Ministerial Changes.

Part of War Situation. – in the House of Commons on 24th February 1942.

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Photo of Colonel John Macnamara Colonel John Macnamara , Chelmsford

I should like to commence my speech by reinforcing the remarks made by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Totnes (Lieut.-Colonel Rayner), and to say that I agree with him wholeheartedly on the subject of accepting responsibility in the Services and in other matters of our war effort. I should also like to ask that it should be made more possible for officers to accept responsibility, because in many of our spheres of work at present we find insufficient responsibility delegated to us. For instance, it is not sufficient for a dentist and a doctor to certify, both of them in writing, that a soldier must have false teeth. A commanding officer also has to have a look at the man and sign. a certificate. We go on filling up form after form but we are not really allowed to take decisions even in quite unimportant matters.

The new Government has been universally welcomed, and I am sure I welcome it too, though I do not find myself a critic of what has been done in major ways. I am talking now of the strategy of the war. I consider that in most major matters the Government have acted wisely and correctly. They have decided that, about all, the homeland must be defended and that no risks may be taken. They were right, I think, for venturing to Greece and Crete and so on. Now we ask ourselves. Where does the trouble start? What is the lynch pin that we have to look for in order to put right some of the things that were going wrong—and a lot has been going wrong? One wants to ask in all seriousness whether the Government have always been properly advised. We have so often heard statements made that such and such a fortress or Colony is impregnable and can hold out for ever and so on, and yet we find that at Hong Kong, for instance, the water ran out after a week. It strikes me that the Government were not properly advised on that matter and were told something which was untrue, that the Colony could hold out. We see similar instances in Malaya, and it alarms us a very great deal to find that only when the Japanese are landing on the Island of Singapore are the people on the spot beginning to arm Chinese volunteers and send them to the front. It could have been done months before.

Now I am going to ask, Are the Government being properly advised on the future period of the war? The country has stood the loss of Hong Kong, Malaya and a great many islands in the East Indies, but I feel that very shortly Malta and Cyprus and Syria are all going to become centres of the war. I want to know now, in advance, whether the Government are absolutely certain that all the defences of those territories are tied up in such a way as to be able to meet the threat that is likely to develop against them. I suggest to the Government that they must find out. In the past we have had very cocksure statements from distant parts of the Empire in which we have been assured that everything was all right, that a place would hold out for ever, and so on. This time we want to make quite sure that it will be so, and that we shall not find airborne troops suddenly descending on Cyprus and learn that the airfields were not defended. I suggest that the Government will have to satisfy themselves by sending to the spot somebody who (1) knows what to look for, and (2) will tell them the real truth when he comes back, in order that anything which is wrong may be put right.

I say all this in advance, because I feel that the next move by the Germans is likely to be in the Mediterranean and in the Near East. That is obvious from the whole strategy of the war. They may strike at Cyprus and then at Syria, with a view to getting to the back door to the Caucasus, and we must realise that we have very great responsibilities not only to ourselves but to the Russians in this connection. We must look at the front as a whole running from the Arctic right down through Russia, through Persia, Syria, Palestine and Egypt into Libya, and must realise that we are holding not only Cyprus and Syria but also the left flank of the Russians. Should the Germans break through on that part of the front and get into Cyprus or into Syria through any fault of ours which could be rectified now by proper inspection in advance, and should they thus get to the back door to the Caucasus and behind the Russians, the Russians may very well then say, "What sort of an Ally have we got in Britain?" I say all this in advance, because we have had so many post-mortems and explanations afterwards that this time surely we ought to learn our lesson. Let us find out by sending somebody to o inspect. It is no good asking somebody on the spot to do it or somebody sent out from Egypt. Somebody ought to be sent who is independent, who has the confidence of this Government and who knows what to look for and will come back and tell the truth, so that we shall not have another disaster in that part of the world, because the consequences would be extremely serious.

Next I want to ask whether we are really co-ordinating our strategy or are pottering. There is an awful feeling that we are pottering at this without really working on a strategy which is based on a long-term policy. Let us consider, then, this war which stretches from the Atlantic coast right across continents to the Pacific coast at the other end of the world. It is a very wide theatre of operations, and we ought first and foremost to get it into our minds and into the minds of the public that we are not going to force the Germans or the Japanese, or probably even the Italians, to surrender by mere bombing. The armies of the world, including our own and including that of America, cannot move successfully either across the seas or on land unless we have local air superiority, which means having aeroplanes fitted for gaining that local superiority on the spot. Aeroplanes—and by that I mean fighters mainly—cannot get to these far-distant theatres of war in which we have to fight unless we first have complete command of the sea. The soldiers cannot move, either our own or American reinforcements, to take their places in one theatre of operations or another, or to take the offensive on the Continent, unless we have command of the sea. Therefore, whichever way we look, from the point of view of the Air Force, the Army or the Navy, or from the supply point of view, we must retain for ourselves command of the sea. This should fit in very well with an Army programme. It will take time to plan and develop and to be got ready for major operations. Until it is ready we cannot really take the major offensive ourselves.

The House ought to concern itself with the great seriousness of the naval situation to-day. Capital ships are, on the whole, a good guide to naval strength. Some nations have more submarines, others more destroyers or cruisers; but, roughly speaking, the supporting ships generally have the same proportion as the capital ships. In home waters—let us take home waters first—Germany has seven capital ships, either actually ready or to be ready within a few weeks. All those capital ships are brand new. I think I am right in saying that they have all been built since 1925. They constitute a first-class battle fleet of very great strength.