We in the Air Ministry have much at stake in the defence of aerodromes, and I have therefore every reason to be grateful to hon. Members who have taken a keen interest in the subject and who have more than once emphasised its importance in the course of our Debates. So, too, I am glad of this opportunity to explain the changes which have recently been made in the organisation of aerodrome defence. My hon. Friend the Member for North Aberdeen (Mr. Garro Jones) expects no more than a dreary rehash of more brilliant speeches which have been made in another place. Nevertheless, I think the House would expect the Minister who is responsible to it for the defence of our aerodromes himself to explain what those changes are. It would be idle to suppose that this subject has been neglected either in the Air Ministry or in the councils of the Government. Probably few hon. Members realise how far we have already travelled from the extraordinary, and even alarming, low standard of aerodrome defence which existed in this country after the battle of France.
The ground defence of aerodromes, as of all defended localities, has always been, and must from the nature of the problem be, the responsibility of the Army. But after the Battle of France and the return of the Army, disorganised and without its equipment, from Dunkirk, it was in no condition to fulfil this responsibility. It had few officers with recent war experience to spare for defence duties. They were all required to rebuild the Army. When I visited Royal Air Force stations in June, 1940, I used to find that only a small proportion of our Royal Air Force men were armed. Weapons and equipment of all kinds were lacking. The help which the Army could then give us consisted mainly of the loan of companies of the Home Defence battalions. Perhaps the most alarming weakness of all, however, was the almost complete lack of liaison between the Army area commander and the Royal Air Force station commander. I used to find instances of Army brigadiers visiting Royal Air Force stations and not even calling upon the station commanders. On the other hand, I sometimes found that the station commander had not, in the midst of his other duties, discovered the whereabouts of the military commander or of the nearest troops from whom he could obtain support in the event of attack.
It seemed to me, therefore, that we should have to help ourselves and do something to relieve the Army of the burden of aerodrome defence in the very difficult time, the labour of rebirth, through which it was passing. Accordingly, in June, 1940, I set up in the Air Ministry a Directorate of Ground Defence to study the problem of aerodrome defence and to raise and to train flights and squadrons of men specially enlisted for that service. At the same time, the importance of liaison with the Army was impressed upon all Royal Air Force commanders. All Royal Air Force station commanders are now in regular intercourse with the military commanders, in their districts and combined exercises are held with local Army formations. Later on, as the resources of the Army grew and as its strength revived, the military authorities increased their help to us. Young soldier companies succeeded the old soldiers on those aerodromes on which the Army continued to supply the hard core of the garrison. Younger officers were lent to us as defence officers, and the supply of weapons was increased. It would be a great mistake to suppose that if invasion had been attempted last autumn our important aerodromes would not have been formidably defended. Nevertheless, we were far from satisfied. The organisation of aerodrome defence had grown up and improvements had been made step by step under the pressure of adverse circumstances. Shortages of experienced officers and non-commissioned officers and of improved weapons were no longer so acute, and we set about to study the problem afresh and to decide upon the organisation likely to make the best use of our increased resources.
The primary function of Royal Air Force stations is obviously to serve as the basis for air operations, apart from those which are used for the not less important function of training. The first attack upon any aerodrome in this country is bound to come from the air, either in the form of high-level bombing or dive-bombing or parachute or glider attack. In the opening phases of this attack, therefore, it is vital that the operational responsibility of the Commander-in-Chief Fighter Command for the whole air defence of this country by means of fighter aircraft, antiaircraft guns, searchlights and balloons, and the chain of responsibility from the Commander-in-Chief through the group commanders to the station commanders, should remain unimpaired. In the autumn of 1940 that was our first and, as it proved to be, our impregnable line of defence. Hardly less important is it that the Commanders-in-Chief Bomber and Coastal Command, which will be counter-attacking the invading forces, should also have their chain of responsibility unbroken, down to the station commander. On the other hand, if and when a land attack develops against an aerodrome, that aerodrome becomes a defended locality inside the area for which the Army commander is responsible. Therefore, the ultimate decision on the strength of aerodrome garrisons and on the methods and policy of defence against a land attack must rest with the War Office and the Commander-in-Chief Home Forces, who must satisfy himself that the garrison is fit to perform its important duties.
The question then arises, and has been carefully considered, whether the army should not be responsible for raising, organising, administering and training the garrison troops. Here let me say that it would be an utter delusion to suppose that the solution of this difficult problem has been hindered or at all affected by the inter-Service jealousies which have been alleged in some quarters to exist. On the contrary, there has been the closest co-operation, and there is complete agreement between Army and Air officers, and between my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War and the Army Council on the one hand and myself and the Air Council on the other hand. Our object has been to banish divided responsibility for ground defence from our aerodromes. At the present time, an aerodrome may be partly defended by Army troops for whom the Royal Air Force commanders have no responsibility and partly by Royal Air Force groups for whom the Army commander has no responsibility. That practice we are going to stop.
The great bulk of the garrison on any Royal Air Force station must inevitably belong to the Royal Air Force, for the bulk of the garrison consists of the ground crews, maintenance staffs and squadrons of the station headquarters which are using the aerodrome. These men are trained to shoot, to throw grenades and to use the bayonet and other handy weapons. In addition, there are the machine-gunners of the Royal Air Force; a force that has long been a part of the Royal Air Force. Besides these forces, we require a hard core of specialised troops, a force small in number compared with the total number of fighting men on the station, but highly trained, and equipped with a variety of special weapons. If the Army were to raise, train and organise this comparatively small force, divided responsibility on the station for the ground defence of the aerodrome would remain. The formation of the Royal Air Force Regiment, on the other hand, will ensure that all the defenders of an aerodrome will belong to one Service, and it will bring into operation a direct chain of responsibility from the Air Council, through the Royal Air Force command and group, down to the station commander, for the efficiency of the garrison on any Royal Air Force station. It will be our duty, in regard to the Army, to satisfy the requirements of the Commander-in-Chief Home Forces and of his subordinate commanders, from whom the operational responsibility f)r the ground defence of their areas cannot be divorced.
The close working together of Army and Royal Air Force will be ensured, in the first place by the appointment of an Army officer, General Liardet, whose work as Inspector-General has made him thoroughly familiar with the problem. As Director-General of Ground Defence at the Air Ministry and the Commandant of the Regiment, he will formulate the policy and tactical doctrine of aerodrome defence on lines laid down by the War Office and the Commander-in-Chief Home Forces. In accordance with that tactical doctrine, he will formulate the policy which will govern the training, arming and equipping of the Royal Air Force Regiment which will form the hard core of defence and also of the backers-up. He will work in co-operation with the War Office, the Admiralty and the Ministry of Aircraft Production and also with the Air Staff, particularly on developing existing, and devising new, ground defence weapons. He will have no operational control of the Royal Air Force Regiment in battle, but, as its senior officer, he will be accorded the title of Commandant, and as such he will make himself responsible for the inspection of the Regiment and will satisfy himself as to its efficiency.
In the second place there will be officers lent by the Army on the staffs of the Commanders-in-Chief of all the Royal Air Force commands, and it will be their duty to advise the Commander-in-Chief on all matters connected with ground defence, and to keep in close touch with commanders and staffs of corresponding military formations. In the third place, there will be officers from headquarters on every group in the Royal Air Force commands, and they will advise their group commanders on all matters of ground defence and will keep them in touch with the Army area commanders. Accordingly, operational control, decisions on tactical policy and doctrine, and determination of the strength of aerodrome garrisons, rest with the Commander-in-Chief Home Forces. This control he exercises through his subordinate commanders, and the Army commander of every area will have the right to satisfy himself that the garrison in every aerodrome in his area is up to the prescribed mark in training and equipment. Actual command of the units of the Royal Air Force Regiment on the stations will be held largely by young Army officers of the rank of lieutenant-colonel or major, and they will be lent for the purpose by the War Office until such time as the Royal Air Force Regiment itself produces officers fully trained and capable of taking over command.
The House will observe that the new scheme leaves unaltered the main principle of aerodrome defence, that the responsibility for ground defence of the aerodromes, as of all other defended localities, rests upon the Army. The main task of the Army is not defence but is to organise, from its strictly limited man-power resources, the strongest possible striking force for offensive operations on the Continent. The Royal Air Force is therefore glad that, by forming the new Royal Air Force Regiment, they can relieve the Army, to a clearly defined extent, of an onerous but vitally important burden. Let me now mention one or two of the principal changes which the new system will make.
In the first place, the garrison of every aerodrome will be homogeneous. The hard core—the machine gunners and the backers-up—will all be Royal Air Force men. They will work and fight in khaki, but for ceremonial parades and for walking-out they will wear Air Force blue. In the second place, our aerodromes will no longer have garrisons of young soldiers, for whose services in the past we are grateful, but whose natural disposition is to regard the static role of garrison defence as irksome and temporary, and to long to get away to duty in field divisions. Nor will they be troops that can be whisked away by the Army commander to take part in a battle at a from the aerodrome. Our machine gunners and our specially- enlisted men who are volunteers take a pride in the vital service which they are rendering to the Royal Air Force; they are keenly interested in their defence duties, they are specialists in this kind of warfare, and are proud of it. We believe that their spirit of loyal service to the Royal Air Force will continue to animate the Royal Air Force Regiment.
In the third place, although, as I have stated already, liaison has in fact been established between the Army area commanders and the Royal Air Force stations, it has not always worked smoothly and well. The Royal Air Force station commanders sometimes complained that the Army area commander came round and directed the carrying-out of certain defence works and that, perhaps before or soon after they were completed, a new area commander succeeded the old one.
May I interrupt the right hon. Gentleman to ask a question? Are the appointments of station commanders in the Royal Air Force static appointments, or is it true to say, in some instances, that a station commander is in fact the commander of the Air Force formation occupying the aerodrome at the time, and liable to be transferred to another station under circumstances outside his own control?
I do not think I expressed myself very clearly. I want to know whether the station commander of a Royal Air Force aerodrome is a static appointment, that is to say, does he remain station commander irrespective of the Air Force formation which is occupying the aerodrome at the time?
Certainly. He is in charge of the station and of the units which may be stationed there. I am obliged to my hon. and gallant Friend for giving me the opportunity to make that clear.
But surely the station commander is liable, as my right hon. Friend knows, to be moved from the command of one station to that of another. It is not therefore a static appointment in the way intended by my hon. and gallant Friend.
As I said in my first answer to my hon. and gallant Friend below the Gangway, like every officer in the Army, the Navy or the Air Force, a station commander may be transferred, but I want to make it quite clear that whatever Royal Air Force formations may be moved on or off that station, the station commander remains.
As I was saying, it used to happen that the Royal Air Force commander would find that an Army area commander would lay down certain lines on which that station was to be defended. He would do the work which was required, and perhaps before or soon after it was completed the Army commander would be succeeded by another, and the work would have to be scrapped, the defence being planned on new lines. On the other hand, the Army area commander sometimes complained that he could not get the Royal Air Force commanders to carry out his instructions, and if he failed to do so he had no direct remedy. All he could do was to report back to his own military superiors. Under the new system, the military area commander would have the right of direct access to the group commander, either personally or through his staff or through the defence officer on the group commander's staff. Under the system existing hitherto, the Air Force group commander has had no responsibility for the ground defences of his own air bases. I know of one case in which an Air Force group commander took an interest in the ground defences of his stations and, being dissatisfied, wrote to the Army commander to draw attention to it. He was told by the Army commander that it was his, the military commander's, business to look after the defences of his stations. The Royal Air Force group commander will now have a direct responsibility for the defence of his stations.
He would have no direct relationship with the Commander-in-Chief. His direct relationship would be to the military commanders commanding those areas in which stations are situated, and he would also have a responsibility to his own commander.
If there should be a difference of opinion, with whom would the final decision rest? Would it be with the Commander-in-Chief Home Forces, who is responsible for the defence of the country, or with the Air Force?
The final decision on matters of ground defence would rest with the Commander-in-Chief Home Forces. We are acting as his agents, and it is he who lays down the exact tactical dispositions.
I said that one of the important features of this scheme is that the garrisons will be homogeneous. They will all be in one Service. All the garrisons on a Royal Air Force station will now be Royal Air Force men. There will be the Royal Air Force machine gunners, there will be this hard core who will be provided by the Royal Air Force Regiment, and the great bulk of the garrison will be the ground staff and the maintenance personnel of the squadron and station headquarters whom we describe under the generic term of "backers-up."
It is vital that the antiaircraft defences should remain under the unimpaired responsibility of the Commander-in-Chief Fighter Command. It is he who must control the anti-aircraft guns, the balloon barrage, the searchlights and the fighter squadrons. He must have all those under his undivided control to meet the first impact of any attempted invasion, which must begin from the air, and he must retain that unimpaired strength of defence in the air which, in the autumn of 1940 under the conditions which then existed, proved to be impregnable.
I can readily explain that to my hon. Friend. They are manned and administered by the Army, but they are under the complete operational control of the Commander-in-Chief Fighter Command, and the control of all those forces—guns, searchlights, balloons and fighter squadrons—is indispensable to that Commander-in-Chief in the area of Great Britain.
In this particular instance of anti-aircraft defence, that is under Fighter Command, as we know. That means to say that in the event of an enemy attempt on the aerodrome by air, as long as the enemy aircraft have not touched down, the responsibility is that of Fighter Command, but as soon as the enemy has touched down on the aerodrome that responsibility is transferred to the military, and the guns which have been under the operation of Fighter Command will have to transfer their allegiance to the military authorities?
The responsibility and control are clear. They are under Fighter Command, and they will receive their orders from Fighter Command, and at a certain time, Fighter Command, knowing that an aerodrome is under heavy attack, will tell that battery of guns there that they will, from that time, take their orders from the Army commander.
It is not for me to attempt to command those guns in action or to lay down exactly what time that takes place. We leave that to our very experienced commanders, making it quite clear where responsibility is and where control lies. The control of anti-aircraft guns must lie with the Commander-in-Chief Fighter Command. Certainly there will be conferences and consultations about this, but at a certain time, in his discretion, the control of these guns will be handed over to the local Army commander. Under the system existing hitherto the Air Force group commander has had no responsibility for the ground defence of his own air bases. Now, however, he will have the responsibility of ensuring that his station commanders meet the requirements of the military commanders concerned and carry out the policy laid down by the Com- mander-in-Chief Home Forces. He will be able, moreover, to reassure himself that the defences of his air bases are as good as they can be made. In the event of larger questions of policy arising the Commanders-in-Chief of Army districts will have the same means of access to Royal Air Force commanders, and the Commander-in-Chief Home Forces will be in close touch with the Director-General of Ground Defence at the Air Ministry. In this way Army and Air Force commanders will be working closely together at every level of command.
Where Home Guard are allocated to duty with aerodrome defence the answer is, "Certainly." In some cases, particularly where aerodromes serve Ministry of Aircraft Production factories, we are in close touch with the factory Home Guard. But, of course, the Home Guard are an Army formed to deal with invasion. Their work will probably be rather on the outskirts than inside the aerodromes. Therefore, they will be brought into the defence rather by the Army than by the Royal Air Force.
The House will expect me to say something not only about defence but also about security, the policing of our aerodromes, and my hon. Friend the Member for North Aberdeen (Mr. Garro Jones) gave notice in the House yesterday that he intended to raise the question in the course of this Debate. I hope that he will not think it discourteous of me if I forestall him, because really I do not think there can be ground for a quarrel over this matter. We both want the same thing. Indeed, I am not altogether without hope that I may be able to persuade him that there is very little ground even for a difference of opinion. Let me begin by giving the House the assurance that we are quite alive to the risk of sabotage, but I must ask hon. Gentlemen to allow me to draw a distinction between an act of trespass and deliberate sabotage on a dangerous scale. No act of sabotage has yet, in fact, been committed on aerodromes of the Royal Air Force since the beginning of the war. Sabotage on a dangerous scale is not a field for private enterprise; it would be highly organised. We know the risk. The Government have measured it, and I believe that our counter-measures are adequate and will, if the need arises, prove to be efficient.
On the other hand, I do not at all disclaim my responsibility for doing everything possible to prevent mischievous trespass and guarding against possible isolated acts of sabotage. In taking these measures, however, I must have due regard for economy of man-power, and also to other more urgent risks against which I have to guard. The easy way to guard against sabotage or mischievous trespass would be to collect all the aircraft into the hangars, where they would be easily and economically guarded. In these hangars, however, they would be exposed to the much more deadly risk of destruction by bombing. Certain episodes in this war, some of them not remote in time, will have brought home to hon. Members how disastrous the result of this policy might easily prove to be. At one period during last year two or three of our aerodromes were being attacked every day and night, and the efficiency of our fighter defences must not hide from our minds the reality that though the German air forces in the West have been, in the last few months, greatly reduced, there are at this moment, and have been for weeks past, large numbers of German bombers within striking distance of this country. That is the risk against which our ground troops must be constantly on the alert, and must rank before the risk of mischievous trespass and isolated cases of sabotage. So at a single bomber aerodrome we may have our aircraft dispersed over an area twice as large as Hyde Park. To watch this area so efficiently as to prevent any mischievous act of sabotage would occupy the whole efforts of our aerodrome garrisons; indeed, they would have to be greatly strengthened. It must be remembered that our aerodromes number many hundreds.
The House must remember that we are actually fighting the war from the stations of the Royal Air Force. Day and night, our air crews and ground staffs are fighting and working. In addition, we throw upon them the necessity of preparing themselves for the defence of their aerodromes against ground attack. At this stage, therefore, I say frankly, it would be a blunder to take men off fighting duties, off the protection of our aero- dromes from bombing attack, and off preparations and training for defence, in order to increase our anti-sabotage guards. Nevertheless, it certainly remains true that we must take precautions against sabotage and trespass. But such precautions are taken. I accept responsibility to this House for their efficiency within the limits I have described. If instances come to the notice of hon. Members in which it seems to them that these precautions are inadequate, I hope they will inform me at once, and I will promptly investigate their complaints. On the other hand, I ask hon. Members not to press for too great a diversion of man-power to meet a risk which must not be ignored, but which must be measured in relation to other risks which we are facing in this very dangerous war.
Let me only add this—that the new scheme of defence has been threshed out by officers of the Army a id of the Royal Air Force, in consultation with those of the Royal Navy, too—for they have some aerodromes to be defended—and it has received the close study and approval of the Chiefs of Staff and of the Defence Committee of the War Cabinet. It defines the responsibilities clearly and sharply. It offers to the Army and to the Royal Air Force the opportunity of demonstrating afresh that the two Services can work closely and effectively together, and from my conversations with the Secretary of State for War and the Commander-in-Chief Home Forces, I have not the slightest shred of doubt that we shall work with nothing but good will on both sides and with a common determination to bring our aerodrome defences to the highest possible pitch of efficiency. Our main share in this business is the creation of the Royal Air Force Regiment and the arming, organising and training of the technical tradesmen to take their, full part in defence. I commend the Regiment to the generous interest and good will of Parliament. I believe it will enable us to establish on our aerodromes a force which will be second to none of its size in toughness, offensive spirit, mobility, and hitting power.
May I say at once that I welcome most sincerely the decision of the Government to hold part of this Debate in secret, because it so happens that the House is fortunate in having amongst its Members a number of hon. Gentlemen who are actually employed on this very task at this very time, and who are in a position to tell the Government the result of their experiences and the impressions that have been made upon their minds. I am confident that if their views are put forward in Secret Session—obviously, it would not be in the national interest for them to be put forward in public—they will be of great assistance to the Government in this very difficult and important task. I would like, first, to get one or two facts clear in my own mind. As I understand it, the function of the Air Force in any attempted invasion of this country is, in the first place, to bomb the enemy at their bases before they take off, to fight them in the air on their way over, and to fight them in the air during their attempt to land either paratroops or airborne troops through crash landings. The function of the Army in Great Britain is that of general land defence. As far as the Air Force is concerned in relation to this problem, the Government's scheme assumes—and rightly, if I may say so—our defence in the air having been broken through and an attempt being imminent, after the bombing of the aerodromes, to land paratroops in the vicinity, and, eventually, to land a large number of heavily-armed troops by crash landings. That is the simple premise on which I intend to examine the proposals of the Government. I think my right hon. Friend would not disagree with that argument.
I listened very carefully to his speech, and I have read with the same care the statement made in the House by the Lord Privy Seal on 8th January, and the Debate which took place a few days ago in another place. I cannot agree with my right hon. Friend that the responsibility as between the Army and the Air Force to-day, as a result of these new proposals, is clear-cut and defined. Unless I am particularly stupid, there exist many doubts as to where that division of responsibility takes place and the time at which it takes place. I do not propose to deal with the question of policing of aerodromes. That is a problem of its own. All I would say on that, is that if half of the incidents which have been reported are true it suggests a most lamentable lack of imagination and organisation on someone's part—but I am going to leave that problem to other Members who have knowledge of it from practical experience. Not only small boys and enemy prisoners who have escaped have had access to our aerodromes, but certain hon. Members of this House, of both sexes, have had such access, and we shall look forward to the speeches which they may make.
The Government, quite unnecessarily, in my view, propose to raise an entirely new force, administered, controlled, and I think I am right in saying, trained, under the aegis of the Air Council, as against the Army Council. When the actual operation takes place, the responsibility is transferred from the Air Council to the Army Council.
Perhaps I have not put the point as clearly as I should have done. What I meant was that the Air Council, through its various officers, are going to be responsible for training men in a system of defence which, when the attack starts, is to be operated not by the men responsible for the training or by the Air Council, but by the Army.
I see exactly what is in the mind of my right hon. Friend, but, in the scheme as announced by the Lord Privy Seal, the word "indicated" is used on more than one occasion. I wonder why that word is used, because that is an indefinite word.
To indicate to someone what you would like to be done is not a definite order. My right hon. Friend at a later stage will perhaps assure the House whether, in fact, the whole scheme of training is to be specifically laid down and ordered by the Army authority through its agent, which is the Air Force in this connection, and whether that agent is prepared to carry out those orders strictly in the letter and the spirit irrespective of whatever views they may have of the local situa- tion in the area. That is the doubt which exists in my mind, and I honestly feel that if, as a result of that doubt, which must exist in the minds of people who have to operate the scheme, you have a misunderstanding, it will be vital to the success of the defence of the aerodrome which is being attacked. But in addition you are going to set up a new force entirely. You are going to set up the Royal Air Force Regiment where, in administrative and executive control, you propose to ignore entirely the vast organisation of the Army which has been created for this particular purpose—the Adjutant-General's branch, the Quarter-Master's branch responsible, for casualties, reinforcements, discipline, food, clothing and so forth—and to set up a new organisation to deal with these very things. You cannot have an organisation of that kind without employing personnel.
Therefore one thing that I wish to suggest at the outset is that by the creation of this new Force, which in my view is completely unnecessary, you are also creating an administrative machine and multiplying the difficulties and using manpower, which, after all, has to come from the common reservoir and can be used to better purpose in other services. In order to carry out this administrative and executive control you have appointed a commandant, an Army officer who for many months past has occupied the important position of Inspector-General of Aerodrome Defence at the War Office. You have 'appointed him at an age when you thought it was necessary to retire the late Chief of the Imperial General Staff on that account alone. I hope that my right hon. Friend will correct me if I am wrong, because I am not in the slightest degree anxious to do this officer any injustice, but he has been responsible in the past for a scheme, which, by the very introduction of the new proposals, has been condemned by His Majesty's Government. You have appointed as his second-in-command an air commodore who for a similar period has occupied the position at the Air Ministry of Director-General of Ground Defence and who, therefore, has borne his share of responsibility for the same scheme which has proved to be unworkable and unworthy of the task which he would be called upon to perform in the future. I must say honestly that my right hon. Friend did not satisfy me at all in his explanation of these appointments. If it is necessary to make these appointments I would like to see him employ a vigorously-minded young man who has had practical experience of conditions in the present war, not in the late war only. I think it is true to say that the new Commandant has not had any active experience since the days of the last war, and he is now 60 years of age. If it is necessary to appoint such a man at all then select the man who has had practical experience, the practical experience which has been such a severe and a dear lesson to us in many parts of the world outside Great Britain.
I pass from that point to the question of the position of the station commander, because still I am a little hazy and uncertain in my mind as to where his responsibility starts and where it ends. I was glad to have the assurance of the Minister that the appointment of the station commander is in fact a static appointment, meaning that, whether it is a squadron of bombers, a squadron of fighters or other formations occupying a certain aerodrome, the station commander remains there irrespective of the units of the Air Force using the aerodrome. Nevertheless, under the new scheme—and this is confirmed by a speech made by the Joint Under-Secretary in another place—he is in supreme command. He may or may not know anything at all about ground defence or the military tactics which must be employed to deal with a situation of that kind. He may be a first-class airman, with decorations on his tunic which he has gallantly earned and richly deserved, but to put him into a field with which he is unacquainted to deal with a vital problem which might easily win or lose us the war, is an unfair thing to do, and, in my view, totally unnecessary.
The station commander is, in supreme command. My right hon. Friend suggested to the House to-day that at the crucial moment not very clearly defined, that is, when the enemy are actually on the ground and not in the air, the responsibility is going to pass from the station commander, through the local commanding Officer of the R.A.F. Regiment, to the local area commander of the military forces. Aerodromes are not all likely to be attacked in similar circum- stances. It might well be that an aerodrome is in the line of attack of a large enemy force which has been seaborne at the same time as the airborne troops have been landed in the vicinity. One realises that in these circumstances the general situation and disposition of the enemy and our own troops must be considered by the commander-in-chief in relation to his whole operational plan. In these circumstances the aerodrome would have to be evacuated together with other positions. But take the position of an aerodrome which is of vital importance to the enemy situated in an entirely different part of the country, the possession of which the enemy are determined to obtain, and that they are successful in landing a large force in the vicinity of that aerodrome. In those circumstances, it might well be that the aerodrome station commander is not in a position to be reinforced by the local mobile military column. That mobile column might be employed elsewhere. Therefore, the whole scheme of defence and of turning the aerodrome into a modern British Tobruk, a modern Home fortress, must, in the interests of the campaign, be conducted by the station commander and must hold out to the 59th minute of the 12th hour at all costs. He is solely responsible for the defence scheme which must be put into operation and maintained in these circumstances. Therefore, I would submit to my right hon. Friend that it is reasonable to suggest that the station commander concerned might not have had any military experience at all in dealing with such a situation but nevertheless he would be in command of a key position which must be held at all costs because in these circumstances there is no question of retreat; there is no question of evacuation. These men have to stay there and maintain their position as long as possible.
I want to say a word, if I may, about "backers-up," because this is a very important point. The House will appreciate what they are within the scheme outlined by the Minister. They form part of the static R.A.F. ground personnel of a station and under certain circumstances will be required to come to the aid of the Air Force Regiment under the new scheme or, if the situation has developed, to the aid of the military forces also employed on the same task and aid them in the ground defence of the aerodrome. Under the new scheme I understand only 50 per cent. of the personnel are to be supplied with rifles. I was very disturbed about this particular aspect of the situation as far back as June of last year. I asked my right hon. Friend a Question on the Floor of the House as to what elementary training these "backers-up" received in weapon training, not only so that they could take care of themselves, but so that they could be of real practical assistance when necessity arose. He told me that the training they received consisted of only 13 hours weapon training during their recruits course, and so far as I remember he seemed to be entirely satisfied with the training they were receiving. Well, from my modest practical experience with the B.E.F., that failed to satisfy me, particularly as I had read, two or three days previously, a letter in the "Times" written by a distinguished New Zealand officer calling attention to the conditions which obtained in Crete. When "backers-up," or ground personnel of the Air Forces at the aerodrome at Maleme and other places were called upon to support the military in their defensive operation it was found that nine out of every 10 of these men not only had never fired a rifle in their lives but had never held one.
Therefore, I hope that when my right hon. and gallant Friend the Under-Secretary replies to the Debate he will be in a position to reassure the House on that very vital and important point—that at least the vast majority of this ground personnel will receive adequate training which will enable them to be of assistance rather than an embarrassment at a time of need. There are one or two aspects of that particular situation which I do not think I can deal with in public Debate but which will, no doubt, be developed in secret Debate by other hon. Members.
In conclusion, may I be permitted to say that I still feel that this scheme is unnecessarily complicated? I honestly feel it is based on muddled thinking. One has only to read the scheme to realise where the compromise as between the Air Force and the Army has been made. If you approve the scheme you will probably get a demand from the Ministry of Aircraft Production to establish a new force, under an entirely new Ministry, to defend aircraft production factories.
I am delighted to hear that, but if you accede to the principle of establishing separate forces to defend separate enemy objectives, where will you end? Why not separate forces to defend the railway stations or gas-works? My submission is this: When an enemy attack comes on the land—it does not matter whether it is an aerodrome, an aircraft factory, a base supply depot, a petrol-filling station or a rail-head—it is the undivided duty of the Army and the general officer commanding to deploy forces to the best possible extent to defend those objectives. The scheme, as I understand it, is only an extension of the old scheme, which has been proved to be unsatisfactory. I speak subject to correction, but as the result of the manoeuvres which have recently taken place in this country a large number of aerodromes were captured by our forces, acting as the enemy, which should never have fallen into "enemy" hands at all, and on that score alone the scheme stands condemned. It is much better, I submit, to use the experience of the Army and their vast organisation which has been employed on this task since Dunkirk.
I do not suggest that the scheme has been perfect nor that the best soldiers to employ on this scheme are young soldiers' battalions. I deprecate that, because, good as they might be in certain circumstances, I do not think they possess those qualities of steadiness and experience which are required to carry out a job of this kind. The Army has been employed on this particular job for months. Why not recognise the weak spots, correct them and improve the situation? You have a common pool for man-power and the available materials. Use them to the best possible advantage. Organise your composite forces on your aerodromes with your tanks, guns and infantry. Use the organisation which is now in being, but do not, in the midst of a critical time, within a period of a few months of potential imminent invasion, change horses in the middle of the stream. Organisation of new forces, which must be trained by the Army in any case, and starting on a new road is, under the test of actual attack, liable to collapse.
I beg the Government to give the Army an opportunity to discharge the function and obligations for which they were designed.
It seems to me that a fundamental point about the problem we are discussing today is the fact that we have different organisations for the Army and Air Force—rightly so—and that so long as they continue to exist, as they must indefinitely, it is absolutely essential that at some point there should be interrelation between the two Services. The question, therefore, arises as to where that is to be. At the present time interrelation between the two Services takes place on the aerodrome. There is divided authority on the aerodrome itself, and I should have thought it was only a step in the right direction, and an improvement, to say that so far as aerodromes are concerned there is to be one authority alone in supreme control. That must be the Royal Air Force, and there must not be the divided control between the two that there has been up to the present time, with results that have not been any too satisfactory.
I do not see how you can get away from the situation in which we find ourselves when there are two different Services interlocking on the same particular stage. Then there is the point as to where you have a mixed arrangement, where the two Services are co-operating. For easily understandable reasons neither are able to give quite of their best because they do not regard it as their own show. They are inclined to say, "It belongs to the other fellow; let him make the best of it." They do not always get the best people, and it is not really the attractive career that it otherwise might be for the individuals who go into it. Therefore, I should have thought that the new arrangement was likely to be a distinct improvement from that point of view. At the same time there has been very considerable delay. We have been told by my right hon. Friend that he has not been satisfied for some time. The whole country has been dissatisfied, and it is certainly not premature to bring forward to-day proposals which, nevertheless, are full of all sorts of difficulties and problems. It will be uncertain for some time whether the scheme will work out as successfully as it is hoped.
Another thing that we have to accept is the absolute impossibility of defending adequately all the aerodromes in this country. To find a sufficient number of troops to defend all these aerodromes against all eventualities would be an impossible task. Therefore, we have to concentrate upon the defence of those which are of supreme importance. From what my right hon. Friend said, I understand that is what is to be done. The Regiment will be formed, first of all, at the vital aerodromes. There will be certain aerodromes where it will not operate to any very powerful extent at any time because there will not be the men available, and in the case of these aerodromes, in the event of invasion, we shall have to take our chance, relying upon the local help that can be obtained from the Army units that may be available. That being the case, we come to the real solution of the whole problem—that the proper defence of the aerodromes of this country depends upon supremacy in the air. As long as we have fighter control over the aerodromes and can drive the enemy from the skies, we can either protect our aerodromes from capture, or, if those that are not in the front rank for protection are captured, we can easily dispose of the enemy who has settled upon them.
I hope my right hon. Friend will give particular attention to the following danger. As we have seen from many examples, the enemy goes step by step, taking isolated spots, aerodromes in remote districts, possibly islands, and establishing himself upon them, and from these jumping-off grounds, he goes further and further, as has happened in Malaya and elsewhere. Among the aerodromes that must be defended at all costs under the new scheme are those which are very much out of touch with the rest of the population, for in those cases it might be difficult to bring in at very short notice the necessary support, either by land, sea, or air. I noticed that in the speech made by the Noble Lord in another place the other day, there were two statements showing the difficulties that will still exist. The Noble Lord said that the Army would decide when an aerodrome was to be evacuated, and he said that the station commander would decide when no more flying could take place from an aerodrome. From those two statements it is obvious that, unless there is the closest co-operation and good-will between the two Services, very serious things may happen. I want to stress the great importance of close personal contact between the officers of the Army and the Royal Air Force connected with any work on these aerodromes. These officers may be called upon, in the event of invasion, to act together; and they should get to know each other. That should apply not only to station commanders and the Royal Air Force Regiment officers, but to the Regular Army and the Home Guard, who have very important duties outside the aerodromes which they are preparing to defend at the present time. There should be contact between all of them. As to the Allied Armies in this country who have duties of the same kind, special attention should be given to the question of liaison, because obviously there are difficulties arising in their case which would not arise where English-speaking people only are concerned. I hope that matter will receive attention.
There is one point which has not been referred to in the Debate so far, and which is of great importance. Where are the men coming from for the Royal Air Force Regiment? I gather they are not to be taken from any units of the Army, and they are not to be men on the aerodromes at present. I gather they are to be directly recruited, and that they will be civilians from the ordinary intake who will be trained for the job. That will take a very long time. In the meantime, what is to be the position on the aerodromes? Will it remain precisely as it is at present, or do the Government intend to bring into operation, as far as the Army and the Air Force are concerned, the new arrangements for responsibility that have been placed before us? I should like to know definitely what is to be the position in the interim period. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for South Cardiff (Colonel Evans) referred to the position of the station commanders. As he said, some of them have a very fine fighting record, others have an admirable administrative record, but quite a number of them have had no experience whatever in the control of troops. I imagine that these men do not particularly relish the idea of suddenly being called upon to undertake work for which they have had no training. Is it proposed to give them any training? Are there to be special courses for station commanders and other officers on a station to fit them for the new duties that will fall upon them? I think it is not fair to them to expect them effectively to carry out these new duties unless they are given opportunities for specialised training.
I put forward these points because they are matters that are bound to occur to most people. I hope the scheme will succeed. I look upon it with all good will. However, I think we ought to make it clear that we cannot give the same kind of defence to all the aerodromes in this country. Let us make as perfect as possible the defence of those aerodromes that we regard as supremely vital, and let us rely for the ultimate defence of all aerodromes in this country upon the maintenance of that magnificent supremacy in the air which was shown to be ours in the days of the Battle of Britain.
I do not wish to detain the House for long, but there are one or two points to which I should like to refer and which I think may be ventilated, particularly as some of them have already been made public. This matter is bound up very much with the question of man-power. It is customary to ventilate complaints about the Army's misuse of man-power, but curiously enough one hears little about the misuse of man-power by the Air Force. On this question of man-power and defence of aerodromes we have to bear in mind that there is a very acute dividing line for personnel employed by the Air Force. On the one hand we have those in the fighter and bomber squadrons which are essentially fighting units. On the other hand we have in all Air Force stations a permanent staff, maybe of 100 or many hundreds of men, who have had no kind of military training and many of whom are employed on what are essentially civilian duties, or duties which are similar to civilian work, within the aerodrome. Quite a number of these men have got into these jobs knowing that they will not be called upon to do military work.
I wish to distinguish emphatically between the Royal Air Force and those of the ground force. Some years ago, when the Air Ministry were accused of over-recruiting a very large personnel who were never employed in flying duties, the Press invented an appropriate name for those engaged on work of this kind. They called them the Royal Ground Force, and it was not until that was, done that the scandal was put right. At the present time this question of the ground force ought to be taken in hand. It has a bearing on the question of man-power, and the matter should be checked up. Not only does this apply to the rank and file, but it applies also to a great many administrative officers. You will find in many Air Force stations perfectly able-bodied young lawyers and professional men masquerading in the uniform of this Fighting Service who have never been trained in any kind of fighting. Many of them have never held a rifle in their hands, let alone used one. All these men ought to be brought into this new arrangement and receive military training. They are working fewer hours than factory workers—for the most part between 40 to 44 hours a week. When these men are called upon to do between eight or 10 hours' military drill per week, every kind of excuse is invented by their immediate superiors. It is stated that they cannot be spared; quite likely that may be the case and they cannot be spared, but civilians who are working the same number of hours are expected to do drill in the Home Guard or undertake A.R.P. duties or similar work in their own time. There is no reason at all why ground personnel at these stations who are outside the actual squadrons should not do 10 hours' drill per week in addition to their 40 to 44 hours' work at the aerodrome.
As far as I have been able to ascertain, it would appear that the orders sent out by the staff at the Air Ministry never get past the station headquarters. These orders are extraordinarily good, but nothing happens after they reach certain stations, and in consequence they are unknown to the rank and file and administration officers to whom they apply. There is a variety of station officers, some of whom are fighting men and some of whom are administrative. Some of these officers know all about defence and are keen on it, but others merely obstruct the military assistance posted to them. To anyone who has studied this problem, it must be obvious that local defence commanders are placed in an impossible position, when given the responsibility of defending an area which may have a perimeter of between five and 20 miles, without being given some other officers or subordinate commanders to work with them. These "penguin" officers, as they are called, should be trained in military duties and should not have a rank implying flying duties. It is perfectly absurd that a man who is employed in sweeping out a hangar should be called an aircraft-man. If this question of the proper employment of personnel were taken in hand, a great deal of these doubts would disappear, because where there are over 100 men already on an aerodrome with ample time to do military training, you have a force available, provided it is trained and has officers who understand the essential part of their duties and can make the men fit and able to take part in defence.
I beg my right hon. and gallant Friend to take note of these facts. He will find, if a close scrutiny is made, that there is a wide variety of ways in which the orders of the Air Staff are being carried out, and that in some stations they are not being carried out at all and do not get past the station headquarters. This would not arise if a proper inspection took place. I urge that officers seconded from the Army, whether they be general officers of field rank or of lower rank, should be men who thoroughly understand infantry training, because this is essentially an infantry job and a question of military training for "penguins" of the ground force. If an inspectorate were properly constituted of men competent in elementary infantry training, the doubts and suspicions of many of us on this topic would rapidly evaporate, and we should not need to debate this subject again in the future.
It seems perfectly clear, from the various interruptions which were made when the Secretary of State made these proposals, as well as from a study of them which has been made in the Press and elsewhere, that they are not easy to understand, to put it no higher than that. It seems to me that we are in the presence of an aspect of our defence which, if unsuccessful, would be the one certain way in which we could lose this war. The Secretary of State and the other Ministers who have been concerned and have admitted responsibility in this sphere have been interrogated about this subject for the past 18 months, and until about 10 days ago the House merely received con- ventional assurances that everything was satisfactory. Only a few months ago the Prime Minister told the House that satisfactory arrangements had been made, but we now know that at that time satisfactory arrangements had not been made. If we examine the position as it was then, we find that old soldiers were defending aerodromes; we are now told that that has been changed and that young soldiers are defending aerodromes. There was a situation of divided responsibility right up the scale, and I wish to submit respectfully to the House that that too has not been changed by anything which has been done in the new proposals. The Secretary of State said that the officers of the Army and Air Force will work together at every stage of the command. What that really means is that there will be divided responsibility at every stage of command.
A further aspect of the matter with which I want to deal is that many of our aerodromes, six months, 12 months ago and to-day, have no defence at all other than half a dozen members of the Home Guard. I particularly refer to some of the very large civil aerodromes. It appears to be no one's business to pay any attention to them, although they might be made very important objectives by the enemy. A further point which has not been improved is the question of the dispersal of aircraft over the aerodrome. The Secretary of State said that, if assembled into the hangars, they could be easily destroyed by bomb attack. He suggested that they should be dispersed over a wide area of an aerodrome. If the Under-Secretary or the Minister cares to make an unheralded tour of the aerodromes of Britain, operational and non-operational, he will find in a great many of them a large number of aircraft not dispersed over the aerodrome, but assembled wing-tip to wing-tip within a few feet of each other, not in the centre of the aerodrome but within reach of a hand grenade.
It seems to me that when the right hon. Gentleman says he has taken every precaution against sabotage, we are in the realm of false reassurance. If there is one thing that is responsible for the plight in which we found ourselves a year ago, it is that continuous epoch of false reassurance which we received during 1937, 1938 and 1939, and indeed, later, and I feel inclined to make this comment, that although the Prime Minister would not knowingly stoop to mislead the House in these matters, the Prime Minister in office has not been completely delivered from the false reassurance which marked his own criticism during the years when he was in opposition.
I want to ask the House to look for a moment at the latest plans. We all agree that it is impossible to protect every inch of 500 aerodromes. No one has ever suggested that. They must be graded in the importance of defence. The real question that we have to look at is how far the new proposals will make the aerodromes as safe as they can be made in the double light of their importance and the forces that are available. I am very much afraid that the new system of defence will have two immediate defects. First, the Army will have a strong tendency only to second or lend second-rate officers for this job. Do not let us deceive ourselves on this point. Anyone who has had Service experience knows that, if there is suddenly to be a rake-off of officers from any units by volunteering or selection by the immediate commanding officer, it is almost universal for the commanding officer to take the opportunity of getting rid of unsatisfactory and unsuccessful officers. When we recognise that upon the shoulders on these officers will depend the defence of the very gates of our country, we must recognise that this practice exists and see that it is not allowed to go on.
A second matter is the question of equipment. When the Lord Privy Seal was announcing the proposals I asked who would decide on the allocation of mechanised equipment to the new Royal Air Force Regiment. He said the Chiefs of Staff. There again, the Chiefs of Staff and their representatives down the whole scale of command are going to have to allocate between the Army and the Royal Air Force. I cannot feel that these arrangements would operate successfully. The crucial aspect of the proposal is, how far divided responsibility is removed. It is fairly clear in the sphere of our general observation that divided command is still the curse of our military system. As regards Crete, Norway and Singapore, too, there was no effective Commander-in-Chief in the case of any
of those operations. In fact, the best that the Prime Minister could tell us in regard to Crete was that the Air Force Commander and the Army Commander lived in the same house, and, when challenged to say who had the final say, he gave us for answer some general piece of satire which the House enjoyed very much. The same applies to Singapore. No one can say to-day who is the Commander-in-Chief in Singapore. No one can say who had the authority to send or to refuse to send out the two battleships that were sunk. Is there any better arrangement of unified command to meet what; if successfully carried out against this country, would lose the war? I am going to read the proposals as announced by the Lord Privy Seal:
It has been decided that, while Army responsibility for ground defence as a whole must be maintained, the R.A F. shall, as the Army's agent and, under military direction, undertake the entire local defence arrangements at its aerodromes in this country. Major-General C. F. Liardet, who was until recently the Inspector of Aerodrome Defences, has been appointed Director-General, bet will not exercise operational control. The Commander-in-Chief, Home Forces, who is responsible, under the War Office, for the land defence of the British Isles, will decide the strength and location of the aerodrome garrisons provided by units of the 'Royal Air Force Regiment' and will indicate to the Air Ministry the nature of the tactical methods of defence he wishes to be adopted. He will also have the right to satisfy himself, through his representatives, that proper measures to implement general policy are being taken and are effective. At the same time, each R.A.F. Station Commander will, under the direction, and with the assistance of, his R.A.F. superiors, be responsible for the local defence of his station."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 8th January, 1942; col. 95, Vol. 377.]
That is what the Secretary of State for Air says defines sharply the zones of responsibility. I sincerely hope that the average standard of intelligence possessed by the station commanders and the Army officers who have to operate these proposals is considerably higher than my own. I have spent many hours and have had a considerable amount of experience as a regimental officer and an Air Force officer, and I am utterly unable to understand how this system can possibly operate and can even be understood in peace, let alone be operated clearly in the dire emergency and fog of war. I remember when the late Mr. Ramsay MacDonald once made a speech from that Box, Mr. Baldwin got
up and said that it had left the House in a state of "profound tenebrosity," and he was followed by Mr. Asquith, who said it had left the House in a state of "inspissated gloom." But even Mr. Ramsay MacDonald's speech was as nothing compared with the confusion of this arrangement. The Lord Privy Seal, whatever his defects are, is a master of lucid statements if it is possible to make a thing clear, and I challenge any officer in this House who studies these proposals to say that he can understand how they will operate.
I should have preferred in many ways to make the remarks I want to make in Secret Session, but I was so concerned when I heard the further elucidation of these points by the Secretary of State that I feel I must in the discharge of such public responsibility as I have as a private Member say what I have to say in public. I want hon. Members to try and project themselves into the mind of a station commander whose aerodrome is being attacked by the enemy. That, after all, is what we are discussing. A local attack on an aerodrome will have one of two objects. It will attack, presumably, either in order to occupy the aerodrome or in order to destroy its facilities for our use. Suppose the station commander decides that the object is the occupation of the aerodrome and comes to the conclusion that he cannot hold it. Has any plan been worked out for making an aerodrome temporarily unusable and are station commanders at each grade of aerodrome fully apprised of the circumstances in which they will be justified in ordering the destruction of the aerodrome facilities? We have about 500 aerodromes and certain of them obviously will be held at all costs and others must be denied to the enemy. Are the circumstances clearly described to the station commanders and is the responsibility for giving that order clearly placed? We have seen in other parts of the world that it has not been known upon whom that responsibility rests. One thing is perfectly certain: the attack on this country, if it comes, will be novel, multiple—that is, at many points—audacious and cunning. It may not come at all, but we can be certain that there will be no conventional attack made upon this country.
I want to make one or two deductions from the confusion that surrounds this immense problem. The main defence upon which we have relied seems to be zonal defence. We are told that we cannot be strong everywhere and that we cannot hold an aerodrome if the territory is surrounded by the enemy. With regard to the latter proposition, I would only make the comment that it does not appear to be accepted by our enemies. In Norway, France, Crete and Malaya they considered it quite a practical proposition to capture aerodromes which were surrounded by our defensive troops. Therefore, I hope it will not be regarded as a proposition that it is impossible to hold an aerodrome if it is surrounded by the enemy. I want to make constructive suggestions regarding the methods of defence. I know that we have to rely upon mobile forces, but I hope that in air warfare the Government does not regard as mobile an ordinary mechanised Army division. The whole tempo of air warfare has undergone a complete revolution. It is useless to say that the zone defence will be able to reach that aerodrome in a few hours or a few days. We are dealing with operations which will move in a tempo of minutes rather than hours. The decision is one which will have to be taken in 10, 20 or 30 minutes, and it is useless to have to call up a mechanised Army division from 20 or 30 miles away and take half a day or half a week in order to reach the scene of operations. Air warfare and air attack can only be mastered by air defence. The Germans have at least ten airborne divisions which will be able to move with a rapidity 50 times that of our ordinary mechanised divisions.
I suggest that we really must get mobile air units consisting of various arms and types of aircraft—troop carriers, light tank carriers, parachute carriers and even gliders—distributed all over the country in small units so that it can be said that not one of our vital aerodromes is more than 15 minutes reach of a strong counterattacking airborne force. Twenty of such units would give us assurance. If anything has been done to begin that, all our energies ought to be concentrated on pursuing it to the full strength of all the three Forces. Service jealousies ought not to be allowed to prevent the development of that Force under the command of the Army. The custom apparently is, if anyone has had associations with one of the Forces, to speak of the unanimity with which judgments are formed in favour of the Force to which one belonged. I hope that we shall get away from that type of mentality. Therefore, I make no dogmatic suggestions with regard to the Army, the Fleet Air Arm or the Air Force.
I come now to my last submission. I do not make any apology for making submissions in the sphere of strategy and tactics, because all the history of the relationship between politics and the Services in the last 20 years has shown that outside criticism and suggestion are not only necessary but absolutely essential in order to fertilise the Service mind. In saying that I do not mean to say anything in derogation of the men of the Services. I could give a list of 50 most vital developments in defensive weapons which have been stubbornly opposed by the Army or the Navy or the Royal Air Force, but which have eventually been successfully adopted. My last submission has regard to what I will call the ministerial function, in particular in the matter of inter-Service relations. As I understand it, and I think it is just as well to stress this matter, that function is to interrogate and to suggest, to appraise professional competence and professional failure, and to adjudicate between inter-Service rivalries and competitive claims. If that ministerial function were operating weakly it would be sufficient to explain many shortcomings before the war and since. It was certainly not very good in the years of German re-armament, during the time when the present Prime Minister was warning the House. I have good reason to believe that similar warnings were being sent up to the ministerial sphere in the Air Ministry. How they reached this House was in the form of a rebuttal of the suggestions made by the present Prime Minister and as a part of the conventional reassurances which lulled the House and the country to sleep for so many critical years. At that time the ministerial function was certainly not operating in the Air Ministry.
What is the position to-day? The Prime Minister is the Minister of Defence. I hope I shall not be thought presumptuous in saying that nobody will deny that he has discharged the ministerial function, except perhaps one aspect of it, with a serene courage and skill unique in our history, and we and those who come after us will be eternally grateful to him for his leadership. I say that because I should be ashamed to make a speech critical of the Government without giving that tribute, which in common obvious justice is due, in all sincerity, to the Prime Minister. But in one respect the very greatness of his qualities carries a failure. It concerns his relationship to his Service and Ministerial collaborators, particularly in the sphere of air defence. I do not want to put this point harshly, but to put it in the form of two interrogatories: First, do other Defence Ministers receive such a degree of delegated authority as will enable them to give the Prime Minister the proper easement of his defence burden, without which it cannot be efficiently discharged? Secondly, what is the ministerial duty to appraise professional merit and incompetence?
I ask for a little reflection on this point by the whole House. My impression is that when any great blunder has been committed—the "Royal Oak," the "Prince of Wales," Khota Baru, Penang—the first action of Ministers is to forestall any criticism of the Service people, to say that what was done was rightly done, or, if that is too great a paradox, to say that no disciplinary measures will be taken. If that is to be the attitude, I say it is no wonder that here and in another place we hear criticism of Service heads. And let us not be too delicate about this subject. It is not an old British tradition that the Service heads should be above criticism; it is a very modern attitude. It is not so very long ago in what the Prime Minister would call "the grand proportions of history," or any other scale of time, since unsuccessful admirals and generals were brought to the Bar of the House of Commons and severely interrogated concerning their actions, and considered themselves fortunate if they got away with a reprimand from the Speaker speaking on behalf of the House. All this can be read in the Journals of the House by any hon. Member who wishes to read it.
I am not suggesting that that is a more satisfactory way than the present one, but it is certain that it appears to be a marked ministerial infirmity to be as slow to condemn failure as to recognise merit. If that attitude is adopted by Ministers towards the head of the Services, it descends, by example, through every scale of command right down to the lowest officer and man in the Services—except when we come to the very lowest ranks. There is no squeamishness about punishment and condemnation in the lower ranks of the Army. But, with all the blunders and errors that have been made before the war and since, I have never heard a word of complaint or criticism from a Service Minister or from any other Minister regarding the efficiency of any of the officers under his command. That has a bad effect on the Army, the Navy and the Royal Air Force, who begin to say, "If mistakes in high places can go unchecked and unrebuked, or even unnoticed, then we have grounds for complaint at the severity of the discipline meted out to us." I hope that suggestion will be considered.
I realise that in saying this I risk some misrepresentation, but I do not mind that if what I say is only faintly heard in the seats of authority. I say that, in the midst of all the records of bravery, devotion and efficiency in the war effort, gross incompetence here and there goes unrecognised or at any rate has not been displaced. This is the season for pruning the dead wood. If it is done the war effort will be refreshed and quickened. I should like to remind the House of a poster which is to be seen in many parts of the country where a splendid portrait of the Prime Minister looks out upon the passers-by and says, "Deserve victory." I would apply that to the subject which I have ventured to bring to the attention of the House. The opinions I have expressed may well be unpalatable in some quarters, but I hope that both my suggestions and those which will be made to-day and next week, notwithstanding that they come only from private Members of the House, will be accepted without resentment as an attempt to add to our striking power and to make decisive the might of Britain and Britain's cause.
The Secretary of State for Air must congratulate himself on getting very well away with it in this Public Session. I knew the case he had to answer, and when I heard him speaking I imagined what he would have said on the subject if he had still been sitting in his old seat from which he made so many speeches of criticism. His performances since he came into office have fallen far short of the speeches he then made.
A little time ago I sent the right hon. Gentleman a communication in respect to the ease with which entrance could be obtained to an aerodrome. I had been pressed on several occasions by people in my county to look around and see the state of the defences, and, at long last, I decided that I would inspect one of these aerodromes. A week last Sunday—I do all my best work on Sunday—I went a fair journey to a particular aerodrome. I never for one moment expected that I should be able to get into it without being challenged. I met the vice-chairman of one of the councils in that area and told him a story which I do not think I ought to repeat here about the condition of affairs that existed, and which not only amazed but astonished me that it should be allowed to go on. Some of the details have been published, so I might as well speak about them now. I went all over the aerodrome, and I saw a lot of equipment, including guns, hand grenades, and detonators. When they arrived at the station they were very jealously guarded, but after that anyone could have done what I could have done, got on to the field, helped themselves to what they wanted and done what they liked with it. It was a most amazing situation. There were guns with only a sheet over them and a little bit of netting which was used for camouflage. A little distance away was a bomb store, and I thought I would see if there was anything in it. I opened the door, and there was nothing in it. It might have been, to judge by appearances, a completely deserted aerodrome, but I ascertained that a personnel of something like 500 men had been on parts of that aerodrome for months.
I wondered whether this was a rare case. Some people say that the reason why aerodromes are not defended is the tremendous number of men who would be required to defend them. I can go to another aerodrome not many miles away, and I know that you would not get into it in the same way. You would not have done so twelve months ago. I can produce men, and give the times when they have entered other aerodromes of vital importance without any challenge. Some of these aerodromes are not finished. They never will be finished while this war lasts, I should think. Contractors and men are on the job all the time. The principle which operates is that each contractor Issues a kind of permit to men when they begin work on these jobs, allowing them on to the aerodrome in question. I do not know whether it would interest the right hon. Gentleman or surprise him to learn that I can produce some of the permits which have been issued and which have never been inspected since they were issued. When men leave work on an aerodrome and go to another job they ought to be compelled to give up their permits, but they are not, and hundreds of permits are being thrown about all over the country. Is that a satisfactory state of affairs? Is it not likely that people living in the neighbourhood of such aerodromes think it the duty of their Members of Parliament to put a matter like this right?
I consider it my duty to tell the right hon. Gentleman that I could take him to a steel works, associated not with the Royal Air Force but with the Admiralty. The officer concerned with defence is appointed by the Admiralty, and he issues a permit to people to go to that steel works. I have a permit in my pocket. It was issued to me, and although I have known people there for 15 or 20 years, I have to produce it when I go to the works. It is issued to men who work there, and when they cease that employment they hand the permit back, with their employment cards, to their employer, who returns it to the issuing authority. Could not a system like that be followed with regard to aerodromes? I have never heard of any firm asking a workman employed at an aerodrome to return his permit. It is not sufficient to say that no sabotage has ever happened at an aerodrome as a consequence, but we must thank God for that. We cannot thank the Government for it. It might have happened, with so many of these permits being flung about. What is to stop a man from putting an overall on and going to an airfield to see what he wants to see? He need not commit sabotage, but he can get information he needs.
Since the right hon. Gentleman has asked for constructive suggestions, I suggest a periodical examination to make sure that workmen still have the permits issued to them. We do not know to whom workmen may have given some of these permits. We have had a few dubious people running about this country. I rode in a train with a man who had finished his job on one aerodrome in the West of England, and I asked him if I could look at his permit. I was also accosted not very far from this aerodrome by a captain in charge of Home Guard in the Isle of Axholme. The Financial Secretary to the Treasury knows this gentleman very well. He said to me, "I have been asked to be responsible for the defence of a certain big and important aerodrome. It's laughable to me, after my experiences in this war, that I should be asked to provide an aerodrome defence with Home Guard. I could collect some men to-night and capture the aerodrome myself, let alone defend it."
This gentleman is a serving officer, and I am a bricklayer by trade. I take it that he knows better than I the circumstances and the force he would require to take that aerodrome, and I did not challenge his opinion.
Is my hon. Friend suggesting that the Germans could also take it in the same easy way? [An HON. MEMBER: "They are not here."] They would have to get there first, of course.
For the moment I was not suggesting that the Germans could do it, but I do not say that they could not. I admit that they have taken many which I did not want them to take. I do not know if that has given any satisfaction to my hon. Friend. It has given none to me, and I want to do everything I can to urge upon the Minister the necessity of taking certain steps to protect the aerodromes in this country, because, if we in this House do not think it is essential, the people living in the neighbourhoods do, and they are very uneasy and uncomfortable about the lack of proper defence. There is another case in which a man drove on to an aerodrome in his car, in which he had a dog. He was formerly a captain in the 17th Lancers. He succeeded in persuading an officer to step into the car, where it would have been easy for him to have set the dog upon him. Suppose he had been a German. That is the point. So far as that side of it is concerned it does not appear to be taken as seriously as some of us think it ought to be. As a matter of fact, in some places it is a regular practice to stroll round the aerodromes. Anybody can do it. [An HON. MEMBER: "Including boys."] Including, it seems to me, almost anybody. It is in regard to that matter that I wish to emphasise the need for some action to be taken. I could quote a dozen or so cases from other parts of the country where it has been even worse.
I am not in a position to say whether the right hon. Gentleman's new scheme is all right or whether it is all wrong. I was not very much impressed, though, when he said that it would make a difference that this new defence corps was to be dressed in khaki when on duty and in Air Force blue when off duty. That does not impress me very much. It sounds a bit too comical. What does impress me is the fact that he is going to take definite steps, either by implementing his own force or by creating some other force big enough and bold enough to give that security to our aerodromes that we all believe is necessary, including the right hon. Gentleman himself, for if he did not, he would not be making the change. If he does that, it will give new hope and encouragement to those who live in the neighbourhood of aerodromes.
I presume it would be for the convenience of the House, if it is intended to go into Secret Session, that I should endeavour briefly to reply to some of the points that have already been made.
On that point of procedure, it appears to me that hon. Members would feel, if we are now going into Secret Session, that there should be some sort of reply from the Minister after the Secret Session. There will be nothing to prevent the Minister in the course of that reply from replying to points raised in the Debate that has already taken place. If, however, we are to have three Ministerial speeches, that would appear to be a rather undue proportion of the Debate.
I shall endeavour to confine my remarks to the main points which have been made and, if points have been made in open Session, it is only right that the Minister should have a chance to reply in open Session. Then, I understand, if operational matters are raised in Secret Session, my right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for War will be able to reply briefly to those points in Secret Session.
Is it possible for us to discover whether there are any other hon. Members who would wish to make points which they would like to be answered in public, before the Secret Session?
There may be other hon. Members who would like to make speeches in public before the right hon. and gallant Gentleman replies, so that replies may be made in public before the House goes into Secret Session.
I felt that that arrangement might lead to confusion. It may be that there are no hon. Members who desire to make a speech at this stage, and if that is so, there is no point in a reply being made now.
The obvious way for the House to get out of the difficulty is for the Motion to be proposed. If it is negatived, and if Strangers are not ordered to withdraw, it falls to the ground.
May I put a further suggestion? If the Motion is negatived, we shall have three Ministers speaking to-day and taking up time which ought to be the critics' time and not the Ministers' time. I suggest that the Government might reconsider the position.
I want to assure the House that it is not the Government's desire that we should go into Secret Session. It is the House which wants to go into Secret Session; we are quite prepared to continue the Debate in public. If I am right in thinking that it is the general sense of the House that it wants to continue the Debate in open Session, it would perhaps be better if my right hon. and gallant Friend did not intervene. But we wish to place ourselves in the hands of the House.
It would save the House from the somewhat incongruous procedure of proposing and negativing a Motion involving the spying of Strangers if it were possible merely to take the sense of the House that there should be no Secret Session.
There is no way of taking the sense of the House formally except by putting a Motion. Informally it may be possible, but may I also point out that if anybody spies Strangers, I have no option but to put the Motion?
I cannot help thinking that it is the sense of the House that we should continue in open Session. In that case my right hon. and gallant Friend does not propose to rise.
I have been among those Members who have taken the view that this matter might be most advantageously discussed in secret, but in view of the length of time the open Debate has already taken, I see no reason to think that it is impossible to make a speech which would not be detrimental to the public interest. I feel that we are certainly indebted to the Government for this opportunity of discussing this matter, which has given rise to a great deal of apprehension and misgiving in the public mind. I venture to intervene briefly in this Debate because, at an earlier period in the war, I spent a great many months in an important aerodrome in this country, and I had some opportunity of gauging the wholly inadequate defensive arrangements which existed at that time. I am very well aware of the vast improvement which has taken place in those arrangements in the last 18 months, to which the Secretary of State for Air referred in the course of his speech. I think this must be plainly stated at the outset, that nothing could possibly have been more unfortunate than that the announcement of the decision to adopt this scheme which we are now considering should have been so long delayed, and that it should have followed so closely the reverses we have suffered in Malaya and the loss of aerodromes in that peninsula. It has led to a great deal of misunderstanding in the public mind and to a great deal of muddled thinking on the problems involved generally in the defence of aerodromes both here and overseas. It is certainly to be hoped that the statements that have been made here, in this House to-day by the Secretary of State, and previously in another place by the Under-Secretary, will go far to remove the many misapprehensions that exit on this subject. But it is now nine months since the campaign in Crete first focussed the attention both of the Govern anent and the public on this problem, and it was at that time that the Inspectorate of Aerodrome Defence was set up to consider and make recommendations on this vital subject. Granted that the existing arrangements were then considered unsatisfactory, it is very difficult to find any reasonable justification for the long delay that has taken place in deciding to proceed with the present scheme, quite irrespective of its merits.
I am well aware of the fact that certain experiments have been carried out and that certain preparatory measures have already been taken. I believe a number of squadrons of the new Royal Air Force Regiment have, in fact, already been formed, but unless I am quite misinformed I understand that the recommendations we are now considering were actually made and the present scheme was actually drafted no less than six months ago by the Inspectorate of Aerodrome Defence. It does seem to me that, in a matter of this kind, which is recognised to be of the most vital importance, it is really difficult to understand the process that has so long delayed a final decision. It has certainly created the impression that vital decisions of this character which involve more than one Department are made to pass through too fine a mesh. There is an impression that they are dealt with by committee after committee in endless gyration, and that the existing machinery is far too cumbersome and wholly inadequate for the work it has to perform. I shall not presume to pursue that aspect of the matter any further, but I think that it reinforces certain views which have been strongly pressed upon the Government quite recently.
Now I wish to consider in some further detail the scheme that the Government have put before the House, and I think it is only right that it should be considered with some care, taking into account the many and costly mistakes we have made in the past and the many instances of a total lack of imagination that has been shown in visualising the conditions of modern warfare. As has been stressed by a great many speakers who have taken part in this Debate already, the weakness of our defensive arrangements in the past has undoubtedly been due in no small measure to the duality of control and the divided responsibility that has existed between the two Services, the Army and the Royal Air Force. The final test of the scheme must be to decide how far it is going to overcome the difficulties which have been due to that undoubted fact, and how far it is going to remove the division of control and responsibility that at present exists. It is no doubt quite possible to put forward a very strong case against this scheme which we are now considering, on the ground that it perpetuates the divided responsibility at certain points and fails altogether to eliminate the dual control that exists under the present arrangements. I want to press the Secretary of State on this one point: He has made it clear to the House that the general and final operational responsibility for the defence of aerodromes will remain with the Army, that is to say, it will be a general responsibility in so far as the Army is responsible for the defence of this country. But unless I am mistaken there will be a definite operational control and operational responsibility, so far as the local station commander is concerned, in the case of a local attack directed at an aerodrome inland which is singled out for an air-borne attack by troop-carriers or parachutists.
I think there is still some misapprehensions as to where and at what point the responsibility of the station commander is to begin and to end. If I understand it aright, there will come a point if military operations approach a particular zone in which an aerodrome is situated at which the responsibility of the station commander will cease altogether and will devolve entirely upon the local military commander. I do not think we have had this particular point yet made sufficiently clear. It is of course, possible to argue that since the Army, and the Commander-in-Chief, Home Forces, must be responsible for the land defence of this country the Army should therefore remain responsible for the defence of aerodromes in every respect at all stages of any attack that may be delivered upon them. That point of view has been very forcibly stressed by the hon. and gallant Member for South Cardiff (Colonel A. Evans). From my own experience, knowing something of the extraordinary complexity of this problem with which we are dealing, I believe that the Government have taken the right view, and it is impossible to accept that argument for placing the whole responsibility upon the Army.
In any case, as the Secretary of State for Air has already pointed out, the first line of defence must consist of our antiaircraft arrangements, which also come under Fighter Command, and I believe that the attempt to place the sole responsibility upon the Army could only lead to a huge wastage of man-power and could only lead still further to greater difficulties in securing the satisfactory measure of co-operation which is necessary between the two Services. In fact, I think it could only create a still more anomalous situation whereby for the purpose of anti-aircraft defence the sole operational control would rest on the Royal Air Force under Fighter Command, whereas the sole operational control of ground defence would rest at all times with the Army. It is precisely that form of dual control in the anti-aircraft defences of this country that has led to so many difficulties and to so much friction in the past. So far as the local defences of any aerodrome are concerned, I feel that it is essential that that duality of control should not be repeated.
That leads me to consider the whole relationship of the anti-aircraft defences to the new scheme decided upon by the Government. Very little mention has been made of this matter by Government spokesmen, but I suggest that it is absolutely vital, since the anti-aircraft defences are inextricably mixed up with the ground defences that come under the Army. It is true that our first line of defence in the air resides in our fighter formations, but our second line of defence consists of the heavy guns and the light guns which are deployed both outside and within the perimeter of the aerodromes. Heavy guns which lie outside do not come so prominently into the picture, but the light guns form an integral part of the defences, since they can be used not only against attacking aircraft, but against the enemy should he effect a landing. Light guns which are deployed at present fall into different categories, and are manned by personnel which is drawn partly from the R.A.F. and partly from the Army. I believe strongly, and this is also the opinion of many responsible officers, that all the light guns used in the defence of any aerodrome should be manned by the R.A.F., with men trained by the R.A.F., and administered by the R.A.F. That would obviate the absurdity of splitting army units, as at present, into small static detachments and sections which form part of the life of the R.A.F. station and are separated from their own headquarters by anything up to 50 miles. I believe this reform will facilitate great economies in administration, and I suggest that this is the opportunity to make this change. A number of anti-aircraft gunners could be easily attached to each unit of the Royal Air Force Regiment. I would like to refer to the provision of anti-aircraft guns. I would not care, in open session, to go into figures or to press the point to any extent, but I would impress upon the Government the urgent need for increasing the number of light anti-aircraft guns in every aerodrome in the country.
My last point is one which has been touched upon by the hon. Member for North Aberdeen (Mr. Garro Jones). Much will depend upon the personnel of the Royal Air Force Regiment. Much will depend upon the quality of both officers and men, but particularly of officers. As I understand it, a number of Army officers are to be transferred to this regiment, or else loaned for the time being to the R.A.F. I understand, further, that a number of men will be drawn from the Army to fill the ranks. I see a great danger in this proposal. I know enough of the Army to know that when commanding officers are asked to recommend either officers or men for some job which is going to take them away from their units, they invariably select the worst material. It is invariably regarded as a grand opportunity for discarding men or officers of whom they are glad to get rid. I hope that every possible precaution will be taken to ensure that the Royal Air Force Regiment is not made the dumping-ground for discards from the Army. This scheme can only succeed and this Force can only be made an effective Force if it is composed of the very best material that can be obtained.
It is regrettable that this scheme which has been decided upon has been so long delayed. In various respects it is still open to a good deal of criticism, but, taking into account the great complexities of the problem, I believe that it is a step forward and will result in a substantial improvement upon existing arrangements. The success of the scheme will depend on the degree of unity and co-operation that can be achieved in putting it into operation, and there is certainly no time to lose. There must be constant vigilance and a constant review of the practical working of these new dispositions and arrangements. Finally, and above all, I beg the Secretary of State not to rest content because the scheme which has been evolved is recommended to him as being the best possible solution in theory that can be found. Only too often in the past we have been assured that all the machinery is there, and that in theory there is no reason to suppose it will not work with perfect smoothness and efficiency. Only too often we know that in practice it has been found to break down completely. The working of the scheme must be watched with the closest care and attention and if any modification is found to be necessary it must be introduced without hesitation and without delay.
Perhaps the most unfortunate part of this Debate, on a matter which is perhaps more vital to the security of this country than any other matter discussed in this House for some time, is that the attendance is as poor as it is on this occasion. Among Service men there is a great and growing anxiety in regard to the question of air defence, and in the observations that I wish to make, it is not my wish in any way to make a personal criticism of anybody. But there are certain things which, as a junior officer, I feel bound to say and there are certain questions that I feel bound to ask. But there is one other difficulty in this Debate. Under the arrangement as it stands now of an open Debate there will be a reply from the Air Ministry, but there will, I understand, be no possibility of a reply, from the War Office, and the War Office and the Air Ministry alike are bound up closely on this question of air defence. It is not entirely a question on one side or the other. You can divide your defence into two completely dissimilar problems. There is the question of sabotage and there is the question of defence against the enemy. As regards the sabotage, the hon. Member for Brigg (Mr. Quibell) explained what happened when he went over a certain aerodrome, but there is a further danger which I should like to put forward to my right hon. Friend. There is nothing so easy as for a person dressed in Air Force uniform to go on to a large number of air stations without being challenged by anybody, and I am inclined to think that if a fifth columnist were to mean business, he would not turn up looking either like a Prussian or a civilian—
It is likely that it would be difficult, I agree, but the Germans have shown so many disguises of different kinds that it makes it unwise even for the hon. Member to underestimate the danger of the enemy's skill. The Air Ministry should make a big effort to tighten up the regulations in some way so that no officer, unless personally known to the guard, going on to an airfield, as I and many others have done, should be allowed to pass without showing his identity card. If you have laxity because there has been no sabotage, that laxity may carry you into far more dangerous quarters than merely checking men on gates.
I want to say a word or two about defence against enemy attack. This again divides itself into two problems—the problem of the individual aerodrome and the problem of the central defence that in an emergency must come to the assistance of aerodromes that are already under attack. This new hard core is to be part of an air defence unit which will be primarily engaged in defending individual aerodromes and putting up a show until help can come from the military and outside. But I am bound to put forward to the House one difficulty which I think you would find that almost all serving officers, in junior ranks at any rate, if they were permitted to be articulate would say, "We are endeavouring to train a certain number of airmen for air defence problems, but we are up against the difficulty that the ordinary airman is really a technician in uniform. He has come into the Air Force as a tradesman." There are parades for defence duties and it may well be found—I do not think I exaggerate—that only some 25 per cent. of the strength available is on parade because there is a demand that these technicians should be used for their original purpose. The result is that you would find yourselves dealing with a certain number of general duties men who are likely to be the least intelligent stuff on the aerodrome. I think every air officer would say that that is so.
That is not all. You may have sufficient equipment to give instruction in musketry, drill and various other things, but because you have sufficient equipment to give some training to your personnel does not of necessity mean that you have sufficient equipment for that personnel to be in a position to fight at full strength if that aerodrome is attacked. That is all I wish to say to the Minister on this occasion about that point, although I hope he is satisfied that there is sufficient equipment for the forces which will defend their own stations. If he were satisfied, I hope he will satisfy himself again, and do it shortly. It may be due to my stupidity, but I am still doubtful as to where the men for this new hard core are to be recruited. Is there to be a fresh effort to use a number of persons who to-day cannot be spared for drill? Are a certain number of technicians to be taken away from their jobs and trained, or are men to be brought over from the Army? If they are to be brought from the Army—and to be quite candid, I hope they are—they must be men who have experience. We cannot start a new scheme of training untrained material to meet an invasion that may come next March. We must have men who have been trained already, men who have the knowledge, and who know how to fight.
I want here to make one passing suggestion. One way in which, I think, the Army have an advantage over the Air Force is that the Army have the rank of lance-corporal. The difficulty with regard to trained N.C.O's. is one of the biggest difficulties we have in the Air Force to-day. In the Army it is most difficult to become a lance-corporal and very easy to lose the rank. The man who does his job as a lance-corporal well is a first-class N.C.O. The position is not the same in the Air Force. A man becomes an L.A.C., a corporal or a sergeant mainly on account of the time he has been in the Air Force and his technical qualifications. That is good enough on the technical side, but it does not mean that such a man would be of the least use when it came to fighting in the event of an airborne invasion. I make the suggestion that if in the Air Force there could be promotion to the rank of lance-corporal on the same basis as in the Army, we should get an extremely good nucleus of men who would make first-class N.C.O's.
I do not intend to deal with the question of anti-aircraft guns, except to reiterate what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury (Mr. A. Duckworth). If the Minister is satisfied that there are sufficient anti-aircraft guns on our air stations, I ask him to satisfy himself once again, and not merely to leave the matter on his present information. I can tell the House, without any breach of confidence, I think, of a rather unfortunate thing that happened at certain air stations a little time ago; it would have been extremely humorous if it had not shown what I think is a kindergarten mentality. In one of his more famous speeches, the Prime Minister, in dealing with airfields, said that whatever happened we would defend our airfields even if we had only pikes in our hands. I know that, as a result of this, on several stations pikes were at once ordered. I appreciate that a pike is better than nothing, but I hope the Secretary of State will satisfy himself that there is, and can be, no need in the event of invasion from above for men to be called upon, instead of using rifles and sub-machine guns, to use pikes. I beg my right hon. Friend not to consider that anything I am saying is meant in any way to be critical of him or of anybody else. I know there are things that are not quite right, and I want them to be looked into; I want them to be looked into soon because no one knows how soon we may be put to the test.
I pass now to a matter in regard to general defence. There is, first of all, the defence of the individual aerodromes, but the defence of individual aerodromes, in the event of mass attack by the enemy, can be only temporary. It is on this point that I would have liked to have a reply from the War Office. I assume we are in a position to have mobile troops in the vicinity of our operational aerodromes who could be sent with speed, and equipped with tanks—without light tanks they would be useless—to any particular aerodrome which was holding out for a short time against great pressure, with the aid of those troops of the Air Force Regiment who are apparently to be drafted to the aerodromes for temporary defence. There must be tanks for this purpose, and the job must be an Army job. There are many people, not only in the House but in the country, who would welcome an assurance from the War Office and the Government not only that the matter is being considered, but that we can rely upon the knowledge that, in the event of an attack, within a quarter of an hour or half an hour men and tanks would be brought up from a district which could cover a very considerable number of aerodromes.
It may well be that next time Germany launches an attack on this country she will concentrate her attack rather more than she did on the last occasion. The last time we had a blitz attack not merely on our fighter stations, but a general blitz over the whole country. We may find that the next time we shall be faced with a concentration against our operational stations with one idea and one idea alone in the enemy's mind, namely, to knock out as many fighter units as possible, to get the British fighters out of the way and to obtain possession of a number of operational stations. I believe, so far as Air Force defences are concerned, that everything may well depend on the next two or three months. I do not know one single officer with whom have discussed this matter who is satisfied that everything possible is being done. We still have our breathing space in which to do it. I have no doubt that much is being done and that the Government for various reasons feel it is impossible to, give all the information to the House at this stage, but if a new offence was to be created in wartime, it should be the death penalty for complacency on the part of any Minister. The whole future of this country and of the world may depend on the next three or four months, and I ask the Government not to regard any stray Member who gets up and talks about these matters as a professional critic. We all know that the future of this land and more than this land is at stake, and if by some blunder, by lack of co-ordination, by lack of ammuni- tion or lack of guns we were to go down, it would not mean that we alone should suffer but the whole world would be destroyed through the folly of people who later might well be hanged, and who would be hanged without giving dissatisfaction to anyone.
I am in-inclined to think that the hon. and gallant Member for South-East Essex (Flight-Lieutenant Raikes), in advocating the death penalty for complacency, is laying down a very serious principle which might have retrospective action if it were applied in the letter and not in the spirit. I seem to remember complacency in days gone by which was not limited to Members of the Front Bench, but the less said about that the better. One or two speakers have expressed their doubts as to whether the R.A.F. will obtain the best possible material for this new force. My experience of the Air Force as a member of the Army has been that, generally speaking, the Air Force have always had the first cut off the joint, and that what is left over has been handed on to the Army. Hon. Members who have had any experience in connection with the interviewing officers when men are called up will know that the Royal Air Force have first pick, and that the Army if they are lucky may get a little of the good material which is left over. Therefore, I have not the slightest doubt that the Royal Air Force will have the best possible material available for this new defence force. We are coming to a state in this war when the material which is available is not of the same standard—
I am referring to personnel, and I speak from knowledge gained with the Army in the early days of the war and from experience of what is going on now when men are called up. Ask any chief recruiting officer his opinion as to the type of personnel that is coming up now. It is not entirely their fault, but as you increase the age groups you are bound to get less physically and mentally efficient personnel than when calling on the younger age groups. I wonder if hon. Members know that it is the view among Army officers that the best age for candidates for commissions is between 20 and 26. They are not entirely in favour of the very young class or of the older age groups. Perhaps, if we have another war, we might consider whether we should call first on the very young next time. However, that is by the way.
I think we ought to look at this question from a different angle from that from which some hon. Members have approached it. Of course Englishmen, particularly, if they are determined to get into aerodromes, and especially if they are Members of Parliament, can get there. But they can also get into our factories everywhere, which I consider is a much more serious state of affairs. Do not let us overlook the whole question by merely subjecting a part of it to a microscopical investigation. Aerodromes are merely strong points, in the same way as electrical undertakings, reservoirs and so forth. As long as the Royal Air Force is operating from those aerodromes they are very important, but they do not necessarily occupy that position when the Air Force have left those strong points, as they did in France. On many occasions the Air Force simply retired, and it was left to the Army to guard those strong points. They ceased to be strong points and merely became a piece of ground in a whole line. It is impossible to guarantee every one of our aerodromes against attack. The suggestion that has been put up to-day by the Government is not directed to the defence of our aerodromes by this force against a determined attack. It cannot be done. That is the Army's job, and a field Army at that. You will never be able to defend any strong point with this type of personnel. It must be left to the field force to deal with the attack if it ever comes.
The hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for South-East Essex is of the opinion that, if an attack is made by the Germans, it will be much more concentrated than it was on the last occasion. I should think the Germans, if they are going to attack this country—and I have my doubts and have had them ever since Dunkirk—will be better advised to attack in strength, which indeed has been their tactics all through the war, if they are ever going to have any hope of gaining one objective, even a limited one. Hon. Members who have any experience of the matter will know which are the important aerodromes and which are not. [Interruption.] Of course, they are all important, but obviously the Germans will not send over the best of their troops to take some aerodrome in the middle of the country, not near the essential points which they must hold if they are to develop the attack. Obviously they will go for aerodromes, as at Oslo, where it is worth their while to incur heavy casualties, and they did incur them at Oslo.
If the Germans are going to attack strongly any of our important aerodromes, those aerodromes should be strongly defended. I have reason to believe that they are. Certain aerodromes in what are known as the danger areas are now guarded by Regular Army troops under military commanders. The only thing I would ask is whether it is suggested under this new scheme that the Regular troops should be withdrawn and replaced by the new defence force. I hope that it will be possible to keep the Regular troops under the present system at these aerodromes.
If the Germans attack with any concentrated force, how will they do it? I imagine that they will run true to form, which they have been doing all through the war. If they do, they will attack with a heavy concentration of bombers. They will bomb an aerodrome intensively. Is the defence against such an attack this force or even the Regular Army? Of course it is not. Lord Trenchard is right in saying that the only satisfactory form of defence against this form of attack is the Fighter Air Force itself. If we ever come to a stage when the Fighter Air Force in this country is not able to deal with the attack, I have my doubts whether this new force will be able to hold the Germans off. I consider that this local air defence force is purely a delaying force and not one that will ultimately have to deal with the forces that are landed by the enemy, if they ever do it. It is merely to delay operations for a period until the field Army can be called up to squash them flat. I may be a bit too optimistic, but I think that our Fighter Air Force will deal very effectively with such concentrated attack. I believe that the casualties that would be incurred by the Germans in undertaking an operation like this would prevent them from making such an attack. I may be wrong, but that is my belief. I should not be surprised if it is the belief of the Chiefs of Staff who have given their attention to this matter. I do not suggest that they are infallible, but I do suggest that if they hive given their attention to this matter and the three defence chiefs have said that this is the best way in the circumstances, there is, at any rate, justification for believing that if they are not wholly right they may be nearly right. I suggest that when we consider what has been happening in Malaya and elsewhere we have not the picture on which we can assess this question. I can only say, from my limited experience, that the aerodromes that were captured by the Germans in France were not captured by concentrated landings on those aerodromes. I should imagine that the same sort of thing has happened in the Far East.
If we want to criticise the Government, we have a better opportunity than this, and it will come in the next Debate. It is because of our limitations not only in personnel but in material that we have lost not only aerodromes but much more important objectives. I do not know whether it will be possible for me to take part in the forthcoming Debate, but if I do so, I may not be so friendly disposed towards the Government as I am at the moment when we are considering this particular question. I think it would be entirely wrong to adopt the attitude of one Noble Lord and say that we cannot learn lessons from Crete or Greece. We can learn a lot of lessons, but we must be careful what lessons we do learn. The lesson which we ought to learn is not necessarily the lesson which has been driven home to-day. I suggest to the House that whatever organisation we set up at the present time we have not enough equipment to make it 100 per cent. effective. One hon. Member asked whether we have enough anti-aircraft guns. I do not think we need quarrel about giving information to the enemy; they know all about it. We have not; and I also suggest that not all German aerodromes are so adequately defended that we could not make a landing on some of them if we tried.
In conclusion, I would offer this suggestion in all earnestness. What I do think is wrong is that there is not enough interchangeability either of personnel or ideas between the Army and the Air Force. I believe that at the moment the operation of anti-aircraft defence under Fighter Command is, on the whole, fairly satisfactory, but what I have found—it used to be so in the Army and is so to a certain extent now—is that the different arms of the Services do not understand the function and duties of the other arms. Therefore, I suggest that my right hon. Friend should watch carefully to see that this new force is trained to understand what are mainly military duties. One hon. Member says they ought to have a good deal of infantry training. I would not state it quite like that, but obviously they ought to know infantry training and understand infantry tactics. But they have also to understand more than that; they have to understand armoured tactics and speed. If we are to deal with the protection of aerodromes in the most economical way as regards the use of personnel and material, it would be far better to have a small but highly-mechanised mobile force to deal with any local attacks.
I hope that as a result of this Debate my right hon. Friend, while carrying out his present plan, will see whether some improvements cannot be introduced as a result of suggestions made here by hon. Members. I should feel frustrated and terribly annoyed if I thought, as I am so often inclined to feel, that merely because a suggestion comes from a Member of Parliament a Government Department will take no notice of it beyond sending a soothing sort of letter. Members of Parliament, especially those who have taken part in this war as well as in the last, have contributions to make to our Debates, and although at times we may appear to be highly critical of the Government or of those who are serving, our suggestions should not be dismissed with the idea that we are entirely wrong and the Government are entirely right. I have made these suggestions with the idea of helping the Government and the Forces who have to undertake this defence to obtain what we all want, that is, protection for our aerodromes, not only here but overseas. It would be interesting if the right hon. and gallant Gentleman would say in his reply whether this idea is to be carried into effect overseas, because there are some important aerodromes there which need defence. Generally speaking, I approve the Government's proposals. Hon. Members may think this is a strange role for me, but I hope that they will always believe that I speak in all sincerity, whether I am critical or otherwise. On this occasion, and in the circumstances, I believe that the Govern- ment have done the best they can—well, not the best they can, but nearly the best they can. They might well try to do even a little better.
Had it not been for an explanation given by the Minister yesterday to the House I hardly should have felt inclined to tender a contribution to this Debate. The right hon. Gentleman told the House that some of our bomber aerodromes were twice the size of Hyde Park and that it was impossible to prevent an occasional snooper from getting into so large an area. He prided himself on the fact that there had been no sabotage at any of our aerodromes throughout the war, and suggested that it would take a considerable organisation to commit sabotage. I have played some different parts in public life during the last two years, and it has been within my experience to travel around to various aerodromes in company with a group of amateur entertainers. We have visited a number of aerodromes, been bombed and played on while the bombs were dropping. I mention this because I would like the right hon. Gentleman to recognise that, although my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Bellenger) paid tribute to the thoroughly efficient way in which some aerodromes are defended, there are some others where the situation is vastly different. Examination ought to be made with great care in the immediate future to see that conditions are toned up.
I would mention two or three cases that I have in mind. I have a letter here, sent to me under the date 12th January, by a friend of mine who says that he has a pass for a certain aerodrome, giving him permission to use a boundary road. He says:
I have used this pass twice this week.
It gives him access to a farm. Nobody has ever challenged him, or apparently thinks of doing so. He refers to a communication from friends of his who were going to a rendezvous for a shooting party, and he says that they were surprised at being able to drive right through the landing ground and among the Manchesters without even being asked for a pass. The writer might not be aware of the singular coincidence relating to three other aerodromes near the one to which he refers. About six months ago some
friends of mine, who were in the Home Guard told me what was actually happening in this area and the ease with which one could gain access to any of those aerodromes. I mentioned the matter to one of the Ministers, and certain adjustments—"tightening up" is the term they use in the Service—took place, but only a few days ago a captain in the Home Guard said to me, "I hope you warned somebody at the Air Ministry about the lax situation that has been created at those same three aerodromes." They have slipped back very badly. I venture to say that my informant would never make the claim he has made if he did not know that it was true, because he is a State servant, and he suggests to me that not only is it easy to gain access to the aerodrome, but that he would be able to take a number of men into the aerodrome simply by using a Post Office engineering van or a Post Office mail van. I remember how the Press reported a few weeks ago that in the City of London the Home Guard in their manoeuvres used a funeral hearse as a decoy, a very excellent decoy too, but if Post Office engineers can gain access to aerodromes without even being challenged, at all, and if they can actually get into the administrative buildings, I would ask my right hon. Friend whether he fears sabotage or not. Quite frankly, if I were a commanding officer, I should be afraid of sabotage if people could gain access to one of the largest aerodromes in the area simply by taking a Post Office mail van or an engineering van from the telephone department. I will submit to my right hon. Friend that if I could do that, I could take command of the whole building in a few minutes, and that would be sabotage on a colossal stage.
I do not know whether my right hon. Friend doubts me or not, but the suggestion was made to me by these friends that if the Minister doubts their word they are willing to wager—provided that he will not make any alterations—that within the next week they will actually capture this particular aerodrome or forfeit £50. I do not mind subscribing to the effort, either in money or work. They will subscribe the money, and they will capture this aerodrome and the whole of the administrative buildings. I have been going around aerodromes for the last two years, and I would like to suggest to my right hon. Friend that he should consult with the First Lord of the Admiralty and ask him how the job is dorm by the Navy. Whether you are entertaining the troops or repairing the telephones, not only do they say that you must hive a man with you, but he never leaves you, and, furthermore, if the Admiralty send out an invitation to an artist from E.N.S.A. or to an amateur theatrical company, they say that in no circumstances must they leave the dressing-rooms unless they are accompanied by one of the sailors or officers provided to see to their comfort and conduct, and to see them safely off the premises. During the blitz period great caution was exercised at almost every one of the stations around London. Everybody was on their toes to see that none of the Quislings or fifth columnists or anybody else gained access to the aerodromes, or if they did, they wanted to know all about them. We have slipped back, that is the plain honest truth, in the London zone. There is no harm in mentioning the London zone. And, taking the country generally, there is carelessness, there is negligence, and it ought to be examined, not just because we are creating a new Royal Air Force Regiment, but because I believe—and the right hon. Gentleman must know—that it is easy to take command of an administrative building where such negligence is displayed. It is very serious if people can enter buildings of that kind without being challenged, and I think the Minister ought to see to it that commanding officers are duly warned of some of the risks they are taking with the valuable machinery and planes which are to be seen on every aerodrome throughout the country.
I can assure the House at the very outset of my remarks that my right hon. Friend and I and the other Members of the Air Council, all those responsible for the dual task of defence and security, approach this problem in no spirit of complacency and with open minds as regards accepting criticism and learning lessons from the past. Anyone who has a position of responsibility in the Air Ministry at the present time must carry with him through all his working hours an, acute sense of the responsibility of the task and of the dangers that confront us. If we do not translate such responsibility into positive action, then we are indeed worthy of the censure of this House and of the country. Many questions have been asked to-day, and my job, in winding up the Debate, is to endeavour to give answers to as many as I can. If I do not answer them all, I assure hon. and right hon. Members that we shall look most carefully through the OFFICIAL REPORT of this Debate, we shall analyse the points made and endeavour afterwards to take action upon those on which action is appropriate. Equally I would ask Members to read most carefully the speech made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, in order that they, too, can get a better comprehension of this complex scheme, which is difficult to understand and appreciate fully when presented in the comparatively short space of time of a speech. If we both do our tasks, Members studying the speech of the Secretary of State and we studying the speeches of Members, I feel that this Debate will have gone a long way towards benefiting the Air Ministry in their task of defence.
I will deal first with the speech of the hon. and gallant Member for South Cardiff (Colonel A. Evans), who made several very important points. I cannot agree with the point which he made, and which other hon. Members made, that the responsibility is not clearly defined. The responsibility in the new scheme is clearly defined in that the station commander is now responsible for defending his aerodrome, under the scheme, in accordance with the plans of the local Army area commander. Aerodrome defence—I would repeat to the House what my right hon. Friend said—is not a thing by itself. Aerodromes are very important tactical features for the possession of which armies and navies and air forces will fight, just as a ridge, or a river crossing, or a fort, or a hillock have been important tactical features in warfare. When Vimy Ridge was captured we did not say that the defenders had lost it because they were deficient in knowledge of ridge defence. When the Russians capture 24 villages in a day we do not say that it is because the Germans do not understand village defence. Aerodromes are now a great prize, for which all forces have to fight, just as the capture of a water supply might be a tactical feature for which a whole battle is fought, and those who lose may not rightly attribute their failure to lack of knowledge of water supply defence.
The problem we are endeavouring to solve is that of how best to organise the defence of this tactical feature so as to co-ordinate it in the best possible manner with the defence of the whole area, how to make the best possible use of the manpower upon it as a contribution to the defence of the area of which it forms a part. Aerodrome defence cannot be considered in a watertight compartment. We are preparing for aerodrome defence with the Royal Air Force Regiment. The hon. and gallant Member for South Cardiff asked whether the scheme of training was laid down by the Army. Yes, it is. We have to adhere to the Army's needs in regard to principles of training. The application of those principles and their supervision is for the chain of command of the Royal Air Force Regiment, from the Director-General and Commandant right down through the officer ranks. The Army area officers have a right to inspect, and to see that their principles are being acted upon. There is only one part of the speech of the hon. and gallant Member which I regret. That is his criticism of the Director-General and Commandant. He said it was wrong to appoint a man at the age of 61. It would be invidious to compare the ages of those holding positions of great responsibility—
I do not think that the right hon. and gallant Gentleman is quoting me fairly. I objected to the fact that it was found necessary to appoint a gentleman at that age when it was also found necessary to retire the late Chief of the Imperial General Staff on the sole ground that he had reached that age.
I do not know the reason for the retirement of great officers; but how old was Pitt when he was Prime Minister? [HON. MEMBERS: "Twentyfour."] He was a great man. How old is our Prime Minister? He also is a great man. The hon. and gallant Member was not right when he said that the Commandant of the Regiment has had no practical experience. He was commanding a division in Kent during the Battle of Britain, at the possible invasion time; and that gave him a very acute knowledge of the problems involved. Neither has he been responsible, in an executive capacity, for aerodrome defence. He has been Inspector-General at the War Office. Therefore, any merits or any deficiencies in aerodrome defence up to the present have not been his responsibility. The hon. and gallant Gentleman asked about the responsibility of the station commander for the Army on the station, and said that it might lose the war if not exercised properly. Equally, the responsibility of the station commander for the use of the Air Force on the station, if not exercised properly, might be responsible for losing the war. He has his defence officer of the Royal Air Force Regiment to advise him on questions of defence. He is supreme only in the area of his aerodrome, and he has to operate in accord with the area Army Commander as regards general tactics.
The hon. and gallant Member was very severe in his criticism of the "backers-up." He said he understood that only 50 per cent. of these "backers-up" were to be armed. The House will appreciate that it would not be right for me to give the correct figure, but I can assure the hon. and gallant Member that his figure of 50 per cent. is very far from being correct. He quoted the fire figures of the recruits. It is true that the fire figures are often on a small scale; but when the recruits' course is finished, the man is only ready to start training on a station. That is where the figures will be brought up to the standard required. The hon. and gallant Member asked why we wanted these "backers-up." The answer is, because we want trained men. These "backers-up" will provide 80 per cent. of the men required to defend the aerodromes, and probably only 20, 15 or 10 per cent. will be trained men of the Royal Air Force Regiment. If you do not have these "backers-up" how are you to do without them? You do not want to have a whole body of men who would turn and march away and disperse when the enemy came. Every officer and airman, whether administrative or technical, must be ready to fight, and fight to the end.
I hesitate to interrupt my right hon. and gallant Friend, but again he is misquoting me. I did not deprecate the use of "backers-up." I said that in an efficiently conducted scheme they were absolutely essential. The point I made was that these "backers-up" should be trained to do the job.
I regret if I misinterpreted my hon. and gallant Friend, but at any rate he condemned the scheme and said that the Royal Air Force Regiment is unnecessary and that the Army should carry out aerodrome defence. Yet the Army advocates and supports this scheme. The Army Council and other senior officers have co-operated whole-heartedly in its introduction. We owe a great debt of gratitude to the Army for the spirit of co-operation they have shown in connection with this scheme and which will continue for the future. I would suggest to my hon. and gallant Friend that members of the Army Council and other senior officers can no doubt interpret what the Army wish better than he can from his own particular position.
With regard to the attitude of certain commanding officers to the training of technical tradesmen, I would like to be assured that this training will be pressed ahead and that station commanders, whatever they feel about it, will be forced to indulge in this training.
Responsibility for organisation is with commanders of the Royal Air Force groups, who will now have direct responsibility and authority to order station commanders to see that this "backers-up" training is done adequately. I turn to the speech of the hon. Gentleman the Member for East Wolverhampton (Mr. Mander), who appreciated the fundamental point of the scheme easing the duality of control on the aerodrome which has been the weakness hitherto and now making the commanding officer responsible for the defending of the aerodrome.
I will come to that in a moment. I agree entirely as to the psychological importance of men of the Royal Air Force defending Royal Air Force property as against Army troops being placed to defend the point of another force. The hon. and gallant Member threw out the challenge, "What about guns." The light guns are brought in for low-flying aircraft. Lewis and Bren guns are part of the equipment of the Royal Air Force Regiment. The heavier anti-aircraft guns are not so necessary for defending the areodrome but rather for defending the area. The Secretary of State said that those were part of the Fighter Command Forces used in conjunction and combination with fighter aircraft.
I am not trying to be awkward but trying to help. That looks rather like an anomaly that might give rise to considerable difficulty. I hope that the Government will bear it in mind and see if they can find a solution.
The answer is that our first line of defence is Fighter Command. It would be difficult for me to try and explain, and for hon. Members to appreciate, when discussing theory, all the practical applications. Very often one finds that theory goes to the wall and that practical application is much better. The hon. Member for East Woverhampton asked us to study enemy tactics when deserting aerodromes, and I can assure him that that point will be borne in mind. He also asked, as did the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Bellenger), where the men of the R.A.F. Regiment are coming from.
We have already a very large proportion of the men of the R.A.F. Regiment—men who have already enlisted for R.A.F. ground defence. Obviously, I cannot give the House the figure, but I can say that we have a great proportion of the men we need. There is a certain number from the Army and a certain number who have already been spoken for the Royal Air Force, and it is proposed that we should take over aerodrome by aerodrome, as we have the men of the R.A.F. Regiment adequately trained and adequately equipped. Until that time military forces will continue to guard aerodromes.
Yes, Sir, but there will be a date, not long ahead, when the operation of the administration of the scheme will change, and gradually the actual man-power of the defences will change over when we have men in batches of a sufficient size to put on aerodromes. The hon. Gentleman also asked whether station commanders would have specialised training. Well, at the present time these commanders—known in the Air Force as "stationmasters"—are among the busiest men in the Service, and at the moment we do not contemplate giving them specialised courses. Another hon. Member dealt with the misuse of manpower in the Royal Air Force and wished to distinguish between the R.A.F. Regiment and the Royal Air Force. He said that we have a surplus of man-power, and although that would not be an appropriate subject for debate to-day, I can give the House the assurance that whether we have or not, everybody on an aerodrome will have to do his job as regards defending the aerodrome, making sure it is fought properly and in accordance with the plan laid down, even if it means the sacrifice of everybody.
The hon. Member for North Aberdeen (Mr. Garro Jones) admitted that the scheme was complicated, but, if I may say so, he seemed to complicate it rather more by building up several "Aunt Sallies" and then knocking them down. He maintained that my right hon. Friend had shown that divided responsibility still exists. I can only repeat that the great importance of this new scheme is that divided responsibility does not exist on the station. So long as you have three separate forces at the same time in the direction of those forces, you are bound to have divided direction, and there is no harm in that provided they are clearly defined. What I think is entirely wrong is where you get duality with consequent confusion. There is a difference. But responsibility is clearly defined as laid down upon the station commander. The hon. Member opposite also said that many aerodromes, particularly civil aerodromes, were inadequately protected. That was answered by the hon. Member for Basset-law, who pointed out that there is priority of need for defence, although I would not try to make the point that we have all the defence we require. Not by any means, but the great thing is to defend those aerodromes which are essential to us at any time.
I do not think the hon. Member can say they are not defended, because he cannot fully know of the outer defences which are planned as part of the defence of the aerodromes, the bringing in of troops and mechanised units, and so on.
I can assure the right hon. and gallant Gentleman that I am not in the habit of making remarks without knowing they are true, and I can tell him there are aerodromes in this country which have no defence whatever within many miles of the aerodrome, other than an occasional patrol of the Home Guard.
I shall be glad to receive particulars of any aerodrome which the hon. Member thinks should be defended and which he feels is not adequately defended at the present time. I cannot say more than that. The hon. Member said that if one made a tour of aerodromes, one would find aeroplanes bunched together, and not dispersed, within a distance over which one could throw a hand grenade. Perhaps on occasions, for operational reasons, aircraft are bunched together, but only for a short time, a comparatively few hours at a time, because the general life of an aircraft is at the dispersal point. The hon. Member asked whether he could have an assurance that the Army would not, to use his phrase, cast off their duds when they are asked to second officers for the Royal Air Force Regiment. I can assure him that the Director-General of Ground Defence of aerodromes has a power of veto as to what officers shall or shall not come, but I want to say here that the War Office have been very good indeed in surrendering to us many virile and brilliant young officers who are to help in the organisation and administration of the Royal Air Force Regiment. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for South-East Essex (Flight-Lieutenant Raikes) as well as the hon. Member for North Aberdeen, asked who will decide the allocation of equipment. The answer is, the Chiefs of Staff, although they may, of course, act through the machinery of a sub-committee. The hon. Member for North Aberdeen then dealt with the question of unified command. I am not quite clear what he meant by that, but at any rate I cannot give him a reply, because it is not a matter which can be discussed in a Public Session.
He said he was disturbed by the elucidation of this scheme by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, and he made certain suggestions in regard to the higher direction of the war. He was good enough to give some advice to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister as to how he felt that matters should be adjusted. I think the hon. Member will appreciate that it is not for a mere Under-Secretary, sometimes called one of the depressed classes of governmental life, to answer such questions, and in any case, they are questions that would be more appropriate for the forthcoming Debate on the war situation. The hon. Member also said that he hoped it would not be thought he was making criticisms in any dogmatic spirit with regard to a Service with which he had close associations. I appreciate that point. I hope he will also remember it when some matter arises on the political front, and that he will not have any particular party affiliation. Finally, the hon. Member for Brigg (Mr. Quibell) dealt with the question of security rather than the question of defence, as did the hon. Member for Doncaster (Mr. E. Walkden). He told us of two visits he made to aerodromes. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has had some inquiries made concerning those incidents. I think the hon. Member will admit that there were no aircraft on the aerodromes, which were new ones.
There is a number of hard standings for aircraft projecting from and outside the perimeter track. All those are open to the public. On the day on which the hon. Member made his visit, it was possible to drive on to the aerodrome from any of those hard standings. As the hon. Member said, there were no units stationed there at the time. To provide adequate guards over such an extensive area would be a drain upon our resources which we could not contemplate at the present time, in view of the very limited amount of damage which the hon. Member and his party could have done in the absence of any aircraft. The hon. Member referred to seeing bombs lying about. What, in fact, he saw were bomb components. The bombs were without fuses and detonators and were not dangerous. He might have been misled by seeing a large number of cases marked T.N.T., but these boxes contained bombs in a safe condition.
Will the Under-Secretary say whether it is true or not that the bomb stores were completed and had been completed since August last, and that the bomb detonators and grenades were as stated in the communication?
On a point of Order. I cannot accept what the Under-Secretary has said. I went there, and I was about to pick one of them up and put it in my car. I should not have made my statements if they were untrue.
But they had no detonators. These were in another place and were under lock and key. It is useless to have a hand grenade or a bomb without a detonator and without a fuse. Nevertheless, I am only trying to explain to the hon. Member that none of us is satisfied with the security conditions which exist at certain of our aerodromes, and as a result of this Debate we shall look again at our arrangements and see if improvement can be made.
The hon. Member for Bassetlaw stated that people were starting to visit aerodromes in a spirit of bravado and were saying, "Look, I can walk up to the aeroplanes and walk around the aerodrome." I would issue this warning. This is war and our sentries have orders to fire under certain conditions. The House wants the regulations tightened, and we must do that, and "snoopers" will be "snooping" in future at their own risk. I am sure the House will support Ministers when it comes to a Debate on any unfortunate incident where a "snooper" may have been shot dead by a sentry
Here again I am not trying to be awkward. But suppose, for security sake you deploy enough men to make an aerodrome perfectly secure against our own nation, what is to prevent the vast host of Irish labourers employed in making these aerodromes from making plans of the whole thing and handing them over to the German Embassy when they go back to their country at intervals for holidays?
The hon. Member would not expect me to go into the checks which do or do not exist. I have been impressed by the statements of various hon. Members about the issue and collection of passes, and that is a matter into which we must inquire.
I do not think it would be fair to give such an undertaking. I will, however, give an undertaking that we shall review the measures we have in operation to see whether, in connection with the issue and collection of passes for Irish labourers or anyone else, any improvement can be made. I think that I have answered all the main questions that have been put to me.
Aerodromes overseas do not come under this scheme. The scheme is intended to apply to aerodromes in Great Britain. It is a new departure for the Royal Air Force to have a Regiment of its own. It will have its teething troubles, and it will be open to criticism. What we have to do is to build up a regiment of men with the commando spirit, bold and dashing and willing to risk all. We have the willing help and co-operation of the Army and the Royal Air Force. If we combine their qualities in this new force the House will be justified in giving support to our proposals.
Will my right hon. and gallant Friend answer one or two more questions? Nothing whatever has been said about naval aerodromes. What arrangements have been made with regard to them? Has any arrangement been made as to possible landing grounds which are not scheduled aerodromes? Over the Length and breadth of the country there are plenty of places that could be used by an enemy. The right hon. Gentleman told us that the group commander will be responsible for the training of the technical ratings. Will it be possible, as a matter of practice, to give adequate military training to those technical ratings, who will be engaged? Then there is the point of the Irish labourers, which was answered in a way which I am afraid is not satisfactory. My last question, which perhaps the right hon. and gallant Gentleman had better not answer, is, What is the estimate of the time that will be required to get this new force into adequate operation?
I shall not answer the last question. As to time for training, we intend to impress upon station commanders the necessity for giving the requisite number of hours' training per week. As to possible landing grounds, that is the responsibility of the Army. As to naval aerodromes, the Admiralty are working along the same lines in conjunction with the Royal Marines and the home Forces.