Navy Estimates, 1942.

Part of Orders of the Day — Supply. – in the House of Commons on 26th February 1942.

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Photo of Mr Albert Alexander Mr Albert Alexander , Sheffield, Hillsborough

I beg to move, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair."

The House meets to-day to review the work of the Royal Navy and its administration in the midst of a battle for sea power now being conducted in every ocean and almost every sea in the world. Never has the fundamental need of this nation of adequate sea power been more fully or painfully demonstrated. For two and a half years the Navy has been fighting every day and every night, with heavy casualties. I am reminded of the lines: We have fed our sea for a thousand years,And she calls us still unfed;Though there's never a wave in all her waves,But marks our English dead.If this be the price of Admiralty,Lord God we ha' paid in full. And so I would like to begin my narrative to-day with a tribute to the work of our personnel at sea. Never in our history have British sea traditions been more worthily exemplified than in the gallant, loyal and dogged endurance of the officers and men of the Royal Navy. This is in spite of the fact that the expanded manning of the Fleet during the last two years and a half by as much as three or four times its peace strength, has called into sea service hundreds of thousands of young civilians from all sections of the nation. This has been a more rapid expansion than in any previous war. The variety of dangers to be met has been far greater, yet so keen has been the desire of our manhood to serve in the Fleet, that thousands who wished to join have had to be disappointed. In every class and category of naval service, great work has been done. Thousands of our men have proved themselves as fine as ever our race produced. In the battleships and carriers, in the cruisers and destroyers, in the submarines and the corvettes, in the minesweepers—and, lest I forget, I would like to say what a magnificent job the minesweepers have done in face of new and deadly forms of mines; they have swept thousands of mines although at the cost of casualties to themselves—and in the armed trawlers, the new varieties of motorcraft and auxiliary vessels, and in the Fleet Air Arm, we have, without exception, the same record of faithful, unswerving performance of duty in face of all hazards. Whatever criticisms, therefore, may be uttered with regard to the present state of the war at sea, I feel sure I shall carry the House with me when I say that there is nowhere any desire to do anything but honour the self-sacrificing work of the officers and men of the Navy. What I have said in regard to the Royal Navy will, I believe, in every respect, find an echo in all our hearts when we think of their brother seamen in the Merchant Navy. Of course, Members of the House have said, as the Press have said, that judgment must be by results. That submission is well understood, and in every sphere accepted. On that, however, I would make a further submission, and that is that before you pass judgment you must, in all fairness, assess the nature and the breadth and the weight of the task which was undertaken, the forces and the dispositions of the forces arrayed against you, and the forces with which you are equipped to meet them.

Certainly the task of the Fleet has been enormous. Since the defeat of France, and the defection of the French Fleet, which was the second largest in Europe, accompanied by the entry of the Italian Fleet into the war against us, it has been one of continuous strain. First and foremost, our defensive task was to protect vast sea lines all over the world, without which we could not maintain our Island fortress here, and indeed would be powerless to wage war at all. The combined length of our shipping routes runs into many tens of thousands of miles on the broad oceans, where the great distances and the volume of traffic necessarily limit the protection which can be afforded. At no time have we fewer than about 2,000 ships at risk upon the oceans, sailing, in the main, to and from the relatively restricted number of ports which can handle traffic of these dimensions. The German and Italian navies, on the other hand, have to protect nothing but a relatively insignificant coasting trade, varied only by the short sea route across the Mediterranean on which their Army in North Africa must rely. Except for isolated blockade runners, Axis trade has no need to depart more than a few miles from its own or a neutral coast. It can remain in waters which can be completely covered by enemy air forces, where anti-submarine measures and protective mining can readily be organised with great intensity and where the freedom of manœuvre of attacking warships is dangerously cramped. These are, of course, all known facts to people who understand Naval warfare, but they are nevertheless fundamentals which must be thoroughly understood if we are to appraise our own efforts and achievements.

Let us now examine, as closely as the time permits, the comparative performances of the Royal Navy and the enemy in the main spheres. I take, first, trade protection. The Battle of the Atlantic, which was our principal preoccupation for the greater part of the year, has now developed into what I may call the Battle of the Seven Seas. Both in the Pacific and the Indian Oceans a new threat to the trade of the British Commonwealth and its Allies has arisen. The year 1941 opened with losses running at a heavy rate. Enemy submarines employing the new pack technique were taking a heavy toll, enemy aircraft operating both in coastal waters and far out to sea, seemed at one time likely to prove an almost greater menace than the U-boats. In addition, the surface forces of the Germans were sweeping out from time to time and reaping relatively large hauls, whilst every night their aircraft sowed new forms of mines round our coasts and in our estuaries. This unfavourable tendency continued until April, when losses reached their peak owing to the large amount of tonnage lost in the Greek and Cretan campaigns, though obviously all of this was not then available for the general carrying trade of the Allies. In May, however, losses on the broad ocean lifelines began to fall, and they continued to do so more or less steadily until December, when a new phase of the war at sea opened.

As to the fall in our losses at that time, Hitler has recently endeavoured to explain away the relative failure of his ever-growing U-boat fleet in the latter half of last year, but in fact there were a number of important and significant reasons for the results. First, the improvements in escort organisation and in anti-submarine methods constantly being introduced as a result of constant thought, planning, research and experiment. Secondly, the growing skill and experience of officers and crews, and, of course, the increasing number of convoy escorts flowing from the large construction programmes which were put in hand on or shortly after the outbreak of war. Thirdly, from a date in September, we commenced to receive American assistance with convoys, for which we are duly grateful. In addition, and by no means the least important, was the help given by the anti-submarine patrols of the Royal Air Force, whose Coastal Command passed under the operational control of the Admiralty at the end of 1940. These aerial sweeps have proved of great value, not merely in the protection of individual convoys, but in harassing and hampering the U-boats in the Western Approaches to these Islands. On top of these air patrols directed against the submarines themselves, we took practical and effective measures to counter the air attack on shipping and the air reconnaissances far out to sea on which the U-boats have clearly proved they depend so considerably for the detection of their prey. Not only has air escort been provided on a higher scale within the limits possible from shore bases, but we have also begun in some measure—and by various methods—to provide ship-borne fighter protection with the convoys. Great efforts have been made too, to improve the anti-aircraft protection of the merchant ships themselves. The post of Inspector of Merchant Navy Gunnery was created, and the Inspector, Admiral Sir Frederick Dreyer, by his thoroughness and with the co-operation of crews, masters and owners, has already brought the general standard of efficiency to a high level. In this, as in all operations of war, training and instant readiness are essential for success. At the same time, we have gone on building up the general scale of the anti-aircraft armament in both British and Allied merchant shipping. During the year 1941 there were fitted in merchant ships no fewer than 12,988 anti-aircraft guns of one kind and another and 4,843 ships were fitted with anti-aircraft devices other than guns. Merchant and fishing vessels alone have now shot down 76 enemy planes, probably destroyed another 40, and damaged 89.

By these means we had by the autumn reduced losses to a level far lower than it had seemed legitimate to hope for in the early part of the year, and this success was reflected in a steadily rising trend of imports, so that by the end of last year the Navy were able to reap a tangible reward for their efforts in the fact that the estimate of imports for the twelve months was exceeded and the programme, which at one time seemed likely to be on the optimistic side, was fully achieved. In assessing this result, we must be careful not to under-estimate the great efforts being put into the U-boat campaign. U-boat construction is undoubtedly on an unprecedented scale, and the U-boat fleet expands month by month. The U-boat fleet have, as before, shown, and continue to show, ingenuity and organising skill in their operations and great flexibility in their tactics. They have tried operating in the Middle Western Atlantic, they have moved to the South Atlantic, they have operated in the Gibraltar area, and they have been in strength in the Mediterranean. Nevertheless, although since the beginning of the war, the total number of ships convoyed is very large indeed, losses in convoy are still just under one-half of one per cent.