November 11, 1942
Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons Official Report, November 11, 1942.
The custom has always been to compliment the Mover and Seconder of the Address upon the speeches which they have delivered and very often those compliments have been well founded. I am sure that the House, without distinction of party, will feel that that is the case to-day. My hon. Friend the Member for South Bristol (Mr. Walkden) speaks as the representative of one of the great trade unions of the country, those institutions which lie so near the heart and core of our social life and progress and have proved that stability and progress can be combined. He speaks in that capacity, and my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Stafford (Major Thornycroft), who has not been very long in this House, has already begun to find his feet here, and the speech which he has made to-day gives every assurance that he will play a valuable and increasing part in our Debates. I should like to express to both hon. Members my acknowledgments of the extremely kind and complimentary remarks which they have made about me. Really their whole outlook has been one of extreme benevolence to the Government, to its head, to our fortunes in war and also to the admirable constituencies which they represent. I thank them both for the part which they have played.
There are a number of announcements which should be made about the Business of the House, about the course of the Debate on the Address, about the measures which the Government will take to appropriate and monopolise the time of the House as is usual on these occasions, and also about the somewhat greater latitude which we shall have to give to what may be called legislation not wholly free from controversy but carrying with it a broad measure of general approval. These statements I shall, with the permission of the House, ask my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to make at the close of my remarks. They belong entirely to the sphere of House of Commons business, and I am to-day to deal with other matters more remote from this Chamber, though not more remote from our minds.
We meet in a time of great stress when events are moving very fast and when final views cannot easily or lightly be taken. I have, however, to tell the House about the great Battle of Egypt, which is a British victory of the first order, and also about the other hall of the combination, namely, the United States and British intervention in North Africa. There are three points which must be duly examined in matters of this magnitude and violence. First the time required for preparation. Secondly, the need of combination and concert. And thirdly, the importance of surprise. I will address myself to these points in the course of my statement Here let me say that the pressure at present is extreme and I must ask for the indulgence of the House if, in any part of my statement, I should lack full historical precision. I have not had the time to give the mature consideration to the exact balance between the different elements and forces involved that would be possible in ordinary times. I do the best I can.
Taking the question of the time, it is not generally realised how much time these great operations take to mount. For instance, the British divisions which have reinforced the 8th Army for this battle left England in May or early June. Most of the 6-pounder we are now and have been using in so many hundreds were despatched before the fall of Tobruk. This also applies to the more heavily armoured and more heavily gunned British tanks. As for the American tanks-the admirable Shermans-they came to us in the following way. On that dark day when the news of the fall of Tobruk came in, I was with President Roosevelt in his room at the White House. The House knows how bitter a blow this was. But nothing could have exceeded the delicacy and kindness of our American friends and Allies. They had no thought but to help. Their very best tanks-the Shermans-were just coming out of the factories. The first batch had been newly placed in the hands of their divisions who had been waiting for them and looking forward to receiving them. The President took a large number of these tanks back from the troops to whom they had just been given. They were placed on board ship in the early days of July and they sailed direct to Suez under American escort for a considerable part of the voyage. The President also sent us a large number of self-propelled 105 mm. guns, which are most useful weapons for contending with the 88 mm. high velocity guns, of which the Germans have made so much use. One ship in this convoy-this precious convoy-was sunk by a U-boat, but immediately, without being asked, the United States replaced it with another ship carrying an equal number of these weapons. All these tanks and high velocity guns played a recognisable part, indeed an important part, in General Alexander's battle.
When I was in Egypt in the early days of August I visited myself every unit which was to be armed with these tanks and guns, some of them the most seasoned regiments we have, including the Yeomanry Division. But, alas, they had no weapons adequate for the fight, and even those they had had been taken away from them in the stress of General Auchinleck's battle. I was able to tell those troops that the very finest weapons that existed would soon be in their possession; that these came direct from the President and that, meanwhile, they must prepare themselves by every form of exercise and training for their use when they were delivered. That was at the beginning of August. But none of these units was ready to fight in the repulse of Rommel's attack in the second battle of El Alamein, although all of them were ready for action by 23rd October when we began what I call the Battle of Egypt. Thus, you will see that the decision taken by the President on 20th June, took four months to be operative, although the utmost energy and speed were used at each stage. Records were broken at every point in the unloading and fitting-up of the weapons and in their issue to the troops, but it was indispensable that the men should also have reasonable training in handling them. One may say, in fact, that between taking the decision for reinforcing the Middle East for a great operation and the reinforcements coming into action a period of five months or even more has been required.
Thus, before the Vote of Censure in the early days of July, all measures in our power had already been taken first to repel the enemy's further assaults and, secondly, to take decisive offensive action against him. See, then, how silly it is for people to imagine that Governments can act on impulse or in immediate response to pressure in these large-scale offensives. There must be planning design and forethought, and after that a long period of silence which looks-I can quite understand it-to the ordinary spectator as if it were simply apathy or inertia, but which is, in fact, stead, indispensable preparation for the blow. Moreover, you have first to get sufficient ascendancy even to prepare to strike such a blow.
I am certainly not one of those who need to be prodded. In fact if anything, I am a prod. My difficulties rather lie in finding the patience and self-restraint to wait through many anxious week. for the results to be achieved. And because a Government cannot at every moment give an explanation of what it is doing and what is going on, it would be and it will be, a great mistake to assume that nothing is being done. In my view, everything in human power was done, making allowance for the fallibility of human judgment. We recreated and revivified our war-battered Army, we placed a new Army at its side, and rearmed it on a gigantic scale. By these means we repaired the disaster which fell upon us and converted the defence of Egypt into a successful attack.
Of course, if we had not had the disaster, the measures taken in the hopes of better fortune would have carried us by now far on the road to Tripoli, but what was prepared to lead on success came in as a means of retrieving failure. The failure has delayed our operations. Our position, in time, has been set back. Still there are consolations. The losses to the enemy in all this Egyptian fighting have been very heavy. He could not have found a worse place to lose a battle. The cost to him of maintaining this African campaign has been exorbitant. One in every three of his ships, with their sorely needed cargoes, has gone to the bottom of the sea, through our submarines and our Air Force, and the resource of German and Italian shipping are most severely strained. Now in this battle the enemy's losses have-been mortal so far as this theatre is concerned, and he has had to employ a great part of his air force, including one-third of his transport and long-range reconnaissance planes, merely to keep his army supplied with food, ammunition and fuel. His air effort against Russia was definitely affected during all these last three months. His U-boat activities in the Mediterranean have been considerably reduced. Great as has been the cost and the burden to us of the African campaign, many as have been its disappointments and mistakes, it has, from first to last, been an immense drain upon German and Italian resources and the most effective means we have yet had of drawing a portion of the enemy's strength and wrath away from Russia upon ourselves.
Another important point to remember is the need of combining and concerting the operations of the various Allies and making them fit together into a general design and to do this in spite of all the hard accidents of war and the incalculable interruptions of the enemy. One great obstacle to the constant unity of the Allies is geography. We stand around the circumference of the circle. The main enemy lies in the centre. A vast void separates us from the other war, in which we are equally interested, proceeding in the Pacific theatre. Hitler can summon quite easily a conference in Berlin or anywhere he chooses in Central Europe and can bring together, apart from Japan, all those concerned in the war effort of the Axis Powers, without these representative authorities being subject to any serious inconvenience, or being even temporarily detached from the tasks each of them has in hand. For us, through geography, joint consultation is far more difficult. President Roosevelt has not found it possible to leave the United States nor Premier Stalin to leave Russia. Therefore, I have had to make journeys in each direction, carrying with me to and fro most important military authorities and other experts and to labour, so far as possible, to bring all our plans into concert and harmony. We have brought them, for the time being, into some harmony.
So far as Russia is concerned, her course and position were fixed. The Soviets had to repel the terrific onslaught of Germany. They have been completely absorbed in their own defence and, in defending themselves, they have rendered an incomparable service to the common cause. They have rendered this service by killing or permanently putting out of action far more millions than Germany lost during the whole of the last war. I recognise the force of all that Premier Stalin said in his last speech about the enormous weight that has been thrown on Russia. My heart has bled for Russia. I have felt what almost every one in this House must have felt, that intense desire that we should be suffering with her and that we should take some of the weight off her. Everything that he said about the burden thrown on them, the disproportionate burden, is perfectly true. It is evident however that Russia is at least three times as strong a living organism as she was in the last war. The idea that Russia could withstand the whole of the German Army in the last war was never for a moment entertained. Then she had only a small fraction of the German power but now she has the whole weight of it, and as for any that is employed on this side, or in the conquered countries, that is more than made up for by the horde of division provided by Finland, Rumania, Hungary and others of the Nazi-ridden or Fascist-ridden States. The Russians have borne the burden and the heat of the day, and I think it absolutely natural on their part, and fully within their rights, for them to make the very strong and stark assertions which they have made. Our need was to help them but to help them in a manner effective and suitable. It might have been a relief to our feelings-at least, in the early stages-if we had delivered a premature attack across the Channel, if we had had, for instance, a dozen Dieppes one on day and a couple of Dunkirks a week or two later. But a disaster of that character would have been of no help to Russia. It would have been the greatest disservice to Russia.
But the attack which will be made in due course across the Channel or the North Sea requires an immense degree of preparation, vast numbers of special landing craft and a great Army trained, division by division, in amphibious warfare. All this is proceeding, but it takes time. Of course, should the enemy become demoralised at any moment, the same careful preparations would not be needed. Risks could be run on a large scale. But this is certainly not the case at the present time. There is a German Army in France as large, apart from the Home Guard, as ours in Great Britain. It is not so well equipped as the British or American troops, but it contains many veteran German soldiers, many experienced officers who have taken part in the overthrow and massacre of a dozen countries. It has ample weapons of the latest type; it has the aid of the immense fortifications erected along the Channel and North Sea coasts. There are also the extraordinary and peculiar difficulties attendant on all landings across the sea in the teeth of opposition-the chances of weather in this some what variable Northern climate, the difficulty of reconciling tides and the moons, of catching at one moment high visibility from the air and smooth waters for the landing craft. There are man other factors. I could speak for an hour upon them, but I do no intend to labour the matter, certainly not in Public Session, because a great many of these difficulties it will be our duty to overcome.
But all of them constitute a problem which makes the processes of moving an Army across the Channel from one side to the other-it cuts both ways-a problem which, happily for us, has never yet been solved in war. It would have been most improvident for us to attempt such an enterprise before all our preparations were ready. They have very greatly advanced. Enormous installations have been and are being brought into existence at all our suitable ports, but no one would have been justified, nor indeed would it have been physically possible, in making an effective invasion of the Continent during the summer or autumn of 1942. Here let me say a word about pressure. No amount of pressure by public opinion or from any other quarter would make me, as the person chiefly responsible, consent to an operation which our military advisers had convinced me would lead to a great disaster. I should think it extremely dishonourable and indeed an act of treason to the nation to allow any uninstructed pressure, however well meant, or sentimental feelings, however honourable, to drive me into such reckless or wanton courses. Again and again, with the full assent of my colleagues in the War Cabinet, I have instructed the Chiefs of the Staff that in endeavouring to solve their problems they should disregard public clamour, and they know that His Majesty's Government, resting securely upon this steady House of Commons, is quite strong enough to stand like a bulkhead between the military authorities and the well-meant impulses which stir so many breasts. It is not for me to claim the whole responsibility for what has not been done, but I should be quite ready and well content to bear it.
Why then, it will be said, did you allow false hopes to be raised in Russian breasts? Why then did you agree with the United States and Russia to a communiqué which spoke of a second front in Europe in 1942? I must say, quite frankly, that I hold it perfectly justifiable to deceive the enemy even if at the same time your own people are for a while misled. There is one thing, however, which you must never do, and that is to mislead your Ally. You must never make a promise which you do not fulfill. I hope we shall show that we have lived up to that standard. All British promises to Russia have been made in writing or given across the table in recorded conversations with the Soviet representative. In June I gave the Russian Government a written document making it perfectly clear that, while we were preparing to make a landing in 1942 we could not promise to do so. Meanwhile, whether or not we were going to attack the Continent in August, September or October, it was of the utmost consequence to Russia that the enemy should believe that we were so prepared and so resolved. Only in this way could we draw and keep the largest possible number of Germans pinned in the Pas de Calais along the coast of France and in the Low Countries. We have drawn and kept at least 33 German divisions in the West, and one-third of the German bomber air force is there, and this bomber force is not being used to bomb us to any extent. Why? It was being saved up for these very landings should they occur on the beaches, and they have remained, playing no effective military part for a considerable time. We ourselves are also engaging, including the Middle East and Malta fighting, more than half of the whole fighter strength of Germany. In addition, there are 10 German divisions in Norway. The main part of the German fleet has been for some months tied to the Northern fjords. There are about 350 of their best aircraft gathered up in the Far North to impede our convoys to Russia. Here is another front we have found it very costly to maintain. Let me tell you about that.
Of the 19 convoys we have sent to Russia, every one has been an important fleet operation, because the enemy's main fleet was close at hand. The latest one required the use of 77 ships of war, apart altogether from the supply ships. The Foreign Secretary, if he is well enough-my right hon. Friend has a temporary indisposition to-day-or if not, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, will recount in some detail later on in the Debate the immense output of munitions which we have sent to Russia during a period when we ourselves were being vehemently reproached, and naturally reproached, for the comparative ill equipment of our own troops. Indeed, I think that the effort and achievement of this country, industrial, naval, and military, during the year 1942 should be a source of pride and thanksgiving, not only to all in these Islands, but to our Allies both in the East and in the West.
Now, I come to the great enterprise which has just been unfolded. On my first visit to Washington after the United State was attacked by Japan, Germany and Italy, President Roosevelt favoured the idea that French North Africa was specially suitable for American intervention in the Western theatre. This view was fully shared by us. However, it was clearly the duty both of Britain and of the United States to exhaust every possibility of carrying more direct aid to Russia by means of a liberating descent upon France. Both plans were, therefore, studied by the Staffs with the utmost attention, and preparations were made for both possibilities, either alternatively or simultaneously. Personally, I have always considered the Western front as one. We hold a very powerful enemy army pinned on the French shores, and every week our preparations to strike it will increase and develop. At the same time we make this wide encircling movement in the Mediterranean, having for its primary object the recovery of the command of that vital sea, but also having for its object the exposure of the under-belly of the Axis, especially Italy, to heavy attack. That seemed from the beginning of this year to be the correct strategy. The establishment of a Mediterranean as well as an Atlantic or Channel front would obviously give us wide freedom of maneuver. Our sea power and the gradual development of our amphibious power enabled both operations to be contemplated on a very large scale. The 18th and 19th century battles were fought on fronts of six or seven miles, but the same principles apply on fronts which nowadays extend for 2,000 miles or more.
As the year advanced, it became clear that the provision of landing craft would not be on a sufficiently large scale to enable a heavy intervention to take place across the Channel in the favourable weather months of 1942. General Marshall, the Head of the American Army, with which is included the American Air Force, paid two visits to this country, the first in April, the second in July; and on the second occasion he was accompanied by Admiral King, the Commander-in-Chief of the American Navy. It was decided on this second occasion to hold the enemy on the French shore and to strike at his Southern flank in the Mediterranean through North Africa. In this decision the British and American Staffs were wholly united, and their views were shared and adopted by the President and the British War Cabinet. Orders were issued accordingly with extreme urgency at the end of July. Here I should like to say that in the planning of this joint operation the American and British staff officers, of whom many scores have been employed night and day, have worked together like a band of brothers. The comprehension which exists, the give and take. the desire to be first in giving quick service, are very marked, and will be an invaluable ingredient in our future tasks and our future achievements. Orders for the North African expedition were accordingly issued at the end of July.
As a very important part of this North African operation, it was necessary to bring the British 8th Army into a condition to regain the initiative and to resume the offensive in Egypt. At that time there was very great anxiety about our ability even to hold the front at El Alamein. However, General Auchinleck, that fine officer, succeeded in stemming the enemy's advance. The powerful reinforcements, which I have mentioned, of men and material had arrived or were on the water close at hand, and the troops were being equipped with all the latest material which was pouring in, and were rapidly fitting themselves for a renewal of the conflict on a great scale. As I was far from satisfied with the conditions reported to prevail in the 8th Army and was concerned about its confidence in the higher command, I thought it my duty to visit this Army, taking with me the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir Alan Brooke, in whose judgment I have the greatest confidence, in order that together we could see the situation on the spot and take any decisions which might be found necessary. There was an even greater need for such a journey. Although, as I have said, we have told the Soviet Government that we could make no promise to attack across the Channel in 1942, but only that we would do our utmost to overcome the difficulties of such an operation, and as we had now settled not to make the attempt in the Autumn of 1942, but, on the other hand, to make an enveloping attack on North Africa, it was necessary to explain the whole position to Premier Stalin. I thought it better-and my colleagues pressed this view upon me-that I should deal with this matter personally, face to face, rather than leave it to the ordinary diplomatic channels. It was a very serious conversation which I had to undertake. I therefore sought and obtained the approval of the War Cabinet to make the journey which I described to the House when I came back about six weeks ago. I am sure that the course adopted prevented a great deal of friction and ill feeling between us and our Russian Allies, and I was very glad to read Mr. Stalin's statement when he said:
"There followed another important step, the visit to Moscow of the British Prime Minister, Mr. Churchill, in the course of which a complete understanding was reached concerning the relations between the two countries."
I assure the House I have a solid belief in the wisdom and good faith of this outstanding man, and although the news that I brought was not welcome, and was not considered by them adequate, nevertheless the fact remains that we parted good friends, and, in the words which Mr. Stalin uses, a complete understanding exists between us. The Russians bore their disappointment like men. They faced the enemy, and now they have reached the winter successfully, although we were unable to give them that help which they so earnestly demanded and which we, had it been physically practicable, would so gladly have accorded.
I have already told the House about the changes which, with the approval of the Cabinet and with the advice of the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, I made in the Middle East Command and in the Command of the 8th Army. In order that General Alexander should concentrate his whole attention upon the main object, he was relieved of all responsibility for Persia and Iraq. When you have a wild beast in your back garden, like Rommel, you do not want to be worrying about things that are going on a thousand miles away. A new Command came into being there, which is now becoming a powerful force under General Maitland-Wilson. I can now read to the House the actual directee which I gave to General Alexander on 10th August, before leaving Cairo for Russia. It has at least the merit of brevity:
"1. Your prime and main duty will be to take or destroy at the earliest opportunity the German-Italian army commanded by Field Marshal Rommel, together with all its supplies and establishments in Egypt and Libya.
2. You will discharge, or cause to be discharged, such other duties as appertain to your Command without prejudice to the task described in paragraph 1, which must be considered paramount in His Majesty's interests."
The General may very soon be sending along for further instructions. In spite of the strain to which General Alexander had been subjected in the hard, adverse campaign in Burma, from which he had emerged with so much credit, although he had nothing but retreat and misfortune, he accepted the new duties with ardour. Under him, commanding the 8th Army, was placed that remarkable soldier, General Montgomery. These two officers set up their headquarters in the desert, and Air Vice-Marshal Coningham, who commands the air forces in the battle there, was in the same little circle of lorries, wagons and tents in which they live. In a very short time an electrifying effect was produced upon the troops, who were also reinforced by every available man and weapon. Meanwhile, in the rear-ward areas, the intensive training of the formations to be armed with the new American and British weapons proceeded ceaselessly. All these changes had to be made in the face of an imminent attack by Rommel's army, the preparations for which were plainly apparent. In order that the Desert Army should have the fullest freedom of manoeuvre and not have to fall back if its Southward flank were turned-because the line did not extend completely to the Qattara Depression; there was an open flank-every preparation was made to defend Cairo by the assembly of a considerable force, by the mobilising of every man from the rear-ward Services, exactly as we should do in England in the case of invasion, by the preparation of defence works along the line of the Nile, and by the use of inundations. All this was set in train. The new Command having been installed, my work there was done, and I returned to give my report to the House.
During the night of 30th-31st August, when the moon was already on the wane, Rommel's threatened attack was delivered. Quite rightly from his point of view, he did not by-pass the army to strike at Cairo, although the road seemed open. We thought he might, but he did not. He did not care to leave behind him the Desert Army now that it was reinforced by the 44th Division, which is commanded with distinction by our Deputy Sergeant at Arms (Major-General Hughes) and which was largely reorganised and regrouped. Pivoting on the Italians in the coastal area, he therefore attacked on the Southern flank with all his armour and most of his Germans. Then followed the second Battle of Alamein, the first being General Auchinleck's which stemmed the tide in July. Rommel found himself immediately confronted with stern resistance and with artillery, used on the largest scale and abundantly supplied with ammunition. He did not press the issue to extremes, and, after about three days, he withdrew. Our losses were about 2,000. His were considerably heavier, especially a disproportionate loss in tanks.
The narrowness of the passage between us and the Qattara Depression, which had proved so serviceable to us when we were resisting Rommel's attacks in both the defensive Battles of Alamein, became of course a most serious adverse factor to our advance when we ourselves were ready in our turn to assume the offensive. Our attack had to fit in harmoniously with the great operation in French North Africa to which it was a prelude. Wet had to wait till our troops were trained in the use of the newt weapons which were arriving. We had to have a full moon on account of the method of attack. All these conditions were satisfiable around 23rd October. Meanwhile, however, we knew that the enemy was turning the position in front of us into a veritable fortress, blasting gun-pits and trenches in the solid rock, laying enormous and elaborate minefields and strengthening himself in every manner both by air and sea transport, in spite of the heavy toll exacted by our Air Force and our submarines. An attack by us round the enemy's Southern flank led into difficult country, with no threat to his communications. On the other hand, to blast a hole by a frontal attack in the North by the sea was a most forbidding task. However, when I spent a night on 18th August with Generals Alexander and Montgomery in their desert headquarters, General Montgomery, with General Alexander's full assent, expounded in exact detail the first stages of the plan which has since in fact been carried out. It was an anxious matter. In the last war we devised the tank to clear a way for the infantry, who were otherwise held up by the intensity of machine-gun fire. On this occasion it was the infantry who would have to clear the way for the tanks, to break through the crust and liberate the superior armour. This they could only do in the moonlight, and for this they must be supported with a concentration of artillery more powerful than any used in the present war. On a six-mile front of attack we had a 25-pounder gun, or better, every 23 yards. It is true that in the later barrages of 1918, in the Hindenburg Line, and other long prepared positions, a concentration of one gun to every 15 yards was attained. But the field guns of those days were 18-pounders. Our 25-pounders are heavier, and we also believe they are the best field guns in the world. It was necessary to effect penetration of about 6,000 yards at the first stroke in order to get through the hostile minefields, trenches and batteries. In the last war it was nearly always possible to make this initial penetration. In those days the artillery having blasted the gap, the next step was to gallop the cavalry through what was called the "G in Gap." But this was never done as the horsemen were soon brought to a standstill by the machine-gun posts in the rear. Horses were shot and the whole possibility of exploiting the breach passed away. Times have changed, however. We have a steel machine cavalry now which, once a path is cleared through the mines and anti-tank guns, can certainly go forward against machine-gun posts to encounter whatever mobile forces of the enemy may lie beyond. That is the difference in this matter between the two wars. I feel sure the House will be glad that I should put these points to them because in all that has been written-and so much has been written-about this battle these points which touch the sequence and articulation of events have not been made very clearly.
For the purpose of turning to full account the breach we made an entirely new Corps, the 10th, was formed consisting of two British Armoured Divisions and New Zealand Division-that "ball of fire" as it was described to me by those who had seen it work. This very powerful force of between 40,000 and 50,000 men, including all the best tanks, the Grants and the Shermans, was withdrawn from the battle front immediately after Rommel's repulse in the second battle of Alamein and devoted itself entirely to intensive training, exercises and preparation. It was this thunderbolt hurled through the gap which finished Rommel and his arrogant army.
The success of all these plans could not have been achieved without substantial superiority in the air. The Royal Air Force, which had a substantial proportion of American-manned squadrons with it, had first to attain ascendancy over the opposing air force. Having attained this ascendancy it was used behind the lines to reduce the all-important supplies of fuel and ammunition without which the Germans could not effectively resist. It was also used in the battle itself to break up any threatening counterattacks before they could develop, thus giving the troops time to consolidate the positions won. By reaching out far to the real of the retreating army, air power completely disorganised the enemy's withdrawal and once again by the destruction of his mechanised transport prevented the bringing of fuel and ammunition to the front. When we retreated all those hundreds of miles from Tobruk at such speed, what saved us was superior air power. What has consummated Rommel's ruin is that he has had to make this ruinous and speedy retreat with a superior air force hammering him and hampering him at every stage. In Air Marshal Tedder and Air Vice-Marshal Coningham we have two air leaders of the very highest quality, not technicians, but warriors who have worked in perfect harmony with the generals, and the manner in which in this Egyptian campaign the arrangements between the air and the military has been perfected has given a model which should be followed in all combined operations in the future.
It is true we had gathered superior forces, but all this would have been futile but for the masterly military conception of the commanders, the attention to detail which characterised their preparations and the absolute ruthlessness with which their forces were engaged, not only at the point of rupture but in gripping the enemy along the entire battle front. This battle is in fact a very fine example of the military art as developed under modern conditions. The skill of the commanders was rivaled by the conduct of their troops. Everyone testifies to the electrifying effect which the new Command had upon the Army. This noble Desert Army, which has never doubted its power to beat the enemy and whose pride had suffered cruelly from retreats and disasters which they could not understand, regained in a week its ardour and self-confidence. Historians may explain Tobruk. The 8th Army has done better; it has avenged it. Very full accounts have been given of the course of the battle during the 12 days vehement fighting by the intrepid reporters and photographers who have been given a free run over the field at the risk of their lives. I am only concerned at the moment with its sequence and articulation.
From the moment that the seaward flank of the enemy was broken and the great mass of our armour flowed forward and successfully engaged the Panzer divisions the fate of the Axis troops to the southward, amounting to six Italian divisions, largely motorised, was sealed. As our advance reached El Daba and later Fuka, their lines of supply and of retreat were equally severed. They were left in a waterless desert to perish or surrender. At Fuka a grim action was fought on a smaller scale, but with unexampled ardour on both sides between the British armour and the remnants of the German Panzer Army. In this action particularly, the British and Germans had it all to themselves. The Germans were almost entirely destroyed, only remnants escaping to Mersa Matroh where again no halting-place was found.
It is impossible to give a final estimate of the enemy's casualties. General Alexander's present estimate, which reached me late last night, is that 59,000 Germans and Italians have been killed, wounded or taken prisoner. Of these 34,000 are Germans, and 25,000 Italians. Of course there are many more Italians who may be wandering about in the desert and every effort is being made to bring them in. The enemy also lost irretrievably about 500 tanks and not fewer than 1,000 guns of all types from 47 mm. upwards. Our losses though severe and painful have not been unexpectedly high having regard to the task our troops were called upon to face. They amount to 13,600 officers and men. They were spread over the whole Army. Fifty-eight per cent. of them are British troops from the United Kingdom, with a much larger proportion of officers owing to all the armoured formations being British. Australian, New Zealand and South African troops were in the forefront of the break-through. Of the three British infantry Divisions, the 51st Division, which bore the brunt, has gained further honour for Scotland and the Highlands. The 50th and 44th Divisions also acquitted themselves with distinction. The 4th Indian Division and the Fighting French and Greek Brigades all played their part with the utmost alacrity. The pursuit has now reached far to the West, and I cannot pretend to forecast where it will stop or what will be left of the enemy at the end of it. The speed of advance of our pursuing troops exceeds anything yet seen in the several ebbs and flows of the Libyan battlefields. Egypt is already clear of the enemy; we are advancing into Cyrenaica, and we may rely upon our generals and upon the Air Force to accomplish amazing feats now that the main force of the enemy has been broken and they have before them the opportunity of regaining in a few weeks, perhaps in much less than that, ground which otherwise might have taken long campaigns to reconquer. Taken by itself, the Battle of Egypt must be regarded as an historic British victory. In order to celebrate it directions are being given to ring the bells throughout the land next Sunday morning, and I should think that many will listen to their peals with thankful hearts.
MR. GEORGE GRIFFITHS (Hemsworth): At what time?
THE PRIME MINISTER: That will be notified through the agency of the B.B.C., for everyone's convenience, and also to explain that the bells are not being rung on account of invasion.
While I do not want to detain the House too long, I must say one word about the third of these elements I mentioned, a word about surprise and strategy. By a marvelous system of camouflage, complete tactical surprise was achieved in the desert. The enemy suspected, indeed knew, that an attack was impending, but where and when and how it was coming were hidden from him. The 10th Corps which he had seen from the air exercising 50 miles in the rear moved silently away in the night, but leaving an exact simulation of its tanks where it had been, and proceeded to its points of attack. The enemy suspected that the attack was impending but did not know how, when or where, and above all he had no idea of the scope upon which he was to be assaulted.
But what was done by the Desert Army in the field was accomplished upon a far vaster scale here at home and in the United States in the gigantic Anglo-American descent upon North Africa Here again Hitler knew that something was brewing, but what he could not guess. He naively complained of "military idiots" and drunkards-he is quite uncivil from time to time-the working of whose tortuous minds he and his staffs were unable to discern. In fact, however, while he was thus wondering, the largest amphibious operation ever conceived was about to sail for a strategic area of cardinal importance, which it reached without the slightest warning and where the ships succeeded in making their landfall.
There is a great advantage, I think, in our not publishing the shipping losses. The Germans tell their own tales, which make no difference to the mentality and steadfastness of our people, but the Germans become the victims of their own lies. They have exaggerated continuously. The losses are heavy enough in all conscience, but they have continuously exaggerated them, and consequently I do not think they believed that we had the shipping for any operation on such a scale as is now being employed. None the less, the greatest credit is due to the many hundreds of people in Britain and in the United States-hundreds, there may be more-who necessarily had to be informed because of the part they played in the preparations or who could have inferred from the duties given to them what was in the wind. A tribute is also due to the Press for the extreme discretion which they practiced, and-which they were asked to practice, in avoiding all speculation upon dangerous topics. These are important matters and will be helpful in the future. Democracies have to show that they are not incapable of keeping their war secrets. Here is a fine example.
I have completed my account of these operations. I thought it right to go into the details of them because I know the deep interest which the House takes in these matters, and also the very large number of Members who have practical experience of war. What is happening now? We, of course, foresaw the reactions which the entry of American and British Forces into North Africa would produce on various countries affected. First of all, there was Italy, which will now come to a much fuller and better realisation of the trials of war and of the unwisdom of entering a war when you think your antagonist is prostrate. It will bring home to the people of Italy as a whole a very much clearer realisation of the trials and horrors of war than they have had the opportunity of experiencing up to now. To-day the news reaches us that Hitler has decided to overrun all France, thus breaking the Armistice which the Vichy Government had kept with such pitiful and perverted fidelity, at a horrible cost, even sacrificing their ships and sailors to fire upon American rescuing troops as they arrived. Even while they were doing that for the sake of this Armistice they have been stricken down by their German task masters.
This, surely, is the moment for all Frenchmen worthy of the name to stand together and to be truly united in spirit. Their trials will be many, and the difficulties into which individuals will be thrown in the circumstances which may overtake them are unimaginable. Nevertheless, here is the moment for all Frenchmen to sink personal feuds and rivalries and to think, as General de Gaulle is thinking, only of the liberation of their native land. I must, however, confess freely to the House that I have not sufficient information at the moment about what is happening in France to add anything to the accounts which are being made public hour by hour. Only at the moment when I entered the House news reached me that in North Africa Casablanca had capitulated to the United States. Another message was that Bougie has been occupied, further to the east of Algiers, by an amphibious expedition. Oran is already in the possession of the Allies. Algiers has been for three days in their possession. All the vital landing ports in North Africa are in Allied hands.
The House may be sure that many things are going to happen in the next few days, and I should be merely presuming if I attempted to give my own opinion upon the situation, which will develop in North Africa, in France or in Italy, except that we shall shortly have far greater facilities for bombing Italy than-ever existed before. That is not a matter of speculation.
I have now given to the House the best account I can, amid the press of events, of these remarkable transactions, which, I venture to hope, have already been highly beneficial to our interests and to our cause. We are entitled to rejoice only upon the condition that we do not relax. I always liked those lines by the American poet, Walt Whitman. I have several times repeated them. They apply to-day most aptly. He said:
". . . Now understand me well-it is provided in the essence of things that from any fruition of success, no matter what, shall come forth something to make a greater struggle necessary."
The problems of victory are more agreeable than those of defeat, but they are no less difficult. In all our efforts to recapture the initiative we shall be confronted with many perplexing choices and many unavoidable hazards, and I cannot doubt that we shall meet with our full share of mistakes, vexations and disappointments. We shall need to use the stimulus of victory to increase our exertions, to perfect our systems, and to refine our processes In that spirit, sustained by the unswerving support of the House of Commons we shall bend again to our task.