Debate in the House of Commons on the War
(June 10, 1941)
[Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons Official Report, June 10, 1941.]
THE PRIME MINISTER (Mr. Churchill): I do not think anyone, however Ministerially minded, could possibly complain of the tone, temper and matter of this Debate. The kind of criticism we have had to-day, some of it very searching, is the kind of criticism that the Government not only accept but welcome. All the same, the House will permit me perhaps to point out that the way in which this Debate came about was calculated to give one the feeling of a challenge to the security of the Administration, and, from the point of view of the advantage to the country, that raises serious considerations. There were all kinds of paragraphs and reports which appeared in the papers about the grave uneasiness and unrest, stating that a Debate on Crete must take place. The parties were demanding it, the Labour party, the Liberal party and members of the Conservative party were demanding it, and there must be a full accounting, an inquest held, and so forth. That being so, one is bound to take a serious view because of the interests which are confided into our care.
I think that it would be a mistake if the House got into the habit of calling for explanations on the varying episodes of this dangerous and widespread struggle and asking for an account to be given of why any action was lost or any part of the front was beaten in. In the first place, no full explanations can possibly be given without revealing valuable information to the enemy information not only about a particular operation which is over, but about the general position and also of the processes of thought which are followed, such as they may be, by our war direction and our high command. There is always a danger that a Minister in my position, in seeking to vindicate the course we have pursued, should inadvertently say something which may supply the enemy with some essential, with some seemingly innocent fact, about which the enemy is in doubt, and thus enable the enemy to construct a comprehensive and accurate picture of our state of mind and the way in which we are looking at things. The heads of the Dictator Governments are not under any similar pressure to explain or excuse any ill-success that may befall them. Far be it from me to compare myself or the office I hold or the functions I discharge with those of these pretentious and formidable potentates. I am only the servant of the Crown and Parliament and am always at the disposal of the House of Commons, where I have lived my life.
Still the House, and I think I may say also the country, have placed very considerable responsibilities upon me, and I am sure they would not wish any servant they have entrusted with such duties to be at a disadvantage against our antagonists. I have not heard, for instance, that Herr Hitler had to attend the Reichstag and tell them why he sent the Bismarck on her disastrous cruise, when by waiting for a few weeks, and choosing his opportunity, when perhaps our capital ships were dispersed on convoy duty, she might have gone out accompanied by the Tirpitz, another 45,000-ton ship, and offered a general sea battle. Neither have I heard any very convincing statement by Signor Mussolini of the reasons why the greater part of his African Empire has been conquered and more than 200,000 of his soldiers are prisoners in our hands.
I must say, quite frankly, to the House that I should feel myself under a needless disadvantage if it were understood that I should be obliged, in public Debate, to give an account, possibly a controversial account, of our operations irrespective of whether the times were suitable or not. It would, for instance, have been a nuisance if Parliament had demanded a Debate on the loss of the Hood before we had been in a position to explain what measures we had taken to secure the destruction of the Bismarck. I always take-and I am sure that what I say will be accepted-very great pains to serve the House, and on all occasions to associate the House in the fullest possible manner with the conduct of the war, but I think it would be better, and I submit it to the House, if in the future I were permitted on behalf of His Majesty's Government to choose the occasions for making statements about the war, which I am most anxious to do.
There is another general reason why I should have deprecated a Debate upon the Battle of Crete. It is only one part of the very important and complicated campaign which is being fought in the Middle East, and to select one particular sector of our widely extended front for Parliamentary Debate is a partial, lopsided and misleading method of examining the conduct of the war. A vast scene can only be surveyed as a whole, and it ought to be exposed and debated piecemeal, especially at a time when operations which are all related to one another are wholly incomplete. Into the general survey of the war come all sorts of considerations about the gain and loss of time and its effect upon the future. There also comes into the picture the entire distribution of our available resources to meet the many calls that are made upon them. For instance, my hon. Friend the Member for Kidderminster (Sir J. Wardlaw-Milne), who has just spoken, asked why it was that when we had Crete in our possession for more than six months we had wasted all that time for constructing numerous airfields and placing them in the highest state of defence, and he reminded us how very efficiently the Germans would have done a work like that if Crete had fallen into their hands. Everyone will, I dare say, admit that it would have been a mistake to make a great number of airfields in Crete unless we could find the anti-aircraft guns, both of high and low ceiling, and the aircraft to defend those airfields, for that would simply have facilitated the descent of the enemy's air-borne troops upon the island.
Why then, first of all, I must ask, were enough guns not provided for the two serviceable airfields which existed in Crete? To answer that question one would have to consider how many guns we have and whether we could afford to spare them for that purpose. That leads us to a wider sphere. All this time, the Battle of the Atlantic has been going on, and a very great number of the guns which might have usefully been deployed in Crete have been, and are, being mounted in the merchant vessels to beat off the attacks of the Fokke Wulf and Heinkel aircraft, whose depredations have been notably lessened thereby.
Again, we must consider, on the subject of these guns, whether our airfields at home, our air factories or the ports and cities in our Islands, which are under heavy and dangerous attack, should have been further denuded or stinted of guns, in the last six or seven months, for the sake of the war in the Middle East. Further, it must be remembered-I did not notice that this was mentioned-that everything we sent out to the Middle East is out of action for the best part of three months, as it has to go round the Cape. We have run very great risks and faced very serious maulings in this Island, in order to sustain the war in the Mediterranean, and no one, I venture to submit, can be a judge of whether we should have run more risks or exposed ourselves to heavier punishment at home, for the sake of fortifying and multiplying the Cretan airfields, without having full and intimate knowledge of all our resources and making a complete survey of the various claims upon them.
We did, however, from the moment that the Greek Government invited us into Crete, take steps to defend the anchorage of Suda Bay. as an important naval base, to develop the aerodrome nearby and to provide the base and the aerodrome with the largest quantity of high and low ceiling guns which we thought it fit to divert from other strategic points in the Mediterranean. We provided, in fact, a deterrent to the enemy attack sufficient to require a major effort on his part; but, of course there are a great many islands and strategic points in the seas, and to attempt to be safe everywhere is to make sure of being strong nowhere.
Therefore, it may well be that if the House were able to go into detail into these matters, which I am afraid is not possible, hon. Members would feel that a reasonable and right disposition of our Forces was made; but without going into the facts and figures, which I am sure no one would wish me to do, even in Secret Session, let alone in Public Session, it is quite impossible for the House, or even for the newspapers, to arrive at a justly proportioned and level judgment on this affair. There is, however, this much that I should like to say: A man must be a perfect fool who thinks that we have large quantities of anti-aircraft guns and aircraft lying about unused at the present time. I will speak about aircraft in a moment, but, so far as anti-aircraft guns are concerned, large and expanding as is our present production, every single gun is in action at some necessary point or other, and all future production for many months ahead is eagerly competed for by rival claimants with, very often, massive cases behind each one of them.
This goes back a long way, but four years ago, in March, 1937, I mentioned to the House that the Germans had already got 1,500 mobile anti-aircraft guns-mobile and formed in batteries-in addition to the whole of their static artillery of anti-aircraft defence. Since then they have been making them at a great rate, and they have also conquered more than all they want from the many countries they have overthrown, so that our position is very different from that. The right hon. Member for Devonport (Mr. Hore-Belisha) has made to-day a very cogent and moderate, well-informed and thoughtful contribution to the Debate, but he used a different mood and tone in a speech which he recently delivered in the country, and that at any rate makes it necessary for me to say that the state in which our Army was left when the right hon. Gentleman had ended his two years and seven months' tenure of the War Office, during the greater part of which he was also responsible for production and supply, was lamentable. We were short of every essential supply, but most particularly of those modern weapons, those special classes of weapons, the anti-aircraft gun, the anti-tank gun and the tank itself, which have proved themselves the vital necessities of modern war, a fact which he is now prepared to suggest we are so pur-blind and out-dated as not to be able to comprehend.
MR. HORE-BELISHA: I do not know why the right hon. Gentleman, for the purposes of Debate, should make a statement such as he has made, that I left the Army in a lamentable condition. It is quite out of accord with what he himself said after the retreat from Dunkirk, that we had lost the finest lot of equipment that had ever left these shores, and that the Army had been fully equipped in almost every particular. The French Ambassador stated that we had fully discharged our obligations to the French. Perhaps my right hon. Friend will be good enough to recall that up till very recently before the war the whole House and indeed the country were opposed to the creation of a Continental Army which nevertheless I proceeded to try. and create. I do not seek to be judged by my achievements, but by what I tried to do, and my right hon. Friend will realise that my obstacles were greater than his today.
THE PRIME MINISTER: I thought that I had misquoted my right hon. Friend in some way, but it appears he wished to continue the argument. I am dealing not with the particular equipment of the troops who went to France, who naturally drained the rest of our Forces, but the fact remains that the equipment of our Army at that time, and at the outbreak of war, was of the most meagre and deficient character, and that the deficiencies made themselves most marked-and still make themselves most marked-in the very type of weapons for which there is the greatest possible demand. I could give facts and figures upon this point if we were in private which would, I think, leave no dispute upon the subject. I am not throwing all the blame for this upon my right hon. Friend at all-certainly not-but I think it is only fair, when he himself comes forward and sets himself up as an arbiter and judge, and speaks so scornfully of the efforts of some others who have inherited his dismal legacy, I think when he speaks in this way-he has a greater responsibility in the matter-it is only fair to point out to him that he is one of the last people in this country entitled to take that line.
MR. GRANVILLE (Eye): No recriminations.
THE PRIME MINISTER: The hon. Gentleman said something about no recriminations, but extremely violent and hostile speeches have been spread about, doing a great deal of harm, and about which I have received information from different countries and capitals, showing the uncertainty and disturbance which are caused by them, and certainly if we are attacked we shall counter-attack.
MR. GRANVILLE: We are dealing with the future, not with the past.
THE PRIME MINISTER: The hon. Member for Eye (Mr. Granville) had better return to his lucubrations in constitutional experiment, which exercise his mind so much at present. So much for the difficulty in which we stand in the matter of the antiaircraft guns. The output is at last rapidly expanding, but the fact remains that our outfits are incomparably inferior in numbers to those possessed by the Germans, and every claim has to be weighed against every other claim. Another general question which may fairly be asked is, "Why have we not got much stronger and much larger air forces in the Middle East?" I can only say this: From the moment when the Battle of Britain was decided in our favour, in September and October of last year, by the victories of our fighters, we have been ceaselessly sending aircraft as fast as possible to the Middle East, by every route and by every method. During the present year, as our strength in the air has grown, we have not been hampered in this matter, as we were in the case of the anti-aircraft guns, by lack of aircraft. The problem has been to send them to the Eastern theatre of war.
Anyone can see how great are the Germans' advantages, and how easy it is for the Germans to move their Air Force from one side of Europe to another. They can fly along a line of permanent airfields. Wherever they need to alight and refuel, there are permanent airfields in the highest state of efficiency, and, as for the services and personnel and all the stores which go with them-without which the squadrons are quite useless-these can go by the grand continental expresses along the main railway lines of Europe. One has only to compare this process with the sending of aircraft packed in crates, then put on ships and sent on the great ocean spaces until they reach the Cape of Good Hope, then taken to Egypt, set up again, trued up and put in the air when they arrive, to see that the Germans can do in days what takes us weeks, or even more. This reflection, I say, has its bearing upon the possibility of a German movement back from the East to the West, which certainly could be executed very swiftly if they were to resolve upon an assault upon this country. I can give an assurance to the House that we have done, are doing, and will do, our utmost to build up the largest possible Air Force in the Middle East; and it is not aircraft, but solely transportation, which is-
MR. SHINWELL: That is the whole trouble.
THE PRIME MINISTER: Not transportation in the sense of shipping tonnage, but in the sense of the time that it takes to transfer under the conditions of the present war. It is not aircraft, but transportation, which is the limiting factor at this end. I have dealt with anti-aircraft guns; I have dealt with aircraft. As to the disposition of our Air Force in the Middle East, it is primarily a matter for the Commanders-in-Chief in the Middle East, although His Majesty's Government share to the full their responsibility for whatever is done. I might refer again to what was said by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Lewes (Rear Admiral Beamish) about the importance of coordination between the Services. It is carried to a very high pitch. The Chief Air Officer lives in the same house in Cairo as the Commander-in-Chief. They are there side by side. The Naval Commander-in-Chief has to be at sea very often. He has to be at Alexandria. But the very closest association exists between these branches. The idea that any one of these problems would be studied by one of these commanders only, without the closest association with the other two is quite an illusory idea, and I can really assure my hon. Friend on that point.
MAJOR MILNE (Leeds, South East): Who has the final say?
THE PRIME MINISTER: It is not so much a question of the final say. No disagreement that I know of has arisen. Obviously, the Army is the main factor in that business, and the Fleet is preserving the security of the Army on the seas, and preserving the command of the seas, and the Air is assisting the Army and the Fleet in all their functions. But in the event of any differences they can be settled in a few hours by reference here. These Commanders-in-Chief have to settle it among themselves, although we share to the full responsibility for whatever is done. It must not be forgotten that apart from the effort we made in Greece, which was very costly in aircraft, the situation in Iraq, in Palestine, and potentially in Syria, as well as the winding-up of the Abyssinian story, all made very heavy demands upon our aircraft and the situation in the Western Desert had also to be considered. Before any rational judgment could be formed upon the disposition of our Air Force and the consequent failure to supply an adequate Air Force for Crete, it would be necessary, as in the case of the anti-aircraft guns, to know not only what are our whole resources, but also what is the situation in these other theatres, which were all, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Lees-Smith) pointed out, all intimately interrelated, and it is no use trying to judge these matters without full knowledge, and that full knowledge obviously cannot be made public, and ought not to be spread outside the narrowest circle compatible with the execution of operations.
I come to the next stage of my argument, because I am offering the House an argument, if they will bear with me as I unfold it. I have shown them the foundations upon which we started, and I now go a step forward. In March we decided to go to the aid of Greece in accordance with our Treaty obligations. This, of course, exposed us to the danger of being attacked in the Western Desert, and also to defeat by overwhelming numbers in Greece unless Yugoslavia played her part or unless the Greek Army could be extricated to hold some narrower line than that actually chosen. If Greece was overrun by the enemy, it seemed probable that Crete would be the next object of attack. The enemy, with his vast local superiority in air power, was able to drive our aircraft from the airfields of Greece, and adding this to his enormously superior anti-aircraft batteries, he was able to make those airfields rapidly available for his own use. Moreover, as the season was advancing, many more airfields became available to him as the weather improved and dried them up. It was evident, therefore, that the attack upon Crete, if it were made, would be primarily an air-borne attack, for which, again, a vastly superior hostile air force would be available.
The question then arose as to whether we should try to defend Crete or yield it without a fight. No one who bears any responsibility for the decision to defend Crete was ignorant of the fact that conditions permitted of only the most meagre British air support to be provided for our troops in the island or for our Fleet operating round the island. It was not a fact that dawned upon the military and other authorities after the decision had been taken; it was the foundation of a difficult and harsh choice, as I shall show. The choice was: Should Crete be defended without effective air support or should the Germans be permitted to occupy it without opposition? There are some, I see, who say that we should never fight without superior or at least ample air support and ask when will this lesson be learned? But suppose you cannot have it? The questions which have to be settled are not always questions between what is good and bad; very often it is a choice between two very terrible alternatives. Must you, if you cannot have this essential and desirable air support, yield important key points, one after another?
There are others who have said to me, and I have seen it in the newspapers, that you should defend no place that you cannot be sure you can hold. Then, one must ask, can one ever be sure how the battle will develop before it has ever been fought? If this principle of not defending any place you cannot be sure of holding were adopted, would not the enemy be able to make an unlimited number of valuable conquests without any fighting at all? Where would you make a stand and engage them with resolution? The further question arises as to what would happen if you allowed the enemy to advance and overrun, without cost to himself, the most precious and valuable strategic points? Suppose we had never gone to Greece and had never attempted to defend Crete? Where would the Germans be now? Suppose we had simply resigned territory and strategic islands to them without a fight? Might they not, at this early stage of the campaign in 1941, already be masters of Syria and Iraq and preparing themselves for an advance into Persia?
The Germans in this war have gained many victories. They have easily overrun great countries and beaten down strong Powers with little resistance offered to them. It is not only a question of the time that is gained by fighting strongly, even if at a disadvantage, for important points. There is also this vitally important principle of stubborn resistance to the will of the enemy. I merely throw out these considerations to the House in order that they may see that there are some arguments which deserve to be considered before you can adopt the rule that you have to have a certainty of winning at any point and that if you have not got it beforehand you must clear out. The whole history of war shows the fatal absurdity of such a doctrine. Again and again, it has been proved that fierce and stubborn resistance, even against heavy odds and under exceptional conditions of local disadvantage, is an essential element in victory. At any rate, the decision was taken to hold Crete. The decision to fight for Crete was taken with the full knowledge that air support would be at a minimum, as anyone can see-apart from the question of whether you have adequate supplies or not-who measures the distances from our airfields in Egypt and compares them with the distances from enemy airfields in Greece and who acquaints himself with the radius of action of dive-bombers and aircraft.
Of course, I take the fullest personal responsibility for that decision, but the Chiefs of Staff, the Defence Committee and General Wavell, the Commander-in-Chief, all in turn and in their various situations not only thought that Crete ought to be defended in the circumstances, which were fully before them, but that, in spite of the lack of air support, we had a good chance of winning the battle. No one had any illusions about the scale of the enemy air-borne attack. We knew it would be gigantic and intense. The reconnaissances over the Greek aerodromes showed the enormous mass of aircraft which were gathering there-many hundreds-and it turned out that the enemy was prepared to pay an almost unlimited price for this conquest, and his resources when concentrated upon any particular point may often be overwhelming at that point.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Devonport referred to the broadcasts which were given by the spokesman of the War Office, Major-General Collins, and by the spokesman of the Air Ministry, Air-Commodore Goddard. I take no responsibility for those statements. I take no responsibility for those or any others that may be made. It is very convenient to bring them up in the course of Debate, but the officers who give these broadcasts are not acquainted with the control of affairs and with what is decided or thought or felt in the Chiefs of Staff Committee or the Defence Committee. How can they be? One does not spread things about in that way.
MR. BELLENGER: Stop the broadcasts.
THE PRIME MINISTER: I would have liked very much to have stopped them, and in some cases I have reduced them in number. I think it is a very risky thing to ask a professional officer, naval, military or air, to give a weekly expatiation on the war when, in the nature of things, although he may be very accomplished in his profession, he cannot know and ought not to know the facts as they are understood at the secret meetings.
MR. G. GRIFFITHS: Everybody thinks he speaks for the Government.
THE PRIME MINISTER: I am very glad to see the feeling in the House on the subject, because, on the other side, one is appealed to ceaselessly to give more information, to make the war more interesting to the people, and to tell them more about what is going on. But it is not possible for the head of the Government or even for the Chiefs of Staff to vet-to use a slang term-beforehand these detailed weekly statements which are made. I think the matter must certainly be reconsidered. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] As I have said, no one had any illusions about the tremendous scale of the air-borne attack, the greatest ever delivered in the world, or thought that we should resist it without any but the most restricted air support on our side. That is the fact. It is not a nice case, but it is the fact. Let us look at the anatomy of this battle of Crete which was undertaken in those bleak circumstances. We hoped that the 25,000 to 30,000 good troops-I am making it a little vague-with artillery and a proportion of tanks, aided by the Greek forces, would be able to destroy the parachute and glider landings of the enemy and prevent him from using the airfields or the harbours.
Our Army was to destroy the air-borne attacks, while the Navy held off or destroyed the sea-borne attacks. But there was a time limit. The action of the Navy in maintaining the Northern sea guard without adequate air defence was bound to be very costly. My hon. Friend has pointed out how serious were those losses. We could only stand a certain proportion of naval losses before the Northern sea guard of the Fleet would have to be withdrawn. If meanwhile the Army could succeed in biting off the head of the whole terrific apparatus of the airborne invasion before the naval time limit, or loss limit, was reached, then the enemy would have to begin all over again, and, having regard to the scale of the operation, the enormous, unprecedented scale of the operation, and the losses he would have to incur, he might well for the time being have at least broken it off-at any rate, there would have been a long delay before he could have mounted it again. That was the basis on which the decision was taken.
I wonder what would have been said by our critics if we had given up the island of Crete without firing a shot. We should have been told that this pusillanimous flight had surrendered to the enemy the key of the Eastern Mediterranean, that our communications with Malta and our power to interrupt the enemy's communications with Libya were grievously endangered. There is only too much truth in all that, although perhaps it will not in the end turn out so badly. Crete was an extremely important salient in our line of defence. It was like Fort Douaumont at Verdun, in 1916; it was like Kemmel Hill, in 1918. These were taken by the Germans, but in each case the Germans lost the battle and also the campaign, and in the end they lost the war. But can you be sure the same result would have been achieved if the Allies had not fought for Douaumont, and had not fought for Kemmel Hill? What would they have fought for if they had not fought for them? These battles can only be judged in their relation to the campaign as a whole.
I have been asked a lot of questions. My right hon. Friend the Member for Keighley put them very clearly and precisely about the actual conduct of the battle in Crete. For instance, why were the Cretan airfields not mined beforehand? Or again, why were they not commanded by long-range gunfire, or why were not more tanks allotted to their defences? There are many other questions like that. I can give answers to these questions, but I do not propose to discuss tactics here, because I am sure it is quite impossible for us to fight battles in detail, either before hand or afterwards, from Whitehall or from the House of Commons. His Majesty's Government in their responsibility to Parliament choose the best generals they can find, set before them the broad strategic objects of the campaign, offer them any advice or counsel that may seem fitting, ask searching questions which are very necessary in respect of particular plans and proposals, and then they support them to the best of their power in men and munitions, and also, so long as they retain their confidence, they support them with loyal comradeship in failure or success.
It is impossible to go into tactical details, and I never remember in the last war, in those great battles which cost some thing like 40,000, 50,000 or 70,000 men-I am talking of battles of a single day-in which sometimes there were very grave errors made, that they were often made the subject of the arraignment of the Government in the House of Commons. It is only where great strategic issues of policy come that it is fitting for us here to endeavour to form a final opinion. Defeat is bitter. There is no use in trying to explain defeat. People do not like defeat, and they do not like the explanations, however elaborate or plausible, which are given them. For defeat there is only one answer. The only answer to defeat is victory. If a Government in time of war gives the impression that it cannot in the long run procure victory, who cares for its explanations? It ought to go-that is to say, if you are quite sure you can find another which can do better. However, it must be remembered that no Government can conduct a war unless it stands on a solid, stable foundation, and knows it stands on that foundation and, like a great ship, can win through a period of storms into clearer weather. Unless there is a strong impression of solidarity and strength in a Government in time of war, that Government cannot give the support which is necessary to the fighting men and their commanders in the difficult periods, in the disheartening and disappointing periods. If the Government has always to be looking over its shoulder to see whether it is going to be stabbed in the back or not, it cannot possibly keep its eye on the enemy.
There is another point of some difficulty which presents itself to me whenever I am asked to make a statement to the House. Ought I to encourage good hopes of the successful outcome of particular operations, or ought I to prepare the public for serious disappointments? From the purely British standpoint, there is no doubt that the second of these courses is to be preferred, and this is the course that I have usually followed. It is the course which, no doubt, would commend itself to my noble Friend. He has been urging us to look on the gloomy side of things-a kind of inverted Couéism. When you get up in the morning you say to yourself, "we can easily lose this war in the next four months," and you say it with great emphasis and go on your daily task invigorated. I must point out to my noble Friend, and to the House generally, that the British nation is unique in this respect. They are the only people who like to be told how bad things are, who like to be told the worst, and like to be told that they are very likely to get much worse in the future and must prepare themselves for further reverses. But when you go to other countries-oddly enough I saw a message from the authorities who are most concerned with our Arab problem at present, urging that we should be careful not to indulge in too gloomy forecasts. The Arabs do not understand the British character of meeting trouble long before it comes, and they think it is much better to go on putting a bold face on things and then meet the disaster when it arrives. Any statements of a pessimistic character which are used here are calculated to discourage our friends and to spread alarm and despondency over wide regions, to affect the nicely balanced neutrals and to encourage the enemy, who, of course, seizes upon any phrase or any gloomy allusion and repeats it myriad-fold in his strident propaganda.
It is a nice question whether the increase in our war effort which would result from my Noble Friend administering this austere mental treatment to himself in the mornings would counterbalance the undoubted harm which would be done when a phrase torn from its context, and probably with an alteration of the verb, is sent throughout the world-"Admission in the House of Commons by an eminent nobleman and ex-Minister: We are going to lose the war," or something like that. I am not blaming him at all. I feel just like him about it, and it is very much safer. It makes me feel very much whether Members of Parliament have not got to pick their words a little carefully. After all, in this deadly war in which we are gripped, with dangers which are measureless, as they are unprecedented, closing upon us in so many quarters, with so much to defend and such limited resources, so many chances which may turn ill against us-when we think of this position, it is a great pity if statements are made which add nothing to the informative criticism which is so valuable, but can be taken from their context and placarded all over the world as a sign that we are not united or that our case is much worse than it is.
There is one thing I regret very much, and that is that the brunt of this fighting in the Middle East-I quite agree it is a very foolish expression "in the Middle East"-or East should have fallen so heavily on the splendid Australian and New Zealand troops. I regret it for this reason among others, that the German propaganda is always reproaching us for fighting with other people's blood, and they mock us with the insulting taunt that England will fight to the last Australian or New Zealander. I was very glad to see that Mr. Menzies, in his noble speech of Sunday night, deal with this vile propaganda as it deserved. There have been, in fact, during 1941, almost as many British as there are Australian and New Zealand troops engaged in all the operations in the Western Desert, in Greece and in Crete. The losses during this year compared with the numbers engaged are slightly heavier for the British than for the Dominion troops.
In Crete also, the numbers were almost exactly equal, and the British loss again was slightly heavier. These figures include killed, wounded and missing. They exclude Indian or non-British troops. In order to turn the edge of this German propaganda, I have asked my right hon. and gallant Friend the Secretary of State for War to endeavour to have mentioned more frequently the names of British regiments, when this can be done without detriment to the operations. The following British regiments and units, for instance, fought in Crete: The Rangers, the Black Watch, the Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders, the Leicestershire Regiment, the Welch Regiment, the York and Lancaster Regiment, the Royal Artillery, the Royal Engineers and numbers of the Royal Marines, who formed the rearguard and suffered the most heavily of all. In fact, of 2,000 Royal Marines landed in Crete, 1,400 became casualties or prisoners. Naval losses of life in these operations exceeded 500 officers and men, and while this was going on, we also lost 1,300 men in the Hood. Out of 90,000 lives lost so far in this war at home and abroad, at least 85,000 come from the Mother Country. Therefore, I repel and repudiate the German taunt, both on behalf of the Mother Country and of the Dominions of Australia and New Zealand.
It might well be asked-I am trying to look at the questions which might fairly be asked-why, having begun the battle for Crete, did you not persist in the defence of the island? If you could bring off 17,000 men safely to return to Egypt, why could you not have reinforced with 17,000 men to carry on the battle? I have tried to explain in a simple way that the moment it was proved that we could not crush the air-borne landings before the Fleet losses became too heavy to hold off longer a sea-borne landing, Crete was lost, and it was necessary to save what was possible of the Army. It is one thing to take off 17,000 men as we did, with their side arms, and quite another to land them in a fighting condition with guns and materials. It is a wonderful thing that as many as 17,000 got away in face of the enemy's overwhelming command of the air.
I do not consider that we should regret the Battle of Crete The fighting there attained a severity and fierceness which the Germans have not previously encountered in their walk through Europe. In killed, wounded, missing and prisoners we have lost about 15,000 men. This takes no account of the losses of the Greeks and Cretans, who fought with the utmost bravery and suffered so heavily on the other hand, from the most careful and precise inquiries I have made, and which have been made by the Commanders-in-Chief on the spot, we believe that about 5,000 Germans were drowned in trying to cross the sea and at least 12,000 killed or wounded on the island itself. In addition the air force the Germans employed sustained extraordinary losses, above 180 fighter and bomber aircraft being destroyed and at least 250 troop-carrying aeroplanes. This, at a time when our air strength is overtaking the enemy's, is important. I am sure it will be found that this sombre, ferocious battle, which was lost, and lost, I think, upon no great margin, was well worth fighting and that it will play an extremely important part in the whole defence of the Nile Valley throughout the present year. I do not think there are any who are responsible for it would not take the same decision again, although no doubt, like our critics, we should be wiser in many ways after the event.
It is asked, Will the lessons of Crete be learned, and how will they affect the defence of this Island? Officers who took part in the thickest of the fighting in responsible positions, including a New Zealand brigadier, are already approaching this country. At the same time, very full appreciations have been made by the Staff in the Middle East and are being made in a more lengthy form. All this material will be examined by the General Staff here and will be placed at the disposal of General Sir Alan Brooke, who commands the several millions of armed men we have in this Island, including, of course, the Home Guard. Every effort will be made to profit by it. There are, however, two facts to be borne in mind in comparing what happened in Crete with what might happen here. In the first place, we rely upon a strong superiority in air power and certainly upon a much greater air power, both actually and relatively, than was proved sufficient last autumn. This sustains not only the land defence but liberates again the power of the Navy from the thralldom in which it was held round Crete. In the second place, the scale of the effort required from the Germans in attack would have to be multiplied many times over from what was necessary in Crete, and it might be that this would be beyond the capacity of their resources or their schemes. Everything, however, will be done to meet an air-borne and sea-borne attack launched upon a vast scale and maintained with total disregard of losses.
We shall not be lulled by the two arguments I have put forward into any undue sense of security. An attack by parachute troops and gliders may be likened to an attack by incendiary bombs, which, if not quickly extinguished one by one, may lead not only to serious fires but to an enormous conflagration. We are making many improvements in the defence of our airfields and in the mobility of the forces which will be employed upon that and other tasks. Nothing will be stinted, and not a moment will be lost. Here I ought to say that it is not true that the Germans clothed their parachute troops who attacked Crete in New Zealand uniforms. I gave that report to the House as it reached me from the Commander-in-Chief in the Middle East, but he now informs me that the mistake arose from the fact that parachute troops, after landing at one point, drove a number of New Zealand walking wounded before them and along with them in their attack, and consequently the cry arose that they themselves were in New Zealand uniforms. There is no objection to the use of parachute troops in war so long as they are properly dressed in the uniform of their country and so long as that uniform is in itself distinctive. This kind of fighting is, however, bound to become very fierce as it breaks out behind the fronts and lines of the armies, and the civil population is almost immediately involved.
Now I come to the operations which have begun in Syria. I have been waiting all day to have further news of our advance, but at the time I got up to speak I had not received any advices that I could impart to the House.
MR. HORE-BELISHA: Will the right hon. gentleman say something about the Air Arm co-operation?
THE PRIME MINISTER: I certainly will. The right hon. Gentleman associated himself with a very strong movement there has been for a much greater development of the air force which is actually associated with the Army. Last year, when we were considering our affairs, the great need was to multiply fighters and bombers. It became an enormously important matter. Nevertheless, portions of the Army co-operation squadrons were associated with the military forces, but not on the scale which was desirable or to the extent which was desirable. I think it is of the utmost consequence that every division, especially every armoured division, should have a chance to live its daily life and training in a close and precise relationship with a particular number of aircraft that it knows and that it can call up at will and need.
MR. BELLENGER: Under its own command?
THE PRIME MINISTER: Certainly, for the purposes of everything that is a tactical operation. It was not possible last year to provide it on a large scale without trenching on other domains which were more vital to our safety, but it is the intention to go forward upon that path immediately and to provide the Army with a larger number, a considerably larger number, of aeroplanes suited entirely to the work they have to do, and above all to the development of that wireless connection between the ground forces and the air which the Germans have carried to such an extraordinary point of perfection. If this had been done in Crete, it would not have made any difference to the event there, because the numbers there for the purpose of co-operating with the troops could not have altered the event.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Devonport asked me who it was who decided that the Air Forces on the aerodromes in Crete were to be withdrawn. It was decided by the Commander-in-Chief of the Air Force in the Middle East, on the recommendation of General Freyberg, concurred in by the R.A.F. Officer commanding on the spot, Group-Captain Beamish. It was at that request. The numbers were small, and if they had not been withdrawn, they would have been blown off the aerodromes without having been able in the slightest degree to affect the course of events. I did overlook that point in my statement, and I am glad that my right hon. Friend has reminded me of it.
Now I come to the Syrian operation. Let me repeat that we have no territorial designs in Syria or anywhere else in French territory. We seek no Colonies or advantages of any kind for ourselves in this war. Let none of our French friends be deceived by the blatant German and Vichy propaganda. On the contrary, we shall do all in our power to restore the freedom, independence and rights of France. I have, in a letter which I wrote to General de Gaulle, said "the rights and the greatness of France"; we shall do all in our power to restore her freedom and her rights, but it will be for the French to aid us in restoring her greatness. There can be no doubt that General de Gaulle is a more zealous defender of France's interests than are the men of Vichy, whose policy is that of utter subservience to the German enemy.
It did not take much intelligence to see that the infiltration into Syria by the Germans and their intrigues in Iraq constituted very great dangers to the whole Eastern flank of our defence in the Nile Valley and the Suez Canal. The only choice before us in that theatre for some time has been whether to encourage the Free French to attempt a counter-penetration by themselves or whether, at heavy risk in delay, to prepare a considerable force, as we have done. It was also necessary to restore the position in Iraq before any serious advance in Syria could be made. Our relations with Vichy and the possibilities of an open breach with the Vichy Government evidently raised the military and strategic significance of these movements to the very highest point. Finally, and above all, the formidable menace of the invasion of Egypt by the German Army in Cyrenaica, supported by large Italian forces, with German stiffening, remains our chief pre-occupation in the Middle East.
The advance by the German army forces into Egypt has been threatened for the last two months, and there would not be much use in attempting to cope with the situation in Syria, if, at the same time, our defences in the Western Desert were beaten down and broken through. We had to take all these things into consideration, and I was very glad indeed when General Wavell reported that he was in a position to make the advance which began on Sunday morning, and which, so far as I have been informed up to the present, is progressing with very little opposition and favourably. This position in Syria was very nearly gone. The German poison was spreading through the country, and the revolt in Iraq, perhaps beginning prematurely, enabled us to take the necessary measures to correct the evil; but, as I say, we must not rejoice or give way to jubilation while we are engaged in operations of this difficulty and when the reaction of the Germans still remains to us obscure and unknown.
It is very easy, if I may say so, for critics, without troubling too much about our resources and even without a sense of the features of time and distance, to clamour for action now here and now there: "Why do you not go here; what," as I think an hon. Member said, "are you dithering about, why do you not go in there?" and so on. Indeed, one can see how many attractive strategic propositions there are, even with the most cursory examination of the atlas. But the House will, I am sure, best guard its own dignity and authority by refraining from taking sweeping or superficial views. Others have said that we must not follow a hand-to-mouth strategy, that we must regain the initiative and impart to all our operations that sense of mastery and design which the Germans so often display. No one agrees with that more than I do, but it is a good deal easier said than done, especially while the enemy possesses vastly superior resources and many important strategical advantages. For all those reasons I have never, as the House knows, encouraged any hope of a short or easy war.
None the less, it would be a mistake to go to the other extreme and to belittle the remarkable achievements of our country and its Armed Forces. There are many things for which we may be thankful. The air attack on this Island has not overwhelmed us; indeed, we have risen through it and from it strengthened and glorified. There is no truth in the statement of my right hon. Friend the Member for Devonport, which he made in his speech in the country, that productivity in our factories is falling off at an alarming rate. It may not be going as fast as we would like, and if anyone can do anything to make it go faster, or tell us how to do it, he will be rendering a great service. But it is not simply a question of giving very strident orders and demands. There is a great deal more than that in making the whole of our factories go properly, but it is certainly the exact reverse of the truth to say that productivity is falling off at an alarming rate. In guns and heavy tanks, for instance, the monthly average for the first quarter of 1941 was 50 per cent. greater than in the last quarter of 1940. The output for the month of May, a four-week month, was the highest yet reached and more than double the monthly rate for the last quarter of 1940.
MR. HORE-BELISHA: Surely my right hon. Friend is confusing productivity and the production. Of course, there is an increase of production in certain articles, but with absenteeism, to which his attention was called by the Labour party conference, and by the Select Committee on Aircraft Production, the output per man cannot be what it was, and one can give many other illustrations.
MR. BENJAMIN-SMITH (Rotherhithe): It is not the men but the lack of materials.
MR. HORE-BELISHA: I agree.
THE PRIME MINISTER: I read into the word the meaning most people read into it; when he said productivity was falling off, I took it to mean not the effort of each man but the general production. I felt I must contradict his statement to-day because it happens that I have heard from two foreign countries in the course of the morning of the very serious effect which this statement produced upon opinions there; how it was published rapidly throughout Spain, for instance, and given the greatest prominence coming as it did from an ex-Secretary of State. It was said to be exercising a bad effect.
MR. HORE-BELISHA: But the Minister of Labour the very same day had said that the building of factories and aerodromes was falling behind. Did that get circulated in Spain?
THE PRIME MINISTER: I do not see any difficulty in reconciling that. The Minister might be urging the men to make greater efforts, he might say that this particular lot of airfields were falling behind, what the programme actually was, but that is quite a different thing from saying that the productivity of our factories is falling off. I must say I do not think we are in a sufficiently safe position to allow ourselves the full luxuries of vehement statements upon these very grave matters. As I say, we have many things we may be thankful for. In the first place, we have not been overwhelmed by the air attack; and our production, far from being beaten down by the disorganisation, of that attack, has been increasing at a very high rate.
The Battle of the Atlantic is also being well maintained. In January, Herr Hitler mentioned March as the peak month of his effort against us on the sea. We were to be exposed to attacks on a scale never before dreamed of, and there were rumours of hundreds of U-boats and masses of aircraft to be used against us.
These rumours were spread against us in the world, and a very alarming impression was produced. March has gone, April has gone, May has gone, and now we are in the middle of June. Apart from the losses incurred in the fighting in the Mediterranean-which were serious-the month of May was the best month we have had for some time on the Atlantic. Prodigious exertions were made to bring in the cargoes and to protect the ships, and these exertions have not failed. It is much easier to sink ships than to build them or to bring them safely across the ocean. We have lately been taking a stronger hand in this sinking process ourselves. It is a most astonishing fact that, in the month of May we sank, captured or caused to be scuttled no less than 257,000 tons of enemy shipping, although they present us with a target which is perhaps one-tenth as great as we present to them. While they slink from port to port, under the protection of their air umbrella, and make short, furtive voyages from port to port across the seas, we maintain our whole world-wide traffic, with never less than w,000 ships on the seas or less than 400 in the danger zones on any day. Yet the losses we inflicted upon them in the month of May were, I think, in the nature of three-quarters of the losses they inflicted upon us. This also has a bearing on the possibility of sea-borne invasion, because the destruction of enemy tonnage is proceeding at a most rapid and satisfactory rate.
Nor need these solid grounds for thankfulness and confidence fall from us when we look at the aspect of the war in the Middle East. We have been at war for 21 months. Almost a year has passed since France deserted us and Italy came in against us. If anybody had said in June last that we should to-day hold every yard of the territories for which Great Britain is responsible in the Middle East; that we should have conquered the whole of the Italian Empire of Abyssinia, Eritrea and East Africa; that Egypt Palestine and Iraq would have been successfully defended, he would have been thought a very foolish visionary. But that is the position at the moment. It is more than three months since the Germans gave out that they would be in Suez in a month and were telling the Spaniards that when Suez fell they would have to come into the war. Two months ago many people thought that we should be driven out of Tobruk, or forced to capitulate there. The last time we had a Debate on the war in this House so instructed a commentator as my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Petersfield (Sir. G. Jeffries) warned us gravely of the danger of a German thrust at Assiout, at the head of the delta.
Six weeks ago all Iraq was aflame, and Habbaniya was declared to be in the direst jeopardy. Women and children were evacuated by air. It was reported from enemy quarters that a surrender would be forced. A hostile, insurgent Government ruled in Baghdad, in closest association with the Germans and the Italians. Our forces were pinned in Basra, having only just landed. Kirkuk and Mosul were in enemy hands. All has now been regained. We are advancing into Syria in force. Our front at Mersa Matruh in the Western Desert is unbroken and our defensive lines there are stronger than ever. The large forces which were occupied in the conquest of Abyssinia are now set free, with an immense mass of transport, and large numbers are on their way to, or have already reached, the Delta of the Nile.
I think it would be most unfair and wrong, and very silly in the midst of a defence which has so far been crowned with remarkable success, to select the loss of the Crete salient as an excuse and pretext for branding with failure or taunt the great campaign for the defence of the Middle East, which has so far prospered beyond all expectation, and is now entering upon an even more intense and critical phase.
I give no guarantee, I make no promise or prediction for the future. But if the next six months, during which we must expect even harder fighting and many disappointments, should find US in no worse position than that in which we stand to-day, if, after having fought so long alone, single-handed against the might of Germany and against Italy, and against the intrigues and treachery of Vichy, we should still be found the faithful and unbeaten guardians of the Nile Valley and of the regions that lie about it, then I say that a famous chapter will have been written in the martial history of the British Empire and Commonwealth of Nations.