January 29, 1942

Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons, Official Record, January 29, 1942.


I must apologise to my Noble Friend for not being in my place when he began a speech which, I think everyone will say, was in his best form and in the expansive Parliamentary style of former days. I shall do my best to answer his questions as they occur, and I assure him and other hon. Members who have likewise suffered an apparent discourtesy on my part that it is not because I have been idle during the previous hours of the Debate. No one can say that this has not been a full and free Debate. No one can say that criticism has been hampered or stifled. No one can say that it has not been a necessary Debate. Many will think it has been a valuable Debate. But I think there will be very few-the Noble Lord spoke of himself as being almost alone-who upon reflection will doubt that a Debate of this far-reaching character and memorable importance, in times of hard and anxious war, with the state of the world what it is, our relationships to other countries being what they are, and our own safety so deeply involved-very few people will doubt that it should close without a solemn and formal expression of the opinion of the House in relation both to the Government and to the prosecution of the war.

Sir, in no country in the world at the present time could a Government conducting a war be exposed to such a stress. No dictator country fighting for its life would dare allow such a discussion. They do not even allow the free transmission of news to their peoples, or even the reception of foreign broadcasts, to which we are all now so hardily inured. Even in the great democracy of the United States the Executive does not stand in the same direct, immediate day-to-day relation to the Legislative body as we do. The President, in many vital respects independent of the Legislature, Commander-in-Chief of all the Forces of the Republic, has a fixed term of office, during which his authority can scarcely be impugned. But here in this country the House of Commons is master all the time of the life of the Administration. Against its decisions there is only one appeal, the appeal to the nation, an appeal it is very difficult to make under the conditions of a war like this, with a register like this, with air raids and invasion always hanging over us.

Therefore, I say that the House of Commons has a great responsibility. It owes it to itself and it owes it to the people and the whole Empire, and to the world cause, either to produce an effective, alternative Administration by which the King's Government can be carried on, or to sustain that Government in the enormous tasks and trials which it has to endure. I feel myself very much in need of that help at the present time, and I am sure I shall be accorded it in a manner to give encouragement and comfort, as well as guidance and suggestion. I am sorry, as I have said, that I have not been able to be here throughout the whole Debate, but I have read every word of the Debate, except what has been spoken and has not yet been printed, and I can assure the House that I shall be ready to profit to the full from many constructive and helpful lines of thought which have been advanced, even when they come from the most hostile quarter. I shall not be like that saint to whom I have before referred in this House, but whose name I have unhappily forgotten, who refused to do right because the devil prompted him. Neither shall I be deterred from doing what I am convinced is right by the fact that I have thought differently about it in some distant, or even in some recent past.

When events are moving at hurricane speed and when scenes change with baffling frequency, it would be disastrous to lose that flexibility of mind in dealing with new situations on which I have often been complimented, which is the essential counterpart of a consistent and unswerving purpose. Let me take an instance. During my visit to America, events occurred which alter in a decisive way the question of creating a Minister of Production. President Roosevelt has appointed Mr. Donald Nelson to supervise the whole field of American production. All the resources of our two countries are now pooled, in shipping, in munitions, and in raw materials, and some similar office, I will not say with exactly the same scope, but of similar scope, must be created here, if harmonious working between Great Britain and the United States is to be maintained upon this very high level. I have been for some weeks carefully considering this, and the strong opinions which have been expressed in the House, even though I do not share their reasoning in all respects, have reinforced the conclusions with which I returned from the United States. I will not of course anticipate any advice that it may be my duty to tender to the Crown.

I was forced to inflict upon the House two days ago a very lengthy statement, which cost me a great deal of time and trouble, in the intervals of busy days and nights, to prepare. I do not desire to add to it to any important extent. It would not be possible for me to answer all the criticisms and inquiries which have been made during this Debate. I have several times pointed out to the House the disadvantage I lie under, compared with the leaders of other countries who are charged with general war direction, in having to make so many public statements, and the danger that in explaining fully our position to our friends we may also be stating it rather too fully to our enemies. Moreover, the Lord Privy Seal, in his excellent speech yesterday, has already replied to a number of the controversial issues which were raised. There are therefore only a few points with which I wish to deal to-day, but they are important points.

The first is the advantage, not only to Britain but to the Empire, of the arrival of powerful American Army and Air Forces in the United Kingdom. First of all, it meets the wish of the American people and of the leaders of the Republic, that the large mass of trained and equipped troops which they have under arms in the United States shall come into contact with the enemy as close and as soon as possible. Secondly, the presence of these forces in these Islands imparts a greater freedom of movement overseas, to theatres where we are already engaged, of the mature and seasoned divisions of the British Home Army. It avoids the difficulty of reinforcing theatres where we are engaged with troops of another nation, with all the complications of armament and command which arise therefrom. Therefore we must consider this arrival of the American Army as giving us a latitude of maneuvre which we have not hitherto possessed. Thirdly, the presence in our Islands of a Force of heavy but unknown strength, and the establishment of a broader bridgehead between us and the New World, constitutes an important additional deterrent to invasion at a time when the successful invasion of these Islands is Hitler's last remaining hope of total victory. Fourthly-and here I address myself to what my noble Friend has said about aiding and succouring Australia and New Zealand-the fact that well-equipped American divisions can be sent into these Islands so easily and rapidly will enable substantial supplies of weapons and munitions, now being made in the United States for our account, to be sent direct on the other side of the world to Australia and New Zealand, to meet the new dangers of home defence which are cast upon them by the Japanese war. Lastly, this whole business cannot do Mr. de Valera any harm, and it may even do him some good. It certainly offers a measure of protection to Southern Ireland, and to Ireland as a whole, which she could not otherwise enjoy. I feel sure that the House will find these reasons, or most of them, solid and satisfactory.

The course of this Debate has mainly turned upon the admitted inadequacy of our preparations to meet the full onslaught of the new and mighty military opponent who has launched against us his whole force, his whole energies and fury in Malaya and in the Far East. There is not very much I wish to add, and that only by way of illustration, to the connected argument which I deployed to the House on Tuesday. The speeches of the hon. Members for Kidderminster (Sir J. Wardlaw-Milne) and Seaham (Mr. Shinwell) dwelt from different angles upon this all-important issue. I do not, of course, pretend that there may not have been avoidable shortcomings or mistakes, or that some oversight might not have been shown in making use of our resources, limited though those resources were. While I take full responsibility for the broad strategic dispositions, that does not mean that scandals, or inefficiency or misbehaviour of functionaries at particular moments, and particular places, occurring on the spot, will not be probed or will be covered by the general support I gave to our commanders in the field.

I am by no means claiming that faults have not been committed in the minor sphere, and faults for which the Government are blameworthy. But when all is said and done, the House must not be led into supposing that even if everything on the spot had gone perfectly-which the Noble Lord, who has experience, will agree is rare in war-they must not be led into supposing that this would have made any decisive difference to the heavy British and American forfeits which followed inexorably from the temporary loss of sea power in the Pacific, combined with the fact of our being so fully extended elsewhere. Even that is not exhaustive, because, before the defeat of Pearl Harbour-I am speaking of eight or nine months ago-our ability to defend the Malay Peninsula was seriously prejudiced by the incursion of the Japanese into French Indo-China and the steady building-up of very powerful forces and bases there. Even at the time when I went to meet the President in Newfoundland the invasion of Siam seemed imminent, and probably it was due to the measures which the President took as the result of our conversations that this attack was staved off for so long, and might well have been staved off indefinitely. In ordinary circumstances, if we had not been engaged to the last ounce in Europe and the Nile Valley, we should ourselves, of course, have confronted the Japanese aggression into Indo-China with the strongest possible resistance from the moment when they began to build up a large military and air power. We were not in a position to do this.

If we had gone to war with Japan to stop the Japanese coming across the long ocean stretches from their own country, and establishing themselves within close striking distance of the Malay Peninsula and Singapore, we should have had to fight alone, perhaps for a long time, the whole of the Japanese attacks upon our loosely-knit establishments and possessions in this vast Oriental region. As I said on Tuesday, we have never had the power, and we never could have had the power, to fight Germany, Italy and Japan single-handed at the same time. We therefore had to watch the march of events with an anxiety which increased with the growth of the Japanese concentrations, but at the same time was offset by the continuous approach of the United States ever nearer to the confines of the war. It must not be supposed that endless, repeated consultations and discussions were not held by the Staffs, by the Defence Committee, by Ministers, and that Staff conferences were not held at Singapore. Contact was maintained with Australia and New Zealand, and with the United States to a lesser degree.

All this went on; but, when all was said and done, there was the danger, and the means of meeting it had yet to be found. Ought we not in that interval to have considered the question which the House must ask itself-I want to answer the case quite fairly-that, in view of that menace, apart from minor precautions, many of which were taken and some of which were not, ought we not to have reduced our aid in munitions to Russia? A part of what we sent to Russia would have made us, I will not say safe, because I do not think that that was possible, in view of what happened at sea, but far better prepared in Burma and Malaya than we were. Figures were mentioned by the hon. Member for Seaham yesterday. He will not expect me to confirm or deny those figures, but, taking them as a basis, half of that would have made us far better off, and would have dazzled the eyes of Sir Robert Brooke-Popham, who so repeatedly asked for more supplies of all those commodities of which we were most short. We did not make such a reduction, and I believe that the vast majority of opinion in all parts of the House, and in the country, endorses our decision now, even after the event. If they had to go back, they would take it again, even although they see now what serious consequences have arisen.

Let me say, in answer to the Noble Lord, as it is a question which he put, that I entirely agree with him about the vital importance of the Burma Road and of fighting with every means in our power to keep a strong hand-grasp with the Chinese Armies and the closest contact with their splendid leader Chiang Kai-shek. He may rest assured that nothing has prevented the employment of Indian troops in that area, except the use of them in other theatres and the immense difficulties of transport in those regions. So much for the Russian policy, which, for good or for ill, has played a very great part in the thoughts and actions of the people of this country in this struggle, and I believe has played a very important part-not by any means a decisive part, but a very important part-in the crushing defeats which have been inflicted on the German army and the possible demoralisation of the wicked regime which uses that army.

But, apart from Russia, what about the campaign in Libya? What were the reasons which made that a necessary operation? First, we had to remove, and probably we have removed, the menace to the Nile Valley from the West for a considerable time, thus liberating important forces and still more important transport to meet what seemed to be an impending attack through the Caucasus from the North. Secondly, this was the only place where we could open a second front against the enemy. Everyone will remember, conveniently short as memories may be, the natural and passionate impatience which our prolonged inactivity aroused in all our hearts while Russia seemed to be being battered to pieces by the fearful machinery of the German army. There is no doubt whatever that, although our offensive in Libya was on a small scale compared with the mighty struggle on the Russian front, it nevertheless drew important German air forces from that front. They were moved at a most critical moment in that battle and transferred to the Mediterranean theatre. Thirdly, this second front in the Western Desert afforded us the opportunity of fighting a campaign against Germany and Italy on terms most costly to them. If there be any place where we can fight them with marked advantage, it is in the Western Desert and Libya, because not only, as I explained, have we managed to destroy two-thirds of their African army, a great amount of its equipment and air power, but also to take a formidable toll of all their reinforcements of men and materials and above all of their limited shipping across the Mediterranean by which they were forced to maintain themselves The longer they go on fighting in this theatre the longer that process will go on, and there is no part of the world where you have a chance of getting better results for the blood and velour of your soldiers.

For these reasons, I am sure that it was a sound decision, and one with which all our professional advisers agreed, to take the offensive in the Western Desert and to do our utmost to make it a success. We have been over this ground in Cyrenaica already.

The first time we took a quarter of a million Italian prisoners without serious loss to ourselves. The second time we have accounted for 60,000 men, including many Germans, for the loss of only one-third to ourselves. Even if we have to do part of it a third time, as seems possible, in view of the tactical successes of the enemy attacks upon our armoured brigade last week, there seems no reason why the campaign should not retain its profitable character in the war in North East Africa and become a dangerous drain, a festering sore, upon the German and Italian resources.

This is the question: Should we have been right to sacrifice all this, and stand idly on the defensive in the Western Desert and send all our available Forces to garrison Malaya and guard against a war against Japan which nevertheless might not have taken place, and which, I believe, did take place only through the civil Government being overwhelmed by a military coup d'etat? That is a matter of opinion, and it is quite easy for those who clamoured eagerly for opening an offensive in Libya to dilate upon our want of foresight and preparedness in the Far East. That is a matter on which anyone can form an opinion, and those are lucky who do not have to form one before the course of events is known.

I come now to this battle which is raging in Johore. I cannot tell how it will go or how the attack upon the Island of Singapore will go, but a steady stream of reinforcements, both air and troops, have flowed into the island for several weeks past. The Forces which have been sent were, of course, set in motion within a few days, and some within a few hours, of the Japanese declaration of war. To sum up, I submit to the House that the main strategic and political decision to aid Russia, to deliver an offensive in Libya and to accept a consequential state of weakness in the then peaceful theatre of the Far East was sound and will be found to have played a useful part in the general course of the war and that this is in no wise invalidated by the unexpected naval misfortunes and the heavy forfeits which we have paid, and will have to pay, in the Far East. For this Vote of Confidence on that I rest.

There is, however, one episode of a tactical rather than a strategic character about which many questions have been asked, both here and in another place, to which it is not so easy to refer as my Noble Friend opposite seems to suggest. I mean, of course, the despatch from this country of the "Prince of Wales" during November last and, secondly, the operation which led to the sinking of the "Prince of Wales" and of the "Repulse," which had started earlier. This sinking took place on 9th December. It was the policy of the War Cabinet and the Defence Committee, initiated by the Naval Staff, to build up in the Indian Ocean and base mainly on Singapore, a battle squadron to act, it was hoped, in co-operation with the United States fleet in general protective work in Far Eastern waters. I am not at liberty to state how these plans stand at the present time, but the House may be assured that nothing has been left undone, which was in our power, to repair the heavy losses which have been sustained. My right hon. Friend the Member for East Edinburgh (Mr. Pethick-Lawrence) has asked very properly-and the Noble Lord opposite made a specific point of it-why the "Prince of Wales" and "Repulse" were sent to Eastern waters if they could not be properly protected by aircraft. The answer to this question is that the decision to send those ships in advance to the Far East was taken in the hope, primarily, of deterring the Japanese from going to war at all, or, failing that, of deterring her from sending convoys into the Gulf of Siam, having regard to the then position of the strong American fleet at Hawaii.

After long and careful consideration it was decided, in view of the importance of having in Far Eastern waters at least one ship which could catch or kill any individual vessel of the enemy-the Americans then not having a new battleship available-to send the "Prince of Wales." Moreover, she was the only ship available at the moment which could reach the spot in time for any deterrent effect to be produced. The intention was that these two fast ships, whose arrival at Cape Town was deliberately not concealed, would not only act as a deterrent upon Japan coming into the war but a deterrent upon the activities of individual heavy ships of the enemy, our ships being able to choose their moment to fight. The suggestion of the hon. and gallant Member for Epsom (Sir A. Southby) that the Naval Staff desired to send an aircraft-carrier and were overruled by me is as mischievous as it is untrue. It has always been the intention that any fast ships proceeding to the Far East should be accompanied by an aircraft-carrier. Unfortunately, at the time, with the exception of an aircraft-carrier in home waters, not a single one of this type was available. Through a succession of accidents, some of very slight consequence, all of them, except the one with the Home Fleet, were under repair. Accordingly, the "Prince of Wales" and the "Repulse" arrived at Singapore, and it was hoped they would shortly leave again for secret bases and the broad waters, which would enable them to put a continuous restraining preoccupation on all the movements of the enemy. That is the first phase of the story.

I now come to the further question of why, the presence of the two ships having failed to achieve the deterrent object, Pearl Harbour having occurred, and the Japanese having begun war, they were sent North from Singapore to oppose the Japanese landings from the Gulf of Siam on the Kra Peninsula. Admiral Tom Phillips, as Vice-Chief of the Naval Staff, was fully acquainted with the whole policy I have described, and had sailed in the "Prince of Wales" to carry it out. On 8th December he decided, after conferring with his captain and staff officers, that in the circumstances, and in view of the movement of Japanese transports with a weak fighting escort towards the Kra Peninsula, drastic and urgent naval action was required. This action, if successful, would have presented the Army with a good prospect of defeating the landings and possibly of paralysing the invasion of Malaya at its birth. The stakes on both sides were very high. The prize was great if gained; if lost, our danger most grievous. Admiral Phillips was fully aware of the risk, and he took steps for air reconnaissance to see whether there was an enemy aircraft-carrier about and for fighter protection up to the limit of the short-range fighters available. Only after he left harbour was he informed that fighter protection could not be provided in the area in which he intended to operate, but in view of the low visibility he decided to stand on. Later, in accordance with his pre-determined plans, he turned back, because, as he had always made up his mind to do, the weather began to clear, and he knew he had been sighted. However, later still, during his retirement, a further landing more to the South of the peninsula was reported, presenting an even more serious threat to Malaya, and he decided to investigate this. It was on returning from this investigation, which proved to be negative, that his force was attacked, not, as has been supposed, by torpedo or bomber aircraft flown off a carrier, but by very long-range shore-based heavy two-engined torpedo bombers from the main Japanese aerodromes 400 miles away.

In the opinion of the Board of Admiralty, which it is my duty to pronounce, the risks which Admiral Phillips took were fair and reasonable, in the light of the knowledge which he had of the enemy, when compared with the very urgent and vital issues at stake on which the whole safety of Malaya might have depended. I have given an account of this episode. No doubt the Admiralty will have its own inquiry for the purpose of informing itself and of studying the lessons, but I could not bring myself, even on the first day that this matter was mentioned, although the information I had was most scanty, to pronounce condemnation of the audacious, daring action of Admiral Tom Phillips in going forward, although he knew the risks he ran, when the prize might have been 20,000 of the enemy drowned in the sea, and a relief from the whole catalogue of misfortunes which have since come upon us, and have still to come.

I have finished, and it only remains for us to act. I have tried to lay the whole position before the House as far as public interest will allow, and very fully have we gone into matters. On behalf of His Majesty's Government, I make no complaint of the Debate, I offer no apologies, I offer no excuses, I make no promises. In no way have I mitigated the sense of danger and impending misfortunes of a minor character and of a severe character which still hang over us, but at the same time I avow my confidence, never stronger than at this moment, that we shall bring this conflict to an end in a manner agreeable to the interests of our country, and in a manner agreeable to the future of the world. I have finished. Let every man act now in accordance with what he thinks is his duty in harmony with his heart and conscience.

Motion of Confidence


I hope that the Prime Minister will receive a unanimous vote, because we want to show to the whole world that this country is behind him in his determination to carry this war to a victorious issue. We are very grateful to the Prime Minister for the great inspiration which he gave us in our blackest hour. We are grateful to him for the wonderful and inspiring speeches he has made, which have expressed the opinion of this country in words which we should all like to emulate. At the same time I adhere to what I said in this House on 25th November, that until he overhauls the war machine and the War Cabinet, victory will be delayed and the issue will be prolonged, with all this means in cost of life and material. I do trust that he will consider what I have said.

Question put.

The House divided: Ayes, 464; Noes, 1.

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