Ministerial Changes.

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

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Photo of Commander Sir Archibald Southby Commander Sir Archibald Southby , Epsom

A month ago it was becoming increasingly obvious that neither this House nor the public was satisfied with the policy and the war strategy which were being pursued. In modern war things move fast, but the cyclonic rush of recent events, most of them, alas, detrimental to the Allied cause, has been without parallel in history. Two events of outstanding importance took place in the week following Monday, 9th February. First, the German ships, which unduly optimistic propaganda had led the public to believe were damaged almost beyond repair in their docks at Brest, steamed up the Channel at high speed and regained the shelter of German harbours. Second, on Sunday, 15th February, the Prime Minister came to the microphone and told us that Singapore had fallen. These two events shook not only the Government but the British Empire to its foundations. Nay, it would be fair to say that they profoundly influenced opinion throughout the world. They produced the most unfortunate reverberations in the United States of America just at a time when harmony and understanding between the two nations was of paramount importance. How far they shook and perturbed China and Russia it is difficult for anyone not in the Government to know, but it would be foolish to assume that those two great nations, now our honoured Allies, could be unmoved by such momentous events. In my opinion, these two events were not unconnected. The cause of both lies in the fact that we have departed from the fundamental strategy based on sea power plus air power, which, alone, will enable us to survive the perils which presently beset us and emerge triumphant from this struggle.

The milk has been spilt. It is, therefore, unprofitable to cry after it. But it is by no means unprofitable to study the mistakes which led to the spilling and to endeavour to gain advantage thereby. We started this war with all too little sea and air power. Alone, we could not fight Germany in the North Sea and in the Atlantic, Italy in the Mediterranean, and Japan in the Pacific. We were led, especially by those who extolled the skill and efficiency of the French armed services and what they called the "unconquerable spirit" of the French people, to place our trust—an unjustified trust, as it has, alas, turned out to be—in the fact that France would be our Ally. The French Fleet could have contained the Italian Fleet. We should then have had sufficient sea-power to have operated in home waters and the Far East. Then France collapsed. The task which the Navy has had to perform is one beyond the capabilities of any navy but our own. With superb courage and resource, the British Navy met every call made upon it. With such help as has been afforded by ships manned by gallant officers and men of the Free French, the Polish, and, above all, the Royal Netherlands Navies, we have withstood the sea power of Germany and Italy, we have guaranteed to the people of these islands, not only their food and their ability to wage war, but their very existence. In addition, we have supplied and maintained our troops in many parts of the world. If ever proof was needed that this country's war effort must be based, fundamentally, on sea power plus air power the events of the past two years have furnished that proof.

In war, opportunity usually comes but once. Failure to seize it leads to disaster. I believe that history will record that our great opportunity came when General Wavell achieved his brilliant victories in Northern Africa. Then was our moment. Then we should have poured in everything we had. There were no German troops in Northern Africa. Tripoli might well have been ours. The course of events in French Northern Africa might have been completely changed in our favour. The applying not only of our sea and air power, but of our matchless ability to wage amphibious warfare, would have enabled us to do in the Mediterranean what Japan has done in the Pacific, and what the Axis has done in the Mediterranean, namely to seize and hold islands whose strategic importance cannot be over-estimated.