War Situation

– in the House of Commons on 19th January 1943.

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Photo of Mr Clement Attlee Mr Clement Attlee , Stepney Limehouse

Rather more than two months ago, on Armistice Day, the Prime Minister gave the House a full statement on the war situation following on the great events in Libya and North Africa. I do not propose to-day to deal in any detail with the events of the past two months, but I am sure that the House at its first meeting in the New Year will wish to have an opportunity of paying its tribute to those who, on sea, on land and in the air, in so many theatres of war have been fighting so valiantly in our common cause. Although during these last two months there has been nothing so dramatically unexpected as the landings in North Africa, we can view the close of the year 1942 with, I think, sober satisfaction and look forward to 1943 with justifiable confidence. Looking back, what a striking contrast there is between this fourth January of the war and its predecessors. Everywhere to-day the initiative has passed into the hands of the United Nations.

I think it is right that in any review of the war we should give pride of place to the wonderful achievements of the Russian Armies. It is difficult to realise that when the Prime Minister gave his review the German tide of advance was" still threatening Stalingrad. Nine days later the main Russian offensive started in the South with blows on every side of the German salient, and since then, right up to the present time, blow has followed blow, attack has followed attack. The German attempt to relieve the Sixth army, which has been cut off, has utterly failed, and it looks as if in all probability none of that great force will escape from the trap. Meanwhile, the advance continues. Sweeping down towards Rostov it is rolling up the right flank of the Germans in the Caucasus, while away to the north, at Leningrad, Veliki Luki and Voronezh, renewed blows are being delivered. It is difficult to keep up to date with these movements. To-day we learn that a land contact has been established between the main Russian forces and the garrison at Leningrad, raising the siege. It is remarkable how little we have heard of that remarkable resistance of Leningrad. The Russians to-day report that the Donetz has been crossed opposite the Voronezh-Rostov railway at Kamenskaya. It is a remarkable feat maintaining an offensive on a 200-mile front in the South, as deep sometimes as 180 miles, in winter, on such terrain and with very sparse communications. It will surely take its place in history as an outstanding achievement. I have often heard it said that the Russians are very good fighters and very brave but that they are no good at organisation and are incapable of staff work. That is absolute nonsense, as has been proved. Every Member who recalls a speech made by the Prime Minister in which he showed the immense amount of preparation and work which are required to stage a great offensive, will realise what lies behind these great victories.

I will turn to North Africa. I know that there has been some impatience at the pause in the operation of driving the Axis from Libya, but in the last few days the Rommel record retreat has begun again. It is really unreasonable to expect that in campaigns fought over great distances in practically desert country it should be possible to continue indefinitely an advance. There is a certain rhythm in warfare in these areas. The spring is coiled, the blow is struck, and then the spring must be recoiled before the next stroke is possible. I think that the House realised two months ago the magnitude of the preparations that rendered possible not merely that stroke at El Alamein but the follow-through. That follow-through came right up to the El Agheila position, a difficult position to attack, but the threat was so strong that the El Agheila position was evacuated, and the enemy were badly mauled in trying to get away. It is difficult to bring about the complete destruction of a highly mobile force, but heavy losses were inflicted. Then came the inevitable wait. The enemy went back to Buerat. We had to bring up our forces. The spring was recoiled. On Friday General Montgomery struck again. The enemy is retreating. Our advance is at the rate of about a mile every hour. We cannot tell where he will elect to stand. Our troops are already in Misurata. Our objective is the total destruction of the enemy forces in North Africa. The time will come when there is nowhere further for him to go. I should like to note here the vigorous action of that small mobile column of the Free French operating across hundreds of miles of desert from the Chad area. In a short time they have mopped up all the garrisons in Fezzan.

I suppose to most of us who took part in the last war the outstanding thing that strikes us is the extraordinary difference in scale of the operations then and now. We used to talk in hundreds of yards. An advance of a mile or two was something tremendous. The Eighth Army is now over 1,000 miles from the start. That is taking it as the crow flies. If El Alamein is taken as London, El Agheila is Cape Wrath in the far North of Scotland, while Tripoli is far away in Iceland. In Tunisia, too, there has been a lull, and there, again, that has naturally caused some disappointment, but I think the House should recall three things. First, again the great distances—I need not stress that. Secondly, the weather, which has made movement practically impossible off the roads, both for tanks and for wheeled vehicles, and has very seriously affected the provision of air fields and thus the effectiveness of our Air Force. Thirdly, there is the fact that the very speed of our initial advance, the success of this landing, has made people tend to expect that the same rate of advance could be kept up. There, again, when you land on a shore to work ahead you have to pile up munitions and supplies, and in this fight for what is known as the "Tunis tip" the enemy has now very short communications and ours are very long. We have every confidence in General Eisenhower, General Anderson and the men of the Allied Forces in Tunisia. There has been a lot of hard fighting, and there have been many very gallant incidents, such as those of the Hampshires at Tebourba and of the Guards at Medjez, which have been fully recounted in the Press, and I know that everyone there is co-operating—United States, British and French—under an American general, General Eisenhower. In this area Malta, which only a few weeks ago was in such mortal danger has been resupplied and is more than ever a thorn in the side of the enemy. In all these activities in that Mediterranean area, the Air Force, Navy and Army have been working closely together.

To turn for a moment from the military to the political side, the French civil authorities are co-operating fully with the Allied Forces, just as the French troops are fighting alongside ours in Tunisia. There has been some discussion, more I think in the American Press than in our own, of alleged differences between ourselves and the Americans about North Africa. Well, I think it is natural that French affairs should not always appear in the same light to us in this country and to the Americans. After all, we were nearer the crisis of 1940, which presented an immediate and mortal danger to us before the United States were in the war. But such variations of outlook, though they have their effects, ought not to be exaggerated. His Majesty's Government fully appreciated the advantage of the maintenance by the United States Government of relations with the Government of Marshal Pétain. We recognise that the contacts that were established there were of advantage while they lasted, and they actually bore fruit at the time of the North African operation. The political preparations in Algiers and Morocco were a very important part of that operation and contributed to its rapid success. The collaboration between the American and British Staffs during the preparation and conduct of that great military operation was intimate and cordial, and a spirit of greatest harmony continues between the British and American members of General Eisenhower's General Staff. I think that is a good augury for future operations.

In the political field, the two Governments have for the future a single objective, which is to promote the union of all Frenchmen in the war against the Axis for the liberation of France. In order to help towards this, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Stockton (Mr. Harold Macmillan) has been appointed Minister Resident at Allied Headquarters in North-West Africa. His function is to report on the political situation and future plans in French North Africa and to represent to the Commander-in-Chief the views of His Majesty's Government on political matters. I am glad to say that he has been cordially welcomed by General Eisenhower, who is already working in closest collaboration with him and with President Roosevelt's representative on the Commander-in-Chief's staff, Mr. Murphy. It is our hope that all those who are charged with administration in the various parts of the French Empire will allow no secondary or personal considerations to stand in the way of the fraternal union for the redemption of France which France herself and the United Nations earnestly desire to see, We welcome the appointment of General Giraud as High Commissioner in North Africa and are glad that the British Forces should be associated in comradeship with French forces under his command. We are all under a great debt to General de Gaulle for his bold and uncompromising reassertion of French resistance; and for ourselves, we look forward to the day, and we will do our best to hasten it, when the whole French Empire and those steadfast and heroic forces of resistance in France itself, gathered round a single authority on French soil, can join in a common effort with the United Nations to break down the power of the enemy and achieve the liberation of France.

Before leaving this theatre of war, which is so wide flung, I would like to notice two encouraging things. The Iraq Government have declared war upon Germany, Italy and Japan. After the last war we set Iraq on the path of independence and it is naturally gratifying that of her own free will the Iraq Government decided to join actively in the struggle against aggression. On 28th December French Somaliland rallied to the United Nations as a part of Fighting France. Meanwhile, at the other side of Africa, the Government of French West Africa, as the result of an agreement made by General Eisenhower and the late Admiral Darlan and M. Boisson, has joined with French North Africa in full co-operation with the United Nations.

To turn to the Pacific area, the Japanese advance there has been successfully held. In New Guinea, in spite of the absolutely appalling difficulties of climate in that country, the Japanese at the Eastern end of the island have been forced back from Kokoda and by the joint action of American and Australian forces have been reduced to a very small handful in Sanander. In fact, I have seen that those forces in Sanander have been destroyed. The fighting has been stubborn and hard on both sides, and General MacArthur and his troops have very well earned their success. Meanwhile, 300 miles away to the East the United States Forces on Guadalcanal have continued to improve their position. At one time we were most anxious about that position, but in vigorous naval and air actions heavy losses have been inflicted on the enemy. Three attempts in the last month to reinforce and supply the Japanese troops by surface craft were actually defeated and the Japanese were forced to turn away. But we shall be wrong to minimise the dangers that still exist in the Far East. We have got a very determined and a highly skilful enemy, but we can surely see, everyone of us, the great difference in the position in the Far East since a year ago.

In Burma, too, the initiative has changed. Along the coastal strip Field Marshal Wavell's forces are advancing towards Akyab. There again the country is very difficult, with very few and primitive communications. Good progress is being made, and our troops are being welcomed back by the people of the country, who have given them every help.

Photo of Mr Reginald Purbrick Mr Reginald Purbrick , Liverpool, Walton

Before he leaves that point, could the right hon. Gentleman give us any information regarding the reported accumulation of large Japanese forces which are said to be threatening Australia, to which Mr. Curtin, the Australian Prime Minister, has referred?

Photo of Mr Clement Attlee Mr Clement Attlee , Stepney Limehouse

We are conscious that there are forces at Rabaul, and the United Nations are taking every step to deal with that situation. When I said that we must remember the dangers in that area it was in my mind that there was this accumulation. There has been no spectacular development in the Chinese war, but our Allies continue to offer stubborn resistance to the attempts of the enemy to extend the area of their occupation. We are doing all we can to get supplies through. I am sure that everyone will send his good wishes to the Chinese people, who have put up such a struggle for so many years. In the political field, our recent Treaty for the relinquishment of extra-territorial rights marks the beginning of a new, and I think a happier, relationship between our two countries. It is another side of our close co-operation with the United States that Treaties between the United States and China and between ourselves and China in almost identical terms were signed on the same day. I am sure that the visit of the Parliamentary Mission to China will have proved to have been of very great service in strengthening the personal friendship between the two nations.

I turn for a moment to the war at sea. As in the last war, so in this, the U-boat constitutes a menace of the first magnitude, and, as in the last war, there is no short and simple way to defeat it. We have to rely on the cumulative effect of a large number of counter-measures. It is worth remembering that naval warfare has never been a series of fleet actions. The war at sea in the Napoleonic wars continued for years after Trafalgar. It is less so than ever to-day; it is a continuous battle of little ships and relatively small forces going on all the time, and the prizes of battle are the safe arrival of our ships and the destruction of enemy craft. I know that the House is well aware of the importance of communications, not only to us, but to our Allies, and that we all feel what we owe to the skill, endurance and heroism of the men of the merchant ships and their naval and air escorts. This fight is going on day and night all over the ocean highways, but it is only occasionally that some notable event focuses attention on this continuous service of devotion.

There was the event not long ago, the running of the Malta convoy, and we had another in the last few days of the old year, when an action was fought between our own Forces and the very much superior force of German vessels. That story we had in the Press. This notable action in defence of British and American convoys to Russia, fought in the twilight amid the snowstorms of Northern winter, throws a flashlight on another of the achievements of the Navy in the maintenance of the food supplies of our Allies. In spite of the enormously superior enemy Forces, the convoy arrived safely at its destination unscathed.

As at sea, so in the air; the war goes on continuously without anything very spectacular. Throughout the Libyan campaign, the overwhelming superiority in the air established against Rommel has been maintained, and it is worth noting the work that has been done by the ground staff amid tremendous difficulties in bringing forward airfields and services. The Forces of our Allies and of the R.A.F. in Malta have been continuously at it, attacking enemy transport vessels; airfields and ports. A series of raids on Genoa, Turin, Milan and other towns has played havoc with the industries and communications in Northern Italy. [An HON. MEMBER: "Keep it up."] We can tell the effect from the fact that Mussolini has had to issue an order withdrawing all but essential personnel from Italian cities, while there is constant attack on the ports and airfields in Sicily and Southern Italy.

In the home field-our bombers' efforts over Germany and the industrial centres of the occupied territories have not stood still. We have had a series of very bad weather conditions over the last two months, but, despite that fact, there was not a day during November and December on which our bombers were not out. During this month there have been very notable attacks on Essen, Lorient and other targets. During the last two days, in London, we heard the sirens again. We had not heard them for some time, and that was because Berlin had also had its air raids, in two very heavy attacks, delivered, I believe, with very great effect. We shall continue to press on with these bomber attacks, concentrating always on those targets that are most effective for bringing the enemy down.

I cannot close this statement on the war situation without recalling to the House the terrible conditions which are being endured by all the peoples in Europe who come under the power of Hitler. As the Nazis' hopes for victory fade, and as they feel the tide of hatred rising against them everywhere, they wreak their vengeance on those who cannot defend themselves. They seem to think that by employing every kind of atrocity they can suppress the hopes that are growing daily in the breasts of all the oppressed people; but all the evidence goes to show that they cannot kill the spirit of freedom and the spirit of resistance. I think there is a need for us to recall what is actually happening. We are apt to have our sensibilities blunted by the mere constant repetition of deeds, any one of which, in happier days, would have caused a thrill of horror throughout the world. The Jews have always suffered in this way for the sins of the Nazis. We know what forms those sufferings have lately taken. One of the most striking features of Hitler's New Year message to the German people was his hysterical ravings against the Jews. That is a sure sign that all is not well in Germany.

But the Jews are by no means the only scapegoats; all the peoples of Europe are at Hitler's mercy—if he has any mercy. All can foe made to suffer when things are going wrong, and all have suffered in that way. The immensity of their sufferings is the measure of Hitler's difficulties. That blow has fallen with particular harshness on the gallant Polish nation. Ever since the German occupation of Poland, the German authorities have pursued a deliberate policy of reducing the Polish people to slavery, of removing their leaders from all positions of authority and of influence and of dispossessing the peasants of their land. Recent reports received by the Polish Government indicate that the Nazi tyranny has been greatly intensified. Last month it was learned that Germany had undertaken the systematic expulsion and deportation of the Polish population, attended by mass executions, in another large area.

During the last few days, the Polish Government have received reports of a new series of arrest on a large scale in Warsaw itself. These tyrannical measures are not just arbitrary outbreaks of tyranny but are part of a policy deliberately organised by the German Government, and they bear witness to the gallant resistance of the Polish people. I think they are the surest possible sign of the state of nerves to which the German authorities have been reduced by recent events and of anxiety regarding developments on their Eastern Front. They have not passed unnoticed. The sufferings of the Polish people must be and will be requited. With every day that passes, our power to strike back at the oppressors is increasing. The recent raids on Berlin have shown our ability to deal heavy blows at the very heart of the enemy's strength. I trust that the knowledge of these blows will bring courage to our Allies and will hasten their deliverance from their present martyrdom. I cannot tell what lies ahead in the year 1943, but we must not allow any succcesses to cause us to relax or to underrate the dangers and difficulties that still await us. But the House may rest assured that it is the resolve of His Majesty's Government during 1943, in the closest co-operation with our Allies of the United Nations, to strike at the enemy by land, by sea, by air, everywhere, with the utmost vigour and determination.

Photo of Colonel Ralph Glyn Colonel Ralph Glyn , Abingdon

May I ask one question before the right hon. Gentleman sits down? Can he give the House an assurance that at the present time absolute priority is being given to the protection of the Merchant Navy at sea, both in regard to ships and aircraft?

Photo of Mr Clement Attlee Mr Clement Attlee , Stepney Limehouse

Every possible step is being taken to that end.

Photo of Mr William Gallacher Mr William Gallacher , Fife Western

I would like to ask the Deputy Prime Minister or the Leader of the House whether it would be possible for this House to send a message to the people of Leningrad, expressing the hope that their freedom, after 17 months of being encircled, will only be the preliminary to the speedy freeing of the other encircled peoples of Europe?

Photo of Mr Anthony Eden Mr Anthony Eden , Warwick and Leamington

I am sure the hon. Member is expressing the sentiments of every Member in this House in what he says.

Photo of Mr Tom Driberg Mr Tom Driberg , Maldon

The right hon. Gentleman referred to the thrill of horror caused by Nazi atrocities, but is it not a fact that these atrocities have been going on since 1933, and is it not rather unfortunate the British Government concealed so effectively until 1939 the thrill of horror which it no doubt felt?

Photo of Mr Clement Attlee Mr Clement Attlee , Stepney Limehouse

I can only answer for this Government.

Photo of Mr John Tinker Mr John Tinker , Leigh

My right hon. Friend spoke of the submarine menace. Could any opportunity be provided to tell us in Secret Session what is happening? One thing that is upsetting the mind of the people is what is happening at sea. No one seems to know the facts. Is it possible to get a statement in Secret Session, so that Members at least may know?

Photo of Mr Clement Attlee Mr Clement Attlee , Stepney Limehouse

We will certainly consider that. I will discuss it with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House.

Photo of Dr Leslie Haden-Guest Dr Leslie Haden-Guest , Islington North

Can the right hon. Gentleman add anything about the political side of the North African situation, as to whether he is satisfied, with regard to the legislation against the Jews and the internment of numerous persons arrested by the Vichy regime, that these problems are on the way to early liquidation?

Photo of Mr Clement Attlee Mr Clement Attlee , Stepney Limehouse

I think I can assure my hon. Friend that very great progress is being made there, and I believe we are on the way to solving these problems.

Photo of Sir Joseph Lamb Sir Joseph Lamb , Stone

The right hon. Gentleman referred to the terrible atrocities taking place abroad, and the determination of this country that the perpetrators shall be, at some future date, punished. Are steps being taken with other countries, any negotiations, with regard to the extradition laws so as to see that it is not possible for any of these people to get away from the authority and justice which we hope will overtake them?

Photo of Mr Clement Attlee Mr Clement Attlee , Stepney Limehouse

That is a complicated matter which is under very careful consideration. We are considering how to deal with it.

Photo of Mr William Cluse Mr William Cluse , Islington South

As we are, after all; in control of Palestine, cannot we ease the immigration arrangements for the quota so that a larger number can go into Palestine?

Photo of Mr Clement Attlee Mr Clement Attlee , Stepney Limehouse

A reply was given in the House on that subject. Perhaps my hon. Friend will look at that.