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 Sir Kingsley Wood Sir Kingsley Wood , Woolwich West 12:00 am, 7th March 1940

Therefore, I hope hon. Members will leave the matter with the arrangements that have already been made between the Admiralty and the Air Ministry; not because those arrangements are necessarily perfect, but because we believe that in present circumstances they are the best that can be adopted, and we intend whenever we can to improve them. The advocacy of this particular policy has been linked up with criticisms in regard to the coastal attacks that have been made recently, and I should like to make two or three brief observations on those criticisms. One cannot discuss a matter of this kind in great detail, but as I stated in my opening speech—and I think no hon. Member has dissented from what I said—it is obvious that no air defence system can be an impenetrable barrier. I do not think that anyone, on reflecting on the position, could possibly expect the Royal Air Force to be able to attack and destroy every aircraft that came over or approached our coasts. That would be an impossible task to set to any force, however strong and numerous it might be. If that is the position in regard to attacks on this country, I hope the House will appreciate how much more difficult it is to intercept every tip-and-run raid delivered by the enemy in ones or twos on vessels off a coastline some 700 miles in length, with the aircraft taking every advantage of clouds and darkness. Just as the First Lord of the Admiralty said that he could not undertake that every attack made by the Germans on merchant shipping or the Fleet could be resisted, no more can anyone occupying my position give an undertaking of that kind with regard to attacks of the sort to which I have referred, and conditions are worse in the winter.

It should be said to the credit of the Royal Air Force that, notwithstanding the difficult conditions which I have indicated, they have brought down many aircraft, and many more have been driven off. We have also to remember that every day our fighter defences are increasing in efficiency. Therefore, I suggest to hon. Members who have perhaps been rather carried away by the topic in the Debate, to give a little thought to the problem which faces the Royal Air Force, just as it faces the Navy, at the present time, and not to say if one of these attacks get through, "Was it the Navy or the Air Force that was responsible for this?" We have to approach this as being a joint problem that faces the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force, which I believe we are endeavouring to combat with success. If you put yourself in the position of the enemy and survey the results of the operations of the first six months of war, I at any rate would not feel that from their point of view it has been particularly successful.

I have had a very large number of points put to me in the course of the Debate, and I was, and I am, prepared to give a reply to each one of them, but I do not think I should be right in trespassing again too long on the House. The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland asked me whether all the plans were ready and prepared in the event of it being decided that the bombing force of this country should undertake operations against military objectives. I can give the hon. Member and the House an unqualified assurance in that respect. The personnel of the Royal Air Force are not concerned with matters of strategy and policy. They obey orders, and they would be only too willing to undertake any duty with which they were entrusted by the Government and the country. There will be no holding-back on their part. The question was put to me whether in the comparison I made between ourselves, France and Germany I had had regard to the quality and the type of our machines. Certainly I have had regard to that.

Another question was whether we were in possession of a long-range fighter. I think my best answer is that, as I have already stated in this House, there are a number of new and more powerful types of aircraft now in production. For obvious reasons, I cannot go into details of those types. I think all Members of the House will agree on the question of quality. Indeed the lessons of these first six months of the war have been that we have no reason to be ashamed of the policy we have adopted of insisting always on quality in British aircraft. I remember the days when I used to hear criticisms about the number of modifications made in machines and of the considerable time that it took before they could actually come into production. It seems to me, in the light of events of the last six months, that that policy of insisting on the very best quality in our aircraft has justified itself again and again. I can assure the House, as far as that particular policy is concerned, that we intend to pursue it.

On the question of the number of types, it is and will continue to be our policy to reduce the number, although we do not want to sacrifice the advantage of having a number of new types coming into production, because you always want to give the enemy credit for embarking upon new types too. It may well be that if this war continues for a long period there will be very different types in operation, both fighters and bombers, from those of today. Although we want to go in for standardisation and to reduce the number of types, we cannot afford to sacrifice the development of new types.

The hon. Baronet the Member for Berwick-on-Tweed (Sir H. Seely) put a number of points to me. I welcome his intervention and the constructive speech he made. He mentioned a number of points about the Training Command, which I regard as important. I will carefully examine all the suggestions he made, for I am always anxious, if it is possible, to make improvements. I wish I could say more about civil aviation. I have been very disappointed that the war has meant such a blow to the plans which we had made so carefully during the last few months before war broke out. It has been a tremendous disappointment to me and to members of my Department, but, anxious as I am about what the position may be at the end of the war, I do feel that it is my duty to put first things first and to put every ounce that we can into our military effort. After all, everything depends upon that, for if that goes civil aviation and everything else goes too. I can assure my hon. Friends that I shall have regard to all they have said, but with the responsibility that rests on me to-day I cannot take any course but that which is directed to winning the war in the quickest possible time. I hope that hon. Members will forgive me if I do not give any more detailed answers to their questions, but I will gladly reply to them or see hon. Members about them. I thank the House for the response they have given to our Estimates.