HC Deb 18 May 1936 vol 312 cc838-46

I am grateful to the House for giving me an opportunity to deal with the allegations which have been made by the Italian Government and Press concerning the supply of "dum-dum" or explosive ammunition to the Abyssinian forces. Although the House will recall that these allegations have more than once been officially denied, certain recent happenings make it necessary for me, in the interests of British industry and of the good name of this country, to make, with the consent of the House, a very full statement.

In order that the whole position may be clearly understood, I must first remind the House that in Abyssinia cartridges of all kinds have long been used by the inhabitants in the same way as currency is used in some countries. Arms and ammunitions are, in fact, the dearest possessions of the Abyssinian warrior. Abyssinia is also a country where big game is hunted, and has therefore been visited by numbers of persons interested in that form of sport. These big game hunters have naturally carried with them supplies of the soft-nosed rifle ammunition which alone possesses the stopping power required to deal effectively with certain species of big game. Ammunition of this type has undoubtedly been left behind by the hunters and has circulated among the natives; other supplies may long previous to the outbreak of hostilities have found their way across the frontiers from neighbouring territories where big game is hunted; and this relatively modern sporting ammunition has gone to swell the countless rounds of ammunition of various types circulating throughout the country.

When Abyssinia mobilised to meet the Italian invader, the many thousands of tribesmen who responded brought with them such arms and ammunition as they possessed. Because of the grave shortage of military supplies, it was only possible for the Abyssinian Government to rearm a portion of their levies with modern arms and ammunition. Consequently, in the fighting that has taken place, use may no doubt have been made by the Abyssinian soldiery of all manner of antiquated rifles, shot guns, etc., some of which, if the Italian statements about the injuries received by their troops are accurate, may well have been loaded with soft-nosed cartridges of sporting character, old-fashioned leaden bullets, slugs or, in fact, anything their owners could find.

I have gone into these details because, in the course of the campaign, it is reported that the Italians have captured, among other cartridges, specimens of soft-nosed ammunition manufactured in the United Kingdom. Allegations were made in Italian quarters that these British-made cartridges had been supplied since the opening of hostilities by British firms to the Abyssinian Government for military purposes; and the Italian Government, in complaining to the League of Nations on the use of illegal ammunition by the Abyssinians, furnished evidence clearly intended to give this impression. As a result, a careful investigation was made by the appropriate authorities of His Majesty's Government, and on 4th February a communication was addressed to the League of Nations showing the baselessness of the Italian allegations. This communication was circulated to all States Members, and was published. It not only showed conclusively that the British-made cartridges illustrated in the Italian evidence had been manufactured in some cases over 20 years ago, but it also mentioned that a telegraphed Abyssinian order for military cartridges which had specified that half of these should be in clips of five, had been distorted by the Italian authorities to read "half of which to be clipped."

For a time Italian allegations regarding the supply of dum-dum ammunition from this country died down, only to be revived a few weeks ago. Before proceeding to explain how this came about, I wish to emphasise two points. The first is that, naturally, neither His Majesty's Government, nor British industry, are responsible for the fact that for years past all manner of cartridges have freely circulated from hand to hand in Abyssinia. The second is that, apart from any other consideration, the strict control exercised by His Majesty's Government over all exports (f arms and ammunition from this country calls for each and every consignment, even of the smallest size, to be covered by an export licence; and no such licence has been granted or would ever be granted in respect of ammunition which was to be exported to a foreign Government for military purposes, and which fell within the prohibitions of the Hague Convention.

On 12th April, however, the "Messagero" newspaper in Rome, after repeating old charges already refuted, published photographs of certain soft-nosed cartridges made in this country and of a letter from the firm of George Bate of Birmingham, addressed on 19th February last to the Abyssinian Minister in London, accompanied by photographs of packages addressed to the Abyssinian Legation and marked "Material to be supplied for Abyssinia." It will interest the House to learn how this letter and these packages came into Italian possession.

On 19th February last an individual styling himself Colonel Pedro Lopez called on the managing director of Messrs. Bate and intimated that he represented the Abyssinian Government. After producing a letter of introduction from the Bank of Egypt, itself a forgery, and after mentioning the possibility of appointing Messrs. George Bate as buying agents to the Abyssinian Government, this person stated that the Abyssinian Legation wished to secure samples of cartridges of British manufacture which should include dum-dum ammunition. On being told that ammunition in the latter category was nut used in civilised warfare, the so-called Colonel Lopez replied that Abyssinia was swarming with leopards, which it was no use shooting with solid bullets. After some further conversation the managing director of Messrs. George Bate agreed to supply him with certain samples of ammunition which included 30 rounds of 7.9 mm. soft-nose sporting cartridges. These were packed in a box, and before this was sealed Lopez asked that something should be enclosed in writing to prove that the cartridges were of British manufacture. As the letter which was prepared did not satisfy his requirements, Lopez dictated there and then a communication from Messrs. Bate to the Abyssinian Minister in London guaranteeing that the samples were of British manufacture. This was enclosed in an envelope and packed with the cartridges inside the box. Lopez then took possession of the parcel and it was next heard of when the letter which he had just dictated was published in the Italian Press. I have ascertained that neither the package nor the letter was ever delivered to the Abyssinian Minister, nor had Lopez been entrusted by the latter with the mission of securing samples of cartridges. I should mention here that Lopez is known to have approached unsuccessfully several other firms in the United Kingdom.

Lopez is well-known to the authorities in this country under a number of aliases. At different times he has been known as Burnstein, Henry Lawrence, Singleton, Radbill, etc., and on more than one occasion complaints have been made to the Foreign Office by diplomatists accredited to His Majesty's Court concerning the approaches which have been made to them by this individual. In October, 1935, Lopez wrote to the Foreign Office, stating that he thought his services might be of use to His Majesty's Government. In the letter he mentioned that he had already had three conferences with the Italian Military Attaché at the latter's express invitation. I will not weary the House with a detailed résumé of the many contacts and meetings which Lopez is known to have had with representatives of the Italian Embassy. It is only necessary to say that his relations with that Embassy have continued, and that he is known to have had contacts with members of the Italian Military Attaché 's staff within the last three weeks.

His activities in this connection appeared to His Majesty's Government of so mischievous a nature that it was decided that a friendly warning should be addressed to the Italian Embassy on the subject. This action was taken in the first week of March. The Ambassador was warned orally on my instructions by a high official of the Foreign Office that I was aware of the fact that the Italian Embassy were in touch with a notorious purveyor of false information and forged documents, named Henry Lawrence, Lopez, etc., etc. A description of this individual and of his activities over a number of years was furnished, and, in view of the complaints made by various foreign Missions in London, it was suggested that if the Italian Embassy cared to refer to certain of their foreign colleagues, the latter would be able to confirm the foregoing information. It was further stated that it had come to the knowledge of His Majesty's Government that, posing as a purchaser of arms for the Abyssinian Government, Lopez was making inquiries about the alleged supply of dum-dum ammunition from this country, and that he was apparently attempting to persuade the Italian authorities that such ammunition was being exported with official connivance from the United Kingdom. In conclusion, it was suggested that the continued employment of a man of this disreputable type would not be conducive to the maintenance of good relations between Italy and the United Kingdom.

The Ambassador replied that he himself was quite unaware of the existence of the individual in question. He would look into the matter. His Excellency expressed his most grateful thanks for the information which he regarded as likely to prove of great benefit to Anglo-Italian relations. Subsequent however to this warning Italian propaganda on the subject of the alleged supply of dum-dum ammunition by British firms was revived through the publication in the Italian Press of the letter which Lopez had himself dictated to the secretary of the managing director of Messrs. George Bate and Company of Birmingham. On 31st March Lopez under another alias, namely, Mezler, called upon the Abyssinian Minister. He offered, in return for concessions in that country, to supply the Abyssinian Government with large quantities of arms and ammunition, and he asked for a letter from the Minister authorising Colonel Gustave Mezler to buy these goods, adding that he would be prepared to obtain the necessary permits. He induced the Abyssinian Minister to sign a paper containing a long list of required ammunition. The Minister has stated that among the many items listed he omitted to notice one for 3,000,000 soft-nosed cartridges; and it must be obvious that he did not notice it for, apart from everything else, he knows that no export licence for the export of these rounds could ever have been obtained from the Board of Trade. Their purchase, therefore, would have been utterly useless, and in fact no application for a licence for any of the munitions in this list was ever made, but the paper signed by the Abyssinian Minister was later published in the "Messagero."

It is with the greatest regret that I have felt it necessary, in the course of this explanation to the House, to deal very frankly with what can only be described as an attempt to fabricate evidence that the Abyssinian forces are being supplied with illegal ammunition by interests in this country. That I decided to take this unprecedented step is due to the necessity of protecting the good name, not only of British industry, but of His Majesty's Government, Indeed, I regard it as essential that all the facts should be known, not only here, but also abroad, in order that there should be no misapprehension concerning the very careful steps taken by His Majesty's Government to control, not only the quantity, but the types of arms and munitions exported from the United Kingdom.

I may add that a rote which the Italian Government had addressed to the League of Nations a week ago renewing their charges against this country and reproducing the letter from Bate and Company and the Abyssinian Minister's paper has now been cancelled. Copies of this communication were, however, circulated informally to the foreign delegations in Geneva during the recent meeting of the Council; and it is also on this account, and because of the publicity which has ensued that I have found it necessary, without any desire to excite controversy or criticism, to make a, full statement of all the facts.


May I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether the papers in this case will be sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions with a view to the necessary action being taken, and, secondly, does not this episode rather prove the suggestion that foreign embassies are using their diplomatic immunity in order to—


What is the nationality of the so-called Colonel Lopez?


If he is a foreigner, why is he allowed to remain here?


He is not a foreigner.


Will the right hon. Gentleman make representations to the Italian Government and ask them whether they will accept the explanation which he has made in the House this afternoon?


I think my statement stands fully for itself. If I may say so, it might well be left as it is.


Will the right hon. Gentleman repeat the answer which he gave to the Noble Lord the Member for Horsham (Earl Winterton), which was inaudible on this side of the House, and also give an answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswinford (Mr. A. Henderson).


I had every intention of giving an answer to the hon. Member for Kingswinford. The facts in my statement which relate to the deception of the Birmingham firm and the consequent publication in the "Messagero" were carefully considered by the Director of Public Prosecutions, who came to the conclusion that, although a minor contravention of the summary provisions of the Firearms Act, 1920, might have come in question, such facts would not afford a satisfactory basis for a prosecution for an indictable offence. As to nationality, the person concerned is a British subject, although of Polish origin.


Will the right hon. Gentleman consider whether the publication of the report of the Committee of Jurists would not throw light on the mendacity of Italy in regard to Abyssinian atrocities? Would it not be fair to Abyssinia to have that published?


Will the right hon. Gentleman not avail himself of the present opportunity to refute the allegation frequently made in the Italian Press that the publication of the allegations as to these dum-dum bullets was prohibited in the British Press at the instance of His Majesty's Government?


Of course there is no word of truth in such an allegation.


Why did the right hon. Gentleman not take previous opportunities of saying that His Majesty's Government had not exercised any pressure upon the British Press in this matter?


I think the traditions of our country are well enough known to make that unnecessary.


Is there no power in this country to expel an inhuman brute like this?


The right hon. Gentleman has not answered my second question. Does he not consider that the military attaché to whom he referred in his own answer is unsuitable to carry out his functions in this country?


What I have said to the House I have said with regret in order to make clear the position of His Majesty's Government and the good name of British firms. I hope the House will not draw further deductions from it.


May I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether the recital of this case is not concrete evidence that the private production of arms should be prohibited?