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 Admiral Sir Roger Keyes Admiral Sir Roger Keyes , Portsmouth North 12:00 am, 7th March 1940

I only intervene for a few minutes to appeal to the Secretary of State for Air and the Under-Secretary of State, indeed, to the whole Cabinet, seriously to consider some suggestions which I propose to make for a more efficient co-operation with the Navy on the part of the Air Force in the protection of our fishing vessels and British and neutral ships in the North Sea. I hope the House will bear with me in raising this question again, but I hope it will be the last time I shall feel compelled to do so. There is nothing more important for the successful prosecution of the war than the safety of our ships and our seamen, on whom the very life of Great Britain depends. I must apologise to the Secretary of State for Air for missing the earlier part of his speech. I had a longstanding engagement to speak at a meeting in the City, and I arrived just after he had concluded his remarks. I understand that he paid a great tribute, and very rightly, to the splendid young airmen of the Coastal Command and told us of all the brilliant things they have been doing. He could not tell us some of the things they have not been able to do for lack of equipment, and, obviously, I cannot say anything about it.

I too am full of admiration for the youth of this generation and particularly for our young airmen who fly so gallantly. I have confidence that the endurance, the courage and the enterprise of our youth in all branches of His Majesty's Service will carry this war to a successful and glorious issue. But experience does count for something in the conduct of war. We in the Navy are very fortunate in having a First Lord of the unrivalled experience of my right hon. friend the Member for Epping (Mr. Churchill), and a First Sea Lord who, although only a young captain in the last war, was closely associated in the staff work connected with many offensive operations and enterprises towards the end of the war. It is not generally known that he was actually the Director of Operations in the Admiralty when the war ended. It is thus that the Admiralty have been able to win the confidence, not only of the Navy, but of the country and of our Allies and friends all over the world.

It is therefore with a good deal of diffidence that I venture to suggest that my right hon. Friend the First Lord and the Board of Admiralty have left themselves open to some criticism for not yet having obtained control over all the air weapons they need to fulfil the responsibilities of the Navy in giving protection to our shipping. It is here that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Air can be of enormous assistance and help. It is true that it is not the fault of the present Board of Admiralty that their predecessors, and those responsible for the co-ordination of defence, failed to provide the Navy with the naval air service it should have had and which they should have known would be absolutely essential to the exercise of sea power in war. We have now been at war for six months, and war experience has proved what we, who had experience in carrying out operations with ships and aircraft in the narrow seas, knew to be absolutely vital—namely, that the personnel of all aircraft which work with and against ships must be specially trained under naval directions to carry out their naval func- tions, and must be under the undivided control of the Admiralty or naval officer who may be deputed to carry out operations, upon whom the whole responsibility for success or failure must lie. Any other course is not only unfair to the airmen who have to do the flying and the fighting, but might well jeopardise the success of the operations and results in disaster and confusion.

It cannot be denied that unarmed ships have been attacked and some destroyed within sight of our own shores, and that the lives of our seamen have been sacrificed and golden opportunities of attacking enemy ships and aircraft have been missed because the Navy does not control the Naval Air Force required to fulfil its responsibilities. It is a torment for me to reflect on what might have been, but that is in the past, and we must look to the future and try to make the best use of our available resources. We must correct the vital and fundamental error which was made 20 years ago and in a succession of compromises which have failed to give the Navy what it needs. The last compromise was the most disappointing of all. The principle that the Navy must control its own Air Force was accepted, but a number of flying boats and other shore-based aircraft which were necessary to carry out purely naval functions were left in the Coastal Command under the complete control of the Air Minister. The Admiralty were thus deprived of any say whatever in the nature and strength, the training and operation, of the aircraft which were essential to their success in carrying out their naval functions. When that decision was made in July, 1937, the "Times," in a leading article—I believe I have mentioned this before—likened the decision to a judgment of Solomon.

In the Biblical story the right mother got the whole baby, but this time the wrong mother, who had her own children to look after and provide for, starved the poor little naval baby, and the Coastal Command started the war utterly unprepared to provide the co-operation which the Navy needs to protect our shipping and perform other naval operations in the narrow seas. This is no reflection on the gallant personnel of the Coastal Command. They have done their best to co-operate in difficult conditions and circumstances, but they are de- pendent on other independent commands of the Royal Air Force for assistance which has not always been forthcoming, at any rate in time to be of use.

When the Navy Estimates were debated last week, I explained to the House the vital importance of sea-borne aircraft to a fleet with great ocean spaces to watch and control. I pointed out the inability of these aircraft to compete in battle with the infinitely more powerful and faster aircraft which the enemy operate from their shore bases in the Heligoland Bight.

I suggested that in view of the fact that Germany does not possess a sea-going fleet or sea-borne aircraft at present, a certain number of the naval pilots might be spared to fly shore-based aircraft armed and equipped to carry out naval functions, which are to protect our shipping and deliver attacks on the enemy ships and aircraft in the North Sea. Of course, that is a limited number and a very small proportion of the output which is now being produced in the country. The Secretary of State for Air can help the Admiralty very much in this matter. Obviously, it would be impossible for the Navy, at this late stage, to build up from nothing the naval air force which they require. I suggest that, as a first step, the Coastal Command should be placed under the complete control of the Admiralty and strengthened by the addition of bomber and fighter squadrons, which ought to be trained in their naval functions without a moment's delay.

At the most critical time in the last war, in the Spring of 1918, the Naval Air Service was transferred to the Royal Air Force, and although it remained under naval operation and control throughout the war, the naval organisation was broken up, and officers and men of the Navy had to adopt military titles and uniforms.