Orders of the Day — Air Estimates, 1948–49

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 4th March 1948.

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Photo of Group Captain Clifford Wilcock Group Captain Clifford Wilcock , Derby 12:00 am, 4th March 1948

One must agree with much of what the right hon. Member for Bromley (Mr. H. Macmillan) said. Except for his preamble and, perhaps, his peroration, which was his contribution to party politics, I feel that he has said today what many of us who have the Royal Air Force very much at heart feel about the future. I must refer to one of his comments. He said that America today is keeping a very large number of bomber aircraft, not in the first line possibly, but certainly available. He gave the numbers—over a thousand. It is not fair to make this comparison between the American Air Force and ourselves, because we certainly could not do the same in this country, even if we had the aircraft and desired to do so. We could not store large numbers of bomber aircraft except in the open, and I am afraid they would very soon deteriorate. This is one of the differences between America and this country in air matters, and it should be known that they have accommodation and manpower, which we have not.

In thinking of a great fighting Service like the Royal Air Force, there is a temptation, to me at least, to enter into the higher fields of policy and strategy. It would be much more interesting to do so, but I think one has to rely too much upon conjecture. With the limited knowledge at our disposal, I am afraid that my criticism would be of very doubtful value, and constructive suggestions would be quite impossible. I have been in the Royal Air Force long enough to know that it requires a very careful study of all these problems and of all the information which can be made available before any reasoned criticism can be made and any conclusion arrived at, whether political, technical, strategical, or any other kind.

We are dealing here with a very technical Service, and it is easy to come to the wrong conclusions unless one gives it the most careful and detailed study. In this House we have not had the time or the opportunity t6 make this study, and the White Paper and the Estimates tell us very little. I do not quarrel with that. I would rather we knew little if it results in a potential enemy also knowing little. I hope, however, that the Ministers concerned are not also in the position of knowing very little. Presumably these Estimates carry their approval and, in certain respects, this gives me cause for anxiety.

I should like to come down from the level of strategy to some of the more mundane matters. I will take, first, a point which has been mentioned by the Minister, and that is the question of married quarters. I make no apology for coming to this subject straight away, because I did the same thing when we discussed the last Estimates; furthermore, it is no light matter when one is considering £825,000. I think I can assume that there is much criticism that hon. Members could and would make of these Estimates but for the economic situation of the country. Consequently, we feel that if there are acts of negligence or of omission, in the Estimates, they are due to this paramount need for economy. Then we see that this large sum of money is to be spent on something which is quite unnecessary. I am not speaking of the building of houses in this country. After all, we have voted £1,800,000 for that purpose, and I do not grudge a penny of it.

I am speaking now of the money which is to be allocated for building houses and bungalows in the East. I do not know exactly where they are to be built, but I presume it is in the Far East, and moreover we are going to spend a quarter of a million pounds in taking families there. I hardly think that this building can be going on in Palestine, Egypt or India. I imagine that during the last year, notwithstanding what I said when we debated the last Estimates, we have spent several millions of pounds in building out there, taking families there, bringing them out again and getting rid of the buildings. This new building programme must be in the Far East. I have a very strong objection to the spending of this large amount of money in putting a few families into Singapore. I should like to know what has happened to the married quarters which, to my knowledge, have been built in Singapore during the last 15 years. I should like to know from the Minister what, in any event, we are doing in Singapore. It occurs to me that this is the exact locality in which our Dominion Air Forces should be stationed; they should accept responsibility in Singapore and in the Far East, and they should also bear the cost of the occupation there. The Secretary of State mentioned that 400 married quarters were being constructed overseas. This is a scandal. Some may be necessary in Malta, but I cannot think of anywhere else where they are necessary, except in the Far East.

On this question, which is not unimportant for those in the R.A.F., I would remind the Minister that only 10 per cent.—or it may be 12½ per cent.—of married families can proceed overseas. That leaves 90 per cent., or 87½ per cent., who cannot go overseas, which causes a great deal of dissatisfaction in the Service. The very presence of married families overseas operates against the whole conception of mobility. It is a symbol of a past age, and reminds one of troopships, garrisons, sahibs, memsahibs, snakes in babies' cots, and all that sort of thing.

I would like the Minister to have another look at this matter, because I think the policy should be to bring all married men back to this country within a year. I see no reason why that cannot be done. After all, the Service is an air Service and should be capable of changing personnel quickly by air, so that the deterioration which many are subject to after serving more than one hot season abroad can be prevented. Mobility in the fullest sense must be the motto of the Royal Air Force. I suggest that the lure of married quarters overseas is quite unnecessary as a sop for recruiting. It would be much fairer to say, "Ninety per cent. of you cannot go overseas with your families," and even better to say, "No married families can go overseas, but you will all be back within a year." That is not an impossibility, as I am sure the Minister would discover if he investigated this matter.

Turning now to another subject, on 1st March the Minister of Defence said: … it will be of the greatest consequence to build up the volunteer nucleus of the Territorial Army, and this applies equally to the Auxiliary Forces of the other Services. The numbers coming forward for these Services recently have not been as great as we could wish, and I hope we shall see a marked improvement in the coming year. It will be vital to get the organisation throughout the country on a sound footing in the next r8 months."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 1st March, 1948; Vol. 448, c. 53.] I am going to say that we shall never build up our Reserves within the next 18 months unless there is a complete change of policy. When we were at war in 1939, we had behind us the Reserves of 1938. There were partially trained aircrews who were quickly brought to operational efficiency, and a large number took their place in the Battle of Britain. Possibly that is why we are able to be here today. Now our Reserves are not being built up as we would wish. Recruits are not coming along, and the reason is not far to seek. In the main, it is due to lack of publicity and lack of money with which to establish and operate auxiliary Squadrons, Volunteer Reserve Town Centres and Reserve Flying Training Schools. The allocation in these Estimates of funds for Reserves clearly indicates that our reserves are considered of very little value, notwithstanding what was said by the Minister of Defence. It seems that they are not important enough to justify the expense even of the amount of money to be used on the construction of married quarters abroad. The Vote for the four main Reserve Forces is just over £500,000. For married quarters abroad it is £877,000.

It would be interesting to know how the main expenditure of £38 million is to be spent on aircraft? We are not allowed to know this, so I will leave that point because I have confidence in the views and opinions of the C.A.S. and the A.M.S.O. of the Royal Air Force on the important question of the proportion of bomber to fighter aircraft. I would like to know, however, what liaison there is between the R.A.F. and the Ministry of Civil Aviation in relation to transport aircraft? The best aircraft for troop carrying is the best transport aircraft for passengers. The need for speed, dependability and easy maintenance is common to both; the interior fittings are merely frills. A common, standardised, passenger plane would reduce costs and conserve manpower and, more important still, would enable us to put down a common spares' service throughout our routes. This would be available for the Royal Air Force, for British civil airline Corporations, and our Dominion Air Forces. This is no minor matter; it is no good having many good aircraft if we have not the spares for them, and if those spares are not in the right place.

While I do not intend to criticise expenditure on aircraft, I do not feel the same way about mechanical transport. Expenditure of £1,500,000 is out of all proportion to the other expenditure. I cannot believe that there cannot be economy here, that we cannot, for the time being, carry on with our present stocks of transport. I would like the House to realise the difference between this £1,500,000 and the £500,000 for the Reserves of the Royal Air Force. Under the heading "Mechanical Transport Vehicles and Marine Craft," there is over £600,000 for marine craft. Is that really necessary? My quarrel is with the shabby and unsympathetic treatment which is being meted out to Reserves of the R.A.F. Realising the sympathy and wisdom of the Minister and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, I look to real major adjustments in these Votes.

I am one of those who consider that money spent on the Royal Air Force is well spent. It is a good business investment today, even though we are faced with an economic crisis. As we must economise, I am afraid that it means we must do it at the expense of other Services. I would like to see a large Navy and a powerful Army, but if we cannot have them because of the shortage of money and manpower, we must not disperse our resources among the three Services, as a policy of appeasement to the Service chiefs of the other Services. We must ensure that our first line of defence, in the air, is adequate to meet an attack by a bomber fleet of any other nation within range and that our own bomber fleet has the necessary striking power to deter any nation from contemplating war against this country. This cannot be repeated too often.

We have no indication of the money and effort that are being expended in this field of air defence and attack by our Dominions. We can only hope that this is receiving the attention of His Majesty's Government, and that one scheme is being prepared for our own Air Force and the Air Forces of Canada, Australia, South Africa, and New Zealand. This scheme should include the standardisation of aircraft, armament and technique. I believe that had we used on the Royal Air Force a quarter of the resources which were put at the disposal of the Navy and Army in the last war, we should have shortened the war and saved many lives and much misery.

We must accept the fact that the next war will be fought with an intensity and speed never before known. The right hon. Gentleman opposite mentioned the new American report, in which that is clearly shown. This view is not new to the men who are leading the Royal Air Force today. It is to my mind doubtful whether our land and sea forces in any numbers will have the time to mobilise in the event of war, and, for these reasons, I beg that the Royal Air Force should be brought to the highest possible operational standard, with all its reserves adequately trained, within the shortest possible time, and that all other considerations now in the way should be put aside for the time being. What we want to do now is to get, as quickly as humanly possible, an effective striking force immediately available to strike.

In conclusion, may I say I did not like the remarks of the Secretary of State about a third Royal Air Force, although I know exactly what he means. I feel it is the wrong approach The Royal Air Force has fought in two wars, and it has built up a very great esprit de corps, which we do not want to change, though we might well change many other things We do not want a new third Royal Air Force; we want the old Royal Air Force modernised.