September 30, 1941

[British Library of Information.]

In June last I deprecated the making of too frequent expositions of Government policy and reviews of the war situation by Ministers of the Crown. Anything that is said which is novel or pregnant will, of course, be studied attentively by the enemy and may be a help to him in measuring our affairs. The House will have noticed how very silent the Nazi leaders have fallen. For seven months Hitler has said nothing about his war plans. What he blurted out in January and February certainly proved helpful to us.

"In the spring," he said, "our submarine warfare will begin in earnest, and our opponents will find that the Germans have not been sleeping. The Luftwaffe and the entire German defence forces will, in this way or that, bring about the ultimate decision."

And again:

"In March and April naval warfare will start such as the enemy never expected." We were, therefore, led to expect a crescendo of attacks upon our lifeline of supplies. Certainly the Germans have used an ever larger force of U-boats and long-range aircraft against our shipping. However, our counter measures, which were undertaken in good time on the largest scale, have proved very successful. For reasons which I have explained very fully to the House, we have since June abandoned the practice of publishing statements at regular monthly intervals of our shipping losses, and I propose to continue this salutary practice. But, apart from anything that may happen during this afternoon, the last day of the month, I may make the following statement to the House. The losses from enemy action of British, Allied and neutral merchant ships during the quarter July, August and September have been only one-third of those losses during the quarter April, May and June. During the same period our slaughter of enemy shipping, German and Italian, has been increasing by leaps and bounds. In fact, it is about one and a half times what it was in the previous three months. So we have at one end a reduction in average monthly losses of about a third and a simultaneous increase in the losses inflicted upon the enemy of half as much again.

These important results enable us to take a more expansive view of our important programme. Very few important ships carrying munitions have been lost on the way. Our reserves of food stand higher than they did at the outbreak of war, and far higher than they did a year or 18 months ago. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Food, who has a pretty tough job, now finds himself able to make some quite appreciable improvements in the basic rations of the whole country, and in particular to improve the quantities and varieties of the meals available for the heavy worker during the coming winter. There will be better Christmas dinners this year than last, and at the same time more justification behind those dinners. It seems likely now that we shall bring in several million tons more than the import total which I mentioned in private to the House earlier in the year, which total was itself sufficient to keep us going. We are now within measurable distance of the immense flow of American new building, to which, together with our own construction, we look to carry us through and on progressively till the end of the war.

I deprecate premature rejoicings over these considerable facts, and I indulge in no sanguine predictions about the future. We must expect that the enemy U-boat warfare, now conducted by larger numbers of U-boats than ever before, supported by scores of Fokke wolves, will be intensified. The U-boats will be beaten, and kept beaten, only by a corresponding intensification of our own measures and also, to put it very plainly, by that assistance which we are receiving in increasing degree from other quarters. We must not, I repeat, relax for an instant; nevertheless, the facts that I have stated must be regarded as not entirely unsatisfactory, and certainly they are most stultifying to Hitler, who so obligingly warned us of his hopes and plans. This is, I think, an apt illustration of the dangers which should prevent those who are engaged in the high conduct of the war from having to make too many speeches about what they think is going to happen or would like to happen or what they intend to try to do. All the more is this habit important when we have to deal not only with our own affairs but with those of other great Allied or associated nations.

Here I may perhaps be pardoned for making an observation of a somewhat encouraging character. We are no longer alone. Little more than a year ago we seemed quite alone, but, as time has passed, our own steadfast conduct, and the crimes of the enemy, have brought two other very great States and nations into most intimate and friendly contact and concert with us. Whether we look to the East or whether we look to the West, we are no longer alone. Whether we look at the devoted battle lines of the Russian Armies or to the majestic momentum of United States resolve and action, we may derive comfort and good cheer in our struggle which, nevertheless, even if alone, we should carry on inflexibly, unwearyingly, and with steadily increasing resources. The fact, however, that at every stage we have to consider the interests of our Russian Ally and also the outlook, wishes and actions of the United States, makes it all the more necessary, imperative even, that I and my colleagues should be particularly careful about any pronouncements, explanations or forecasts in which we might otherwise be tempted to indulge. I feel sure that the House of Commons, which is the solid foundation of the British war effort and which is resolved to prosecute the war as sternly and implacably as did our forerunners in bygone days, will expect and require from the Ministers who are its servants a particular measure of caution and restraint in all their utterances about the war.

We have climbed from the pit of peril on to a fairly broad plateau. We can see before us the difficult and dangerous onward path which we must tread. But we can also feel the parallel movement or convergence of the two mighty nations I have mentioned, Russia and the United States. We feel around us the upsurge of all the enslaved countries of Europe. We see how they defy Hitler's firing parties. Far away in the East we see the faithful, patient, inexhaustible spirit of the Chinese race, who too are battling for home and freedom. We are marching in company with the vast majority of mankind, all trending, bearing, forging, steadily forward towards a final goal, which though distant, can already be plainly seen.

When we reflect upon the magnitude of modern events compared with the men who have to try to control or cope with them, and upon the rightful consequences of those events on hundreds of millions, the importance of not making avoidable mistakes grows impressively upon the mind.

For those reasons I could not attempt to discuss at the present time questions of future strategy. They are discussed every day in the newspapers, in an exceedingly vivid and often well-informed manner, but I do not think that His Majesty's Government ought to take any part just now in such Debates. Take, for instance, the question of whether we should invade the Continent of Europe in order to lift some of the weight off Russia, whether we ought to take advantage of the lull now that Hitler is busy in Russia to strike him in the West. I shall be guilty of no indiscretion if I admit that these are questions which have several times occurred to those responsible for the conduct of the war. But what could I say about them that would be useful? If I were to throw out dark hints of some great design, no one would have any advantage but the enemy. If, on the other hand, I were to assemble the many cogent reasons which could be ranged on the other side, I should be giving altogether gratuitous reassurance to Hitler.

Such confidences are not reciprocated by the enemy. They have told us nothing since Hitler's speech in February. We are in complete ignorance at this moment about what he is going to do. We do not know how far he will attempt to penetrate the vast lands of Soviet Russia in the face of the valiant Russian defence, or how long his people will endure their own calamitous losses, or, again, whether he will decide to stand on the defensive and exploit the territory of immense value which he has conquered. Should he choose this last, we do not know whether he will turn a portion of his vast armies Southwards, towards the Valley of the Nile, or whether he will attempt to make his way through Spain into North-West Africa, or whether, using the great Continental railways of Europe and the immense chains of airfields which are in excellent order, he will shift his weight to the West and assemble an extensive army with all the special craft that he has constructed for an attempted invasion of the British Isles. It would certainly be in his power, while standing on the defensive in the East, to undertake all three of these hazardous enterprises, on a great scale, together, at one time.

The enemy's only shortage is in the air. This is a very serious shortage, but, for the rest, he still retains the initiative. We have not the force to take it from him. He has the divisions, he has the weapons, and on the mainland of Europe he has ample means of transport. If he does not tell us his plans, I do not see why we should tell him ours. But I can assure the House that we study and ponder over these dangers and possibilities and on how best to dispose our resources to meet them every working day, and all days are working days, from dawn to far past midnight. We also have the advantage of following very closely all the arguments which are used about it in the public Press and of considering every helpful suggestion which reaches us from any quarter. More than that I really cannot say, and I feel sure that the House would reprove me if I were by any imprudence or desire to be interesting to say anything which afterwards was seen to be harmful.

There is, however, one matter upon which I may speak a little more freely, namely, the material assistance in the way of munitions and supplies which we and the United States are giving to Russia. The British and United States Missions are now in conference with the chiefs of the Soviet at Moscow. The interval which has passed since President Roosevelt and I sent our message from the Atlantic to Premier Stalin has been used in ceaseless activity on both sides of the ocean. The whole ground has been surveyed in the light of the new events, and many important supplies have already been despatched. Our representatives and their American colleagues have gone to Moscow with clear and full knowledge of what they are able to give to Russia month by month from now onward. The Soviet Government have a right to know what monthly quotas of weapons and supplies we can send and they can count upon. It is only when they know what we can guarantee to send, subject, of course, to the hazards of war, that they themselves can use their vast resources and reserves to the best possible advantage. It is only thus that they can best fill the gap between the very heavy losses sustained and the diminution of munitions-making power which they have suffered on the one hand and the arrival of really effective quantities of British and American supplies on the other. I may say at once, however, that in order to enable Russia to remain indefinitely in the field as a first-class war-making power, sacrifices of the most serious kind and the most extreme efforts will have to be made by the British people and enormous new installations or conversions from existing plants will have to be set up in the United States, with all the labour, expense and disturbance of normal life which these entail.

We have just had a symbolic Tank Week for Russia, and it has, I feel--in fact, I know--given an added sense of the immediate importance of their work to the toiling men and women in our factories. The output of Tank Week is only a very small part of the supplies which Britain and the United States must send to Russia, and must send month after month upon a growing scale and for an indefinite period. It is not only tanks, the tanks for which we have waited so long, that we have to send, but precious aircraft and aluminum, rubber, copper, oil and many other materials vital to modern war, large quantities of which have already gone. All these we must send and keep sending to Russia. It is not only the making and the giving of these commodities, but their transportation and reception which have to be organised. It may be that transportation rather than our willingness or ability to give will prove in the end the limiting factor. All this is now being discussed and planned with full authority and full knowledge by our representatives and the American representatives in conclave in Moscow with Premier Stalin and his principal commanders. It would certainly not be right for me in public Session, or even in Secret Session, at the present time to make any detailed or definite statements upon these subjects. The veriest simpleton can see how great is our interest, to put it no higher, in sustaining Russia by every possible means.

There are, however, other interests which have to be remembered at the same time. In some respects the problems we now have to face are similar to those which rent our hearts last year, when we had, for instance, to refuse to send away from this country for the help of France the last remaining squadrons of fighter aircraft upon which our whole future resistance depended; or again, they remind one of the occasion when, rightly judging Hitler's unpreparedness for invasion in the summer of 1940, we took the plunge of sending so many of our tanks and trained troops all round the Cape to the Valley of the Nile in order to destroy the Italian Armies in Libya and Abyssinia. If it is now thought that we solved those problems correctly we should hope that there might be grounds for confidence that in these new problems His Majesty's Government and their professional advisers will not err either in the direction of reckless improvidence or through want of courage. Anyone who, without full knowledge, should attempt to force the hands of those responsible would act without proper warrant and also--I say it with great respect--would not achieve any useful purpose, because in the discharge of the duties which the House has confided to us we are determined to make our own decisions and to be judged accordingly.

Here I must say a few words about the British Army. There is a current of opinion, which finds frequent expression, that the brass hats and Colonel Blimps and, of course, the much abused War Office, are insisting on building up a portentous, distended and bloated mass of soldiers in this island at the expense of the manufacture of those scientific weapons and appliances which are the main strength of victory in modern war. The truth is far different. We have never had, and never shall have, an Army comparable in numbers to the armies of the Continent. At the outbreak of war our Army was insignificant as a factor in the conflict. With very great care and toil and time, we have now created a medium sized, but very good Army. The cadres have been formed, the battalions, batteries, divisions and corps have taken shape and life. Men have worked together in the military units for two years. Very severe training was carried out all through last winter. It will continue all through this winter. The Army is hardened, nimble and alert. The commanders and staff have had opportunities and are having opportunities of handling large scale movements and manoeuvres.

Our Army may be small compared with the German or Russian armies. It has not had the repeated successful experiences of the German army, which are a formidable source of strength. Nevertheless, a finely tempered weapon has been forged. It is upon this weapon, supported by nearly 2,000,000 of armed and uniformed Home Guard, that we rely to destroy or hurl into the sea an invader who succeeded in making a number of successive or simultaneous lodgments on our shores. When I learned about the absolutely frightful, indescribable atrocities which the German police troops are committing upon the Russian population in the rear of the advance of their armoured vehicles, the responsibility of His Majesty's Government to maintain here at home an ample high-class force to beat down and annihilate any invading lodgment from the sea or descent from the air comes home to me in a significantly ugly and impressive form. I could not reconcile such responsibilities with breaking up or allowingly to melt away the seasoned, disciplined fighting units which we have now at last laboriously and so tardily created.

As our Army must necessarily be small compared with European standards, it is all the more necessary that it should be highly mechanised and armoured. For this purpose a steady flow of skilled tradesmen and technicians will be required in order to use the weapons which the factories are now producing in rapidly increasing numbers. There is no question of increasing the numbers of the Army, but it is indispensable that the normal wastage--considerable even when troops are not in contact with the enemy--should be made good, that the ranks should be kept filled and that the battalions, the batteries, and the tank regiments should be at their proper strength. Above all, we cannot have the existing formations pulled to pieces and gutted by taking out of every platoon and section trained men who are an essential part of these living entities, on which one of these fine or foggy mornings the whole existence of the British nation may depend.

I hope, indeed, that some of our ardent critics out of doors--I have nothing to complain of here--will reflect a little on their own records in the past, and by searching their hearts and memories will realise the fate which awaits nations and individuals who take an easy and popular course or who are guided in defence matters by the shifting winds of well-meaning public opinion. Nothing is more dangerous in war-time than to live in the temperamental atmosphere of a Gallup Poll, always feeling one's pulse and taking one's temperature. I see that a speaker at the week-end said that this was a time when leaders should keep their ears to the ground. All I can say is that the British nation will find it very hard to look up to leaders who are detected in that somewhat ungainly posture. If today I am very kindly treated by the mass of the people of this country, it is certainly not because I have followed public opinion in recent years. There is only one duty, only one safe course, and that is to try to be right and not to fear to do or say what you believe to be right. That is the only way to deserve and to win the confidence of our great people in these days of trouble.

Our hearts go out to our British Army, not only to those who in the Mediterranean and in the East may soon have to bear the brunt of German fury and organisation, but also to the splendid, but not too large, band of men here at home whose task is monotonous and unspectacular, whose duty is a long and faithful vigil, but who must be ready at any hour of any day to leap at the throat of the invader. It may well be the occasion will never come. If that should be the final story, then we may be sure that the existence of the kind of army we have created would be one of the reasons why once again in a war which has ravaged the world our land will be undevastated and our homes inviolate.

Of course we strive to profit from well informed criticism, whether friendly or spiteful, but there is one charge sometimes put forward which is, I think, a little unfair. I mean the insinuation that we are a weak, timid, lethargic Government, usually asleep, and in our waking hours always held back by excessive scruples and inhibitions, and unable to act with the vehemence and severity which these violent times require. People ask, for instance, "Why don't you bomb Rome? What is holding you back? Didn't you say you would bomb Rome if Cairo were bombed?" What is the answer? One answer is that Cairo has not yet been bombed. Only military posts on the outskirts have been bombed. But, of course, we have as much right to bomb Rome as the Italians had to bomb London last year, when they thought we were going to collapse, and we should not hesitate to bomb Rome to the best of our ability and as heavily as possible if the course of the war should render such action convenient and helpful.

Then there is the case of Persia. I see complaints that we have acted feebly and hesitatingly in Persia. This surprises me very much. I do not know of any job that has been done better than that. With hardly any loss of life, with surprising rapidity and in close concert with our Russian Ally, we have rooted out the malignant elements in Teheran; we have chased a dictator into exile, and installed a constitutional Sovereign pledge to a whole catalogue of long-delayed sorely-needed reforms and reparations; and we hope soon to present to the House a new and loyal alliance made by Great Britain and Russia with the ancient Persian State and people, which will ratify the somewhat abrupt steps we were forced to take, and will associate the Persian people with us not only in their liberation but in the future movement of the war. It must, indeed, be a captious critic who can find a pretext to make a quarrel out of that. The Persian episode, so far as it has gone, would seem to be one of the most successful and well conducted affairs in which the Foreign Office has ever been concerned. It ill deserves the treatment it has received from our natural and professional crabs.

In conclusion, let me once again repeat to the House that I cannot give them any flattering hopes, still less any guarantee, that the future will be bright or easy. On the contrary, even the coming winter affords no assurance, as the Russian Ambassador has candidly and shrewdly pointed out, that the German pressure upon Russia will be relaxed; nor, I may add, does the winter give any assurance that the danger of invasion will be entirely lifted from this island. Winter fog has dangers of its own, and, unlike last year, the enemy has now had ample time for technical preparation. We must certainly expect that in the spring, whatever happens in the meanwhile, very heavy fighting, heavier than any we have yet experienced in this war, will develop in the East, and also that the menace to this island of invasion will present itself in a very grave and sharp form. Only the most strenuous exertions, a perfect unity of purpose, added to our traditional unrelenting tenacity, will enable us to act our part worthily in the prodigious world drama in which we are now plunged. Let us make sure these virtues are forthcoming.