Ministerial Changes.

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

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr James Milner Mr James Milner , Leeds South East

I shall not attempt to follow the hon. Member for West Bristol (Mr. Culverwell) into the many pertinent matters which he has raised. Nor shall I take up time by putting forward the views I had intended to express upon the reconstitution of the Government. I think the best that can be said on that matter is that they will be judged by results. Therefore, I pass from that subject, merely wishing my right hon. and learned and patient Friend the Lord Privy Seal good fortune because, as the hon. and gallant Member for Ormskirk (Commander King-Hall) said, great hopes are certainly centred upon him in his office. I wish to draw attention to certain considerations in connection with the Far Eastern situation which I regard as of considerable urgency and as not having had much attention directed to them. I thought it was rather significant that the only substantial omission, perhaps, from the Prime Minister's speech was that no mention was made of India. I do not propose to speak of the political aspect of that situation, as I am in agreement with a good deal of what has been said to-day on it and my views are well known. All of us must hope that the Government will take early and very drastic action.

What I want to speak about are certain considerations of a practical character which are really fundamental to success in that theatre of war, and the continued neglect of which may lose us the whole war. I do not know whether it has occurred to the House, but it has been somewhat curious to note that Hong Kong was largely defended by Canadians, that Singapore was defended by a mixed force, approximately half of them Indians and a number of Australian and British troops, and that Burma is, I understand, very largely defended by Chinese troops, presumably sent there at our request. I wonder whether hon. Members have also noticed that a few days ago it was reported in the newspapers that an appeal had been sent by the Viceroy of India to this country for reinforcements—reinforcements—to go to India, whilst at the same time statements have been made, which I think are of a most misleading character, to the effect that there are 1,000,000 recruits in India and that immense quantities of material and so forth in the way of munitions are coming forward from that country. What is the truth about that situation? In my view there has been the most gross and scandalous neglect of the recruitment and training of the Indian people, and the most appalling lack of effort in the development of a munitions industry in India that it is possible to conceive.

It is no pleasure to me to make those comments, but I must make them if I am to enforce action in these matters in the immediate future. What is the position about recruitment? There is a strict censorship on all news emanating from India. I have collected from Indian papers and elsewhere one or two items of information which are either very little known, or, if known, are insufficiently appreciated. In the first year of the war, 85,500 Indians were recruited into the Indian Army. Included in the figure is the normal intake of 30,000 and about 30,000 reservists and territorials, leaving only an additional recruitment of about 25,000 recruits in the first year of the war. The total of 85,500 is surely very unsatisfactory in a population of 400,000,000 compared with the recruitment in the same period of something over 100,000 in the Dominion of New Zealand, with a population of 1,500,000. In the first 18 months of the war India recruited something like 100,000, whereas New Zealand recruited something like 150,000.

That is a very serious state of affairs. There is no shortage of volunteers in India. The British Army could have as many volunteers as it wished from India but no real effort has been made to recruit, train and equip them. If my information is correct the result has been that villagers have been sent abroad largely untrained, some having never even fired a rifle. We have seen the consequences at Singapore and elsewhere. In the case of one district, there had been no technical exercises for months up to the date of my information. Is it any wonder that we are losing all those bastions in the Far East? I hope some reply will be given on these very important matters. No doubt it will be said that there were no instructors in India to train the hundreds of thousands of recruits who presented themselves. It is untrue. Hundreds of officers are doing censorship and other unimportant manufactured jobs in India to-day. There were many British battalions in India with capable officers and N.C.Os. who could have done the instructing. Many more such soldiers could have been sent from this country.

Only on Sunday I went into a neighbouring park, and one of the park rangers came to me and complained that he, a fit man who has served 26 years in His Majesty's Forces, a large portion of the time as a regimental sergeant-major, could only be found the work of watching that children did not fall through the ice into the lake. There are thousands of such men available in this country. It might he said that there are no officers, but again there are numbers of officers in India, who could be posted to these recruits and many more could have been sent from this country. It will also no doubt be said, indeed it was said many months ago by the Prime Minister himself, when this question was raised, that there was no equipment available, and that it was no use recruiting men if you had no equipment for them. But an Indian has to be conditioned for a year before he can be put through a strenuous training, and there is ample work to be done in a number of directions for that period without weapons as I explained on a previous occasion.

The general allegation that equipment is lacking is at any rate partially true. Why, then, are we being misled by being told, particularly by the Secretary of State for India, that India is turning out a great quantity of munitions, is almost self-supporting, and so forth? No doubt the output has largely increased. But it is a mere fraction of what could and should be done. I notice that Sir Tej Sapru had some comments on mismanagement, comments which were not repeated in all the newspapers, but only in some. Take steel helmets, almost the simplest form of stamping. Some months ago, not very early last year, a certain battalion left India from a certain port without any tin helmets, and in order to have a full complement of weapons had had to collect those weapons from other units in the district. That is after two and a half years of war.

I want to put to my right hon. and learned Friend another point which has some importance. This Government, something over a year ago, sent out a commission under Sir Alexander Roger to India, Australia and elsewhere, and presumably they reported. Indeed, we know from the newspapers that they reported, I think it was to the Minister of Supply, on the result of their careful investigations. I believe the report was a most exhaustive and valuable one. What has become of that report, and what action has been taken on it? Has progress been made? No doubt some progress has been made, but Sir Alexander Roger, whom I do not know personally, has the reputation of being a great driving force. Have his efforts been brought into the work? Has any single member of that extremely capable and distinguished Commission been employed in any capacity by the Government to further the development of the munitions industry in India, in this country, or elsewhere?

We read that among the things they recommended was the sending-out to India of qualified men. There is a shortage of men qualified to carry out munitions work, and probably of qualified engineers. What has been done in that respect? Is it true that the British Government, up to certainly quite re- cently, declined to send out those men, and that a favourable decision has only just been come to? This is really an extremely serious matter. It is quite possible—although I hope it may not be the case—that as my hon. Friend who last spoke said, Rangoon and indeed the whole of Burma may be overrun. Rangoon, if I remember rightly, is about three hours by aeroplane from Calcutta, and five or six hundred miles by sea. It seems to me that there would not be any great difficulty for the Japanese, who may by that time have command of the Indian Ocean—again, one hopes not—to land troops at Calcutta, which, being the largest town in India, has of course very large interests in the munitions industry, with absolutely disastrous results the end of which no man can see. This matter of recruitment, training, equipment and munitions is one of the most urgent to which the Government can direct their attention, because it seems to me that there has been complete failure on the part of the Commander-in-Chief, the Viceroy and Indian officials to appreciate the urgency of the situation, a situation which, had it been tackled in time, might have now borne an entirely different aspect. The majority of British officials in India live in a by-gone world. At this very moment I imagine they will be dining in short coats and all the rest of the palaver, in Calcutta, only a few hundred miles from the front line. I could say a great deal more on these matters, but I hope I have said enough to indicate why India to-day, instead of supplying as she could have done had she been properly organised, hundreds of thousands of fighting men and huge quantities of munitions to our forces in the Far East, is herself asking for reinforcements from the British Government.

I therefore urge upon the Government that the most pressing attention be given to this matter. I hope that the necessary political steps will be taken at the earliest possible moment. I think that Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru's suggestions are well worth taking as a basis for discussion. At the same time I press that a purge take place among those responsible from the highest to the lowest for the lack of prevision and action in the matter of recruitment and training and in the matter of munitions and equipment and that my right hon. and learned Friend look into the matters and take the most determined steps to put them right in the immediate future.