The House has listened with interest to a very interesting review of a Service which is vital to all of us at all times, and particularly in time of war, and everyone will want to join in the tribute that has been paid to the gallantry, the bravery and the endurance of the officers and men of the Royal Navy. I am also particularly glad that the right hon. Gentleman said a word for the man who is "soldier and sailor too" the Marine, who has such a very splendid record of service. But interesting and exhilarating in some respects as the First Lord's statement has been, I believe there is a little feeling of disappointment that in regard to some of the matters in which we are particularly interested and on which we wanted further information it has not been thought proper to reveal it to the House, though on the other hand some things which I thought might not have been included have been touched upon. Having said that, I think the first thing I ought to do is to congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on the fact that his Department appears to have escaped the storm that has swept some other Departments. So far from his having suffered any losses he has gained another junior Minister, now giving him three, and I trust that that means that we shall see more of the right hon. Gentleman him-self in the House than has been the case for some time past.
The recent Debate in Secret Session and the many subjects which have been remitted for inquiries do somewhat restrict the discussion of the Vote which we are now considering—I only hope that inquiries are not to be taken as substitutes for victories—but some things will be said by way of criticism or by way of inquiry, and though, of course, it will be understood that the Government may not always find it discreet to give full replies, those matters are being raised in the hope that they will be given full consideration. I want to give some expression to the feeling of considerable disquiet which undoubtedly exists in the country as to the shipping position generally and the many things that have happened to the Royal Navy itself. The right hon. Gentleman gave us a very encouraging retrospect of the manner in which the Navy have been able to deal with the submarine menace in the past, how by various devices they have been able to meet it and overcome it, but all that has been rather upset by the statement made by the Prime Minister in the last day or two, when he said:
In the past few months there has been a most serious increase in shipping losses."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 24th February, 1942; col. 43, Vol. 378.]
That is the matter with which we are concerned. While our appreciation of what has been done to meet past difficulties is in no way diminished, we are concerned to know what is being done now to meet the present situation, which, so far as we see, is growing to a very alarming extent, so much so that we have been informed by the Prime Minister himself that it is straining our offensive and defensive powers to the very limit. It is on things of that sort that we hope we shall get some enheartenment.
We must keep in mind when we are discussing the general war situation that this is still primarily a naval war, that it has got to be won primarily at sea, and therefore it is essential that we should have some assurance that the lessons of the past are being learned. For instance, the right hon. Gentleman gave us an account of what happened at Crete and how cover was lacking. Of course, that is a long while ago, and the Navy ought to have had cover there. That was a fundamental mistake at the very commencement, but it has been repeated in more recent times. As regards the tragedy of the "Prince of Wales" and the "Repulse" and in other matters, we have still to learn whether any effective steps are being taken in this particular matter. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will give us some information as to the connection and the cooperation between the Air Force and the Navy and also the strength, composition and equipment of the Fleet Air Arm. Then came the spread of the war and the bad luck to the United States Navy. These things have thrown additional burdens on the Royal Navy and have increased the difficulties in the way of safe convoy of merchant ships and the flow of essential commodities to this country. The right hon. Gentleman has said that our position might have been much worse. One hesitates to think what it might have been but for the gallant assistance given by the Dutch Navy in the Far East.
I do not propose to consider our shipping and shipbuilding position, and matters germane thereto. In a former Debate it was pointed out by the Prime Minister that we had added 1,000,000 men to our munitions industry more than we had at the end of the last war. That is not the position with regard to the Royal Navy and the building and repair of ships. We are still down very considerably in those respects. I hope that the First Lord, or whoever will speak later, will tell the House frankly what difficulties he may be facing, so that we may give what help and take whatever steps may be necessary to meet the situation. Are there any difficulties in regard to the labour situation or in regard to organisations in that respect? Are all the shipyards fully occupied—even the limited number that we have? We know that numbers of them were swept away by Shipping Securities, Ltd. Again and again we have drawn attention to the loss of shipping, and this has now been underlined by the Prime Minister. We want to know whether that loss is being overhauled. We have every reason to think that we may be facing a dead loss. Is it possible to tell the country what the difficulties are? It may be that greater risks are run by fearing to give information to the enemy than by disclosing to the House and the country the real position.