Coastal Command

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 18th March 1952.

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Photo of Mr Emrys Hughes Mr Emrys Hughes , South Ayrshire 12:00 am, 18th March 1952

One word seems to have dominated the debate—"super-priority." This rather curious word was first introduced into our debates by that master of precise language, the Prime Minister. What is the difference between "priority" and "super-priority"? The Prime Minister used "super-priority" in relation to fighters; the dominating idea in his speech was that there should be super-priority for fighters.

I have never accused the Prime Minister of being a war-monger, although one phrase of mine might indicate that. All that I have ever said about the Prime Minister was that not even his most ardent admirers had ever thought of recommending him for the Nobel Peace Prize; and after this resounding but rather curiously meaningless verbiage nobody is ever likely to do it.

The idea of super-priority for fighters is a development of what the Prime Minister told us in the last Parliament when be was warning us about the effect on the security and safety of our people of the establishment of the American Bomber Force in East Anglia. On three occasions the Prime Minister has told us of the terrible consequences which are likely to come to this country as a result of East Anglia being regarded by the Soviet Union as the base of the atom bombers, which are, I understand from the argument of the hon. Member for Brentford and Chiswick (Mr. Lucas), to be directed against the war potential of the Soviet Union.

As I have said, on three occasions the Prime Minister has warned us that, as a result of the establishment of this American base here, we have made ourselves the target or the bull's-eye for possible retaliatory action. That fits in with the argument of the hon. Member for Brentford and Chiswick. He has talked about the atom bombers being a deterrent to war. If that argument holds for this country and for the U.S.A., is it not also likely that the leaders of the Soviet Union, who also believe in having deterrents to war, will adopt exactly the same line of argument and also concentrate on long-range bombers meant to be a deterrent to the United States and to us should we think of the possibility of destroying the war potential of the U.S.S.R.?

The warning has come from the Prime Minister. I do not believe that the presence of the American Air Force here is, as the Under-Secretary indicated in his opening speech, a source of safety or security to the people of this country. It is a terrible danger, and this country would be safer if the American bombers were transferred to American territory or to the innumerable other American bases which are scattered throughout the world.

I read an article on American air strategy in the "New York Times" by the reputable military correspondent of that paper. He pointed out that America had at least 20 of these atom bomb bases ranging from the Antarctic across Europe, through the Mediterranean, over Africa and across to Japan. General MacArthur declared on one occasion that he regarded Formosa as an aircraft carrier of the Far East.

Apparently the idea of American strategists is that this country must be the aircraft carrier for Europe. According to that we have risked what the Prime Minister calls a fearsome and terrible prospect for the people of this country. The Prime Minister has argued that if we get only 50 atom bombs on this country the consequences will be such as we cannot even contemplate. We should be knocked out of the war, our industrial centres would be destroyed and there would be millions upon millions of casualties.

I am going to suggest that it is not by getting more fighters to protect the bombers that the safety of the people of this country will be secured, but rather by the removal of these American bombers to other parts of the world. The Americans argue that they want to be as near Russia as possible, but anyone who knows anything about geography knows that the shortest way from America to Moscow is over the North Pole.

The Prime Minister has argued that the fighters are necessary to protect the bombers, and then presumably more bombers will be necessary to protect the fighter bases. So this argument goes on at a ruinous cost to this country, and here tonight we are discussing these astronomically increasing Air Estimates at a time when we are on the borders of national bankruptcy.

The figures we are asked to approve in this Estimate amount to £467,640,000, nearly £139 million more than last year, and as far as we can judge from the arguments that have been advanced this item is going up and up so that in five years time the expenditure on the Air Force will be ruinously high, and will be taking in an enormous amount of manpower and materials from the industries of this country which depend largely upon the export trade. I am concerned about the way that Ministers are coming to this House with the different Estimates. The Editor of the "Economist"—yes, we regard the "Economist" as a sort of religious paper in this House and I quote the editor with due reverence—declared in an article in the American paper "Look" that, The weakness of the present defence programme is that it does not look as if it means to slow down. It means to go on apparently by geometric progression. It was conceived in the near-panic days of a year ago. He adds: The armed Services were given a blank cheque and told to fill it up. They naturally filled it to cover everything they wanted. In this debate we are getting increased demands, without any real attempt to estimate what they will cost the country. An hon. and gallant Gentleman opposite put in a plea for helicopters and when I asked him what a helicopter cost he did not know. He said he had never inquired because he could not afford one. That is the way in which hon. Gentlemen opposite regard our national finances at a time of serious economic crisis.

I am always asking hon. Gentlemen in these Estimates debates, what does the thing cost? It is very difficult to extract the answer from the Ministry, but I hope that we shall be more successful with the present Minister. I remember the time, not so long ago, when he was wanting to know what things cost. I hope that he is going to be more communicative.

The cost of aircraft has steadily increased. We are told for example, in the recent report of the Select Committee on Estimates, that in 1945 a general reconnaissance plane cost £44,844 and that last year, 1951, it cost £105,055. Now, not a year afterwards, the cost has gone up to £114,695. With the complexity of modern aircraft and the increased cost of the metals and the gadgets inside one of these aircraft, the cost grows and grows, until we realise that the air Service is going to become far more expensive than ever the Navy was. In the same report, we are told about a fighter which in 1945 cost £7,680 and the latest model of which costs £16,720. The cost of a reconnaissance plane is the cost of a small village.

We shall find, as a result of pressure from hon. and gallant Gentlemen opposite, the cost of the air Service mounting astronomically, and it is the duty of those of us who look at the matter from the layman's point of view and are interested in the general finances of the country to put forward arguments in these debates which must criticise the purely specialist point of view.

It would be very interesting to add up the cost of all the suggestions which are being made by hon. and gallant Gentlemen in the debate. To meet that cost we should have to treble the Income Tax, put a bigger tax on excess profits and an enormous tax on whisky, and then we should not be able to pay for the Air Force in five years' time. Let me give one figure which illustrates the point. When the R.A.F. go out to exercise, the 650 cartridges which an R.A.F. pilot fires in one minute cost £150. In 10 minutes' firing practice by 40 planes, the amount is £52,000.

Sooner or later, we have to realise that this country cannot afford all these expensive machines, and that they mean the ruin and bankruptcy of this nation. I am surprised that the Chancellor of the Exchequer does not take a greater interest in these debates by coming to them and keeping an eagle eye on people before they spend the money that he has collected in his Budget.

Let us look at some of the indirect economic effects of the Prime Minister's new slogan "Super-priority for fighters." How has it affected us in industry? On the Sunday following the speech of the Prime Minister the air correspondent of the "Sunday Times" went to Sheffield and inquired what would be the effect on the steel industry. He published his conclusions under the heading "Aircraft instead of sinks and washing machines," thus making it look rather prosaic. He said: The extra aircraft are going to be made out of steels which would otherwise have gone into sinks, fish fryers, washing machines, fish tanks for trawlers and a great range of other domestic and industrial articles. Those are exactly the articles which are needed for the export trade in order that we can face our problem of the balance of payments. Of course the Prime Minister never thinks in terms of economics, but we have to think in terms of economics. And when we find that not only our export trade but, our home market is being denuded of the articles needed by our people in this way, then we are entitled to have some regard to the economic consequences.

There is another aspect of aircraft production which is rather perplexing the manufacturers of aircraft, for example Mr. Sopwith, who is the chairman and managing director of one of our big manufacturing concerns. In a speech to his company at the beginning of this year he asked: What is the position today as compared with the war years? A modern fighter like the Hawker P1067 absorbs nearly three times as much manpower as did its counterpart, the Hurricane, in 1940. Manpower is the key to almost all our problems and we must beat the manpower shortage. Is it possible to beat the manpower shortage? Look at all the evidence which was brought before the Select Committee on Estimates and it will be found that none of the experts who appeared before that committee can tell us where the manpower is coming from for this complicated machine. Even the hon. and gallant Member for Macclesfield (Air Commodore Harvey), the other day at Question time struck a note rather resembling some of the questions which I have been asking. He put what was, from his point of view, a perfectly rational Question to the Minister of Labour about the apprentices in the aircraft industry. After we have trained the aircraft apprentice boy for many years until he has become a skilled worker, he is taken for National Service. That is exactly what I have been saying about other forms of labour, and it is quite rational.

We find that the Secretary of State for War has only been able to achieve his increased manpower in the Army by denuding the aircraft industry of its skilled workers. And so this runs throughout all our industries, with the result that the manpower shortage has. as Mr. Sopwith said, become one of our main problems. My contention is that it is an insoluble problem.

There is another aspect of these Estimates. I maintain that they divert from the manufacture of civil aircraft the manpower that is needed for the development of what might be our most important export trade. I cannot go into the question of civil aviation on the Vote which is now before the House, except to say that all this elaborate programme of super-priorities for fighters is diverting manpower away from the manufacture of the aircraft which, Lord Douglas of Kirtleside has recently pointed out, are absolutely essential if we are to maintain our position in the manufacture of civil aircraft and to maintain our competition in the markets of the world.

Without developing that point, I only wish to say that I agree with Lord Douglas when he said: This year is a year of destiny for British aviation and it is important for the whole nation to know what is at stake. The genius of British scientists and aeronautical engineers has provided two civil liners that are several years ahead of all foreign competition: the straight jet Comet and the pro-jet fighter. He went on to argue that it was a tragedy that at this time, there is being taken away in this super-priority programme, the materials and the labour which alone can help us to maintain this important prospective export trade which is essential to the future development of the industry of this country.

And so I say that from the point of view of security, we have no greater measure of security as the result of the argument that we must build more atom bombers as a deterrent. What we have got is that both sides of the Iron Curtain are building the atom bombers as a deterrent, with the result that the world is infinitely more dangerous, and the greatest danger of all is to the congested population of the islands for which we as a House of Commons are responsible.

The hon. Member for Brentford and Chiswick (Mr. Lucas) dwelt on the lessons to be learnt from Korea. There is another lesson that I should draw from Korea, and I hope that I will get an answer upon this point from the Under-Secretary. I should like to know whether our aircraft in Korea have had anything to do with the dropping of the napalm bomb. I should like to know whether the napalm bomb has become one of the recognised bombs which the British Air Force is likely to use in the event of war.

I believe that people of this country have been rather shocked by the revelations that have appeared in a recent book on Korea by a B.B.C. reporter. I refer to the book by Mr. Rene Cutforth entitled "Korean Reporter," in which he describes the effects of bombing in Korea. The "Manchester Guardian," in reviewing this book, gave an extract which must have horrified a very large number of its readers, with the result that letters poured in from all parts of the country.

I want to read this extract to the House, because that bomb is, presumably, the kind of weapon that we will use and for which we are actually budgeting in part of these Estimates. The B.B.C. reporter, in his book, describes what he saw. At a British field hospital a doctor showed Mr. Cutforth one case. In front of us a curious figure was standing, a little crouched, legs straggled, arms held out from his sides. He had no eyes, and the whole of his body, nearly all of which was visible through tatters of burned rags, was covered with a hard black crust speckled with yellow pus. A Korean woman by his side began to speak and the interpreter said, 'He has to stand, Sir. He cannot sit or lie.' He had to stand because he was no longer covered with a skin but with a crust-like crackling which broke easily. The "Manchester Guardian" said: Whatever the rights or wrongs of using napalm, the casualties have to be attended to. That is a very obvious comment— They may be gangrenous and affect other wounded. In Korea the Civil Assistance Command has had to deal with them and, according to Mr. Cutforth, it has almost made a success of an impossible job. We are very glad to know that. This B.B.C. writer comments: I thought of the hundreds of villages reduced to ashes which I personally had seen and realised the sort of casualty list which must be mounting along the whole Korean front.