factual, accurate, unbiased history, in which the faults and the failures which inevitably occur in war are not glozed over but are clearly analyzed and promulgated without respect for persons.

For instance, I have been told that in the American Navy a system obtains under which a narrative of au action is written immediately after it takes place, in which the actions of all concerned—Admirals, Captains and everybody else—are clearly expressed, and it they are considered to have committed errors of judgment the facts are set out. These narratives are written at once and promulgated to the Fleet. When I heard that, I made it my business to ask if discipline suffered in any way as a result of memoranda being circulated which are critical of commanding officers, and I was assured that discipline did not suffer because of the practice the American Navy follows. We certainly are not likely to go so f as that, but I do want to stress the point again that what we want in a naval history is a history in which the lessons of the war are analyzed and set out without any respect for persons.

I was a little more perturbed when these reports reached me, because I was told that the naval correspondent of one of our newspapers was likely to be associated with the writing of this history of the war. That gentleman wrote an article for a magazine published by one of our Allies. He wrote an account of the Norwegian campaign. This was sent to me and it was most inaccurate. I wrote a reply to it, and I showed my reply to two very distinguished flag officers who were in a position to know about the events of the Norwegian campaign. They agreed with me that the article was full of inaccuracies, full of distortions, and was written with the main object of glozing over many mistakes which were made in the Norwegian campaign. Now that is not what we want when this history of the war comes to be written. I hope that when the decision is come to as to who are to write these histories, whether official or semi-official, eminent historians will be consulted concerning the choice of the authors, so that we shall have history written in which truth is the supreme aim and so that the Navy of the future shall be able to profit in its work from the lessons which have been learnt by the Navy in this war at the cost of so much devotion and of such loss of life. It is, I consider, a duty to the Navy, looking to the future, that they should have this history written in such a way as to enable them to draw conclusions and lessons from this war which may prevent similar mistakes being committed should we unfortunately find ourselves in another war. That is the purpose of my question to-day. I hope that we may hear that the decision has not yet been finally taken and that, before the decision is come to, eminent historians will be consulted concerning the choice of author.

2.39 p.m.


My Lords, not for the first time in the course of fairly long experience as a member of His Majesty's Government, I have to stand at this table to answer a question with which, as the noble Lord indeed suggested, I have very little acquaintance. My duties as Captain of the Yeomen of the Guard do not include research into naval history. Part of those duties, however, and also part of my duty here as Chief Whip and general assistant to my noble friend, is to fill a breach and perform whatever duty one is called upon to do. In doing this to-day, I must apologize for the rather short answer with which I have been supplied in reply to the very interesting discourse which my noble friend has just given us. The answer is as follows: Plans for an official naval history are in hand, but my noble friend will, of course, realize, as indeed I think he inferred just now, that official histories take a considerable time to prepare. In the meantime it is hoped to produce as part of an arrangement for preliminary histories of each of the three Services, a preliminary naval history designed to appear at a popular price some time in advance of the official history. I am sorry that is all I have to offer my noble friend. I wish for many reasons that I had more to say, not that I usually wish to inflict nor do I often inflict a long speech on your Lordships. All I have to say in conclusion is that I am sure the remarks of my noble friend, of which I took careful note and which will appear in Hansard to-morrow, will be noted by the Admiralty and due weight will he given to them.

2.41 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to thank the noble Lord for his reply. During the short time I have been a member of your Lordships' House I have learnt to admire his versatility in stepping into the breach and replying with courtesy on all manner of subjects. While thanking the noble Lord for his reply, I think it confirms my worst fears, that arrangements have evidently been made for the writing of what the noble Lord described as a popular history of the war and that facilities will be granted for that purpose. I say that confirms my fears that such a history, which will be read by the general public, will be written by a popular bestseller writer and that is the kind of person who will be given facilities for it. I fear that such a history will contain many inaccuracies. In regard to the other part of the question concerning the naval official history of the war, I think, if I may say so, it is satisfactory. I gather that no official decision has been come to as regards the official naval history of the war, and I can only represent and urge that eminent historians should be consulted before a decision regarding the authorship of the official history of the war is reached. Again I thank the noble Lord for his reply.