Fall of Singapore.

War Situation. – in the House of Commons on 17th February 1942.

Alert me about debates like this

I have also been asked whether the Government have a statement to make about the fall of Singapore. This extremely grave event was not unexpected, and its possibility was comprised within the scope of the argument I submitted to the House on the occasion of the Vote of Confidence three weeks ago. The House has, of course, many opportunities of discussing this and other aspects of the war situation. I am sure it would be a great mistake to try to discuss it to day in the short time available. I have no information to give to the House other than that contained in the public press, nor would it be prudent to speculate in detail upon the various evil consequences which will follow from the fall of Singapore. Moreover, it would ill become the dignity of the Government and the House, and would render poor service to the Alliance of which we are a part, if we were drawn into agitated or excited recriminations at a time when all our minds are oppressed with a sense of tragedy and with the sorrow of so lamentable a misfortune. Perhaps, at a later date, when we are more fully informed and when a carefully considered statement can be made, the House may seek for a further Debate upon the situation in the Far East and the prospect of its being retrieved by the combined action of the Allied Powers concerned. I could certainly not take part in any such discussion now.

However, as some hon. Members may be otherwise inclined, and as I did not wish to prevent them from expressing their opinions, I decided to move the Adjournment, as I have done. The Government will, of course, listen to the Debate, if it takes place, but I hope I may be permitted to remind the House of the extremely serious situation in which we stand, of the use that is made in hostile and even in Allied countries of any loose or intemperate language into which anyone may be drawn, and the importance of the House of Commons maintaining its reputation for firmness and courage in the face of adversity.

Mr. Pethiek-Lawrence:

It is clear that the House of Commons will wish at the proper time to have a Debate on the questions with which the Prime Minister has dealt to-day and with the events that have taken place since he made his last statement a little over a fortnight ago. It will want certain questions answered with regard to the past, but it will also want—and this is perhaps the most important thing—to satisfy itself as to the conduct of the war for the future. For instance, one essential question which the House will want discussed is how far the events that have taken place during the last few days in the Channel affect the possibility of an invasion of this Island. Another question which it will want to discuss is what is to happen in the Far East.

The Battle of Europe is not over, of course, nor is the Battle of Britain. What we are witnessing to-day is the beginning of the Battle of Asia. That battle will have to be fought, in the main, by Asiatics themselves, with such limited help as we are able to give them. The Chinese and Indian people comprise between them nearly half the population of the world. For that reason, the part that the British Government must play in the Battle of Asia will have to be political as well as strategical. This question will no doubt figure in the Debate, when we have it.

With regard to the time of the Debate, I think it would be undesirable to have the Debate to-day, as Members want to reflect upon what the Prime Minister has said. To rush at once into any long Debate would be a mistake. On the other hand, it will be the wish of the people of the country that the Debate should not be postponed for any length of time. I have taken the opportunity of consulting a number of my hon. Friends, and we think that one day this week would be desirable to have the Debate. [HON. MEMBERS: "Too soon."] It would be not merely an inquest on what has taken place, but an opportunity for the House to put forth its views about what should be done with regard to the future.

Photo of Mr Winston Churchill Mr Winston Churchill , Epping

I am afraid I could not agree to a Debate this week.

Photo of Viscount  Turnour Viscount Turnour , Horsham and Worthing

I should like, on behalf of those of us who have approached the Prime Minister in the past with regard to the method of making announcements, to thank the right hon. Gentleman for his usual courtesy in acceding to what is, obviously, the wish of the House, namely, that when statements on matters of great public moment are made, there should be an opportunity for comment upon them. I find myself in complete agreement with him as to the time of the Debate and, if I may say so, not in agreement with my right hon Friend the Member for East Edinburgh (Mr. Pethick-Lawrence). It is not a question of having a one-day or a two-day Debate. When we discuss this matter we must have a brand inquest on all the things which have occurred—and they have been of a most calamitous nature—since last we had a full-dress Debate in this House. It is, obviously, for the Government and for the Prime Minister to settle the time, having, of course due regard to the general wishes of the House, but, above all, we have to remember the attitude of the country at this moment which is one of profound concern and a great desire for definite information, in so far as it can be given without injury to the interests of the State.

I wish to ask only one question of great importance, namely, on the subject of the Burma Road, but before doing so, I wish to enter this caveat. I cannot accept the defeatist line which is being taken in some quarters in the Press that all this is inevitable, and that, if we question its inevitability, we are showing panic. I cannot accept that point of view. I only want, in a sentence, to challenge those in the Press who make that statement knowing that I, humble individual as I am, have behind me in doing so, the feeling of many in the country, because it happens that I have just come from addressing a mass meeting on behalf of the Ministry of Information in the North of England, and I found that members of the audience and the principal people there all said, "What we want to know is the truth. We are not satisfied with this attitude in the Press that you must not ever question the actions of the Prime Minister, that you must not ever question the actions of the Government, and that all this is inevitable." I say that the people who make those statements are the real enemies of public morale. I do not believe for one moment that the right hon. Gentleman, with his tremendous regard for this House and public opinion, has ever lent himself to what I can only describe as a conspiracy on the part of those people. They are endeavouring to say to the country, "You must never question the Fuehrer; the Feuhrer is always right." I say that the proper place for the people who write those articles is in Germany.

In regard to the Burma Road, I want to ask this question. I do not think the House yet realises the tremendous danger in which both China and ourselves are, as a result of the events of the last 48 hours. I can well imagine that the Prime Minister could not possibly give us any detailed description of military movements, but I want to put a point to the House which is, I think, in a great many minds and is certainly in my mind, as one who was for seven years in the India Office. I want to know what has happened to those large bodies of troops that have been raised in India. We have been told, again and again, that over 1,000,000 men have been raised in India and we know that a comparatively small number are serving on other fronts. I say that the message which should go out from this country to the Government of India is that they must strain every nerve to preserve that vital road to China. If we do not do so, the injury that will come to our prestige and morale in Asia will be at least as great as that which has come to it from the fall of Singapore. I do make a most earnest appeal to the right hon. Gentleman to give us, if possible before the close of the Debate to-day, some information on that point. The great generalissimo of the Chinese people, Chiang Kai-Shek is, at this moment, still in India and it must be that discussions have been going on with him. I want it to be put to the Government of India that it is as much a vital part of their duty to hold that road at all costs, as it is to hold the North-West Frontier.

Photo of Mr Winston Churchill Mr Winston Churchill , Epping

I will, with the permission of the House, answer the Noble Lord's question. I would not dream of discussing the matter to which he referred, or the movements or disposition of troops for some time, certainly not in Public Session.

Photo of Sir William Anstruther-Gray Sir William Anstruther-Gray , Lanarkshire Northern

Without pursuing the question of the Far East, may I ask the Prime Minister one question about the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau Inquiry? What type of court will inquire into this matter? I think the House would be agreed that the Inquiry must take place in camera and that very likely no report may be published, but I feel that the people would be comforted if the Inquiry were to be conducted by, perhaps, a High Court Judge, rather than that it should be a departmental inquiry, conducted solely by the Services, in which case there is always the danger that people will think that things are being whitewashed and glossed over. I wonder whether the Prime Minister would answer that question?

Photo of Mr Winston Churchill Mr Winston Churchill , Epping

It is not a departmental inquiry, but I have already said that I do not propose to give information about its composition.

Photo of Sir William Anstruther-Gray Sir William Anstruther-Gray , Lanarkshire Northern

Does the Prime Minister really believe that that will satisfy the people of this country?

Photo of Mr John Wardlaw-Milne Mr John Wardlaw-Milne , Kidderminster

I came into the House with the conviction that it would be the Prime Minister's intention to discuss to-day the very grave events of the last few days, and I must admit that I am a little disturbed at the idea that this discussion is to be postponed. I do not wish to quarrel with the decision to which the Prime Minister has come in asking the House to postpone discussion of these matters, supported as he is by the right hon. Gentleman who spoke for the Labour Opposition. I do think that the House is entitled to know, and to know now, if this matter is to be postponed, when that discussion is to take place. I cannot conceive that it is in the public interest that it should be postponed for any long period. If it is to be postponed for two or three days, I do not think any of us would feel entitled to quarrel with that, but I, frankly, do not see what the advantages of postponement are to be. What we are concerned with to-day is not to find fault with individuals. There is no question of disunity in the country. There is no question of the unity of the House behind the Prime Minister. The Vote which he received so unanimously the other day shows that, but what is at stake now is the whole conduct of the war. What we are concerned with is the whole conduct of the war and those conducting the war, and the House of Commons is the proper place for that to be discussed, and I suggest that if the matter is to be put off, we should have a definite undertaking that there will be a discussion, at least not later than the First Sitting Day of next week.

Photo of Sir Percy Harris Sir Percy Harris , Bethnal Green South West

I appreciate the attitude of the Prime Minister and his difficulty in making a statement on the particular incidents with which we are most concerned, but I would impress upon him the fact that the public outside are immensely disturbed and that these incidents have such reactions on the welfare of the Commonwealth that they would like the House of Commons, as the place where such problems should be discussed, to have a full Debate. I appreciate that there are alternatives. One is for us to go on to-day and have a desultory Debate, and, as I understand it, the Prime Minister is opposed to that course. The second is to have a Debate on another day this week. I understand that he takes great exception to that proposal. On the other hand, I agree with the hon. Gentleman opposite; I am convinced that the country would resent an indefinite postponement of a full-dress Debate. If the Prime Minister will say on an early day, say, the first Sitting Day in the next series of Sitting Days, I think the information would satisfy the House, which would be content to go on with the next Business, but an indefinite Debate, in the light of the fact that the Inquiry which the Prime Minister has promised us is to be in secret and that the composition of the tribunal is not to be revealed, will, I believe, cause grave discontent. The Prime Minister is a good House of Commons man. He has the confidence of the country. He need not be afraid of his position—there is no rival for his post— but let him listen to the counsel of his friends. We are a democratic country, and there is a real feeling—it is not merely in the Press; I do not want to overrate the importance of the Press, but everywhere I have been I have made contacts, and they have all been looking forward to a Debate in the House of Commons—that some of these real mysteries, some of these problems which are so difficult to explain to the public, should be thrashed out in the one and only place where they can be thrashed out.

Photo of Hon. Hugh O'Neill Hon. Hugh O'Neill , Antrim

I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham and Worthing (Earl Winterton) that it would not be politic to press the Prime Minister at this moment to have a Debate this week. All I want to say is a word or two with regard to the passage of the German ships unhindered—perhaps not unhindered, but at least undestroyed—up the Channel last week. I rather felt, when the Prime Minister was speaking, that perhaps he hardly realised the immense amount of public anxiety which there is with regard to this matter. It may be true, as he says, that as a result of it German naval dispositions are more favourable to us than they were before, but even if that is so, it will not allay public anxiety. There is just one question I should like to ask the right hon. Gentleman. Apart from this secret Inquiry which is to take place, is there to be an examination into our general naval dispositions at the time when this episode occurred, and, if as a result of the Inquiry, any blame is attached to any individual will the public be informed of it in the same way as they were informed by the Government of the United States after the inquiry that took place into the Pearl Harbour disaster?

Photo of Sir William Davison Sir William Davison , Kensington South

The Prime Minister in his statement said that one of the advantages possessed by the German admiral in deciding when to take the risk of taking his ships from Brest, and whether to take them up the Channel or round Southern Ireland, was that he had the opportunity of choosing the weather which would be favourable. In that connection, is my right hon. Friend aware that the Germans are in daily receipt from their Legation in Dublin of information as to the weather conditions in the British Isles, and in view of the increased danger to the safety of this country which this episode of tak- ing the German ships up the Channel indicates, is it not about time that the British Government took some steps to prevent the operation of a German wireless transmitter from their Legation in Dublin, which daily conveys reports not only of the weather but of all that is going on in the British Isles to Germany? Is he further aware not only of the danger to this country but also of the loss of prestige we are suffering by having this wireless station in the midst of the British Isles?

Photo of Mr Frederick Bellenger Mr Frederick Bellenger , Bassetlaw

I should not have taken part in this Debate had it not been for a remark made by my hon. Friend the Member for Kidderminster (Sir J. Wardlaw-Milne). He seemed to suggest that we could divorce any future Debate from persons and policy. I doubt it very much. After all, the whole conduct of this war depends on the right kind of leaders and the right kind of policy, and I go so far as to suggest to the Prime Minister—and I think he must be aware of it—that there is in the country, and indeed in this House at the present moment, a feeling that we have not got the right kind of persons to direct this war to a satisfactory conclusion. I only wish to say to the Prime Minister, whom I may say I have supported when he was not the Prime Minister—never once did I vote against the Service Estimates, and I would like him to bear it in mind at the moment, when I may have to criticise his conduct of the war—that he must take account of the feeling that is growing in this House and in the country that we have not got the right kind of Government. I hope that will come out very fully in the Debate when we have it, and that no hon. Member, whatever his party allegiance may be, will be afraid to express it, even, if the Prime Minister insists upon it, by going to a Division.

Photo of Mr Aneurin Bevan Mr Aneurin Bevan , Ebbw Vale

Would it not be to the convenience of the House if the Prime Minister could indicate what his intentions are, because we are neither having a Debate nor are we not having a Debate? It would be very much more to the point if the Prime Minister could tell the House when he proposes to give the House an opportunity of having a full-dress Debate on this matter; and may I implore him to be as resilient as he sometimes claims he is and to realise that it is our duty to express the anxieties of the country in this House?

Photo of Mr Winston Churchill Mr Winston Churchill , Epping

I certainly had thought that sometime during the next series of Sitting Days would be appropriate for a Debate. It is not very long since we had a three-day Debate. [An HON. MEMBER: "Something has happened since then."] If hon. Gentlemen would be so kind as to read carefully what I said, they will see how very clearly—as clearly as I could without giving away military information—I indicated how grave the position was in the Far East, and how terrible are the forfeits that have been and will be exacted from us. I certainly feel that the House should have a Debate; there is not the slightest reason to object to a Debate; on the contrary, I will give every facility for a Debate and for a Division. The House is absolutely master. If its confidence is not extended to the Government, if it does not believe that the war is being well managed, if it thinks it can make arrangements which would lead to the war being better managed, it is the duty and the right of the House to express its opinion, as it can do in a proper and a constitutional manner.

Therefore, as I say, I certainly consider that a matter of this kind should be the subject of a Debate, but at the present time I have absolutely no news which has not been published in the Press—no news of any importance or interest. I do not quite know when the news will be received, but still I think that during the course of the next series of Sitting Days there should be a Debate on the subject, and I hope it will be a long Debate. I do not know whether it can all take place in public. I am absolrtely certain that I could say things to this House which would arouse hon. Members to the seriousness of the situation and to the way in which the dangers may be aggravated by action we may take or fail to take, but I do not think I could say them in public at all. Let us say then that there will be a Debate; I was only deprecating that it should be held now, as it seems, in a mood of panic. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] I think that a very excited Debate taking place here today, while our minds are oppressed by what has happened, may easily have the effect of causing a bad and very unfavourable reaction all over the world. That is what I say. I stick to it. I think it would have been a bad thing to have had a Debate to-day. I certainly do not think I could undertake to prepare a full statement on this matter again by the third Sitting Day.

I must ask the House to realise the enormous burdens falling on me, not by my work as Minister of Defence, but by repeated and constant attendance on this House, which I never expected I should have to face, but which I will face. But I think I should be more prepared to make a statement next week. I hope that some information will come in which will enable me to make it. I beg that the Debate shall be absolutely frank, measured only by regard to the public interest. I beg that it shall be searching; I beg, I implore hon. Gentlemen—their manhood and honour require it—that they shall give effect to their opinions.

There is one point I have been asked about the Inquiry. It is quite true that I said I did not propose to give information about the Inquiry. I still think it would have been better that it should have been an Inquiry conducted for the purpose of giving information to the people responsible for carrying on the war, but as the question has been asked, I do not mind changing what I said on that subject, in deference to the wishes expressed by the House. This has already been decided; what I propose is that Mr. Justice Bucknill should preside and that Air Chief Marshal Sir Edgar Ludlow-Hewitt and Vice-Admiral Sir Hugh Binney should represent the two Services concerned.

Photo of Mr Leslie Hore-Belisha Mr Leslie Hore-Belisha , Plymouth, Devonport

Are there any exact terms of reference?

Photo of Mr Winston Churchill Mr Winston Churchill , Epping

Their scope is on those points which I indicated in my statement. I hope that the Inquiry will be quickly conducted. Of course, if anyone is found to have been guilty of a dereliction of duty, obviously disciplinary action will follow. Certainly, in that case, I am sure it will be possible to make some statement to the House, but I do not want this Inquiry, which deals with secret matters of defence around these Islands upon which our lives and safety depend, to be subject to a fought-out discussion and wrangling and intricate Debate in the same way as has been done in time of peace, when a submarine like "Thetis" was lost. I think it would be a great pity to do that. I hope the House will realise there is a very great desire to do as well as possible among all those who are serving them, whether in the House or in the Forces.

Photo of Mr Frederick Pethick-Lawrence Mr Frederick Pethick-Lawrence , Edinburgh East

I am very much indebted to the Prime Minister for meeting the House in the way he has done in what he has just said. I am very glad he has consented to give us the particulars he has done. I think he owed it to the House. With regard to the Debate, I think, after consultation with my hon. Friends, that if we have a debate next week, that will also meet the case satisfactorily. Perhaps I might be allowed to say one thing. The Prime Minister said something which I think was misunderstood. I should like the Prime Minister to take the opportunity of explaining that he did not mean what I think was thought in parts of the House. When he used the word "panic", I think the context of his remarks seemed to suggest that there was panic in this House or, at any rate, in the country. I am quite sure that the Prime Minister himself did not envisage that, because it is quite unnecessary for me to assure him that there is no panic whatever in this House and I do not think that there is any panic in the country. I feel convinced that what he had in his mind was that there might be panic in other parts of the world, and I hope that my interpretation of the Prime Minister's remarks is that which he would put upon them himself.

Photo of Mr Winston Churchill Mr Winston Churchill , Epping

I gladly give the assurance that I was not imputing panic to any Members of this House, but I think, none the less, that a Debate held to-day in excitement, and pierced with charges and counter-charges interchanged across the House at this moment of great anxiety and distress would undoubtedly be contributing to what I might have called the "rattling" process which is going on in some parts of the Press, not only in the Press of this country, but freely telegraphed both to Australia and the United States, which tends to give a feeling of insecurity, which I am quite sure the House would agree is detrimental.

Photo of Sir Alexander Erskine-Hill Sir Alexander Erskine-Hill , Edinburgh North

In view of the very real public feeling and anxiety in this matter. I wish to say how much some of my friends and myself are grateful to the Prime Minister for having appointed so authoritative and impartial an Inquiry as this. I think we would like to emphasise the fact that [he House is anxious for a Debate as soon as it can be arranged, but we are prepared to leave that to the Prime Minister.

Photo of Mr Austin Hopkinson Mr Austin Hopkinson , Mossley

May I say this for the Prime Minister's consideration: Would it not be possible to deal with this question of the operations in the Channel before we tackle the whole question of the conduct of the war? Members will have observed a deliberate attempt to cause trouble between two branches of our fighting Services. An hon. and gallant Member of this House of high rank, who ought to know better, has done his level best to cause a quarrel where no quarrel exists. This has been ably seconded by the Beaverbrook Press and Members of this House. Everybody in the two Services concerned knows there is no cause for quarrel whatever. It is only ambitious politicians who are deliberately attempting to cause trouble and drive a wedge between two branches of the fighting Services. Therefore, I think it is desirable that we should tackle the Channel operation as a separate matter and not as part of the general conduct of the war, so that once and for all the House and the country outside may be informed that this so-called quarrel does not exist, never has existed, and that the two Services concerned are working together in complete amity and co-operation. I do think that the hon. and gallant Member of high rank to whom I have referred should come down to this House and justify some of the most damaging statements he has been making.

Photo of Mr Winston Churchill Mr Winston Churchill , Epping

I am afraid I cannot undertake that the Inquiry shall be completed before the Debate takes place. When the Inquiry was set up last week, I asked that it should be completed, if possible, within a week. I understand that it began its work yesterday. Therefore, it should not take long. I entirely agree with the hon. Member for Mossley (Mr. Hopkinson) about the good relations existing between the Air Force and the Navy.

Photo of Mr Austin Hopkinson Mr Austin Hopkinson , Mossley

The Inquiry, necessarily, will deal with things which cannot be disclosed to this House—Service details which do not intimately concern this House. What actually happened is, of course, perfectly well known in the Services concerned, and it has to be concealed from the general public. Hence, no particular advantage is to be gained by postponing the Debate till the Inquiry is concluded.

Photo of Rear-Admiral Sir Murray Sueter Rear-Admiral Sir Murray Sueter , Hertford

Could not the Prime Minister relieve himself of some of his great burden by appointing a Minister of Defence, and could he not create a War Cabinet on exactly the same lines as that created in the last war by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George)? In his wisdom, he created a War Cabinet of Members without any departmental responsibilities, and they carried us successfully through the last war.

Photo of Mr William Gallacher Mr William Gallacher , Fife Western

When the Prime Minister spoke on the last occasion, he referred to a saint, whose name he had forgotten, who refused to do the right thing because the devil had advised him. I am certain that the Prime Minister would listen to advice from the devil, but not to advice from the Member for West Fife. However, I will try to break down his resistance. I will offer two suggestions. During the week-end I was among the workers. I was among shop stewards and other workers at mass meetings and in the streets. I can tell the Prime Minister that the feeling is terrible. Among the mass of the people there is no confidence in the Government as a Government. It is not enough for the Prime Minister to say that the House of Commons has the responsibility for changing the Government if it does not like the Government. He is more responsible than anybody else for bringing the Government into harmony with the desires of the people. The Prime Minister said that it was a crime to create disunity among the people. He referred to those who are trying to disrupt the Government. It may be possible to create more disunity among the people and to destroy their morale, by trying to defend the indefensible. Will the Prime Minister take note of that? He cannot defend the personnel of the Government. Do not let him talk about millstones around the necks of people until he gets rid of the millstones around his own neck. I see that the Prime Minister has gone. I am sorry he has not been patient enough to listen to this.

The Prime Minister has said that the strategic intention was the defeat of the Nazi army in Europe. Before we have a discussion, there are two things that he should decide. One is to come to that discussion with proposals for a great reconstruction of the Government. I see that other hon. Members are going now. The Fuehrer goes: the yes-men follow. Is it any wonder that we are losing the war: is it any wonder the Empire is lost, when we have such types as that? They are simply crawlers. It was the Prime Minister's own lieutenant, now the Minister of Information, who said that the people on the other side did not deserve to be dignified by the name of yes-men, because they were only nodders, the poorest specimens he had ever seen. If the strategic line is the defeat of the Nazi army, the sooner the leader of this country has immediate personal discussions with the leader of the Soviet Union the better it will be, in order that wide strategic plans can be worked out for saving Europe. It is no good the Prime Minister talking of the preparation of America for 1944 or 1945. The future of Europe and this country is being now decided on the Soviet-German front. If the plans now being worked out by Stalin and his colleagues are successful, the future is saved. If not, we are faced with a terrible situation. Has the Prime Minister nothing to say in the formulation of those plans? The Prime Minister should come forward with plans for reconstructing the Government and for having immediate personal contact with the leader of the Soviet Union and with the leader of the great popular army of China, General Chiang Kai Shek.

Photo of Major Abraham Lyons Major Abraham Lyons , Leicester East

Will the Lord Privy Seal, in discussing this matter with the Prime Minister, bear in mind the grave issues involved and the number of back-benchers who want to take part in the Debate? Will he suggest that not less than three days should be allotted for the Debate, in order that everybody who desires to speak should have ample opportunity, and would he also consider extending the time of the sittings, as was done on the last occasion?

Photo of Mr Clement Attlee Mr Clement Attlee , Stepney Limehouse

I will convey those points to my right hon. Friend.

Motion, "That this House do now adjourn," by leave, withdrawn.