War Situation.

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

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr Samuel Adams Mr Samuel Adams , Leeds West

I assure the hon. and gallant Member that two years ago there were no shortcomings there, and they were quite adequate to deal with any air attack, and I have no doubt that they have progressively improved since that date, because equipment has become more plentiful.

We heard yesterday from the Prime Minister that the ordeal before us will be tormenting and protracted, and I wish to say with great respect that I have been rather dismayed at the reactions of many to reverses in the South-West Pacific, which have had about them a quality almost of inevitability. It does not seem to be recognised yet that we have in the Japanese an enemy whose morals are as low and as negative as those of the Germans. An aggressor so elaborately prepared as Japan, who strikes with the suddenness, surprise, ruthlessness and efficiency of the attack upon Pearl Harbour, is bound at first, in the nature of the case, to make alarming and bewildering strides forward. While we have been in many respects politically and militarily half asleep, the Japanese have learned much in 10 years of aggression against China. The Japanese are excellently equipped. They are as industrious as beavers and as numerous as ants. In some ways, indeed, they are more terrible than the Germans, because their needs are less and they are more indifferent, it seems, to their individual safety. It would be futile to expect from them in the early stages of their entry into the war anything less than an avalanche of progress, accustomed as they are to 10 years of conquest and success.

In one respect I was grateful for a speech delivered last night. I hope the Noble Lady the Member for the Sutton Division of Plymouth (Viscountess Astor) will not engage the representative of the War Office too long, because some of my remarks are going to relate to military matters. It was the speech, made in the presence of a large number of hon. Members, by the right hon. Baronet who represents South-West Bethnal Green (Sir P. Harris). His remarks about the barbarism of the Japanese showed that we should have been in strange company if we had preserved our Alliance with Japan. It is perhaps an unfortunate thing that it has taken 10 years to convince some of the bestial cruelty of the Japanese. You might as well have been allied with Judas Iscariot.

This is a terrible war, the most terrible in history, and we shall not prevail without enduring reverses. To win, we have to face terrors and expect more terrible things to come. And we have, I submit, to remember that the days when defensive action was likely to yield the best results, as was true during many periods between 1914 and 1918, are over for good. Modern weapons confer an unprecedented advantage on the side that can grasp and hold the initiative. To stem a modern attack static defence is of no value. That is fully recognised by the authorities of the Army. I am well aware of that. The initiative has to be wrenched out of the hands of your antagonist. Indeed, the offensive is less dangerous and less wasteful than pure defence. To-day the only answer to the assault is the counterassault.

It is useless to blame our Government, as some disgruntled persons might be inclined to do, for the unreadiness of our friends at Pearl Harbour, Guam and Wake Island. That was not, and could never be, the Government's responsibility, but all the subsequent disasters in the Pacific have flowed directly or indirectly from that initial attack. There is this ground for satisfaction. The number of surprises which the Axis is able to spring upon the United Nations is growing less each month. One major surprise is still possible, an attack by Japan upon Russia. When that surprise is performed, as I think is very probable, it will be the last. It will, as it were, be the final trump in the gambler's hand.

We are inclined to over-estimate the importance of certain misfortunes, for example, the escape of the German warships. It was a disappointment and seriously damaged our maritime pride. I shall not attempt to forestall any finding that may emerge from the inquiry, but I would point out that these warships did not steam up the Channel, as though they belonged to a Power that possessed control of the ocean, in the broad daylight of a long summer day. They had to steal out, hugging the coast in the misty gloom of a long night and a short winter day. The enemy indeed may have calculated that he could pass through entirely unobserved. That incident is serious, no doubt, but it is as nothing by comparison with what has happened at Singapore. A bad thing has happened, but only our ability to endure bad things and to prevent their recurrence will enable us to win.

We shall not win the war by periodic explosions against the Prime Minister. Nobody is indispensable, least of all in a democracy, but the Prime Minister—and I say this expressly and deliberately—is as nearly irreplaceable at this moment in our fortunes as any man has ever been. I hope, therefore, if I may be a little less serious for one moment—but I mean seriously what underlies this remark—that he will not fly the Atlantic again until we are at peace. Whereas it was a duty to displace his predecessor—let us be frank at a period of such crisis as to-day—our present leader is to our Allies the epitome of British determination and the highest manifestation of our warlike genius. He is also a terror to our enemies, and that is why the Germans have consistently and persistently been manufacturing and rolling out propaganda against him. It is therefore a crime to weaken the authority of the Prime Minister. Great careers are full of ironies, and the greatest men survive them, but surely few ironies have been more cruel than the return of the Prime Minister from his resounding mission across the Atlantic to the savage cacophony of criticism at home. It is not by wringing our hands over defeat but by fortitude that we shall win this war.

Much of the criticism that has been audible has come from the extreme Right of political opinion. The result is that we now have as Leader of the House a right hon. and learned Gentleman who was once o too far to the Left for the Labour party. I hope that any Chamberlainites who may still survive are pleased and gratified with their handiwork. For my part, I regard the elevation of the right hon. and learned Member for East Bristol (Sir S. Cripps) as one of the Prime Minister's finer strokes of genius. The new Leader of the House is a statesman of outstanding ability, resolution and, above all, integrity. That is absolutely unquestioned. Nobody has served our cause better than he did when he was our Ambassador in Moscow. Party machinery remains, even in war-time, a lamentably strong factor in our national affairs, but I trust that any lack of party affiliations will not be allowed to prevent my right hon. and learned Friend from continuing to serve the State in his new capacity with the same distinction. We have heard from the Prime Minister of the massive external factors that will affect our fortunes. It is not, as so many hon. Members have said, by any mere regrouping of Ministers that we shall win the war. I venture to reinforce that it is Russia who has shown us what is necessary to win the war. We have to work and fight as never before.

I have nearly done. I am very grateful to the House for the patience it has extended to me on one of the very rare occasions that I have the good fortune to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, or anybody's else's eye. Having said what I have about the Government, I do not think I shall be charged with disloyalty if I state where I believe certain obvious and remediable imperfections still exist. Even now, after the last shaking of the sieve, certain Ministers are so palpably unequal to their job that I can only conclude that the Prime Minister has some excellent but entirely hidden motives for keeping them there. Perhaps some of them are too stout to slip through the meshes. Another point which must be laboured because we have to see this wrong righted before hostilities are over—this applies particularly to the Joint Under-Secretary of State for War (Sir E. Grigg)—is that he and his colleagues would ensure far happier services to-day and a healthier nation to-morrow if the War Office would boldly reduce the rewards that certain trade unionists now enjoy and would increase the pay and allowances of the private soldier, the able-bodied seaman and the junior officer in the Services.—[Interruption.]—I hope that the hon. Communist Member for West Fife (Mr. Gallacher) will hold his peace for a moment. I wish he would emulate me in having to preserve silence for long periods. What has been done lately merely scratches the surface of a grave social problem. I do not see why we should be expected to acquiesce in the repetition of what was admittedly a cardinal mistake made in the last war and about which we were promised it would never recur. When this war is over many unskilled workers in industry may have saved a small fortune.