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The "Graf Spee"

Volume 116: debated on Tuesday 16 April 1940

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5.55 P.m.

had the following notice on the Paper: To ask His Majesty's Government why the facts relating to the mutiny on the "Graf Spee," which occurred on 16th December, 1939, were not officially reported in this country until 27th March, 1940; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this is a somewhat belated question, but I do not think it is quite so belated as the action, or rather inaction, of the two Departments concerned. Everybody here is well acquainted with the circumstances in connection with the "Graf Spec," but I must relate as shortly as I can what actually occurred. It will be remembered that in the middle of December the "Graf Spee" entered the harbour of Montevideo and at once proceeded to have repairs done, as quickly as possible took in large stores and provisions, and conveyed the impression that she was going to make a dash for liberty and engage the British cruisers outside. Well, as time went on it was evident that difficulties had arisen, and there were reports in the Press here and elsewhere of what I might call a serious division of opinion on board the ship. The upshot, as everybody knows, was that the "Graf Spec," instead of coming out and fighting, retired and ignominiously scuttled herself, and her captain, an honourable and gallant sailor who had won the respect of his opponents, was reported to have committed suicide, though I should think it quite within the bounds of probability that he was liquidated by one of the numerous Gestapo agents, of whom there are plenty to execute this kind of work.

My complaint against the Admiralty is this. Imagine, it you can, the reverse case. Imagine the case of a British ship which proceeded to a port which was blockaded by light cruisers—a very powerful ship. Remember, the "Graf Spee" was not vitally damaged and there was every reason to suppose that it would make an attempt to escape, more especially as the British cruisers waiting outside had been seriously damaged in the battle. Instead of that, as I have just said, it ignominiously disposed of itself and the captain committed suicide. Supposing that had occurred to a British ship, what would the Germans have done? In five minutes of the news reaching them, it would have penetrated the remotest corners of the world that the British had declined to go out and fight. It would have been an irretrievable blow to our prestige for the time being, and we should have earned the contempt of our Ally.

Well, now, what was our procedure? Instead of doing anything of the kind, the attitude of the Admiralty was to ignore all that was passing at Montevideo and to say practically nothing about it. One almost got the suspicion that they were afraid of injuring the feelings of the Nazi Government. This attitude was maintained for a long time, but three months afterwards—to be correct, on March 27—an official statement was brought out by the Admiralty announcing that they had been convinced that these allegations of mutiny and so forth were true, and that they had authoritative reason for making this statement. What I want to know is, Why was not this statement made at the time? I suppose I shall be told it was necessary to verify the evidence. Well, that does not convince me in the least. It surely could not have taken three months to get evidence with regard to what actually happened. Montevideo is not an inaccessible place. Why, you could have gone and made two voyages there and back within the three months, and I would like to remind the House that there was every facility for obtaining the information. The place was probably full of correspondents, the Admiralty must have had agents there all the time, and we had a Legation and a Consulate in full working order. Now it is inconceivable to me, and absolutely incredible, that these people did not know everything that occurred within a very short time, and the information must have reached London, but was made no use of.

I am not a convinced believer in the virtues of propaganda. I rather disbelieve in its effects. There is a sort of superstition in the world at the present time that everything can be done by propaganda and that we can win the war by it. No one can cite a war which has been won by propaganda, and no war is ever likely to be won by propaganda, but somehow or other this idea has obtained firm root. The amazing statement that a war can be won or lost by propaganda was made by the Germans themselves. In 1918 Germany was deserted by her allies. The civilian population was demoralised, not by propaganda, but by the British blockade. There was a mutiny in the German Fleet, and the Army had been beaten and was out of control. Then the Germans, in order to conceal the truth, started the idea that they had been ruined by alien propaganda which had demoralised the civilian population. There was never greater rubbish talked in this world, yet that is the principle upon which the Nazi Government has existed and flourished for a long time.

I am not, as I have said, an implicit believer in the virtues of propaganda, and I do not think it is capable of performing much that is expected of it; but there are certain occasions, if you choose to make use of them, which are invaluable for destroying the confidence of your opponent. Here was a case in point. If the Admiralty had the insight to realise the effect, as I said at the beginning, we should have informed the whole world that the Germans had been afraid to fight. It really does not matter whether there was a mutiny or not. The crucial fact was that the Germans were afraid to fight, and we were apparently afraid to say so. I can only say I regard this as a most unfortunate example of inaction and want of insight. It is for that reason that I have brought the matter forward this afternoon, although I admit it is rather late in the day, and in any case the incident loses a certain amount of importance in view of the much more important events which are taking place. I beg to move for Papers.

6.3 p.m.

My Lords, I rise for one moment to support the principle the noble Lord has raised. It is not the first time that he and I have been associated on measures in your Lordships' House. The whole question of withholding news has been going on for some time. Although I understand that the noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack is going to answer, I do not expect him to give a definite reply to what I have to say, but I hope he will take note of it. We lost a destroyer about six weeks ago—H.M.S. "Exmouth." The news came from the Admiralty at seven o'clock and also at eight o'clock in the morning, but it was not repeated again throughout the day. We heard no more about it. Unfortunately at that time the newspapers were handicapped, because trains were not running. It was the worst time of the winter, and a great many of the relatives heard nothing for sixty hours. I admit that parents did, by telegram. Since that day we have not heard anything about this destroyer.

In my work in my own county I have come into contact with a number of people who have lost sons and who would be grateful for some knowledge as regards the loss of this ship. After a certain time, as I did not wish to bother the First Lord of the Admiralty—he has too much on his shoulders as it is—I wrote to the Admiralty, and the Private Secretary told me it was the fault of the B.B.C. I wrote to them, and they said the Admiralty had told them that this information was withheld so as not to discourage the public. All I can say is that we are quite capable of bearing the bad with the good. It is a very unfortunate thing for relatives of men who have been lost if bad news is to be withheld. I would ask if anything can now be done to tell us something about what happened to this ship.

6.6 p.m.

My Lords, the question which has been raised by my noble friend Lord Newton obviously concerns the Admiralty primarily, and if circumstances were not what they are to-day my noble friend Lord Hankey would be replying. The question is as to the report which, I understand from my noble friend Lord Newton, was published on March 27, and he contrasts the lateness of that date with the date on which the mutiny occurred on the "Graf spee"—namely, December 16, 1939. There has been no withholding of any information or intelligence in this connection, as will appear to your Lordships when I have stated the very simple facts. Nobody except the German authorities or persons on board the "Graf Spee" can give an authoritative account or explanation of the scuttling of the "Graf Spee," but it so happens that a resident in the town of Montevideo at the time of the scuttling observed from the shore certain incidents, from which he drew certain deductions, and set out the result of his observations and deductions in a letter addressed to a friend in England. His friend quite rightly thought that this narrative was of some special interest, and he thereupon conveyed it to the Admiralty, which, agreeing that it might be, and probably was, of peculiar interest, thereupon published it immediately the document was received. It was in no sense an official document, but a narrative of events as observed by a resident in the town. I hope that will dispose of my noble friend's fear that the Admiralty, having received or collected information, withheld it from the public until something or other occurred to make them release the information.

With regard to the question raised by the noble Earl, Lord Liverpool, I am not, as he expected, seized of the information which he would like now to be released to the public with reference to the loss of His Majesty's ship "Exmouth," but I am speaking within your Lordships' knowledge when I say it is not possible to complain of any withholding of information as to the loss of ships in connection with the naval events which have recently taken place. The First Lord has given the public, so far as I am informed, all the information which is necessary to prevent the public from being deceived as to the price that has had to be paid for the very great achievements of His Majesty's Navy. I hope my noble friend Lord Newton will be satisfied with this plain narrative which I have given of the circumstances in which this report was received and published.

6.9 p.m.

My Lords, the noble and learned Viscount said nothing about whether he proposes to produce Papers. I presume I shall be told that there are none. I cannot help pointing out that the statement of the noble and learned Viscount seems to make the action of the Admiralty worse than I thought. What seems to have occurred is that for a long time they refused to do anything at all, then they published an official statement corroborating various reports which had come from Montevideo, and now they say they were misinformed. I am afraid the position of the Admiralty is rather worse than it was before. Can the noble and learned Viscount say whether there are any Papers that can be published?

My Lords, I am unaware of the existence of any Papers except the copy of the original document which was published by the Admiralty, as my noble friend says, on March 27. I am afraid I do not understand my noble friend's point that my statement has made the Admiralty's position worse. The information, as I said, was that of an observer. The only other information that could be obtained would be that of the persons on the ship before she was scuttled, and that, obviously, His Majesty's Government are not in a position to obtain.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.