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 Clement Davies Mr Clement Davies , Montgomeryshire 12:00 am, 7th March 1940

I am sure my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for North Portsmouth (Sir R. Keyes) will forgive me if I do not follow him, except to express my admiration, and I am sure the admiration of all hon. Members, for the care and attention which he has given to what I hope he will forgive me for calling his hardy annual, and the courage and persistence with which he has followed that subject.

We all realise that in this matter we have to speak with the utmost care. I would not have intervened in the Debate had it not been for some of the things that were said by my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin (Sir A. Wilson). This is the newest and most scientific arm that we have for offensive and defensive purposes; it is the one in which changes take place quickest; and, therefore, it is, above all, the one in which secrecy is of the utmost importance. I wish to echo what has been said by other hon. Members, that it is undesirable, even should my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary be tempted to do so, for him to give us any precise figures, or any information which would enable any calculation to be made, as to the amount of production which there is at present in this country. There is only one thing I want to ask. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, in speaking of the production in this country and in France at the present time, gave us the very heartening news that the production of the two countries combined is greater to-day than the production in Germany. I take it that he is referring to the production actually in this country and in France, and that he does not include such purchases as may have been made from America or elsewhere. I do not intend to enter into any controversy with regard to the quality of machines, except to express my view that, however good America may be in industry, however wonderful she may be in production, she can never produce as good quality as we can produce in this country. We require for our young men who are undertaking these enormous risks on our behalf machines of the very first quality, and in any figures which the Secretary of State has in mind, I hope he will confine himself on almost all occasions to what we can produce ourselves—especially ourselves—together with the production of our ally, France.

I did not rise to speak about production, but rather about training. I wish to emphasise the point that was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-on-Tweed (Sir H. Seely). Training in this country at the best of times must be difficult, but in time of war it is all the more difficult, because there is a part of the country—and I should imagine about half the country—where training is almost impossible for any length of time, and should the war in the air come, training will be rendered almost impossible in this country. Moreover, the training grounds here are ill-adapted for the young men who are just beginning their training. My hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin said that the right place for training is a place which bears the greatest similarity to the conditions under which the men will ultimately be called upon to fight. That is quite right. Those are the ideal conditions and the best conditions when the man has reached his final act of training. When he has gone through the fledgling stage, when he has done all that is required of him, when he understands the machine, when he knows what happens in daylight and in darkness, when he is a fully trained pilot and can take his place in the battlefield, then is the time for him to return to this country, and meet the conditions to which the hon. Member for Hitchin referred. But surely, in the early days, it is better that he should have vast open spaces upon which to train, and not be compelled to come down on spaces that are, after all, only like pocket-handkerchiefs when compared with the vast spaces to be found elsewhere.

We are deeply grateful to Canada for her most generous offer, for the help she is giving us day by day, for the promise she is making to us through her young men; but I deeply regret that the Government saw fit to confine themselves to the offer that was made to them from Canada. I should have expected them to have had plans in existence for training elsewhere than in this country long before the war broke out. Apparently, the only place they considered was Canada. During the winter months Canada must be quite unsuitable for training. I do not know what kind of training these young men could have undergone in Canada if they had there anything like the weather we experienced during January and February. But there are other places. My hon. Friend referred to places where there are 12 hours of daylight and more or less certainty as to what the weather will be. Let us be more precise. One need not mention any particular location, but Africa is a very vast continent. In Africa, there are possessions of this country and of France which, I should have thought, would have been eminently suitable for the purpose of training these young men until they were ready to take their place in the front rank of battle. Africa has several advantages. It is very far re- moved from the enemy. He cannot easily get across to Africa, without, of course, disregarding neutral territory—which, of course, he is quite capable of doing—but it is very convenient for us or for France. It is also very convenient from the point of view of supplies. It is in an area which is not liable to attack from submarines or from the air. The ships can come and go without running the great risks which they run in coming to this country, and, in addition, if required, they could come back from North Africa to France or this country in a few hours, whereas Canada is so far removed. I beg the Government to consider not only training overseas, but to consider widening the training, because it is of no use having production and getting the young men to offer themselves for training when proper training is not provided for them. These two matters must be closely co-ordinated.

There are two other matters on which I want to touch. The Secretary of State very properly referred, as everybody else has done, to the gallantry of these men. We all desire to pay our tribute to these men, but I want to know why they are called upon to undertake the enormous risk of these flights over Germany. Why at this time should the Government be risking, first of all, the planes? They must be sending our best planes; they would not be justified in sending anything except the best. They are sending them for some purpose which they have in mind, but which it is difficult for us to understand. What effect can it have upon the Germans? It cannot frighten them. Even if the machines are not fired at, I suppose the Germans say, "Oh, we could deal with them if only we did fire at them." But, if the machines are fired at, what are the losses and why do you risk your best planes and your best men at a time like this, and to what end? They do not go there to bomb. They do not interfere with anything except, I understand, the German radio for a few hours or moments. If they went there to interfere with munition works, transport, or the railway systems, then I could understand it; but why do you risk it when no useful object as far as one can see is attained? Assuming that there is a useful object, will the Government say that the advantage outweighs the disadvantage of the risk of losing these machines, and, still more, these fine young men who are unable to retaliate, except perhaps with their machine guns.

I was glad to hear the right hon. Gentleman refer to civil aviation. I hope this will not be lost sight of. During the last war we ceased to a very large extent production of motor cars for civil work, and the result was we lost the export market. It took us a very long time to recover, and we recovered it, as usual, only by the better quality of our machines. I dare say we can recover it again, but let it be remembered that civil aviation is the transport of the future. I implore the Government to continue the work, because I do not think it will in any way interfere, or at any rate unduly interfere, with the production of war planes, which, of course, must come first. I hope they will bear this in mind and enable us to keep in touch with other countries of the world through the use of our civil machines. I conclude by thanking the right hon. Gentleman for his statement to-day. I would also like to congratulate him on his recovery to health.