Upon this situation, which I have so very briefly outlined to the House, there suddenly came the impact of Japan, a new combatant, long scheming and preparing, with a warlike population of 80,000,000, several millions of trained soldiers and a vast amount of modern material. This mighty impact fell upon our wide, prosperous but lightly-defended possessions and establishments throughout the Far East, all of which had, rightly, been kept at the very lowest level on account of the imperative requirements of the European and African theatres. I saw that some gentlemen who escaped from Penang announced to the world with much indignation that there was not a single antiaircraft gun in the place. Where should we have been, I would like to know, if we had spread our limited anti-aircraft guns throughout the immense, innumerable regions and vulnerable points of the Far East instead of using them to preserve the vital life of our ports and factories here and of our fortresses which were under continuous attack and all our operations with the field Armies in the Middle East?
The House and the nation must face the blunt and brutal fact that if, having entered a war, yourself ill-prepared, you are struggling for life with two well-armed countries, one of them possessing the most powerful military machine in the world, and, then, at the moment when you are in full grapple, a third major antagonist with far larger military forces than you possess suddenly springs upon your comparatively undefended back, obviously your task is heavy and your immediate experiences will be disagreeable. From the moment that Japan attacked, we set in motion to the Far East naval forces, aircraft, troops and equipment on a scale limited only by the available shipping. All these forces and supplies were diverted from or came from theatres which already needed them, and both our margin of safety and the advance of our operations have been notably, though not, I trust, decisively, affected.
Before I left for the United States early in December most of the principal orders had been given, and in fact we managed to reinforce Singapore by over 40,000 men, together with large quantities of anti-aircraft and anti-tank artillery, all at which were withdrawn, as I have said, from other points where they were sorely needed or even actively engaged. This was especially true in regard to modern aircraft. Unfortunately, before enough of these latter could arrive in the Malay Peninsular, although there was no delay in giving orders and many daring expedients were adopted by the commanders, before they arrived in the Malay Peninsular, the airfields in Singapore Island were already under the fire of the Japanese artillery from Johore, from which we had been driven out. We were not therefore able to repeat the air fighting from an island base which has been so remarkable a feature of the prolonged defence of Malta, now under increasingly severe attack. Nevertheless, the speedy reinforcement of Singapore by no less than nine convoys, would be judged a splendid achievement if the resultant defence had been crowned with success.
I have no news whatever from Singapore to give to the House. I have no information with which I can supplement such accounts—very scanty—as have appeared in the newspapers. I am therefore unable to make any statement about it, and for that reason, as I have no material for going into details, I do not propose to ask the House to go into Secret Session, and this Debate will be conducted throughout in public. I will, however, say this: Singapore was, of course, a naval base rather than a fortress. It depended upon the command of the sea, which again depends upon the command of the air. Its permanent fortifications and batteries were constructed from a naval point of view. The various defence lines which had been constructed in Johore were not successfully held. The field works constructed upon the island itself to defend the fortress were not upon a sufficiently large scale. I shall certainly not attempt at this stage to pass any judgment upon our troops or their commanders, 73,000 of whom are stated by the enemy to be prisoners of war—certainly larger numbers than that were in the fortress at the time of the attack. I shall not attempt, I say, to pass judgment. I think it would be a very unseasonable moment and a very ungracious task. We have more urgent work to do. We have to face the situation resulting from this great loss of the base, and the troops, and of the equipment, of a whole Army. We have to face the situation resulting from that and from the great new Japanese war which has burst upon us.
There is little more that I can usefully say at this juncture upon the progress of the general war. Certainly it would be very foolish to try and prophesy its immediate future. It is estimated that there are 26 Japanese divisions in the A.B.D.A. area, as it has been called, and we must remember that these divisions can be moved and supplied with far less tonnage, at far less expense, than is the case where European or United States troops are concerned. We have not so many. In the A.B.D.A. area I have mentioned the enemy have for the time being a waning command of the sea. They have the command of the air, which makes it costly and difficult for our air reinforcements to establish themselves and secure dominance. They are in many cases destroyed upon the ground before they can effectively come into action. We must, therefore, expect many hard and adverse experiences, which will be all the more difficult to bear because they are unaccompanied by the same sense of imminent national, domestic danger—that feeling of being in the business ourselves—which brought out all the best qualities of our people a year and a half ago.
If I were to dilate upon our hopes, these might soon be falsified, and I might be mocked by those who prove themselves wise by our failures. If, on the other hand, I painted the picture in its darkest hues, very great despondency might be spread among our ardent and growing Forces, and the enemy might be encouraged. I therefore say no more at this moment. Moreover, although it does not necessarily rest with me to do more than offer an opinion, I would deprecate a long series of speeches in the House censuring or explaining in detail the many tragedies which are occurring in the Far East, and I am not sure that we can afford to indulge ourselves too freely, having regard to the perils that beset us and to the ears that listen. On the other hand, if we look forward across the considerable period of immediate punishment through which we must make our way in consequence of the sudden onslaught of Japan—if we look forward through that and across that to the broad and major aspects of the war—we can see very clearly that our position has been enormously improved, not only in the last two years but in the last few months. This improvement is due, of course, to the wonderful strength and power of Russia and to the accession of the United States, with its measureless resources, to the common cause. Our position is in fact improved beyond any measure which the most sanguine would have dared to predict.
Beyond this phase of tribulation, which may be shorter or longer in accordance with cur exertions and behaviour, there arises the prospect of ultimate victory for Britain, for the United States, for Russia and China, and indeed, for all the United Nations—victory complete over the foes that have fallen upon them. The ordeal through which we have to pass will be tormenting and protracted, but if everyone bends to the task with unrelenting effort and unconquerable resolve, if we do not weary by the way or fall out among ourselves or fail our Allies, we have a right to look forward across a good many months of sorrow and suffering to a sober and reasonable prospect of complete and final victory.
I will venture to end by repeating to the House the very words I used myself when I resigned from Mr. Asquith's Government on 15th November, 1915. I apologise for quoting myself, but I have found comfort in reading them because of the occasion, because of what happened and because of our own position now. I said:
There is no reason to be discouraged about the progress of the war. We are passing through a bad time now and it will probably be worse before it is better, but that it will be better, if we only endure and persevere, I have no doubt whatever. The old wars were decided by their episodes rather than by their tendencies. In this war the tendencies are far more important than the episodes. Without winning any sensational victories we may win this war. We may win it even during the continuance of extremely disappointing and vexatious events. It is not necessary for us, in order to win the war, to push the German lines back over all the territory they have absorbed or to pierce them. While the German lines extend far beyond their frontiers, while their flag flies over conquered capitals and subjugated provinces, while all the appearances of military success attend their arms, Germany may be defeated more fatally in the second or third year of the war than if the Allied army had entered Berlin in the first.
Actually, as we now know, Germany was not defeated until the fifth year of the last war, and we are already far advanced into the third year of this present struggle, but, excepting in this respect, provided that you add Japan to Germany in each case, I find comfort in this passage which comes back to me like an echo from the past, and I commend it respectfully to the consideration of the House.