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Orders of the Day — War and International Situation

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 29th September 1944.

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Photo of Sir Percy Harris Sir Percy Harris , Bethnal Green South West 12:00 am, 29th September 1944

We have had from the hon. Gentleman a very interesting and a very full, long review of the whole area of international affairs and, in his peroration, a reference to the next election. I do not intend to keep the House at such length, but I should like to associate myself with his tribute to our Armies in the field, and to their accomplishments during the last seven weeks. We have had great events. Who anticipated when we adjourned, that, in the intervening period, the Allies would be in occupation of Paris, Marseilles, Brussels and Antwerp? If this were Moscow, we should have had a great salute of guns. Whether it is that our temperaments are less emotional, or that five years have sobered us, we have taken these wonderful victories extraordinarily calmly. We have hardly displayed a flag or rung a church bell. But that does not say that the British public have not been moved and are not appreciative of these magnificent victories. It has been our custom in the past—I have often indulged in it myself—to depreciate our strategy and the generals in charge, but their work has been masterly on every side and almost beyond criticism.

The hon. Gentleman paid a special tribute to General Eisenhower's wisdom and tact, which are largely responsible for our successes in the field, and also to General Alexander, but for some reason or other no one seems to mention Field Marshal Montgomery. Is it because he is so popular with the people, or because he does get some publicity? I should like to pay my tribute to his genius and his personality, and to say how pleased the nation was that he was singled out by His Majesty for the exceptional honour of being made a Field Marshal. As for the men, both British and American, I agree with the hon. Gentleman. People who a year or two ago were possibly in offices, factories and workshops have shown magnificent courage and fighting qualities, standing up to the most seasoned, highly-trained troops in the world.

As for the R.A.F.—and the same applies to the American Air Force—we know about their deeds, which thrill us every morning. They have certainly established the supremacy of Anglo-American planes in the air. I would like to say a word about the Navy. The Prime Minister remembered almost everybody, but somehow or other did not mention the Navy. It has always been the silent Service; it does not advertise itself. All these operations would have been impossible, not only in Normandy but in the South of France, if it had not been for the organisation, skill, bravery and tenacity of the British Navy, which has swept the German Navy more or less off the sea and the submarines from underneath. I think it is important to emphasise to our Allies, particularly to Russia, the part played by the British Navy. We must not allow our people to cease to be naval-minded. The Navy indulges in little publicity, in accordance with the traditions of the Service, and when we are paying tribute to the Services, we should not forget the part it has played.

I am glad that the Prime Minister mentioned the respective parts played by the Americans and the British. I do not want to indulge in comparisons, either of the fighting qualities of the two countries or of the contributions that they are making. I am satisfied that there is no jealousy between the fighting men, and, from all I hear, they are working together like brothers for the common cause. There is, undoubtedly, in this country, however, a certain amount of resentment that there has been so little mention of the work done by British units. We read in the papers about the Americans, the Poles and the Canadians, but only too often, for some reason or other—and I believe some of the blame must be with the Ministry of Information—there is hardly a mention of the appearance of British troops. It may be that we take it for granted, but I have heard complaints all over the country that the fathers, mothers, brothers and friends of the men resent the fact that, although they know that our men are there playing a great part and bearing in many places the brunt of the fighting, they are hardly mentioned. I, therefore, say to the responsible authorities, the War Office and the Ministry of Information in particular, not that they should advertise, for that is a thing the British people do not want, but that they should see that proper publicity is given to the part played by our Forces and should not merely mention, by accident, that British units have taken part.

One thing which the Prime Minister did not mention was the part played by himself. He has had many critics. Some people have said—I have heard it said here and outside—that he regards this war as his private war. Whenever there has been a failure, people have said, "That is the Prime Minister; he has been butting in." As Minister of Defence, he is entitled to full credit. The next thing I want to say—for which I shall not get universal applause—is that credit is due to the Prime Minister for the timing of what has sometimes been called the second front. I know what odium he got into a year ago because he would not respond to pressure for a second front. We now know that, if we had attacked over a year ago, the result would have been very different. The Prime Minister has always been accused of being a hot-blooded man, and an impatient person, but he had the courage to bide his time and wait until the right moment arrived. I think that we owe a debt to him, too, for the way in which he has kept in constant contact with both President Roosevelt and Marshal Stalin. The journeys he has undertaken are trying for a man of three score years and ten, yet he has been prepared to go to Moscow, Rome and Quebec to make personal contacts with them. Those contacts have been responsible for the unity of our strategy, and, what is more important, the absence of friction. I am prepared to take off my hat to the Prime Minister.

No little credit for the success of our arms in France and their remarkably rapid progress, has been due to the wonderful rising up of the French. I have heard suggestions made by many people all over the country and in this House that the French are decadent, a spent force unable to play a big part in the affairs of Europe. The answer to that is to be found in the underground movement and the Maquis, which are evidence of the courage and fighting qualities of the French people. I have many personal contacts with men wbo have seen these forces at work, and there is ample evidence that the French will rise again and become a great power in the world. It is difficult for us to realise what it meant to be for four years under the Prussian jack-boot, and to be subject to the Gestapo, the concentration camp and the firing squad. I have had much evidence of the horrors which the French people have had to go through. We had a trying time in the blitz. It was bad enough to have our houses destroyed and burned, but, after all, we are a free people and able to govern ourselves. The French people have accepted the bombing by the R.A.F with extraordinary equanimity, but behind their doors, and round the corners have been the Gestapo, ready to destroy them if they expressed any opinions.

As far as I can see, these four years, far from crushing the spirit of the French, have brought out their finest qualities. They have been proved to have an immense power of recovery. In 1815 they were bled white, and it took them 25 years to get their strength back. But they did rise, and by 1850 they were a great nation again. The same thing happened in 1870, after their humiliation, when they were subject to terrible taxation. It was thought that they had a knock-down blow, but they were able by 1914 to give a good account of themselves. The last war put a greater strain on them than I think their friends realise. Those four years not only made a great tax on their man-power, but gave them a great economic blow. It is clear that in 1939 they had not completely recovered from the strain of the previous war. I am convinced that the French spirit is there, and will recover, and that the French are trying to help themselves and show the world what a big Power they can be before many years are out. If the process is to be speeded up, they will require help and understanding. The devastation in France is appalling. Railways, roads, bridges and harbours have been destroyed and French transport is paralysed—almost brought to a standstill. It is true that in many parts of France there is an abundance of food, and this made a wrong impression on our soldiers when they saw butter, milk, cheese and meat in plenty in the rural areas. For that to be of use there must be a restoration of the damaged transport so that French communications can work and the people of the towns and cities can be fed. Pictures have been painted of luxury, even in Paris. It may be so at the Grand Hotel, or in the smart restaurants, where the black market is operating, but in the faubourgs and the poorer quarters there is something very near to starvation and malnutrition. The best hope we can give them is assistance in restoring their economic life.

It is not only economic help they want, but understanding. I agree with the hon. Member who said that it would be a fine gesture for this country to recognise the Provisional Government. It is humiliating to the French that we should have recognised the Italian Government. The Prime Minister has visited it, quite rightly, for it is a properly constituted Government, although it has no democratic authority behind it. I know the technical difference; the Provisional Government of France is still without proper status. In Belgium the difficulty was overcome, because their Parliament was never dissolved. I was very much impressed with the speech of the hon. Member who described the meeting of the Parliament in Brussels. I hope to see some sort of assembly soon in the Palais Bourbon. It will be a great help to France if we give them formal recognition. The French are a proud nation with a great history and wonderful victories on the battlefield and the fields of science and culture. It is right that our criticism should be understanding and sympathetic. I should like to see—I put this out as a suggestion—an official visit by Members of this House to Paris.