Air Estimates, 1940.

Part of Orders of the Day — Supply. – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 7th March 1940.

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Photo of Sir Kingsley Wood Sir Kingsley Wood , Woolwich West 12:00 am, 7th March 1940

I beg to move, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair."

For reasons of security the amount of our Service Estimates is not disclosed, but I can say that the Air Estimates of this year are of an unprecedented character and involve by far the greatest effort and expenditure ever made by this country in any year in relation to our air defences. Although the Estimates are presented as token Votes only, the House can be assured that the paramount need for the strictest economy has been and will continue to be impressed on all concerned, both at the Air Ministry and throughout the Commands of the Royal Air Force. I know only too well that expenditure, whether on equipment or personnel, which is applied to non-essential purposes or does not add directly to the fighting efficiency and the power of the Royal Air Force, must obviously weaken the country's war effort.

May I say in this connection that the Select Committee on National Expenditure, recently appointed by this House, and, in particular, the Air Services Sub-Committee presided over by the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Sir W. Jowitt), can certainly count on our full and frank co-operation in their important task. The Air Services Sub-Committee have already examined officers of my Department and paid a number of visits to aircraft establishments, and I am anxious, of course, to facilitate their inquiries in every possible way. It is also well that I should say that these Estimates represent only in part the further action that we are taking and propose to take in conjunction with the Empire overseas and with our Allies. For our expenditure and efforts cannot be limited to this year but must be continued and intensified until we have achieved our fixed resolve—the establishment of mastery in the air.

In the six months since the outbreak of war the Royal Air Force have not, of course, been operating at full intensity. Rather it has been a period in which we have been developing and consolidating our strength in the light of the operational experience that has been gained. We have also been engaged in preparing that further great expansion of strength which we know will be required. But, as the House knows so well, our pilots and our aircraft have already given a great account of themselves on numerous occasions in combat with the enemy. Much of their task has indeed been perilous and arduous. Already the aircraft of the Bomber Command and of the British Air Forces in France have carried out by night and day over 1,000 sorties well into German territory, while our fighters in France—a great many of them in action over the Siegfried Line—have taken off more than 2,000 times for patrol, pursuit and combat.

The role of the Fighter Command has not been confined to the defence of Great Britain against attack from the air; it has extended to the coastal waters and has included the protection of convoys, fishing fleets and neutral shipping near our coasts. Our fighters have amply proved their worth. Already, without a single loss on our side, they have brought down some 40 German aircraft round our coasts, and we know that many more of the enemy have been forced down in neutral territory or in the sea on their return flights. Units of the Coastal Command have now flown more than 5,000,000 miles on reconnaissance or convoy duty. Since the outbreak of war they have sighted submarines on more than 100 occasions and have delivered more than 60 attacks. More than 700 convoys have been successfully escorted by aircraft of the Command. But, Mr. Speaker, it has been over the North Sea and in hourly co-operation with the Royal Navy that the Royal Air Force has up to the present been mainly engaged. Even during the arctic weather of January—a month which provided the most severe flying weather ever known—not a day passed without finding the aircraft of the Coastal Command at their ceaseless task: sighting and bombing submarines; escorting convoys; shooting down or driving off enemy aircraft; destroying mines and accompanying leave ships safely to port.

During the last two years machinery has been built up for the closest co-ordination of naval and air operations. The naval commanders-in-chief of the various naval areas and the air officers commanding the groups of the Coastal Command share the same headquarters, and their responsibilities extend over the same areas. The closest liaison also exists between the Admiralty and the Coastal Command and also with the commanders-in-chief of the Bomber and Fighter Commands. It is only a matter of seconds to put the First Sea Lord or the Naval Staff into direct touch with these commanders-in-chief. The closest connection between the two Services is also ensured not only by constant meetings between my right hon. Friend the First Lord of the Admiralty and myself, with our respective Chiefs of Staff and representatives of the Naval and Air Staffs, but by the special appointment of an air-marshal and of an admiral, whose task it is constantly to review together the operational situation in the North Sea and round our coasts, and to advise their respective Chiefs of Staff. In fact, I can say that there has never been such close co-operation, joint endeavour and mutual understanding between the two Services. While speaking of the value of co-operation, may I also say that our co-operation with France in the air is of the most intimate character. In staff matters there is the closest contact. We have a comprehensive scheme of pooling information; production problems we study systematically together; secret equipment is exchanged and new developments are shared.

It is, of course, the case that detailed figures of personnel do not appear in the Estimates this year and I may say that such figures would, particularly in the case of the Air Force, give the enemy a clue to operational strength and to the increases which have been achieved since the outbreak of war. But I can, this afternoon, safely give the House one figure which provides a general indication of our progress. When I introduced the Air Estimates for 1939 I told the House that, as a result of our recruiting efforts, the total strength of the Royal Air Force was approaching 100,000. Today, the strength of one Royal Air Force Command alone, has nearly reached that figure. The quality of our recruits has been and continues to be of the highest. I asked the commander-in-chief of the Training Command the other day what he thought of the quality of the young men who were now entering and passing through the training centres and units in his Command. He told me that he had never known it higher. Great as was the training organisation that we had built up in peace-time, it has not been possible to absorb at once the many thousands of applicants for Air Force service. We have therefore devised a scheme of "deferred service." The men accepted under this scheme retain their civil occupations and form a pool on which we can draw.

I should also say this, because I know that many hon. Members are interested in this side of our work. At the outbreak of war we had in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve a large reserve of trained and partly trained pilots carrying out training at a number of centres all over the country, indeed at practically every aerodrome which was near a large centre of population. I think it has always been accepted that many of them would require further training after the outbreak of war and that this training would be a first charge on our war training organisation. Some were, of course, able to proceed at once to advanced training and are now serving in the line; others have been given courses as instructors. The remainder have been posted to initial training wings for ground instruction, but already over 60 per cent. have passed on to flying training, including all who had a considerable number of flying hours to their credit. I wish to tell the House this afternoon that the initial training wings will remain a part of our war training organisation and all future entrants for flying duties will pass through them before going on to flying or observer training. All will come in through the ranks: some will receive commissions at the end of their training and the rest will have chances of being recommended when they are in the Service. In fact, I can say that every man in the Service, whatever his rank or his trade, whether he is employed on flying duties or on ground duties, will, if he has the necessary personality and ability, have the chance of being recommended for a commission. On the subject of technical training, I would like to say a few words to the House on the manner in which we are organising this very important part of our work