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The War: Russia's Intervention

Volume 114: debated on Wednesday 20 September 1939

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4.6 p.m.

My Lords, I beg to ask His Majesty's Government if they have any statement to make on the present situation.

My Lords, events have occurred in the last week of such far-reaching importance that there has not yet been time to estimate their effect on the fortunes of the war and on the attitude of other countries. In the statement made to the House on September 13 I referred to the relentless German pressure on the Polish Army which had so far been frustrated by the indomitable spirit of the Poles. This pressure and this resistance continued during the week, and is still continuing in many parts of Poland. The tide of German invasion eastwards has reached an approximate north-south line through Brest-Litovsk and Lemberg, though there still remain islands of Polish resistance, such as Warsaw, which refuse to be submerged. On September 17 an event occurred which has inevitably had a decisive effect upon the war on the Eastern Front. On the morning of September 17 Russian troops crossed the Polish frontier at points along its whole length and advanced into Poland. We cannot say that the action of the Soviet Government was unexpected. For some time past Soviet troops have been mobilised and concentrated on the western frontiers of the Soviet Union, and statements have appeared in the Soviet Press and wireless referring to the position of White Russians and Ukrainians in Poland, which bore the interpretation that the Soviet Government were preparing the ground for intervention.

On the 17th September a Note was handed to the Polish Ambassador in Moscow to the effect that Warsaw as the capital of Poland no longer existed, that the Polish Government had disintegrated, and that the Polish State and its Government had ceased to exist. In the same way the agreements concluded between the Soviet Union and Poland had ceased to exist. Poland had become a suitable field for all manner of hazards and surprises which might constitute a threat to the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union could therefore no longer preserve a neutral attitude, and the Soviet Government had ordered their troops to cross the frontier and take under their protection the life and property of the population of the Western Ukraine and Western White Russia. The Polish Ambassador in Moscow refused to accept this Note, and has since been instructed to ask for his passports.

A copy of this communication was sent to His Majesty's Ambassador in Moscow with a Note staling that the Soviet Government would pursue a policy of neutrality in the relations between the U.S.S.R. and Great Britain. A similar communication was made to the diplomatic representatives of foreign Powers in Moscow. In this situation, His Majesty's Government authorised the issue of a statement on September 18 that this attack by the Soviet Government upon Poland (a country with whom she had a non-aggression pact) at a moment when Poland was prostrate in the face of overwhelming forces brought against her by Germany could not be justified by the arguments put forward, and that, while the full implication of these events was not yet apparent, nothing which had occurred would make any difference to the determination of His Majesty's Government to fulfil our obligations to Poland and to prosecute the war with all energy until those obligations had been achieved.

The effects of the Russian invasion upon the hard-pressed Poles have naturally been very serious. Caught between two vast armies, and with their communications to the south cut off, the Polish forces are still continuing their courageous resistance. According to a communiqué issued on September 18 the Polish Government have requested the Rumanian Government to accord hospitality to the Head of the Polish State and to his Ministers who have taken refuge on Rumanian territory. His Majesty's Ambassador to Poland, who was established in the Polish town of Kuty, near the Rumanian frontier, was advised by the Polish Government to leave Poland as soon as Russian troops crossed the frontier, and he is now in Rumania with his staff. His Majesty's Government would like to say a word of sympathy, with which I am sure that your Lordships would wish to associate yourselves, with Sir Howard Kennard and the members of his staff, as well as His Majesty's Consular officers in Poland. They have had to suffer such an ordeal of anxiety, fatigue and danger as seldom falls to the lot of members of their Services, but they have carried out their duties with the courage, efficiency and disregard of personal considerations which we should all expect of them.

It is still too early to pronounce any final verdict on the motives or consequences of the Russian action. For the unhappy victim of this cynical attack the result has been a tragedy of the grimmest character. The world which has watched the vain struggle of the Polish nation against overwhelming odds with profound pity and sympathy admires their valour which even now refuses to admit defeat. If Britain and France have been unable to avert the defeat of the Armies of Poland, they have assured her that they have not forgotten their obligations to her nor weakened in their determination to carry on the struggle.

Against the background of these events, Herr Hitler chose yesterday to address another speech to the world. It is not our way in this country to speak with boasts and threats. Perhaps for that very reason the German leaders have difficulty in understanding us, but in such comments as His Majesty's Government have to make on the Chancellor's speech, we shall not depart from our custom of speaking soberly and quietly. The speech which Herr Hitler made yesterday at Danzig does not change the situation with which we are confronted. It gave an account of recent events which we cannot accept as accurate and, as the commentary broadcast by the B.B.C. last night clearly showed, it contained certain assurances of the kind which in recent years Herr Hitler has repudiated when it suited his purpose. Among the many misstatements of fact to which particular reference might be made is the statement that the French Government agreed to Italian mediation while His Majesty's Government refused it. The reply to this statement is contained in the communiqué issued by the official Italian news agency on September 4, which was reproduced in the recent White Paper and which clearly brought out the common attitude adopted by the British and French Governments. A supplementary White Paper which will be issued to-morrow will make plain the true course of recent events so that public opinion may have no difficulty in forming its final judgment.

Herr Hitler says much in his speech about the humane methods by which he has waged war. I can only say that methods are not made humane by calling them so, and that the accounts of German bombing of open towns and machine-gunning of refugees have shocked the whole world. Only one general comment is necessary. Our general purpose in this struggle is well known; it is to redeem Europe from the perpetual and recurring fear of German aggression and to enable the peoples of Europe to preserve their independence and their liberties. No threats will deter us or our French Allies from this purpose. His Majesty's Government did not seek this war. They did, as the published documents show, repeatedly state their readiness for a peaceful settlement by negotiation. They persevered in their attempts to secure this up to and even after the striking of the first blow, but their efforts were set at nought and their hopes shattered by the unprovoked and brutal aggression of Germany upon our Polish Allies.

On the western frontier the French have continued to make methodical and successful progress. The laconic but admirably clear announcements of the French Higher Command indicate that valuable strategic and tactical objectives have been secured and that the ground gained has been held in face of increasingly severe German resistance.

Since the last statement to your Lordships on the war at sea, the situation has been one of intense and continuous naval activity, mainly in the form of attacks on U-boats carried out by destroyers, small craft and the Fleet Air Arm, acting under cover of the main fleets and squadrons. These attacks have been made both by day and by night, and the achievements of the anti-submarine campaign after a little over a fortnight of war have exceeded anything which the British Navy accomplished even over much longer periods in the last war. The great difference between the last war and this one is that, whereas in the last war we were on the defensive against the U-boat campaign, we are now carrying out an offensive against the U-boats and they are continually and relentlessly attacked whenever they disclose themselves. It is frequently impossible to be certain after depth charges have been dropped that the submarine attacked has been destroyed. But there are occasionally quite unmistakable signs that the vessel has been holed and sunk, and I am confident that I am not overstating the case when I say that already six or seven German submarines have paid the full penalty for their attacks on British shipping. In some cases their crews have been captured. I am quite confident that, with the full operation of the convoy system and the rapid increase in the numbers, power and efficiency of our hunting craft, this submarine menace will dwindle with corresponding speed.

We must expect to receive occasional blows, sometimes heavy ones, such as the loss of H.M.S. "Courageous," with its grievous tale of valuable lives cut short. Here perhaps I might interpose the statement which has been made by the First Lord in another place. On Sunday, September 17, H.M.S. "Courageous" was torpedoed and sunk by an enemy submarine. The submarine was immediately attacked by one of the screening vessels, and there is every reason to believe that she was destroyed. The "Courageous" had on board a complement of 1,202 officers and men. This was somewhat less than her full complement, as she had embarked a reduced number of aircraft. A large number of survivors have been picked up by destroyers and merchant ships, amounting in all to 687 officers and men. The Commanding Officer, Captain Makeig-Jones, went down with his ship. The names of the survivors have been issued through the Ministry of Information as soon as they became available.

H.M.S. "Courageous" was one of our earlier aircraft carriers. Built in 1917 as a cruiser, she was converted to an aircraft carrier after the last war. The loss of this valuable ship to the Navy is not one which we should wish to minimise. Since the outbreak of war H.M.S. "Courageous" has rendered conspicuous service in the protection of merchant shipping against submarine attack, and her operations against individual submarines have not been without success. The public have already learnt from survivors the graphic story of the gallantry of the ship's company. I should like to express on behalf of His Majesty's Government—and I am sure your Lordships would wish also to associate yourselves with this—their profound sympathy with those who have been bereaved.

A loss such as this is the inevitable toll of a fleet in being and in active control of the sea in time of war. It is, however, already clear that the Navy and the Merchant Service by their unceasing efforts will be able to maintain essential supplies of raw materials and food for our population and our industries. In April, 1917—the peak month of action by enemy U-Boats and mines in the last war—the average weekly sinkings of British tonnage amounted to 127,000 or 39 ships. During the week ended September 12 it was 95,000 tons or 17 ships, and for the week ended 19th September 45,848 tons or 13 ships. Undoubtedly this decrease has been partly due to the working of the convoy system, now increasingly in operation. So far as our information goes, 139 lives, both British and neutral, have up to now been lost from submarine attack, excluding the losses incurred by the sinking of H.M.S. "Courageous"; there are, in addition, forty-four persons reported missing.

The primary aim of British policy at sea is to destroy or render ineffective the warships of the enemy, and as a result to prevent the enemy augmenting their warlike resources from overseas, whilst at the same time protecting our own and neutral commerce. The interests of neutrals are, indeed, the same as our own. In war, as in peace, we depend for our life upon the uninterrupted flow of trade, and it is our fundamental policy to preserve, as far as possible, the conditions of normal trading. The suppression of traffic in contraband of war must, of necessity, cause some inconvenience to neutrals. It is the intention of the Government to reduce this to a minimum. Our control is only exercised in accordance with the well-established principles of International Law. It is used only in cases where there is good reason to suspect the presence of contraband cargo, destined for the enemy. A neutral's normal requirement of goods for self-consumption is not interfered with. And, of course, the exercise of control over contraband destined for the enemy is subject to the lawful arbitrament of the Prize Court. The strict adherence of His Majesty's Government to the rules of law is in striking contrast to the policy pursued by Germany. No loss of life has been caused by the exercise of British sea-power, and no neutral property has been unlawfully detained. Germany's method of submarine warfare, and the laying of mines on the high seas, has already resulted in the death of many innocent victims, regardless of nationality, and in the unwarranted destruction of neutral property.

In the building up of our land and Air Forces immense preparations are being made both in this country and in France. It must, however, be remembered that in all military preparations a great initial advantage rests with the aggressor. No country without aggressive intentions can be as quick off the mark as one that has kept only one set purpose continually in view, and that a purpose of aggression. Nevertheless, our resources are being steadily and surely marshalled. We must not be impatient because results do not become immediately apparent. We have been at war for less than three weeks. Already, as is natural, there are many people who have offered their services to the country and are disappointed because they have not yet been accepted. I would remind them that to enrol recruits wholesale, and without previous preparation, would completely dislocate our plans and would lead to inevitable waste of effort. Our advance must be orderly, but the pace of the advance will steadily quicken. I can assure the House that the effort of this country will be the utmost of which it is capable, and therefore, of course, in no whit inferior to that made even in the most strenuous days of the Great War, though the developments in modern warfare must necessarily affect the distribution and employment of our various resources.

Similar considerations apply to the Civil Defence Services. Our civil forces have not, as yet, been called into action, and so, not unnaturally, suggestions continue to be made that in the absence of actual aerial attack we are unnecessarily keeping mobilised, whole-time, a number of men and women who might be employed to greater advantage on other and more productive work, and that still larger numbers of part-time volunteers are freely giving long hours of service at considerable sacrifice. For the purpose of dealing with an immediate and intense emergency which, it was anticipated, might have to be faced on the outbreak of hostilities, our mobilisation of volunteers on a considerable scale was clearly necessary. But it does not follow that the organisation as it now stands will prove best adapted to new conditions or to the uncertainties we may now have to face. His Majesty's Government are not suggesting that we can afford for one moment to relax our vigilance, but the problem with which we have to deal is to determine what adjustments are necessary to enable us, with the minimum of dislocation to our civil life and to our industrial war effort, and with the least burden upon the finances of the country, to provide over a long period for the needs of home defence. The necessary readjustments, which of course must take into account the widely varying circumstances of different localities, are being carried out as rapidly as possible. In the meantime, the fact that during these first weeks of war we have not yet experienced the ordeal of aerial bombardment, affords no reason whatever for any over-hasty or wholesale dispersal of our Home Defence Forces.

That difficulties, sometimes serious difficulties, have been experienced in carrying out the evacuation scheme is well known. The scheme as a whole has been operated with remarkable smoothness and the proportion of cases in which real difficulties have been encountered is certainly less than 10 per cent. Prompt action is being taken to cope with the difficulties which do occur, and the Minister of Health and the Secretary of State for Scotland, through their Regional Staffs, are in regular contact with the work of the local authorities, who are continuing to give devoted service to this difficult problem. Finally, let me say on this subject that whatever troubles there may be however much good will may be necessary to overcome them, it is, in the Government's view, of the greatest importance that the mothers and children who have been evacuated should not now return home. It would be foolish indeed to cast aside the safety which dispersal brings through reluctance to endure some temporary inconvenience or inability to conquer a sense of strangeness in new surroundings.

In the Dominions overseas His Majesty's Governments continue to press on with the preparations which will enable them to take their full share in the great struggle that lies before us. Your Lordships will have read with great gratification the accounts of the part which has been played by individual Dominion members of our Services in the operations which have already taken place. The courage and resource which have been displayed on these occasions are a happy augury for the future. The whole of the British Commonwealth of Nations and Empire is indeed at this moment intensively engaged in mobilising strength under the cover of our naval, military and air forces—forces which in the aggregate are stronger and more powerful than at the outset of any past war.

Thus the extent of our effort is rapidly increasing in every direction A word of warning, however, is necessary. We, as a Government, will not be rushed into courses which our military advisers, with whom we work in the closest possible contact and mutual confidence, do not approve. There is no sacrifice from which we will shrink, there is no operation we will not undertake provided our responsible advisers, our Allies and we ourselves are convinced that it will make an appropriate contribution to victory. But what we will not do is to rush into adventures that offer little prospect of success and are calculated to impair our resources and to postpone ultimate victory. One lesson which military history teaches is that that road leads to disaster. Strategy is the art of concentrating decisive force at the decisive point at the decisive moment.

No accurate forecast can be made at this stage of the war as to when or where the decisive force will be assembled or when the decisive moment will arrive. That must depend upon events which no one can foresee. But the scale of our preparations, and the fact already announced that we are basing them on the assumption that the duration of the war may be at least three years, ensures that our strength will increase progressively to meet whatever we may be called upon to do.

4.32 p.m.

My Lords, I do not propose to ask your Lordships to take part in a discussion on the statement we have heard to-day, but, as some of your Lordships may wish to make comments upon it, I propose to put down a Motion for to-morrow which will enable that to be done. It would be helpful if the noble Earl the Leader of the House could intimate at what time he suggests we should meet to-morrow, and, if he could at the same time tell me whether the forthcoming White Paper will have information respecting Russia, that would also be helpful.

My Lords, I suggest that we meet to-morrow at three o'clock, if that is suitable to your Lordships. As regards the second part of the noble Lord's question, I am not quite sure as to what the White Paper contains, and I am not able to give him any further information at the moment.