Orders of the Day — Defence

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 20th March 1947.

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Photo of Mr Oliver Lyttelton Mr Oliver Lyttelton , Aldershot 12:00 am, 20th March 1947

The Opposition can give no such undertaking, because they did not make the crisis in coal.

I will now come to the White Paper, which is a thoroughly unsatisfactory and unsatisfying document, and I would express the hope that, in future, White Papers should be written in the King's English and not in Cherokee, or whatever language is employed in this document. I express that hope after wading through the swamps and cutting my way through the jungle of Whitehall verbiage, a phrase which I, personally, prefer as being a little more elegant than the more robust "piffle and poppycock" of the right hon. Gentleman's outburst in a recent Debate. Really, the jungle of this White Paper is almost Burmese in its luxuriance.

In Paragraph 9, we read: but the necessity for the retention of adequate strength … remains undiminished. Certainly, that is a weed, not a flower.

Then in Paragraph 10: In the long run, therefore, the size of our armed forces will be governed by the degree of disarmament actually achieved. Is it thus that our darkness is to be lightened? Later, in Paragraph 36—and I draw the attention of the House particularly to this passage— But numbers of sailors, soldiers or airmen, as such— a delicious qualification— do not make a Navy, Army or Air Force. The personnel of the Services have to be trained and organised. A Solomon come to judgment! Lastly, I draw attention to Paragraph 13, which, as a student of these matters, I consider touches the all-time low in official English. I think the House would perhaps forgive me if I read it. With the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force, the problem is somewhat different. How odd! Since they operate—on the sea and in the air—they are different from the Army, which, as hon. Members know, works on land. It follows from the fact that the occupational commitments of this country as described above mainly affect the Army, that the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force can give greater prominence in their current defence plans to the problem of the preparation and organisation of eventual post-war Forces of the necessary composition. Despite the demands made by current defence commitments all over the world, however, it may be anticipated that in the absence of any unlooked for worsening of the international position, each of the three Services will be increasingly concerned with planning the permanent postwar organisation, distribution and composition of its own forces. I think this is slightly insulting to the House of Commons, and it used to be known when I was at school as mere padding. I hope that my plea for an occasional use of the King's English in the place of this sort of stuff will not be disregarded.

I must say that a study of the Debates on the Service Estimates and of the White Paper itself gives a very confused picture of our organisation for war. I have the impression, and I hope very much that it is an incorrect one, that there is no mobilisation plan whatever and no order of battle of a very precise kind. If, for example, a Supreme Commander was appointed tomorrow in the event of war or in an emergency, could he be told in a few minutes what fighting forces were at his disposal, how they could be deployed, what reserves were going to come to the colours and what the mobilisation plan is? I doubt it. I saw nothing in the Debates on the Service Estimates, and nothing in this White Paper, to lead me to suppose that such a plan exists. In some particular instances, for example a study of the Debate on the Navy Estimates leaves us in the dark about the size of the Navy, and the right hon. Gentleman put up the best defence he could by saying that, in the past, the detailed information about the size of the Navy had been of use to the enemy. We can accept that, but that is not an answer to the complete silence which is maintained about the Navy and the size of the Fleet in the present White Paper. There is a middle course, and I hope that, in future, the right hon. Gentleman is going to see that more information is given to the House.

We have no idea of the number of divisions in the Army, which are, so to speak, active and which could be changed into divisions on a war footing quickly. The number of operational squadrons in the Royal Air Force remains unknown. Hon. Members, and not only from this side of the House, have raised these matters in the Debates on the Services Estimates, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth (Mr. Bracken), my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford (Mr. J. P. L. Thomas) on the Navy Estimates, the hon. and gallant Member for North Blackpool (Brigadier Low), on the Army Estimates, and the non. and gallant Member for Macclesfield (Air-Commodore Harvey) on the Air Estimates. In spite of that, we are left very much in the dark. I have the impression, from a study of the Estimates Debates and from wading through the White Paper, that everything is very vague. Surely, things like a mobilisation plan come under the category of "First things first," to which the Government pay the genuflexion, to which we are accustomed, in paragraph 4 of the White Paper.

In the matter of national defence—and here I am not sure that I am not following the very points the right hon. Gentleman mentioned; I think there is some similarity of thought—the House looks to Lie Government in these days of economic crisis for three things. First, to keep our military commitments, in the widest sense of the term, to the minimum consistent with our written and moral obligations, and that, of course, is not primarily the concern of the right hon. Gentleman, but the concern of the Cabinet as a whole. Secondly, the House wishes to know that these commitments are covered in full, but are covered with the greatest possible economy in manpower, and this is particularly the province of the right hon. Gentleman. Thirdly, we expect him to subdivide the national resources in men, money and equipment, so as to keep in tune and in time with the changing theme of modern war. I propose to devote a few minutes to the study of these three subjects, upon which this White Paper, if not entirely silent is at least very reticent. The White Paper is really a sort of Strachey Pie, to which we have become accustomed. It is nearly all veg. and the exploratory knife and fork take a very long time to find any meat in it at all.

The first question is: Is the total of our commitments more than they should be today? I do not want to labour the points which were put by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition. I believe there is more general agreement in the House than there appears to be on the surface about these suggestions. First, there is our huge and barren commitment in Palestine. Men are taking part in a service which brings no glory, even if it brings sympathy. It is now to be extended for an indefinite period, while U.N.O. is looking round for a policy which has so far eluded His Majesty's Government, even though the Foreign Secretary pledged his political reputation on finding a solution. That is not a defence matter primarily, but a matter of policy. Then there was the suggestion that we should employ some of our Polish allies far from the Russian zone to help us in our occupation of Germany. The right hon. Gentleman in his speech dealt with the German question and pointed out to the House the dangers of civil disturbances. That danger cannot be ignored, nor can the Government escape from criticism of their policy of trying to run the whole of Germany, which is the one most likely to cause distrust and civil disturbances in Germany. Again, it is not the fault of the Army that this large commitment is necessary in Germany, but the fault of the policy which tries to govern Germany directly instead of devolving much more greatly the responsibility on the German people themselves.

I now turn to the second matter upon which we look to the right hon. Gentleman—economy of force. I confess here that I found the White Paper not only unconvincing but also positively alarming. For example, and after making all allowances for the flaccidity of the official language, we get very little encouragement from the first sentence of Paragraph 19, which reads: The need in the unhappy event of a future war will be for large numbers of reserves available at short notice for the immediate tasks of defence. But will it? At least, the point enunciated with such dogmatism requires some support by argument, but it certainly does not receive it. We are not prepared to accept it without hearing the reason. Might it not be said that war, if it unhappily comes, will come suddenly from the air, and, for example, from aircraft carrying atomic bombs. If that were a correct assumption, would not some such paragraph as this be more appropriate than paragraph 19 in the White Paper: The need to keep our defences in the air in a permanent state of preparation is paramount, whether those defences fall within the responsibility of the scientific research organisation, of Anti-aircraft Command, of the Royal Air Force itself or of a combination of all three. I appeal to the Government to look again at this sentence in paragraph 19, and to search their hearts, to see whether it is an imaginative approach to the subject and particularly to examine the phrase "the immediate tasks of defence." Be that as it may, it appears to me that this sentence, unsupported by argument, puts the emphasis in quite the wrong place. I do not believe that the words hit the nail on the head at all. I think that for those who study war and tactics, it often seems as if there were something inherent in war which makes the tactics of one side or the other obsolete.

The elephants of Hannibal—I am now going to match the hon. Member's crocodiles—broke the Roman Legions just as Guderian broke the French front with tanks, the tactics of the revoluntionary Army of Italy under Napoleon were based on a new conception, and confounded the set tactics of his enemies. There are some hon. Members, and I am one of them, who carried a sword in 1914, and I must say that I am haunted by the fear that this particular sentence is the outcome of conventional and ossified thought, which is not an uncommon thing in dealing with Service problems. Again, I say, whether that is true or merely rude, that this sentence needs expansion and argument. It requires argument to make us swallow it with equanimity, and it has received none. I think that the hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Austin) dealt in his speech with some of these problems. Before I leave the aspect of the economy in force, I think we are entitled to more information than has yet been given on the relations between the teeth and the tail.