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 do not know whether I am permitted to refer to proceedings in a Session which was not open. [Interruption.] I will, however, certainly look into the point and see whether anything remains due to the House which they may have understood would be given to them. My impression is in fact that they have had the narrative asked for by the right hon. Gentleman.

To come back to the work of the light forces in that area since the loss of those two ships, they have done splendid work. As has already been indicated to the House, no fewer than nine convoys were escorted into Singapore, and the House already knows of the sharp and brilliant action fought by the "Vampire" and "Thanet" against a superior Japanese force of cruisers and destroyers. This superior force was engaged and pursued, and one Japanese destroyer was sunk and another damaged. We lost H.M.S. "Thanet," but the Australian destroyer "Vampire" returned undamaged. May I say here also that our Forces have stood up well against the bombing attacks of the enemy while escorting convoys and have also attacked Japanese submarines with some success? We have all been filled with admiration at the very courageous and able work done against the enemy in the Far East by the Dutch Naval Forces. None of us would desire to withhold from them their need of praise.

I turn to another matter which has greatly exercised the mind of the House and large sections of the public, and that is the abandonment of their refuge at Brest by the "Scharnhorst" and "Gneisenau" with the "Prinz Eugen" and their journey as rapidly as they could to German ports, under the cover of the German Air Force and poor visibility. As the secret inquiry under the Chairmanship of Mr. Justice Bucknill has not yet completed its sittings, it would not be right for me to make any comment, except to say that the inference which the German statements were designed to convey, that these vessels arrived in Germany scatheless, is not true. Reliable reports have been received that both German battle cruisers received severe damage when on passage from Brest. Photographs show that one battle cruiser was in dry dock at Kiel, while the other has been located in the dockyard at Wilhelmshaven. Thus we have confirmation of the statement made by the Prime Minister on 17th February. I would add one thing further. His Majesty's submarine "Trident" subsequently attacked a cruiser of the "Prinz Eugen" class off the coast of Norway on 23rd February and obtained a hit. Aerial reconnaisance subsequently showed that a ship of the "Prinz Eugen" class was at Trondjheim in tow of tugs and damaged aft. In view of the date when this attack took place it is probable that the ship was the "Prinz Eugen," in which case all the ships which escaped from Brest have been damaged.

I would only add that we appreciate very much the tributes that have been paid in the House to the gallantry of the officers and men of our Forces which attacked the enemy. Criticisms have been uttered in the House this week of the fact that only six Swordfish attacked the enemy during the recent channel battle. I would remind the House that this was not the only air-borne torpedo attack which was launched—there was a much larger number of torpedo bombers of the Coastal Command which also attacked the enemy.

The review I have to give to the House to-day would not be complete without a reference to the work of the Fleet in the Mediterranean. The position has, of course, been extremely difficult since the campaigns in Greece and Crete, leaving the whole of the North flank in the hands of the enemy with power to launch his air attacks from numerous bases on that side as well as from Tripolitania. The Prime Minister, in his speeches to the House, has painted the picture in better terms than I could hope to do, but there can be no doubt of the gallant work which the Fleet has done in supplying our armies in Cyrenaica and in Malta. It has also engaged in a number of brilliant actions. The destruction of two Italian cruisers by a division of destroyers was a remarkable feat, and the exploit of Captain Agnew and his small squadron in annihilating a complete convoy of Italian transports, was an outstanding achievement.

Our submarines in circumstances far more difficult than those encountered by the German U-boats attacking numerous targets in the wide ocean, have been most successful in reducing the weight of reinforcements which would otherwise have reached General Rommel's army. In this, of course, they have been daily assisted by pilots of the Fleet Air Arm and the Royal Air Force. It might be convenient to mention here that during the war, since September, 1939, our comparatively small fleet of submarines has sunk or damaged no fewer than 326 ships, 64 of which were warships of one kind or another, whilst the Fleet Air Arm, also since the beginning of the war, has carried out 120 attacks on warships and convoys at sea, 200 attacks on warships and ships in harbour, 260 raids on shore objectives, and 600 air combats. They have shot down, or severely damaged 270 enemy aircraft over the sea; they have sunk or seriously damaged 45 enemy warships of all kinds, and 335,000 tons of enemy shipping. Considering the resources at the disposal of the Fleet Air Arm I consider this a remarkable achievement.

After this brief survey of the achievements—and setbacks—of the past, the House will expect me to take stock of our present situation, so far as it is possible to do so in public. There was a time—but eighteen months ago—when all that stood between us and immediate defeat in these islands were the remnants of our army, our then small number of squadrons, and our Navy with its light forces sadly depleted for the time being. I have told the House of the number of destroyers lost off the Dutch and French coasts, and immediately after, before we had any corvettes. 73 of our destroyers were then laid up in dock. Indeed in those desperate days many of our shore defences, including sometimes even the men, were provided from naval sources. For a year we bore on our shoulders alone the whole burden of the fight for human freedom in every quarter of the globe except the Far East, where it was sustained by the enduring courage of China. The spirit of the British and Chinese peoples was all that remained to hold open the door of human hope against the blasts of Axis fury. All we have done since, all we have suffered since must be viewed against that background.

During those 12 months, the British Navies of the Commonwealth preserved and sustained this vital bastion against the Axis and kept supplies and in being the only enduring front against Italy and Germany in the Middle East. It may also be pointed out that at the same time, by preserving the freedom of the seas they kept open the only remaining supply route to China. In this fearful task, in which failure meant almost certainly irretrievable disaster, we were encouraged and fortified by the Dominion Navies, and by those small Allied contingents I have previously referred to, and always by the flow of seamen from all parts of the British Commonwealth. We must not, and shall not, forget the contribution from Australian and New Zealand cruisers and destroyers, from Canadian destroyers and corvettes, from South African minesweepers, Indian sloops and patrol vessels, and from the men who have come from Newfoundland, the Crown Colonies and elsewhere to help man vessels of the Royal Navy. We are similarly grateful for all the work of shipbuilding and of equipping, which has been done in the Dominions and India, and certain Colonies.

The naval help of our European Allies has also been of the greatest value, and has gone on increasing steadily. The Dutch, with their cruisers and their destroyers, and especially their submarines, have added a new page to their naval history ranking with those of the seventeenth century. The other navies which have been recruited from countries overrun by the enemy have loyally supported us, and whenever possible we have supplied them with ships and equipment. We are also deeply grateful for the help received from the Merchant Navies of these Allies, especially the Dutch, Norwegians and Greeks.

In the last six months, the picture of the struggle has completely changed. When the Germans attacked Russia, they brought into the fray against them not merely the mighty Russian Army and Air Force, but also a considerable Fleet. By its constitution and the geographical situation of its bases, the Russian Navy is not designed nor readily able to operate extensively in the broad oceans. Nevertheless we must recognise the part it has played in local offensive and defensive operations in conjunction with the Russian Army, and the blows which it has struck against the enemy's supply lines within range of its large submarine flotillas. Its spirit is exemplified by the submarine which went right into the hostile harbour of Petsam itself, in order to find its target.

A much greater change still, however, occurred on 7th December last, when the American and Japanese navies of the world were plunged into the conflict. Thanks to the surprise which they were able by treachery to achieve at Pearl Harbour, and to their skill and good fortune in their encounter with the "Prince of Wales" and "Repulse," the Japanese were able, in a matter of days, as I have said, to falsify all the bases on which the existing strategical plans had been founded. The onward march of their armies has added steadily to the gravity of the position and we must squarely face the situation that with the main forward base on which we had relied now in the hands of the enemy, he possesses freedom of entry so far as raids are concerned into the Indian Ocean.

These are great and grievous threats. But it is not the custom of the Navy nor of our people to weaken in adversity. On the contrary, we must and shall heighten our resolve and magnify our effort to the measure of these new strains and perils. The successes of the Japanese have been great but have not been gained without some cost. They have already suffered substantial losses in warships and transports at the hand of the Dutch, American and the British Navies and Air Forces. The British and American Navies are recovering from the heavy blows they suffered, and with the great programmes of construction being pressed forward they should go on expanding until they surpass all-in-all the strength which they could muster when Japan rushed headlong into the war. By those means we must labour to restore the sea power in that area which is essential to victory. On the shipping side, an equally vital factor, the considerably higher rate of Allied losses which has obtained since December 7th, even if it should persist—which I trust will not be the case as we are able to deal with it better—should be more than off-set by the vast programme in the United States and the not inconsiderable effort in this country. The House has recognised that shipping is a most vital issue not only to us here, but for supplies to Russia, and the movement of troops and supplies to all the theatres of war.