Navy Estimates, 1942.

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

Alert me about debates like this

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

I could say this—[HON. MEMBERS "No."]. Very well, I accept the sentiment of the House. The steadily improving prospect which I have described was at once clouded by the entry of Japan into the war. With her large submarine fleet and her powerful air forces trained for operations against ships, it was clear that vast new dangerous areas for allied shipping would be created. The losses sustained in the Far East and Pacific up to the present have been considerable, but a proportion of the ships lost out there were designed solely for the local trade of the China coast and would not have been of great value in the transoceanic traffic of the Allies. At the same time, enemy U-boats have also concentrated off the Eastern seaboard of North America in order to take such profit as they could from a sudden incursion into waters which had hitherto been immune and against shipping much of which had been at peace. These tactics have had a measure of success which has seriously affected the trend of losses in an adverse direction. Yet there is ground for hoping that these unfavourable developments will not be of indefinite duration. In the Pacific the treacherous method which the Japanese chose for entry into the war naturally gave them certain special advantages for operations against trade, but from the start precautions were put into force, and we are doing all we can to keep losses down. As Allied naval strength in the Pacific recovers from the blows suffered in the first few days of the war with Japan, the power of the Japanese Navy for evil in that area should diminish, though naturally at this stage I do not wish to indulge in any prophecy on the fortunes of war in that area. Similarly as regards the North American coast our Allies are putting measures in hand which will make the task of the U-boats more difficult.

I come now to commerce raiders. The past year has been better than we had at first expected. In the first few months converted merchantmen and the German battle cruisers had a period of fruitful activity. But after seeking refuge in Brest last March the battle cruisers, thanks to the sustained efforts of the R.A.F. against one of the best defended bases in the world, remained immobile until their recent rush to their home ports. The German navy made a determined effort in May to send another force out on to the trade routes, but the Royal Navy and the Fleet Air Arm frustrated this attempt and sank the "Bismarck," without any merchant ships being lost, though not without loss to themselves. For nearly a year, therefore, there were no mercantile losses at all from German warship raiders. The converted merchant raiders have continued to operate spasmodically but with little success. During 1941 22 such raiders and their supply ships were put where they could do no more harm. To this record of achievement I must add the warning that we may now be near the beginning of a new period of raider activity, both German and Japanese. These possibilities are naturally under close study, and we must make such plans and dispositions as lie within our power to restrict and defeat such threats.

So much for the protection of our own trade. How have the enemy protected theirs? I would remind the House once again that the enemy have virtually nothing but coastal trade to protect. Yet our aircraft, submarines and surface warships in 1941 captured, sank or seriously damaged no less than 2,500,000 tons of German and Italian shipping and other shipping under Axis control. This figure takes no account of the substantial losses inflicted by our Russian allies. Of the few enemy vessels which attempted to run the blockade, with the whole of the Western seaboard of France and the French West African Colonies open to them, very nearly half were intercepted, notwithstanding the preoccupation of the Navy with the more immediate and vital task of protecting our own supplies and convoying our troops.

I come now to the second part of the Navy's task. It has more to guard even than the essential flow of food and raw materials to these Islands. I wonder whether it is generally appreciated in the country how great and widespread are its duties in support of the Army and R.A.F. We have done our part in building up and maintaining an Army of 750,000 in the Middle East. We have kept Malta supplied under the very noses of the enemy. We have sent reinforcements to the Far East, and we have taken, in very difficult winter weather, very large supplies to Russia. We have covered troop convoys to this country, to Iceland and to Northern Ireland, as well as providing protection for a great number of smaller movements all over the world. When one considers the great distances involved and the volume and complexity of the equipment which modern armies need, this is obviously an achievement which cannot be overlooked, in that we have provided for the security of all this sea traffic on which our Forces depend, out of the limited strength of the Navy under the strain at sea. I may, perhaps, be permitted to illustrate it still further by giving the House a comparison of the losses sustained by ourselves and by the enemy in maintaining our respective armies in North Africa. From Sicily to Tripoli in a direct line is about 240 miles and even by the roundabout routes which the enemy ships may choose to follow in an attempt to evade attack, the distance can still be numbered in hundreds of miles. From the United Kingdom round to Suez via the Cape, the distance is some 11,000 miles. Yet according to our calculations, in 1941 the Axis lost nearly twice as much shipping employed in the maintenance of their North African front as we did out of the tonnage engaged on a like purpose in the interests of our Middle East armies.

Apart from these movements on what one may term the plane of higher strategy, the Navy has been called upon, during the last year, to undertake on several occasions the more hazardous business of close co-operation with forward troops. In the operations for the defence of Crete the Navy drowned 5,000 German troops and rescued 16,500 British troops, but they did it at great cost to themselves. Think also of the part which the Navy played in maintaining our garrison at Tobruk for eight long months. During the siege many thousands of men were moved by sea either into or out of the beleaguered town, and in addition 7,000 prisoners of war. Vast quantities of stores amounting to tens of thousands of tons were moved into the beleaguered town, with an endless variety of other cargoes, ranging from tanks to sheep. These operations, sustained over such a long period, past a coast in the possession of the enemy with strong air forces within easy striking distance, naturally exacted their toll and called for great endurance. In all, 50o men of the Royal and Merchant Navies lost their lives in this service. These and similar operations, proportionately more expensive than most of the protective duties of the Navy, have, it should be noted, practically no counterpart in the tasks performed by the Axis fleets.

While I am on that part of our operations, perhaps the House will allow me to say that I have received this morning a message that the work of our submarines goes on. I have just received a message that one of our submarines obtained three hits two or three days ago on the last Italian convoy going to Africa. I should also like to pay a special tribute at this point to the Royal Marines, who have done so much in the Mediterranean. In most of the naval operations the Royal Marines have continued to give the high standard of service which has always been expected of them, in addition to which they have done continuous and useful work in mounting land batteries, both coast defence and anti-aircraft. Royal Marines, who had been mounting such batteries and searchlights, turned themselves into infantry, and shared with the Australians and New Zealanders the duty of conducting the rearguard action in Crete last May, and it goes without saying that they did so with great distinction.

So much for the task we have been facing. What of our resources? From the beginning of June, 1940, to September last the naval forces of the British Commonwealth stood alone, with the exception of the small but gallant naval contingents of our Continental Allies whose countries had been overrun. We were opposed by the German and Italian fleets, which from their late dates of construction, possessed a relatively high proportion of modern ships. In the stress and strain both of maintaining our ocean life-lines, and of supporting the Army in their operations, heavy casualties were incurred in all categories of ships. To be frank with the House, it is to me an amazing thing that during that period the Naval Staff, always having to try and obtain the use of about four quarts from a pint cup, so disposed our forces that we have been able to maintain the flow of food and raw materials to this country to secure the high standard of life which persists here well after two and a half years of war, and at the same time to have carried out the tasks in support of the Army and the Air Force which I have already indicated.

The House knows, I am certain, how many fewer cruisers we had at the beginning of the war compared to the last war, when we were in alliance with four other powerful fleets, and how heavy our losses have been, especially in such operations as that in the seas around Crete, at times without sufficient air cover. The magnificent work of our destroyers in this war has been done with a Force far too small for the numberless duties to be performed. I need only remind the House of the contrast between our position now in this category and that of the last war, at the end of which the Allied Navies had between them over 900 destroyers whilst facing only one hostile navy. What would the Navy have given for a Force relatively as strong for the task which they now have to face?

A rather brighter side to that picture, however, has been the proved success of the corvette policy. These ships were able to be built at a much greater rate than any others which could have been provided for their task, and they have been splendidly operated. I think the House would like to know that more than 80 per cent. of these ships are commanded by reserve officers, with great credit to themselves and the Navy. I must remind the House too that we have had to labour under the handicap of possessing far less productive capacity in shipbuilding than during the last war, with fewer yards, many fewer berths, and with a smaller labour force. Nevertheless, a very great deal has been achieved. The labour force has been expanded by nearly 100 per cent. since the war began, and continued to expand during the last twelve months.

I submit that it is remarkable that, in spite of the capacity handicap I have referred to, casualties to the Fleet have been and are being well replaced. The total of naval tonnage delivered in 1941 was not so very far below that of 1916, although the output of merchant tonnage last year was very much greater than in 1916. This has been in spite of the fact of the burden of repairs occasioned by the heavier steaming demands upon our ships, in addition to the larger superficial damage and under-water damage that we sustained in this war compared with the last from aircraft attack. We now have in hand bigger programmes than we had in the last war, and a larger number of building berths are in operation than we found available at the beginning of the war. There has been, from time to time, expression of some uneasiness occasioned by the loss of heavy ships, as to whether our building and construction of naval ships were standing up to the modern strain of naval warfare.

There are two points which I would mention in this connection. First, that comparisons I have seen made with the "Bismarck" should take into account the fact that we had adhered to Treaty limits and the Germans had not. Nevertheless, it is true to say that a large number of our heavy ships have sustained major damage during this war and yet have been safely brought into harbour, repaired and put into service again. The "Barham" which was subsequently lost, was mined, brought in and repaired. The "Nelson" has twice sustained heavy under-water damage and has been brought in and repaired, and the "Resolution", the "Malaya", the "Illustrious" and the "Formidable," all heavy ships, were all very heavily damaged, but all stood up to it and were brought safely to port and repaired. At the same time, as always, the Admiralty makes a careful study of war experience and constantly strives to meet new factors. The Admiralty has arranged in fact for a special investigation to be made into the evidence concerning the losses of capital and other heavy ships since the war began, in order to make certain that there should be no question of missing any lesson, large or small, which ought to be learned and acted upon.

The hon. Member for Cambridge University (Prof. A. V. Hill) referred on Tuesday last to the work of the Scientific Advisory Panel which I announced last year would be assisting the Admiralty. I have received a number of reports on investigations by the Panel. Some of these reports have been very favourable as to the work of the Admiralty technical departments. In other cases where recommendations have been made for improvement, these have been most carefully considered with a. view to introducing every possible improvement. A number of them have already been put into effect.

Perhaps the House may find it convenient if here I say a word on the question of man-power in relation to the Service and the Report submitted by the Beveridge Committee, a subject in which hon. Members have shown great interest. I think the House will have noticed that the remarks of that Committee were distinctly favourable towards the arrangements in force in the Navy for ensuring that the best possible value is obtained from its skilled men. The Committee suggested that there might be some skill among our reservists which was not being fully used. We are doing what we can to make improvements in this direction, but I am certain that Members who have come into contact with their constituents will not forget that a considerable proportion of our naval reservists are entered under special engagement entitling them to serve in the particular branch of their choice and that in such cases a transfer can be made only if the men consent to the change.

I have referred to some of the losses that we have suffered in the past year. The House will probably expect me to refer briefly to the loss of His Majesty's ships "Prince of Wales" and "Repulse" in the Far East. There is no attempt to minimise the serious blow that this has been to the Navy and to our cause. The events which led up to the despatch of the ships to the Far East have already been communicated to the House by the Prime Minister, and the matter has been discussed both in open and in Secret Session. The House will understand how tremendously the situation was changed in Far Eastern waters by the Japanese, who, while still negotiating for peace, attacked the United States Fleet at Pearl Harbour. This meant, of course, that it was impossible to follow the plans which has been devised. The news flashed to Singapore simultaneously of the crippling of the United States Fleet, and the threatened landing of Japanese at Singora left the Commander-in-Chief with a most difficult decision to take as to what action to follow, and on that I have nothing to acid to what the Prime Minister said on 11th December. [An HON. MEMBER: "Is the inquiry proceeding?"] There was no special inquiry. There was a careful investigation on the spot to marshal all the facts which could be obtained, and the report of this is now being examined in the Admiralty from every point of view.