HC Deb 10 November 1943 vol 393 cc1253-60
Mr. McKinlay (Dumbartonshire)

I desire to pursue a Question which I addressed to the right hon. Gentleman the First Lord of the Admiralty on 20th October. I asked the First Lord on that date to state the terms of the agreement under which 787 officers and men were repatriated from Italy in March, 1943, and the terms of the document signed by such officers and men before they were exchanged? My right hon. Friend replied: I would refer my right hon. Friend to the statement made to this House by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs on 24th March last, in which he fully explained the circumstances leading to the agreement for the repatriation of these officers and men. The agreement reached with enemy Governments contained no special terms. The documents which were signed by such officers and men before they were exchanged, were discharge sheets containing a statement of pay received and an authorisation for the disposal of outstanding balances."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th October, 1943; col. 1369, Vol. 392.] This is the outcome of a letter I received from one of my constituents on 11th August relating to his son, a survivor from H.M.S. "Sikh," which was lost at Tobruk. This young man was taken prisoner and spent a considerable time in an Italian prison camp. In my letter to the First Lord, I explained that when this young man joined up he was minus a kidney, that while in prison camp he suffered from pneumonia and that when he arrived in this country in June he was, shortly afterwards, again listed for active service. I asked the First Lord in that letter, whether he could explain to me the conditions under which the men were repatriated. The First Lord was good enough to reply stating the position of the man, together with that of the 786 other officers and men. The First Lord said that had the man been sick or wounded and repatriated, under the provisions of Article 68 of the Geneva Convention, he would have come within Article 74 which prohibits the employment of certain repatriated prisoners on active military service. He said that the seaman in question was not, however, repatriated under the terms of the Convention but by virtue of a special agreement.

That is the crux of the whole question. In my Question I asked what were the terms of the agreement, and I was referred to an answer given by the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. Well, with all due deference to the First Lord—he and I are quite good friends—I want to remind him that Mr. Barnum said, "There is one born every minute." There is no answer in the answer to which I was referred. There is reference to an agreement, to the removal of 700 Italian sailors and, in exchange under that agreement, the repatriation of British prisoners. I want to know what were the terms of that agreement. Were the men's names drawn out of the lucky bag, at random? Were the men removed from the Italian prison camp because they were suffering from disability? If they were removed, while in no way suffering from the effects of the war, then I protest against 787 able-bodied men being repatriated while at the same time we must have had in prison camps in Italy men who sorely needed bringing home. The answer of the First Lord himself was much more informative than the answer given by the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs.

He at least drew my attention to the Geneva Convention, though I had never asked about it. I have had letters from other personnel. I have one from a lad writing to his parents from hospital. When he arrived at this place he was put through all the motions preparing him for active service again. Some of the men protested. It was suggested to them that they ought to "hush-hush" about it. In other words, it was conveyed to them that they were lucky. They were home. I want to know why a man who had to swim for it at Tobruk and who has suffered pneumonia twice, plus starvation in an Italian camp, finds himself now, on the certificate of the port officer, almost in the category of Grade I with nothing to prevent him returning to active service.

Surely if a Minister enters into an agreement on behalf of this country, we are entitled to ask what are the terms of the agreement. I stated that these men signed a declaration that they would not take up arms again against the Axis. The Minister did not give me an emphatic denial. He said he would be surprised to know that. I am speaking for the whole of these 787 men, because we are entitled to know these things. They are not fellows picked up from the street corner who can neither read nor write. I have conveyed to my sons, who are in the same Service, that they need never worry about their financial records. The Admiralty are so meticulously careful now as to how they stand in a financial sense, that they will bring in your pay record up to date and give you a document showing exactly how the contracting parties stand. I cannot believe that the only document that was signed was one relating to wages. One of these young men was educated at one of the principal public schools in Glasgow and he can read. His family is a well known one, with a business which was established 175 years ago, and they are not prepared to resort to subterfuges even to save the skin of their boys. What I could not get was the answer to a question which I am asking now: Can we have the specific terms under which these men were repatriated? Can we have a specific declaration that no document was signed to the effect that they would not take up arms against the Axis during this war? That is a simple proposition.

I would rather that the terms of the agreement were made accessible to hon. Members so that they could examine it for themselves. It must have been a matter of great expediency, it must have been carried through in an ungodly rush, but what I am very concerned about is that an allegation should be made against the Government that they are prepared to send men who are not physically fit back on to the active list. Everyone expects a man on the active list to do his duty and I think 99 per cent. of those in the Services, who have good health, desire to do their duty. But we have an obligation to the men in the Services and while it is true it may be an offence for a Service man to write to his Member of Parliament we should not forget that obligation. This young man writing from the hospital to his father says, "Please keep my name out of this if you get into touch with Adam McKinlay, because if you do not I am for it." There is one thing which you cannot take away. You cannot take away the responsibility of parents to their boys, even to their boys in the Services, and I want the First Lord in the short time at his disposal to answer the points which I have put. I do not accuse him of trying deliberately to push a man back into the Forces but I say this, that if the man I have in view, or the man on whose behalf I originally wrote, is sent, without previous notice, to any medical specialist in this country nominated either by the Admiralty or by myself and if they pass that man as Grade I you can name whatever naval charity you care, and there will be a substantial donation—and what goes for that young man goes for most of the young men involved in this case. I hope the First Lord will pursue this matter and give us the satisfaction to which we are entitled.

The First Lord of the Admiralty (Mr. A. V. Alexander)

I welcome the fact that my hon. Friend has raised this matter in open Session, because it is essential that the facts should be known, in view of the manner in which the matter has been discussed in the past. We have not had it at any other time than Question time. First, let me make it plain -mat the agreement, as I said in my answer to my hon. Friend, had nothing to do with Article 68 of the Geneva Convention and therefore none of the terms of Article 74 could come into play. Secondly, the Italian naval personnel with whom the exchange was made, were not really prisoners of war in the sense that they were prisoners held by us. We exchanged with the Italians 788 men who had been sunk just off the coast of Saudi Arabia and who were interned by that neutral Power. Considerable difficulties and inconveniences were found with regard to the feeding and general attention to these people and moreover, when we were at the stage of being rolled back in the direction of the Nile Delta, it was not convenient for us to have persons interned who might escape and get out on our lines of communication. So we desired to exchange these men who were interned and who weft fit men and it would have been unreasonable in those circumstances and certainly in view of the general stricture upon our man power situation, for us then to have said, "We will exchange for these 788 able-bodied Italians, interned in a neutral country, 788 sick and wounded." A perfectly separate agreement, apart from the Geneva Convention, was made in which the 788 Italian naval internees in Saudi Arabia were exchanged for 788 British naval prisoners of war in Italy. That is what we did. The terms of the Geneva Convention and the operation of Section 74 with regard to sick and wounded do not apply to this case at all. These are the terms of the agreement. That is what my hon. Friend really wants to know.

The second point that he puts to me is whether or not these men signed an undertaking not to take up arms again. We have had that matter very carefully inquired into as far as we have been able to get the facts since my hon. Friend raised it in the House, and I have had inquiries made both at the Portsmouth and the Devonport barracks by the Commodore, a very responsible officer, who has interviewed a considerable number of the ratings concerned who were exchanged and who has spoken with the senior naval officer of the party who was exchanged and who was himself a prisoner of war—a responsible and educated person—who was able to understand what was being done. While, of course, he could not give the Admiralty an assurance that there was not a single man who had signed some such document put to him by the Italians, what he could say was that no such document was submitted to any man he knew and certainly not to himself or any brother officer. Indeed, if the Italians had put such a proposition to any one of them, they would have been breaking the terms of the agreement. All I would say to my hon. Friend is that it some educated person among the ratings who understood Italian did sign such a document, then he must give me more facts of that kind, which would involve not only checking the statement of the man concerned, but taking the matter up with the Italians as a breach of the agreement.

One or two of the ratings said that perhaps the sergeant who was in charge of the handing over of some of them said, "You are out of the war. You won't have to serve again," and that is the maximum we have been able to get. The terms of the agreement make it perfectly clear that it was an exchange of able-bodied men on both sides. I do not want my hon. Friend to submit to this House or to the public that if under a separate agreement of that kind we get able-bodied men we should say they should not serve again in the war. There are other men who also have fathers and mothers, who go through a campaign, are wounded, recover and go back into the campaign again. Whether these men are tit or not to go on with their duty will have to be determined from the medical examination and the hospital treatment that they receive. As regards the particular young man in whom my hon. Friend is interested and of whose physical disabilities he feels he can be very certain, if he will supply any further medical evidence about which he wishes me to make inquiry, I will have it gone into. Nobody would want to see a man sent back to active service if he is not fit.

Mr. McKinlay

Is the right hon. Gentleman trying to suggest that a man who is minus a kidney before he goes into the Service is a fit man to serve on a destroyer?

Mr. Alexander

If a man is minus a kidney, it does not sound very good to me. It all depends what he is capable of. We surely must take the medical view. I submit that the general results of the call-up, the examination and the treatment of men in this war have not been such as to bring grave reflection upon either the standard or the adequacy of the treatment which the men have received. I do not think that could be borne out at all. Indeed, as regards the Admiralty, we have not only very able medical officers in the respective posts, but we have some of the highest consultants of Harley Street and other great consulting centres who are at our service the whole time, and whose services we never hesitate to solicit in any particular case where treatment is required.

I think I have put the case fairly to my hon. Friend, as I do want to stress again before I sit down that in this case there is no question at all about an exchange of sick, wounded and unfit prisoners. It is a question of exchanging for Italian internees from a neutral country who were becoming a nuisance to us as being on our lines of communication, for able-bodied naval ratings taken from us and who were in Italy. On that basis, I am afraid I cannot revise any decision that we have already arrived at.

Mr. McKinlay

Is it understood that from the beginning it was an exchange of able-bodied men against able-bodied men?

Mr. Alexander

Most certainly, that was the basis of the agreement between Italy and ourselves. We asked for no single undertaking from any of the 788 Italians that they would not fight again.

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