February 24, 1942

Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons, Official Report.


Since we last met here there has been a major reconstruction of the War Cabinet and among Ministers of Cabinet rank. There will be further changes, not only consequential changes, among the Under-Secretaries, but these I have not yet had time to consider in all their bearings. After nearly two years of strain and struggle it was right and necessary that a Government called into being in the crash of the Battle of France should undergo both change and reinvigoration. I regret very much the loss of loyal and trusted colleagues, with whom I have come through so many hard times and who readily placed their resignations in my hand in order to facilitate a reconstruction of the Government. They had, of course, no greater share of responsibility than the rest of the Administration for the disasters which have fallen upon us in the Far East. Nevertheless, I am sure that we have achieved a more tensely-braced and compact Administration to meet the new dangers and difficulties which are coming upon us, and I believe that that is the general opinion of the House and of the country.

Attention is naturally concentrated upon the War Cabinet, and no doubt comparisons will be made with the War Cabinet of the last war. I have on previous occasions given my reasons why I do not believe that a war cabinet entirely composed of Ministers without Departments is practicable or convenient. In other ways, however, the resemblance is fairly close. During most of the period from December, 1916, to November, 1918, the Lloyd George War Cabinet consisted of six or seven Ministers, of whom one only had departmental duties, namely, Mr. Bonar Law, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Leader of the House, and Leader of the Conservative Party. In addition, Mr. Balfour, the Foreign Secretary, although not in name a member of the War Cabinet, was so to all practical purposes and was in fact a far more powerful politician than any of its members except the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The new War Cabinet consists of seven members, of whom three have no Departments. One is Prime Minister, one is Deputy Prime Minister with the Dominions Office, and one is Foreign Secretary. In the seventh case, the Minister of Labour and National Service replaces the Chancellor of the Exchequer of the former model. I think this is right. In the last 25 years labour has made immense advances in the State, and it is desirable, both on personal and on public grounds, that this office, which serves all Departments, should be included.

There may prove to be other points of resemblance. It is now the fashion to speak of the Lloyd George War Cabinet as if it gave universal satisfaction and conducted the war with unerring judgment and unbroken success. On the contrary, complaints were loud and clamant. Immense disasters, such as the slaughter of Passchendaele, the disaster at Caporetto in 1917, the destruction of the Fifth Army after March 21st, 1918, all these and others befell that rightly famous administration. It made numerous serious mistakes. No one was more surprised than its members when the end of the war came suddenly in 1918, and there have even been criticisms about the character of the peace which was signed and celebrated in 1919. Therefore we, in this difficult period, have other things to do besides that of living up slavishly to the standards and methods of the past, instructive and on the whole encouraging as they unquestionably are.

Let me explain how the duties are divided. The members of the War Cabinet are collectively and individually responsible for the whole policy of the country, and they are the ones who are alone held accountable for the conduct of the war. However, they have also particular spheres of superintendence. The Leader of the Labour party, as head of the second largest party in the National Government, acts as Deputy Prime Minister in all things and in addition will discharge the duties of the Dominions Secretary, thus meeting, without an addition to our numbers, the request pressed upon us from so many quarters that our relations with the Dominions, apart from those between His Majesty's various Prime Ministers on which the Dominions are most insistent, shall be in the hands of a member of the War Cabinet.

The Lord President of the Council presides over what is, in certain aspects, almost a parallel Cabinet concerned with home affairs. Of this body a number of Ministers of Cabinet rank are regular members, and others are invited as may be convenient. An immense mass of business is discharged at their frequent meetings, and it is only in the case of a serious difference or in very large questions that the War Cabinet as such is concerned. The Minister of State, who will soon be returning from Cairo, has, as his sphere of superintendence, the whole process of production in all its aspects. The White Paper which has been issued upon this subject is superseded and withdrawn, and I am not sure that the new arrangements will require to be defined so formally in a paper constitution. In these circumstances the Supplementary Estimate which was presented on 17th February for the purpose of asking this House to give financial effect to the arrangements set out in the White Paper of 10th February is no longer appropriate, and accordingly it is proposed, with the permission of the House, not to proceed with that Estimate. While the new revised arrangements now contemplated are taking shape, we shall arrange and see what are the best plans, financial and otherwise appropriate to the altered circumstances. The special spheres of the remaining members of the War Cabinet are defined by the offices they hold.

My right hon. Friend the former Minister without Portfolio, who has played a fine part in all affairs connected with this war was busy with future plans for post-war reconstruction. The reduction in the size of the War Cabinet, which was held to be desirable in many quarters, has led to the elimination of this office. I must ask the House for a certain amount of time, though there will be no delay, before I am able to submit a scheme for this essential task of preparation for reconstruction. Even though we must now prepare ourselves for an evident prolongation of the war through the intervention of Japan, the whole of this preparatory work, of this preliminary work, for the post-war period must go forward, because no one can be sure that, as in the last war, victory may not come unexpectedly upon us. The seven members of the War Cabinet can sit together either as the War Cabinet of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, responsible to the Crown and to Parliament, or they can sit in a larger gathering with representatives from the Dominions and India. Both series of meetings will continue regularly, as before.

The Pacific War Council has also come into being, on which the representatives of the Dominions specially concerned, namely, Australia and New Zealand, of India and of the Netherlands, sit under my chairmanship or under that of my Deputy, the Dominions Secretary. I am very glad to say that Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek has just accepted an invitation which I tendered him that a representative of China should join this Council. I recently explained to the House the relation of this body to the Chiefs of Staff Committee in London and the relation of both of these bodies to the combined Chiefs of Staff Committee in Washington. I can only say that all this inevitably complicated machinery, where many are concerned and oceans divide, is working swiftly and smoothly. The results, as I will presently explain, depend upon factors far more potent and massive than any machinery, however well devised, which we can immediately bring into being.

I will now, with the permission of the House, speak a little about my own part in it. At the time when I was called upon by the King to form the present Government we were in the throes of the German invasion of France and the Low Countries. I did not expect to be called upon to act as Leader of the House of Commons. I, therefore, sought His Majesty's permission to create and assume the style or title of Minister of Defence, because obviously the position of Prime Minister in war is inseparable from the general supervision of its conduct and the final responsibility for its result. I intended at that time that Mr. Neville Chamberlain should become Leader of the House and take the whole of the House of Commons work off my hands. This proposal was not found to be acceptable. I had myself to take the leadership of the House as well as my other duties. I must admit that this Parliamentary task has weighed upon me heavily. During the period for which I have been responsible I find to my horror that I have made more than 25 lengthy speeches to Parliament in Public or in Secret Session, to say nothing of answering a great number of questions and dealing with many current emergencies. I have greatly valued the honour of leading the House, which my father did before me, and in which my public life has been spent for so long, and I have always taken the greatest trouble to give them the best possible service, and even in very rough periods I have taken most particular care of their rights and interests.

Although I feel a great sense of relief in laying down this burden, I cannot say that I do so without sorrow. I am sure, however, it is in the public interest, and I am also sure that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for East Bristol (Sir S. Cripps), the new Lord Privy Seal, will prove to the House that he is a respector of its authority and a leader capable of dealing with all the incidents, episodes and emergencies of House of Commons and Parliamentary life. I shall, of course, as Prime Minister, remain always at the service of the House should the occasion require it, and I shall hope, from time to time, though I trust not too often, to seek their permission to give them a general appreciation of the progress of the war.

Let me now speak of the office, or title, which I hold as Minister of Defence. About this there seem to be many misunderstandings. Perhaps the House will bear with me while I explain the method by which the war has been and will be conducted. I may say, first of all, that there is nothing which I do or have done as Minister of Defence which I could not do as Prime Minister. As Prime Minister, I am able to deal easily and smoothly with the three Service Departments, without prejudice to the constitutional responsibilities of the Secretaries of State for War and Air and the First Lord of the Admiralty. I have not, therefore, found the need of defining formally or precisely the relationship between the office of Minister of Defence when held by a Prime Minister and the three Service Departments. I have not found it necessary to define this relationship as would be necessary in the case of any Minister of Defence who was not also Prime Minister. There is, of course, no Ministry of Defence, and the three Service Departments remain autonomous. For the purpose of maintaining general supervision over the conduct of the war, which I do under the authority of the War Cabinet and the Defence Committee, I have at my disposal a small staff, headed by Major-General Ismay, which works under the long-established procedure and machinery of the pre-war Committee of Imperial Defence and forms a part of the War Cabinet secretariat.

I now turn to the general situation of the war. It had always been my hope that the United States would enter the war against Germany without Japan being immediately involved on the other side. The greatest forbearance was shown by both the English-speaking countries in the face of constant Japanese encroachments. These efforts proved vain; and, at a moment fixed by the war leaders in Japan, the sudden violent attacks were made upon Hawaii, the Philippines, the Dutch East Indies, and Malaya. Thereupon, an entirely new situation supervened. The conversion of the giant power of the United States to war purposes is only in its early stage and the disaster at Pearl Harbour and our own naval losses have given Japan for the time being-but only for the time being-the command of, or, at least, the superiority in, the Far Eastern seas.

Great Britain and the British Empire were engaged almost to their full strength, in their powers and in their equipment, with Germany in the Atlantic, with Germany as a potential invader and with Germany and Italy in the Libyan Desert, which protects Egypt and the Suez Canal. The shipping to nourish the large Armies we had in the Middle East has to go round the Cape and, as I said the other day, can make only three voyages in the year. Our shipping losses since the war began have been very heavy. In the last few months there has been a most serious increase in shipping losses, and our anti-U-boat flotillas and naval light forces of all kinds have been and are strained to the utmost limit, by the need of bringing in the food by which we live and the materials for the munitions with which we fight and the convoys which carry our troops so continually and in such great numbers to the various seats of war.

In addition to these actual burdens and perils, there remains the front, from the Levant to the Caspian, covering the approaches to India from the West, as well as the most important oilfields of Baku and Persia. A few months ago it seemed that this theatre would become dominant in our thoughts. At the same time, a heavy invasion enterprise was mounted by the enemy against Egypt. The extraordinary success of the valiant Russian Armies, whose prowess we all honoured yesterday, has given us a breathing-space in both directions. As lately as October and November we were not only fully extended but, indeed, over-stretched, and I cannot imagine what our position would have been if we had yielded to the pressure which at one time was so vehement to open a new front in France or in the Low Countries.

MR. GALLACHER (Fife, West): You would be in a strong position now.

THE PRIME MINISTER: Upon this situation, which I have so very briefly outlined to the House, there suddenly came the impact of Japan, a new combatant, long scheming and preparing, with a warlike population of 80,000,000, several millions of trained soldiers and a vast amount of modern material. This mighty impact fell upon our wide, prosperous but lightly-defended possessions and establishments throughout the Far East, all of which had, rightly, been kept at the very lowest level on account of the imperative requirements of the European and African theatres. I saw that some gentlemen who escaped from Penang announced to the world with much indignation that there was not a single antiaircraft gun in the place. Where should we have been, I would like to know, if we had spread our limited anti-aircraft guns throughout the immense, innumerable regions and vulnerable points of the Far East instead of using them to preserve the vital life of our ports and factories here and of our fortresses which were under continuous attack and all our operations with the field Armies in the Middle East?

The House and the nation must face the blunt and brutal fact that if, having entered a war, yourself ill-prepared, you are struggling for life with two well-armed countries, one of them possessing the most powerful military machine in the world, and, then, at the moment when you are in full grapple, a third major antagonist with far larger military forces than you possess suddenly springs upon your comparatively undefended back, obviously your task is heavy and your immediate experiences will be disagreeable. From the moment that Japan attacked, we set in motion to the Far East naval forces, aircraft, troops and equipment on a scale limited only by the available shipping. All these forces and supplies were diverted from or came from theatres which already needed them, and both our margin of safety and the advance of our operations have been notably, though not, I trust, decisively affected.

Before I left for the United States early in December most of the principal orders had been given, and in fact we managed to reinforce Singapore by over 40,000 men, together with large quantities of anti-aircraft and anti-tank artillery, all of which were withdrawn, as I have said, from other points where they were sorely needed or even actively engaged. This was especially true in regard to modern aircraft. Unfortunately, before enough of these latter could arrive in the Malay Peninsula, although there was no delay in giving orders and many daring expedients were adopted by the commanders, before they arrived in the Malay Peninsula, the airfields in Singapore Island were already under the fire of the Japanese artillery from Johore, from which we had been driven out. We were not therefore able to repeat the air fighting from an island base which has been so remarkable a feature of the prolonged defence of Malta, now under increasingly severe attack. Nevertheless, the speedy reinforcement of Singapore by no less than nine convoys would be judged a splendid achievement if the resultant defence had been crowned with success.

I had no news whatever from Singapore to give to the House. I have no information with which I can supplement such accounts-very scanty-as have appeared in the newspapers. I am therefore unable to make any statement about it, and for that reason, as I have no material for going into details, I do not propose to ask the House to go into Secret Session, and this Debate will be conducted throughout in public. I will, however, say this: Singapore was, of course, a naval base rather than a fortress. It depended upon the command of the sea, which again depends upon the command of the air. Its permanent fortifications and batteries were constructed from a naval point of view. The various defence lines which had been constructed in Johore were not successfully held. The field works constructed upon the island itself to defend the fortress were not upon a sufficiently large scale. I shall certainly not attempt at this stage to pass any judgment upon our troops or their commanders, 73,000 of whom are stated by the enemy to be prisoners of war. Certainly larger numbers than that were in the fortress at the time of the attack. I shall not attempt, I say, to pass judgment. I think it would be a very unseasonable movement and a very ungracious task. We have more urgent work to do. We have to face the situation resulting from this great loss of the base, and the troops, and of the equipment, of a whole Army. We have to face the situation resulting from that and from the great new Japanese war which has burst upon us.

There is little more that I can usefully say at this juncture upon the progress of the general war. Certainly it would be very foolish to try and prophesy its immediate future. It is estimated that there are 26 Japanese divisions in the A.B.D.A. area, as it has been called, and we must remember that these divisions can be moved and supplied with far less tonnage, at far less expense, than is the case where European or United States troops are concerned. We have not so many. In the A.B.D.A. area I have mentioned the enemy have for the time being a waning command of the sea. They have the command of the air, which makes it costly and difficult for our air reinforcements to establish themselves and secure dominance. They are in many cases destroyed upon the ground before they can effectively come into action. We must, therefore, expect many hard and adverse experiences, which will be all the more difficult to bear because they are unaccompanied by the same sense of imminent national, domestic danger-that feeling of being in the business ourselves which brought out all the best qualities of our people a year and a half ago.

If I were to dilate upon our hopes, these might soon be falsified, and I might be mocked by those who prove themselves wise by our failures. If, on the other hand, I painted the picture in its darkest hues, very great despondency might be spread among our ardent and growing Forces, and the enemy might be encouraged. I therefore say no more at this moment. Moreover, although it does not necessarily rest with me to do more than offer an opinion, I would deprecate a long series of speeches in the House censuring or explaining in detail the many tragedies which are occurring in the Far East, and I am not sure that we can afford to indulge ourselves too freely, having regard to the perils that beset us and to the ears that listen. On the other hand, if we look forward across the considerable period of immediate punishment through which we must make our way in consequence of the sudden onslaught of Japan-if we look forward through that and across that to the broad and major aspects of the war-we can see very clearly that our position has been enormously improved, not only in the last two years but in the last few months. This improvement is due, of course, to the wonderful strength and power of Russia and to the accession of the United States, with its measureless resources, to the common cause. Our position is in fact improved beyond any measure which the most sanguine would have dared to predict.

Beyond this phase of tribulation, which may be shorter or longer in accordance with our exertions and behaviour, there arises the prospect of ultimate victory for Britain, for the United States, for Russia and China, and indeed, for all the United Nations-victory complete over the foes that have fallen upon them. The ordeal through which we will have to pass will be tormented and protracted, but if everyone bends to the task with unrelenting effort and unconquerable resolve, if we do not weary by the way or fall out among ourselves or fail our Allies, we have a right to look forward across a good many months of sorrow and suffering to a sober and reasonable prospect of complete and final victory.

I will venture to end by repeating to the House the very words I used myself when I resigned from Mr. Asquith's Government on 15th November, 1915. I apologise for quoting myself, but I have found comfort in reading them because of the occasion, because of what happened and because of our own position now. I said:

"There is no reason to be discouraged about the progress of the war. We are passing through a bad time now and it will probably be worse before it is better, but that it will be better, if we only endure and persevere, I have no doubt whatever. The old wars were decided by their episodes rather than by their tendencies. In this war the tendencies are far more important than the episodes. Without winning any sensational victories we may win this war. We may win it even during the continuance of extremely disappointing and vexatious events. It is not necessary for us, in order to win the war, to push the German lines back over all the territory they have absorbed or to pierce them. While the German lines extend far beyond their frontiers, while their flag flies over conquered capitals and subjugated provinces, while all the appearances of military success attend their arms, Germany may be defeated more fatally in the second or third year of the war than if the Allied armies had entered Berlin in the first."

Actually, as we now know, Germany was not defeated until the fifth year of the last war, and we are already far advanced into the third year of this present struggle, but, excepting in this respect, provided that you add Japan to Germany in each case, I find comfort in this passage which comes back to me like an echo from the past, and I commend it respectfully to the consideration of the House.

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