Ministerial Changes.

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

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Photo of Professor Archibald Hill Professor Archibald Hill , Cambridge University

The prevalent feeling of alarm is not due simply to disappointment at lack of success or even to concern over defeats and disasters we have suffered. The country can take these things if it is sure that something vital is not being missed, that we are working on a plan which is reasonably sound and that there is not some fundamental error, either in our organisation or in our outlook. There are many of us in this House who share this feeling, and we should be failing in courage and patriotism if we were to disguise any longer what we believe to be the several specific causes of our alarm. Perhaps we have hoped and been ready to believe too long that our misgivings were unfounded and that all might still be well. It has required the recent series of reverses and disasters to bring the matter to a head. The recent changes in the War Cabinet, although a step in the right direction, for which we are very grateful, are not enough. More drastic steps are still needed.

The fundamental axiom in modern war is that an exact knowledge of weapons and equipment is necessary at the highest level of all as the essential basis, not only of strategy and tactics, but even, one may say, of policy itself. Lip service is often paid to science and engineering, but these arc still regarded too often only as the handmaidens and not as the equal partners of statecraft and generalship. This, in these days, is dangerous illusion. If statesmanship and strategy are not properly provided all the time with accurate knowledge of weapons and equipment, their functions, their limitations, their cost in man-power and material for production, and their availability, we are heading straight for disaster. An expert knowledge of modern arms and their interaction with one another in operations against the enemy is an essential part of the directing brain centre in modern, world-wide, technical conflict.

This expert knowledge of weapons is not the same thing as a rhetorical habit of using brave adjectives about big and beautiful bombs, and the fate which will await Berlin next year—it is always next year—from them. Such adjectives do not impress the enemy at all. He quietly does some simple arithmetic about them and smiles; and when the British public find out by experience that big and beautiful adjectives break no bones, at any rate, in Germany, they are certain to ask themselves whether all the other stories they are told about of our being certain to win the war in the end are any more reliable. Nor can the sort of technical knowledge which is necessary for those who have to guide our strategy now be acquired as a part-time job by an elder statesman whose historical outlook inevitably leads him to think in terms of earlier wars. It requires the full-time attention of a technical section of a combined General Staff, composed for the main part of young and able officers of all arms who have grown up with modern weapons and equipment. No such joint technical section of a combined staff exists at present to guide the councils of the Minister of Defence. The Prime Minister has told us to-day of the complicated advisory arrangements which exist. They might be greatly simplified and strengthened by unification and by giving them a more positive function. By introducing a new dimension of space in warfare, and by altering the scale of time in which operations are conducted, the air arm has completely revolutionised strategy and tactics. This is inevitable, and it is almost better to forget our history altogether than to act as though the strategy and tactics of the present war were similar to those of Agincourt, Waterloo or the Marne. Henry Ford was not altogether wrong when he remarked that all history is bunk. All operations now, whether by land or sea, involve the use of the air arm. Most operations, at any rate so far as we are likely to conduct them, will involve a combination of all three arms.

It seems to many of us, therefore, to be essential that a great General Staff should be instituted, not merely a collection of advisory committees, but a body with executive functions, of which the technical section of which I have spoken should be a part, to deal with the general strategy of the war. This cannot be done piecemeal by the Chiefs of Staff of the three Services, briefed by their separate staffs, even meet- ing daily to sort the matter out. A full-time staff is required, with no other functions and with executive power, to consider strategical problems as a whole. Since the policy and supply and manpower are necessarily involved in strategy and tactics on the world scale, it would seem essential that a Deputy Minister of Defence should be appointed to sit in the War Cabinet to represent the combined staffs and to present their conclusions to the Cabinet as a whole. The Prime Minister has recently been so ready to meet the views of his critics—who really want him to remain Prime Minister—that I may be knocking at an open door.

Without going back to old controversies about the independence of the R.A.F., it is obvious that it has no right to claim a greater degrees of independence in operation than the other two Services. The operations of the other two Services are now all conducted in co-operation with the air arm. The coming of the air arm has altogether revolutionised their strategy. Is it reasonable for the R.A.F to claim that it alone of the three Services has an independent operational role to play?

Past controversies about the independence of the R.A.F. have had one most unfortunate result, the exaggeration of the importance of bombing an enemy country. Against an ill-defended enemy, bombing, no doubt, can quickly produce disastrous results, but so can other forms of offensive action against an ill-defended enemy. In the present struggle none of the protagonists is ill-defended now against attack from the air. In fact, fighter defence over the land is rapidly developing superiority over attack both here and in Germany. In daylight that was made obvious already in the autumn of 1940. It is even more obvious now.

In the dark, before we were ready for it, concentrated German attacks spread over many months, from bases quite near at hand, did, as we know, considerable damage, killed 50,000 or so persons and somewhat disorganised transport and production. It is far too easy, however, to exaggerate the loss we suffered. The total casualties in air-raids—in killed—since the beginning of the war are only two-thirds of those we lost as prisoners-of-war at Singapore, and there is no question which loss was the greater military disaster. The loss of production in the worst month of the blitz was about equal to that due to the Easter holidays. Far the greatest damage done to us by bombing has been in making us spend a large part of our resources—and continuing to spend them—in defending ourselves from. it. Over Germany our problem is much more difficult. The distances are far greater and machines of much finer quality must be used. Accuracy of navigation and of selecting targets is far less. The Germans have developed highly-successful countermeasures of various kinds, and the net result of bombing has long been known to be singularly small. The reports issued by the Air Ministry have been, in fact, far too optimistic, as perhaps for the first time the country realised when the three German warships sailed up Channel at top-speed after 4,000 tons of bombs had been dropped in their neighbourhood. Everyone now knows what those who can do arithmetic and have an elementary knowledge of the facts knew long ago, that the idea of bombing a well-defended enemy into submission or seriously affecting his morale, or even of doing substantial damage to him, is an illusion. It may be persisted in by those who use big and beautiful adjectives; its futility is recognised by those who prefer arithmetic. Aerial reconnaissance and neutral observers have already told us what the facts are. We know that most of the bombs we drop hit nothing of importance. We know that German devices for leading us astray are multiplying, and the quality of their defence by fighters and searchlights and anti-aircraft guns is, like ours, improving.

The disaster of this policy is not only that it is futile but that it is extremely wasteful, and will become increasingly wasteful as time goes on. An enormous effort has been put into it already, and in consequence there has been failure to provide the aircraft required to make land and sea operations a success, or even to save them from disaster. Ancient machines of inadequate performance were sent out recently on the dismal errand of trying to torpedo enemy warships under strong fighter protection. Defeat after defeat has resulted from lack of fighter support for our armies. The primary strategic function of the Empire of keeping the seas open for our ships, which might be taken over by the large, fast, long-range aircraft which we waste at present in night raids over Germany is improperly performed or not performed at all. Coastal Command operating with the Navy could be multiplied in effect several times, if suitable long range machines were made available in sufficient numbers for its use. This separate offensive function, therefore, must be kept within reasonable limits. Its only important effect against a well-defended enemy is to make him waste his substance in defending himself. That is a limited function, and its measure must be decided not by the Air Staff, with their historic prejudices, but by a combined General Staff, aided by the technical section, whose job it should be to consider the tactics and strategy of the war as a whole.

The Navy has persistently clung to the conception of the large capital ship as the basis of the Fleet. These ships cannot alone protect themselves effectively against aerial attack. Methods of fire control by naval anti-aircraft guns have been unduly neglected in recent years. The Navy has filled its capital ships with powerful armament; but no concentrated efforts have been made to develop, at all cost, adequate fire-control instruments suitable for a moving platform. Considerable improvements can and must be made in this direction. When all is done, however, we must remember that methods of aerial attack by bomb and torpedo will in all probability improve very much more.

What was already evident to those who had expert knowledge and were not influenced by tradition was made disastrously manifest by what befell the "Prince of Wales" and the "Repulse" Antiaircraft gunnery must and can be improved, though that is a fairly long-range project. What is certain is that attack by bomb and torpedo will improve much more. The modern stabilised bomb-sight need not require a long straight run of two minutes or more to get accurate aim. At considerable heights the duration of the straight run may well be less than the time of flight of the shell of the most powerful gun. If one in 20 of the bombs so dropped, a conservative estimate, reaches its mark, a battleship may not indeed be sunk, but her fire and control and other sensitive parts may be disorganised. Her fighting quality will be greatly reduced, and she will either have to return to port to be refitted, or she will be an easier prey to other means of attack.

These precious ships, each costing perhaps some 30,000 man-years to produce, are the greatest liability. The basis of the fleet of the future will be the aircraft carrier. She need not fight the battleship, she can keep out of range and engage the battleship with bomb and torpedo. If that is so, and I think it is inevitable in the end, a decision should be taken on the matter not solely by admirals and naval constructors brought up in the old tradition, but largely by a combined operational staff, after close consideration of all the technical and strategical questions involved.

In his speech last year on the Naval Estimates, the First Lord of the Almiralty referred to a scientific panel which had been appointed to examine the scientific and technical departments of the Admiralty. This panel has been sitting for about nine months. Its findings presumably will not be published, but I am sure the House would like to know from the First Lord—and perhaps he will tell us this week—whether due and urgent regard is being paid to their somewhat drastic findings. For all has not been as well as it should have been in all the technical departments of the Navy, and one would like to be sure that the results of this inquiry will not be pigeon-holed and neglected. One thing at least has happened, namely, that three of the ablest scientific people in the country have now been appointed in the Admiralty to undertake the extremely important task which nowadays is referred to as operational research. One would hope that a director of operational research may be appointed also in the combined operational or general staff which surely now must be set up.

One object of such operational research is to ensure that the actual results of various technical weapons, methods and equipment used in operations against the enemy are properly recorded and quickly sent back for examination. In Anti-Aircraft Command this process is highly developed with satisfactory results. In Fighter, Bomber and Coastal Commands and at the Air Ministry itself the same process goes on. We know all too well the kind of surgeon who, having performed an operation to the best of his ability, then takes no further interest either in the patient or in the operation. He is not the man who advances either the knowledge or the practice of surgery. If the necessity of proper methods of follow-up is recognised in surgical operations, how much more should it be recognised in military ones. The Army, unlike the R.A.F. and the Navy, has been backward in the development of this operational research. Continual and well-grounded complaints are heard about inability to get back quickly and accurately from operations against the enemy details of the working, the failures, the successes, and the teething troubles of new equipment. Brighter minds, with greater technical knowledge, more attuned to modern conditions of combined operations, are wanted at the War Office, not only to act as a telephone exchange and clearing house between research, development and production on the one side and operations on the other, but to guide the strategists and tacticians as to the possibilities and impossibilities, the probabilities and improbabilities of technical warfare. Those who know how great the need is are anxiously awaiting a sign that the War Office proposes to do something about it. All I got once when I called the attention of one of the Parliamentary Secretaries to the matter was a lecture on how well educated the staff already are and how little they have to learn from technicians. Well, until they do learn, we shall remain in the soup.

We have heard from the Prime Minister that we may now look forward to having one member of the War Cabinet particularly charged with looking after all questions of production. He will, one may hope, have associated with him a production general staff or executive, with a technical or weapons section in close and permanent touch with that of the combined strategical staff to which I have been referring. The Supply Departments under their several heads would report to him and be kept in step by him, and he would co-operate with the Minister of Labour on all labour questions affecting production.

If production, however, is to be rapid and as efficient as possible, new types must be few and fancy weapons must not be allowed to clutter up development and supply against the best advice of collective expert opinion. The common objection to expert opinion, that it is sometimes wrong, is highly dangerous doctrine. Expert opinion is far more likely to be right than opinion based on intuition. No belief in magic will prevail against German thoroughness. There have been far too many ill-considered inventions, devices, and ideas put across, by persons with influence in high places, against the best technical advice. One could tell a sorry story of them. They have cost the country vast sums of money and a corresponding effort in development and production, to the detriment of profitable expenditure of labour and materials elsewhere. One of the most costly of these, from which no good was expected at the time of its development by those who understood the problem, has now been entirely discarded. A minor one, though running still into five figures of expenditure, was recently referred to in these words:

The Committee pointed out that the various achievements claimed for the weapon were unsupported by any quantitative data and asked that such evidence should be supplied. In the present report further claims are made with practically no supporting experimental evidence. Trials of the device have been continuing for a considerable time without a technical report having been rendered. The Committee considers that this procedure is most undesirable With that conclusion, I think the House would agree.