HC Deb 06 July 1943 vol 390 cc2052-60

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Major Sir James Edmondson.]

Major Nield (Chester City)

On 1st June this Question appeared in my name: To ask the Secretary of State for War whether, following the representation made to him on 20th April, 1943, he will forthwith call for volunteers to form the military Forces or part of those Forces necessary for the occupation or policing of such areas overseas as may have to be occupied or policed after the war, in order to release Army personnel who have served abroad either to home establishment or to civilian employment as soon as possible? The reply of my right hon. Friend was: My hon. and gallant Friend's suggestion has been carefully considered, but I am afraid there are great objections to adopting his suggestion now. It will, no doubt, be considered in the future, in the light of our commitments the world over."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 1st June, 1943; col. 10, Vol. 390.] The House should know that having returned from the Middle East on 11th April I put these proposals before my right hon. Friend on the 20th of that month. He asked me to put them into writing, which I did on the same day. Hearing nothing for a time, I wrote again on 11th May. Having had no reply to that communication, I put this Question down. So important did I regard this matter, that I asked similar questions of the First Lord of the Admiralty, the Secretary of State for War and the Minister of Labour. Their replies were akin to that of my right hon. Friend, and while I take hope from those replies for the future, I cannot but be dissatisfied, since I regard this question as one of such peremptory urgency. May I say that I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for himself being here to-day to deal with the matter after his arduous journeys overseas?

Crystallised, my suggestion is this: It must be recognised and agreed that after the war it will be necessary, in conjunction with our Allies, to provide a force for the occupying or policing of certain areas in various parts of the world. I submit with all the force at my command that it would be unjust and inequitable if those forces who have been overseas for three, four, five and six years, with the consequent separation from their wives and families, should be used to form that force. Therefore, I say, call now for volunteers to form that force, or, at any rate, the nucleus of it. Let a list be drawn up from those now in the Services and also in civil employment who are willing to undertake this essential task. There could not, of course, be any guarantee that they would go overseas, but let them be allowed to offer themselves. I do not suggest departing from the policy of compulsion, but just as a soldier in a unit may be called upon to undertake some special, important and particular duty, so now should volunteers be called for, to do this task which has to be performed.

I suggest that these volunteers should be offered generous terms in the matter of pay and allowances, that their wives should be allowed to go with them, and that they should be provided with adequate pensions after a reasonable period of time. Again, I think it would be as well that they should be granted some distinguishing badge, such as the letters "V.O.," Volunteer for Overseas, or something of that kind, and I think it should be made known that the life of a soldier overseas in the circumstances I am suggesting can be a good life indeed. I claim that these proposals are both reasonable and workable.

The hope has been expressed, particularly since the conclusion of operations in North Africa, that there might be some home leave granted to those who have taken part in those operations, and I approached my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on that and other subjects when he was last in Egypt; but I recognise fully the difficulties, and, while I hope it may be possible, I am not, as is observed, asking for that now; and, of course, one bears in mind that Genera Alexander and his Staff have said that those Forces are determined to finish the job. Similarly, there has been a hope expressed that fresh Forces may be sent to the Far East when the European Axis forces have been destroyed. This, I hope, also many eventuate, but here, again, I fully recognise the difficulties and the fact that we are pledged to abate our effort not one whit in aid of the United States and China against Japan. Thus it is in these circumstances that I have confined my proposals to calling for volunteers for service after the war.

May I give the House some of the reasons why I suggest that this is indeed a matter of immediate moment? First from the troops' point of view. It is, I think, necessary to say that during my two years' service overseas, I was a staff officer living for the mast part in comparative comfort and safety, and I make no claim, I have no claim, to that epithet which tradition sometimes attaches to my name in this House. I prefer it to be applied to the fighting men. But I had sufficient contact during those two years with those men to know their views and what they are thinking. I have no hesitation in saying that they have but one objective in view, and that is, having done the job, to return home to their wives and families, from whom they have been separated all these long years. During the inevitable periods of inactivity and boredom I have known these men plot quite unworkable schemes for getting home, and very often, though they grumble so little and complain so little, their hearts ache.

Secondly, there, is the point of view of those who are at home, and I would venture to read one letter, one of many which I have had from all parts of the country. I read extracts from that letter: As one whose husband is serving with the Middle East Forces I should like to express my gratitude to you for having suggested in Parliament a plan to bring these men home as soon as possible after the end of hostilities. I trust you will forgive my venturing to write to you. When I first saw the report I felt that I should like to do so, but could not at first pluck up sufficient courage, but this short paragraph did give me a gleam of hope in the midst of much depression, for just at that time I was beginning to think that, apparently, even the end of war would not release my husband. The separation is especially painful to us now, because our first child, who was born six months after his father had left England, died very suddenly when he was only 18 days old. This has been a terrible grief to us both, but perhaps more especially to me as his mother, for his father never saw him, and with my husband away we are denied the only possible consolation, that of having other children. As I am not just a young girl and the thought of a long separation, even without the constant anxieties which, like so many wives, I suffer now, makes me desperately unhappy. Perhaps you will understand therefore how thankful I was when I saw that someone in public life was conscious that those who had so long been separated from their families have a claim to be considered as soon as the war is over. Please God, that time may not be far off. And perhaps it may have been some slight encouragement to you to know that some one unknown to you is grateful to you for your effort. I know that sentiment cannot be allowed to enter into this matter, but I think that this House, with its warm and generous heart, cannot but be moved by a document such as that, and I am not ashamed to say that that document, and many which I have received from all parts of the country, have moved me as I have seldom been moved before.

It has been suggested that perhaps the response to this call for volunteers would be small, but in my view that shows a singular lack of faith in the patriotism of our people. Here again I wish to quote from one letter of many I have received. My correspondent says: I should like to say that I hope your policy of bringing back as quickly as possible when the war is over men who have been serving overseas will meet with success. There must be plenty of men like myself who would be keen to volunteer for police duties when the others come back, but who are at present deferred because the staff is already reduced to rock bottom. My brother on the other hand has been away from his family in the Middle East for two years and by the time the war is over will have done his bit and will want to get home. It is my case, and I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister without Portfolio will notice what I say, that these men who have shown such high valour and devotion, in the swaying battles of Egypt and North Africa, have earned at least an assurance, to be publicly and immediately given, that they will be brought home as soon as is practicable when the war is over. The other day in this House my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield (Mr. Bull) drew attention to a new significance which is attaching to the letters from M.E.F.—"Men England Forgets." God forbid that we should ever be found guilty of so appalling, so horrifying, an indictment. I urge the Government to give to these men some hope and some encouragement, and a way to do this is to be found, I suggest, in the proposal which, perhaps inadequately but, believe me, with profound sincerity, I have endeavoured to advance.

Mr. Charles Wood (York)

I wish to add one word in support of the proposal made by my hon. and gallant Friend, for one particular reason. I am afraid that when the war is finished my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War—whom I would congratulate on his safe return home after his most successful tour among our troops in North Africa and the Middle East—will say to himself, if he is still in office, as I hope he will be, that, owing to the difficulties of transport and many other obstacles that will arise, it will be obviously much easier to leave the men there on the spot to do the policing, in the various theatres of war where they find themselves and where they will be needed. As my right hon. Friend knows, there are many men who have already been away from their homes, their wives and families for a considerable number of years. There are some—I know of several—who have children of four years of age, and have not set eyes on them yet. By the end of the war, there will be more. As my hon. and gallant Friend said, it is their fervent desire, when their job is finished, to come home to their wives and families, and I would ask that they should not be left on the spot, and that they will receive first consideration. A lot of them in the Middle East have stood the strain and borne the hardships of desert war for three years, the big things as well as the little, and it is the little things that matter so much.

The life of a soldier abroad after the war and under the conditions of peace, will be very different from all that. It can be made a particularly pleasant and attractive life, and it may be made attractive by giving those men who go abroad additional advantages over the troops at home, on the lines suggested by my hon. and gallant Friend. I talked to quite a lot of men when I was in the Middle East, who said that when the job was finished they would be prepared to transfer to, say, such an admirable body as the police force in Palestine. I think that is just a small indication of their willingness showing that there will be men who will volunteer to stay abroad after the war. I would in conclusion ask my right hon. Friend to give this proposal his utmost consideration if for no other reason than that it will enable these men who have been abroad for so long, to return home at the first opportunity.

The Secretary of State for War (Sir James Grigg)

The hon. and gallant Member for Chester (Major Nield), no doubt unwittingly, made one or two remarks which rather suggested that I had been discourteous in dealing with his initial approach to me on this subject, and he gave what seemed to me to be a slightly incomplete account of a previous conversation which we had when he came to me shortly after his return from the Middle East to explain his proposals. To the best of my recollection, I said I did not think they were workable but that if he would put them on paper, I would place them before the Committee in the War Office which was considering demobilisation questions for their consideration along with all sorts of demobilisation schemes which had been put before them. I certainly did not contemplate any immediate pronouncement on this particular project, and I said at the time that I deprecated any public discussion on demobilisation problems, when the urgent question was to win the war first and to settle later what was to happen after it. That by way of personal explanation.

I think there has been an assumption running through both the speeches we have heard that the war will end suddenly, or rather, simultaneously all over the world; that there will be a definite day on which you will be able to say that the war is over. From what the Prime Minister has said recently, and what common sense would lead us to suppose, it does not look as though it will be as simple as that. What we shall probably have to deal with is the conclusion of hostilities in Europe, combined with the continuation of hostilities in other parts of the world. Here let me turn aside and deal with another question which seems to me to have been running through at any rate the second of the two speeches, that is the problem of leave for people who have been a long time in the Middle East. I would like to deal with it and to clear it out of the way, because it is not germane to the main issue which has been raised.

I am as conscious as anybody of this problem of the people who have been a very long time in the Middle East. I am conscious, too, that the rule which now exists, that they should be transferred to the home establishment only after six years' service, is too harsh, and I am extremely anxious to get that period of six years reduced. But it depends entirely on the availability of shipping, and, although I cannot go further in that matter than to say that I am extremely conscious of the hardship of people having to remain there so long, as soon as it is physically possible to reduce the period I will do my utmost to see that it is done.

Viscount Hinchingbrooke (Dorset), Southern)

Did I understand my right hon. Friend to say that it depended entirely on the shipping situation? Does it, in fact, depend on nothing else?

Sir J. Grigg

If the hon. Member wants me to hedge and cover myself, I will say that I do not know of any other factors at the present moment, except immediate operational considerations; but it depends almost entirely on shipping. I will say that, in order to safeguard myself against being accused in the future of telling stories.

Let me come to the main question, as I conceive it, the question of what is to happen on demobilisation. Personally, I have a feeling that this question of demobilisation is one on which very little can be said with advantage at present, and most of that little has already been said. The Prime Minister has, on more than one occasion, deprecated our taking our eye off the ball, and any sort of discussion on what is to happen after we have defeated Germany, before we have actually done so, is to take our eye off the ball. Apart from that, the Prime Minister said, in his last speech at the Guildhall—a speech which I heard many hundreds of miles from here—that on the conclusion of the war in Europe, we should immediately transfer all the resources we have available to the furtherance of the war in the Pacific. That pledge to our great American allies and to our. Dominions, is, of course, quite inconsistent with any suggestion that we should now collect names of soldiers who are prepared to volunteer to police Europe, particularly as those who are prepared to enlist to police Europe are to get higher pay than those who are to be left to fight in the Pacific, as I understand the hon. and gallant Member for Chester (Major Nield).

The Minister without Portfolio has also made two statements bearing on the subject—one in this House and one in the country. They amount to this. The main criterion in the policy of demobilisation will be a combination of age and length of service. In accordance with promises given in this House, we are to consider whether it would be possible to give some special weightage for service overseas, but the Minister without Portfolio pointed out, at some length, that this was not at all plain sailing and that it would be by no means possible to do it in that simple direct form. Whether there are other methods of achieving that result is a matter of study. I, myself, have some ideas on the subject, and they are being studied at the War Office. Having referred to those two pronouncements, I do not, with the best will in the world, see how one can add materially to them.

I do, however, say two things, perhaps partly in the way of repetition. The Government realise the vital importance of these demobilisation questions, an importance which is rather one of what we do in future, than of what we say now. We are, therefore, giving to them the intense study that their importance demands. As I say, there are lots of problems to be met, some of them very difficult of solution. I do not in the least despair of their being solved. The object that we have to achieve is to produce a scheme which is fair as between man and man, and that is the object to which all our studies are bent. In the last war, hon. Members will remember, the Government produced a scientific scheme which had as its main object the restarting of the national economy as quickly as possible. That scheme floundered, and floundered hopelessly, because it produced results regarded by serving soldiers and sailors as inequitable as between man and man.

I can assure the House that we do not propose to make the same mistake again. I assure the House, and through the House the millions of men serving in the Forces, that we have every intention of directing our efforts towards producing a scheme which is fair as between man and man. More than that, I do not see that I can say anything. We must first get ourselves into the position where the public discussion of demobilisation is a matter of practical concern. Fresh from my contact with the soldiers in North Africa—my contact was not, of course, as prolonged as that of the two hon. Members who have spoken, but it was clearly a little more recent—fresh from my contact with soldiers in North Africa and beyond, I have no doubt that they are content to put first things first. In return, they are entitled not to a cut-and-dried scheme of demobilisation formulated now, when no one can foresee all the circumstances which will arise after hostilities come to an end, either partially or completely, but they are entitled to the assurance I have just given, and which I repeat, that our plans will be based on equity and justice and not merely on expediency.

Major Nield

Mr. Deputy-Speaker, would you allow me to say that at no time did I intend to charge my right hon. Friend with any discourtesy?

Question, "That this House do now adjourn," put, and agreed to.