HC Deb 19 October 1943 vol 392 cc1217-20
The Minister of State (Mr. Richard Law)

The House will have seen the statement on the repatriation of disabled prisoners of war which was issued by the Foreign Office last last night. The agreement which has been reached and which is now being put into effect has been the result of prolonged negotiations. It will be remembered that the attempt which was made to reach an agreement two years ago failed at the eleventh hour through no fault of His Majesty's Government. Since that time my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has laboured unceasingly, through the Protecting Power, to reach an agreement. It was not, however, until after the end of the Tunisian campaign that proposals were received from the German Government which led to the present agreement. I am conscious, Sir, of the very deep anxiety which has been felt in all parts of the House regarding this matter, and I would like to take this opportunity of thanking hon. Members for the restraint and understanding which they have shown.

There are two agreements which cover all those members of the Armed Forces of the British Commonwealth and of the United States who have been passed by medical authorities for repatriation under the Geneva Convention. In all there are over 3,000 seriously sick and wounded men, the great majority of them members of the United Kingdom Forces, who are coming home from Sweden, as well as 1,200 or more officers and other ranks including doctors, chaplains, medical orderlies and stretcher bearers. It is expected that they will leave Gothenburg either to-morrow or the day after.

There are a number of Canadians included in the Gothenburg exchange. In addition more than 1,000 men, members of the forces of Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, Cyprus, Palestine and other parts of the British Commonwealth and Empire, will be brought from Germany to Barcelona. Nearly half of these are sick and wounded. The United States will not take part in this movement but 17 members of the United States Forces are included in the Gothenburg exchange. The total number of prisoners of the British Commonwealth and Empire who will be repatriated under the present agreement is about 5,400. This number includes about 170 sick merchant seamen and about l00 sick interned civilians.

Between 5,000 and 6,000 German prisoners of war are being sent back to Germany by the British Commonwealth and the United States. We have throughout received unfailing co-operation from the Swiss Government in their capacity of Protecting Power, and I feel sure that the House will wish to record its gratitude to the Swiss authorities.

Lieut.-Colonel Sir Ian Fraser

While congratulating the Government and their diplomatic and military officers on this happy issue may I ask whether, in order to consummate it, having regard to the long suffering of these men, my right hon. Friend will assure the House that he will represent to the Ministers of the Fighting Forces and the Minister of Pensions that these men will remain on full pay until there has been time for their claims for pensions to be fully looked into, so that there may be no practical omission on the part of our country in giving them the return they deserve?

Mr. Law

I am sure that we are all very conscious of the debt we owe to these wounded and disabled men, and I will certainly pass on what my hon. and gallant Friend has said to the appropriate Departments. Perhaps I may add to what I have said by saying that these arrangements are being carried through under the personal supervision of the Adjutant-General, whose representatives will be on the quay to meet the men when they arrive. I am also authorised to say that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Pensions will have his representative on the quayside as well.

Mr. Bellenger

Would it be possible to say whether these negotiations have included the release of a certain number of prisoners who cannot be transferred back to this country to Switzerland, as was done in the last war?

Mr. Law

No. Every single prisoner, as far as I know, who would be eligible under the Geneva Convention is being repatriated in this exchange.

Mr. Mathers

Do the arrangements come to guarantee to those relatives who had advice that their soldier friends were coming back together on a previous occasion that they may expect to see them soon?

Mr. Law

The next-of-kin have been communicated with, and, as far as anything can be certain in an uncertain world, the relatives may expect to see their kin before very long.

Colonel Sir A. Lambert Ward

Are we to understand that this repatriation is practically an exchange on the basis of man for man between Germany and ourselves?

Mr. Law

No. The exchange has been conducted under the Geneva Convention without respect to the number of persons involved. The fact that the numbers approximate is due to the fact that we and the Americans together have more German prisoners than they have of ours.

Mr. Leach

What proportion is still left of wounded and disabled men on either side, or do I understand that they are now already covered?

Mr. Law

I do not think any single man who has been passed by the medical authorities will have been left in Germany by this exchange. Of course, there will be other men who have been wounded and will be in process of passing through.

Major Sir Jocelyn Lucas

In view of the fact that in 1918 prisoners of war who had been for a long time in Germany were exchanged through neutral countries, are any negotiations going on for that purpose?

Mr. Law

That is another question, which it would probably be better not to mix up with this one.