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 Seely Mr Hugh Seely , Berwick-upon-Tweed 12:00 am, 7th March 1940

I think the right hon. Gentleman is the only one of the Service Ministers to produce Estimates this year who was in the same office last year. He holds his position still, whereas the others have fallen by the wayside. I know that in war-time it is more difficult than on other occasions to criticise, and indeed it is very difficult for people in the Services even to speak on the Estimates. I only say this because it was hinted to me that one in the Services should not speak in a Debate such as this. I spoke to the Secretary of State himself, however, and he agreed that I should speak, and indeed said he hoped I would do so. I join with the Secretary of State in the tribute which he paid to the men in the Air Force to-day—the pilots, observers, machine gunners and ground staff. Too high a tribute cannot be paid to the Air Force when one thinks of the great difficulties that it has, as compared with the other Services, because we have to deal with all the various inventions and all the new things that happen, and until war comes no one can say whether we are going to be stronger in the air or not. It is one of those things which are almost impossible to prove during peace-time. There is no yardstick by which you can measure it. I pay tribute to all those who have built it up, with the anxieties and difficulties that they must have had when war came upon them. The greatest tribute that can be paid to the Air Force is that we have had no Blitzkrieghere. There is no tenderness or mercy in the German rulers. There is only one thing that has kept them from bombing open towns here, and that is the fear of what might happen to them. People now walk about without their gas masks and in many cases have forgotten the way to the air-raid shelters, and that is a great tribute to what has happened in the building up of the Air Force. The strain has been great, and is great now, because you have to have instant preparedness to repulse the enemy in the air all the time. Before the war it was not an easy thing to obtain the training for this.

Tribute should also be paid to all in those control stations who thought out the scheme of the fighter defence, which has proved effective, and to the people who are largely forgotten, the Observer Corps, who during one of the longest and coldest winters have sat out in bleak places, alone all the time, and without any hope of reward other than the knowledge that people have not been bombed in towns not distant from the cold fields in which they were sitting. I was very glad to hear the figures that the right hon. Gentleman gave about production, and I hope it will be borne out that the production is of genuine machines and not older machines. I do not ask, because I should not be told, but I wonder what the proportion is between England and France, because England and France were the two that he joined together. After all, the French are our Allies, and our duty is to see that our production is to be the highest possible, and not to be relying on some other country.

The last time that we had these Debates I called attention to the question of cannon. I hope this is being attended to far more than one hears or has reason to believe. I do not know what the difficulties may be, but we know that German machines have cannon mounted in operational squadrons, and at present I do not know that we have reached that stage. I have reason to believe that we have not. I hope we shall, because we have seen the great success of the Spitfires and the Hurricanes, and the greater success than many thought it might be of the multiple gun. But, when this develops, everything in the air will have an answer to it, and, if you get one weapon against the enemy, he will try to get some defence against it. You always have to be keeping ahead, and I hope this will be pressed forward in the strongest possible way.

The biggest question of all is that of training and of keeping these operational squadrons that you have now in the field, whatever casualties they may have, supplied with the finest possible type of pilot trained up to the last moment. I have never been satisfied on this. At other times I have prophesied that, if war broke out, no training at all would be possible in this country owing to the demands of the Fighter Command and the needs of the Bomber Command. I thought you would have none. As it is, we have had some, but have we yet quite realised what may happen if we have real bombing raids on this country? Undoubtedly we should have greater demands from Fighter Commands that they may have greater scope to deal with repulsing these raids, and we should have Bomber Commands asking for it also, because retaliatory measures have to be taken. We are not satisfied that this has been considered and dealt with.

I should like to say a word about the Volunteer Reserve, because there are no great secrets about it. The figures have been given. They run into many thousands, and these people were half-trained, and perhaps trained more in flying than in other matters, when the war broke out, yet when the war came that training was cut off, and there was no hope of their getting it. Six months have gone by, and many of these people have not had any flying training in the air in that time. The Minister has told us the difficulties that there are, but they should have been seen before war came. You knew what your demands would be from Fighter and Bomber Commands, but it cannot be denied that no arrangements were made for the training of these men when war broke out. The Secretary of State himself has said that if a young man wishes to join the Air Force now, he may be told to put his name down and wait for a year. I know of a young fellow aged 24, the captain of his school, captain of football and cricket, a university Blue—he represented England in the international team. He enlisted as A.C.2, and he was told to go back to his civilian job as he would not be required for a year. You are losing there one of your best types of what you were asking for—pilots. There is no hope for anyone who enlists as a pilot to be trained for many months to come. It has been stated in the Press and confirmed by the Minister. It is no good dealing with this in a patching-up way. How is it going to be dealt with? We on this side are not satisfied to leave it where the Secretary of State left it.

With regard to training abroad, it seems to me that that should have been considered before. There may be difficulties, as there always are in peace-time. If you start too soon, people say you are preparing for war, but I do not think that is any excuse. We knew what was coming. We had plenty of warning. No preparations were made, and there have been very few during the last six months, and it is only now that there is going to be some training for people in this country in parts of the territory of France. I am not satisfied with that. We want to know a great deal more. It is no good saying you will have a few schools in some parts of France. You must have large areas, and you want continuous training, which means 12 hours a day for 12 months of the year if you are really to push through intensive training. You want cheap labour for constructing aerodromes and hangars. You may have to go abroad to get it. You may have to go to Northern Africa, where it can be done at a not prohibitive cost, and you have to ensure that the training will not be interfered with by your own needs for defence or by enemy action, or by the cutting-off of any of your supplies of oil and things like that. It must come from a bigger idea than merely talking of a few aerodromes or a few places in Southern France and sharing them with the French. The training of these pilots is the biggest scheme that we have to get going.

With regard to the Canadian scheme, which I welcome, everyone pays the greatest tribute to Canada. It should always be known that, since the time when it became clear, after Munich, that war might come, an amazing number of Canadians came here to join up in the Air Force. They are as air-minded from the British Empire point of view as any part of any country in this world. But I am a little alarmed because the Minister said that some 20,000 pilots were to be trained, and undoubtedly too much has been made of the statement that this training was to be for British pilots in this country. I read it in the papers which gave particulars of the scheme that only 10 per cent. of that number were to be English, and that the rest were to be Canadians. I understood—and I am quoting now from the point of view of the Canadian paper—that the 10 per cent. would only be required if needed in order to fill up. That is what the Canadian Press thought the first agreement to be. The second agreement may have been thought to mean that, in order to make it Imperial, we were insisting upon our 10 per cent. By this means you are not adding to the total number. You are only taking away from the number of Canadians who will be trained out there. I believe that they have over 25,000 names of young men on their books who are ready to be trained as pilots, and in sending out people to train there you are not adding to the number of pilots, but only taking away from the number that they themselves can produce. We ask that the whole question of training should be gone into not only by the Minister, but by the War Cabinet. This is not a single question, and it is not entirely a Service matter, but one which affects the whole security of this country.

There is one other point in connection with which, in the last Estimates, I asked the Secretary of State to do something. I refer to the question of the reorganisation of the Air Ministry itself. In the last Air Estimates the Minister announced that there were to be three new Commands—a Maintenance Command, an Operation Command, and a Reserve Command. The right hon. Gentleman said that the Reserve Command would be responsible for the training of all sections of the voluntary reserve and of the elementary training schools. That was a peace time measure. The voluntary reserve consisted of part-time fliers. They were civilians at that time and therefore needed a separate Command. But once war breaks out, you are all in one unit, which is the Air Force. There is no question that it was wise to have separate Commands for dealing with semi-civilian, semi-air pilots, but I ask the right hon. Gentleman to go into this question, because, as it operates to-day, there are most absurd results. A boy entering the Air Force can go to three or four training Commands, none of which is responsible to the other. No one is directly responsible for his training in moving him from one Command to another Command. We have to-day—and anyone can see this from any old Royal Air Force List, because it is not secret and is not giving away anything—a system of training in which we have a director of training, who is in many ways a junior officer tucked away in another department, and he is not in the position of being really responsible for the training of the cadet until he goes to an Operational Centre. There is not one person, Command or unit responsible. One cannot get away from the fact that it is producing confusion and extraordinary results, and it is not satisfactory. You get, and will continue to get, complaints, when a man is moved to another Command, that he has not been properly trained because there is no continuity running through the whole of the training, which is absolutely vital if you are to build up fully qualified and trained pilots to fight in these machines.

I know the difficulties of the Secretary of State. I am not making any attack upon him, but until this system of training is remedied and reorganised, not with very clever or high officers, but with ordinary officers, with proper continuity, you will not really get the results that we all need. I congratulate the Secretary of State upon being the Minister who has introduced these Estimates and upon all that he has done. I know the anxieties with which he has had to contend. They are perhaps far bigger than many people realise. One might almost compare his office with that of the First Lord of the Admiralty during the last war, when at any moment something might have happened which would have brought disaster to this country. That sort of thing is always present with the Air, and we press the right hon. Gentleman to go into these matters so that they can be made to work smoothly and so bring about the creation of the largest Air Force in the world to fight and win the greatest cause.