Ministerial Changes.

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

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Photo of Major George Davies Major George Davies , Yeovil

Like many others who have taken part in this Debate, I should like to pay my tribute to the Prime Minister for the way in which he has met the anxieties, not only expressed in this House, but expressed throughout the country, with regard to the efficiency of the Government. I think that it would be very ill-becoming to make any criticism when these changes have been so recent. There is no doubt that there has been a very widespread feeling of anxiety and apprehension throughout the country, mainly as a result of two episodes which have been dealt with during this Debate. First, there is the fall of Singapore, and, secondly, the passage of the German battleships through the Channel. It is upon the former that I should like to say a few words in this Debate.

As many hon. Members may know, I happened to be born about eight miles from Pearl Harbour, lived for 20 years in Honolulu and saw Pearl Harbour develop from a coral lagoon to a great naval station. I have interests in the Orient and in Manila, a member of my family is now liaison officer with General MacArthur, and his wife and two children, so far as I know, are in Manila. Some of my interests which were there, are there no longer, as they suffered five direct hits. Therefore, the problems affecting security in the Orient have been my close concern during my life. I think that we are apt to lose in our very natural anxieties, disappointments and apprehensions, a sense of proportion about the situation which has developed. Criticism about inadequate protection of our wide interests in that part of the world should go back to the time when we had vitally to change our naval policy. We were no longer in a position to regard ourselves as the unquestioned mistress of the seas, because we had to give up possessing a Navy equal to that of any other two nations. That was settled when the United States said they would tolerate it no longer, and we then had to adopt the position known as 5–5–3, the three being Japan. But Japan was not content with her three, and behind a smokescreen gradually increased her ration.

It became clear that we were unable to support the responsibilities we had discharged so long and with such great credit, not only to ourselves but to the world in general. And so it came about, in thinking out the strategic position which was primarily a naval one—because, after all, we as an island race regard all these matters from the standpoint of naval strategy—that our relations with France were such that we should rely on the French navy in the Mediterranean, our own Navy in the Atlantic, in the North Sea and in the Western Approaches, and the American navy in the Pacific. The next episode which entirely altered the balance was the unexpected and sudden defection of France, with all that it meant, not only by the loss of the Channel ports and the effect it had in the Mediterranean, but also the very vital effect it had in the Far East when Indo-China was practically surrendered by the Vichy Government. That one episode altered the whole balance of our strategy. I am only an amateur in these matters, but it seems obvious that what we had there was primarily a naval screen or umbrella protection which went from the Pacific coast—San Diego, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and up to the Aleutian Islands—across the Pacific to the naval bastion of Pearl Harbour, thence to the comparatively unimportant stations at Wake and Midway Islands, on to the more important island of Guam, set among the islands of the Japanese Mandate, and on to Cavite, the naval station in Manila Bay.

But the United States was inhibited from developments in Guam and Cavite, partly because of her unwritten agreement with Japan and partly because her policy was ultimately, in 1945, to grant independence to the Philippines, and it obviously did not make sense to spend millions of dollars in making a great naval station at Cavite similar to that which we were constructing at Singapore, which would ultimately go on a silver salver to the Filipinos, who could not possibly be building up a great modern navy. In those conditions it seems to me that to anyone looking at the map and seeing what a complete jigsaw puzzle all these islands of the East Indies and the Malay Peninsula make it is quite unthinkable that they could possibly be defended by putting in battalions or brigades of troops here, there and everywhere and thus dispersing forces, because all these islands bristle with possibilities of landings in every cove, every inlet, every mangrove swamp, the inland parts, many of them hardly explored at all, not having opportunities of defence in any strength.

Consequently, I think we have had to face the situation that the real defence of that part of the world was this umbrella of naval defence, to be provided largely by the United States, behind which we had our great naval bastion of Singapore, not developed to be a fighting centre itself but a refitting, repairing naval base for naval operations in that part of the world. Because if anything has been driven home to us, it is that which is common to us all, that naval command of the seas is vital to our lives and to the British Empire. Of course, the position with regard to Japan is that which has been outlined by the Prime Minister with regard to our strategy there. Why did we have to suffer humiliation after humiliation to our citizens in Shanghai? Why did we have to consent to the closing of the Burma Road for a period? Because it was vital that Japan should not be allowed to declare war on us, or we on Japan, if the United States were standing outside, and time had to be bought in that way. It is apparent, and has also been hinted by the Prime Minister, that finally the militarists of Japan could tolerate no longer the politicians, who realised the situation better than they did. They said, "This is the one moment to make a blitz attack on both the British Empire and the United States," and we know the result. A sudden stroke was made, and for the time being it paralysed the whole system of defence in that part of the world, right down to the South West corner of the Pacific, working down to Australia and New Zealand.

While it may be a hard thing for us at home to contemplate, I think the policy that the Prime Minister has outlined to us in more than one of his speeches is true, that the keystone of the whole arch of our present position is these Islands and the United Kingdom. If that goes, the whole situation goes. We often hear the criticism, Why are all these millions of men in khaki in this Island when we hear of the things that are happening in Libya and the Far East and so forth? That being so, and having to give that first preference, particularly having in mind the naval defence of the North Sea and the Western Approaches, it follows that all other considerations other than the Near East, the Middle East, the Mediterranean, the link up with the Caucasus, must for the time being to some extent go by default. I do not think it was ever contemplated that that default would be as serious as it has become by the efficient blitz assault by Japan, but if we regard these matters in their true proportions, we have to admit that if we are not strong enough to take on the concentrated strength of Japan in addition to our other liabilities, it is necessary for us to take that medicine for the time being. We must not be distracted from what are the main considerations, and those are the intact defence of these Islands and the operations in Northern Africa which link up with our great Allies, the Russians, in the Caucasus. And so while I share the great apprehensions and anxieties in regard to what is developing in the Orient, I try to look at it, and I believe that our people should look at it, as part of a whole scene in which we have to choose those points which are of the greater importance, and however disheartening it may be, we should put these other areas into their proper setting. Otherwise we shall be dispersing our Forces with no practical results.

The one thing we have to do is to concentrate this year largely on production. That is why the defence of these Islands is so important. Unless we can use to the full, as we are not doing at the moment, the productive capacity of this country and of the United States, we shall never be in the position to which we are looking forward, when we can put these temporary disasters into their right places. The whole crux of this war is Germany. Russia realises that. That is where the war has got to be won. These other parts are like the parts of a jigsaw puzzle; there seems no rhyme or reason to them at the moment, but if we are successful at the heart, those pieces of the jigsaw guzzle will ultimately be fitted in. The Japanese menace will never be handled unless we can win this war at its vital centre. Therefore, I feel that the Government should urge on the nation to view these problems as a whole and in their proper proportions because that will help very largely to allay the anxieties from which we are very naturally suffering. It those anxieties are not allayed by facts, they will indubitably have a disastrous effect, not only on our production, but on the keenness, on the "guts" of our fighting troops, who are necessarily just standing by week after week awaiting events. I hope, therefore, that as one of the results of the new reconstruction of the Government the nation will be taken into the confidence of the Government to as great an extent as possible, even if in some small respects it might possibly mean giving information to the enemy, because I believe any such considerations would be outweighed by the encouragement and the determination which will be given to our own people.