Ministerial Changes.

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

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Photo of Commander William King-Hall Commander William King-Hall , Ormskirk

I feel that I must apologise to the House for detaining it at this late hour. My excuse for doing so is that I am sure many more able Members than I will wish to speak on the next Sitting Day, and that I did not take part in the previous three-day Debate. The Debate has ranged over a variety of subjects. For instance, the hon. Member for Cambridge University (Professor A. V. Hill) mentioned the desirability of paying more attention to scientists, and pointed out the danger of falling into the hands of inventors. So far as I am aware, nothing so bad has happened in this war as in the last, when a certain gentleman extracted £5,000 from the Admiralty while endeavouring to train two sea-lions to hunt submarines in the Solent. That, I may say, is an historical fact. Evidently it is thought that sea-lions which would follow ships if fish were thrown to them could be trained to follow a ship by ringing a bell. The scheme was to train sea-lions to follow a ship's propellor, with small floats attached to their nether parts indicating that they were in pursuit of a submarine.

Although a very wide variety of subjects have been covered in this Debate, I think it is fair to say that there is general agreement on why we are having it. Although, nominally, it is because of certain disasters in the Far East, which very seriously affect our military position and also our prestige, the real reason for the speeches made to-day is that any Member who has been in touch with his constituents lately is bound to feel there is general anxiety about the conduct of the war. There is a general feeling that something, somewhere, has been wrong, and I think it is our duty in this House, as trustees of the national cause, to find out what is wrong and try and put it right. In attempting to analyse the cause of what is wrong, we can conveniently divide the questions into two parts. First, there is the question of whether we have had or have now got the right kind of organisation for the direction of the war, and, secondly, whether that organisation has employed the right kind of strategy.

As regards the organisational point, the recent changes have gone quite a long way to meet what I think was wanted. In the second speech which I made in this House, I asked that there should be a real War Cabinet consisting of non-Departmental Ministers, and the present Lord Chancellor made a speech explaining to me that the War Cabinet as then constituted was, in fact, that kind of Cabinet. I could not follow that argument myself, and I think that events have shown it was not that kind of Cabinet. Nevertheless, I still regret that the present War Cabinet is not composed wholly of non-Departmental Ministers, and I think that we shall have to come to that before we really get the final form of War Cabinet. I do not wish to elaborate the argument about the Prime Minister combining his duty as Prime Minister with that of Minister of Defence, beyond observing that I am still not convinced that it is desirable to double these two offices in one person. After all, in war it is the results which are the test, and I feel that this new arrangement has a very much better chance of producing results than the old one.

I should like to add my congratulations to the Lord Privy Seal and I think it right to tell him, a fact which no doubt he knows already, that thousands of people are centring the very greatest hopes on him in his present appointment. If I were in his shoes—I dare say he has this feeling—it would very much alarm me to feel the enormous concentration of millions of rays of hope which are on him in his present office and his very great responsibility. I am very glad that we are being led at this time in our history in the House of Commons by a man of whom it is correct to say that he belongs to no party but to the House of Commons. Someone has hoped that he will not be uncomfortable. If it is not impertinent for me to offer him advice, I hope he will make a lot of people very uncomfortable. There are, at present, throughout our administrative machine many officials and big business men who have become temporary officials. I deprecate this potion that the permanent officials are the only people who are sluggish and slothful. Many a so-called "big executive" who has come in to show the Civil Service how to do its job, is worse than the permanent person. There are many in the administrative machine who imagine that we can wallow our way to victory through committees, which sit down to discuss what some other committee or committees have already recommended. I hope that within six weeks those people will begin to describe my right hon. Friend as "Butcher Cripps." There must be a "night of the long knives" in many parts of the administrative machine.

This new Administration starts on its career supported by the good will of the whole House and the high expectations of the nation. I ask myself, what is its task. That brings me to the whole problem of strategy. Our strategy falls into two inter-connected parts. There is the military warfare, using the word in its widest sense to cover political, economic, naval, military and air operations, and then there are the measures needed to organise the Home front which, after all, is the source and scat of all the power that has to be used in our military operations. I have listened to the whole Debate, except for half of one speech, and I have been impressed, as I have been in the past, by the extraordinary difficulty of sensibly discussing technical matters across the Floor of the House. I recollect one Member asking how the German ships got through the Straits with the big guns at Dover. It seems impossible to get up in Debate and explain to him that the guns were firing at a range of about 25,000 yards and that a shell at that range has an angle of descent of 45 degrees, that the ships were moving at 25 knots, that the beam of the ship is no more than 100 ft., that the gun only fires one round every 60 seconds, that there was mist, and other considerations.

I could multiply that by many other examples from what I have heard in this House and the difficulties which I have been in when I have tried to make a speech explaining the technical grounds on which it was stupid to suppose we could suddenly put an expedition ashore on the West coast of Europe. So I have come to the conclusion that criticism on military matters to be of any value must he of a very restrained type. Even hon. Members who understand a certain amount about military affairs, as many hon. Members do who have been to staff colleges or are serving now, are not in a position to know all the facts which one must have in front of one in order to make a sensible appreciation of the military situation. But one can ask a certain number of question and raise a certain number of queries, and I wish just to do that in three or four cases, taking each point as shortly as possible.

The question of raids on the coast of Europe has already been referred to. I am rather interested in that subject, because the day after the fall of France four other Members of this House and myself, including the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. V. Bartlett). sat down and drew up a memorandum, quite a simple, straightforward statement, pointing out that now that France had fallen out of the war it was perfectly obvious from the military point of view that all that could be done for 18 months at least as far as the West of Europe was concerned was to make raids on the coast. We asked that a map should be made showing the coast of Europe from Trondheim to Bordeaux to a depth of 10 miles, with every power station, post office, bank, public utility service, railway junction, wireless station and other similar points plainly marked. I felt convinced that no such map existed at the time. We submitted this memorandum to several Ministers, who received it very graciously, so much so that we were asked to keep it secret, which led us to think that something was going to happen. As is known, the Commando system was established, but had we been told when we submitted that memorandum that 18 months later all that would have happened were the trivial military episodes which have actually occurred, we should have been very disappointed indeed, and I think the Ministers concerned would themselves have rejected any suggestion that so little was going to occur.

There may be very good technical reasons, of which I am not aware, why we have not done more in this raiding business. I do not know, and I ask the question. It may be that the answer cannot be given, but I do say that not only would such raids have been valuable from the point of view of military activity against the enemy, but the Parliamentary Secretary to the War Office would find, I think, that a lot of the troubles which I presume are worrying him now in connection with the maintenance of morale among the troops on the home front would have disappeared if to-night he had in every command in England a certain number of men who were walking about and had been on raids upon the coast of Europe, and if to-night in England there were men in the commands who knew there was a sporting chance that they might be called upon next week or the week after to go on a raid. That is part of the military value of these operations against the enemy. After 18 months of what might not unreasonably be supposed to have begun by battalion and brigade raids, we might conceivably have got to the stage of carrying out an operation of some size around Brest where those two ships were taking shelter. I do not think we have ever been in the stage where we could have occupied and held the Brest peninsula, but in the course of these 18 months we might have organised 48-hour raids on such places as Brest, and left them in a pretty nasty looking condition.

Another question is that of Singapore, about which a lot has been said. The Prime Minister described the strategical problem. I have not had time to check it, but I believe it is correct to say that at Singapore there was the greatest surrender in numbers of British troops in the whole history of the British Army. It gives one some idea of the seriousness of the disaster. The Prime Minister described accurately and fairly in the last Debate the strategical problem with which we were faced on that occasion. We had to decide between Russia and Libya on the one hand and Singapore on the other. It is difficult to form any opinion of the correctness of the decision, because we simply do not know the fact which is needed in order to determine the accuracy of our strategy. The fact which we do not know, and presumably cannot be told, is not so much the absolute quantity of material which we sent to Russia, but whether what we sent was a substantial percentage of the munitions, tanks and aircraft which the Russians were using at that moment. If it was so, it is justifiable to say that His Majesty's Government should have taken the risk at Malaya, but if it was only 5 per cent., or 10 per cent.—and we have it on the authority of the Prime Minister that half of what was sent to Russia would have dazzled the eyes of the Commander-in-Chief in Malaya—then it was a token force. Half of that token force would probably not have made very much difference to the Russians

Perhaps it is fair to assume that what we sent to Russia was a substantial accession to what the Russians had to defend Moscow and Leningrad. If that was so, the Government could strengthen their case by giving us more definite information on the point. After all, it is all old history and cannot be of very much use to the enemy. I cannot help wondering whether, when the Japanese first went into Thailand, we should not have sent a couple of hundred fighters out to Malaya. There may have been shipping reasons in the way, but certainly 200 fighters might have made a very substantial difference. I am left with the impression that we did not think the Japanese were really going to attack us because they had not done so when they had much better opportunities, and we thought we could probably take the chance that they would not attack us at this juncture.

I want to refer to two other points on this aspect of our military strategy, and one of them is political warfare. I have told the House before what I think about that, and I will not repeat the arguments in support of my contention that we have very grievously neglected this very important weapon, of which we are singularly fitted to make use because we have a good cause and the other people have not. For some reason we do not seem willing to use this weapon. I was delighted to hear of Stalin's Order of the Day yesterday. It seems to put the issue fair and square between what might be called the Vansittart type and the others. Mr. Stalin's pronouncement should be studied by the political warfare executive. They cannot possibly get out of step with it. That political warfare executive is one of the most absurd machines for the conduct of business. It has three Cabinet Ministers, with three separate people underneath them. Who is in charge of whom and who gives orders to whom it is very difficult to discover. If you ask questions about them, you will not be given any definite information.

The political warfare business will never be got right until we have a Minister of Political Warfare with one Chief of Staff under him who has the same status as the other three Chiefs of Staff, a man who can sit in at the Chiefs of Staff Committee and see that political warfare gets its proper share of attention as one of our war-winning weapons. Of course, in order to conduct political warfare one has to have some ammunition, and I quite agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Mr. Stokes) that the Atlantic Charter is very poor stuff indeed. The political warfare batteries are firing a great many salvoes, but unfortunately it is mostly blank ammunition and does not mean a thing. One is left with a number of unanswered and unsatisfied questions when one looks at our attempts to counter Dr. Goebbels. While on the subject of political warfare, I agree with those hon. Members who have complained of the very unsatisfactory way in which the B.B.C. and the Ministry of Information generally put across the news of the home front. I think one hon. Member described it as "bull-dozing." It is most ridiculous. On many occasions the news is badly balanced and all wrapped up in a sort of aroma of "It will be all right on the night." Very often the most important matters of the greatest consequence, comparable to the fall of Singapore, get a small section of the news, and then all of a sudden there will be five minutes of a long-winded account of the gallant action of five Frenchmen having escaped from France—a perfectly gallant action, but out of all proportion to the rest of the news. Or it might be that there has been a sweep over the North of France and we are told a goods train has been shot up.

Finally, on this subject of our military strategy I would like to support the views of those who have drawn attention to the very dubious possibility of inflicting serious damage on the enemy through bombing. I stood here some months ago and expressed my opinion that on the basis of the facts at our disposal the big bomber had reached the stage which the submarine had reached in 1917. I think the enemy have found that out rather earlier than we have, and I think we have to be very careful indeed not to make a mistake in our policy in that direction. Something has to be done to meet the situation in which there are thousands of people in this country who rightly or wrongly are under the impression that they have been told by the Government that a great mass of bombs will descend in due course on the Germans, and that that will play a very substantial part in the defeat of the enemy.

I could go on with other aspects of the military side of our strategy, but I wish to stop there and give the House this general conclusion. After examining all aspects of our military strategy and the course of the war as a whole, my conclusion is that ever since the downfall of France we have had no general war plan. That has been our real difficulty. It has been difficult to have one, because the enemy has had the initiative, and we have been chasing him from place to place, going from one expedient to the next. If such a plan does not exist, there is no more important job for this new Government at the moment than to get down to it and draw up a general war plan, with general conceptions of how they are going to win the war. It must be based on sea power, but beyond saying that I will not detain the House.

When the downfall of France came it really roused us to fight for survival. At that time the Prime Minister was the epitome of the nation. We felt very near to him, and he must have felt very near to us. It was a time when although the bombs came down our spirits were lifted up. One felt that if one survived, one would be able to stand up and say, "I lived and fought in England at a time when England was alone, and there were death and destruction on the doorsteps." One would be proud to say that. They were dangerous times, but they were great times, and I feel that we are in dangerous times now, although there is no greatness at the present time. There is a sort of apathy, a sense of frustration. There is a "littleness" in the the air. Many other hon. Members who have spoken have given their evidence that they have the same kind of feeling. I believe that to you, Sir, sitting in that Chair, presiding over the Debates of this House, there must be a difference in the very feeling of the House between those great times and now. We have to recapture the spirit of those great times, because we are back in the dangerous times. We are certainly in very grave danger, there is no question about it. The danger, as the Prime Minister suggested to-day, is not so near and visible as it was, but taking a long-tern view, I think we are in even greater danger than after Dunkirk. How is this recapture of spirit to be done?

That brings one to the question of what action is needed on the home front. I do appeal to the new Government to exploit to the full this latent desire for sacrifice and for suffering for our cause which is waiting in the hearts of our people. But they want leadership, not submission; they want orders, not suggestions. I realise perfectly well that Ministers are entitled to say, "Give us concrete suggestions, not generalisations." I have a great deal of sympathy with that point of view. A great many Members have said in rather general terms what I have said about the need of rousing the home front. A Minister is entitled to say, "That is all very well and sounds all right, but what do I do to-morrow, what order do you suggest should be given?" One must not run away from that challenge.

I am going to say what I think should be done, great things and small. This is a brief list of them; they are concrete examples of what I would like to see the Government do. First, stabilise all salaries and wages at once. That ought to have been done long ago, on the first day of the war. I know the many difficulties there are, but it is better late than never, so do it now. Accompany that with legislation or some declaration which has the force of legislation, pledging that the first call on the economic resources of the country after victory will be a decent minimum wage for every citizen, coupled with a statement that every able-bodied man will have to give service to the State in some way or other if not otherwise employed. I am sure we have to do something to convince people that so far as we can plan in advance we shall not have this canker of unemployment. It is remarkable how the nation stood up to it year after year. We have to make it the first call on the country that this shall not happen again. That would be something for which each one would be fighting. Make it clear that everyone in the land, rich and poor, old and young, is liable to be directed to undertake any war work at the rate for the job. I know it is said that powers exist already, but it is not sufficiently dramatised. Everyone should wear an armlet bearing his national registration number which would mean that one would be liable to be directed, at a week's notice, from what one is doing now, if it was not considered essential to the war effort, to something more useful to the national effort at the rate for the job. It might mean that someone in a £1,000 a year job which was not useful to the war effort could be directed to a £4 a week job that was essential. Arrangements could be made for a moratorium and so forth to meet obligations such as insurance premiums.

I come to one or two smaller matters but which, taken together, are important. I want severely to ration tobacco and alcoholic drinks. I want to forbid the waste of space in the Press for prestige advertisements. I know all about the argument that the poor papers cannot live without advertisements; but I am not sure that it is correct that at present, with the smaller, four-page papers and with prices unchanged, they cannot live without advertisements. I remember one paper—the "News Chronicle," I think—carrying out investigations to see what was the largest-size paper which could live without advertisement revenue, and I think they decided that it was a four-page paper. Be that as it may, it is monstrous that when important Debates in this House get no space in the Press—not through any lack of good will on the part of the Press, but because there is not room—one sees a double-column advertisement in the papers saying, "Are you not glad you bought a so-and-so?" or "We cannot sell you anything at present, but buy such-and-such a product after the war," or something of that sort. Let advertisers, at least, be patriotic and intelligent enough to put in a map of the war zone, or something of that sort, and say, "Cut this out; it is presented to you by the XYZ organisation." I want to see further restrictions on the sale of cosmetics. I am told that that would cause an uproar among the women. I do not believe it. Already there has been a cut of 75 per cent. The trouble is that so many of these things are being done in an underhand way. The Government say, "Do not let the people know that it is happening; let us get at the wholesale end, and let the retailer spread out what there is to look well." But people are glad to know that they are making these sacrifices. These things should be dramatised.

I would stop horse-racing and dog-racing to-morrow. I know that there is a perfectly good case to be made for blood-stock and all the rest of it, but some hardships have to be undergone somewhere; and I believe that horse-racing and dog-racing do not go down well. They do not fit in with a nation fighting for its life. I would restrict the issue of clothing coupons for people who have incomes which presuppose a reserve of clothing in their wardrobes or the financial ability to buy secondhand clothes if they are short of any particular article. I put down a Question on this subject the other day, and an hon. Member said that I was suggesting that people with £5,000 a year should go naked. If I thought that there was any chance of hon. Members having to come into the House without clothes, I would withdraw my suggestion. I would prohibit the serving of any meals costing more than 5s. I would make the standard loaf compulsory. And, although I have set a bad example on my last point, I would limit all speeches in this House to a quarter of an hour.

There are 11 points. I am well aware of the objections, but those proposals are intended to be objectionable to vested and particular interests. They would either release money for diversion into war savings or would save shipping space, or both. More important than that, I believe they would begin to make people sense a community of sacrifice, a feeling that we were at last getting into our battle stations. I shall be told that there are administrative difficulties. Of course there are difficulties in war and they become harder the more the war goes on, but victory comes to the side which is most able and determined to overcome the difficulties. What I propose is only a start. More will be needed. The people of this country will be bitterly disappointed and rightly indignant if this new administration does not make its mark on the home front. It must be a heavy and hard "V" mark, right across the home front, to obliterate all those vested and particular interests and party political interests which are still hampering our full organisation for total war effort.