Motion of Confidence in His Majesty's Government.

Part of Orders of the Day — War Situation. – in the House of Commons on 29th January 1942.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr William Nunn Mr William Nunn , Newcastle upon Tyne West

During the two and half days that I have sat here, indulging in a considerable amount of useful exercise in springing up and down, I have had the melancholy experience of noticing that nearly all the points I wanted to make have been extremely fully dealt with. As I have a constitutional objection to wasting words, I propose to devote myself entirely to one particular aspect. I am especially interested in the criticism that has been uttered about the situation in the Far East. Although I know that the Prime Minister and the War Cabinet must accept full responsibility for what has happened, I feel that there has been something seriously wrong locally. I know the country fairly well. I think too much reliance has been placed upon what was called the impenetrable jungle. I said in August that there was no such thing as an impenetrable jungle in the Malay Peninsula.

I can look back for 30 years, and I remember that I was constantly encountering Japanese agents scattered all over the country. If a rubber planter in a remote part of the country wanted to report to his management on the condition of his trees, he had only to wait four or five days and he could get a Japanese photographer to take a picture. I came upon a head coolie on the border on the Siam side. I was rather struck with his fluency in languages and asked him how many he spoke, and I discovered that he was Japanese. He admitted frankly that he was a half-pay sergeant-major in the Japanese army and was working for Japan as well as being a thoroughly efficient head coolie on that estate. That was 32 years ago. In 1900 the Dutch in Java were nervous about the Japanese and spoke about it openly. Somewhere about 29 years ago I found on a small trading steamer run by a Malay on the West Coast of Siam an apparent coolie. I was attracted by a book that he was reading. It was a very expensive book upon the Russo-Japanese war. He was no coolie. I found them all over the place. Indeed, during the last war, when I had certain duties in connection with seditious active- ties, I used a Japanese as one of my most useful secret agents.

There has been a lack of appreciation of the awful danger which the Japanese presented in that part of the world. I think on the whole our information from the part of the world that I knew best, Thailand, was full. The Minister is a personal friend, whom I have known for more than 30 years. He is one of the few diplomats who really know the country, and he speaks the language fluently. I am not sure that even he has been fully supplied with information by his subordinates. Only an hour ago I received a letter from one of my old officers in the East. He reminds me of an incident that occurred when he drew attention to the activities of the Japanese on some islands off the coast going round towards Indo-China. He drew the attention of the local British Consul to it, and was told: What a wonderful experience you are having. How interesting. But officially we are not interested. In fact, we are not amused. That, I am afraid, has been very much the attitude of many of our people in that part of the world, and a good deal of the trouble we are in now is due to it. An answer was given yesterday to the effect that there was no official knowledge in the Foreign Office about certain aerodromes at Singora. Two days after the war started I was informed that the Japanese had five aerodromes there, and Singora is the headquarters of a British Consul. I have always known that there was one. It was the official aerodrome of the Siamese Government, and it has been there for many years, but the Japanese had five there. It does not seem to have been known. I am sure that is not due to slackness or inefficiency on the part of the present Minister, but someone has slipped up, and we owe a great deal of our trouble to that lack of precise information, that inability to grasp essentials. I do not believe there was a single jungle track all down the Malay Peninsula which was not fully known to the Japanese. We have had Japanese fishermen along the coast for 20 or 30 years. They know the whole of it. My hon. Friend the Member for Kidderminster (Sir J. Wardlaw-Milne) was not quite correct about Singora being a port. There is every possibility of it being a port if it is drained, but ships drawing more than three or four feet can- not enter. There are heavy sandbanks, and the inland sea, which looks so impressive on the map, is nothing but a shallow pond. It could be made a port, and now that the Japanese are in command they will see that it is a port.

A statement was made by the hon. Member for East Fife (Mr. Henderson Stewart) referring to Thailand as a rotten State. I do not think that that was necessary. The Siamese are suffering, as the people of Norway are, from having two or three members of their Government as Quislings, but the Siamese are not unfriendly to us; many of them are very much the reverse. I do not think I am disclosing anything dangerous when I say that a prominent Siamese in this country sent me a Christmas card. It was a nicely coloured picture showing Whitley bombers on the way to Berlin. That does not strike me as a clearly marked indication of a lack of sympathy. There is one thing I want particularly to say, and this is why I have persisted in rising and trying to catch Mr. Speaker's eye. A few days ago the London Press published a good deal of stuff about me and something I had said about the situation in the Far East. I did not know anything about it, and it was done without my knowledge. The only paragraph I have seen finished with this statement: The attention of the Foreign Secretary was drawn to these matters, and he took no notice. I am of a rather critical disposition, and I have no particular love for members of the Cabinet and Ministers. On the whole I have thought that they were set up there as fair marks. I want to say, however, that what was published in this paragraph is entirely contrary to the truth, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will note that. My experience over a considerable time is that the Foreign Office has been extremely receptive. I want to make this statement public.

I am a little critical of the bombing operations which, are going on against Thailand. I have seen three or four times lately in the papers a statement that Bangkok has been bombed and that the dock area has in particular been bombed. What is the dock area of Bangkok? There are a number of British-owned quays stretched along the river bank and two engineering works, both British-owned. One of them has a dock which is capable of taking in lighters and nothing else. They are mixed engineering firms largely concerned in selling motor cars. I really cannot see what particular object is served in bombing to pieces establishments of that sort. They are usable, but no ships of any size can get up the river. Ships drawing more than 12 feet, or 14 feet at the highest spring tide, cannot pass up the river. If bombing expeditions are made in that area, there may be aerodromes and so on that should be bombed, but if we have a shortage of bombing planes, surely the effective targets are the railways. The Northern railway from Bangkok to the north of Siam, to the point that is nearest in that area to the Burma Road, passes for miles over very high viaducts. Some hon. Members may remember if they are old enough those viaducts that used to be on the Cornwall line built by Brunel. These are all of that type, high wooden structures crossing wide deep valleys.

These are the places to bomb. It is no good wasting bombs on the innocent Siamese in the town of Bangkok. The only reference I have seen to bombing the railway which goes from Bangkok towards the Federated Malay States is that the railway junction at Singora had been bombed. That is the one point where it is ineffective to bomb the railway, because at that point the road stops. To the north of that then: are no roads. There are, however, wide rivers which the railways have to cross, and if the bridges across the rivers could be bombed something effective would be done. Here again I feel that our information is a bit lacking. I do not attempt to attribute blame, but there is some blame. Although the Cabinet and the Prim Minister have shouldered the blame, same of it must fall on those people who have been shortsighted, indifferent and perhaps even lazy, which is not unknown in those in the service.

There is no doubt about what will be the outcome of this Debate. I feel that when the Prime Minister spoke as he did the other day he could have done and said nothing else. Much as I agree with most of the criticism which has been made, I do not see what else the Prime Minister could have done. Could he have stood there with a bright smile on his face and said to the House, "I thank my hon. Friends and right hon. Friends from the bottom of my heart for the extremely kind things they have said about me," and then, turning his head right and left, have said, "Looking down this line of my colleagues, I want to tell you the truth, that I think very little of them"? Was that possible? The Prime Minister could have done nothing other than be did do. He has to take the responsibility. Is it to be imagined that the Prime Minister's head is so constructed that things that go in one ear come out at the other without making any impression on his mind? I am content myself to know that the House will give the Prime Minister a full Vote of Confidence and to leave it to him.