Skip to main content

Air Raids (Flying Bombs)

Volume 401: debated on Friday 23 June 1944

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

By the leave of the House I wish to make the following statement:

Since I made my statement in the House on 16th June, about the use by the enemy of flying bombs against this country, we have had a week's experience of this form of attack, and I thought the House might wish me to give something in the nature of a general review of the situation.

I am sure that hon. Members will understand that I can only deal with the matter to-day on the broadest general lines. It is of the first importance that so far as we can avoid it, we should not give the enemy any assistance, which would enable him to direct his blind shooting, or any indication useful to him of the measures which we have devised and are devising to destroy his weapons, both at their source and during their flight. The attack started on the night of Thursday, 15th June, that is to say, apart from the slight attack on the Tuesday night, and has continued intermittently up to the present. There have been periods when some 10 or more flying bombs were in the air at the same time, whilst at others, single bombs have been despatched at almost regular intervals. The missile explodes with results equivalent to those of a 1,000 kilo. bomb, with extensive blast effect. Little damage of national importance has been caused and public utilities have been only slightly affected so far. There have been, as is inevitable, casualties and damage to property by blast. But there has been a considerable dispersal of these missiles over Southern England, and a substantial proportion have fallen outside built up areas and have done little damage.

According to the German wireless, the whole of Southern England is a scene of desolation and the pall of smoke over the devastated areas has prevented German pilots from assessing the extent of the destruction wrought on London. According to the same inventive and imaginative source the British Government have abandoned London. Well, here we are assembled in Parliament in London. Such unintelligent lying on the part of the enemy defeats its own purpose, but I have been considering whether there is any way, without giving the enemy the comfort of a factual report as to how his attack is progressing, of giving the House and the public some information which will enable these raids to be seen in their proper perspective. I must be very careful not to go too far, but I think I can say this, and I hope hon. Members will not ask me to say more.

Last February there were raids on London on five nights between i8th and 25th February, lasting for an hour or two each night. These raids, as those who experienced them will know, were not nearly as heavy in scale as the raids which the people of London endured with such fortitude during a long period in 1940 and 1941. I have compared the number of persons killed in Southern England during the first five nights of the attack by flying bombs, with the number of persons killed in those five February raids, and the number is less than the February figure. I will not say how much less, because that would be of interest to the enemy.

So far, the results achieved by our fighters and anti-aircraft guns in destroying these things before they reach their objective have been substantial. A great deal has been and is being done to improve our defensive measures and we hope that we shall soon be able to improve still further on the results already achieved.

The system for giving warnings of this form of attack by the siren is working efficiently, but, of course, the intermittent arrival of these missiles over this country raises special problems, and I will merely say in regard to them, that I am keeping the existing warning arrangements under review, and that I shall be quite prepared to modify them if experience shows that modification is necessary. Broadly speaking, however, the existing arrangements are proving as effective for warning of flying bombs as for warning of ordinary aircraft.

The Civil Defence Services have maintained the high reputation which they earned in the days of the blitz. All have done extremely well, but it is, perhaps, right that I should mention in particular the wardens' service, upon whom there has been a special strain, owing to the very long hours for which they have had to remain on duty.

While this statement which I have made has, as I have explained, necessarily been confined within certain limits for security reasons, I think I have said enough to satisfy the House and the public, that the situation created by the new form of enemy attack has no resemblance to the lurid and over-dramatised picture which Dr. Goebbels has painted for the gratification of the war-weary German public. The attack has had no material effect upon our war effort and if the enemy's intention was to upset the morale of our people he has signally failed. The morale of the British takes a lot of upsetting. Last Friday I asked the nation to go about its business as usual. As we expected, the nation has done so and in this fact we all take pride.

It may be that these attacks have not yet reached their peak and it may be that the enemy will improve his devices, or that other devices are in store for us. We must, therefore, continue our vigilance and we must not neglect any measures that will defeat his intentions, but if the experience of the past week is a measure of the attack which we may have to face, we can face it with a stout heart and every reason for confidence.

Hon. Members will forgive me if I mention again what I have referred to several times in this statement, namely, the care which we must take to avoid giving information to the enemy, and I am sure that hon. Members who wish to raise any point on my statement will keep this in mind in framing their observations or questions.

While thanking the right hon. Gentleman for his very full and wise statement, may I ask if he is aware of the extraordinary coolness of the public of Southern England and how they have been going about their ordinary affairs as usual without any disturbance? Will he, however, endeavour to make arrangements, where families desire to evacuate old people or young children, that reasonable facilities should be available?

I do not think I could make any statement on that at this juncture. I agree with my right hon. Friend that the people of Southern England have taken this magnificently. I will take note of what my right hon. Friend says, but it would be a matter also for the Minister of Health.

May I, Mr. Speaker, as one Member from the North and one who has some responsibility with reference to Civil Defence Services, say how pleased I was to hear the right hon. Gentleman pay his tribute to the wardens' service in this case, because this form of attack peculiarly calls for courage on their part to be out and about when other people can be in shelters. With regard to the people of Southern England, we saw how they behaved in the old days, but I think their coolness and courage on this occasion in the face of this new form of weapon have never been surpassed. I should like to ask the right hon. Gentleman if he is quite sure that the whole of the arrangements for safety and shelter are available at all times of the day.

Yes, Sir, I think I can answer that fairly in the affirmative. May I say that I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for that appreciative tribute from the North to the South?

I am sure the House is very much gratified at the full statement made by the Home Secretary. There is one question I would like to put to him or to the Secretary of State for Air. Is there any use in scouting during these periods at night or during the day-time?

I am not sure what the hon. Member means.

I mean our aeroplanes flying about—that is what I call scouting—during the night and during the daytime.

I can only assure my hon. Friend that we take every practical step, both by reconnaissance and by fighter, to keep down this menace.

May I ask the Home Secretary whether he thinks it is advisable to warn the people not to be so careless as some of them are? I know we have a name for being a very phlegmatic nation but I am afraid it is a fact that too many people neglect to get under cover when the warning is actually on.

I want the public to take a broad and sensible view and not to get themselves into needless danger. On the other hand, I have asked the nation to go about its business as usual. My impression is that the British people are an extraordinarily sensible lot, and that, on the whole, they will do what they think right, without Ministers telling them too much in detail.

Will my right hon. Friend take steps to notify local authorities as to the desirability of executing immediate repairs where they are required, giving preference to smaller houses where the necessity exists?

Yes, Sir. We will keep that in mind. I would like to say that the Ministry of Works deserve a word of praise for the speed and alacrity with which they have set about things, and also the workpeople in that Service. I am sure that the point put by my hon. Friend will be kept in mind by the various Ministerial and regional authorities concerned.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that in the case of buildings partly occupied by certain Departments and partly by private individuals, the Departments requisition the best part of the shelter accommodation and very often keep it locked all night, so that people who want to sleep there cannot do so? Would he suggest that Departments should not be so selfish?

I doubt whether that allegation is justified. I would say that there is an ample sufficiency of shelters. When I mention shelters, may I add that our old friend the street surface shelter, which was not always appreciated, has stood up to this, very well indeed.

There are cases where Departments have locked shelters, against the people who have paid for them.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the ordinary citizen, the office worker in the town or village in Southern England, is in fact going to work in the mornings and getting there on time? He or she is spending his or her time doing his or her ordinary job and is not interrupted every few hours by going to shelters but is, in fact, carrying on just as this House of Commons carries on. Is it not better that that should be so, rather than that we should encourage people to give up work at any time during the 24 hours?

I entirely agree with the spirit of what my hon. and gallant Friend has said.

The Home Secretary said that he is considering the warning system. May I ask him, in particular, to consider whether it is really necessary that the warnings should come on and go off a number of times during the hours, say, of midnight to six o'clock in the morning? Will he give special consideration to this point?

On that same point, would my right hon. Friend also consider, where there is a local warning system, whether it is necessary to sound that particular local warning, for these missiles, in areas where the local warning was designed for other purposes?

I will certainly keep in mind the point raised by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Major C. S. Taylor) and follow it up. If my hon. and gallant Friend would let me have further particulars, it might help. On the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North Lambeth (Mr. G. Strauss), broadly speaking we try to act in accordance with the spirit of what he says. If we have reason to believe—and it is not too easy to form reasons to believe anything about the frequency of this thing—that there may be a break, for various reasons, we rather feel that it might be nice for the people to give them the "All Clear." However, I agree that it is a disputable point. I will watch it, and try to be as sensible as I can in regard to it.

Would it be possible for my right hon. Friend to indicate who is responsible for the defensive weapons used against these missiles? Is my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Air in complete charge? If so, would it be possible for him at some future date to indicate the degree of success with which those measures are meeting?

On the point of weapons the responsibility for active defensive and offensive operations in this matter, lies with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Air. On the point of whether he can make a statement, I cannot speak for him.

I think it would be very much better that the House should forbear asking for a statement.