Ministerial Changes.

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

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Photo of Mr John Martin Mr John Martin , Southwark Central

All the hon. Members who have spoken so far have, at any rate, been in agreement that there is a profound disturbance of public opinion, caused by the events of the last few weeks. Our constituents are perturbed, and feel that something is wrong—they can scarcely say what—in the higher direction of the war. I have been consistently a supporter of the Government, and I do not now pretend to be an expert critic, but I feel the time has come when the conduct of the war should take on a more definite shape and direction than it has revealed in the past. I should like to begin by saying a word or two about Singapore. I am not a strategist, but to the ordinary man in the street, however humble he may be, certain questions arise out of the situation. The Prime Minister has told us that Singapore was a naval base, and that unless we were in possession of predominant sea power, the naval base could not be held. I do not dispute that. I dare say that is true. But it is not what we have been led to believe during all the years since the Singapore base was founded. That has not been what we have been led to believe during the past year. What we have been led to understand was that Singapore was a great fortress, on the lines of Gibraltar and Malta, that had been created over the last 10 years and was now ready to resist aggression. If there has been a revulsion in public opinion, if there is grave anxiety in many quarters throughout the country, it is because the people as a whole have been led to suppose something, as a result of our propaganda, as a result of political speeches by Ministers now in office and out of office, which has profoundly misled them as to the facts.

It may be that the peculiar conditions of Singapore—the existence of a large native population which was apathetic or even hostile towards us, the absence of a large labour pool which could be depended upon to function in times of emergency, the peculiar terrain, the inlets which afforded the Japanese opportunities for infiltration which they had no hesitation in taking and which they took with success, the rubber plantations, and so on—made it extremely difficult to make Singapore into a great fortress, but when the Prime Minister asks us to believe that Singapore could not be held without predominant British supremacy at sea, one is tempted to ask the Government under what conditions the use of Singapore was planned, and under what conditions it was expected to function in war. I think it has been perfectly obvious to anybody who has studied the political situation during the last 10 years that we were not likely to be brought into war with japan unless the conditions prevailing in Europe and the rest of the world were such that we should not have overwhelming command of the sea, that we should not be in a position ensuring an 80 or 90 per cent. certainty of victory, and that we should not be in a position to pour all our resources into the maintenance of the Far East position. Every political observer knew that Japan was not going to be involved in a war with Great Britain so long as Great Britain had the support of the United States, China and other countries. If that situation was true, Japan would go to war only if Britain found herself with her back to the wall in a great European war. If that was the situation, we have no reason to suppose that Singapore could ever have been used under the conditions which prevailed, and, indeed, we were fortunate not to have worse conditions with which to contend. What has alarmed public opinion is that in one afternoon Japan was able to sink two of our best capital ships by torpedo-carrying aircraft which had to fly a great distance from their land bases.

Following this success at the outset, their armies poured down through Malaya and soon arrived at the Island of Singapore, which fell almost without a blow. The reason for this is to be found more in our pre-war policy, but I do not wish to go into that subject to-day. Whatever volume of the blame may be attributed to our pre-war policy, I should like to know why 70,000 troops fell into the hands of the enemy under conditions such as they did. Why was there no provision for evacuating these troops if the defence of Singapore was in fact so precarious as events have shown, and if the Government recognised them to be precarious, as the Prime Minister stated to-day? We were told that Singapore fell because there was no food or water for the garrison. But that fact must have been known to the Commander on the spot, to the Governor of Singapore and to the Government. Therefore, why was no effort made to revictual the garrison, or to remove the Forces before the tragedy occurred? I do not speak on these matters as a strategist. I speak as an ordinary, common or garden individual, and as a Member whose constituents are disturbed. My constituents arc asking whether there is some adequate explanation which can be given to remove their anxieties, and these anxieties I believe to be disturbing the whole of our people.

I now wish to refer to the German ships which escaped from Brest. As I understand it, the Government's explanation why the Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prince Eugen escaped is that it was our strategy either to destroy these ships, or, if that proved impossible, to keep them in harbour so they could not menace our shipping lines, and, failing that, to drive them back to Germany. But not a word of this was said to the nation or to the House. We were led to suppose that (a) the ships should be destroyed, (b) kept in Brest, and (c) chased across the seas and destroyed. I am less of a naval strategist than a military strategist, and I accept without reproach the assurance of the Government that it was desirable that these ships should be sent back to Germany. It is, however, most unfortunate that the people of this country should not have been given a proper explanation on how they managed to run to cover through the Straits of Dover. How was it that they managed to run the gauntlet of our heavy guns at Dover and of the British Navy? The British people should be told the position.

These matters can only be settled in a satisfactory manner by a commission of inquiry. There must be a commission of inquiry on the events in Singapore. I do not think anything less would reassure the people of this country, that the naval, military and Air Force chiefs are up to their heavy responsibilities, and that the political direction is adequate to the great strain which must be imposed in the days to come. The nation cannot be satisfied unless some explanation is given. The Government should come down to this House and assure Members, as representing the nation, that not only have the blunders been rectified and disciplinary action taken, but also that the future direction of war policy shall be increased in efficiency. There should be greater sympathy, greater collaboration and greater intimacy between the Government and the House and the people of this country. We cannot continue on the same lines of propaganda which have prevailed up to now, of bulldozing the people of this country, and a distinguished gentleman as Admiral telling them little happy tales over the wireless just to keep them quiet. It is no use treating our people like children and telling them that Britain is a great nation, that she is certain to win in the end, and that they have only to leave things in the hands of the hierarchy and they may be certain that the best possible policy will be pursued. It is inconsistent with our democratic Government, and this state of affairs must come to an end if our people are to be wholly behind the Government.

May I say one word on propaganda? A great deal of propaganda is being done at present on behalf of our war effort, part of which has been responsible for this situation. There are many distinguished admirals and generals going about the country, during Warship Weeks and so on, putting over this sort of stuff to the British people, with the consequences that I have described. Side by side with that, there is another kind of propaganda going on which is often directed to a violent criticism of our pre-war policy. I do not want to discuss all the questions that arise, some of them of an intensely party character, between the two sides of the House on our pre-war policy, but this effort to deride all the attempts that. were made in the pre-war years to find a reasondble international policy for Europe and for the world is profoundly dangerous and disquieting at present. I refer to the sort of criticism that is constantly being made, very often by distinguished admirals—of its technical details I have no knowledge—whether the Washington Treaty was a good or a bad treaty. It gave magnificent sea superiority to the United States and Great Britain. No treaty could have been expected to give us greater superiority. As to whether the two nations and their naval advisers have been responsible for using it in a satisfactory manner, I can say nothing, but that superiority was laid down. It gave us an immense advantage in regard to Japan, and, if it had not come into existence, it is obvious that the pre-war world would have been plunged into an era of general armaments competition of a most terrible nature. It is certain that without a treaty of that nature all hopes for improvement in the condition of the lives of our people, all hopes of building up the prosperity of the country and the Empire would have been as dust and ashes, and a treaty of that kind was essential to any sort of successful pre-war international concert.