11 June 1940
Due to the response received to my yesterday’s post on Mussolini’s Junk War and another on British withdrawal from Norway, I also include this addendum. On 11 June, the House of Commons was in session, and Clement Attlee holding the position of Lord Privy Seal addressed the house explaining the British government’s position on the events of the week. Although rather unknown compared to Churchill’s public speeches of the period, Attlee’s account provides a good view of how Musollini’s entry into war was perceived at the time.
I rise to make a statement on recent happenings, in the absence, for the reasons which I have stated, of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. Because of the pressure of war on other fronts, Allied Forces have been withdrawn from Norway, and the Norwegian forces in North Norway have laid down their arms. In order to save Norwegian territory from further destruction by the Germans and to watch over Norwegian interests during the war, the Norwegian King and Government have left Norway and come to this country.
It was with deep regret that His Majesty’s Government were forced to take the decision to abandon their campaign in North Norway at the moment it had turned in our favour and Narvik had fallen into our hands. The campaign had been bravely fought by the combined Allied forces under arduous conditions and had succeeded during the past two months in retaining vastly superior German forces away from other theatres of war. The time, however, had come when it was clear that all the available resources at the Allies’ disposal must be employed on the main front where the issue of the war and the fate of Norway and all other free and democratic countries will be decided.
It was also a hard decision for the Norwegian King and Government to leave their own country. They had held out for two months against the full weight of the German forces and were undefeated at the end. During this time the example of the King’s courage, devotion and dignity in distress had been the mainstay of the Norwegian resistance. Norway has decided to continue the struggle against Germany on other fronts. The Norwegian Government have made this clear in the Royal Proclamation issued on 9th June. Whereas before the British, French and Polish Governments have been helping the Norwegians in a war of independence, the Norwegian Government will now use all their resources to help the Allies in their war against Germany. This decision, for which the Allied Governments are deeply grateful, is evidence of the conviction of the Norwegian people that the only hope for the future lies in an Allied victory and that the Allied cause, with which they are now more than ever identified, will surely prevail.
I regret to inform the House, as already announced in the Press, that the Aircraft Carrier “Glorious,” the Destroyers “Ardent” and “Acasta,” the oiler “Oil Pioneer,” and the “Orama,” an empty transport, are presumed to have been lost in an encounter with enemy forces following upon the withdrawal of our forces from Narvik. I regret that there are no further particulars available; as soon as they are available, they will be given to the House.
As the House knows, Italy declared war on Great Britain and France early this morning. Hardly ever before in history can the decision to embroil a great nation in war have been taken so wantonly and with so little excuse. There is no quarrel between the Italians and the British and French peoples. Since we became a nation we have never fought the Italians. On the other hand, when Italy, for so long divided and to a great extent enslaved by Germans, sought in the nineteenth century to become a united nation, it was British sympathy and help and French arms that enabled her to attain her desire. Great Britain and France have all along been prepared to consider any real grievances of Italy and to right them.
We have sought repeatedly to come to an agreement with Italy. We have sought up to the last to prevent the war spreading to the Mediterranean peoples. The British and French Governments and the British and French peoples have been patient under constant abuse and provocation. Why, then, has Italy declared war? I say, for completely sordid and material motives, because Signor Mussolini thinks that he sees a chance of securing some spoils at the expense of the Western democracies now that they are at grips with the brute forces of Germany. Signor Mussolini uses the argument of the jackal which scents the possibility of getting some scraps from another beast’s kill. He puts forward the argument of the petty sneak-thief to rob and rifle the pockets of the murderer’s victim.
This is the ignoble role that Signor Mussolini has chosen for the great Italian people, which has made such a splendid contribution to European civilisation in the past. False to the finest traditions of that Roman Empire which laid the foundations of law and order in Europe, false to the Christian faith, false to the heritage and the culture of the Renaissance, betraying the men of the Risorgimento who struggled for freedom – Mazzini, Garibaldi, Victor Emanuel and Cavour – men who made Italy a free nation, Italians are now to aid the German barbarians in the attack upon civilisation. I cannot but believe that many Italians will feel ashamed of the role that has been thrust upon them. France, which freed the Italians from German domination, is now stabbed in the back by the descendants of the men she freed. Britain is to be attacked in the hope that by her destruction Mussolini may get some pickings for his new Roman Empire.
Signor Mussolini has made a profound mistake. The victims whose spoils he hopes to share are not dead. The French people, never greater than when in adversity, are fighting magnificently by sea, by air and on their own soil of France. Britain, with all its strength, in the air, by sea, and by land, is standing firmly by her side. The Italians, like the Germans, will find that they have to meet a resolute resistance. They will soon find – they are already finding – what is the might of sea-power. Already 14 ships have been seized, 10 others are in our ports, and three, on the best German model, have been scuttled.
The imaginary restraints which our occupation of the Eastern and Western ends of the Mediterranean are supposed to impose upon Italy in time of peace become realities in time of war. Italy, like Germany, will feel the blockade. I say we have no ill-will to the Italian people. We are sorry that they should be brought to the slaughter on account of the overweening ambition and the lust for blood of the Duce, but we are prepared to meet the challenge. We shall give them blow for blow.
The two dictators have united to destroy democracy. Democracy will answer the challenge. From across the Atlantic has come the answer of a great democracy. It was as if day followed the night when, only a few hours after the dictator of Italy had made his dastardly announcement to the serried ranks of Blackshirts, the President of the United States delivered to the youth of his country a message worthy of that great and free Republic, and in extending the whole of America’s sympathy to those nations that are giving their lifeblood in the combat against force and hate, Mr. Roosevelt has vitally inspired the free people of Europe. His assurance that the material resources of his great industrial nation will be placed at the disposal of the Allies makes it inevitable that, however hard the road, the cause of civilisation will in the end prevail.
Let me say to the House and to the country that this new attack does not cause us dismay. It makes no difference to our stern resolution to defeat all our enemies or to our confidence in our ability to withstand all attacks and achieve victory. Rather it should increase our determination to strain every nerve to meet all the dangers and difficulties of this critical time in the sure knowledge that we fight, not for ourselves alone, but for the freedom of the human spirit.
Clement Attlee as Lord Privy Seal, visiting a munitions factory in 1941
– Hansard Parliament Records 1803-2005