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 Mr Hugh Dalton Mr Hugh Dalton , Bishop Auckland 12:00 am, 7th March 1940

I turn to the question of production. The House has been concerned for many years about this question of our output, both in an absolute sense and relatively to Germany. At a certain stage, a gap, favourable to Germany, between our strength and theirs was opened. Under Lord Londonderry, Lord Swinton, Lord Baldwin, and others who are still members of the Government, that gap was allowed, first to open, and then to widen. Hon. Members on this side of the House and on the other side, have frequently asked whether that gap has been narrowed, and we have very seldom got any answer to that question. In many parts of the country doubts still remain as to whether that gap is even now being narrowed. Therefore, it was with great satisfaction that we heard from the right hon. Gentleman that, in spite of the faults of his not altogether lamented predecessors, the current production of Britain and France to-day is greater than the current production of Germany. That will be noted with great satisfaction in many quarters.

I do not want to press too violently against a slowly opening door, but will the right hon. Gentleman amplify the statement he made with regard to types? [An Hon. Member: "No!"] My hon. Friend need not say "No," before he knows the question I want to ask. I think I might ask this with reasonable safety: in this total production, does the right hon. Gentleman include a substantial number of aircraft which are not of real and direct value for operations in the war? Are we still producing quantities of those rather ancient "Battles," for example; and are they included in the total? I hope that the answer will be that at present we are turning out only machines which are really effective for use under the full strain of war conditions to-day, and nothing which I might call semi-antiquated junk, which does not make a real and direct contibution to our air power. It would be interesting, and I do not think it would be going too far, if the right hon. Gentleman would give us some assurances about the quality of the machines included in the total of which he has spoken. It is only right that I should strike a warning note at this stage, and say that there are a number of people connected with the production of aircraft in various capacities who are not satisfied, even yet, that we are getting the maximum output which should be obtainable with our existing resources.

I will, in a moment, read a letter from a well-known authority, which appeared in the "Aeroplane"; but, first, I will say a word about material. We hear a good deal about aluminium and light alloys. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Supply gave answers to-day to Questions about light alloys, and those answers were not altogether satisfactory to his listeners. He said that before the war steps were taken in connection with the matter. "Before the war" is not long ago, and I have some doubt whether the Government were quick enough in getting substantial quantities of aluminium. I am afraid that behind this there is a story of dilly-dallying, which I hope is being made up for at this stage. I will now read a letter which, I think, has some importance. It comes from Mr. Gordon England, who is a well-known and efficient manufacturer of aircraft. This letter, which appeared in the "Aeroplane" last week, shows that he is very much concerned as to whether, even yet, we are getting the full benefits in our output programme of standardisation of components and elements in construction. He says: The period of unexpected quiet with which the present war has opened should prove to be of inestimable value to the air effort of this country. He says that he is afraid that full advantage has not been taken of the opportunity provided, and then he says: To retain the big advantage we have thereby gained, however, it is important to realise that it is on the numbers of aircraft available, as well as on their individual efficiency, that the outcome of hostilities is likely largely to depend. Consequently, it is essential that the cutting out of redundant types should be followed by equally intensive efforts to co-ordinate and standardise, as far as possible, the construction of those aircraft likely to be required in very large numbers. Constructional sections, in particular, should be standardised if the industry is quickly to realise full production potential. Then he says, in comment upon the present state of affairs: At the present time, so far as the writer is aware"— and he knows the industry thoroughly— practically no standardisation exists in this important respect. As a result, production is seriously retarded. Moreover, because of the use by aircraft designers of sections of complex and specialised forms, the Royal Air Force is dependent to an entirely unwarrantable extent upon individual producers of alloys in semi-finished forms. It will be of little avail"— this is a serious statement— to have achieved economy in aircraft types if, as the result of bombing operations against this country, the production of an urgently needed aircraft type is held up through a failure in the supply of some non-standard components. It would surely be unwise and foolhardy in the extreme to allow such an unfortunate state of affairs to continue un-remedied. I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman has already had his attention drawn to that letter, but it seems to me that, coming from such an authority, it is disturbing, and should be noted by those organising the output programme.

Another matter has been raised in this connection. My hon. Friend the Member for Rothwell (Mr. Lunn) was kind enough to hand me a note and to tell me that the Leeds Chamber of Commerce have been concerned—like my hon. Friend, who is following these matters in his own constituency—with regard to sub-contracting. The point is whether, where all this sub-contracting is going on, the wages and conditions of men employed by the sub-contractors are as good as those employed in the Government factories. We want to be assured of that for two reasons. First, there is the point of view of the men concerned. Skilled men should be just as well paid if they are working for sub-contractors as if they were working for the Government directly. But this question is important, also, because, according to information which reaches me, there seems to be some tendency at the present time for sub-contractors to be supplied with orders, and then to reject them, owing to difficulties arising through labour conditions. Therefore, we should like to be assured that there is equality as between the conditions of men employed by the sub-contractors and those employed by the Government; and, secondly, that sub-contracts are not being refused owing to difficulties in regard to labour conditions.

I want to say a word about quality and types of machines, following upon the letter that I have read. Fears are being expressed—and I think the right hon. Gentleman would do well to say some- thing on the subject—as to whether we are not slipping back again into the state of affairs which prevailed when Lord Swinton was at the Air Ministry, when there was too great a multiplicity of types being produced, and mass production and rapid flow of output were retarded in consequence. We are told that there are now too many types, both of bombers and of fighters, being constructed and I hope the right hon. Gentleman will give an assurance that we are not getting back into that unsatisfactory situation. I want to ask whether the right hon. Gentleman and his advisers are fully aware of the need for closing what I might call a gap in types—not in numbers—so far as long-distance fighters are concerned.

We are all, I think, aware of the very fine performances of our Spitfires. We appreciate that for their purpose they have done remarkably fine service, but notoriously they are designed to be a type of low endurance, and capable of remaining in the air for a comparatively short time. The Messerschmidt 110 is now being talked about a great deal, and it should not be the case that in regard to any type at all, whether fighter or bomber or reconnaissance plane, the Germans have a better machine than we have. It is not a situation that ought to be allowed to exist. Yet at the present time we have not got, for all I know, in use any fighter which has the qualities of the Messerschmidt 110. It is argued by persons of technical competence who have been kind enough to speak to me on the matter that we ought now to be producing two-seater long-range fighters armed with cannon and capable of doing at least 350 miles per hour. We have not got that. If the Germans can do it, we ought to do it. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will be able to tell us that he is taking steps to get level with the Germans with regard to this type as well as with regard to other types.

Now I pass from numbers and output to the question of liaison. Here again it is important that a warning note should be struck, because it cannot be the case that all the stories one hears about lack of liaison are untrue. Some may be exaggerated, and some may be based on misunderstanding, but there is too much evidence circulating concerning lack of liaison in various directions to make us feel completely at our ease. There is the question of liaison between the Admiralty and the Air Ministry, and the Army and the Air Ministry, and, not less important at any rate in to-day's Debate, the liason between the different commands within the Royal Air Force. First of all, as between the Air Ministry and the Admiralty, it is a pity, I think, that we cannot sometimes have a Secret Session where the discussion is completely frank and in which speeches will be made by one Minister and answered by another. I think it might add to the interest of our proceedings if we were to have a Secret Session in which the right hon. Gentleman opposite might be asked how good the liaison was, and the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Devonport (Mr. Hore-Belisha) would get up and say how good it had been in his day, and then the First Lord of the Admiralty would say how bad it is now.

Speaking seriously, there is a good deal of concern as to whether there is that quick transmission of information, and that quick uptake of orders that are required in these days. It has been put to me that too many German bombers are bombing our ships and getting away. Why? Why do we not catch more of them? In the early stages of the war certain Scottish Auxiliary Air Force units went up and caught, and brought down several German bombers which had penetrated to the neighbourhood of Edinburgh and the Firth of Forth. Those Scottish auxiliaries did a splendid piece of work, which was much praised at the time. Why cannot we do equally well further South? Why has it been left to these Scotsmen to set an example which lately has not been followed? I do not want to press the matter to unreasonable lengths, but surely when day by day these German bombers chase and attack our trawlers and ships of all kinds, including lightships, it ought to be a much more frequent occurrence for some of them not to return home. How far the blame lies with the Admiralty and how far with the Air Ministry is a matter which they could discuss between themselves, and upon which I think the House ought to have a general assurance. The same is true with regard to other events which have been happening lately. I was rather shocked by the way in which the "Domala" was attacked without any reaction only eight miles from Plymouth by a German machine which had had to travel a great distance by sea and remained either undetected or, if detected, was not effectively attacked and so got away. Therefore, I hope we shall not merely be told by the right hon. Gentleman that the machinery for co-ordination—I am myself deliberately avoiding that abominable word and am speaking of liaison—is very good. From what the right hon. Gentleman said this afternoon it does not look like it in these daily incidents that are occurring.

With regard to the joint working between the Air Ministry and the Army, I am not disposed to be critical. I understand that the appointment of Air Marshal Barrett is thought, at any rate for the time being, to be a good solution, subject to what future experience will show. I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Devonport is going to take part in the Debate later, but if so, I should be very interested to know whether he will say anything on the matter I am referring to, as to the Air requirements of the Army. It is common knowledge that controversy has been going on about that. The suggestion has been made that it is desirable to produce in great quantity cheap aircraft manned by half-trained pilots to be wholly under the command of the Army commanders without any reference to the Air Force at all. I am putting it in a simple way, but that is the suggestion that's made. It would be a pity if this Debate were to close without the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Devonport, now that he is free from excessive chains upon his tongue or his pen, telling us what it was he thought ought to be done when he was at the War Office and whether he is still of the same opinion. This is clearly a matter to be debated and discussed, and I say frankly that for my part I am not convinced by the version of the right hon. Gentleman's proposals which has been made public. It appears that so far as joint working between the Air Ministry and the Army is concerned, we have for the moment reached a reasonably good solution, at any rate on paper.

I now turn to the question of joint working between the different Commands—the Coastal Command, the Bomber Command, and the Fighter Command. There is a lot of talk going on to the effect that things are not as good as they might be. It is said that the Bomber Command is sometimes rather insensitive to suggestions that some bombers might be used for performances suggested by the Coastal Command. It would be interesting if we could have a little detail on that. I understand there is some provision whereby the Coastal Command has some bombers under its own direct control, and I think some fighters too, but apparently those are not enough to perform the necessary duties resulting from the work of the Coastal Command. When reconnaissance machines detect some bandits—I believe that is what they are called—or some other good target, apparently it is not always possible immediately, under the existing arrangement, to produce either bombers or fighters. The reconnaissance planes are not able to perform these more strenuous functions, and consequently German aircraft get away, or other good military or naval targets are missed. If this is true, it suggests that there is a lack of effective joint working between the various Commands in the Air Force. This is a matter about which there is a good deal of talk in these days in many places. I am sure the right hon. Gentleman would agree in principle with what I am saying; the only difference between us would be whether we have what we want. The Royal Air Force ought to be a most flexible instrument. There ought not to be watertight compartments with silly little petty esprit de corpsin each. There ought to be a flexible instrument, with no stiffness of the joints between the Commands. There is some evidence that there is stiffness of the joints at the present time. How that should be remedied is the question. It may be partly a question of rearranging personal responsibilities. I do not want to go into that, but it is a problem, and we are not satisfied that it has been solved.

To summarise what I have been saying, I think the two principal matters pre-occupying the minds of Members who endeavour to follow these questions are, on the one hand, the problem of production in its various forms, some of which I have indicated, and, on the other hand, the problem of liaison both between the Royal Air Force and the other sections of the Fighting Forces, and within the Air Force itself. These seem to be the two big problems which the right hon. Gentleman should solve, and satisfy this House and public opinion in the country that he has solved. He spoke of his fixed resolve to establish mastery in the air. In so far as he takes action which is effectively directed to that end, I think he will have the support of the whole country and the whole of this House behind him, but we cannot wait indefinitely long for that to be done. We are endeavouring to catch up with errors committed in past years when we allowed these fellows to get ahead of us. The Germans have not got mastery of the air to-day. Clearly not. All the evidence disproves it. But we have not got it either. All sorts of doubts remain. We lack a basis for judgment due to the comparative inactivity of these first six months.

We desire to see the great productive power of the Dominions and of the United States thrown into the balance. We must not rely unduly on it, so that we ourselves relax, but with the aid of their productive power and of the magnificent man-power which the Dominions are contributing, it will be much more easy to obtain that mastery of the air without which complete and final victory cannot be gained. The right hon. Gentleman is being watched with close attention in many quarters. It would be a great exaggeration to say that everyone in this House is satisfied that all is being done that can be done and should be done. We have been interested to find that he has gone a little further to-day in revealing certain facts and certain situations. I do not believe that that revelation has been in any way excessive or can do any harm at all; rather the reverse. I ask him to go a little further and reveal a little more on the matters on which I have ventured to address the House.