February 17, 1942
Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons Official Record.
I shall deal first with the naval episode which has attracted attention in the last few days. In March last the two German cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau took refuge in Brest harbour, where they were joined in May by the Prinz Eugen after the destruction of the Bismarck. The position of these three ships became a serious preoccupation for the Admiralty. They lay on the flank of our main convoy route to the East, and they could make a sortie at any time on to the Atlantic trade routes or into the Mediterranean. Accordingly, the Admiralty have pressed for their continued attack from the air in the hopes of disabling them and preventing them being repaired. This process continued for more than 1o months, during which time the ships were undoubtedly hit several times and repair work was made very difficult. No less than 4,000 tons of bombs were dropped, and 3,299 bomber sorties were made upon them, with a loss of 247 Air Force personnel and 43 aircraft. As we were never in a position to know when some or all of these ships might put to sea, the situation entailed almost continuous naval precautions in the hope of being ready at all times to meet the various threats which these ships constituted. A further serious feature was the very grave subtraction from the bombing effort against Germany.
The bombing of these ships was, however, so severe that the Germans evidently came to the decision that they could not maintain them any longer at Brest and that they must return to Germany. We do not know whether this was for the purpose of effecting final repairs or to enable them to work up to full efficiency in the sheltered waters of the Baltic. However this may be, the Germans resolved to try to bring the ships back to Germany. This was a very hazardous operation. It could be done either by sailing round the British Isles and returning via Norway, or by a dash up the Channel. The Germans rejected the plan of returning Northabout and preferred to run the admittedly serious risks of the Channel passage. In the Atlantic Ocean they would have run a great risk of being picked up by our extensive air reconnaissances from the shore and from aircraft carriers, or of being slowed down by torpedo attacks and brought to action against overwhelming forces, as was the Bismarck. The Channel route, on the other hand, was a run of under 24 hours, part of which could be made in darkness, possibly by surprise, and they had the opportunity of choosing the weather which would be most favourable. The whole way through the Channel and along the Dutch coast they had the advantage of a powerful air umbrella. The dangers of running past the Dover batteries, under suitable weather conditions, were not great. Our slow convoys repeatedly traverse the Straits of Dover, and are repeatedly bombarded by the German guns on the French shore, but this has not stopped our convoy traffic. One great danger was mines, but this they might hope to avoid by energetic sweeping. There remained, therefore, the action of surface ships and aircraft. Air reconnaissance would show the Germans that neither heavy ships nor even cruisers were in these narrow waters, and, therefore, attacks by flotillas of destroyers and of small torpedo boats were all that need be expected, apart from the air.
Some people seem to think that heavy forces should have been stationed so as to be able to intercept them in the Channel or the North Sea. Had we done so, our ships would have been open to the same scale of air attack as were the German ships at Brest. Further, any such disposition would have dangerously weakened the preventive measures which we have to take to safeguard our convoys and guard the Northern passage, and to deal with other German heavy ships, Tirpitz, the Lutzow and the Scheer. The Admiralty did not consider that the attempt to run through the Channel would be an impossible operation under the conditions which prevailed, and this was certainly much less to be apprehended than that the ships should break out on to the trade routes or into the Mediterranean. No one can doubt the vigour and courage with which the enemy squadron was attacked as soon as its movement was perceived, and, of course, everyone is very sorry that these ships were not sunk. The only questions which are open are, first: Why was their movement not detected shortly after daylight, and secondly, Was the contact and liaison between the Coastal Command and the Admiralty, and also between the other R.A.F. Commands and the Admiralty, as close as it should have been? At the suggestion of the Admiralty and of the Air Ministry, I have directed that an inquiry shall be held into these points. The inquiry will be secret. I doubt very much whether, when completed, its results will be suitable for publication. I am not prepared to give any information about the inquiry or any undertakings that its results will be made public.
Although it may somewhat surprise the House and the public, I should like to state that, in the opinion of the Admiralty, with which I most cordially concur, this abandonment by the Germans of their position at Brest has been decidedly beneficial to our war situation. The threat to our convoy routes has been removed, and the enemy has been driven to leave his advantageous position The diversion of our air bombing effort, which, though necessary, was so wasteful, is over. A heavier scale of attack on Germany is now possible, in which all the near misses will hit German and not French dwellings. Both the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau have received damage in their passage which will keep them out of action for some time to come, after which they will have to be worked up in gunnery and other practice. Before they can again play any part in the war, the Royal Navy will be reinforced by various important units of the highest quality, and the same strengthening process is going forward in the Navy of the United States. Whatever smart of disappointment or annoyance may remain in our breasts that the final forfeit was not exacted, there is no doubt that the naval position in the Atlantic, so far from being worsened, is definitely eased.
I have also been asked whether the Government have a statement to make about the fall of Singapore. This extremely grave event was not unexpected, and its possibility was comprised within the scope of the argument I submitted to the House on the occasion of the Vote of Confidence three weeks ago. The House has, of course, many opportunities of discussing this and other aspects of the war situation. I am sure it would be a great mistake to try to discuss it to-day in the short time available. I have no information to give to the House other than that contained in the public press, nor would it be prudent to speculate in detail upon the various evil consequences which will follow from the fall of Singapore. Moreover, it would ill become the dignity of the Government and the House, and would render poor service to the Alliance of which we are a part, if we were drawn into agitated or excited recriminations at a time when all our minds are oppressed with a sense of tragedy and with the sorrow of so lamentable a misfortune. Perhaps, at a later date, when we are more fully informed and when a carefully considered statement can be made, the House may seek for a further Debate upon the situation in the Far East and the prospect of its being retrieved by the combined action of the Allied Powers concerned. I could certainly not take part in any such discussion now.
However, as some hon. Members may be otherwise inclined, and as I did not wish to prevent them from expressing their opinions, I decided to move the Adjournment, as I have done. The Government will, of course, listen to the Debate, if it takes place, but I hope I may be permitted to remind the House of the extremely serious situation in which we stand, of the use that is made in hostile and even in Allied countries of any loose or intemperate language into which anyone may be drawn, and the importance of the House of Commons maintaining its reputation for firmness and courage in the face of adversity.
I certainly had thought that sometime during the next series of Sitting Days would be appropriate for a Debate. It is not very long since we had a three-day Debate. [An HON. MEMBER: "Something has happened since then."] If hon. Gentlemen would be so kind as to read carefully what I said, they will see how very clearly-as clearly as I could without giving away military information-I indicated how grave the position was in the Far East, and how terrible are the forfeits that have been and will be exacted from us. I certainly feel that the House should have a Debate; there is not the slightest reason to object to a Debate; on the contrary, I will give every facility for a Debate and for a Division. The House is absolutely master. If its confidence is not extended to the Government, if it does not believe that the war is being well managed, if it thinks it can make arrangements which would lead to the war being better managed, it is the duty and the right of the House to express its opinion, as it can do in a proper and a constitutional manner. Therefore, as I say, I certainly consider that a matter of this kind should be the subject of a Debate, but at the present time I have absolutely no news which has not been published in the Press-no news of any importance or interest. I do not quite know when the news will be received, but still I think that during the course of the next series of Sitting Days there should be a Debate on the subject, and I hope it will be a long Debate. I do not know whether it can all take place in public. I am absolutely certain that I could say things to this House which would arouse hon. Members to the seriousness of the situation and to the way in which the dangers may be aggravated by action we may take or fail to take, but I do not think I could say them in public at all. Let us say then that there will be a Debate; I was only deprecating that it should be held now, as it seems, in a mood of panic. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] I think that a very excited Debate taking place here to-day, while our minds are oppressed by what has happened, may easily have the effect of causing a bad and very unfavourable reaction all over the world. That is what I say. I stick to it. I think it would have been a bad thing to have had a Debate to-day. I certainly do not think I could undertake to prepare a full statement on this matter again by the third Sitting Day.
I must ask the House to realise the enormous burdens falling on me, not by my work as Minister of Defence, but by repeated and constant attendance on this House, which I never expected I should have to face, but which I will face. But I think I should be more prepared to make a statement next week. I hope that some information will come in which will enable me to make it. I beg that the Debate shall be absolutely frank, measured only by regard to the public interest. I beg that it shall be searching; I beg, I implore hon. Gentlemen-their manhood and honour require it-that they shall give effect to their opinions. There is one point I have been asked about the Inquiry. It is quite true that I said I did not propose to give information about the Inquiry. I still think it would have been better that it should have been an Inquiry conducted for the purpose of giving information to the people responsible for carrying on the war, but as the question has been asked, I do not mind changing what I said on that subject, in deference to the wishes expressed by the House. This has already been decided; what I propose is that Mr. Justice Bucknill should preside and that Air Chief Marshal Sir Edgar Ludlow-Hewitt and Vice-Admiral Sir Hugh Binney should represent the two Services concerned.
MR. HORE-BELISHA (Devonport): Are there any exact terms of reference?
THE PRIME MINISTER: The scope is on those points which I indicated in my statement. I hope that the Inquiry will be quickly conducted. Of course, if anyone is found to be have been guilty of a dereliction of duty, obviously disciplinary action will follow. Certainly, in that case, I am sure it will be possible to make some statement to the House, but I do not want this Inquiry, which deals with our secret matters of defence around these Islands upon which our lives and safety depend, to be subject to a fought-out discussion and wrangling and intricate Debate in the same way as has been done in time of peace, when a submarine like Thetis was lost. I think it would be a great pity to do that. I hope the House will realise there is a very great desire to do as well as possible among all those who are serving them, whether in the House or in the Forces. (Interruption by Mr. PETHICK-LAWRENCE.) I gladly give the assurance that I was not imputing panic to any Members of this House, but I think, none the less, that a Debate held to-day in excitement, and pierced with charges and counter-charges interchanged across the House at this moment of great anxiety and distress, would undoubtedly be contributing to what I might have called the "rattling" process which is going on in some parts of the Press, not only in the Press of this country, but freely telegraphed both to Australia and the United States, which tends to give a feeling of insecurity, which I am quite sure the House would agree is detrimental.