Air Parity Lost
May 2, 1935. House of Commons
We have before us in the sphere of foreign policy three new and separate documents of importance. We have the League of Nations resolution; we have the declarations of the Stresa Conference; and we have the Prime Minister's article in his own organ, the News-Letter. I find myself - I think in common with the great majority of the House, not in one party but in all parties - in very general agreement with the Prime Minister and His Majesty's Government upon the measures taken by theGovernment in these three documents.
The sentiments set forth in the News-Letter about the dangers of German rearmament are akin to those which I myself have expressed several times in the last two or three years, beginning in the autumn of 1932. The Stresa declaration, including the statement that the three Powers, Great Britain Italy and France, will keep in touch with one another and are pledged to study the maintenance of peace in common, seems to be no more than national safety or national survival requires. There remains the Resolution of the Council of the League of Nations complaining of the growth of German armaments and of the unilateral violation of treaties. I have seen a great deal of criticism in quarters where one would least expect it of France for appealing to the League of Nations against Germany, and of the League of Nations for giving a faithful verdict upon the questions submitted for their judgment.
When I hear extreme pacifists denouncing this act of the League of Nations I am left wondering what foundation these gentlemen offer to countries for abandoning individual national armaments. We are reminded how in a state of savagery every man is armed and is a law unto himself, but that civilization means that courts are established, that men lay aside their arms and carry their causes to the tribunal. This presupposes a tribunal to which men. when they are in doubt or anxiety, may freely have recourse. It presupposes a tribunal which is not incapable of giving a verdict. Personally I admire greatly the self-restraint and courage with which France addressed herself to the League of Nations. It was far better surely than that she should have dealt in ultimatums or should have seized territories as hostages, as would have been the practice in former generations. She appealed to the tribunal which has been set up, and I do also admire the spirit of the tribunal and of these different countries, some great and some small, drawn from different parts of the world, who showed themselves, according to their lights, prepared to give justice.
If we are to be told now it was very wrong for France to go to the League of Nations, and how foolish and tactless of the League to give its opinion, if that view is to be held by those who have hitherto told us to look to this international procedure, then they have absolutely stultified all their arguments, for never again, if that is the case, will nations be prepared to abandon the security which resides in strong national armaments. All that prospect - the only prospect which opens itself before our eyes - of establishing a reign of law and building up a great international structure to which all nations will accede – that prospect and hope will dwindle and die away. Therefore, I am in general agreement with His Majesty's Government upon all these three steps which have been taken by them in the last few months in company with other nations.
If I criticize these measures it is not at all because of their character, but because of their tardiness. Why was all this not done two or three years ago? If the Prime Minister two years ago had thought what he now says in his News-Letter about the German danger, he need perhaps never have published his thoughts to the world. Instead of lecturing the German nation, now already so heavily armed, he could have imparted his ideas as wise guidance to our own Cabinet. If only the French Government two and a half years ago, when the German process of rearmament began, had laid their much-talked-of dossier before the League of Nations and demanded justice or protection from the concert of Europe: if only Great Britain. France and Italy had pledged themselves two or three years ago to work in association for maintaining peace and collective security, how different might have been our position. Indeed, it is possible that the dangers into which we are steadily advancing would never have arisen. But the world and the Parliaments and public opinion would have none of that in those days. When the situation was manageable it was neglected, and now that it is thoroughly out of hand we apply too late the remedies which then might have effected a cure.
There is nothing new in the story. It is as old as the Sibylline Books. It falls into that long, dismal catalogue of the fruitlessness of experience and the confirmed unteachability of mankind. Want of foresight, unwillingness to act when action would be simple and effective, lack of clear thinking, confusion of counsel until the emergency comes, until self-preservation strikes its jarring gong -these are the features which constitute the endless repetition of history.
All this leads me to the principal matter namely, the state of our national defenses and their reactions upon foreign policy. Things have got much worse, but they have also got much clearer. It used to be said that armaments depend on policy. It is not always true, but I think that at this juncture it is true to say that policy depends, to a large extent, upon armaments. It is true to say that we have reached a position where the choice of policy is dictated by considerations of defense. During the last three years, under the Government of Herr Hitler, and before him under that of Chancellor Bruning. Germany worked unceasingly upon a vast design of rearmament on a scale which would give the Germans such a predominance in Europe as would enable them, if they chose -and why should they not choose? - to reverse the results of the Great War. The method should be noted. The method has been to acquire mastery in the air and, under the protection of that mastery, to develop - and it is fortunately a much longer process-land and sea forces which, when completed, would dominate all Europe.
This design is being completed as fast as possible, and the first part of it - German ascendancy in the air - is already a fact. The military part is far advanced, and the naval part is now coming into view.
For the last two years some of us have been endeavoring to convince His Majesty's Government of the scale and pace at which German aviation was progressing. We debated it in March 1933, on the Air Estimates of 1934, in August 1934, in November 1934, and quite recently - in March 1935. On all these occasions the most serious warnings were given by private Members who spoke on this subject, of whom I was one. The alarm bells were set ringing, and even jangling, in good time if only they had been listened to. This afternoon I am not concerned with what private Members said in giving their warning, but I am bound to address myself to the main statements and promises which were elicited on these occasions from His Majesty's Government. In March 1934 we had the first declaration of the Lord President:
“Any Government of this country - a National Government more than any, and this Government - will see to it that in air strength and air power this country shall no longer be in a position inferior to any country within striking distance of our shores.”
That declaration was considered of high importance. That was in March, but nothing happened until August, when, under the pressure, not, indeed, of those hon. Gentlemen in this House who were raising this matter, for their pressure could easily have been disdained but under the pressure of events, the Government produced a five years' program for increasing the home defense portion of the Royal Air Force to 75 squadrons, comprising 880 machines, by 1939. Anyone could see that that was utterly inadequate, and that it bore no relation whatever to the pace at which German aviation was developing and to the military character which it was assuming. At that time, nine months ago, I urged that without a day's delay measures should be taken, first to double, and then to redouble the Royal Air Force.
Anyone can see now, and most of all the Ministers responsible, that the policy of doubling and redoubling the Air Force which I then proposed was the least which should have been set on foot. If nine months ago these measures had been begun you would today have been beginning to reap the harvest and beginning to obtain results, and very different would have been the position. In November some of us moved an Amendment to the Address, and I took the responsibility then of making some definite statements, or rather understatements, about the German air menace. In order that the Government should have an opportunity of consulting their expert advisers, I supplied the Lord President with a precis in advance, and upon this he made a series of strong declarations. I must read these to the House:
“It is not the case that Germany is rapidly approaching equality with us. . . Her real strength is not 50 per cent, of our strength in Europe today.
As for the position this time next year - that is, November of this year - so far from the German military air force being at least as strong as, and probably stronger than, our own, we estimate that we shall still have in Europe alone a margin of nearly 50 per cent”.
It is quite true that my right hon. Friend in that second statement said, "Provided that there is no acceleration in Germany." But it is very difficult to know what is acceleration when the original speed at which the German air force was constructed is not known and when the final limit at which they are aiming is known. Then came this declaration, the most important that we have had - the Prime Minister has repeated it today:
“His Majesty's Government are determined in no conditions to accept any position of inferiority with regard to what air force may be raised in Germany in the future”.
Here we have an assertion that the Government, with all their sources of information, were convinced that they had, and would continue to have for many months, a large air superiority over Germany, and that in no case would they fail to maintain what has been called air parity with Germany. These assurances were accepted. Mr. Lloyd George spoke in that debate. I remember his speech well. He declared himself completely reassured. He declared himself in agreement with the principle that we should maintain our parity, and said that he was completely reassured by the fact that we still had this air superiority and that the Government intended to maintain it unbroken in the future. The Leader of the Liberal party [Sir Herbert Samuel] accepted it, and he too rapidly decided in his own mind that the Government statement was right and that mine was wrong.
That was in November. Only six weeks ago the Under-Secretary of State for Air was put up to say that at that date, in March 1935 - that is to say, last March - we had a substantial superiority over Germany, and that in November of this year we should still have superiority. Only six weeks have passed since then, and surely we are entitled to ask what has happened to bring about the extraordinary change in the whole colour and configuration of the landscape? We are told that Herr Hitler made a statement to the Foreign Secretary at Berlin in the conversations, which it now seems were most fortunately undertaken - otherwise I suppose we should never have known. We have not always been accustomed to depend for our information upon statements, however frank and friendly, that may be made by Rulers of other States.
All these statements that were made by the Lord President, and later, on behalf of the Government, and under instructions from the Government by the Under-Secretary for Air, are admitted to be untrue. I do not say that they were made in bad faith, but they were utterly wrong. They were the reverse of the truth, and more than the reverse of the truth. [Laughter.] Certainly. If the Government statement was that we should be 50 percent, stronger than Germany at a certain date and we find that they are 50 per cent, stronger than we are, it was the reverse of the truth, and far worse than that. Is there a Member of the Government who will get up now and say that in November next we shall still have a 50 per cent superiority, or that we have a superiority today? No, Sir. The whole of these assertions, made in the most sweeping manner and on the highest authority, are now admitted to be entirely wrong. We have had a confession from the Prime Minister today that the then estimates have been found to be below what is now understood to be the truth.
There is a second unpleasant chapter on this subject of which I will merely indicate the title and the contents. The German military machines have all been produced within the last two and a half years. Therefore they are of the latest design. An hon. Gentleman has just placed in my hands a telegram which has arrived and been published in one of the evening newspapers, in which General Goering says. "We have no old machines. Our planes are the most up-to-date in existence." Many of our designs, on the other hand, are seven or eight years old. The average of our machines these facts are perfectly well known; there is nothing in them that is not known, or I would not say it - is certainly double the age of the designs which have been created in Germany. It cannot be disputed that both in numbers and in quality Germanyhas already obtained a marked superiority over our home defense Air Force.
But it is the third chapter of this story which is the most grievous. The rate and volume which the output of German military aeroplanes has attained is many times superior to our own. The Under-Secretary told us six weeks ago that the additions that would be made to our first-line air strength, which was then thought sufficient, would be 151. There is reason to believe, as I said on that occasion, that the comparable German output of military machines is between, at least. 100 and 150 per month. Many people would put it much higher. The German air industry is therefore turning out military machines at perhaps ten times the rate at which ours are turned out. And those machines are being formed into squadrons for which long-trained, ardent personnel are already assembled, and for which an ample number of aerodromes are already prepared. Therefore, at the end of this year, when we were to have had a 50 per cent, superiority over Germany, they will be, at least, between three and tour times as strong as we are. [Editor's Note: This forecast was unduly pessimistic in point of time, and in fact the German production after the original bound was slowed down.]
Behind all this rapid peace-time production lies the industry of Germany, fully organized for war manufacture and steadily tending in its character to the condition of war manufacture. This can be drawn upon at any time gradually and to any extent which they choose. Where, then, is this pledge of air parity, and that we would not accept any inferiority to whatever the German air force might be? The Prime Minister said today that the Lord President's declaration stands. It stands only as a declaration. The facts do not support the assertion. It is absolutely certain that we have lost air parity already both in the number of machines and in their quality. It is certain that at the end of this year we shall be far worse off relatively than we are now. Our home defense force will be for a long period ahead a rapidly diminishing fraction of the German air force. It may reasonably be urged that the units of the German Air Force, having been prepared in conditions of secrecy, have not at the present time acquired the efficiency of our squadrons in air tactics and in formation flying.
It is very dangerous to underrate German efficiency in any military matter. All my experience has taught me to think that any such supposition would be most imprudent. Anyhow, now that the Germans are openly marshaling and exercising their squadrons and forming them with great rapidity, we may take it that six months of this summer and autumn will amply give them the combined training which they require, having regard to the long careful individual preparations which have been made. Therefore, any superiority which we may at this moment possess in personnel and in formation flying and in air maneuvering is a wasting asset, and will be gone by the end of the autumn, having regard to the enormously increased German air strength and the superiority of their machines.
The Prime Minister in his article in the News-Letter used the word "ambush." The word must have sprung from the anxieties of his heart, for it is an ambush into which, in spite of every warning, we have fallen. I have stated the position in general terms, and I have tried to state it not only moderately but quite frigidly. Here I pause to ask the Committee to consider what these facts mean and what their consequences impose. I confess that words fail me. In the year 1708 Mr. Secretary St. John, by a calculated Ministerial indiscretion, revealed to the House the fact the battle of Almanza had been lost in the previous summer because only 8000 British troops were actually in Spain out of the 29,000 that had been voted by the House of Commons for this service. When a month later this revelation was confirmed by the Government, it is recorded that the House sat in silence for half an hour, no Member caring to speak or wishing to make a comment upon so staggering an announcement. And yet how incomparably small that event was to what we have now to face. That was merely a frustration of policy. Nothing that could happen to Spain in that war could possibly have contained in it any form of danger which was potentially mortal.
But what is our position today? For many months, perhaps for several years, most critical for the peace of Europe, we are inexorably condemned to be in a position of frightful weakness. If Germany were the only Power with which we were concerned, if we stood alone compared with Germany, and if there were no other great countries in Europe who shared our anxieties and dangers and our point of view, and if air warfare were the only kind of warfare by which the destinies of nations was decided, we should then have to recognize that this country, which seemed so safe and strong a few years ago, which bore with unconquerable strength all the strains and shocks of the Great War, which has guarded its homeland and its independence for so many centuries, would lie at the discretion of men now governing a foreign country. There are, however, friendly nations with whom we may concert our measures of air defense, and there are other factors, military and naval, of which in combination we can dispose. Under the grim panoply which Germany has so rapidly assumed there may be all kinds of stresses and weaknesses, economic, political and social, which are not apparent - but upon these we should not rest ourselves.
It seems undoubted that there is an effective policy open to us at the present time by which we may preserve both our safety and our freedom. Never must we despair, never must we give in. but we must face facts and draw true conclusions from them. The policy of detachment or isolation, about which we have heard so much and which in many ways is so attractive, is no longer open. If we were to turn our backs upon Europe, thereby alienating every friend, we should by disinteresting ourselves in their fate invite them to disinterest themselves in ours. Is it then expected that we could go off with a wallet full of German Colonies gathered in the last war and a world-wide collection of territories and trade interests gathered in the past, when the greatness of our country was being built up, while all the time we should in this vital matter of air defense be condemned to protracted, indefinite and agonizing inferiority? Such a plan has only to be stated to be rejected.
There is a wide measure of agreement in the House tonight upon our foreign policy. We are bound to act in concert with France and Italy and other Powers, great and small, who are anxious to preserve peace. I would not refuse the co-operation of any Government which plainly conformed to that test as long as it was willing to work under the authority and sanction of the League of Nations. Such a policy docs not close the door upon a revision of the Treaties, but it procures a sense of stability, and an adequate gathering together of all reasonable Powers for self-defense, before any inquiry of that character can be entered upon. In this august association for collective security we must build up defense forces of all kinds and combine our action with that of friendly Powers, so that we may be allowed to live in quiet ourselves and retrieve the woeful miscalculations of which we are at present the dupes, and of which, unless we take warning in time, we may some day be the victims.