No. 77: Speech by the Prime Minister in the House of Commons
The Prime Minister (Mr. Chamberlain): Since the House met on Thursday last there has been little change in the main features of the situation. The catastrophe, as I said then, is not yet on us, but I cannot say that the danger of it has yet in any way receded. In these circumstances it might perhaps have seemed that it was unnecessary to ask the House to meet again before the date which had been fixed, but in times like these we have felt that it was right that the House should be kept as far as possible continuously informed of all the developments in the situation as they took place. That will continue to be the principle which will guide us in further meetings of this House.
There is one thing that I would like to say at this moment with regard to the press. I think it is necessary once more to urge the press to exercise the utmost restraint at a time when it is quite possible for a few thoughtless words in a paper, perhaps not of particular importance, to wreck the whole of the efforts which are being made by the Government to obtain a satisfactory solution. I have heard that an account purporting to be a verbatim description of the communication of the British Government to Herr Hitler was telegraphed to another country last night or this morning. Such an account could only be an invention from beginning to end. It is, I think, very unfortunate that journalists in the exercise of their profession should take such responsibilities upon themselves, responsibilities which affect not only themselves, but the inhabitants, perhaps, of all the countries in the world.
I hope that it will not be necessary this afternoon to have any long Debate. I will attempt to give the House an account of the events of the last few days, but, of course, there has been no change in the policy of the Government, and, therefore, there would not appear to be any necessity for any lengthy discussion. On the day after the House adjourned-on Friday, that is-we received information in the course of the morning that the German Chancellor had asked the British Ambassador in Berlin to call upon him at half-past one that day, and in the course of the afternoon we were told by telephone that Sir Nevile Henderson had had an interview lasting about an hour and a half with Herr Hitler, that he was sending us an account of that interview, and that Herr Hitler had suggested to him that it would be a good thing if he were to fly over to this country the next morning in order to give us a verbal and more extended account of the conversation. We received the record of the interview from our Ambassador on that evening, on Friday evening, but it was not completely deciphered until after midnight, and I did not myself see the whole of it until the next morning, Saturday morning. On Saturday Sir Nevile Henderson arrived by plane from Berlin shortly before lunch, and we understood from him that in Berlin it was not considered to be necessary that he should go back the same day, as the German Government were very anxious that we should give careful study to the communication he had to make to us. Accordingly, we devoted the whole of Saturday and the Sunday morning to a very careful, exhaustive and thorough consideration of the document which was brought to us by the British Ambassador and of the reply that we proposed to send back, and our final answer was taken by the Ambassador yesterday afternoon, when he flew back to Berlin and delivered it to the Chancellor last night.
I should be glad if I could disclose to the House the fullest information as to the contents of the communications exchanged with Herr Hitler, but hon. members will understand that in a situation of such extreme delicacy, and when issues so grave hang precariously in the balance, it is not in the public interest to publish these confidential communications or to comment on them in detail at this stage. I am, however, able to indicate in quite general terms some of the main points with which they deal. Herr Hitler was concerned to impress upon His Majesty's Government his wish for an Anglo-German understanding of a complete and lasting character. On the other hand, he left His Majesty's Government in no doubt of his views as to the urgency of settling the German-Polish question. His Majesty's Government have also frequently expressed their desire to see the realisation of such an Anglo-German understanding, and as soon as circumstances permit they would naturally welcome an opportunity of discussing with Germany the several issues a settlement of which would have to find a place in any permanent agreement. But everything turns upon the manner in which the immediate differences between Germany and Poland can be handled and the nature of the proposals which might be made for any settlement. We have made it plain that our obligations to Poland, cast into formal shape by the agreement which was signed on 25th August, on Friday last, will be carried out. The House will remember that the Government have said more than once, publicly, that the German-Polish differences should be capable of solution by peaceful means.
Meanwhile, the first prerequisite, if there is to be any general and useful discussion, is that the tension created by frontier clashes and by reports of incidents on both sides of the border should be diminished. His Majesty's Government accordingly hope that both Governments will use their best endeavours to prevent the occurrence of such incidents, the circulation of exaggerated reports, and all other activities that result in dangerous inflammation of opinion. His Majesty's Government would hope that if an equitable settlement of Polish-German differences could be reached by free negotiation, this might in turn lead on to a wider agreement which would accrue to the lasting benefit of Europe and of the world at large. At this moment the position is that we are waiting for the reply of Herr Hitler to our communication. On the nature of that reply depends whether further time can be given for the exploration of the situation and for the operation of the many forces which are working for peace. A waiting period of that kind is often very trying, but nothing, I think, can be more remarkable than the calm which characterises the attitude of the whole British people. It seems to me that there are two explanations of that attitude. The first is that none of us has any doubt of where our duty lies. There is no difference of opinion among us; there is no weakening of our determination. The second explanation is our confidence that we are ready for any eventuality.
The House might like to hear one or two particulars of the preparations which have been made. Obviously, there are many things which I cannot very well say here because they could not be confined to those whom I see before me. My statement must, therefore, be in very general terms. Some of the measures which we had to take, such as those in connexion with requisitioning, necessarily must cause some degree of inconvenience to the public. I am confident that the people of the country generally recognise that the nation's needs must now be paramount and that they will submit willingly, and even cheerfully, to any inconvenience or hardships that may be involved. At any rate, we have not had to begin here by issuing rationing cards. To deal first with the active defence of the country, the air defence of Great Britain has been placed in a state of instant readiness. The ground anti-aircraft defences have been deployed and they are manned by territorial anti-aircraft units. The regular squadrons of the Royal Air Force have been brought up to war strength by the addition of the necessary reservists, including a portion of the Volunteer Reserve. The fighter and general reconnaissance squadrons of the Auxiliary Air Force have been called up and are standing ready and the balloon barrage is in position. The Observer Corps are at their posts, and, indeed, the whole warning system is ready night and day to be brought into instant operation. The coast defences are ready and are manned by the coast defence units of the Territorial Army. Arrangements have also been made for the protection by the National Defence companies, by the Militia and by units of the Territorial Army of a very large number of important points whose safety is essential for the national war effort.
As to the Navy, the House will remember that in July last it was announced that the Reserve Fleet would be called up at the beginning of August in order to take part in combined Fleet and Air exercises. For that purpose a number of reservists were called up under the provisions of the Reserves and Auxiliary Forces Act. As a result, the Navy was in an advanced state of preparedness when the present crisis arose, and the whole of our fighting Fleet is now ready at a moment's notice to take up the dispositions which would be necessary in war. A number of other measures have been taken during the past week to increase the state of our naval preparedness. I need not go into all the details, but the naval officers in charge of the various commercial ports have been appointed and have taken up their duties, and the naval ports and bases have been put into an advanced state of preparedness. As hon. members will be aware, the Admiralty has also assumed control of merchant shipping, acting under the powers conferred by the Emergency Powers Act, and written instructions have already been issued to merchant shipping on various routes. A considerable number of movements have been carried out of units of the armed land forces both at home and overseas. These movements are part of prearranged plans to provide that in order to ensure a greater state of readiness a number of units should, if possible, move to their war stations before the outbreak of war. The Civil Defence regional organisation has been placed on war footing. Regional commissioners and their staffs are at their war stations.
The main responsibility for the organisation of Civil Defence measures generally rests with the local authorities. Instructions have been sent to the local authorities to complete all the preparatory steps so that action can be taken at the shortest notice. Plans for the evacuation of school children, mothers with young children, expectant mothers and blind persons from certain congested areas-plans which have involved an immense amount of detailed thinking-are ready. Those who have to carry out those plans have been recalled for duty, school teachers in evacuation areas have been kept in easy reach of school assembly points since Saturday, and a rehearsal of the arrangements for evacuating school children was carried out yesterday. Nearly a week ago local authorities were warned to make arrangements for the extinction of public lighting and to prepare the necessary aids to movement when the lighting has been extinguished. Arrangements have been completed for calling up at very short notice of the personnel of the Air-Raid Precautions Service, and duty officers are available throughout the twenty-four hours at key posts. The last item I mention is that the necessary preliminary steps have been taken to prepare hospitals for the reception of casualties.
I have given a number of instances of steps which have been taken over and above the measures which have already been put into operation. A complete and continuous survey is being carried out over the whole range of our defence preparations, and preparatory measures are being taken in order to ensure that further precautionary measures, if and when they should be found necessary, can be given effect to as rapidly as possible. The instances I have given to the House are merely illustrations of the general state of readiness, of which the House and the country are aware. I think that they justify and partly account for the general absence of fear, or, indeed, of any violent emotion. The British people are said sometimes to be slow to make up their minds, but, having made them up, they do not readily let go. The issue of peace or war is still undecided, and we still will hope, and still will work, for peace; but we will abate no jot of our resolution to hold fast to the line which we have laid down for ourselves.
Source: The British War Bluebook; courtesy of Yale Law School Avalon Project
Added By: C. Peter Chen
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