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

That has nothing to do with it. If we could have helped Poland by sea power, I should have been prepared to apply sea power to its maximum extent. Had we pursued that strategy which I have ventured to outline we should have gained a direct line of supply to Russia through the Dardanelles, and it might well be that to-day Turkey would have been fighting on our side. What was our second mistake? When Germany attacked Russia, thus causing Russia to enter the war on our side, it was important that we should do everything in our power to aid, sustain and comfort our great Russian allies to whose magnificent efforts in the last few months we owe so much. Whatever the future may have in store for our two nations, I hope and pray that we shall never forget the debt we owe to Russia. Our greatest contribution to the joint war effort lay surely in our ability, by the exercise of sea power, to facilitate the flow to Russia of that war equipment which America—not then in the war—and we ourselves could supply. But our supply of war materials to Russia should have been conditioned, not only in our own interests, but in her interests—and in the interest of all those peoples now under Axis domination who look to us and to Russia for their salvation—by the paramount necessity of ensuring, so far as we could, with the means at our disposal, that our ability to exercise sea and air power in the Pacific, where it was obvious that we must expect attack from Japan, was not impaired.

Alas, we made a wrong decision. Equipment which would have saved Singapore, Malaya, Surabaya and Rangoon, went to Russia. One month's supply of the aircraft sent to Russia would have saved Malaya. I am not saying that we should not have sent supplies to Russia, but that we should have considered prior claims. It is unprofitable to consider now the causes which led a nation, once our faithful Ally, to draw the sword against us, but for two years the vital necessity of preserving Malaya has been plain. Only by means of a naval base at Singapore or Sourabaya, or both, could we hope to exercise that sea power which would protect Australia, which would guard for us vital supplies of food and raw materials, and prevent Japan winning those victories which her domination on the sea and in the air has made possible. Singapore could be held only if advance air bases in Malaya were held.

Events on the Continent always loom so very big to us. The temptation to think that our destiny will be decided on continental lines is therefore hard to resist; but our destiny has been in the past as it is being now and will be in the future, decided on the sea. It is true that, owing to the disasters which overwhelmed the United States at Pearl Harbour, her naval power has been sadly impaired; but that does not excuse us; indeed, it makes our fault in strategy all the more grievous, because had it been possible to maintain Singapore, American sea power could have reached Singapore by another route, and would have been able to operate from there. The present results of the loss of Singapore are apparent, but the effect on the future of the British Empire is incalculable. If, to-morrow, Germany fell before Russia, as I hope and pray, and believe, she will, we should still have to face a long and expensive war against Japan in the Far East; and we must regain command of the air and sea in the Far East if we are to beat Japan. We should be most unwise if we did not realise that the status quo in the Far East may never be completely restored.

There are four vitally important strategic points in the world—the Panama Canal, Gibraltar, Suez, and Singapore. The fall of Singapore directly affects Suez. Failure to maintain sea power in the Far East does not only threaten India, but our trade in badly needed food and raw materials from Australia and New Zealand and our ability to help the Chines people in their magnificent struggle. against the Japanese. It also affects directly Egypt, Libya, Malta, Gibraltar, and the whole of Africa. It sounds a terrible thing to have to say, but from the point of view of military strategy it is true to say that, if we had no hope of saving Singapore, and indeed, its loss was inevitable, since we failed to hold the outlying aerodromes by which alone it was possible to maintain Singapore, then the defence of Burma became of such overwhelming importance that we should have diverted to Burma all the military equipment we could possibly find. I hope and trust that we shall hold Burma, please God we shall, and thereby stem the tide of the Japanese advance, but if we have to choose between Sourabaya and Burma—a terrible choice—I hope we shall choose Burma, because by maintaining Burma we shall maintain India and the possibility of exercising sea power in the Indian Ocean.

We have little enough margin with which to cover our commitments in the Mediterranean and in the North Sea. Italy still possesses large and efficient capital ships. Vichy still possesses a fine Navy, the destiny of which has not yet been decided, and now we have back in Germany three ships that we had hoped had been immobilised, if not more than half destroyed. I hope and pray that we have not been unwise enough to send any more of our all too few capital ships out to the East. What has happened there cannot for the present be undone, but proper naval strategy demands that we should make no mistakes which would imperil our command of the sea in Home waters or weaken such command as we now enjoy in the Mediterranean. During the last war we were rightly deaf to all demands to weaken the concentration of naval strength at Scapa Flow and Rosyth, which will be known for all time as the Grand Fleet. Germany made one mistake in this war when she dissipated her sea strength. She paid the price for that mistake when she lost the "Bismarck." She will not make that mistake again. Knowing how short we now are of capital ships, it was right from the German point of view and strategically sound and imperative that she should make an effort to get those three ships back from Brest if they were capable of being moved. Weapons may alter, tactics may alter but the grand strategy of the British Empire remains based upon the sea, and departure from it will, inevitably, bring disaster now as it has always done in the past. Therefore, at all costs we must concentrate the maximum sea power at our command in Home waters to meet the menace which now exists of a powerful German squadron able to operate from Germany. If it could defeat our naval forces and could destroy our convoy system, it would bring us to our knees in an incredibly short time.

There is, however, one other serious consideration which I would recommend to the attention of the House. It has been said with truth—and I can claim to have said it myself—that there is only one place where we can lose this war, and that is in the Western approaches to these islands. It is the only place where we can be defeated. Once defeated there, the whole of our war effort in every part of the Globe is bound to crash to the ground. As in the last war, so in this, it is the British Fleet in Home Waters which dominates our war effort all over the world. If Japan could reinforce Germany in Northern European waters—and it is by no means impossible for her to do so—it becomes apparent that, whatever hazards we may have to face in the Far East or in the Near East, we must at all costs have a sufficient concentration of naval power around these islands to meet such concentration of German and Japanese sea power as could be brought to bear upon us. The episode of the "Scharnhorst" and "Gneisenau" has two lessons for us. First, Germany has proved that a naval base can be rendered practically invulnerable from the air, and secondly, our failure to maintain within reach of the Heligoland Bight a striking force of large capital ships which could have brought the German squadron to action and destroyed it. We ought to have learned the lesson that large capital ships cannot be operated in closed waters unless they are protected, by fighter squadrons from aerial attack. The result of our failure to learn that lesson was, apparent in Malaya. We paid the dread price which war exacts from those who neglect the lessons which war teaches. In the last war we had a fleet based at Scapa Flow and Rosyth, and given good Intelligence, it was possible for that fleet to meet and engage a German squadron which emerged from the Heligoland Bight. It was a kind of glorified Tom Tiddler's ground. If the German Fleet got too far out we could get at it, and if we had sufficiently good Intelligence it was possible for our ships to intercept the enemy.

With those lessons before us, I suggest that we embark upon the task which is essential. We should see to it that the base from which our Fleet operates is made as impregnable from air attack as the Germans have shown it was possible to make Brest. Whatever other priorities have to be considered, the first priority at this time, in view of the jeopardy in which we stand, should be the provision of every anti-aircraft gun, every searchlight and every fighter aircraft and all the ancillary equipment that is necessary to make whatever base we choose, where it is strategically right, completely invulnerable from the air. May I remind the House that time presses. The passage of German ships up the Channel the other day has profoundly shocked public opinion, not only here but throughout the world, and for that reason I hope that some of the findings of the inquiry which has been set up will be made public.

Although the matter is sub judice there are one or two aspects of the matter which I would like to bring to the attention of the House. It has been said that three German destroyers on the Wednesday before the ships came up the Channel, passed down the Channel to the westward, uninterrupted and not attacked. They were obviously going to form part of the screen for the German ships when they came from Brest. If that is true, it is profoundly disturbing. How is it that all the torpedo-carrying aircraft that we were able to muster were six old Swordfish? How is it that all the surface vessels that we could muster were four old destroyers and one old leader?