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 Sir Patrick Donner Sir Patrick Donner , Basingstoke

I want to begin by paying a tribute to the officers and men of the Royal Navy. I was glad to hear the First Lord's generous tribute to these officers and men who have had to run the gauntlet of torpedo and mine, shell and bomb. It is one thing to face acute danger for a short time; quite another order of courage is required to carry on month after month under conditions of extreme danger and physical discomfort. I think that our hearts go out particularly to the men in the trawlers and minesweepers, many of them from the Royal Naval Reserve and the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. I believe that too many people outside the House fail to realise that the men of the Royal Navy, alone of the three Services, are in constant danger. In this war the soldier's battles have been short and sharp. The airman, when he returns, returns to his aerodrome and to a warm bed—although perhaps not so warm, as some of us know from personal experience—at any rate, he returns to his mess and to comfort. But the sailor is in danger during the whole 24 hours of the day. Even when he returns to harbour, he is in danger of being bombed while his wife perhaps lives beside a neighbour who is married to a man working in industry and whose pay is many times greater than that of her own husband.

The First Lord referred to the Battle of the Atlantic and the Battle of the Seven Seas. I should prefer the expression "Campaign" of the Atlantic and "Campaign" of the Seven Seas, for that would be more accurate terminology. Arising out of the Battle of the Atlantic, my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Lewes (Rear-Admiral Beamish) referred to the passage of the "Scharnhorst" and the "Gneisenau" and "Prinz Eugen" up the Channel, and spoke of that as being a disaster. I dissent from that interpretation of the event. It is very understandable that a great many people felt emotional on the subject. The passage of these ships appeared to be an affront perpetrated on our very doorstep. It seemed a sad naval reverse, following upon many other reverses in the Far East. It savoured almost of the occasion when the Dutch, in the time of Charles II, sailed up the Thames with broomsticks attached to their masts.

What, in fact, does the event prove? Surely, it proves that capital ships, provided they are given full air support, a full air umbrella, can operate in narrow waters. It proves only what our Mediterranean Fleet has proved again and again during many months in the Mediterranean. Given that air support, capital ships can so operate. Suppose the boot had been on the other leg, suppose we had had a spectacular success in the Channel, suppose we had sunk two of the ships, and that a third had limped home to a German base mauled and battered. I believe the House and the country would have rejoiced for a very short time, for that temporary, spectacular success would have brought with it the implication that great capital ships could no longer, even with air support, operate in narrow waters. Surely, that implication, for our Island Empire, dependent as it is on the seas, would have been an implication of the most grave and grievous consequence. Therefore, although it was a great disappointment to us that those ships were not sunk, that they did not sustain even greater damage than they did, I think we can find some consolation in the fact that they were damaged, even though they were not sunk.

My submission is that this event proves that in this war no single Service can act successfully on its own. We must have the closest possible co-operation between the three Services. While the inquiry which has been instituted is going on, I hope that the First Lord will go into one particular point. A great number of people are wondering whether in fact our torpedoes are as effective as those of Germany and Japan. I know nothing about it, but I think it is a matter which would be worthy of immediate investigation. There is a feeling too that a great deal of our productive effort has gone into making heavy bombers and the Navy and the Army have had to make do with what is left. Surely the time has come when we should consider the position and ascertain whether in fact the Navy is receiving the numbers and types of aircraft it requires.

This Channel affair raises one other question, and that is the question of the future use of the assembled German fleet at Wilhelmshaven and Kiel. Obviously the Germans are bound to try and intercept our supplies to Russia; they can creep up that long coast of Norway and threaten the supplies. In any case they will menace them in a very real way, but that will give us an opportunity to destroy their ships, and I only hope that the Board of Admiralty will see to it that that is done. There are various other points in this connection which are worthy of attention but which are not suitable for Public Session, and I wonder whether the First Lord will consider giving the House an opportunity to debate these matters in secret. There is the whole question of future construction which should be discussed in secret. We have lost command of the sea in the Pacific, and our position has been aggravated there by weakness in the air. The only way to wrest back our command is by the use of our battle fleet in conjunction with the American battle fleet, but the support which we can send to the Far East is limited by the remnants of the German and Italian navies, and the perpetual uncertainty of the future use of the French navy. Therefore we come to this question of construction, and whether in fact battleship building to-day is being given the priority it requires. I think that the House would appreciate an assurance on that point. After all, we started this war with only 15 capital ships. We have lost five, the "Royal Oak," the "Hood," the "Repulse," the "Prince of Wales," and the "Barham," which leaves us with 10. We have added the "King George V" and the "Duke of York," but the ships which we have include five old "Royal Sovereigns." I think that the House should be told in Secret Session not only what is happening to the "Anson," the "Howe," the "Lion" and the "Temeraire," but above all whether any further capital ships are being laid down. A study of the rate at which our new battleships are being commissioned leads, I think, to the conclusion that the Prime Minister when he was First Lord of the Admiralty in the first winter of this war slowed down the rate of battleship building. I do not criticise him for that, because the conditions which appertained at that time were quite different from those which exist now. At that time there was an overwhelming need for escort ships, destroyers and small ships of all kinds, whereas to-day, after the loss of Singapore, the need is for a greater number of capital ships. The House would appreciate therefore if necessary in Secret Session further information on what we are doing in this regard.

It was said in the last war that Jellicoe was the only man who could lose the war in half an hour; I believe that we can lose this war if we squander our battle fleet piecemeal. That leads me to the point which the First Lord made on the loss of the "Prince of Wales" and the "Repulse." We know that these ships were sent out as a political move and in the hope that they would act as a deterrent on Japan.