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 Rear-Admiral Tufton Beamish Rear-Admiral Tufton Beamish , Lewes

The First Lord opened his speech with a remark which gave us cause to think of the burden of Admiralty. I will quote something which describes the spirit animating the Navy, which I am sure the House will appreciate, and so will the First Lord. What I am going to read came from the pen and the heart of Lord Baldwin, when he was Prime Minister. He said: Courage, hazard and hardship can give a quality of human happiness undreamed of by those who sit secure and at ease in Zion. That is the spirit of happiness which pervades the Navy. I am not sure where Zion really is, but is certainly includes the hotels in Park Lane, the benches of this House, the dog-racing tracks, and a large number, if not all, of the cinemas up and down the country. I do not think that even now our people appreciate what the British Navy has done for them and for the world. I am sure, judging from the letters I get, that they do not. The first thing I want to mention in this connection is the enormous importance of giving the Admiralty the utmost priority. I believe they have not had anything like the measure of priority which the situation demands—I mean priority not only for warships, but for merchant ships, and certainly for the necessary aircraft without which the Admiralty cannot hope to function efficiently. To support that, if it is necessary to support such a statement, which to my mind is self-evident, I would just remind the House—the First Lord touched on it—that never in any period of history has the Navy had so much to do, in such tremendous circumstances, and if I were to base my criticisms, as so many do, on naval failures and my natural fears and anxieties there would hardly be an end to my criticism.

I have no intention, however, of basing my criticism on my fears and anxieties. Instead of that I say, let us and let the people of this country thank God that this House can meet to-day and survey the situation, and that our population is better fed and better clothed than any in Europe, Asia, Africa and America, with the single possible exception of the United States. But I would say that the Admiralty is desperately and dangerously shackled and is handicapped very severely in certain basic respects. It has been said and published that the Admiralty think that the Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen are better in German ports than at Brest. I beg leave to doubt whether they ever said any such thing unless it was loyally to support a wholly wrong and disastrous policy forced upon them, namely, divided control of sea power. That is the whole evil which lies at the root of that disaster in the Channel.

I see in the newspaper to-day, as one sees constantly, that aircraft of Bomber Command—and may I say in passing that the term "Bomber Command" is not only an anachronism but an anomaly —have been laying mines. They can only have been laying mines on behalf of the Admiralty. Coastal Command have been doing something else. This seems to me, and I have thought so for years, to indicate that the Admiralty have had to ask the Air Ministry to do some of their work. The Admiralty ask, presumably, because they have not the weapons or the aircraft with which to do it. That, to my mind, is a most serious, grave and fundamental issue. In speaking of what I call the anomaly of the term "Bomber Command"—and it affects the Navy too—I would say that one might just as well speak of the Submarine Command or the Destroyer Command. That would be as bad for the efficiency of the Navy as it is to speak of the "Bomber Command."

In connection with what I call the disaster in the Channel I am perfectly certain that however sorry and anxious and even depressed I may be, there is not a soul on the Board of Admiralty who is not deeply sorry and humiliated that it should have happened. I see the First Lord here, and I frankly commiserate with him in the feelings that must have passed through his mind when he heard that those craft he had been longing to destroy for so many months were all but through the English Channel, and that nothing had been done either to report or check them. One could talk about it and compare it with naval disasters that have occurred in the past, but I say that is a waste of time now. It will be a very proper thing to do at some future time and no doubt it will be done. I have however had certain considerations forced on my attention, whether I liked it or not. I do not go about asking for evidence which will enable me to make critical speeches and attack the Front Bench, but for one reason and another certain points come to my notice, and I am going to put them as politely as I can to the First Lord.

First, we have heard something about these half-dozen Swordfish planes. That is bad enough but I hope the present arrangement is in process of rectification. I hear that the Admiralty had to rely on the Air Ministry for seaplanes carrying torpedoes with which to attack those German ships going up Channel. That, in itself, is fundamentally wrong. I am also told that the crews of the planes in question had never made an operational flight, and that they had had barely any practice at dropping torpedoes. Further, I am told that it was as late as three o'clock in the afternoon when these tremendously-wanted seaplanes carrying torpedoes left a mid-Channel Port, and we know that the report of these ships moving up Channel came through somewhere about 11 a.m., or towards midday. I am told that that mid-Channel Port was—I will put it mildly—150 miles astern of the escaping ships; further, that the information conveyed to the crews was to the effect that a convoy was passing up Channel and that it was to be attacked. This is conveyed to me by someone who says: "I can assure you that my information is founded on perfect truth and perfect honesty." That is how he puts it. I am not prepared to say that that was what occurred but I am prepared to say that something of that sort did happen. Not only were these crews told merely that there was to be a convoy attacked; I would say that, in general, the reports on and information in regard to these escaping ships were incomplete and too late. As we know, they were entirely disastrous in their consequences. I must ask the House to forgive me for feeling very deeply the humiliation we have had to suffer in this disastrous event.

I wish to say a few words about the fall of Singapore and to support by every means I possess the point of view put forward by the First Lord. It is another disaster, but it cannot be said too often that Singapore was a fortified base which could only hope to remain undefeated and untaken if we were able to exercise sea-power for its protection. I am constantly questioned by people about the fortifica- tions and so on. I say, quite frankly, that if it had ever been suggested in this House or on any public platform in the country that we were to organise land protection for the Malayan Peninsula it would have been laughed to scorn at any time in the last 15 years. Therefore, I congratulate the Government and the Board of Admiralty on having kept Japan out of the war in some way or another, for as long as they did. Once Japan came into the war, it seemed to me that the fall of Singapore was practically inevitable and its retention, as I said, depended, and must depend in any similar circumstances, on command of the sea, with adequate air support.

Another point to which I would like to draw attention and one which is conveniently forgotten is that Singapore never would have fallen, nor would we have got into that position if it had not been for the defeat and defection of France. That leads me, not very happily but truthfully, to point out that the position in the Mediterranean—the focus of the war from which we cannot detach any of our power without the gravest risks of losing Egypt and the oil and everything else which is so important—is a very serious one indeed. Again, this is due to the most unhappy and unfortunate defeat and defection of France. I refer in this connection to the fate of Malta. Malta may fall. I do not know—I can only read between the lines in the Press, look at my map and think of what I have learned from history. After all the attacks on Malta the British public might just as well begin to think about the possibility of Malta falling. If it is possible for German ships to pass up Channel as they did recently, it ought to be possible, if the First Lord receives all the support he wants and his powers are not diverted, depleted and watered down, by demands from other parts of the world, to prevent Malta from falling. With adequate sea power and an adequate number of surface ships and aircraft, I see no reason why Malta should fall, but unless that tremendous pressure and power can be provided, there is a great possibility that Malta may fall.

My hon. Friend the Member for Camberwell, North (Mr. Ammon) was very critical, and, after all, he is entitled to be critical. We all feel critical and sorry about what is happening. He said some- thing about the First Lord going around the country and making admirable speeches—many of which I have heard—on the subject of warship weeks and so forth. I have to do the same, and I am sure that I do not reduce the power of the Navy or of the Admiralty by my efforts in that respect. I do my best to explain to the people the enormous importance of sea power and how grateful they should be to the Royal Navy. I want to say, in connection with the First Lord's travels, that in undertaking them he pays a high compliment to the First Sea Lord, because he has to be away for a good many hours at very critical times. Tremendous events happen at five minutes' notice, and although I have heard and have often had pressed upon me the suggestion that the First Sea Lord should be replaced, the First Lord must have the greatest confidence in him if he feels safe and in a position to go away and make those very admirable speeches in the country. I say that, because it is desirable that the hints which are so constantly dropped about the growing incapacity of members of the Board of Admiralty should be checked.

There are two or three other things, important but minor by comparison with the tremendous events that surround us, to which I would refer. They concern pay and pensions and so on, and I want to record them in order that the Admiralty may give consideration to them. A system of post-war credits has been introduced in the country and I believe it now applies to the men of the Navy. I want to know whether it would not be a good idea to popularise the post-war credits and establish a system of such credits on behalf of the officers of the Navy. That is just a suggestion.

I want to clear up another matter. The country has lost a number of senior, officers in command of convoys—retired officers of great experience, courage, bravery and zeal. Some 11 or 12 of them have laid down their lives. They had been recalled, having reached the rank perhaps of vice-admiral or admiral. These officers are recalled—or they offer their services; I am not sure whether that is a distinction—and they have to take up the rank of commodore or commander, Royal Naval Reserve, or some lower rank than that which they had acquired by 30 or 40 years' service in the Royal Navy. If they are killed in action the pensions for their wives should be based upon the rank which they reached while they were serving in the Navy rather than upon the lower rank in which they were serving when they lost their lives. The question is complicated and I could not hope to be dogmatic about it, but the Admiralty ought to be more sympathetic. I realise the difficulties, but it really is time, in view of all the Questions that are asked in the House, that a Departmental committee should be set up, if there is not a Standing Committee in existence for that purpose, to consider the pay, pensions and allowances of the officers of the three Fighting Services. I do not wish it to be thought that I am not considering the point of view of the men. I consider it very much indeed, but, at the moment, my impression is that this question has rather passed out of the minds of the heads of the three Fighting Services, and I ask, therefore, that the Financial Secretary to the Admiralty shall give the matter consideration.

During the last war three great ships, which I knew very well indeed, were destroyed completely by the deterioration of the cordite for their guns—the "Bulwark," the "Vanguard" and the "Natal." It is possible that there were other cases. This was largely due to the fact that the Admiralty, at least during the last war, did not retain full control over the supply and inspection of their armaments, and particularly of their explosives. I hope that such a thing is not likely to happen again in this war, and I ask the First Lord whether, when a reply is made, the representative of the Admiralty will give some consolation or information on this subject in the hope that similar disasters may not happen as those which occurred in the last war.

I want to say a word on the subject of the serious increase in shipping losses in the last two months. Nothing could exceed the brilliance of the service, courage and zeal of all those who are protecting the shipping lanes and lines and the convoys, but it is rather an extroordinary thing that these heavy losses should suddenly have come about since the entry into the war of the United States of America. Far be it from me even to attempt to put my finger on the right spot—I do not know what is the cause—but I cannot help feeling that it may be because the urgency of the war, as it appears to the United States, has possibly resulted in a reduction of the admirable convoy protection which they provided up to the date of their entry into the war. I hope that I am not unjustified in asking the First Lord to be good enough to let us have a word of explanation in that connection.

Something was said about the Beveridge Committee. In the course of my work as a Member of Parliament I receive, like every other hon. Member, a great many letters. Very often these letters come from people who want to join the Navy, and who say, "I am an internal combustion engineer. I am this, that, or the other"—something rather special. They ask me whether I will insist upon the Admiralty finding a square hole in which they may place their services, which are square. I have discussed this matter with many of these people. I have told them that I could hold out no guarantee, and that I thought it was entirely wrong for people to expect to find a perfect niche in one or other of the Services simply because their own peace-time job had come to an end. Recently, in conversation with a young man in a reserved occupation, I was told by him, "Admiral, you ought to be able to find a place for all these people. What is the Navy going to do with an economist?" I said, "I do not want to cast any slurs on economists, but it seems to me it is the economist's job to fit himself for the Navy and not for the Navy to fit the Service to the economist." That is what I think about that matter, and it is there that I think the Beveridge Committee are at fault. I think they have not been entirely practical in their consideration of these matters.

I want now to say a word or two concerning the reliability of our ships, their unsinkability, or whatever you like to call it. Desperate disasters occurred during the last war because of faulty design, and I was delighted to hear my right hon. Friend the First Lord say that the most stringent steps are being taken to impress upon the designers of ships the necessity for making ships as nearly unsinkable as possible. In this connection, I would like to mention a rumour—it is nothing more than a rumour. The other day somebody said to me, "Didn't you know that they were never able to sink the 'Bismarck'? The 'Bismarck's' crew knew that they could not go on fighting, steaming, or escaping, and they were determined that the ship should not fall into the hands of the British because she was torpedo-proof, and therefore, they opened the seacocks and sank her." I am not prepared to support that assertion, because I really do not know.

In conclusion, I want to remind the House of the great possibilities of the future. I can foresee—I should hate to see it happen—the fall of Trincomalee and even the possibility of the occupation of Calcutta. I end my remarks on the same note as I started. Whatever we may think, whatever we may hope, and however much we may admire the Army and the Royal Air Force, it is wholly wrong to suppose that either one of those Services alone, or the two Services in combination, can win the war. The surest way of winning the war is to provide the utmost possible strength of sea-power in all its forms and aspects; if that is done, we can look forward with confidence, hope, and certainty to victory.