I beg to move, to leave out from the word "That," to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:
this House desires to record its admiration of the part played by the members of the Women's Royal Naval Service in the present conflict and to express the opinion that a still further extension of their activities should be considered.
Yesterday the hon. Member for West Fife (Mr. Gallacher) showed concern when he discovered that to-day, the first occasion on which, since your election, Mr. Speaker, you have called upon the Clerk at the Table to read the Orders of the Day, the first Motion to be put was "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair." That Motion was moved by the First Lord some hours ago, and in moving my Amendment, I hope I have removed entirely from the mind of the hon. Member for West Fife any vestige of concern he might still have felt.
In the Spring of 1939, at the request of the Commander of Home Forces, the Board of Admiralty agreed to form the Women's Royal Naval Service, with what may be called the following terms of reference:
To supplement the man-power of the Royal Navy by releasing for combatant duties personnel who would otherwise be required for naval duties in establishments ashore.
I draw the attention of the House to the three words—"naval establishments ashore"—to which I shall refer a little later in my remarks. In September, 1939, the W.R.N.S. numbered about 1,500. The majority were employed in clerical, domestic and communications duties.
From that time onward there has been a continual increase in the numbers, and at the end of 1942 there were 40,000 Wrens. The intake for the present year is expected to amount to 20,000, so that by the end of 1943 the Service will have in all 60,000 women. The number of categories in which Wrens have been employed has been continually increased. They are now employed in more than 60 categories, and have taken over much technical and operational work and many posts of considerable responsibility. Practically all the new categories allotted to the W.R.N.S. during the past year have been of a technical nature. The Wrens have responded enthusiastically to these new calls and have taken intensive courses of training.
It is impossible for me to narrate here all the 60 categories in which they are now employed, but it may be mentioned that they are repairing and testing the radio sets of the Fleet Air Arm, testing and adjusting torpedoes and depth charges, servicing the electrical equipment of coastal craft, and doing a hundred and one other jobs that were formerly done by men. I regret very much that my hon. and gallant Friend the Senior Burgess for Oxford University (Petty-Officer Herbert) is unable to be here to-day, because he would have been able to tell us something of the work of the W.R.N.S. as he has seen it on the ship of which he has had charge and from his observations when on service; but all of us, whether or not we represent, as I do, constituencies with ports, have had an opportunity of seeing what splendid services these women are rendering. I think the whole House would desire me to give praise to the Director of the W.R.N.S., Mrs. Laughton Matthews, and to all the officers and women who are serving under her.
I have said that the original appointment referred to establishments ashore. The first point I want to put to the Civil Lord is whether that can now be modified and whether the W.R.N.S. can go afloat. I can quite believe that in the Spring of 1939, when the Service was instituted, the Admiralty felt it was unnecessary for women to go afloat. I think all of us would have said so, too, at that time; but during the past few months we have heard from the Secretary of State for War and the Minister of Labour how great is the shortage of man-power and how necessary it is for us to release every young man who can be spared for the purpose of combatant service in one of the three Services. Moreover, we have seen in industry accomplishments by women that have surprised all of us. In all trades women are to-day doing jobs which, before the war, it was thought that only men could do, and they are doing them thoroughly well. Surely, the Admiralty, in its turn, must consider whether there are not afloat jobs such as communications, supply and clerical work which could be done by women, so releasing young men for harder service.
I am told that the bigger the ship the easier it would be to make arrangements. I have put this matter to the Civil Lord because I have been asked to do so by a large number of women who are in this Service. The second question I want to ask is whether the W.R.N.S. can be continued after the war. Many women love this work, and they want to know whether they can make a profession of it. We hope that this war will be the final war, but we have learned in this war, as a lesson from the previous war, that if once you abolish a Department it takes two years to get it going again, and if after this war the W.R.N.S. were discontinued and if there should be another war, it would take two years to get the Service going again. Let me say, in conclusion, that throughout industry and in the three Services the women of Britain are taking their place in the battle for freedom beside their menfolk. I can say that the Women's Royal Naval Service are proud that they have been chosen to work and fight—I use the word deliberately—side by side with the men in the Royal Navy. Whatever calls may be made upon them, they are ready to do their utmost to uphold the great traditions of the Service of which they form a small part.
I beg to second the Amendment.
I am glad of this opportunity of seconding the Amendment, because, like my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Holmes), I have been very much impressed by the work the W.R.N.S. is doing in my own constituency. When it was first proposed to introduce women in large numbers into what used to be called, as we have been reminded in the Debate, the "silent Service," I have no doubt the proposal gave rise to some misgivings, but if indeed that was the case, such misgivings have long since vanished. The last controversy I heard of in connection with the Wrens was about the shape of the hat they ought to wear. I think now that that important point has been satisfactorily settled, there is nothing to stand in the way of further progress in the Service. My own Service experience having been with the Army, I have always found the strange nomenclatures of the other Services a little difficult, but I think it was a third officer who told me that, starting right at the foot of the ladder about three years ago, she had changed her status no less than nine times in reaching her present rank. I mention that because it shows that in this Service ability soon meets with its due reward, and that is a very encouraging feature.
It has already been said that the Wrens are doing a great variety of jobs. I want to refer to a few of them which I happen to have seen myself. Some are acting as messengers. I think some of the admirals still gaze on them with a mild surprise. We expect to find them typing letters. Naturally they seem quite at home when it comes to cooking and serving meals, though when one learns they are expected to feed hungry sailors in any number at any hour of the 24 and without any notice, we realise that this calls for considerable skill and organising ability. But besides these more or less expected occupations, I have seen them engaged in scraping and painting motor boats, working on engines, and sometimes in the cramped surroundings of the engine rooms of small ships, and on these small ships they actually go out to sea in order to make sure that the work they have been engaged upon has been successfully clone. I have seen them testing many kinds of apparatus, repairing guns and working on torpedoes and, moreover, successfully taking charge of stores where they are surrounded with gadgets of such a bewildering number that their infinite variety can only be compared with that which the poets attribute to women themselves. In my constituency, though nowhere else at present, they are also engaged in training sailors in a very important part of their fighting work. It is obvious that these Wrens take a real pride in the work they are doing and thoroughly enjoy doing it and, as the reward for good work is said to be more work, and they have proved themselves to be equal to all these calls, I think the scope of the calls, wide as it already is, might still be extended. I am sure the House will share the admiration expressed in the Amendment and I hope it will share also in the desire to make even further use of the abilities which have been displayed.
I am very glad indeed to associate myself with the Amendment. Having had the privilege of being a member of the Women's Services Committee, under the able and inspiring chairmanship of Miss Violet Markham, I am sure I shall not be ruled out of Order if I say that at the end of our inquiry, and after visiting a very large number of camps, stations and naval bases of all sorts and descriptions, one really felt a sincere and equal admiration for all three Services. When history comes to be written, a very stirring and remarkable story will be told of what our women have done in the Army, Navy and Air Force. One thing is certain. It will shatter once and for all the illusion that women cannot keep a secret. The Navy has been called the silent Service and I expect the Lords of the Admiralty bet their sea boots that women would carry on the tradition, otherwise they would hardly have sent them to attend the Casablanca Conference. We are only able, on this occasion, to discuss the Women's Royal Naval Service, which is a small force compared with the A.T.S. and the W.A.A.F.s. They have not had the strain of sudden and rapid expansion, and have therefore been able to expand in a more ordered and selective manner. Nevertheless, their duties now range from between 60 and 100 different categories.
Let me refer to one or two specially interesting things that they are doing. Wrens now form boat crews for harbour launches. They have been doing this for two winters as well as summers, and I am told by friends in the Navy that they handle their boats with very great skill. They are also assisting in the routing of convoys, both coastal and ocean. In a recent long signals course for both men and women it was a Wren who topped the list of successful candidates, and she is
now a duty signal officer at an important naval headquarters, replacing a naval officer who has gone overseas. Remarkable as these achievements are, it must never be forgotten that the work done by cooks and orderlies, though far less spectacular, is no less important. There is still a shortage of cooks in all the women's Services. In many places that I have visited they were considerably under establishment which, of course, greatly increases the pressure of their work. I should like to draw attention to the paragraph in the Women's Services Report which deals with this matter. Let me quote the last few lines:
Cooks and orderlies serve at key points in the present struggle, for content and discontent in the ranks is largely determined by their efforts. We think officers in charge should constantly seek to impress this view not only on domestic personnel, but on all other ranks who owe so much to their service, remembering that all work ranks the same according to the spirit in which it is performed.
I should like to ask the Civil Lord a few questions in connection with some of the recommendations of the Markham Committee. Can he say why it has not yet been found possible to place the W.R.N.S. under the Naval Discipline Act? The Admiralty probably thinks they are paying a great compliment to the good behaviour of the Wrens by not doing so, but we recommended this, not so much from the point of view of discipline as for uniformity of status. What exactly are the practical difficulties of bringing them into line with the other two Services? The W.R.N.S. are often referred to as part and parcel of the Navy, and I do not think anyone could exaggerate the wonderful esprit de corps that exists between the men and women. Should a Wren desire to desert—it does not happen often, but there are oases—surely it is a decided weakness that at present it is not possible to take any action. Perhaps also the Civil Lord will say whether the examination of the immobile units of the W.R.N.S. has yet been completed. Rightly or wrongly—I suppose because nearly a third were recruited on an immobile basis and live at home—there is still a widespread belief in the minds of the public that there are many immobile Wrens to-day who could and should be mobile, and in view of the drastic new Regulation which has recently been made
by the Minister of Labour, it will be a great help if my hon. Friend can clear the matter up.
Can he also tell us whether any more women doctors have been appointed to reception centres and commands? At the time of our inquiry there was only one woman doctor on the staff of the Medical Director General. I think she acted as liaison officer to the Director of the W.R.N.S. In view of the steady expansion of the Service we felt that this was totally inadequate, and I hope we may hear that more women doctors have been appointed. Can he also give the House any idea as to the extent to which W.R.N.S. officers are replacing duty staff officers at commands, and is it not a fact that there are still a number of naval officers at the Admiralty itself who could be replaced by W.R.N.S. officers? After three and a half years these W.R.N.S. officers must have gained a considerable amount of knowledge of naval administration. I wonder, too, whether the Admiralty have done anything with regard to our recommendation for selective intelligence tests. Everyone before joining is asked to produce three references, but we felt that these selective intelligence tests before the medical examination are in the best interests of the recruit herself as well as of the Service. I understand that there is a system of intelligence tests for men before joining the Navy and that these tests are given by the W.R.N.S. themselves. A friend told me that he was "fairly put through it" the other day by a Wren.
I should like to ask a question about education. Up to a certain point I fully realise that Service life is an education in itself, but have any further steps been taken to stimulate educational and cultural interests among the vast number of women engaged in ordinary everyday routine work? Perhaps the most depressing thing that we found during our inquiry was the total lack of interest shown by all three Women's Services in anything that savoured of education. Over and over again, I was told that the girls simply were not interested and did not have time. In fact, to put over education at all, it had to be disguised as recreation and made bright and amusing. When I once suggested to a group of girls—I will not say to which Service they belonged—that they might like a talk about the war, they said, "We do not bother about that. We want to enjoy ourselves in our own time." I am not blaming them for this. It is largely our fault, and it is a very serious reflection on our educational system during pre-war years. But I do know it is a Heaven-sent opportunity to do something now to rectify our failure of the past. It is essential for this purpose that an adequate number of education officers of proper senior rank and standing should be appointed. They may not be easy to find, but what opportunities await those who are willing and capable of undertaking this work. I am sure that at the O.C.T.U.'s the importance of this work cannot be over emphasised, and I am very glad to see that the length of these courses has been extended.
I think regular discussions in training time, on the lines of A.B.C.A., make an excellent beginning, and one which is already proving satisfactory in the Army, both among men and women. If women are to play their full part with men in the reconstruction after the war they must prepare themselves now, and it is essential that they should have a sound knowledge of what we are fighting about, what we are fighting against and above all, what type of world we are fighting to establish for the future generation. I should like also to pay a special tribute to the Director of the W.R.N.S. She seems to me to combine two very important qualities in a leader, great humanity and sound commonsense. These qualities have assisted to build up complete harmony and confidence between Wrens of all ranks.
She was saying that a certain officer of the W.R.N.S. was entitled to great praise. If that is permissible, on a future occasion it will be permissible to say that a certain officer of the W.R.N.S. is very bad. The proper way is to direct our criticism to the head of the Service and not to any serving officer.
I am sorry if I have done anything Wrong. I will only conclude by saying that the W.R.N.S. are a most efficient, successful and happy Service and one to which we are all glad and proud to pay a tribute.
Could my hon. Friend elaborate her proposal that the W.R.N.S. should have education courses? They are at work for considerable hours during the day, and does she propose that the education should be carried out compulsorily in their own time? It would be a little difficult to take them from their work and do it in their working hours.
I agree that there are difficulties in these matters, but where there is a will there is a way, and where people have really wanted to start discussion groups during training periods in the A.T.S. they have been able to find ways of doing so. I am certain that the same could be done in the W.R.N.S.
Is it not just as possible for the women to receive education through A.B.C.A. as for the men? It has been possible in the Army, so why should it not be possible in the W.R.N.S.?
In the normal course of events this is the one opportunity for the Civil Lord of the Admiralty to say anything to the House of Commons, and I am very fortunate in having a subject so pleasant and interesting as that of the W.R.N.S. to deal with. My hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Holmes) is to be congratulated on choosing this Amendment, which draws attention to the magnificent work that has been done and is still to be done by the W.R.N.S., a branch of our war effort which might be described by hon. Ladies in this House as being the "better half" of the Senior Service. The W.R.N.S. serve in practically every shore establishment of the British Navy. They serve in the headquarters of the great Commands, they serve in the small harbour craft, they serve in far away islands such as the Shetlands, they serve in the Middle East, they serve in South Africa, and they served in Singapore, and no doubt very shortly will be serving there again. They served at Casablanca when the President and the Prime Minister met. There is a branch now in Canada which is doing extremely well. Wherever the W.R.N.S. have gone they have carried with them that high standard of work and conduct which we have learned to know and appreciate at home.
They were first created in a dark hour of peril for this country in 1917. They were resurrected in another dark hour of peril in 1939. By the end of that year they numbered some 3,000. By the end of 1940 they numbered some 10,000. By the end of 1941 they numbered some 20,000. By the end of 1942 they numbered some 40,000. I agree with hon. Members that this is a fitting opportunity to pay a tribute not only to the Service as a whole but to that small band of leaders who fashioned this Service. The success which they have achieved has been due not only to the gallant response that was made by so many women to the country's call, but also and particularly to the careful handling, selection and training by those from whom the great organisation which we know to-day has sprung.
I should like first to deal with the Mark-ham Committee, which was referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for East Islington (Mrs. Keir). To give this Committee its correct name, it is the Committee on Amenities and Welfare Conditions in the Three Women's Services. Their Report is of the greatest value, and its authors may well feel that they have justified the stand which certain hon. Ladies took in the House that in the personnel of this Committee women should predominate over men. On 17th November I informed my hon. Friend that the position then was that of the recommendations in the Report which concerned the W.R.N.S., nine were already in practice or would be adopted. The position now is that of the 33 recommendations which concern the W.R.N.S. all have been accepted, with four exceptions. I should like to say a word about these four. As regards the 6th recommendation, which suggested that visits should be paid by women Directors and their Deputies without prior notice being given, it was considered that it would be more in conformity with existing naval practice that notice should continue to be given to the Commanders-in-Chief of the areas.
Recommendation No. 9, which dealt with the Naval Discipline Act, is still being considered. If any hon. Member thinks that some time has elapsed while it has been considered, I can assure him that there is no urgency about it, because the discipline in the W.R.N.S. is so extremely good. It may be however that at a later date it will be desirable to have the Naval Discipline Act in force in the W.R.N.S. The question of adopting it, therefore, is being considered. No. 21, which recommended that the W.R.N.S. should take recruits of the same medical grades as the other two Services, has not been considered necessary, in the light of the general recruiting position. If that position deteriorated in the future, or if it was held that the W.R.N.S. were getting an unfair advantage in the recruits which they were receiving, this recommendation would be reconsidered. As regards No. 35, the welfare system which is referred to has only partial application to the Navy. The Navy has its own organisation. Comforts and amenities are distributed under the existing War Amenities organisation, and this works very well.
I want to say a word about W.R.N.S. accommodation. The House will appreciate that at this stage of the war we have to do all we can to conserve building material and labour. This inevitably entails a large amount of requisitioning. Hon. Members know the inconvenience and sometimes distress which requisitioning can cause. The vast majority of the people who have been concerned have been most generous and forthcoming in this matter. They have realised that it is in the national interest and have been ready to make personal sacrifice for the sake of the well-being and training of the Services. The W.R.N.S. are still expanding, and without doubt a great deal more requisitioning will be necessary. I want to use this opportunity to emphasise the need for this requisitioning and to ask for the co-operation of all concerned. I need hardly say that in all cases the most careful preliminary inquiries are made, and wherever there are a number of residences to choose from, we always prefer that residence where least hardship would be caused. It is a curious fact that some parts of the country are more forthcoming in this matter than others, and it would be a great help if hon. Members could on occasion emphasise that the temporary giving-up of a house is a real contribution towards the winning of the war and the speedier enjoyment by all of us of our own homes.
This Amendment suggests still further expansion of W.R.N.S. activities, and my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich has drawn attention to the expansion that has already taken place. The House will be interested to know what the rate of expansion was. In 1940, 18 new types of work were added to those with which the Service had started. In 1941, 15 further types of works were added and in 1942 a further 11. The present outlay of the work which the W.R.N.S. do is, broadly speaking, divided into four main branches. The first branch is Clerical, and the standard of efficiency is extremely high. The second branch is Communications, which have made considerable advances in complexity from the days of flags to the days of switchboards and teleprinters. The third division, consisting of about 30 per cent. of the whole, is the Domestic category. This proportion was reduced about the middle of last year because of the national shortage, and at one time it was the least attractive draw for new recruits. It is typical of the W.R.N.S. that when the need for an increase in this category was explained and emphasised the trend of recruiting began to go up again, and the position now, although not yet satisfactory, has improved. Any improvement in this category has the double effect of bettering the service given and of shortening the hours and lessening the efforts of those who give this service. The fourth main category is Technical, and this includes plotting of ships and aircraft, radio, meteorology and the like.
My hon. Friend the Member for Harwich suggested that a further expansion of the service given by the W.R.N.S. could take place afloat. "Can the W.R.N.S. go afloat?" he asked. The answer is that the principle of W.R.N.S. serving afloat is not objected to by the, Admiralty. I have no doubt that if you gave the W.R.N.S. half a chance, they would be perfectly prepared to sail a battleship. In fact, when the Wrens go overseas now they do take part in service on the ship and help the men in a good many ways day by day. But the real difficulty about this proposal is accommodation on board. In all designing today the utmost and absolute economy of space has to be effected, and quite obviously if men and women are serving alongside you cannot have the same economy of space as if there are men only. That is the real objection to my hon. Friend's suggestion, but at the same time I can assure him that if, when and where it is found practicable to employ Wrens afloat that will certainly be done. The second point which he made about the expansion of the W.R.N.S. was continuation in the post-war years. He emphasised the difficulty which there is in stopping any Service and then restarting if—which we all hope will not happen—a similar crisis arises again. I would point out however that in 1939 the W.R.N.S. started pretty well and have never looked back. But the general answer to his point is, of course, that it concerns more than the W.R.N.S. It concerns the other women's Services as well and is, in fact, a matter for the whole Government. I can assure him that the question has not been forgotten and is being considered at this present time, but I cannot say more than that now.
One or two other points were raised by the hon. Member for East Islington. She asked whether more women doctors were being appointed, and I think she said that at the time when the Mark-ham Report was made there was only one on the staff of the M.D.G. Since then another has been appointed at the biggest training establishment which the Wrens have at the present time, and more are in process of being appointed. She asked whether any figures could be given of the actual number of naval officers relieved by substituting Wrens. It is not possible to give any actual figures, for this reason, that besides replacing naval officers in the work which they have been doing in establishments the very fact that those establishments have in almost every case been expanding and that in that expansion Wrens have come in, makes any accurate estimation of the number of men relieved impossible. What I can say is that of the existing number of Wren officers two-thirds are doing non-administrative work, which means that they have, in fact, relieved naval officers. From that, I think, she can get some idea of the number of men who have been relieved to serve actually in the Fleet.
Then she suggested, and the suggestion is in the Markham Report, that selective intelligence tests for Wrens in the various categories of work should be made. We have found in the past that the recruiting officers on whom this responsibility has rested have made very few mistakes, but it will be appreciated that at this time we cannot afford that there should be any waste at all, and we are now proposing that, so far as mechanical categories are concerned, selective tests shall be introduced. That question is being examined now. Finally, she asked about education, saying that the Committee to which I have referred was rather unhappy about it. The present position is that there are regional committees under a Central Advisory Council for Adult Education in His Majesty's Forces. That is the broad organisation for everything. Generally speaking, the Wrens rely upon the local naval education officers. These have been increasingly active in the last few years, particularly in the Scottish and Western Approaches Commands. As to the suggestion that A.B.C.A. should apply to the Navy as much as to the Army, the A.B.C.A. booklets are already circulated to all W.R.N. units. There is a growing number of education courses for Wren officers, summer schools were organised last year which were very successful, and they will be repeated this year. In February this year a travelling lecturer was appointed to try to coordinate the efforts which are being made all over the country and this appointment is proving very successful indeed. Another officer is to be appointed in each Command to help on this question, as the importance of it is realised, and from small beginnings the education effort is now growing and becoming more and more substantial.
Before the hon. and gallant Gentleman concludes, will he allow me to put to him one point upon the statement he made that the fact that the W.R.N.S. is not under the Naval Discipline Act is not an urgent matter because the discipline in the W.R.N.S. is very good? I agree about the discipline in the W.R.N.S. being very good I come into contact with Wrens, and have a great admiration for what they do and the way they do it, but the point is that the Admiralty rightly look upon the W.R.N.S. as a naval organisation. Wrens are replacing naval officers and men to an increasing degree and doing naval work. They are all dressed in naval uniform, officers having the badges of rank—[Hon. Members: "Speech."]—I am only putting a point. They are all dressed in naval uniform, wearing the insignia of officers—captains, commanders and there is a rear-admiral. The hon. and gallant Member will realise that owing to the W.R.N.S. not being under the Naval Discipline Act the action that can be taken by a commanding officer against any Wren who does commit a fault is very different from what it would be otherwise I am only putting this point, as I hope the matter will be looked upon as a more urgent one than my hon. and gallant Friend made out.
I appreciate my hon. and gallant Friend's point. Although I have said that the matter is not an urgent one, I think he appreciates what I mean, and I can assure him that things are in full swing towards solving the problem. There are arguments on both sides, with which I will not bother the House now, but we will bear in mind the point he has raised.
Now I am certain that beyond all the vital work which the Wrens are doing towards winning the war they are also producing something of a lasting value both for themselves and for the nation. They are widening and deepening their lives through the work they do, through the give-and-take of good discipline, and through comradeship in the service of the sea. They have become a real, living, integral part of the Royal Navy, and all that that implies, with its centuries of great tradition and high performance. It is very fitting that we should pay them the tribute they have earned and record our gratitude and our admiration for the service they have given and have yet to give.
It is sometimes said that this House does not reflect public opinion outside. In my opinion this House does reflect public opinion. I have listened to almost all the speeches made in this Debate last week and to-day, and running through them all has been a feeling of difficulty as regards the U-boat menace and the position of our shipping. I think that what has been said in this House is a reflection of the anxiety which is felt outside the House that things may not be quite so good as they appear to be on the surface. Our hope of opening an offensive against Germany in Europe depends, not upon the number of men in the Army nor upon their equipment but upon whether we have sufficient ships and sea power to transport the Army to wherever we want to send it, and to maintain it when it has arrived there, and upon our having sufficient air power to ensure the protection of the convoys, of the Army once it has been landed and of the sea lines of communication upon which that Army will inevitably have to depend. It is true to say that, in the last resort, it is upon the Merchant Navy that the whole Allied war effort depends—a Merchant Navy that has been short all through this war, and is still short of the surface vessels and aircraft essential to its needs, because, we, in our blind folly, in the past failed to build and maintain sufficient numbers of cruisers, destroyers, corvettes and suitable aircraft.
To me, it is a grim thought that thousands of seamen of the Royal Navy and of the Merchant Service have paid with their lives for the negligent stupidity which forced upon this country the London Naval Treaty. I gladly pay my tribute to the First Lord of the Admiralty—I am only sorry that another very important duty has taken him from the House at this moment—for his interest in and love for His Majesty's Navy, but he cannot escape his responsibility for that Treaty. Whatever we may say or do, history will, I am afraid, convict him. In his speech last week he paid a well-deserved tribute to the work of the Navy. Its record during this war has not only been magnificent; it has been unequalled. To the Navy, the Air Force and the Mercantile Marine, Christian civilisation owes a debt which it will never be able to repay. Our hope of victory rests upon our ability to defeat the German submarines and to get our convoys through.
I wonder whether the general public realise how desperately serious is the shipping position at the present time and how grave is the U-boat menace with which we are faced. I sometimes wonder whether we are altogether wise in withholding from our people information as to the merchant tonnage which has been lost, all the more so because we publish in the Press—and if we choose to listen we can hear over the wireless—the German claims of what they have sunk, while, at the same time, our American Allies publish what purport to be official figures. I appreciate that the German claims may be put forward in the hope that information will be extracted from us which the Germans do not already possess, and it may be true that their claims are exaggerated; but I cannot help thinking that the Germans have a fairly accurate picture of the damage which has been done by the U-boat. That being so, and in view of the vital importance of shipping to the war effort, I believe that the time has come to tell the people of this country, plainly and squarely, exactly where we stand. What is the good of saying that we are planning to build millions of tons of merchant shipping to replace sinkings, when we do not know whether we are building the right kind of ship? The sinking of three or four large liners does greater harm to our war effort than the sinking of double that number of merchant ships, because it is only in the liner that you can carry large numbers of troops if you want to open up a second front or send out an expedition. I would remind the House that big liners take a longer time to build than do ordinary merchant cargo-carrying vessels, as the hon. Member for Dumbarton Burghs (Mr. Kirkwood) well knows.
Certainly the faster ship has a better chance of escape, but the point I am trying to make is that if you
lose two or three liners the damage to your war effort is greater than if you lose two or three ordinary cargo-carrying vessels. Nothing replaces the big liner for the carriage of troops. Ever since the war began there has been a tendency, until perhaps quite recently, to suggest to the British public that they have not much to worry about as regard the U-boat menace. Speaking on 17th October, 1939, the Prime Minister, then First Lord of the Admiralty, cheered this House and the whole nation by telling them that out of 60 German U-boats which were in action at the beginning of the war, one-third had been sunk or seriously damaged and that the gap in the skilled crews could not be speedily replaced. Then he referred to the tonnage lost and to the replacements which had been made, and he went on to say.
It will be seen, therefore, that while our Mercantile Marine remains practically unaffected by the U-boat warfare, losses have been inflicted upon the enemy, which, if continued, could certainly not be endured."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 17th October, 1939; col. 688, Vol. 352.]
One can hardly wonder if the impression made on the minds of the general public was that they had very little to fear from the U-boat menace in this war. We understand now from the First Lord of the Admiralty that we inflict heavy losses, greater losses, presumably, than at that time, upon German U-boats. I would call the attention of the House, if it were necessary to do so, to the fact that the gaps in the skilled crews have been filled and more than filled, and that the German capacity for turning out U-boats is now seen to be incredibly great. We are not the only country that had a lesson to learn in 1917. We might have expected that Germany realising how near she came to victory in 1917—within three weeks of victory—would concentrate upon the overhaul, not only of methods of U-boat construction but upon the whole question of the strategic employment of submarines in wartime.
On 6th December, 1939, the Prime Minister, then First Lord of the Admiralty, spoke of the very great reinforcements of our hunting craft. If the House will bear with me I will quote what he said. It was:
I must again repeat the warning which I gave to the House in September that a steady flow of losses must be expected, that occasional
disasters will occur, and that any failure upon our part to act up to the level of circumstances would immediately be attended by grave dangers. It is, however, my sure belief that we are getting the better of this menace to our life."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th December, 1939; col. 690, Vol. 355.]
All through the next year, 1940, the weight of the U-boat attack increased and the terrible tide of sinkings continued to rise. It was perhaps inevitable that the great and tragic events of 1940 should have obscured the importance of the unseen and unceasing battle which was going on in the Atlantic. The Prime Minister took command of the ship of State at a time of danger and anxiety such as has seldom been experienced by this country. With all the terrible preoccupations which must have pressed upon him and which do still press upon him, it would be unfair and unreasonable to expect him to find time to concentrate upon the technical question of antisubmarine warfare, even though its importance does in fact transcend everything else. The responsibility for what was done or left undone, rests primarily upon the Board of Admiralty.
In the Debate on the Address which took place on 4th December, 1940, I ventured to raise what I believed to be and still believe to be a matter of absolute and paramount importance. I said that our vital spot lay in the Western approaches to these islands, that it was there the attack was being developed and pressed by the German submarines, that they were employing a new technique against our seaborne trade, and that, thanks to the collapse of France and the denial to us of the use of the bases in Eire, Germany was making our task infinitely more difficult than it had been in the last war. I ventured to go on to say this:
A golden axiom in all warfare is that a new weapon is best answerd by a similar new weapon on the other side. There is no real and efficient answer to the new menace against our seaborne trade, if we rely solely on the operations of surface-craft."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 4th December, 1940, col. 598, Vol. 367.]
I ventured also to say that the answer must come from the use of aircraft and that these would have to be controlled entirely by the Navy. I went on to say that the matter brooked of absolutely no delay. I said that Germany knew very well what was our vulnerable spot, that the tale of sinkings was even then going up and that I did not believe that we were
replacing the lost tonnage as quickly or as efficiently as we could. In winding up the Debate, the Lord President of the Council assured the House that the vital importance of the matter had not been underestimated by His Majesty's Government. Once again, I beg the indulgence of the House to let me quote what he said:
These and connected problems are among the main preoccupations of the Defence Committe over which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister presides. I know that the Prime Minister himself with his unrivalled experience in these matters is giving constant consideration to the question of enemy attack from underseas and from the air, upon our ships in convoy.
Of course, ultimate responsibility rests upon the Prime Minister, and heaven knows, his shoulders are broad enough. He bears a burden such as very few men have ever borne, but it is unfair to put every burden in this country upon the shoulders of the Prime Minister. Primarily, it is the duty of the Admiralty to beat the submarine. The Lord President of the Council went on in that speech to say that he had been Minister of Shipping in the last war, that he had watched our losses ebbing and flowing but, in spite of our anxious times then, he had never had any doubt that an answer, and a complete answer, would be found to what he called
the varying methods of attack adopted by a resourceful enemy.
He went on to say:
The same confidence can justly sustain us now, provided we are assured, as we can be assured, that Members of His Majesty's Government who are directly concerned and their technical naval advisers are leaving nothing undone to find an early and effective solution of this grave problem."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 4th December, 1940; col. 628, Vol. 337.]
That was over two years and three months ago. Surely we are entitled to ask whether the Members of His Majesty's Government who are directly concerned, and their technical naval advisers, have left nothing undone to find an effective solution of this problem.
When that Debate took place we had just lost 90,000 tons of merchant shipping in the previous week. If that rate was to be maintained, then we certainly had not found a solution of our problem. In yesterday's paper I read that, up to date in the month of March alone, Germany claims that she has sunk 97,100 tons of our merchant shipping. Let the House observe this: The continued sinking of 90,000 tons a week would have resulted in the sinking of 4,680,000 tons a year. I venture to suggest that if anyone had stood up in that Debate and said that that rate was likely to be continued he would have been, I will not say shouted down, but he would have been dubbed a defeatist and a prophet of woe. Without the slightest doubt, people would have said, "Here you are preaching gloom and despair. No one suggests that this rate will be maintained." But what are the figures to-day? For the first six months of 1942 Germany claimed to have sunk in all theatres of war 616 Allied ships totalling 3,843,200 tons. In the beginning of January this year they claimed that during the whole of 1942 they had sunk 1,283 merchant vessels totalling just under 8,000,000 tons.
I am perfectly prepared to admit that this figure is exaggerated, but even if it is halved, it would show a rate of sinking greater than that which it would have been regarded as reasonable to expect in 1940. But are we justified in halving it? I know that in this country we are denied information as to the sinkings. The decision may be right, of it may be wrong, but in the United States of America things are different. An American, Admiral Clark H. Woodward, in the first week of February this year, told his countrymen that Allied shipping losses for 1942 were estimated at 7,000,000 tons and that the Allied replacements were only 1,000,000 tons greater than that. It would seem, therefore, that the German figure of 8,000,000 tons is not so very far out. If that is so the members of His Majesty's Government and their technical naval advisers would seem to have been singularly unsuccessful in their efforts to discover what the Lord President of the Council called an early and effective solution of the grave problem. Let the House realise this, that whereas the present Prime Minister, when First Lord of the Admiralty, voicing as he must have been voicing, the considered opinion of his expert naval advisers in the Admiralty, said, at the end of November, 1939, that Germany was probably adding to her U-boat strength at the rate of two new boats every week and that that would mean that by January 1940 we should have to face a U-boat strength of approximately 100 less sinkings—which he said, at a conservative estimate were anything between two and four U-boats per week—we have now reached a position in which it is estimated that Germany is building anything from 20 to 30 new U-boats a month, that this record is twice as fast as the rate at which the Allies are sinking U-boats, and that during the next few months we will have to face a position in which Germany will have a U-boat strength of anything up to 600 boats.
In the United States of America Rear-Admiral Emory Land, the War Shipping Administrator, addressing the National Geographic Society on 5th February, said that Germany according to reports, was building one U-boat per day. He did not question the figure but he did add that the menace to our shipping life lines was increasing. Admiral Woodward said that the increased threat to our Atlantic communications made the situation far more dangerous than it had ever been before, and he gave the people of the United States this warning, a most significant warning:
Unless the U-boats are beaten the Germans will delay or even prevent an Allied invasion of Europe.
The "New York Times," on 21st January, 1943, was demanding an inquiry into the Allied conduct of U-boat warfare. The paper said that the gravity of the problem was still not remotely realised by the American people because of the censorship and information policy of the British and American Governments. The "New York Times" even suggested that no one supposed that the figures of sinkings which were published represented the real total.
The Allied production of shipping is increasing, but unless the rate of sinkings goes down we are only building ships and filling them with vitally necessary and valuable cargoes in order to have them sent to the bottom. Of course we are sinking submarines, thanks to the magnificent work done by sailors and airmen, but unless we are sinking submarines faster than Germany can build them we cannot congratulate ourselves on winning the battle of the Atlantic. The Admiralty have had more than two years in which to find an effective solution of this problem. The fact is that our present situation proves that they have not yet found an effective solution. We have never had, and have not got now, enough escort or hunting vessels and those we have are not sufficiently fast. It may be that we should have built faster merchant vessels, but I venture to say that the real neglect lies in our failure to design and build the right kind of aircraft for which some of us, at any rate, in this House have been pleading for more than two years.
There are, perhaps, three main ways in which the U-boat menace may be met. The first is by convoying merchant ships. That is a specifically defensive method, and if it is to succeed there must be a sufficient number of fast escort vessels, and these we have not got. The second is impeding the construction of submarines. This can be done to a certain extent by bombing the places where they are built or assembled. Our bombers do their very best but bombing at its best is not very effective because it is possible to pre-fabricate submarines all over the country and then bring them to bombproof slips where they are assembled and launched. Germany may build the hulls of submarines, but unless she can get the engines for them she is done. Yet in spite of the information which the Admiralty must have been able to obtain for themselves, as well as information which was conveyed to them, to the effect that Burmeister and Wain's yard in Denmark was building vitally necessary submarine Diesel engines for Germany, no effort was made to bomb that yard until 28th January this year. There is every reason to believe that Burmeister and Wain's yard is not only capable of turning out Diesel engines but also the hulls of submarines and the hulls of surface craft. It is all very well to talk about the priority of targets but since the one place where we can lose this war is at sea it seems to me surely reasonable to suppose that everything that could stop the flow of Diesel engines for German submarines is a target of the utmost priority. Let the House realise that up to 28th January of this year Germany has had more than 34 months in which in Burmeister and Wain's yard alone they could construct Diesel engines in perfect peace and quietness.
During the last war Sweden did all she could to help the German war effort. There is good reason to believe that torpedoes or parts of torpedoes were made in Karlskrohne in the last war, and sent into Germany. To-day the shipyards of Sweden, working in perfect peace and quietness, have it in their power to supply the German war effort with many things that Germany so sorely needs at the present time for the prosecution of her submarine campaign against the Allies. If Germany was able to exercise pressure on Sweden in the last war, how infinitely greater is her capacity to exercise pressure on Sweden in this war. Sweden is ostensibly a neutral country. What steps have we taken, or are we taking, to assure ourselves that Germany is not making use of Swedish ship and engineering yards? We are fighting for our lives at the present time—no more, no less. We have got to stop the fabrication and operation of U-boats. If we can prove that Swedish yards are turning out submarines for Germany, we have got to bomb them.
No, Sir, I said nothing of the sort. I said that we should take steps to find out whether Sweden is supplying Germany with the means to continue the war at sea against the Allies. If she is and she does not stop it then, because we have to win this war or perish, we must take whatever steps are open to us.
The third method of meeting the U-boat menace, and the most important of all in my opinion, is the employment of aircraft. They must be of a special type. There must be enough of them, and, above all, they must be under not only the operational but the administrative control of the sea Service, upon which devolves the responsibility for defeating the U-boat. On 19th December, 1940, I raised the question of the Fleet Air Arm in connection with the Battle of the Atlantic. I pointed out that ever since the last war the Admiralty had been pressing for complete control of aircraft taking part in naval operations, not only carrier-borne aircraft bat land-based aircraft, and that it was my deep conviction that unless the Admiralty had got under its control as many aircraft and aerodromes as it needed we could not, and we should not meet, satisfactorily the attacks made upon our shipping in the Western Approaches. I pointed out that unless those attacks could be met, we should not win the war. I said that, in my opinion, the only way those attacks, which were causing terrible losses, could be met was by using long-distance aircraft. It is not a question of doing away with Coastal Command: I pay my tribute to the work done by the pilots and crews of Coastal Command. It is a question of allowing the Navy to have the right kind of aircraft. We have now lost two vital years. We have had the First Lord making a public speech in which he said that the people of this country ought to see to it that the Fleet Air Arm has the machines it wants. If in the past First Lords of the Admiralty and members of the Board of Admiralty had had the courage to tender their resignations because the Navy was being deprived of an Air Service which they knew perfectly well it was vitally necessary for the Navy to possess, we should not to-day be in our present perilous position.
What was the use of the Deputy Prime Minister, then Lord Privy Seal, saying, as he did, in that Debate, that by raising the matter I was blowing on the embers of an old controversy? Let us stop talking of this vital matter in terms of some alleged controversial discussion. Sound war strategy demands that the Admiralty should have complete control of suitable land-based aircraft and aerodromes from which to operate them. Failure to concede this has, in my opinion, been the major cause of our failure to beat decisively the submarine menace. We have wasted vital years. The urgent necessities of the time and the national interests demand that the obstructive activities of certain individuals, notably Lord Trenchard, shall no longer be allowed to impede the undoing of a mistake the continued existence of which has gone far to prevent our conquest of the U-boat, and thereby cost us the lives of thousands of brave men, hundreds of thousands of tons of shipping and the precious cargoes that those ships carried. The future of mankind depends on the victory of the Allies. To win that victory we must beat the U-boat. To do that the Navy must have, and control, all the aircraft that it needs. To treat a matter of vital strategic importance as a departmental controversy is to fiddle while Rome is burning. And, believe me, Rome is burning to-day.
Since I shall take less than five minutes of the time of the House, I will not comment on the provocative remarks of the hon. and gallant Member for Epsom (Sir A. Southby), except to refer to what I consider the major responsibility for the lack of success in the matter of direction to which he alluded. There were recently given in this House figures showing the remarkable disparity between the ages of the senior officers directing the three Fighting Services. I wish I could get the First Lord to realise that this issue is a live one. It is a fact, whether or not the First Lord will accept my assurance, that among the thinking and informed public and in the ranks of the Royal Navy and the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve there is strong feeling that the advanced age of the senior admirals is a mistake. May I point out to the First Lord the analogy of the Royal Air Force? I have not checked the actual figure by the pre-war Air Force List, but I think he will find that it is true that the five senior serving officers directing the strategic policy and the command of the Royal Air Force at the beginning of this war were all retired, for no reason except age, and that they were all younger than the present Lords of the Admiralty. They were all personal friends of mine, and no failure was held against them, but they were all retired to make room for younger men. This war has gone on for four years, and in the Navy the same elderly officers are directing affairs. You have, if I may so put it, a magnificent second level in the Navy—not children, but men in the late 40's and early 50's, who have had experience in this war. It is a tragic pity that the First Lord does not seem to realise the strength of feeling on this subject.
I do not know whether my hon. and gallant Friend has spent his time during this war in travelling around the Fleet; but I have been in the Fleet, or in some form of it, during the past three years, and I have never heard these views expressed by officers or men in the Fleet.
While I do not pretend that my opportunities of knowing the views of the Fleet are as good as those of my hon. and gallant Friend, I do meet a large number of naval officers. If it were possible to convince the First Lord that there is substance in this point and to cause him to take action, I should at least have succeeded in persuading him not to be misrepresented to the public, as he is being misrepresented, as either a rubber stamp or a post-prandial gramophone record.
Like a good many hon. Members, I propose to concentrate my remarks on the menace of the U-boat, which we all agree is the greatest menace that confronts the country to-day—far greater than the majority of people realise. Unless we overcome this menace, we might lose the war, or, more likely I think, run in to a stalemate. Until we have overcome the U-boat menace we cannot bring the massively-growing strength of Allied war production, especially in America, fully to bear on the enemy, and unless we overcome the U-boat menace quickly this present war may be prolonged for many years. I say, with, I think, the general agreement of the House, that the danger is very grave indeed. The attack upon us by means of the U-boat is Hitler's last hope. He has appointed as Commander-in-Chief of the Germany Navy, Admiral Doenitz, who is a very able man and a dangerous one. Last autumn he said that the day would come when the British shortage of shipping would become so acute that we should no longer possess the freedom of strategic decision.
To bring this about, as hon. Members have said, Germany is concentrating the main part of her resources upon mass production of U-boats, making parts of the U-boats in inland places and then assembling them in dockyards and ports in different parts of Europe. She is sending them out in increasing numbers. In the last war I understand that Germany never at any one moment possessed more than 169 submarines. To-day she has between 400 and 500. She is building them, it is generally admitted, faster than they are being sunk. I saw one estimate, which rather agrees with that given by the hon. and gallant Member for Epsom (Sir A. Southby) that Germany is building 30 U-boats a month and we are sinking 18 a month, leaving her with a balance of 12 a month. The First Lord will know whether the second figure is correct. If we are sinking more than 18, all the better.
These U-boats are much faster than they were in the last war, more stoutly constructed and built and thus more difficult to destroy with depth charges. Their cruising range has been extended from 1,500 miles in the last war to 10,000 miles at the present time, and they can stay at sea for weeks and even months, and the Germans claim, and I think it is admitted, that they can now supply these U-boats by means of a submarine tanker that supplies them at sea, and that they can even be supplied with new crews. One claim that the Germans have made is that they have what they call a floating submarine dockyard which enables them to repair submarines at sea. That seems to me rather a tall story, but still it may be correct. In any case, it is conclusive that the capacity for destruction possessed by the U-boats is far greater than it was in the last war.
With regard to this country's shipping losses, on which a good deal has been said to-day, it is stated that up to last August we lost more shipping than we replaced. Since then, owing to the marvellous shipbuilding programme of America, which last year built 8,000,000 tons of new shipping and expects this year to build 18,000,000 tons of new shipping, that is, if they get enough steel with which to do it, the balance is the other way. Still, sinkings are very heavy. The Government have been asked to disclose the figures. Some people think that they ought to disclose the figures, but the Government have refused to disclose them. Personally, if the Government feel that it would help the enemy if they disclosed the figures, I am not prepared myself to question that decision. Figures were quoted by the hon. and gallant Member for Epsom. It was claimed by the Germans that last year they sank 7,950,000 tons of shipping, and that represented a total of 1,283 ships, but that, I know, is an exaggeration. The American estimates are very high, though not quite so high. "Pertinax," the well known French writer, whom many of us will remember in the years preceding the war, writing from New York, says that the claim, not made, I think, in this country, that the 1942 sinkings are covered by replacements is only true if applied to merchant shipping only, and it would not be true if tankers and liners were included in the losses. Apart from all that, it is recognised that we have a very big leeway to make up, owing to sinkings in previous years. As the Canadian Minister of Munitions, Mr. Howe, said last December, the losses had been double the replacements since the beginning of the war. That shows that there is a very big lag to make up.
Whatever we may have in a year's time, we now, at this moment, have less shipping than we had at the beginning of the war. Moreover, as the right hon. Member for Oxford University (Sir Arthur Salter), the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of War Transport, said the other day, the demands upon our cargo space are far greater than they were and are increasing rapidly, owing to the growing demand for the transportation of munitions from America. It is not pleasant for us to reflect that all the means of victory are being piled up in the United States of America if we are not able to bring them over here and fully deploy and use them in the theatre of war. We have all that to consider. As has been mentioned before, every ship that is sunk carries with it important cargo, tanks, guns and munitions, and very often many gallant men. A naval correspondent, writing the other day, said that even if the sinking were last year 4,500,000 tons, that would mean 6,500,000 tons of cargo a year on top of that, and that that meant a year's work by half a million men.
Truly the Prime Minister was right When he described these sinkings as a repulsive and sombre panorama and stated when he last spoke in this House that we cannot rest content with losses on this scale.
The U-boat menace is being fought magnificently by thousands of gallant men and by the machinery of this Government and the American Government. There are still ways by which that machinery can be improved, and I would like to mention some of them. The hon. and gallant Member for Hertford (Sir M. Sueter), speaking last week, mentioned the Anti-U-boat Committee. He said that there was no one on that Committee who knew anything whatever about submarines. I have a more serious criticism to make about that Committee. It is composed of some of the busiest men in this country, who have high departmental responsibilities, and surely a Committee consisting of such Ministers cannot, by meeting once a week, give undivided and continuous attention to this matter. These men have the cares of the Empire on their shoulders, and how can they give the continuous, day by day, and day and night attention which is required to cope with this danger which is striking at the Empire's heart? There should be a Minister in charge of this Committee working night and day and doing nothing else at all. He should have assisting him representatives of Coastal Command, the Fleet Air Arm, the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force, the American naval and air staffs and scientists of the two great countries. I understand that that is what Field-Marshal Smuts really wanted. We all understand that the Prime Minister is averse to such an arrangement, and I appeal to him—if my voice can reach him at all—to reconsider his decision on that matter and appoint such a Committee as Field-Marshal Smuts described, which would be a "supreme staff to supervise this special and deadly campaign."
I would like the First Lord to tell us whether there is any truth in the rumour, which has appeared in America, that Admiral Sir Percy Noble is likely to be appointed commander-in-chief of the Anglo-American U-boat campaign. If he were to be so appointed, I think it would be a striking reply to the appointment of the German Admiral Doenetz. The appointments of Admiral Boyd and Admiral Portal to the Admiralty have delighted everybody; I think everybody agrees that they are the right men in the right place. But they will have a lot to do to make up the deficiencies which exist at the present time, especially as regards the equipment of the Fleet Air Arm. We all know the sorry story of how the Royal Naval Air Service led the world in 1914 and was destroyed; how after many years it began again with inferior weapons and equipment. I do not want to go into that controversy which seems to rage in another place, but I mention it in order to support the suggestion made by the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Hertford last week, that some recognition should be given to some of these early pioneers, especially Admiral Mark Kerr, who was badly treated, who suffered a great deal of mental agony as a result, and who is now not so young as he once was. I ask that he should be given some recognition of the great services he performed in the past. I know that the First Lord of the Admiralty is a generous-hearted man, and if he could see his way to support that suggestion, I think it would be a grateful gesture and one which would be approved by the Navy.
But because the Fleet Air Arm had to begin again with inferior weapons, there is no reason why it should now continue with inferior weapons, and I want now to put a serious question to the First Lord of the Admiralty. I have here four names of firms—which, of course, I will not mention—which are supposed to be working for the Admiralty. Is it true—I have been told that it is and, if so, it seems to be almost unbelievable—that since the war none of these firms, which are supposed to be working for the Fleet Air Arm, has produced a single new type of machine which is able to fly.
The curious thing is that the Fleet Air Arm to-day is equipped with Hurricanes and Seafires which are Royal Air Force machines, and Martletts, American machines. It does not seen that the Admiralty have produced one of these modern machines. It is a good thing that the Fleet Air Arm is equipped with these machines, but two of them are Royal Air Force machines and one is an American machine, and the firms which are working for the Admiralty do not seem to have produced any machine of modern type. The Swordfish, which is eight years old and has a speed of only 90 miles an hour, has its uses I know, but not in the sight of an enemy plane. Last year the First Lord, in introducing the Navy Estimates, said that the Swordfish has been succeeded by the Albacore, which, he said, was largely in use to-day. That was a year ago. I understand that the Albacore has now been scrapped as obsolete and that the Fleet Air Arm has had to fall back on the Swordfish again. In view of these facts and the apparent lack of development of new aircraft, could the First Lord explain a little further what he meant when he said last week that new types of naval aircraft of British design were being developed? What are they, and who is developing them? It may be that they are being developed in America, but, so far as I can see, I do not know where any are coming from.
I want to say a few words about torpedo-bombers, and may I say that if one hears things and thinks it is one's duty that they should be brought forward in the country's interests they should be brought forward? It is not that I want to attack
the First Lord at all, because he is a friend of mine and a man whom I have always liked. The Royal Naval Air Service were the pioneers in torpedo-bombers. In fact they actually supplied some after the Armistice to the American Navy. At the present time the American Navy have the best torpedo-bomber in the world, the Grumman Avenger, and the Fleet Air Arm has no first-class modern bomber at all. The First Lord has spoken many times of the Barracuda, which he told us last week had had an, unfortunate history, through delay. I want to say a word on that. Speaking 12 months ago on the Navy Estimates the First Lord said that there is a very much faster torpedo-bomber coming into active production which has been designed and developed for some considerable time. The work has been done, the preliminary tests and trials have been made and the plane is coming into active production. Later the First Lord referred to faster torpedo-bombers coming into production. That was on nth March, 1942. The machines coming into active production then have apparently failed to come into active production. Little more was heard of it. A month ago the First Lord said:
It is in the torpedo-bombing category that the shortage of modern aircraft has been most felt. The development and production of a torpedo bomber of modern design has been in hand for a long time and now that unforeseeable technical difficulties have been dealt with regular deliveries have been started.
Later he said:
Technical difficulties caused a great deal of trouble but with the aid of the Ministry of Aircraft Production that has been dealt with and regular delivery has been started.
Last Wednesday he said the Barracudas were coming from the factories in increasing numbers. Well, if one produces 10, that is an increasing number from five, or 20 is an increasing number from 10. Such a statement means little to anybody. I am informed that very few are expected this year. I do not expect the First Lord to say so, but I understand that the numbers forthcoming have been very small indeed. I am told by engineers who have seen it and worked on it that this unfortunate Barracuda has been so messed about by different people that there is little of the original design left, and that, in short, it is a bad piece of work and quite useless. It is underpowered, the engine has to be over-stressed to get it off the deck, and the
best thing to do—I was talking about it to somebody who is connected with a famous firm of engineers—would be to scrap it altogether, and if you want torpedo bombers to get as many as possible of the Grumman Avengers with their 21-inch torpedoes, from America. They could be got more quickly than a new machine could be designed and produced. If those statements are correct—I have heard them from different sources not connected with each other—this is a very serious matter.
They are quite serious statements, but I think that when the hon. Member makes them publicly he ought to give me his authority for them. I am not saying that there is any reason he should not bring the matter seriously to the notice of the House, but he has made statements of great seriousness, which I shall probably controvert from a technical point of view, and I think that before he makes such statements he ought to be able to say, "I can give you the authority."
The First Lord knows where these Barracudas are, and he can find out for himself. He could send his inspectors there or communicate with the engineers himself. I am sorry if he thinks I ought not to have mentioned the matter, but I thought it was important to mention it. I am not a specialist or an engineer myself, so that even if I were shown the machine I would not know whether it is a good one or not, but the people with whom I have talked are technical experts, and that is what they have said. I suggest that if you got Avengers from America, if you also got the Curtis Hell-Diver dive-bombers then, with the Seafires, Hurricanes and Martletts, the Fleet Air Arm would have some good machines, although none of them would be of Admiralty design. I do not say that is the Admiralty's fault; there are many reasons for it, but I will not take up the time of the House by going into them now. The Admiralty have had a very unhappy experience, and that is why we have to be equipped from other sources. I had intended to say something about Coastal Command, but I will reserve my remarks on that for another occasion.
Finally, on the whole question, I want to say that with a well-equipped Fleet Air Arm, with heavy long-range four-engined bombers for Coastal Command—preferably Lancasters, if they can be got from the Royal Air Force—plenty of escort vessels—the First Lord will agree that 200 is not enough—plenty of destroyers and aircraft carriers and small auxiliary carriers of the Audacity and Avenger type, with a reconstituted Anti-U-boat Committee in daily session, and with the remainder of the Royal Navy guarding, as it always does, our coasts and our seas, I am quite confident that the Battle of the Atlantic will be won and a decisive step taken towards ultimate victory.
As I understand it we have now returned to the general Debate. May I ask whether those of us who speak at the fag end are to be penalised by getting no reply from the Front Bench? I am not quite clear about that. Are we to get a reply to our questions and apprehensions?
I am very much obliged to my right hon. Friend.
I would draw your attention, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, to the fact that the only place in this country where a lottery is officially allowed is in the House of Commons. It was not so long ago that I drew a lucky number and optimistically expected to have the opportunity of drawing attention by means of a Motion to the menace of submarine warfare; but I had only drawn a second prize and I have since found out that it did not give me that opportunity. I would like though to take advantage of this occasion, especially in view of the protest that I felt compelled to make yesterday, to congratulate Mr. Speaker on his recent elevation to such high office and to wish him all success.
To come back to the matter under discussion, I want to pay a high tribute to the splendid achievement of the submarine crews in this war. I do not think they have received enough praise. A great many bouquets have been thrown about during the Debate, but I do not think those who go down under the sea in submarines have received a sufficiency. I must say that, speaking for myself, I can consider nothing more disagreeable than going down under the sea in a submarine. I even have some apprehension about going into a submarine in dry dock.
I was very interested the other day, when the First Lord introduced the Estimates, by the account he gave of the manner in which, at one period of the war, we got supplies to Malta, and how when it was impossible to get supplies there by surface craft, our submarines filled the bill. The Mediterranean has provided outstanding achievements as far as submarines are concerned. It was only yesterday that millions of people were thrilled by hearing over the wireless about the very gallant and somewhat "pixillated" exploits of that very gallant submarine officer. Commander Lakin; if ever a D.S.O. was well deserved, his was.
We have reached a stage in this war when the Germans are doing badly on land and in the air, but at sea they are doing well; so it does not require a fantastic feat of intellect to appreciate that the Germans are concentrating their efforts and priorities on submarine warfare. They are well aware that this is their only chance. Doenitz has been promoted and all information and indications show that a supreme effort is being made against our sea communications. Two weeks ago I was lunching at the Savoy restaurant, and I noticed that everyone was offered potato rolls instead of bread. Nevertheless, a man at an adjacent table insisted on bread, and said with a smile, "My conscience is clear now that Churchill has told us that by the end of this year we shall have more ships than ever." The Prime Minister, no doubt, had good reason the other day for making such an optimistic pronouncement, and possibly the same applies to the First Lord, who was inclined to echo that optimism when introducing these Estimates. He said on that occasion that the gap between U-boats killed and the output of new ones was being reduced. That seems to me a somewhat wishful statement, especially as I do not know how he has got the information concerning the output of U-boats. If indeed he does not really know what is the output, how can he say that the gap is being reduced? It sometimes seems to me that the urge for a Minister to boost his own Department overcomes other and more important considerations, in fact, when the First Lord introduced these Estimates his speech was largely made up of throwing undoubtedly well-deserved bouquets all round and telling us all about our credit balance. I should have thought it might have been advisable to let us hear a little more concerning the debit balance.
This concerted official optimism has bewildered quite a number of Members. Just when the nation has been well frightened into realising the grim necessity of everyone assisting in saving shipping space, if only by eating potatoes instead of bread, and when everyone has realised that we have to work even harder, our leader, assisted by the First Lord, in a few words allows many of us to relapse into the joys of complacency. The Prime Minister's soothing statement is all the more strange because it provided a direct contradiction to the harsh facts given us on the same subject only a few days before by Colonel Knox, the Secretary of the American Navy.
The Prime Minister is confident that at the end of this year the United Nations will have more ships available than at any other period of the war. The fact remains that I and one or two others in this House believe there is every possibility that that will not be the case. The Germans, in their last throw for victory, are concentrating immense resources on a gigantic submarine effort while we, anyhow up to four months ago, have been content to approach this problem by means of a Committee which sat on an average once in three weeks. Whether the reconstructed Committee meets more frequently now, I am not in a position to know, and I should very much like to be told, but I know that the present Committee is composed of men who have other duties to attend to and are unable to devote their undivided attention to this deadly menace. I am hoping that the right hon. Gentleman will be able to inform the House why the Anti-U-boat Warfare Committee is not, in the main, composed of men who can make it their wholetime job and why it is not controlled by a man who can devote all his energies to this task, upon which depends the very future of the world. Would the Minister also inform us, if he has such information, how many times a week this new Committee has sat since its formation?
When it comes to technical details of submarine warfare, I must admit that I am completely at sea, but there are certain matters about which innumerable uninformed persons such as myself are anxious and I feel sure that, if the Minister will reply satisfactorily to the following few questions, together with those which I have already submitted, it will give satisfaction to many anxious citizens who are groping around the whys and wherefores of this complicated technical subject. It is, of course, recognised that convoys suffer from a serious shortage of escort vessels, and what I cannot understand, though I have no doubt there is a very simple answer, is why we do not, in conjunction with Canadians and Americans, build mass-produced escort vessels and engines. [An HON. MEMBER: "Where?"] In America. It is elementary that prevention is better than replacement, especially when one considers the loss of personnel and cargoes. There is another question I should like to put. Why is there not absolute priority for all that concerns U-boat warfare? The right hon. Gentleman who replied to the first instalment of the general Debate told the House that there was priority for escort vessels. Escort vessels are not mass-produced.
By massed-produced vessels I mean large quantities of vessels that are produced under one plan in the same way that Kaiser in America produces other boats. Surely there are other matters that concern U-boat warfare that should receive priority besides escort vessels. Why are such priorities not in force? Is there daily co-operation between this country and those fighting the U-boat menace in the U.S.A. and Canada? I have heard statements to the effect that there is little co-operation, but I cannot believe it, and I should like to hear that such statements are not correct.
A few days ago the Chamber of Shipping made a demand for faster merchant vessels to defeat the U-boats. It is difficult to reconcile that recent demand of that Chamber with the fact that the First Lord told us, when he opened the Debate, that of the ships we were now turning out, one-third were fast cargo vessels. The Chamber of Shipping is a body that should be as well-informed on these matters as anybody. Then how was it that they did not appreciate this fact? I cannot believe that the First Lord withheld the information from the Chamber of Shipping just in order that he could inform us of this bonne bouche in this House. It seems to me that there has been some misunderstanding, because the Chamber of Shipping, apparently, do not know, what I was agreeably surprised to hear, that one-third of our production of cargo vessels was of the fast type.
Another question is, When will the Fleet Air Arm be equipped with something approaching the right number of suitable planes, suitably equipped, including torpedo-bombers, capable of very wide range and equipped with really effective devices for spotting U-boats? I have been informed from a reliable source that considerable initiative was shown in this direction in the last war, even to the extent of members of the Admiralty visiting circuses and music halls, looking for performing sea lions in order to train them for the purpose of detecting U-boats. I understand that that is an actual fact, and though it was not a great success, it showed considerable initiative. I should like to see as good and more successful initiative in this war.
Submarine warfare has easily become the most important consideration of this war. I am sorry that the hon. and gallant Member for Epsom (Sir A. Southby) is not in his place, because I wanted to make some remarks, which I will not do now, about the ominous warning that he sounded. We may attempt a second front this year, but it is unlikely to be effective if German submarines can disrupt our sea communications. That is a point which was made by the hon. and gallant Member for Epsom, and it is one with which I entirely concur. Without a successful second front we cannot enter Germany, and those who are strategically-minded will agree that, if we cannot enter Germany, we cannot win the war. If we cannot win the war, all our beautiful plans for Beveridge benefits and other post-war promises will become just a memory. It seems to me that recently in this House we have been rather inclined to scrap too much among ourselves and to concentrate too little on the solution of a problem upon which depends all our future—all our hopes for happier times.
After so many excellent speeches have been made it is a little difficult to produce anything new, and we are not allowed to repeat other Members' arguments. The fact that so many Members have concentrated on one or two aspects of the Naval Estimates in the First Lord's speech is an indication of great interest in this House. It has been to me a most interesting Debate, and a great many excellent speeches have been made. I hope that public anger, anxiety and criticism will arise in consequence of what we have heard to-day. Perhaps the chief merit of the First Lord's speech was in the warning that he gave to the country. I am sure that he is not resentful but glad of the criticisms that he has heard. He knows how high in the estimation of the House and the people of the country the Admiralty and the officers and men of the Navy stand. He also knows that the only people who dislike criticism are the inefficient and the lazy, and that none of these are to be found in the Royal Navy. The First Lord spoke of the greatest threat that we have ever experienced, and he remarked that the production of escorts is still pressing. In another short sentence he said that the risks and hazards were increasing. Heaven knows, they are great enough at the present time.
These three points alone are an indication of the warning that should be taken to heart by the people of the country. One of the things that will help us in that direction is publicity, and I was delighted when I heard that a Member of this House, a distinguished admiral, had been placed at the head of the publicity department of the Admiralty. Knowledge of sea power and its arts and crafts is lacking. It has even been remarked that the head of one of our Allied States knows very little about it. It is woefully lacking in too many people in our own country. So I say that we should be glad of this publicity enterprise on the part of the Admiralty. I hope that the First Lord, with his business outlook, will realise that there must be no stinting of men or of money, and I also ask him to remember that the Royal Air Force have set a very high example with their excellent propaganda, from which a great deal of their efficiency springs. I think I am right in saying, at least I will hazard it, that they have spent something like ten times more on propaganda since the beginning of the war than either the Army or the Navy. This publicity ought to do a great deal of good if the country is made aware of the sea service. The people hear the drone of aeroplanes overhead and are familiar with what it means, or what it may mean, to them, and they even see armies in the field, but they never hear and they never see the roaring seas breaking over the ships struggling through Atlantic gales. Although that cannot be produced on the wireless, at least it can be spoken about. The people have not even begun to realise the ceaseless toil and vigil of the seamen, so let us go ahead with this publicity in every possible way.
I want to remind the House of what has happened to the Navy since war started. The Navy and the Merchant Fleet, from efficient and solid beginnings, albeit very inadequate, have had to bear the brunt of the war and have suffered stupendous and shattering losses, as the First Lord will agree and as has been reported. The Navy are short now and have been short for a long time of certain types of seacraft and aircraft which are vital to their efficiency. I ask the House to remember that whatever we may feel about the Air Force and the Army, the sea service is still to-day the shield of our survival, and it is working under a grave handicap at the present time. I cannot help remembering that neither of the other brilliant Services could function at all or could ever have functioned anywhere, but for the Fleet, and I would remind the House that victory, when it comes, will hinge upon the incomparable sacrifices going on today, and the endurance of the ships and their companies and of those who build the ships and the aircraft which are wanted so urgently. I repeat what has alieady been said, that whatever the future may hold with regard to capital ships and large armoured ships and cruisers of large tonnage, they have had and are having to-day a most important effect on this war, and I say that powerfully armed ships such as the "Scharnhorst" and the "Gneisenau" and others belonging to the Germans, and cruisers, backed by torpedo craft and possibly by packs of submarines, could do between them more damage to a convoy than any pack of submarines working by itself. I would remind the House also that it is only our own armoured ships stationed away up in the North Sea that is preventing that happening.
I return, as so many speakers have done, to this submarine menace. The situation in the Atlantic is, to my mind, nothing short of perilous. I notice that my old friend Sir Percy Noble, at one time Commander-in-Chief of the Western Approaches, stated in Washington that there were between 300 and 400 submarines at work against our lines of communication and that submarines were being produced faster than we were able to sink them. That is a pretty menacing thought. Whatever may be the present position and whatever encouragement we may have had from the First Lord of the Admiralty, particularly about the amount of tonnage sunk and the protection of convoys, this position is likely to worsen unless very great efforts are made. I do not get much pleasure out of it, but I think it is a fact that if we had the enemy's problem of defeating such a sea power as ours by the use of submarines, it would give me a high measure of confidence, and the enemy is concentrating on this single objective, and we all know that he is no laggard in skill, in courage and in technique.
The story may be true—I often wonder whether it is—that someone once said we have solved the submarine problem. I think I have heard a rumour of it in this House. The man who said it was, if I may say so, indeed as foolish as he who says that air power will be the deciding factor. No problem of war that I can remember, certainly no problem of war which is in any way connected with the sea, has been wholly solved. Problems of mines, torpedoes, guns, armour, speed, aircraft—all alike are unsolved. Those who say that the air has put sea-borne ships out of court in war-time are wrong. It is the old, old story which has persisted since the days of Salamis, and before, that a new weapon has shattered the unchanging principles of war. Nothing could be further from the truth. The more it changes, the more it remains exactly what it has been for many, many centuries, and all that has been done is to create new aspects of old problems.
I hope I shall be forgiven for reminding Members of the curious effects of a new weapon—the air. The submarine was at one time a new weapon. The torpedo-boat destroyer was at one time a new weapon. The breech-loading gun was at one time a new weapon. Mines were at one time a new weapon. Each in its turn has been heralded by the idealists and by the optimists as the deciding factor or turning point—or some similar cliché. It has been said that war has either been eliminated or so altered that you can do nothing more. Again nothing could be further from the truth. In every instance those weapons have been shown to be only a new aspect of conducting war. That is why there is so much tendency, not unnaturally, to lean upon the efficacy and the certainty of success by the use of the Air Arm. Far be it from me to belittle it—it is magnificent—but it does have an effect on untrained minds, those who have not been trained in the consideration of war problems, which I think is more than a little unfortunate.
I turn for a moment to what, to me, is a mildly unpleasant subject, and I shall make no harsh remarks if I can help it. The operational control of Coastal Command is a broken reed if the Admiralty do not possess administrative control. We hear, and it has been referred to here again to-day, constantly the argument that because aircraft are land-based they are no concern of the Royal Navy. The argument for land-based aircraft is used as a conclusive support for the present dangerous and dual control—a dual system which has been discarded and condemned by our Allies. In fact, from the battleship, aircraft carrier, the cruiser and submarine to the motor torpedo boats—all are just as much land-based as an aircraft which takes off from an aerodrome.
May I ask the hon. and gallant Member a question? I have hesitated to get into controversy with him, but surely a great part of his whole argument is vitiated by this fact. He talks of new weapons. It is not a question of new weapons, but that in the last 20 years, a new element has come into fighting—the element of the air, and logically, his argument may lead to saying that every bomber that went over the sea to bomb Germany should come under the Admiralty because it flies over the sea.
I am obliged to my right hon. Friend for raising this, because it clears one's mind and makes sure that we know what we are trying to put across. I do not suggest that at all. I realise all these difficulties, and all I want to stress is the fact that such craft as are dealt with in purely maritime problems over the sea should have unity of control. I have not the least intention of suggesting that such things as bombing Germany, merely because the aircraft flies across the sea, could have anything to do with the Admiralty at all.
There is just one other point arising from his remarks. He spoke of a new element, and I say frankly that I do not know of any argument that carries less weight with me than that which I have head advanced, that, because aircraft work in the air, it is in some way or another, which I completely fail to understand, a third element or third dimension. It is nothing of the kind. If I might diverge for one moment, the air, the wind of heaven, was the thing which drove the Royal Navy for 2,000 years, and this third dimension idea is something strange and altogether foreign to me.
Unity of control is vital, and, because Coastal Command, as I understand it, is under the operational control of the Admiralty, I want to ask the Admiralty whether this admirably produced brochure, full of excellent photographs, entitled "Coastal Command," was before publication referred to somebody on the Board of Admiralty, because on page 7 I see the following:
The two Services. The triple task. Find the enemy; Strike the enemy; Protect our ships. That is the triple task of Coastal Command, in which the Royal Navy co-operates with the Royal Air Force.
I suggest that this is a little bit partial and does not tell the whole truth, and I am sorry that it should have been published. Again, there is a photograph on page 103 which I have a very strong recollection refers to survivors from some other vessel than what it says, namely, a submarine. It is, I think, the superscription underneath the photograph which is incorrect. It is not a form of propaganda which I think is desirable. I must just mention this because I hope it will be a warning to those who do publicity for the Admiralty.
Surprise has been expressed, and I must confess I wonder why, at submarines working in packs. I know it is many years since I served at sea, and I never served in submarines, but it is no surprise to me that they should be working in packs or flotillas, or what you like to call them, on the surface. There is nothing strange in that. Personally, I have never thought they would do anything else. I have foretold it for years. It is, in my view, an obvious development. May I ask the House to realise—those who may possibly not have realised it—that far from the thing being solved it may get much worse? Personally, I shall be surprised not to learn in the course of a few months that the surface speed of the packs of submarines approaches 25 knots. There is to-day a strong rumour that engines are being designed which will enable a submarine to dive at speed and obviate the use of that dangerous electrical machinery which causes so much trouble, with the propulsion of submerged submarines. That, to my mind, leads to the conclusion that these fast submarines, bigger, possibly with a little surface armour, will constitute a still greater menace than they do at the present time. That leads me to stress the point of how short we are of strong and fast escort vessels.
I want to say just one or two words about these fast escort ships. It is my belief, and I can only read between the lines in arriving as such an opinion, that the Admiralty have done their very utmost to get the escorts because they know that is the secret of holding the submarine at bay. I believe that they have had excellent priority, but, notwithstanding that, they have not be able to get all the escorts they would like. It seems to me there is only one other source. I believe it was hinted at to-day, namely, the United States, and I hazard a guess that the capacity of the United States is sufficient to supply us with what we want. Possibly Canada can help too. I also hazard the guess that the Government of the United States are not as convinced as we are that the focus of the danger at the present time is in the Atlantic and not in the Pacific If I am right, and I think I am, I, a back bencher in this House—I hope others will agree with me—make an appeal to the far seeing and practical President and Government of the United States to provide us with the stronger escorts to crush the foe in the Atlantic. That, I think, is the true and proper strategy at the present time, and then, having done that, we can transfer and vigorously, joyously and finally smother the deeply treacherous attack of the Japanese in the Pacific.
Fast and slow ships I have nothing to say about, because it has all been said, except to point out that the fast ship carries something like 25 per cent less cargo than the slow ship of the same tonnage and burns getting on for as much as three times the fuel if you increase her speed by 50 per cent. over that of the slow ship. These, to my mind, are two important points. It remains an actual fact that fast ships are much less vulnerable but require faster and even stronger escort. I only want finally just to pay my tribute to the great Service which, through difficulties and hardships, is sticking to its traditions and facing every problem that comes to it with courage and conviction, and I hope, with the rest of this House, that those in the Service may be preserved from the dangers of the sea and the violence of the enemy and may return in safety to this country to enjoy the blessings of the land and the fruits of their labours. The fruits of their labours are something which we in this House should arrange and safeguard by looking after their interests.
First, may I be allowed to extend to you, Mr. Speaker, my due share of congratulations on your election? I trust that you may be blessed with good health during your period of office, to carry out the great task imposed upon you.
On many ocasions well-deserved tributes have been paid to the gallant officers and men of the Royal Navy by the first Lord when presenting his annual statements, but no tribute has ever been more well-deserved than the one which the right hon. Gentleman paid during his speech last week, and which made special reference to the gallant officers and men of our Merchant Service. When one realises all that has happened during the past 12 months, it can be said in all sincerity that the tribute is all the more deserved on that account.
I do not want my right hon. Friends opposite to think I am going to be brutally critical, but there are one or two matters that I want to mention. I would like to refer to the excellent speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Whitechapel (Mr. W. Edwards) last week, in which he said all that I desired to say in reference to the members of our sea Service to-day. Although I have not had the pleasant experience that he has had of serving in the present war, I had the privilege of doing the same kind of service in the last war, I must confess that I was disappointed in the reply of my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Admiralty about the granting of commissions. I am disturbed about this matter. I had some little experience of it in the last war. More recently, I have had experience of a case to which I feel I ought to draw attention. I met a young man in my division only a fortnight ago—a nephew of that old and esteemed Member of this House, Will Crooks—who when he appeared before the Selection Board was asked, "What is your golf handicap?" What relation has that to the making of an efficient officer in the Navy? That young man is now on his way to North Africa, probably bitterly disappointed. Would it be too much to ask my right hon. Friend whether facilities could be given to Members of this House to see something of the activities of the Selection Board of the Admiralty, as we have seen recently the Selection Board of the War Office? I put that suggestion to my right hon. Friend. I think it would have a good effect, all round, on those who are looking forward to the prospect of obtaining commissions.
I would remind hon. Members that the first ship that was ever built in this country to sail to India was built in Poplar. Many famous destroyers have been built in Poplar, and I am not too sure that we are using all the available resources at our command in order to get on with a much bigger programme of merchant shipbuilding. In the last war we were building small snips in Poplar and I believe there are many slipways on the River Thames that could still be used for this purpose. If my right hon. Friend will take notice of that fact and look into the matter he will see that what I say is correct. The particular matter that worries me and many of my friends in the East End is the question of ship-repair work. It is possible that this may be the last war statement of the First Lord of the Admiralty. It is because of that, looking forward, as I and my friends in the East End do, we want to warn the Government and say to them, "Do not allow that to happen which happened after the last war." After the last war, in 1919, Poplar was happily placed because there was plenty of work going on in our repair yards. I worked in one myself. Many of us thought, foolishly perhaps, that we had enough work to last us for many years.
What happened? In 1920, when the Government took off control, the great tragedy of unemployment in the East End commenced. This was not due to any unforeseen circumstances or to any unavoidable causes; it was due to the unpatriotic system adopted by many of the shipowners who found it very convenient then to tie up their ships and, in many instances, sent them to other countries to be repaired. I beg of the Government in all sincerity to see that this sort of thing does not happen again after the war. We have repairing yards where work can go on after the war for many years. If needs demand it, the Government should consider keeping on their control. I can see that we shall be faced at the end of the war with people begging the Government to take control off, even trying to force them to do so. Unless there are safeguards against the kind of thing which happened after the last war, the tragedy of unemployment and poverty will again face our people in the East End of London and if the courage, devotion and duty of our gallant seamen are to be forgotten as soon as the war finishes, then those responsible will be hoist with their own petard.
Although the hour is late, I make no apology for saying what I have to say, for we are dealing with by far the most important question which faces our country at the present time. Some Members have said that there is a sense of urgency on this matter in the House and in the country and that the House reflects the opinion of the country, but I am not so sure. The fact that these benches have been for the most part untenanted during this Debate shows that not only the country but this House is not really fully aware of the seriousness of what we are up against. There were two speeches, however, which did convey the note of urgency—one by the hon. Member for Seaham (Mr. Shinwell) and the other by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Epsom (Sir A. Southby)—and I want to add my contribution to those speeches which have tried to convey that sense of grave emergency and urgency.
The First Lord, last week, gave us a very great review of the work of the Navy, and, if I may say so, it was a considerable improvement on some of his past efforts, for the reason that he gave us a little more information. But if I may make a criticism, it is that he showed an excess of oratory and still did not give us quite enough information. The Admiralty, in my view, have always been bad about information. They like to keep everything quiet, for various reasons which I will not go into now, but let us remember that for nearly two years an impenetrable veil has descended over the work of the Navy, ever since they stopped publishing shipping losses. I think that is definitely bad, because Parliament, the Press and the public have been deprived of the opportunity of keeping the Admiralty up to the mark. Had we been kept alive to the urgency of the situation, as we have not been kept alive, probably Parliament would have stepped in long before now and insisted on certain obvious changes being made. The right hon. Gentleman the First Lord has had a very clear run, without any sniping, during the last three years, and, therefore, I think the Board of Admiralty must accept a much greater responsibility than they might have been expected to accept had Parliament and the public been given more information. This made it all the more alarming to hear his recent speech, to which reference has been made several times already, in which he said that the nation must see that the Fleet Air Arm was properly equipped.
The burden of the Navy in this war has been enormously increased by several factors, to two or three of which I shall refer. In the first place, my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Epsom referred to the London Naval Treaty. I would like to reassure my right hon. Friend by saying that I do not propose to deal in detail with that rather lamentable episode in his career, but I will say this, that at that time he was much younger than he is now and did not know much about the Navy. The principal blame lies on one of the weakest Board of Admiralty from which we have ever suffered in this country, who had not either the determination to see that they got what they wanted or the courage to resign when they did not get it. Nevertheless, whether my right hon. Friend was carrying out his Government's policy or not, the great mistake then made was that he and the Government he represented failed to realise that our requirements in cruisers and destroyers are absolute, and not relative to the strength of any other Power, whether in submarines or in other craft.
There is a second important factor which has helped to lead us into our present position, and that is that since Lord Beatty retired we have had a succession of First Sea Lords who do not appear to have had the farce of character to insist on the minimum requirements for our safety being provided or, if they could not get them, to resign and let the people decide. A third and most important consideration is the lamentable game of battledore and shuttlecock which has gone on concerning the Naval Air Arm, and when I say the Naval Air Arm, I include the Coastal Command. Lord Chatfield has revealed that it took him three years to get control of the Fleet Air Arm, and even so, that was only the smallest part of what the Navy required. The complications between the Fleet Air Arm and Coastal Command have been altogether deplorable. The Fleet Air Arm was only taken over by the Admiralty just before the war, and it inherited the ancient and obsolete craft about which we have heard so much. Lord Trenchard has said that the Admiralty were largely responsible for the deficiencies in these craft, which were made to their specifications. In my view, there is just enough truth in that to make it a thoroughly mischievous general statement. The Admiralty have never been averse to putting gadgets in anything which floats or flies, and that is a thing which wants to be watched, but nevertheless, we have to face the fact, and the airmen must face it, too, that at the end of the last war there was a splendid Naval Air Service and at the beginning of this war it was practically non-existent.
I turn now to the Royal Air Force Coastal Command, which is now under the operational control of the Admiralty. I had plenty of opportunity of seeing its work at the beginning of the war, as I was attached to its headquarters. The Royal Air Force Coastal Command consisted at the beginning of the war of a number of Lockheed-Hudson aircraft, a very few flying boats, a number of Ansons, a few Blenheims, and practically nothing else. This whole controversy between the Navy and the Air must be mentioned, and it is by no means a squalid controversy between Departments. In the years before the war, had the Navy had control of its own air, there would have been built up not only a force of all arms—bombers, fighters and torpedo craft—but there would have been in the Navy a well trained corps of officers fully experienced in air matters. That there was not at the beginning of the war, and the R.A.F.'s idea of co-operation was extremely elementary. It appeared to consist of nothing more than carrying out patrols across the sea.
The R.A.F. is divided into Commands, and in many respects the differences between the three principal Commands, Bomber, Fighter and Coastal, is greater than those between the Army and the Navy. They are in complete water-tight compartments, I gather that that has been slightly improved, but at the beginning of the war it was very much so. One night early in 1940 a bomber, coming back from the useful pastime of dropping leaflets over Germany, observed a considerable force of German ships at anchor three miles from Heligoland. In those days the Air Force were not allowed to bomb land targets for fear that they might hurt a civilian. Here was a splendid target. It was a good night, with a considerable moon. Sir Tom Phillips, Vice-Chief of the Naval Staff, rang up Coastal Command headquarters and asked for action to be taken. The liaison between Admiralty and Bomber Command was at that time conducted through Coastal Command. Coastal Command rang up Bomber Command, who were very doubtful whether they could do anything. After the lapse of about half-an-hour we managed to get a high officer of Bomber Command on the telephone. Still he could not do anything. It was not their job. They were not accustomed to it. They had not the right sort of bombs, and anyhow no one was ready. Finally in despair the naval liaison officer at Coastal Command rang up Sir Tom Phillips at the Admiralty and said, "Your only chance is to get straight on to the Chief of the Air Staff," which he did, and they were still arguing about it at half-past nine next morning. That is the kind of co-operation the Navy got from a certain Command of the R.A.F. at that time. I make no criticism of the people who were responsible then. It was not Bomber Command's job, Coastal Command had not any bombers, and the Navy had not any bombers, and therefore that splendid target went unattacked.
There was another example at Dunkirk. Again the Admiralty rang up, on the second or third day, in great distress to say that Fighter Command of the R.A.F. were unable to maintain continuous patrols over the beaches and could only go over in waves every hour. Could Coastal Command do anything about it? The Staff Officer of Operations was asked what he had. The reply was "Three Ansons and two Blenheims," and he was told by Sir Frederick Bowhill to send them over. I quote that to illustrate that there was no lack of co-operation on the part of the Air Force officers. They co-operated to the best of their ability under the structure of their organisation at that time. The fact of the matter is that the Royal Air Force always preferred the idea of independent attack on our enemies, and co-operating with the Navy, or indeed with the Army, was considered to be quite a side-show, and no very great thought was devoted to it. The result of all this was that you had neither the Navy nor the Air Force really thinking about the air problem in the way it should have been studied.
I want now to speak of the activities of Lord Trenchard, because I think they are extremely mischievous. He is a great man in many ways, who has deserved well of his country. He is practically the father of our Air Force, but for some reason—I do not know what it is—he has got something which can——
I bow to your Ruling, but I erred owing to the fact that several other hon. Members have mentioned a certain Noble Lord by name. I refer to a certain individual responsible for a certain point of view in the Royal Air Force which I am glad to say has not many adherents. Owing, however, to the fact that he is very much in the public eye and that the public do not realise, as perhaps most of us do, that he has a bee in his bonnet about this matter, his opinions carry a good deal more weight than they deserve. I cannot see that that is doing any good to the cause of the Air Force, the Navy or the nation. There is in Brixton Prison a distinguished retired admiral who is well over 70 and stone deaf, and in my view his release would not be the slightest detriment to the war effort. I cannot help feeling that the individual I have referred to would be a good exchange.
What some people fail to realise is that it is not a question whether the Admiralty should rule the Air Force or the Air Force should rule the Admiralty. What matters is command of the sea. I am particularly careful to use that phrase and not to talk about sea power, because sea power is only one ingredient of command of the sea. Sea and air power, together with bases and garrisons, are the integral ingredients of that command of the sea which alone can help us to win the war. I am not one of those people who belong to the blue water school who talk about the storm-tossed ships which Napoleon never set eyes on and which stood between him and us. It is, in the long run, the "P.B.I." who have to do the job. Tanks, planes and ships are only ingredients to help to put the infantry into Berlin or wherever we want them. Therefore, I am, and have been for a long time, frankly a strong supporter of a much closer integration of the three Staffs of the Services. It is a great pity it has not been done before. Had it been done, some of the dissensions which are now going on would have been avoided and we should have got on very much further.
There is no doubt that even to-day the Navy has not got the shore-based aircraft at its disposal which it should have, nor have the R.A.F., despite the splendid work of Air Chief Marshal Bowhill and Air Chief Marshal Joubert at Coastal Command, a proper and a complete idea of what that co-operation really entails. The Navy's lack of aircraft has been responsible for many disasters. There is the loss of the "Prince of Wales" and the "Repulse." That is just another example. It would have been unthinkable for these ships to have gone to almost certain disaster as they did had the Navy had its own aircraft, for the simple reason that everybody in the Navy knows that as it is fantastic folly for a capital ship to venture into submarine-infested waters without a heavy escort of destroyers, so it is fantastic folly for battleships to venture into air-infested waters without fighter aircraft. You will always get casualties. Take the case of H.M.S. "Barham," which was fully escorted by destroyers. A submarine slipped through and got four torpedoes into her. But that was an accident of war. One must always expect that sort of thing. The loss of "Prince of Wales" and "Repulse" was a very different matter. Undoubtedly improvements are being made, but I urge upon the right hon. Gentleman, as representing the Board of Admiralty, that the time has come for this matter to be settled once and for all. He has not yet told us exactly how we stand as regards aircraft priority.
I now turn to escort vessels, because Sir Percy Noble—and I think the House will agree nobody knows more about these matters than he does—said a few weeks ago that he much preferred the destroyer type. I fully realise the difficulties which confronted the Admiralty at the beginning of this war. They had to produce large numbers of what my right hon. Friend calls "Woolworth ships." They had to do it quickly, and they produced the corvettes, of which he has told us there are about 200 in commission. They are excellent little ships in many ways, and mass produced, but, unfortunately, designed on lines which though they would have been very suitable in 1917 are not so suitable to-day. Other hon. Members have said they are too slow and they certainly are. What we want is more escort vessels of the destroyer type. Heavily-escorted convoys have a habit of getting through, and by heavily-escorted I mean heavily-escorted by air and by surface ships. Only escort vessels are the real answer to these attacks on our shipping—more and more and faster escort vessels.
I think the right hon. Gentleman might have said a little more of the splendid work which is being done by these escort vessels. I have seen them at it, and whereas we hear a good deal of the publicity of the R.A.F. and hope to get like publicity for the Navy, it should be remembered that the men on board these ships live in conditions of indescribable discomfort. They are extremely lively and uncomfortable ships, very often they are "wet" ships, and they seldom go to sea for less than nine or ten days at a time. Many a time when I was myself escorting convoys I could not help looking up with envy at the great aircraft overhead when I thought that their crew would in a few hours be in a comfortable ness, having a good dinner, with a whisky and soda, and then good beds, whereas we were destined to be another seven or eight days at sea. My own officers consisted of a solicitor from Oxford, a monumental mason from somewhere in Hertfordshire, and a young baronet from Southern Ireland, and a splendid lot they were, and the crew were incomparable. We had all sorts—R.N.R., R.N.V.R., and some R.N. pensioners. I think those people, whose work is largely done out of the public gaze, deserve the very highest tribute that can be paid to them.
I cannot help feeling that half our troubles at the present moment are due to the fact that His Majesty's Government have failed to realise that command of the sea, whether it is achieved by ships which float on the sea or go under the sea or by aircraft which fly above it, is the base of the pyramid of the whole of our war effort. Last Session the Government were asked in another place—and I hope I am in Order in referring to this—whether they assented to the proposition that the first and principal object of a maritime Power or group of Powers is to obtain and maintain command of the sea. That is a very straightforward question, and it might have had a straightforward answer. It was answered by the Lord Chancellor, who said:
The principles appear to His Majesty's Government unexceptionable, but their application is of course governed by circumstances, values and proportions.
Admiral Sir Herbert Richmond, than whom there is no greater naval strategist in the country—he is one of those people who have the uncanny habit of being always right—observed in a letter to "The Times" newspaper that the answer displayed
what Bagehot called an unbroken fluency in indefinite half-truths.
He went on to say:
If his evasive answer has any meaning, it is that the Government, while admitting the validity of the principle, have no intention of acting upon it.
I am afraid there is a certain amount of truth in that. We are to-day fighting a war, in which there are many new weapons, by land, sea and air, but the old principles remain exactly the same. They have not changed one little bit.
They never will, and I think that the right hon. Gentleman and his Board of Admiralty have been lacking in vision and lacking in courage and lacking in determination in seeing that the Navy gets the priorities without which the foundation of that pyramid of our war effort cannot be made secure.
In view of the many strictures that have been passed upon the First Lord, and of the acerbities that have arisen in the course of the Debate, it is a pleasure to me to state that I consider his contribution last week to the naval problem in general one of the most excellent contributions of a Ministerial character. He certainly gave us a very considerable amount of information, for which we and the country have been waiting. But this was done with such discretion that it can be truthfully affirmed that the enemy are not a whit wiser by his statement. I am satisfied also that the conduct of the Admiralty in the creation of tonnage for naval and mercantile purposes has for war purposes been thoroughly sound.
I think one ought to say at this stage that, as a member of the Select Committee on National Expenditure, that looked into the question of mercantile and naval building, the allegations that were made, that private owners had privilege of some kind with the Admiralty and were not in harmony with our best war efforts, is entirely illusory. We could discover no such privilege at any time having been conceded to any private owner or owners. The vessels built by the Admiralty were built in the shortest possible time to carry, very properly, the maximum amount of cargo, and only the limitations of labour and materials prevented a phenomenal output. I can assert from experience and from knowledge of the shipping world that the very best use of our building facilities in the matter of engines, hulls and equipment has been adopted by the Admiralty. The types for private owners were prescribed by the Admiralty, and I can say that the war-time specifications for private owners is very much below that which they would demand and require in peace-time, and that any vessel that has been built to-day for private owners will require in the days of peace a very heavy expenditure at their charge because of the stipulations of the Admiralty in this matter. I have yet to learn that fast ships are any more safe in these days of submarine warfare than slower vessels. The fact is that on the north-east coast I have taken the trouble to inquire of shipowners with large fleets as to what their individual losses represented, and I have found that where they had a variety of tonnage, fast and slow—the Diesel engine vessels and the coal-burning ordinary triple-expansion steam engines—they had lost in certain cases a higher proportion of fast ships and in others, it is true, a lower proportion.
Yes, 15 or 16 knots. It is not, in my judgment, a question to-day of speed. The submarine is adopting newer methods. It is a battle against the individual vessel or against a convoy at dusk or at dawn, and what is undoubtedly required to relieve that position is an increase, as we have heard, of escort vessels, but more, some instrument to be devised to enable the submarine to be detected from the air. It is a melancholy fact to learn that the Anti-Submarine Committee has met but intermittently, that they have not concentrated all their resources and all their researches upon some instrument which I am satisfied can be devised. I believe that on Tyneside, the home of inventions, if our scientists there, in co-operation with our electricians, were placed upon this problem of discovering an instrument that would make the knowledge of the submarine's presence as available as it is under certain conditions from the water, this problem might be suddenly solved.
The hon. Member for North Camberwell (Mr. Ammon) last week made a statement which caused me much perturbation. I was not present at the moment when the statement was made, It was raised in a shipping office as to whether that statement should be unchallenged. If it was unchallenged, very serious results might ensue. This is the exact statement from the OFFICIAL REPORT:
Speed will be the chief weapon. The fact of the U-boat being able to do 18 to 20 knots on the surface means that slow convoys are bound to come to disaster. I think it was on the last occasion when we spoke on this subject that I was interrupted and was told that just as many fast ships as slow were being sunk, I could not understand the importance of that interruption; because the fact simply is that the fast ships have to come
down to the pace of the slow. They are all reduced to a level and therefore are easy meat for the opponents."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 3rd March, 1943; col. 591, Vol. 387.]
That surely has no foundation in fact, There are different speeds of convoys There is the slow convoy with an average of seven knots; there is the medium convoy of about nine knots; then there is the fast convoy, the average of which will be about 14 knots. If the Admiralty were to be guilty of putting vessels into the position in which they would be torpedoed when having the speed—we assume it is true that it is speed which is required, and yet these vessels were lost—it would be a misfortune of the greatest character for which the Admiralty would be held responsible, not only for the loss of vessels and cargoes, but for the lives of those who are convoying those ships. It is an interesting point that several private owners who have had vessels built have advised me that the amounts charged by the Admiralty contractors were some 25 per cent. higher than those charged to the Admiralty for the same sized vessels with the same capacity and the same engine power. If that be so, private owners are being so salted that the difficulty of the British Mercantile Marine in competing in the days to come has certainly been accentuated. I am not at all concerned through having any present interest in any shipping.
With regard to speed and cargo capacity, were the Admiralty wise in creating an instrument which would give us the largest carrying capacity at a reasonable speed? If the position is, as I believe, not a question of speed at all with regard to the submarine menace, and that if you could transfer all your tonnage to-day to faster vessels, you would still have the sinkings by submarines by new methods, the Admiralty were certainly wise in constructing vessels of reasonable speed, which in pre-war days would have been deemed fast. An 11¼-knot vessel, or even an 11-knot vessel, was looked upon then as being fast, as against the 8 or 9 knot vessel. It is interesting to note that Mr. J. Ramsay Gebbie, the President of the North East Coast Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders, at a meeting a fortnight ago gave certain figures. He compared motor-ships of 10,300 tons dead weight, with engines of 2,900 indicated horse power, and having a speed of 11¼ knots voyage average on a consumption of 10 tons of oil fuel per 24 hours, and ships of the same dimensions, which, with their finer model and heavier machinery, would carry 8,300 tons—as against 10,300 tons—when fitted with engines of 7,500 indicated horse power, giving a speed of 15 knots on a consumption of 27 tons for 24 hours.
These figures are most important on the question of whether it is wise for this nation, in its great war effort, to reduce carrying capacity and to have speed in its place. Perhaps I might mention the time of building. It is assumed that either type would be six months on the stocks, but the 11¼-knot ship would take two months to fit out and the 15-knot ship three months. Mr. Gebbie calculated that in three years from the announcement of the programmes 58 ships of 11¼ knots and 10,300 tons dead weight would have been delivered, as against 23 ships of 15 knots, of 8,300 tons dead weight, and that the slower vessels would have carried 6,162,200 tons of cargo as against 2,142,800 tons carried by the faster ships. Assume that the voyages are of 10,000 miles, 4,019,000 tons as against 1,300,000 tons, it would appear that the 58 slower vessels would transport nearly three times the weight of cargo carried by the 23 faster ships. It is also observed that the 15-knot ships consume about two and a half times as much oil fuel as the 11-knot ships. The general average throughout the country, obtainable from the leading shipping authorities, is that there is virtually no distinction between the losses of the fast ships and the losses of the slower ships, which, as I stated previously, has been proved by conferences with private shipowners. [Interruption.] It is not the view of private shipowners that it would be wise in the interests of the nation to build a fleet of fast ships. Even if the Chamber of Shipping is asking for it, the Admiralty, in their judgment, are building only one-third of those very fast ships.
With respect to the future, I am asked to say, on behalf of the North East coast people who are interested in the question of labour—I mean the heads of the engineers and the Amalgamated Engineering Union and others—that they hope there will be a naval and merchant building programme scientifically carried out after the war. Tyneside is a heavy industries centre. We must have no repetition of the last post-war period, when all industry went into hibernation and lost its heart and livelihood. A naval and merchant building programme should now be devised. The present system is probably most scientifically carried out, and it would be most economical to have Admiralty and merchant tonnage building under the one head. We hope that there will be a 10-year plan of naval replacement, and that out of the larger employment which the slower vessels would give there is likely to be a continuation of that policy in post-war days.
We require naval supremacy. I believe that the lines upon which the Admiralty are working to-day will achieve that and that the submarine menace is capable of being overcome. I am glad to see that speeding has taken place in those very speedy corvettes and other vessels of a protective character. It is a delusion to say that these are slow. The Select Committee had the privilege in Southampton Water of going on board and being taken for some distance on these vessels, and they were travelling at a rate of 42½ knots.
Has not the hon. Gentleman mistaken the motor torpedo boat for the corvette? The torpedo boat may travel at that speed, but the corvette travels at only 17 or 18 knots at the most.
What the hon. and gallant Gentleman terms a motor torpedo boat is also a corvette. The builders named it a corvette to the Select Committee. Some of these vessels carry two torpedoes, and others are armed heavily with guns. All were termed corvettes, and travelled at an amazing speed.
Well, I say it was a fantastic speed, and I think the figure I have given is accurate. These vessels have been built without regard to expense. They are double-engined Diesel vessels. When we have the necessary accumulation of naval planes and protection of that character, which is being gradually achieved and for want of which we are suffering to-day, together with the augmentation of escort vessels, there is little doubt that in due time the tide will go against the U-boats and that success will crown the laborious efforts of the Admiralty.
May I be allowed to add my respectful congratulations, Mr. Speaker, upon your election and my hope that the tenure of your great office will be long and happy?
This question has ranged chiefly round two subjects, namely, air and the U-boat. I agree a great deal with what has been said about the former, but I cannot bring skilled experience to bear on the latter, such as was forthcoming from my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Hythe (Lieut.-Commander Brabner). My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Cleveland (Commander Bower) introduced, I thought, into the Debate a rather futile note. I am sorry that he is not in his place at the moment, but no doubt he will read my remarks in the OFFICIAL REPORT. He proceeded to go all the way back to 1930 in order to delve into the crimes of the First Lord of the Admiralty. Well, however great these crimes may be judged to be by history, it is useless to begin talking about what happened in 1930 when we are in the middle of a war in 1943.
About the subject of the air, I am of the opinion that although the Admiralty gained a partial advantage when Coastal Command was transferred to their operational control great disadvantages still remain. If, for instance, you take a particular area—I will not mention anyone by name, because it might be thought to be one where I myself have been serving—and the Admiralty have their operational control of Coastal Command in that area, it is absolutely open to the Air Ministry, so far as I am aware, to decide how many aircraft they will place in that section of the Command. If they choose to starve it, as I am afraid they sometimes might be tempted to do, then the Navy, in its control of aircraft, has few machines with which to effect the purposes of naval work. I realise that at this stage of the war it would be a very big step to take to suggest that the complete control of Coastal Command should be transferred to the Navy—in other words, that Coastal Command should be taken over. I think that if that were done, the effect would be one of dislocation and that it would have an adverse effect on morale and the general state of public confidence in the general direction of the war. I think that what might be done would be this: The Admiralty might be a little more aggressive in its tendencies to acquire land, and, having acquired further land, it might construct some aerodromes on shore of its own of an operational character from which it could furnish that extra air support which I believe is so very much needed for the Fleet to-day.
With regard to the U-boat menace, I do not intend to enter the ranks of the many amateur strategists who have flung their arrows into the air. I am quite sure that they speak with a great weight of experience behind them, but I maintain it is only those who are doing the work of fighting the U-boat who can tell what is really needed in order to combat that still present menace, and therefore, that only the Admiralty, who receive all the reports of the serving officers and who also are in a position to judge of the priorities that they must allocate in their building programme, can really be in a position to judge what is the best way to drive the U-boats to the bottom of the sea.
I was very interested to listen to the First Lord's speech in introducing his Estimates and to the tributes he paid particularly to the personnel of the submarine service on the great work they are doing, especially in the Mediterranean. But I wonder whether it is realised how very much the whole Navy to-day is manned by men who before the war had had no naval training whatsoever. They are today the inheritors of a very great tradition, and it is left to them to carry it on in a way that the country can be proud of. Only very recently I returned from the Fleet after some time there, and my own limited experience is that at the end of over three years of war the state of morale, discipline, cheerfulness, and all the qualities that go with those attributes, is as high to-day as ever it was in the Royal Navy. I believe that the Navy feels that it has the full backing of the public behind it and that although its exploits are necessarily somewhat more hidden from the people of this country than are those of other Services, such as the Royal Air Force, yet deep down at the bottom of their hearts the people of this country know that they will owe their survival, and I believe their victory, ere long, to the work of the Royal Navy more than any other Service.
I have sat right through this Debate, and also through that part of the Debate which followed the opening of the Navy Estimates last week. Although there have been some sharp speeches and little barbs sticking out here and there, the Navy has no reason to be dissatisfied with the general treatment that it has received. There is, however, one point on which I should like to be perfectly plain. I consider it quite impossible to sever the success of the Royal Navy at sea over the last 3½ years from the advice, the administration, the direction and the drive of the naval men who are at the head of the Admiralty. I want the House to remember that, when all kinds of things are being said, very often without the slightest argument in support of them. My hon. Friend the Member for Camberwell North (Mr. Ammon) said that there is general slackness always in Admiralty administration——
I shall be glad to send my hon. Friend my copy of the OFFICIAL REPORT as I saw it, so that he may check it up with me. There are other statements made from time to time which give me the same impression. My view, having been in the midst of the most terrific naval crisis that this country has ever passed through, and having watched the work of those responsible for naval control, is that they have had a very great deal to do with enabling our brave officers and men at sea to be successful in their task. I want to make that quite plain. There was another reference earlier, to the age of the members of the Board of Admiralty. One would have imagined, from the manner in which the reference was made, that some crime was being committed by myself and other Ministers who may have some responsibility for the selection of officers of that age, but in fact the Board of Admiralty is doing a most difficult job of work in very dangerous circumstances, and it has the help of officers who have had very close experience in this war. The Vice Chief of the staff has commanded a cruiser squadron in this war. The Controller of the Navy commanded the cruiser squadron Which first picked up the "Bismarck," kept her in view until she could be challenged and never let go until she was finally destroyed. All the assistant chiefs of the Naval Staff and many others who have served during my administration have had active service at sea in this war, and their very experience, and the policy of bringing men back to the Admiralty with that experience, to advise myself and the First Sea Lord upon these operational matters, have had much to do with our being able to cope with a menace which is without precedent.
I heard a reference earlier this evening to the capacity of Sir Herbert Richmond as a strategist. He had a connection with the Imperial Defence College and the naval courses thereat. If, a year or so before the war, there had been courses at that college and if officers had been asked then whether it would be possible to deal with the menace that we have had to face ever since May, 1940, when France went out of the war, with the whole of the naval bases from Tromsoe to St. Jean de Luz in the hands of the enemy, with all the extra building capacity which the occupied countries gave them, and whether it would be possible, with the forces then at our disposal, to avoid defeat, I believe the general answer would have been "No." In fact, the work of the Navy with the support of the Air Force has been so good that we have come through this difficult time and at the same time carried the war to the enemy overseas by taking troops and equipment with such little loss as we have sustained. I feel, therefore, that I am entitled to say, while no one is more moved by and more grateful for the wonderful work of the men at sea than I am, that we have some reason to be grateful to those who have done the whole of the strategical and tactical planning of the war at the admiralty. I want to make that perfectly plain.
I come next to the question of the air. It has been raised in two respects. It has been raised in respect of the aircraft in the Fleet Air Arm under our administrative and direct control, and in respect of shore-based aircraft, which we so often need in connection with our anti-submarine war and long-range reconnaissance. With regard to the Fleet Air Arm, I thought that I had removed a good deal of anxiety from the minds of hon. Members by the statement I made a few weeks ago in answer to a Question. May I say one or two things in more detail? When I came to the Admiralty in May, 1940, the only planes that were flying operationally were the Skua and the Swordfish. I have had a good many things hurled at me, as if I had a special measure of personal responsibility in this matter. I do not mind accepting responsibility, but it is as well that we should know the facts.
It was some weeks after I went to the Admiralty before we had the Fulmar flying operationally. In the naval battle in the Mediterranean, which opened in the middle of 1940, the Fulmar began to shoot the enemy down—which we would have had little opportunity of doing if we had only had the old Skua. The Fulmar was a great improvement on the previous machine, although it was a two-seater machine and needed to be supplemented, indeed, supplanted, by a fast single-seater fighter. The Admiralty had had plans earlier than that for the use of a Seafire type as a ship-borne single-seater fighter. Who can complain that, in the conditions in which we found ourselves, after we had lost so much of our own fighter defence force in France, and considering that we had practically no margin when we came to the end of the Battle of Britain, it was wrong for the War Cabinet to give immediate and complete super-priority to the production of fighter defence for the fortress of Britain. If we had lost air control over these Islands at that time, we would have lost the whole battle.
If we take the next development, we very soon had in operation, after a few troubles and heartaches, a fighter—a single-seater—which was a great improvement upon the Fulmar. That was the Grumman-Martlet. I have friends in the Service who pay a very high tribute to what they have been able to do with the Martlet plane in fighting. We then had the Sea Hurricanes, and now he have the Seafires. But that is not by any means the end of the efforts which the Board of Admiralty have made to get an adequate fighter equipment for the Fleet Air Arm. They have had under development, of course by the Ministry of Aircraft Production, other fighter machines, about which obviously I cannot give details today, except that I am able to say that when it was suggested by one of my hon. Friends opposite that of the aircraft factories which were devoted to the production of naval planes of a fighter character for flying over the sea none had been able to produce planes to fly, that certainly is not correct.
New types. That certainly would not be correct, although I am bound to say that I had been hoping that I would have got them into production in numbers to perform operationally earlier.
May I suggest to the First Lord that the whole urgency of this matter is one of time? There is a flying season in the spring, from spring to, shall we say, October, and the Germans seem to get their types out for spring, and ours seem to come out a little later. It has happened all through this war, and we hope the First Lord realises the urgency of the matter.
I should have thought that what I have said indicated that we do realise the extraordinary importance, not only of getting the latest type of Spitfire machine, but also of developing our own fighters according to our Staff requirements.
Now I come to the question of the torpedo-bomber. Perhaps I had better go into a little more detail in regard to this. It is rather a pity that one has to do it so often, because I do try to make the position plain, regrettable as some of the circumstances have been. Let me repeat that the Barracuda torpedo-bomber was ready designed, embodying the Staff requirements of the Admiralty, although, of course, the embodying work is subsequently done by firms working through the Ministry of Aircraft Production—at that time, in 1939, working through the Air Ministry. The plane was ready, but it was designed around the "X" engine, and when it was about to come into actual production for operational control, it was decided, in the general interests of air production, that the "X" engine should not be proceeded with. Therefore, there was some delay while a new design was brought into line with a new type of engine. This was done. By the time that design was ready we had come to the Battle of Britain, and in view of the urgent need for turning all our expanding aircraft production industry on to the defence of Britain, the Barracuda was stopped for the time being.
After that this aircraft was, perhaps, amended in equipment from time to time, according to the experience which had accrued to the pilots of the Fleet Air Arm during the course of the war. While I was able to say last year, quite firmly and quite honestly from my point of view, that they were coming then into production, it was an unfortunate thing that last year, after that statement had been made—I was dealing then with the first hand-made, if I may so term them, earlier models that were coming out of production—when the main production started the machine developed what they call in the engineering industry "bugs" here and there. There are certain things which I cannot go into here, including aero-dynamics, ailerons and some other parts, but they have all been cleared. It has taken a considerable time, as I said last week, but the machine, on all the professional advice I have got at the Admiralty, is now first-class. It is flying, it is being supplied in increasing numbers. I do not think my hon. Friend will ask me to say what those numbers are. I do not propose to give information to the enemy, but they are certainly coming immediately to the point of beginning to form operational squadrons.
With regard to the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Cocks), a very old friend of mine—and the last thing in the world I would want to do is to appear to want to fall out with him—I feel that the kind of statement made to-night, apparently by some high engineering authority, unquoted and unnamed, that this machine that we are going to ask our fellows to fly in the near future—the new fast torpedo-bomber of the Navy—is no good and ought to be scrapped, is not very encouraging, and if, in view of all that has been done and the work put into it, and the fact that some of the pilots are flying that machine now in their early training, I think if one is going to make statements in public like that, one ought to be quite certain what the authority for it is.
I think perhaps I might leave discussion of that machine and say a word in regard to other questions raised. I made it clear last week that the Avenger torpedo-bomber, which has been so successful in its use by the American Navy in the South-West Pacific, was seen by our experts—by Admiral Lyster—long ago, when he visited the United States, and we ordered them long since, and deliveries of the Avenger are starting now to us from the United States. The other point with regard to bombers is that we long since ordered, but it has been very difficult to get deliveries of, the Curtiss dive-bomber for use by the Navy, and while I cannot say that I have any deliveries yet over here, nevertheless they are coming out well, and I hope to get deliveries very shortly.
That is the position with regard to the Fleet Air Arm, but when I look back over the last three years in regard to the experience of the Fleet Air Arm and see what the casualties in ships have been, which I mentioned the other day—five main carriers and two auxiliaries—and I can see to-day that we have just the same number of carriers still, in spite of all that, and a large number of auxiliaries and a rapidly expanding Fleet Air Arm, it seems to me that the Admiralty cannot have been so idle or unsuccessful in meeting the threat from the air point of view that we have to, to keep our communications quite clear.
May I say a word about other types of aircraft? The hon. and gallant Member for Cleveland (Commander Bower) said something about his experience as former naval liaison officer with Coastal Command. I have not, of course, had a chance to check up dates, but I should have said from his reference that his experiences were confined to the period when the Admiralty had not yet assumed operational control of Coastal Command, and I would not like it to be taken from what he said that it in any way represents the present position, now that we have had, since the end of December, 1940, I think, speaking from memory, operational control of Coastal Command. I must say that, quite apart from the aircraft available at any given time in that period, the spirit of co-operation and helpfulness between the Navy and Coastal Command and the Naval Staff has left nothing to be desired. I think it has been absolutely first-class.
One comes then to the question of aircraft for Coastal Command. The hon. and gallant Member referred to the fact that in May, 1940, they had not a very large number of machines. I think that is quite true. I think it is also true that in the competition which afterwards was bound to arise from the different demands of the Services—the equipment of the bomber forces here, the equipment of the North African forces, the equipment of our forces in India, the equipment of our forces in Iraq and Iran, as well as the demands of some hon. Members as to how many should be sent to Russia, if you examine this, you will find that the Admiralty has not been unsuccessful in getting, not by any means all that it wants—I do not want to give that impression—but it has made a great change in the situation from that described by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Cleveland. Different types have been added, American as well as British, including American long-distance machines. I say that the U-boat menace is so serious—and our country should be so well aware of the menace which the Navy has to fight—that we need every possible development in the direction of the aid of long-range, very long-range, shore-based aircraft to assist the other types of escorts, plus Fleet Air Arm escorts if necessary, that is have the whole lot working together—in order to get the maximum amount of protection to the convoys and achieve the maximum imports in this country.
I would like it to be clear, when charges are bandied about sometimes, though I have not noticed anyone saying it to-day, that the Admiralty is not air-minded, that that really is not true. The Board of Admiralty, in my experience in the last three years of war, have been pressing all we can to have that sense of urgency to which some hon. Members have referred, maintained. We have never been without that sense of urgency. If the Board of Admiralty had been without a sense of urgency in the last few years, you would have lost the naval war. We have never faced such a situation before in our history. It is precisely because of this sense of urgency of the Board of Admiralty that we have been able to deal with the situation and come to the help of other Services as well. The question has been raised about the control of the direction of the anti-U-boat campaign. I want to make that clear too. Of course, I will look carefully at what has been said in some speeches when I see them detailed in print, but I have no reason to-day to depart for a moment from the view already expressed to the House by the. Prime Minister in the statement he made when he set up the second edition of the U-boat Committee last autumn. On that basis I say that the main responsibility for the defeat of the U-boats at sea must rest with the Admiralty. It is its job. But the Admiralty is glad of the kind of Committee which has been set up, with the advantage of having the experts of all the Departments and other Services and the scientists available to it in that respect.
Reference was made by the hon. Member for Broxtowe to the fact that Field-Marshal Smuts had been mentioned in this connection. Hon. Members will remember that the Prime Minister was authorised by Field-Marshal Smuts to say that he had not seen the organisation of the Admiralty and the general strategical planning of the Government in this matter until after he had made his first suggestion. I can state that I was present when he afterwards came to the Admiralty and went over the whole organisation, some details of which I would not dare to speak to hon. Members about, and when he had seen it all he said he was perfectly satisfied with the machine as it had been set up, and with the manner in which it was functioning, and that therefore it was not necessary that the other suggestion he had made should be pressed. Other Members have asked what sort of daily cooperation there is between us and the United States in this anti-U-boat campaign. I say, "constant co-operation"; and not only between us and the United States, but also most valuable co-operation with our friends in Canada.
I am sure my hon. and gallant Friend, who, I think, had some military experience in the last war, will readily understand that in the kind of war we are conducting hourly—much more than daily—there is a constant signalling going on between the different Allied forces which have to control escorts and run the risks in those waters. Therefore the co-operation must be carried on daily. It must be obvious that in a war like this, our daily experiences must not be lost sight of, and wherever we find from actual experience that something should be improved, to prevent a repetition of what has happened before, we shall be delighted, as we have always been, to do our best to secure that improvement. I am not quite sure whether I have covered all the main points but I think I have probably done it sufficiently to satisfy the House.
I come to what is, perhaps, the last point to which I need refer: that is, the speed of ships. This, again, is a matter on which I have made several statements to the House. There will always be people in the industry, sometimes speaking directly to us, sometimes speaking through Members of this House, as they frequently do, expressing their views on this matter. Of course, if we could have nothing but fast ships, I think it would be bound to show better results. If you could have all your escorts equally equipped for fast convoys, that would be ideal. But that was not the situation as I found it. I inherited the task of carrying on the naval war, when France had left us, with the tonnage we then had. If you had, with your limited labour strength, tonnage, and the slipways available for the construction of escort vessels, turned over to the construction of faster ships, you might have been led into disaster. For some considerable time, until we had got the American programmes going, obviously, in dealing with the volume of imports needed in this country, the thing was to get the largest output of tonnage possible with the slips and labour available. But I have never said that I was wedded to slow ships. I have said on every possible occasion that, as the labour situation improved, by means of expansion, and by improvement of training and new methods, we would turn, as far as we could and as far as the slips were available, to building faster ships than the standard tramp type we have had. The increase in the number of fast ships has gone on since 1940 until, to-day, my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary was able to tell us that, of the orders to be placed this year and next year, well over 30 per cent. will be fast ships. I hope I have said enough about fast ships to settle the matter in the minds of hon. Members.
I will add in conclusion—because we have had quite a long Debate—only this: Let no one misunderstand the attitude of the Board of Admiralty and myself on this great problem, the problem of maintaining our sea communications. We regard the position as one of great menace, and the situation, as I told the House last week, is one which will become increasingly difficult, because with every move forward we make offensively, with every new piece of territory released from the grip of the enemy and as our campaign widens, we shall want more ships, more escorts, and there will be more demands upon our space at every step. The extent to which all that can be speeded up and moved forward must depend to a large extent not only upon building new tonnage but upon increasing the offensive of killing the U-boat.
I want to remove from my hon. Friends' minds any idea that there is any complacency, for that would be a wrong interpretation to place upon our attitude. But if the House asks us to give a regular interval report, and if we report to them, as I was able to do last week, that we have had the best time in the last four months during the whole of the war in our rate of killing the U-boats, surely it is not a crime to be able to report that. We still regard the situation as being very dangerous and serious because we have no guarantee that the rate of U-boat building is not still outstripping the rate of killings. Therefore, that is why we have been concentrating, as I indicated to the House last week, even at the expense perhaps of interfering with the building of our target of merchant tonnage, more upon the quicker production of escort ships. I say that, with the extra mass production that we have arranged in our escort ship class, and with that large programme which is being built of the same kind of ship in the United States of America, we shall see a far greater delivery of that type of escort to the Navies of our two countries in the next few months than in any similar period before.
I was very careful. Of course, I cannot say that we have all that we need. I compared it with the various other demands upon the supply of aircraft, but we have got to a very much better position in that situation than we ever were before, and I said last week that we shall be getting an increased allocation of aircraft for that purpose. I cannot add to that statement at the moment.
We have ways and means for making our estimates in the Admiralty, but they are ways and means which I certainly would not reveal to Members of fee House in open Session. We have our ways and means, and I am sure that my hon. and gallant Friend will not require me to say any more about it. When I was interrupted by my hon. and gallant Friend, I was about to say, in conclusion, that this is the situation to-day. The U-boat menace is increasing, and so are our provisions against it, but we must not let up for a moment. We have to do two things—come through without undue risk to our imports, and, secondly, speed up the date When we can carry the offensive, as we mean to do, to the enemy wherever we find him.
I will not detain the House for more than a few moments, except that I desire to put the remarks of my right hon. Friend in proper perspective. He charged me with accusing the Admiralty of general slackness. Those who were present will bear me in memory when I say that the First Lord made a gratuitous suggestion in the last Debate that I had reflected
on the courage and skill of our seamen. He interrupted by saying:
It saved you in this one.
The House will remember that I said:
That was due to the gallantry of the men on the seas and is not in any way due to administration. Administration has been slack right through.
Torn from its context, that is a half-truth which is very much worse than the falsehood which the First Lord intended to convey.
I am in the hands of the House as to how this passage can be interpreted. Let us go back and see what was the real context of my hon. Friend's speech. He said:
I will give the Admiralty"—
That is, the people who administer the Navy—
credit for one advantage. It is sometimes said that we are always thinking in terms of the war before last. At least the Admiralty is thinking in terms of the last one.
It saved you in this one."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 3rd March, 1943; col. 592, Vol. 387.]
My hon. Friend said that this was due to the gallantry of the men on the seas and was not in any way due to the administration, and that I have answered now. I also noted that my hon. Friend said that administration has been slack right through. What did he mean by that if he did not mean the Admiralty?