War Situation.

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

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Photo of Mr Robert Boothby Mr Robert Boothby , Aberdeenshire and Kincardineshire Eastern

I confess that, although I would not dare to disagree with the Prime Minister on a matter of strategy, I found it difficult to follow his argument. It seems to me that in that case we should have escorted the ships to their German base.

If I may say just another word on the question of general strategy, I think, while I entirely agree with everything that has been said about complacency, that it is possible for us to be unduly cast down by recent events. One of the strange things about the conduct of war is that it is governed by principles which do not change. It has been pointed out by the Prime Minister, and also—insufficiently I think—in the House, that we are suffering from a temporary lack of sea power. The fall of Malaya and Singapore, the partial failure in Libya, and the escape of the "Scharnhorst" and "Gneisenau," flow directly and inescapably from this single cause. I suggest that those admirals who, in the past, have stressed the importance of sea power have been proved, not wrong, but right, by the course of this war. The Japanese successes are founded on the existence of a battle fleet which no one has yet seen; just as our victory in the last war was founded upon the existence of a battle fleet which was in action for 20 minutes in four years. The whole argument is set forth with unparalleled lucidity, if perhaps at inordinate length, in the pages of the American writer Admiral Mahan. If the First Lord of the Admiralty could deprive us of just one of his week-end speeches, and study the pages of Mahan, he would derive consolation as well as profit. He would see why we have suffered these reverses, and what will happen when we regain our sea power.

The causes of our loss of sea power, partially in the Mediterranean, completely in the Pacific, are, first, because of the failure of successive Governments before the war to maintain the Navy at safety level—and, of all the bad things that those Governments did, I think that their failure to maintain the Navy at safety level was the worst; secondly, the disaster of Pearl Harbour, for which nobody can blame His Majesty's Government; thirdly, the dispersal of a battle fleet which was already dangerously below the level of safety; and, lastly, that we have not been able, because of all the calls made upon us, to proceed with adequate naval construction during these first years of the war. I suggest that naval construction now deserves, and requires, absolute priority over all other construction. It is the most vital thing of all.

The fact that the conduct of naval operations in modern warfare requires air cover does not in the slightest degree vitiate the arguments of Admiral Mahan. The conduct of military operations equally requires air cover. What is necessary is that that cover should be provided instantly; and that it should have priority as far as aircraft construction is concerned.

In the final analysis I think it will be generally agreed that two things alone can bring us once again into mortal peril. First of all, the failure to regain sea power within a measurable space of time; and, secondly, the defeat of the Russian Armies. These are the two things which can bring us into the sort of danger which we had to face in 1940. Therefore, in concentrating upon the reinforcement of naval power, and of our Russian Allies in the field, the fundamental strategy of the Government is sound. Everything must be subordinated to this twin-objective, but we must face the consequences of it. We must be prepared to face consequences which, during the immediate next phase, will not be pleasant. One of the dangers inherent in this policy is that for the time being we may have to assume a purely defensive role. I believe that the answer to this—and here I disagree most respectfully with the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Devonport (Mr. Hore-Belisha)—lies in Bomber Command. In Bomber Command we have fashioned a most formidable weapon of offence. I beg of hon. Members to believe that. It is not a weapon that can be used very effectively during the winter months. Now is the period when it will begin to be used effectively. Moreover, it is the only method available to us at present of striking directly at Germany. We should therefore use it to the full.

Everybody has read with interest and concern the articles which have lately appeared in the Press and elsewhere, and the criticisms that have been made in many quarters, regarding the night bomber, and how, it is alleged, it is not an effective weapon of war. Hon. Members should realise the psychological effect that this sort of argument and debate in public has upon the bomber crews. Arguments of this kind ought not to be bandied about thoughtlessly; because it is tough to ask these chaps to undergo great dangers and perils, which they do cheerfully and bravely, unless they are convinced, as they are at present, that it, is worth doing. I think that hon. Members will agree about this. It has been suggested that we ought to scrap our heavy bombers and concentrate entirely on torpedo-carrying aircraft, fighters, and "tank-busters." I am convinced that that would be a profound mistake. If we have a weapon, then let us use it to the full; and concentrate upon improving its efficacy, and upon getting torpedo-carrying aircraft and "tank-busters" as well, and using all three. There is no weapon that we should not produce and use at the present time.

I would like to say a word, in leaving this somewhat dangerous field of strategy, about the recent changes in the Government, upon which I think the Prime Minister and the House and country are to be congratulated, in spite of the sense of personal loss it causes to some of us, including the hon. Member behind me who made such an admirable maiden speech. Although Lord Beaver-brook may have been against committees, as, I believe, he was, this new structure does substitute, in various important respects, men for committees, and that is wholly to the good. An hon. Member who spoke about, the B.B.C. yesterday, and with whom I found myself in substantial agreement, said that somebody had told him quite naturally that things "take so much longer in this war." This applies over a very wide field. Yet speed is the essence of war; and, provided he has sufficient powers to decide and not merely to compromise between conflicting interests, the man will beat the committee every time.

There is only one other point on the subject of the machinery of government to which I would like to refer, and that is the question of inter-departmental disputes. These can only be settled at Cabinet level, and they should be settled quickly. It is to be hoped that the Cabinet will give to its individual members sufficient powers to act on their behalf and to settle all such disputes quickly, and not refer them to committees. There is also a case for the very serious consideration of the amalgamation of certain Departments of State. I would refer to one of which I have had personal ex- perience, namely, the Ministry of Food, and to the Ministry of Agriculture. These Departments cover, as some other Departments also do, the same ground to a very considerable extent. If you cover the same ground you have either to co-operate, or to compete. At the present time all competition should be confined to competition against Germany and Japan. During the brief period that I was at the Ministry of Food I remember the amount of time and energy spent—I might almost say wasted—in arguing about agricultural prices. I was astounded to see in the newspapers the other day that the whole exhaustive and exhausting process seems to have been repeated, and that it was even worse this year than last, with arguments being referred to Cabinet committees, then up to the Cabinet itself, and then referred hack to other committees accompanied by supporting threats of resignations. Is this to be an annual performance? I hope not. The surest way of eliminating redundant competition, which is a waste of time and energy, and of ensuring co-operation, is amalgamation. And I hope that the Prime Minister will give some consideration to the possibility of extending this method of Government rationalisation.

I come back to the question of production, of ships, aeroplanes and tanks, upon which the successful outcome of this war mainly depends. Many of us feel—and it has been expressed all through this Debate—that the powers at present exercised by the Government over both property and labour are quite insufficient for the gigantic effort that is now required. Many of us remember that complete powers over both have already been given to the Government by the unanimous vote of this House. All we now ask is that they shall be used. It is all very well to complain that people are suffering from complacency. You have the power to order the people, and if you do they will be delighted, and then you will get back that sense of urgency which the Lord Privy Seal said he missed when he returned from Russia. Compel the people, order them to do things, and you will get the response you want, and will please everybody in this country. At the moment many people do not know what to do. In order to win this war, revolutionary methods are required, and the Lord Privy Seal has made a close study of revolu- tions. The Act of May, 1940, is the blueprint for a revolution. If the Lord Privy Seal likes to translate that blue-print into action, he has absolute powers to do so both as regards labour and production. And he will meet with nothing but approval. I do not think that the House or the country are to be blamed. I have heard it said that the Conservative party are to blame because they always resist threats to property, and that the Labour party are to blame because they are always defending the rights of labour. Anyone who reads the Act of 1940 will be astounded, as I was, to see how much power the Government have now got over both property and labour, if they choose to exercise it.

We have been discussing, necessarily and rightly, the higher direction of our war effort and strategy; but in this war, more than in any other, efficiency is required on every hand, and at every level, and not merely in the War Cabinet. This is a war of organisation. Not only in the desert is it the quartermaster's nightmare. It will be won not only by valour in the field, but also by superior administration and technical skill. Not only in the three Services but in every Department of State, from the top to the bottom, the incompetent should be sacked, the efficient should be promoted, and the right pegs "should be found for the right holes. It is no good saying that the Beveridge Committee's report on the Army was not profoundly disturbing. It was. I suggest that is one of the first things to which the new Secretary of State for War should direct his attention.

I have had the honour, for the last nine months, to serve at an operational station of the Royal Air Force. It has been a great experience, and I should like briefly to tell the House what has impressed me most. First of all, as I have already said, I think there is a lack of co-operation between the Services, and even between branches of the same Service, not so much at the top among the highest staff officers, as at the lower levels; and this is not for any lack of will on the part of the junior officers in all the Services. It is for lack of opportunity and lack of machinery. I think the machinery and the opportunity can, and should, be provided. Another thing that has struck me is the menace of paper. Sometimes it advances and sometimes it recedes, but it is ever present, an awful shadow in the background. Forms descend upon you. They begin to descend upon you at 7 o'clock in the morning, and, if you are not very careful, they will go on descending upon you until 7 o'clock at night, and when you come back next morning, they have miraculously increased during the night. And I do not think this form and voucher problem is so bad in the Royal Air Force as it is in some of the other Services. There is supposed to be a shortage of paper. I can make some suggestions about that. I know I am speaking for serving Members when I say that there is a colossal wastage of paper in the Services. I think it would be worth while for the Service Departments seriously to consider appointing a special officer, a competent officer—a salvage officer—to go through these forms perpetually and see which ones can be eliminated.

The final thing that has impressed me is the capacity of youth to direct and to command. Here, indeed, the values in the Services are different from those which prevail in the House. In the past, we have been all wrong about youth. In this House we call bald-headed and grey-headed gentlemen of between 40 and 50 young men. The hon. Lady the Member for the English Universities (Miss Rathbone) said recently what a scandal it was that four young men, of an average age of 50, should be appointed to inquire into the A.T.S. Alas! it is not so. We are no longer young. You have to go into the Royal Air Force to realise that you are, after all, an old buffer. It is a salutary, if somewhat painful, experience. I have watched at close quarters what we in the House would call boys, almost babies, of 25, 26 and 27 easily and competently discharging responsibilities much more onerous, much more pressing, much more poignant, than those discharged by any Member of the House, even on the Front Bench. Let us face the truth. For 20 years the politicians of this country have been frightened of youth. It was not by youth, which was rigorously excluded from power for 20 years, that we were conducted to the brink of disaster. Now, as always, when the follies of the politicians have landed us in war, we turn to youth to get us out of it. My final plea is that not only while the tempest rages should youth be given a chance, but also after it is over.