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 was about to say something on the subject of technical training. We are so organising our technical training that the man who is unskilled on entry will have the opportunity of learning a skilled trade; the man who is semi-skilled will have the chance of becoming skilled and the skilled man may become more highly skilled still. At this moment more than 20 schools are in operation and others are being rapidly provided. In this way I hope we shall be able to reduce to a minimum our demands on industry and we shall also be ensuring that everyone who enters the Royal Air Force and is suitable will have an opportunity of being selected for technical training and of leaving the Service with useful qualifications.

There is also, of course, a matter of great moment in connection with the Royal Air Force and our air strength, namely, the question of training overseas. We are engaged in building up a great flying training organisation overseas. When in full operation the schools in Canada, Australia and New Zealand under the Empire Training Scheme will produce no fewer than 20,000 pilots and 30,000 air crews every year. In addition, the Government of the Union of South Africa have most helpfully offered to train pilots for the Royal Air Force, and there will also be schools in Rhodesia and in Kenya. I am also glad to tell the House that, with the ready agreement of the French authorities, we are establishing a number of Flying Training Schools on French territory.

I now come to production, and before I attempt to assess achievement or to discuss our future plans, I would like the House to consider for a moment what are the main factors which determine the scale of output. I think it can be said that they are labour, materials and floor space. Let me say a few words on each of those important matters. A very considerable labour force has already been built up. Within a few weeks of the outbreak of war we passed the peak figure of labour employed on aircraft production that was obtained in 1918, but there is an enormous programme required and an even greater effort ahead of us. I am, of course, in the closest touch with my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour on all these questions, and the Air Ministry has been associated with the discussions which have been proceeding with the employers and with the unions. We hope that these discussions will result in extending the field of recruitment and in increasing the supply of labour available for the aircraft programme. I should like to say again, because I think it cannot be said too often, that the country undoubtedly owes much to the hundreds of thousands of men and women in the factories. These have made and are making a great contribution to our air defences.

In the case of materials, too, we have to build up our supplies on a rapidly increasing scale. Before the war the Air Ministry had taken steps to extend the supply of the virgin aluminium and the special steels required for the air programme. I am in constant touch with my right hon. Friend the Minister of Supply in regard to all those raw materials—steel, aluminium, plywood, cotton for the balloon barrage for example—which we need. Our own special problem is in the field of light alloys and it must be borne in mind that it has been a case of creating and building up an industry for which there is only an extremely small commercial demand. Not so very long ago the total output of these light fabricated materials was a matter of a few thousand tons a year. This, I am glad to say, has already been multiplied many times over. New factories have been built and existing factories extended, and every month new plant is coming into operation. Future production has been planned on a scale which should enable us to attain our objective with something in hand.

As regards floor space in the aircraft industry, this, too, has already been increased many times. We have many more new factories coming into production, and still more are being built. But it is the practice of sub-contracting to the maximum extent that has done the most to provide us with the floor space we require. What we have achieved and shall achieve will be due in no small measure to our having sought eighteen months and more ago—we were in fact the first to do so—the assistance of thousands of small firms who had suitable labour and plant available. I may add, in dealing with this aspect of production, that the plans which we have made for production in the Dominions are beginning to bear fruit and the first aircraft manufactured in Canada have already flown. Large additional orders have recently been placed both in Canada and in the United States.

The progress made in production to meet the needs of the Royal Air Force gives us cause for confidence. Nevertheless I would like to say this to the House that at this stage of the war we must husband our resources and use them in the fullest support of our military effort. First things must come first, and I am afraid, much as we would wish it otherwise, that the progress of civil aviation must inevitably be retarded. In spite of the exigencies of war, the Empire services of Imperial Airways have been carried on without interruption. In conjunction with the Australian and New Zealand Governments, we have decided to link up New Zealand with the Empire air routes, and to start in April a weekly service across the Tasman Sea. The North Atlantic programme last year was completed without a hitch, but the resumption of this service must depend on the inexorable needs of the military situation. In Europe we have our regular services to France and Scandinavia, and we hope that the difficulties which have so far prevented a regular service to Lisbon will shortly be overcome.

We have also considered what we can do to safeguard the position of civil aviation after the war. There are two important steps which I propose to take. The first is to set up a strong Civil Aviation Advisory Committee to keep under review the position of civil aviation in the light of the present situation and to plan for the future. Secondly, I propose that this committee should have associated with it a small body of experts whose task it would be to keep in close touch with all phases of technical development in the field of civil aviation abroad. Thus the aircraft industry of this country will be enabled to keep abreast of technical improvements on the civil side and be ready when peace returns, or sooner if circumstances permit, to devote its skill and its strength to the development and production of civil aircraft. I should also like to say a word about the British Overseas Airways Corporation. This corporation has been established, though with reduced membership. It has adopted and ratified the provisional contracts for the acquisition of Imperial Airways and British Airways, and a date will be fixed in the near future as the "appointed day" on which these undertakings will be transferred. In succession to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Information, I have been fortunate enough to secure the services of Mr. Clive Pearson as chairman of the corporation.

I would like now to return to the Royal Air Force and the progress that has been made in the last year. What has been achieved since the Air Estimates were last presented? Production has been greatly increased. The numerical output has been doubled, but the effective increase in output has been even greater. For to assess the true measure of advance we must take account not only of numbers but of the quality and performance of the aircraft passing into service. Each new type involves an increase in the number of man hours of construction; the Spitfire, for example, represents double the number of man hours spent on the Gladiator and the same is true of the Lysander compared with the Hector which it replaced. But these increases in man hours are far outweighed by the great advantages achieved in operational efficiency—in range, in speed, in bomb load, in armament and in the aggregate of all these factors. I would sooner have 100 Wellingtons or 100 Spitfires or Hurricanes than a much larger number of their German counterparts. If, therefore, we are to assess the effective measure of our advance in production, we must compare like with like. It will interest the House to know that in the last six months the output of the single-seater fighter types, that is the Spitfire and the Hurricane, has doubled; and that the output of the larger bomber types, which of course involve a far greater number of man hours, has been increased over the same period by more than 50 per cent. Good progress has also been made in the output of engines and it was a matter of satisfaction to us the other day when the output of a new type of engine reached and passed at one factory the figure of 100 a week. Moreover, as the House knows, we are able by the embodiment of fresh devices and modifications to go on improving our engines throughout their life in the Service. A substantial measure of re-arming has been carried out in the Service. Not only have squadrons been re-armed with more powerful types, but the types themselves have been continuously improved in armament and in performance. Thus the long-nosed Blenheims have not only far better navigational facilities than the earlier model, but something like a 50 per cent. increase in range. The top speed of the Spitfire has been further increased by 10 per cent. as a result of various developments subsequent to its introduction into the Service.

When we take into account the progress that has been made in the formation of new squadrons, in re-arming, and in the building up of reserves, it can safely be said that the fighting strength of the Royal Air Force has been increased by at least 100 per cent. during the last 12 months. In addition, we have been able to give substantial help to our friends abroad. During the same period Germany has no doubt also been expanding and improving her Air Force, but we know that she has not been without her difficulties and that many of her aircraft types must have proved disappointing in the light of operational experience. I therefore take the view with some confidence that even on a numerical basis the output of aircraft now accruing to us and to France is to-day in excess of that of Germany— and, as I have pointed out, there are other factors besides numbers.

But—and I will close with this observation: Germany has undoubtedly a strong and powerful air force, and if enemy attacks come we must certainly not assume that they can be beaten off without casualties and damage. No air defence organisation can ever be an impenetrable barrier. If all our fighters could be sure of intercepting and all our anti-aircraft guns could be sure of hitting their targets, there would be little or no air defence problem. But we have only to look at the manner in which our bomber and reconnaissance aircraft have flown the length and breadth of Germany to see how different the facts are. If and when serious attacks are made on this country, considerable damage may be caused, but we need have no doubt that our people will endure with the same high courage as other peoples have recently shown. Moreover, we can be sure that the powerful and efficient air defence organisation which we have built up will take a heavy toll of the enemy and that our bomber force for their part will be both ready and able to hit hard, hit often and to keep on hitting.