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 Oliver Simmonds Mr Oliver Simmonds , Birmingham Duddeston 12:00 am, 7th March 1940

A little while ago we witnessed an interesting naval occasion when the hon. and gallant Member for North Portsmouth (Sir R. Keyes) floated into the House, delivered his broadside against my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Air, and very soon floated out again. I do not want to take up a great deal of time on this subject, but I would not like it to pass that those of us who have tried to understand and to look at the problem of the Admiralty with a sympathetic eye should be thought to approve what the gallant Admiral said. I recollect a certain dictator who was going to be satisfied if he absorbed a certain little country. When he got it he wanted another, and even a third was not enough for him. I am satisfied that, although it might not be the view of the Board of Admiralty, many gallant admirals would like to treat the Royal Air Force in the same way. I would like to say en passantthat when my hon. and gallant Friend thinks that it is monstrous that the Admiralty should not have the Coastal Command aircraft, which are, at any rate, stationed ashore, and finds it seriously detrimental to the Service, what about the position of the Air Force being responsible for the defence of the coast if these naval aircraft were to take off over the coast every time they went to engage in air action? The Navy has been given full and fair consideration for its claims in connection with the Naval Air Arm, and those who look at this matter dispassionately and are not connected with one Service or another will feel that for the period of the war, at any rate, this discussion might be put into cold storage.

With regard to the speech of my right hon. Friend, as the hon. Member for Berwick-on-Tweed (Sir H. Seely) said, we can congratulate him that he is once again placing these Estimates before the House. I am satisfied that if he will take all the good advice that has been given him this afternoon he stands a good chance of being able to present them in 1941. He comes to us in a dual rôle. He is, in the first instance, the Secretary for military aviation, and, in the second, Minister for civil air communications. If I do not wax enthusiastic about the role he has fulfilled with regard to civil air communications, that does not blind me to the fact, which I think will be readily accepted in the House and the country, that while we leave in his hands the responsibility for military aviation he continues to have our confidence. When we say that we say a great deal, because he has been in charge of a Service which has been growing at a vast rate and which has acquitted itself well and gallantly in the face of the enemy. I think, also, that the House would not like to forget the practical service which has been rendered to my right hon. Friend by the Under-Secretary. Both in the east and in the west he has been flying in fulfilment of his duties, and I can well understand the great value it has been to the Secretary of State to have by his side a man who has interested himself in the flying and the engineering side of aircraft.

Several hon. Members have referred to the special functions of the Royal Air Force and the way in which it has been distinguishing itself, but I should like to emphasise the work of the Coastal Command. We do not realise how these men have been flying during the war many millions of miles on land planes, going hundreds of miles from our coast in the bitterest weather this winter. No praise is too high for the way in which they have carried on in the face of these meteorological difficulties. A great deal cannot be said on the Floor of the House about production, yet it is obviously a matter which greatly interests the House and the country. When I am anxious to measure whether a man has fulfilled his obligations, I feel it is convenient to look back and see what he promised. My right hon. Friend, speaking in the House in March, 1939, used these words: In November last…I said that by May of next year the output would show a 400 per cent. increase over May, 1938, and I am very hopeful that this fourfold increase will in fact be achieved by the end of the present year."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 9th March, 1939; col. 2393, Vol. 344.] I have many opportunities of gauging what the aircraft production of this country is, and I believe that the Air Ministry did more than reach the four-fold production by the end of 1939 which my right hon. Friend promised. I also believe with him that the Allies' production is greater than that of Germany. In regard to the inquiry of the hon. Member for Berwick-on-Tweed, I would say that, according to my information, the increase in production to a figure greater than that of Germany represents an increase in effective air striking power. It would not be fair to say that we are building a vastly greater proportion of training machines and other types, so that, although our numbers might be greater, our air striking power would be less. He suggested that he would not like it to be felt that, although our efforts with France were greater than those of Germany, we were relying on France to drag us along to this satisfactory position. I have the honour to be a member of the French aircraft industry and I can say that nobody in France would ever suggest that this country was doing less than its full part in the aircraft production programme of the Allies.

I hear from time to time that there is disquiet in the minds of certain hon. Members about our aircraft production, and I have tried to analyse that feeling. Although one cannot say on the Floor of the House all that one might wish, I can say two things which I think hon. Members will understand. The first is that when we hear that there are certain delays and a certain lack of production compared with what had been anticipated, we only see a small portion of the whole production picture. I went to a large aircraft factory not long ago and was told that at the time they were lacking a substantial percentage of the material which they thought they ought to have. I went into the matter and found that, although that particular company was enthusiastic about the type of aircraft which they were about to produce, the fact remained that the Air Staff had given to that aircraft a relatively low priority in the production programme. It is obvious that manufacturers who are making aircraft of No. 1, 2 or 3 priority must, when there is any shortage of raw material, get that material in preference to the company whose priority is ninth or tenth.

If hon. Members hear that there is a serious hold-up from time to time, as there must be, in the production programme at some given works, that does not represent what is going on all over the country; it represents what is happening, and will always happen, in a factory which at the time is on a low priority in the programme. The fact that aircraft are becoming more and more complicated every day has been emphasised in these Debates each year. A modern aircraft draws its supplies from hundreds of different sources, so specialised are the different component parts, and it is inevitable that there should be some fall off here and some increase in production there. This tends to throw out the general production programme. I believe that my right hon. Friend has delivered the goods in that he has done what he said he would do by the end of 1939.