DEFENCE POLICY. (Hansard, 22 May 1935) Mr. CHURCHILL
I think the Lord President was very wise when he declined to form, or to ask the Committee to form, a decisive opinion upon the extremely important speech delivered yesterday by Herr Hitler. In the first place, I have found a difficulty, which I think most other Members of the House must have experienced, in getting a reliable and trustworthy report of that speech. Some of the accounts which summarised it seemed to give a rather more favourable impression than I derived when I read the actual text so far as it NN as presented, and I certainly shall not trespass upon the time of this Debate—which, after all, is a defence Debate: we have tried very hard to get it as a defence Debate—by any attempt to analyse in detail any of the statements of that important deliverance.
I must, however, say that I think it would be a great pity if at the very outset there arose a feeling that some new and extremely hopeful situation had been created. I did not find ground for such a feeling. The attitude which was disclosed by the Head of the German Government and of the German State towards collective security, or pooled security—an excellent phrase, which I believe is current on the Front Opposition Bench—the attitude disclosed toward pooled security was far from being encouraging. The attitude towards noninterference in other countries, which had special relation to Danubian problems, was also far from encouraging. The reference made to the demilitarised zone, and to the inconceivable difficulty—I think that that was the expression used—of Germany observing the sanctity of that zone in view of the French defensive preparations behind their own frontier, was also, I thought, more likely to excite than to allay concern.
I personally welcomed very much the language which Herr Hitler used against the indiscriminate bombing of civilian populations. It gave me the greatest possible pleasure to read those words, and I am sure that that was the feeling of everyone who read them. Certainly, we must take them as a means of pressing this point forward. At the same time, I am bound to remind the Committee that the German Air Force, which has been so newly created, contains a larger proportion of long-distance bombing machines as compared with other types than any other air force in the world.
Lastly, there was the question of the abolition of the submarine. There again we shall all be agreed. No Power in the world would be more glad to see the submarine abolished than what is still the first of the naval Powers of the world. But there is not much chance, I think, of universal agreement being reached upon that subject. I do not think it is likely to be a step which we shall see taken in the near future. There are countries, very differently circumstanced from us, which regard the submarine as a most convenient way in which a Power which cannot afford a battle fleet, and definitely accepts a minor role in naval matters, can derive a very high measure of defensive security without undue expenditure of men or money. Therefore, while I think the statement which the Head of the German State has made is satisfactory so far as it goes, it would be a mistake if the Committee imagined that that reform for which we have pressed so long and so ardently, namely, the abolition of submarines, is likely to come into force in the near future. On the contrary, the new fact with which we are confronted is the construction, contrary to the Treaty, of a certain number of German submarines, which have been prepared under conditions which made their apparition surprising to other countries. Therefore, although I hope that later study will alter my view, it does not seem to me that the position has greatly changed.
But all must welcome the friendly tone of Herr Hitler, his friendly references to this country, and the several important points which he brought forward and which form a good link upon which conversations could be opened, and negotiations, perhaps, be founded. We should welcome that all the more because we are entering a period of ever-increasing anxiety. Germany has armed, and is arming, upon a scale which is vast, and which is indefinite. Take the German Army, to which my Noble Friend referred. The figure of 550,000 men is quoted with regard to the German Army, but that means 550,000 men in barracks. That is the permanent number, through which will be constantly flowing the enormous annual quotas of recruits which German manhood supplies each year. Each year German manhood actually supplies double the number that are available permanently. The 550,000 is the body retained with the colours, which will very rapidly gather behind it enormous reserves—reserves which in a few years' time will enable that army, which we speak of as an army of 550,000, to mobilise at 2,000,000 or 3,000,000 men. In the meantime, before these reserves have been, so to speak, secreted by the colour units, there are the extra formations of the Brownshirts and other organisations in Germany, amounting to very large numbers, which are available to reinforce the great number of men who are now being gathered together under conscription throughout all the barracks of the Reich.
Then there is the question of the German Navy. It is to be 35 percent, of our Navy. I presume that that means 35 per cent. of the tonnage; I do not know any other way in which a percentage of that kind could be calculated. All I can say is that 35 per cent. of the tonnage of our Navy, if represented by a brand-new fleet, could far exceed 35 per cent. in value; its value might well be a far higher percentage. You cannot compare old ships with new. More than 20 years ago I and my right hon. Friend the Member for South Melton (Mr. Lambert), who is not here at the moment, were presenting to the House estimates for, and working upon the designs of three-quarters of the battleships which are now in our line of battle. All the "Queen Elizabeths," the "Royal Sovereigns," and later on the "Renown" and the "Repulse"—12 out of 15—were constructed in the days when I was at the Admiralty more than 20 years ago. These old ships are perfectly capable of doing their duty, perfectly capable of discharging their task, until newer vessels are built, and then the difference between them and the product of modern science and naval knowledge, and the newness of the structure itself, is such that to confront the two types, old and new, would simply be sending your sailors to a horrible struggle under most injurious and damaging conditions. [An HON. MEMBER: "Coronel."] That is a very good case in point.
On the other hand, there are many things which old ships can do, and have to do. When the whole Navy of the country was deployed in all parts of the world, endeavouring to keep open our communications, old ships had to take their part as well as new. Luckily we had great numbers of them. But, as I say, if the Germans are going to build 35 per cent. of our tonnage in new construction, it is perfectly and absolutely clear that we must include in our annual programme a superior construction of new ships, ship for ship in each type. I will not say what the percentage of superiority should be, but we must do that. Otherwise, although we might work out a fairly imposing preponderance in tonnage, when it came to conflict it would be found that we had woefully deceived ourselves and had involved the State in great misfortune. It seems to me that for this purpose we must recover our freedom of design. Not only must we recover our general freedom, because we are limited in all directions, but we must recover particularly our freedom of design.
Looking back upon the Treaty of London I am very glad to think that the Conservative Party gave a united vote against it. In those days my right hon. Friend the Lord President was wiser than he is now; he used frequently to take my advice. We recorded our vote against it. What a disastrous instrument it has been, fettering the unique naval knowledge which we possess and forcing us to spend our scanty money on building the wrong or undesirable types of ships; and condemning us to send out to deep waters and sink vessels like the "Tiger," in itself capable of dealing with the new smaller German battleship; and vessels like the four "Iron Dukes" which would have been invaluable if war broke out for convoying fleets of merchant ships to and from Australia and New Zealand in the teeth of the danger of hostile cruisers. I hope, therefore, that we shall have, some time or other, a clear statement from the Admiralty that new construction by Germany will be met by superior naval construction here. Clearly, for that purpose we shall endeavour to recover our freedom to build and our freedom of design at the earliest possible moment. I venture to say that on a naval matter though I have not often referred to. naval affairs.
I said we were entering a period of serious anxieties. I think it is a period, also, of increasing tension. I will give the House two causes which, it seems to me, cannot possibly be overlooked. The first is this: German unemployment has been very largely cured by German preparations for war. Several millions of people who when Herr Hitler was elected looked to him to provide them with work have had work conferred upon them; and the method by which that work has been given them has been in the preparation of armaments, or the construction of military roads, or the removal of military factories to remote parts of Germany, and generally in all these processes. The great wheels of German industry have been set working, and they are turning out in endless succession every kind of weapon of war. To reverse or stop that would undoubtedly produce a convulsion in the internal domestic life of Germany and one most likely to cause embarrassment and reproach to theregime.
It seems to me, therefore, that words—I am all for goodwords—cannot form a foundation for our action unless they are accompanied by deeds; and the likelihood of deeds being done in Germany at the present time which will remove the present danger seems to me remote, when you consider what a dire effect it would have upon the immediate economic, industrial and labour situation within that country. Suppose that the supply of raw materials becomes more difficult in Germany, and that the payments across the exchange become more difficult to make, and that for any reason at a time in the not distant future it is found that this great national armament industry in Germany cannot be kept going at its present rate. It is clear that we shall then be in the presence of what I will call a peak of production beyond which a decline may be expected. All I can say is that I think, should that peak be reached, it will be a period big with fate for Europe and a period in which the greatest vigilance and care must be exercised. This is the first cause which leads me to believe that the tension will not diminish and will increase.
But there is another cause, and this second cause I will describe as the suddenness of a possibly decisive attack. That is what is going to increase the strain upon all countries. Before the War only navies were ready. The Committee know what is the condition of the ships of the Royal Navy. They can go to war in a few hours. They have only got to raise steam, fit war-heads on torpedoes, bring up shells and put to sea, and they can fight. They have got everything on board—and that applies to a great part of the Fleet. That was the same with the German Fleet before the War. When I was at the Admiralty we were instructed by the Committee of Imperial Defence that we were to have the Fleet prepared at any time, night or day or at any season of the year, for attack without warning or without declaration of war. We did our best to live up to that extraordinarily strict injunction[Interruption.]I am much obliged to the hon. Member. We were prepared to defend ourselves against attack. Certainly I never thought an opposite conclusion could possibly be drawn, but I am very glad to make it absolutely clear.
That imposed a very great strain, but it was a strain confined to a very few people. The two persons in charge of the Admiralty, the sailors and the politicians and the principal staffs concerned with the movement of the ships themselves were all aware of the condition of strain. But the ordinary crews of the ships were not conscious of anything exceptional. They lived their lives in the ordinary way without taking any care of the day to day disposition of the ships. But still it was a great strain. And in those days armies could not fall upon each other without a moment's notice. Along and important time-pad of mobilisation, more than a, fortnight, intervened and consequently nations could live and go about their ordinary work in a peaceful manner without this haunting and demoralising fear of a sudden attack, of a bolt from the blue levelled at their heart which might possibly mean destruction. But what is the condition now? That has gone. The motorisation and mechanisation of large parts of these armies enables plans to be made by which hundreds, even thousands, of motor vehicles may be started in the night from different parts a hundred miles behind a frontier and which in the dawn may be found in possession of important parts of a defensive line.
Imagine what a strain that throws upon the French people. I cannot but wonder at their calmness and composure in the face of those dangers which gather about them. They have a defensive line which they have built from the Alps to the Luxemburg frontier, behind which they shield themselves. What is happening under the new conditions being introduced—not by Germany alone certainly hut by modern scientific development—is that an ever larger proportion of the French Army is forced to man these ramparts, and they are bound to consider every daily movement they make from the point of view of possibly being attacked. Probably there is no danger. We all hope there is not. But what I am trying to point out is the state of tension which must affect any great population when such large numbers of persons are compelled to live under those conditions and whose families at home know the conditions they are living under, close to the trenches which they may have to occupy at a moment's notice. For these two reasons, I think the Committee must look forward with anxiety and with seriousness to a condition of increasing strain.
Lastly, above all, there is the air which introduces the mosthideous factor of all, because aeroplanes can be dispatched on a mission of destruction or of provocation at almost any moment and no provision need be made beforehand for them and no warning need be given. Therefore, I say that on all these grounds we are bound to realise that we are entering upon a dark and dangerous valley through which we have to march for quite a long time to come unless some blessed relief comes to us through some agreement—for which there is hardly any exertion that we should not make. My right hon. Friend asked me and asked us all not to indulge in panic. I hope we shall not indulge in panic. But I wish to say this: It is very much better sometimes to have a panic feeling beforehand and then to be quite calm when things happen than to be extremely calm before hand and to get in a panic when things happen. I must say that nothing has surprised me more than, I will not say the indifference but the coolness with which the Committee has treated the extraordinary revelation, surprising they ought to have been, of the German air strength relatively to our own country. Certainly it involves a profound alteration in the status of our country. For the first time for centuries we are not fully equipped to repel or to retaliate for—which is the only form of repulsion in this case—an invasion. That to an island people is astonishing. Panic, indeed. The position is the other way round. We are the incredulous, indifferent children of centuries of security behind the shield of the Royal Navy not being able to wake up yet to the wonderfully transformed condition of the modern world.
I listened to the statement of my right hon. Friend and admired very much his handling of a most difficult Parliamentary occasion. We are, I say, entering upon a period of danger and of difficulty. And how do we stand in this long period of danger? There is no doubt that the Germans are possibly superior to us in the air at the present time, and it is my belief that by the end of this year, unless their rate of construction and development is arrested by some agreement, they will be possibly three and possibly even four times our strength. My right hon. Friend the Member for Caithness (Sir A. Sinclair) challenged some time ago the figures I used in the Debate in November and I thought that to-day, now that those figures are found to be correct, I should have had from him some amende honorable and that he would have welcomed the opportunity of saying that he was wrong, but I gather that my right hon. Friend preferred instead to fasten upon this other figure which I used as lately as 2nd May and challenge that, while saying nothing about his complete stultification on the previous occasion. All that I can say is that I earnestly hope that my forecast will be proved wrong, but there is nothing to prevent such a result being reached if the Germans simply continue to turn out this great machine which they have set in motion and keep it revolving. They have created, whatever it may be, a thousand, 1,500 brand new aeroplanes in a comparatively short space of time, and the plant that brought that about can produce double and treble that number with great ease during the present year. I can only hope that they will not think it necessary to deal with it to that extent.
I come to the new statement which my right hon. Friend has made to-day. The Royal Air Force is to be raised to 1,500 first-line strength. By first-line strength I mean, and I imagine the Government mean, aeroplane formed in squadrons each with another aeroplane behind it, and each squadron with 50 per cent reserve for pilots, with all the organisation and everything that is necessary. I hope that that is the mind behind the picture, and, when I speak about German figures, it is the kind of picture I am endeavouring to count upon. To produce a programme of that kind is the most formidable and tremendous advance in British defence which has been taken, and the Committee should not be at all inclined to underrate the magnitude of the effort which the Government have now proposed to us. But I cannot help saying what a pity it is that we did not make this proposal two years ago, or even one year ago, because then we should have been in a position during this critical period to be making an output similar to that which is being made in other countries. I have given my warnings in the past, and I am certainly not going to repeat them for the purpose of self-glorification on this occasion, least of all would I do it when my right hon. Friend, with his engaging candour and in his usual manly fashion, has said quite openly that so far as the rapidity of German expansion was concerned, the figures placed before him were wrong and have been misleading. That is so. The confession does my right hon. Friend the greatest credit, but the consequences of what happened remain, and it is characteristic of my right hon. Friend that he remains to face those consequences with courage. I am glad that the significance of that is apparent to the Committee.
I must say that I do not think that I could follow my right hon. Friend in the description of the difficulties of collecting and finding the information from Germany. It has always been difficult, and indeed impossible to ascertain the top limit either of what Germany had or of the rate at which she was producing or what her capacity was, or what use she meant to make of that capacity. The top limit has always been difficult to ascertain, but for the last two years a perfect stream of information has been coming to this country from France, Holland, Italy, Belgium and Switzerland, and from Germany herself. Remember, a large part of the population there are estranged in their hearts from the Government. A stream of information came which, though it did not show what the top limit would be, showed with indisputable clearness that the German effort in aviation was on an incomparably greater scale than ours. Therefore, it seems to me rather odd that, when the Committee of Imperial Defence, the one presided over for four months by the Prime Minister, were examining all these matters in the autumn of last year, they did not get hold of some of this most voluminous information which came into this country. I am very glad, by the way, to hear the Foreign Secretary say that it was not the fault of our Intelligence Service. It used to be the best in the world. In the war the foreigners certainly thought it was the best; both our friends and our foes treated it with the highest respect. No, I think really that at some time or other we ought to have a little more explanation about how it was that the facts did not reach the men at the top. We all know perfectly well that the Ministers are absolutely incapable of wilfully misleading Parliament. It would be an abominable crime to do such a thing, but evidently somewhere between the intelligence information and the ministerial chief there has been some watering down or whittling down of the facts. At any rate, at its leisure Parliament should press for further examination, and for further light to be thrown upon that matter.
I have been told that the reason for the Government not having acted before was that public opinion was not ripe for rearmament. I hope that we shall never accept such a reason as that. The Government have been in control of overwhelming majorities in both Houses of Parliament. There is no Vote they could not have proposed for the national defence which would not have been accepted with overwhelming strength, and, if the case was made out to the general satisfaction, as it is now, probably without any serious opposition of any kind. As for the country, nothing that has ever happened in this country could lead Ministers of the Crown to suppose that when a serious case of public danger is put to them they will not respond in overwhelming strength to any request. Then it is said—and I must give this explanation of this extraordinary fact—that "we were labouring for disarmament," and it would have spoiled the disarmament hopes if any overt steps to raise our Air Force had been taken. I do not admire people who are wise after the event. I would rather be impaled on the other horn of the dilemma and be called one of the "I told you so's." One ought to criticise the Government in the House chiefly upon matters which one had already indicated beforehand might become the subject of this public misfortune, and I should like to remind the Committee that for the last three years I have endeavoured as far as I could to criticize the drift of our foreign policy, the attempt to weaken the French forces, the undue stress which was put upon disarmament, and I ventured to coin the motto, which some Members of the Committee may remember, that, "Redress of the grievances of the vanquished should precede the disarmament of the victors." That, I believe, was a very sound policy, but, at any rate, the moment it was clear that Germany was going to re-arm herself there were only two courses, one was a collective representation to her that she must not do so, and the other was concerted counter-armament among the other Powers. And that is the position which we have reached now, but only after a long delay.
The Foreign Secretary used the expression that we were going to "the edge of risk." I think it is a very dangerous thing for a Minister to boast that we are going to the edge of risk. Along the edge of this precipice the ground is often treacherous and a fierce gust of wind may sweep the unwary tight-rope walker into the abyss. See what happens when you try to walk along the edge of risk. I was very glad indeed, in view of these facts, that the Lord President, with his usual generosity, would not allow any undue blame to be thrown upon the Air Ministry. It is a new Department. It is not perhaps a very strong Department. It has not the traditions or backing of the older Services of the Crown. It has not been strong, and it was not, before the German air force was set on foot, one of the most important Departments in the country, and it would have been a very wrong thing if any undue responsibility had been cast upon it, for a state of affairs for which, as my Tight hon. Friend has boldly said, the Cabinet as a whole must take complete responsibility.
I have only one more set of observations to make to the Committee, and they are strictly relevant to the immediate proposals which the Government have put before us. When are we going to discuss these proposals in detail? Obviously, we cannot do it to-night because the Lord President was naturally vague and general in his statement, and, even if he had given the fullest details, it would have been much too soon for the Committee to attempt to give a reasoned examination of them. But we must ask ourselves: Are they adequate, and, also, within what limits are they executable? Those two questions are interdependent, because it is not merely a matter of money. If you get into trouble over unemployment insurance or anything like that, money will cure it, but money will not cure these difficulties. You want time as well as money. The question as to whether a proposal to increase the Air Force in this country is practicable or not practicable within a certain time can only be decided after a very careful study of all the details have been made.
I agree with what my right hon. Friend the Member for Caithness said, and I will retort with good for evil by commending his suggestion. I do not believe that this problem of building up the Air Force which the Government have now announced, or the greater one which they will have to build, will be solved entirely by the existing aircraft industry, nor do I believe that it would be right to trust entirely to the individual efforts of those in the industry. The right hon. Gentleman opposite will remember that the great national shell factory which the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) laid down with so much foresight took 15 months to come into operation during the second year of the War. In my opinion, national factories for producing particular types of aeroplanes should play a part in the general strengthening of our Air Force. But we await the Supplementary Estimate. The test of this scheme is the money it will cost in the present year or in the next year. It is not the slightest use merely putting out orders and hoping that you will get delivery. What Parliament will want to be reassured about is that large sums of money are going to be earned by the contractors during the year for substantial quantities of material, aero-planes. You cannot judge the size of this scheme until you see what are the financial votes by which it is to be started and supported. In the early days of this year the French Government had a great overhaul of their air service, and, after very strenuous debates, they decided that drastic re-equipment was necessary. They voted 21,000,000 sterling at the present rate of exchange. I hope that we are going to learn what are the figures by which this programme, in itself a very bold and far-seeing one, is to be supported. I hope that the Supplementary Estimate will not be left until the end of the Session, but that we shall discuss it in the next few weeks. I trust that we shall have an assurance to that effect.
There is one suggestion that I would make to my right hon. Friend the Lord President of the Council. He might consider whether we could have a discussion in a secret Session upon this subject. I recommended that to the right, hon. Member for Carnarvon Boroughs during the War, and he took that course. It was a great success and redounded to the advantage of His Majesty's Government. I am not suggesting that there are any deadly secrets which could be disclosed or that the Government would be asked to tell anything that they would not in the ordinary course tell us, but it would be of great advantage of we could discuss some of these technical points without our conversation being overheard by all Europe. I think that suggestion should be considered by the Government because many hon. Members would like to bring forward points but will not do so until they can be brought forward without fear that a bad impression might be created in other countries. That is apiece of friendly counsel which I offer to my right hon. Friend. Meanwhile, let me say, and I am sure it is the feeling of the whole House, that in the face of this very great programme which has been put before us, a very great and far-reaching programme of air expansion, there is no demand which the Government can make upon the House or upon the country in the present circumstances for these curing of national defence which will not be faithfully and cordially supplied.
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