7 May 1940, House of Commons, United Kingdom
I intervene with reluctance in this debate. All my Honourable Friends know very well that I hesitated whether I should take part in it at all, because I thought it was more desirable that we should have a discussion in which Members not of front-bench rank should take a good deal of the time, but I think that it is my duty, having regard to the fact that I have some experience of these matters.
I feel that I ought to say something, from such experience as I have had in the past of the conduct of war in victory and in disaster, about what I think of the present situation and what really ought to be done.
I have heard most of the speech of the right Honourable Gentleman, the Secretary of State for Air, and I should think that the facts which he gave us justify the criticism against the Government and are no defence of the Government.
He said that we had practically no chance of making good in our Norwegian expedition unless we were able to have our air bases there which would enable us to put our fighters into the air bases which would enable us to put our fighters into the air in order to counteract the very destructive effect of the German aeroplanes. But we knew there were no air bases available. We know they were in the hands of the enemy.
The Right Honourable Gentleman admits that. He says that the Government knew beforehand that there were no air bases unless they were captured from the enemy, he even intimates that the object of the Trondheim expedition was to capture an air base. In that case we ought to have had picked men, and not a kind of a scratch team. We ought to have sent the very best man available, especially as we could not send the whole of our force in the first instalment.
The first instalment ought to have been picked men, because the Germans had picked men, as is generally accepted. We sent there, I think, a Territorial Brigade which had not had very much training. They were very young men, but they were the advance party of an expeditionary force which had to accomplish a task upon which the success of the whole force depended.
We ought also to have had combined action between the Army and the Navy. We had neither. We gambled on the chance of getting air bases. We did not take any measures that would guarantee success. This vital expedition, which would have made a vast difference to this country’s strategical position, and an infinite difference to her prestige in the world, was made dependent upon this half-prepared, half-baked expeditionary force without any combination at all between the Army and the Navy.
There could not have been a more serious condemnation of the whole action of the Government in respect of Norway. They knew perfectly well that the Germans were preparing for a raid on some adjoining country, probably in the Balkans, and it is a severe condemnation of them that they should have gambled in this way. The right Honourable Gentleman spoke about the gallantry of our men, and were are equally proud of them. It thrills us to read the stories. All the more shame that we should have made fools of them.
Now, the situation is a grave one – I agree with what was said about that by the Prime Minister – and it would be a fatal error on our part not to acknowledge it. In such experience as I have had of war direction I have never tried to minimise the extent of such a disaster. I try to get the facts, because unless you really face the facts you cannot overcome the difficulties and restore the position.
There is no case, in m judgment, for panic. I say that deliberately, after a good deal of reflection, but there is a grave case for pulling ourselves together. We cannot do that unless we tell the country the facts. They must realise the magnitude of our jeopardy. We have two immense Empires federated in the struggle for liberty, the two greatest Empires in the world, the British Empire and the French Empire, with almost inexhaustible resources, but not easily mobilised, not easily roused, especially ours.
You are not going to rouse the British Empire – because you will have to do it not merely in Britain, but throughout the world – to put forth the whole of its strength unless and until you tell it what the facts and realities are of the peril that confronts it. At the cost of unpleasantness, I am going to do that, not with a view to terrifying them or spreading dismay and consternation, but with a view to rousing real action and not sham action as we have had. It is no use saying that the balance of advantage is in our favour, or adding up the number of ships sunk on either side. That kind of petty-cash balance-sheer is not the thing to look at. There are more serious realities than that.
First of all, we are strategically in a very much worse position than we were before. Now see these words, as they pass along, “strategically better”, “strategically worse”, because victory or defeat may depend upon the application of those two words. The greatest triumph of this extraordinary man Hitler has been that he has succeeded in putting his country into an infinitely better strategical position to wage war than his predecessors did in 1914, and by what he has done now he has increased his own advantages and he has put us into greater jeopardy.
Let us face it like men of British blood. Graver perils than this have been fought through in the past. Let us face it; just look at it, Czecho-Slovakia, that spear-heard, aimed at the heart of Germany, broken. A million of the finest troops in Europe of a very well-educated race of free man, all gone. Such advantage as there is in Czecho-Slovakia, with its great lines of fortifications and its Skoda works, which turned out the finest artillery in the 1914 war are in the hands of Hitler. That is one strategic advantage which we have handed over to the enemy.
You have a Franco-Russian Alliance, negotiated by an old friend of mine, M Barthou, by which Russia was to come to the aid of Czecho-Slovakia if France did. There would come to the aid of Czecho-Slovakia if France did. There would have been a two-front war for Germany. She knows what that means, because she had it before. That door is closed. We sent a third-class clerk to negotiate with the Prime Minister of the greatest country in the world, while Germany sent her Foreign Secretary with a resplendent retinue. That door is closed. Oil in Russian ships is now coming across the Black Sea for the aeroplanes of Germany.
Strategically, that was an immense victory for the Nazi Government.
The third – Rumania. We have tried to form one big syndicate, but Germany has been there starting, not one syndicate, but little syndicates here and there to develop the land, to increase production of work and to give her all sorts of machinery. She has practically got Rumania in her hands; and if she did not have it in her hands a month ago, by this failure in Norway you have handed over Rumania. What else? Spain. I am hoping that my fears about that will not prove true. Now you have Scandinavia and Norway, which were one of the great strategic possibilities of the war, and they are in German hands.
It is no use criticising Sweden. Sweden is now between Germany on the left and Germany on the right. What right have we to criticise the little Powers? We promised to rescue them. We promised to protect them. We never sent an aeroplane to Poland. We were too late in Norway, although we had the warning of ships in the Baltic and barges crammed with troops. They have to think about themselves. They do not want German troops on their soil, and they are definitely frightened, and for good reasons.
It deprives us of a possible opening in that direction. That has gone. It brings the German aeroplanes and submarines 200 miles nearer our coast. It does more than that. There is the opening-up of the Baltic. I venture to say that that will be considered, in regard to the protection of our trade and commerce. it is a grave menace. Strategically, we are infinitely worse off.
With regard to our prestige, can you doubt that that has been impaired? You have only to read the friendly American paper to find out, highly friendly papers that were backing us up through thick and thin, in a country which was pro-Ally. I do not know whether Honourable Members ever listen to the British Broadcasting Corporation’s relay of the American commentator, Raymond Gram Swing. He is very remarkable. He gave an account of the change in American opinion. He said that what has happened was a hammer-blow to Americans. They were perfectly dazed. Before that they were convinced that victory was going to be won by the Allies, and they had never any doubt about it. This is the first doubt that has entered their minds, and they said, “It will be up to us to defend democracy”.
There is also the fact the state of our preparations five years ago, in 1935. In 1935 a promise of rearmament was made; in 1936 active proposals were submitted to this House and were passed without a Division. The Government said they would commit us to £1,500,000,000. If they had asked for more and had said that it was necessary, then there was no party in this House that would have challenged it. And if any party had challenged it, you had your majority.
Is there anyone in this House who will say that he is satisfied with the speed and efficiency of the preparations in any respect for air, for Army or for Navy? Everybody is disappointed. Everybody knows that whatever was done was done half-heartedly, ineffectively, without drive and unintelligently. For three to four years I thought to myself that the facts with regard to Germany were exaggerated by the First Lord, because the then Prime Minister – not this Prime Minister – said that they were not true. The First Lord, Mr Churchill, was right about it. Then came the war.
The Prime Minister must remember that he has met this formidable foe of ours in peace and in war. He has always been worsted. He is not in a position to put it on the ground of friendship. He has appealed for sacrifice. The nation is prepared for every sacrifice so long as it has leadership, as long as the Government show clearly what they are aiming at and so long as the nation is confident that those who are leading it are doing their best. I say solemnly that the Prime Minister should give an example of sacrifice, because there is nothing which can contribute more to victory in this war than that he should sacrifice the seals of office.