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.

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Photo of Mr Somerset De Chair Mr Somerset De Chair , Norfolk South Western

I have been away from this House for over a year, and I hope that the House will give me a little indulgence. If I have chilled any other speakers out of their opportunity, I apologise and hope that they will sympathise with me in the circumstances. I confess that I have had an exciting and romantic time while I have been away. T. E. Lawrence wrote in one of his letters that a year in the Middle East counted for 10 anywhere else. I know what he meant. Looking back on a year in the Middle East, one has such a variegated picture of many kinds of experience that it seems much more than a year. I have camped amid the timeless scenery of the Bible, floundered in mud in the Jordan Valley during that season of the year when even kings cannot go forth to battle, and found myself in deserts and floods; and, if I may say so, it is not an everyday experience for a Parliamentarian to find himself being carried blindfold at dawn into the city of the Caliphs, and there to have the bandages removed from his eyes, and to see, across the fast waters of the Tigris, the minarets and domes of that fabled city which is associated with the memory of Haroun al Raschid. It would be surprising if during this year I had not gained some experience.

But, before coming to that, I would like to say that I cannot help noticing a remarkable difference in the atmosphere, both in the House and in the country, between the time when I went away and the time when I came back. I left this country when the Battle of Britain was drawing to its close, in October, 940. The House was united and resolute, and a back bencher was almost as obsolete as the Dodo or the great Auk; he had no functions to perform. At that time, the country had its back to the wall, and was fighting in complete unity. It is a shock to come back to a House in which there is so much criticism of the way in which the war is being carried on by the Government. I am tempted to ask myself whether the war position is really so very much worse at present than when I went away that it would justify this change in the atmosphere. When I look back to October, 1940, I recall that bombs were raining night after night on this city and upon other cities of Great Britain; the country was holding out as the last bastion of democracy in the fighting line; the German armies were everywhere arrogantly pushing forward, and successful; Russia, with a semi-alliance with the German war machine, was at best an enigmatic neutral; America was hesitant, and clinging in large part to her underlying isolation; and out in the Middle East, when I first arrived, Italian armies had already advanced within the territories of Egypt, had occupied Sidi Barani, had driven us from British Somaliland, and this nation of Caesars lowered down upon us from the Abyssinian hinterland and surrounded the basin of the Nile.

When I arrived in the Middle East, one had a disheartening impression of the extent to which a mesh of Axis intrigue overlaid the whole of the Near Orient. In Syria, the Italian disarmament commission was influential, if not dominant, in the councils of General Dentz. In Iraq, the Germans had completely won over the Government of Raschid Ali, supported by an organisation called the Golden Square, and the Germans relied upon the Iraq Government to make their coup at the favourable moment. In Iran, a highly-organised fifth column bloc of 4,000 Germans, under gauleiters, was ready, mobilisable, only awaiting the word of the Fuhrer to seize important key points for a German invasion. Shortly afterwards, disasters were to follow in Greece and Crete, and then was to occur the German breakthrough into Libya. What is the picture now? Iraq was cleared of the Raschid Ali Government, and that centre of Axis intrigue, which was the key to the Near East, because thither had gone all the chief rebels, came under our influence; Syria was invaded by us, and that landing-ground on the way to the bases for oil in Iran and Iraq was taken over by us; and in Iran the German fifth column was completely liquidated. Our strategic position has been immeasurably improved. We have pushed up to the Turkish frontier and eastwards to make a junction with our Russian Allies. In the West, General Rommel's force has been reduced considerably in striking power. The threat to Tobruk, which had held out so gallantly for five and a half months, has been removed; the menace to Egypt has been pushed back; and the operations in the desert have brought tremendous relief to our Allies on the Russian front. In Russia, the Russian Armies, after reaching the limit of their calculated recoil, have now roared back into action, and Germany, for the first time in this war, has turned from the offensive to the defensive on two fronts.

Why should there now be an atmosphere of such violent criticism of the Prime Minister's conduct of the war? Coming back, I got a fleeting impression which I must give the House. The Prime Minister may agree that he is wedded to the Parliamentary system by indissoluble tics of long association, and that the Mother of Parliament is somewhat in the position of his spouse at the moment. It struck me that the spouse was a little ruffled at his flirting with the more glamorous British public—indeed, it seemed that he had been flirting with the public in the United States and Canada as well—and the mood of the House seemed to be that of a woman scorned. We know that hell has no fury like a woman scorned, and she was ready to tear his eyes out, whatever he suggested. When he said, "I want my speech broadcast," the spouse said, "No." I think that accounted for a good deal of the feeling, but, of course, that does not dispose by any means of the very large volume of criticism. I think that criticism has arisen because the public and the House are only just about awakening to the magnitude of the task before us. The Prime Minister has spoken about the equipment for the Libyan campaign. Before the battle, he said that we were meeting the Germans, for the first time, with equality of equipment. The Prime Minister's son yesterday went a little further, and said that we had a superiority of 7 to 4 in tanks over the Axis Forces. It is a very unpalatable fact that, with a superiority of 7 to 4 in tanks, we have suffered 18,000 casualties in this gruesome battle in the desert.

I would like the Prime Minister to clear up one point, on which I misunderstood him. He spoke as if the total forces we had at any time in action in the desert were 45,000. In that case casualties of 18,000 out of 45,000 would give the impression that nearly one in every two men was killed, captured or wounded, and that would be a most formidable casualty in this type of fighting. I know this type of desert warfare. The men usually manage to get away from the vehicles when they are attacked by aeroplanes which swoop down upon them and machine-gun them and attack them with cannon, shell and bombs, and it is the vehicles which usually get hit. When they come back they may find the vehicles hit and themselves safe. If the casualties have been as great as that you may take it that our position in vehicles and transport must be very serious indeed. It is not the men that can be blamed, and I am sure it is not the Government. I know the equipment was substantial. What is to blame? I do not think that you can blame this or that commander or this or that Minister. We ought to ask ourselves, Is it a contrast between the rival types of military machines? On the one hand, we have the unified command in the Nazi armies over the Task Forces, with trained and long-practiced co-operation between ground and air forces, and, on the other hand, the haphazard co-operation between three different Services. Great attempts have been made, apparently successfully in this battle, to get adequate co-ordination between the Services, and I know what happened up to July of last year. There was practically no co-operation at all. I can tell that to the House.

In conclusion, I would ask the House whether we ought not to have a unified command such as the Germans and the Russians have and begin it with the use of a unified task force for every operation under a unified commander such as we have for General Wavell in the A.B.D.A. area. One asks oneself why we have not shown more readily the ability to adapt ourselves to the new conditions. I think it is because our political and social systems have in the past been bringing the wrong type of man to the top. A roseate glow of self-complacency spreads its softening hues over Westminster, Whitehall, Cairo, Suez and Singapore. What is the origin of this phenomenon? It is the last bloody glimmer of the sunset of the "old school tie." Thank God, my old school in New South Wales has not got a tie. I believe that the Prime Minister is the one man with the fresh mind and outlook who can tackle these problems in the spirit that is wanted, and I shall have no hesitation whatever in giving him my vote in the Lobby.