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 Sir Arthur Harvey Sir Arthur Harvey , Macclesfield 12:00 am, 4th March 1948

No. If the Minister cannot make up his mind, it is a bit difficult for hon. Members on this side of the House to make up theirs. I still hold that one volunteer is far better than two or three conscripts. If we go out of our way to make the Royal Air Force, our first line of defence, sufficiently attractive, then we shall get the volunteers. There are indications that men are beginning to come in, and steps to encourage them should be taken. For instance, we are told that because of the economic crisis the uniform cannot be smartened. I would give the uniform a high priority. Although smartening the Royal Air Force uniform is not everything, it is a step towards getting men into the Service.

When these National Service men have done their year in the Royal Air Force and gone on to the Reserve, I do not believe they will be any good at all. They will then merely spend a fortnight annually in the auxiliary or reserve squadrons, and that period of training is not nearly enough to keep them at the necessary standard of efficiency. Furthermore, I believe the auxiliary squadrons will have their spirit rather broken when they see conscripted men coming in; it will break up their team spirit, and in that way the right hon. Gentleman is running a great risk of losing part of his front line of defence—the 20 auxiliary squadrons, which I should like to see increased to 40. I said so last year, and it could be done if the Ministry embarked upon an ambitious scheme of developing the auxiliary squadrons.

I am concerned that nothing has teen said about the new strategic bases. During the last 12 months very nearly half the Empire has gone back to its original owners, and we are in the position of having to withdraw from these countries. But we have no indication where the new bases will be situated, and it is quite alarming. We can only make guesses. In January I was in Cyprus, on which island there are five or six airfields. I regret to say that one of them, a fully equipped airfield, had its control tower blown up by an Army demolition squad I do not know why. They had received an instruction, the communication lines were pulled out, and the whole thing blown up—yet we shall probably want it in a few years' time. In addition, there was not one British military aeroplane on that island, which is only 120 miles from Palestine, and a troubled area. I know that our aeroplanes may well be doing their part in Palestine itself, but it is important to have something in a British colony, where we can show the flag, so that the people will still have something, instead of the whole island being denuded of aircraft. I was very depressed about it.

In turning to the defence of Great Britain, I refer first to Fighter Command. There is a tendency today to say that we must have a striking force of bombers, and to ignore the rest of the Air Force to some extent. If we ignore Fighter Command, we deserve all that is coming to us, if it should come. White Papers stress the bombers, but very little is said about fighters. I believe that if we had war with the Soviet tomorrow, we should have them facing the Bay of Biscay and the Channel ports within three weeks—probably less. Two or three million soldiers could advance regardless of atomic bombs, which would make very little difference to their actual advance. We might well find ourselves in the same position as in May or June, 1940. I beg the Government to give every attention to the rearming and to the size of Fighter Command until we are absolutely certain that fighter aircraft are not required for the defence of these islands.

I should now like to ask the right hon. Gentleman something about radar stations. We built up a very great network of radar stations and communications during the war. It was a terrific expense, but it was worth it. It enabled us to keep our aircraft on the ground and to send them up when enemy aircraft appeared on the "tube." Are these communications being retained? Something should be done to see that these units are kept it good maintenance. The Royal Air Force must be assured of a steady intake of men, and I suggest that the pay and allowances should be improved; secondly, that married quarters should be increased, and, thirdly, that we should have an educational scheme within the Service. The last suggestion is only a small point, but it is a big factor in the minds of parents. Many children, by the time they reach 12 years of age, have probably gone to five elementary schools, and it is a nightmare to mothers. I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he cannot get a scheme going in the Royal Air Force, although I know that the Minister of Education will not like it.

So far as the Empire is concerned, the House was, I think, most concerned about what was not being done. Are factories being dispersed? We know that one or two firms, on their own enterprise, have gone to New Zealand, Canada and Australia. The Government must co-ordinate schemes to see that we manufacture our aircraft instruments and armaments in the British Empire. The interchange between personnel in the Staff Colleges is not enough. We want something much more than that. We want squadrons working together in the air from each others' aerodromes, and flying each others' aircraft. The same is the case with the French Air Force, what little there is of it. I am told that there is no single complete squadron in Metropolitan France. That is a situation which should be rectified by ourselves and our friends the Americans. We have already given them a great number of aircraft, but most of them have gone to Indo-China and to French Morocco. It is incumbent on us, together with the Americans, to see that we get more aircraft into France itself. Soon after a war, it is only natural that politicians and people generally resent giving money to the Fighting Services. They dislike it because they are so imbued with getting everything else under way which has lagged behind during the war years. The onus is now on this Government. They have a very grave responsibility to the country to see that we have an efficient Air Force, and that the public knows how it stands in this direction.

I, personally, am all for health schemes and the other schemes that have gone through this Parliament, but they will be no good if this country is weak We must have a strong defence, not a large Air Force like the French in 1930, but an efficient Air Force with sufficient reserves behind it. Let us support the Fighting Services and give them every help we can to get recruits, and see that the money is properly spent. What is being done in this country about security in factories? I know that in America it is very difficult for a British subject to get into an aircraft or engine factory. I hope that something is being done in this country to see that we have ample security measures to prevent a fifth column getting into our factories, not only as workpeople but as visitors. The Government have a great task ahead. We must not run the grave risk of repeating what happened in 1939–40. There will be no second chance this time. I implore the Government to face up to the situation, to give money freely, to see that it is well spent, and to tell the House and the public exactly what we are getting.