War Situation.

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons on 25th February 1942.

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Photo of Mr Leslie Hore-Belisha Mr Leslie Hore-Belisha , Plymouth, Devonport

The Debate which is now entering its second day takes place in circumstances very different from those which prevailed when the date was originally fixed. There have been changes in the Government. Two members of the War Cabinet have left the Ministry altogether. It will always be remembered, I hope, that my right hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood) at the outbreak of war spoke the mind of his party and of the nation with great decision and eloquence. Lord Beaverbrook has partisans and detractors of equal warmth. He rendered two great services to the country. At the time of the Battle of Britain his genius manifested itself in an infinite capacity for making planes. Later, at a time when some doubt prevailed, by a swift and satisfactory agreement, he gave practical evidence of our solidarity with Russia. In the place of these two Ministers we have my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for East Bristol (Sir S. Cripps), whose inclusion has given such widespread satisfaction. He will maintain that close and intimate connection between Parliament and the Executive without which the public business cannot be smoothly conducted, and in the absence of which we are apt to drift periodically into political crises. It is not, however, only as a piece of political machinery that he must be regarded. He has a point of view of his own, and we shall watch with expectancy the effects of the leavening of new ideas. The changes have been made, and they carry good will from every quarter of the House. The changes have been made, but the war goes on. They arise from a series of reverses which are felt to be due not to the preponderance of the enemy alone, but to weaknesses in our own organisation which it should be possible to eradicate.

We have lost part of our Colonial Empire and with it a very important source of supply. It is strange to reflect that we who had almost a monopoly of rubber production should now have to, rely on a substitute to be fabricated in the United States. The Japanese have forced an entry into the Indian Ocean. They will be able to send their ships, to interfere with our communications to the Middle East, to India and to Australasia. This imposes upon us a reconsideration of our shipbuilding programme. In a speech of great candour in another place yesterday the Colonial Secretary admitted that it was difficult to explain the loss of Singapore. We did not anticipate it. We have lost an Army which, for a non-Continental Power, is of considerable dimensions.

How have these misfortunes occurred? Are the reasons military? Partly, of course, they are, but not entirely. Eyewitnesses' accounts show a remarkable concurrence. Our Colonial administration left much to be desired. It had not enlisted the co-operation of the people, nor had it assigned to them the duties which they should perform in the event of emergency. There was a lack of imagination and foresight. It would be unjust, however, too exclusively to blame those on the spot. May it not be that our Colonial administration is too centralised, that its machinery has become too cumbrous, with the result that those on the spot have been shorn of initiative and thus, when the need arises, are reluctant to rely on their own judgment?

This is an opportunity for us to adopt a new outlook in our Colonial policy, and I hope that the advent of this reconstructed administration will signalise it. It is also noteworthy that the Malays, unlike the Filipinos, do not appear seriously to have resisted the invasion of their homeland. It is distressing to us that they were spectators of an occurrence which normally arouses a deep and natural resentment. To some extent the same phenomena are noticeable in Burma. There also the military operations are hampered by a lack of enthusiastic co-operation on the part of the Burmese. Would it not be possible to make them feel that we are fighting not our battles, but their own? If a more zealous sentiment could be made to prevail, the Japanese would never secure a hold on the country and would be challenged at every stage, as is the case in Russia, by guerilla operations.

Burma occupies a strategic position of the utmost importance. It was thought that from there we could attack the Japanese lines of communication in Malaya. What a pity it would be if we suffered further reverses and were unable to join the native population with us in order to hold a position of such potentially offensive value. It may, however, be too late to take action of the kind which I suggest in that country. In India, however, there is still time. Chiang Kai-shek has made a long and arduous journey to India. He has been in touch with the population and with all the leaders. Arising out of his experience, he has made recommendations to us to which, I trust, the Government will promptly respond. He has thought it possible to carry India with us by bolder and more comprehensive proposals than have yet been made. I trust that some pronouncement upon that subject may conveniently be made.

Such imponderable considerations have a decisive effect upon the military conduct of the war. They may determine success or failure. What are the factors in that sphere which are constant in all our reverses? In the first place, there is at the outset of every military campaign an under-estimate of the enemy and an over-estimate of ourselves. If the campaigns of this war be taken in sequence, that, almost without exception, will be found to prevail. If you do not accurately estimate the enemy, then your whole judgment on the war must inevitably be wrong and your preparations must be inadequate. This was certainly the case in Crete, in Malaya, in Singapore, in Burma, but more particularly in Libya. I think it is necessary that we should make a much more sober estimate of the task which confronts us.

Another factor which is constant is the inadequacy of the air support for the other Fighting Services. That inadequacy is, in principle at any rate, no longer due to shortage of machines. We have reached parity with Germany, and we were recently given, in another place, the most astonishing information that over 9,000 aeroplanes had been sent out of this country in the year 1941, at a time, be it remarked, when 200 aeroplanes would have made all the difference to our fortunes in Malaya and Singapore. It is not a shortage of aeroplanes; it is a failure to provide the types which are required. Neither the Navy nor the Army has the types which are required. In the Navy there is a lack of shore-based torpedo bombers. In the Army there is a lack of many kinds of machines. I am sure that my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Rugby (Captain Margesson)—whose absence from the War Office I, personally, deplore, for he loved the Army and served it with a genuine faith—would confirm the statement that there is a lack of the requisite types of machines.

There is no dive-bomber. The Air Ministry has repeatedly told us that the dive-bomber is a very vulnerable aeroplane. Well, all weapons are vulnerable if you have on the spot the right kind of counter-weapons with which to meet them. But the Germans and the Japanese have blasted their way to victory with the dive-bomber, and every day we may read of its successes. There is no aeroplane armed with cannon sufficiently powerful to explode tanks. There is an inadequacy of machines of the right kind to carry parachute troops, and there are not enough transport-carrying aeroplanes such as the Germans employ to bring quick succour to their armies, nor are there gliders enough. This is the age of air-borne armies, yet our Army is constantly being put in a false position by this persistent omission to provide it with the instruments without which it cannot achieve success. Consequently, the Army tends to become unpopular and, as a further consequence, tends, to some extent, to be demoralised.

The principle should now be accepted, and I would like the Government to avow it, that no Army should be sent anywhere without its adequate quota of aeroplanes. For the lack of that you throw away many irreplaceable divisions—73,000 men in Singapore, 10,000 to 12,000 in Hong Kong, to say nothing of our other losses. For the sake of a few machines you lose the production of your factories in artillery, in rifles and in all the other equipment of war. Can the principle not be accepted by the Government that the Army should have its own aeroplanes? [An Hon. Member: "Under its own command."] I do not wish to make a quarrel about the command, but it seems to me advisable that the Army should have complete control, for, if it has not complete control, it will never obtain the types required and the machines will never be there on the day when it is desirable that they should be present.

I call the attention of the House to this matter. The Royal Air Force, of course, has rendered imperishable service, but on the Air Council there is no representative of the Army or of the Navy, and consequently the balance of argument in favour of an Air Force which can perform long-distance functions is overwhelming and almost unchallenged. Is it not time for us to reconsider our long-distance bombing policy? We have had evidence at Brest that you may, for 10 months on end, raid an important harbour, day after day, and frequently at night, drop an incalculable tonnage of bombs upon it and yet find, at the end, that the ships you have sought to destroy can make their escape under their own power at 30 knots. It does suggest that we are putting too much of our energy and too much of our man-power into the long-distance bombing plane. For every one of these planes, which, incidentally, cannot operate throughout the whole year, you might build, I am told, six fighters. Unless the Army is given its own machines, under its own control, I do not think we can expect military successes.