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 Lieut-Colonel Sir Arnold Wilson Lieut-Colonel Sir Arnold Wilson , Hitchin 12:00 am, 7th March 1940

May I join with the hon. Member for Berwick-on-Tweed (Sir H. Seely),my very senior officer, in congratulating the Minister upon his statement to-day, and may I congratulate him at least as much on his reticence as upon his revelations? I hope that he will not be too ready to make the further revelations which he has been invited to make by the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Dalton), and that reticence will be strictly observed however good the news may be, as I do not think that this is the time and place to announce it. There is much that might usefully be said on the Minister's statement which cannot usefully be said in this House, where we have many ears listening, and much which might be usefully said, though not by a very junior serving officer.

I spend most of my waking hours in the process of communication and working alongside N.C.O's. and men, and I wish to draw attention to matters of particular interest to them. The first is the Navy, Army and Air Force Institute. That is an enormous concern. It has an effective monopoly, particularly at Royal Air Force stations and military camps which are far away from even a small town. I am not satisfied that at the present moment it is being properly controlled by the three Forces who benefit, and they benefit, I freely admit, very greatly from its administration. It is subject to some of the temptations which assail the co-operative societies, namely, the making of dividends rather than the reducing of prices. It is very highly centralised. Unlike the co-operative societies, which have their own local constitution. I have noticed a tendency in the Navy, Army and Air Force Institute to concentrate upon a limited number of standard brands and of standard goods which tends to create fresh monopolies in industry, and to pass by smaller local centres of production which might be very usefully developed in the various regions in which the Navy, Army and Air Force Institute operates. Being fully centralised, I do not think it is doing full justice at present to many sources of supply, and it is essential, from the point of view of the production of all sorts of materials, that local supply should be looked after. Prices are high. They are sometimes higher in the institutes than they are in the open market, and I am told upon what I believe to be good authority that it is not infrequently possible for men of the Navy to buy on their own ships goods supplied by the Navy, Army and Air Force Institute at lower prices than they can be bought by regular soldiers or Royal Air Force men on shore owing to the very large discounts which are allowed, and this quite apart from any drawback on tobacco and alcohol, which, by custom and by law, are allowed to the Royal Air Force. I ask the Minister to make inquiries and to consider whether something might not usefully be done. A penny here and a penny there every day has a very direct effect upon a very large number of men in the Royal Air Force.

The second is a small point, but it is one, again, which has been borne in upon me in the last five months. I refer to the conditions which officers and men of the Royal Air Force find when they are travelling from station to station; and it is equally true of troops at railway stations. I have had for my sins to spend a great many midnight hours in a good many stations, such as Liverpool Street, King's Cross, Euston and the junctions, apparently forsaken by God and forgotten by the railway companies. The railway waiting rooms, lighted but not heated, with a dying fire, crowded with men, are convenient, like this House of Commons, for men who are sitting up and awake, but wholly unsuited for those who want to sleep, and they may have to wait for many hours, until the next train comes in. The refreshment rooms close just half an hour before the last train leaves, when it is filled perhaps with many hundreds of men. They find the door closed not merely at midnight but 10 minutes before in order that the staff may leave punctually at midnight. The railway companies to which I have written have replied very courteously that they find it impossible to get sufficient staff, and that influenza has prevented the recruitment of the necessary staff. The railways are under a great obligation to the Government, and the Government have assumed certain obligations to the railways. I beg of the Secretary of State for Air, who is as much concerned as anyone, to consider with the Minister of Transport whether there should not be some further instructions and some stimulus given to the local authorities to give us not merely waiting rooms and refreshment rooms at some places at least for 20 hours a day, if not the 24, but cheaper and better food. It is not every man who can afford to pay 5½d. for a cold boiled egg. Lord Stamp has assured us that every item on the London Midland and Scottish Railway is costed down to the last farthing, and the cold boiled egg seems to have been passed by the costings department. There is often no bread and butter to be obtained at all, and some people want bread and butter. We do not draw rations while travelling short distances, and we are entitled to ask the railway companies to be a little more compassionate. In Argentina each truck which carries cattle is labelled, "Seá compasivo con los animáles," which means, "Be kind to dumb animals." A soldier in uniform is the most patient of cattle, and deserves from the railway companies as much compassion as is vouchsafed in Argentina.

There is a third point that I wish to raise, which has been referred to already, namely, training. I have recently left the Training Command, and I feel justified in asking the Minister whether the Schedule of Reserved Occupations is not keeping out of the Air Force men who would be better employed in keeping existing machines in the air than in making new machines. The machines we fly are terrible in their strength, masculine in their power, but feminine in the demands they make upon and the reward they vouchsafe to those who love and tend them. Maintenance is a matter which requires just as much skill and affection as manufacture. It is a job which demands, and is tackled with, the fullest enthusiasm and energy in circumstances of the utmost depression. There is no more uncomfortable place in which to work than in the hangar of an aerodrome, where a bitter wind whistles through, and where you cannot even smoke a cigarette for 12 hours on end. It is far worse than in a workshop, and I feel sure that a good deal of expenditure on training would be reduced if the machines we fly were tended by more and better mechanics. I do not believe it is possible to rely entirely on training. We shall have to draw more from industry in order to keep machines in the air—