HC Deb 28 April 1944 vol 399 cc1159-68

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. James Stuart.]

Mr. Driberg (Maldon)

I make no apology for directing the attention of the House, or such of it as I can hold, from an important domestic issue, affecting the lives of millions of our citizens, to an issue which is not strictly domestic and which affects only a few hundreds of people, who are not citizens of our own, who merely happen to be in this country, and who have no powerful organisation to represent them and no direct spokesman in this House. I am referring to the case of the Jewish Servicemen in the Polish Forces in this country, about which the House has already been good enough to bear with me on a previous occasion. I am raising it again because, when I asked some further questions about this matter on Wednesday of this week, the Foreign Secretary, although he made his sympathy manifest, regretfully stated that he was unable to announce any further concession; and also because, to my mind, this is not a static situation; it has changed materially since the last time we debated it on the Easter Adjournment. The principal fact which has changed it is, of course, the fact that the courts-martial have now tried a number of the men concerned and have imposed sentences upon them. It would be quite improper for me to criticise in this House the sentences of Allied courts-martial. Indeed, an hon. Member who seemed to imply some such criticism at Question time on Wednesday was ruled out of Order, and I shall not attempt to do so. Criticisms have, of course, been made in other places, very strongly, and forwarded to the appropriate quarters. All the same, without criticising the conduct or the sentences of the courts-martial at all or those who sat in judgment in them, I think that there were one or two circumstances surrounding the courts-martial which call at any rate for a word or two of comment.

For instance, in the court-martial of the 21 soldiers, which took place in Scotland last week, persistent attempts were made —informally, behind the scenes of the court-martial—to induce the men accused to return to their units. That was perhaps quite proper. Each of them was taken aside, and these persuasions were offered to them. What I think was improper was that one of the inducements offered to them was that, if they would return to their units, there would then be official assistance to obtain the transfer to the British Army which they desired. In view of the position adopted then, and still adopted, by His Majesty's Government and the Polish Government, that such transfers are impracticable now, such a promise could have no validity at all. However, the men resisted this bait, they stood out steadfastly against such inducements, and they reaffirmed their desire and determination to fight Hitler in combatant units of an Army in which they could fight as free men, instead of being surrounded by an atmosphere of race-hatred, persecution, and threats of violence.

Very little has been heard of another court-martial which also took place last week, apart from that of the soldiers. A court-martial of three Jewish sailors in the Polish Navy took place not in the far North, in Scotland, but at a port on the South coast of England. Here I know nothing at all derogatory to the proceedings, and again I am not going to criticise the sentences, although they were fairly heavy. However, I think that one slight incident in connection with this court-martial does rather illustrate the unimaginative and callous disregard for the ordinary humanities which some of the Polish military authorities concerned have displayed. I had a letter yesterday from a Jewish chaplain to the British Forces who happens to be stationed near the Southern English port at which the court-martial of these three sailors took place. He made investigations and found that the Jewish chaplain to the Polish Forces was nowhere in the neighbourhood—he was far away, presumably in Scotland or elsewhere. In any case, he applied through whatever are the proper channels for permission to see these three boys, officially, as a Jewish chaplain. The application was rejected with contumely. Surely that illustrates the callousness of some of the men in charge of these unfortunate Jews.

It is also worthy of note, incidentally, that there have been other courts-martial, within the last few days, of non-Jewish minority groups within the Polish Forces, and according to all the Press reports which I have seen these other minority deserters testified most strongly, in their evidence, to the prevalence of anti-Semitism in the Polish Forces. Although it was not, presumably, directly relevant to their particular case, they went out of their way to add their testimony to that with which hon. Members are already familiar. I do not think, in view of much else which has come to light, that it can any longer be alleged, as it has been the tendency in some quarters to allege, that our complaints or charges are in any way exaggerated or over-built-up. Indeed, one unfortunate man, since we had our last Debate on this subject in this House, as some hon. Members may know, took a far more desperate step than any of the "deserters" took when they absented themselves without leave. He took the ultimately desperate step of suicide as a result of what was unfortunately said in that Debate, or rather, as a result of the unfortunate inability of the two Governments concerned to do anything more about it. This man, an able Jewish doctor who had fought with the Polish Forces in France and elsewhere, threw himself from a fourth floor window because his applications for transfer to the British Forces had been steadily refused.

I am still not saying anything at all against the Polish Government themselves. I think they have tried to do what they can. It was as long ago as 1940 that General Sikorski issued his excellent condemnation of anti-Semitism. Alas, it has had all too little effect, especially since the lamented death of General Sikorski and since the advent in the Polish Forces of those men who had formerly served under Rommel, and of whom we heard last time. Although I am making no general criticism of the Polish Government—except, it may be, that they do riot exercise sufficient control over their own military forces and their commanders—at the same time I do think that the wording of the Order of the Day issued in the middle of March by the Polish Minister of Defence—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Major Milner)

I am not quite clear where the responsibility of the British Government comes in in this matter. In a Debate such as this, the hon. Member must make that clear, and I am not clear that he has done that.

Mr. A. Bevan (Ebbw Vale)

On a point of Order. Do not the Polish Government exercise certain rights in this country in consequence of a special Statute of this House and, therefore, are we not entitled to consider the conduct of the Polish Government which may lead us to withdraw their status?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I did not gather that the hon. Member for Malden (Mr. Driberg) was raising that point.

Mr. Driberg

Throughout these negotiations, arid in this particular matter, the Foreign Office has accepted quite clearly the responsibility at any rate of treating with the Polish Government on behalf of those men who were in this unfortunate position. As the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Bevan) has said, this position has arisen, in one sense, because Parliament passed the Allied Forces Act in 1940 and, oddly enough, in the Debate on the Second Reading of that Bill, various fears were expressed by hon. Members that precisely this kind of trouble might arise. The hon. Member for Altrincham (Sir E. Grigg), who was then speaking on behalf of the War Office, I will not say brushed those fears aside—on the contrary, he seemed to be slightly perturbed and moved by some expressions that hon. Members had given voice to—but at the same time, of course, he was speaking for the Government and urging that the House should give the Bill a Second Reading. The whole matter arises from an Act of the House, and in the recent negotiations the Foreign Office has taken the responsibility. These men who have been court-martialled were arrested by British as well as by Polish police, thus making it an administrative and executive act under this Government's authority, and what we are asking for is renewed representations and an administrative act by the British Foreign Office and the War Office.

The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. George Hall)

May I put the point as clearly as I can? There has been no interference whatever by the Foreign Office with the administration of the Act that has been referred to. It is true that the Foreign Office made certain representations to the Polish Government in connection with the difficulty that arose, but that was entirely outside the Act referred to.

Mr. Driberg

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for the light that he has shed on the problem. I think the other points that I have made really establish the validity of putting this case, and asking the British Government to renew their representations and to take whatever administrative action is necessary to expedite the transfers.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I am very doubtful whether the hon. Member is in Order but perhaps he will proceed with his argument.

Mr. Driberg

I was referring to the Order of the Day issued in the middle of March, which, it may well be, led to some of the desertions, following which British police were used to round up these men—a British Government administrative act. I was saying that the Order of the Day was worded, to put it mildly, rather tactlessly by the Polish Minister of Defence: I remind you, too, that according to original Polish laws, desertion in time of war entails loss of Polish citizenship by the deserter. Also his family may be deprived of Polish citizenship. The guilty person will feel the effects of his action after his return to Poland.

Mr. Bartle Bull (Enfield)

How should it be worded?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

Clearly the hon. Member will appreciate that the British Government cannot have any responsibility for that Order of the Day. He must satisfy me that there is some responsibility for the matter on the part of the Government.

Mr. Bowles (Nuneaton)

I believe it is a fact that the British Government find a good deal of the funds for financing and paying these soldiers in the Polish Army. The Government have a considerable interest in the matter.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I do not know whether that is so or not. It seems to be quite incidental, and does not seem to me to fix the Government with any responsibility for the acts of which the hon. Member complains.

Mr. Pritt (Hammersmith, North)

Is there not the further point that under the Statute, though the Foreign Office has not intervened, these men can be brought up and dealt with in our police courts by the ordinary course of the law applying to deserters? I will say, to the Government's credit, that they have never attempted to wash their hands of the responsibility of intervening with the Polish Government to discuss these matters.

Mr. S. O. Davies (Merthyr)

Upon whose authority were British soldiers used or ordered to arrest these people, if not by a British authority?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I do not know whether the representative of the Foreign Office can assist us and say whether they are responsible for any of the matters mentioned by the hon. Member?

Mr. George Hall

I attempted to put the matter clearly when I last rose. So far as the Foreign Office's responsibility is concerned, it is just a question of making representations because of certain difficulties which appeared at a given time. Negotiations were then entered into with the Polish Government with a view to transferring certain deserters from the Polish Army to the British Army.

Mr. A. Bevan

We had a discussion on the Easter Adjournment, in which a Minister of the Crown took part, and all the matters that are being discussed by the hon. Member, and more, were traversed. I should, therefore, have thought that the responsibility of His Majesty's Government for our relations with the Polish Government in this matter was firmly established.

Mr. G. Strauss (Lambeth, North)

May I put this further point? The Secretary of State told us that the Cabinet had considered this matter and the action they should take. The Cabinet, therefore, realised that they had some responsibility in the matter.

Mr. George Hall

The Cabinet considered the question of further transfers. I think that that was said in reply to a supplementary question put by the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr. Driberg) as to whether the Cabinet would make further representations to the Polish Government with a view to further transfers taking place. The Secretary of State then said, "No; the British Government had decided not to do so."

Mr. Driberg

All my argument is devoted to asking for further transfers and to asking the Government to change their minds about this matter. If my Questions were in order on Wednesday, accepted by the Clerk at the Table and so on, I feel that a precedent has been established—although I hesitate to use the word "precedent," which is defined differently by the Foreign Office and by myself. However, I will come to something which is strictly within the competence of the British Government—that is to say, the British Army. The men who have been transferred already number some coo; they are serving in the British Forces. It cannot be said that more of them would not be an asset to our Forces, because I hear excellent reports from several quarters of the behaviour and conduct of these men. Of the 200 transferred a few weeks ago more than one-third have now been posted to combatant units or other Regular units of the British Army—at their own urgent request; so that there can be, no question of their wanting to run away from the war or anything of that kind. One of them writes to me: We had a visit by Major Davidson of the War Office who conveyed to us warmest greetings from his General. Major Davidson told us that the General had been very pleased indeed with reports on our training and behaviour. We had done very well and he was pleased to congratulate us on our effort. Under separate cover I am sending photographs of our two platoons taken recently. If you look closely at their faces you will see that a new spirit lives amongst them—an expression of gladness and joy at being free again. I have the photographs here and will be glad to show them to any hon. and gallant Member who might doubt that these men, in their smartness and keenness, would be a credit to the British Army.

Contrast that spirit with the atmosphere and the conditions to which the 600 are still, unfortunately, subjected in the Polish forces. The other day there was an anniversary of gloomy interest to the world, which, it may be, will not be celebrated for many years to come—I hope not. It was Hitler's birthday. On Hitler's birthday, in one of the camps of the Polish forces, one of the men who had been serving in Rommel's Army celebrated the occasion by getting drunk and running round the camp shouting "Heil Hitler." Jews do not come into this story directly, but I am quoting it to show the general atmosphere still existing. When a Polish corporal who had a strong sense of discipline very properly remonstrated with this drunken man and said, "You can't shout 'Heil Hitler' here," about half a dozen other of Rommel's men set on the Polish corporal and beat him up, saying, "You wait until Hitler gets at you." That is the kind of discipline and the kind of atmosphere from which we are asking the British Government to assist in rescuing these men.

Mr. Bull

What evidence is there of that? The hon. Member should not make statements like that without evidence.

Mr. Driberg

I can give hon. Members or the Foreign Office, privately, the number of the unit in which this incident happened. I do not want to take up any long time.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

If the hon. Member asked the British Government to take some action in a matter for which they have some responsibility, he would be in Order but not otherwise.

Mr. Driberg

I am asking the British Government to rescue these men from an atmosphere which is intolerable to them.

Flight Lieutenant Teeling (Brighton)rose

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

The hon. and gallant Gentleman cannot interrupt unless the hon. Gentleman who is on his feet gives way.

Mr. Driberg

There is very little time left. I want to allow the Minister time to reply. I do not know whether hon. Members read the admirable article in the "Evening Standard" yesterday written by Mr. Michael Foot under the title "It can happen here." I am afraid there are many people who feel that nothing really barbaric or brutal can happen in this country. Unfortunately, there is much evidence to show that it can and does happen here. Hon. Members stood in silence a few months ago to pay tribute to the millions of persecuted Jews on the Continent. We ask for something a little more practical but not very much more complicated than a tribute of that kind. We ask the Government to reconsider their decision not to intervene further. I believe that on all grounds—human, political, and even on grounds of military expediency—it is essential to restore discipline to these Polish units by removing the irritant of the Jews to a safer place where they can fight as free men.

The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. George Hall)

My hon. Friend at the commencement of his speech referred to his persistency in following this matter. We have no complaint with regard to that, but I would like in the very short time left to put the Foreign Office position to the House quite clearly. Some few months ago some 200 Jews serving in the Polish Army deserted, and came to London. The Foreign Office was asked to intervene with a view to securing the transfer of these 200 soldiers from the Polish Army to the British Army. At that time a number of complaints were made concerning anti-Semitic feeling in the Polish Army from which a number of Jewish soldiers suffered.

The Foreign Office made representations to the Polish Government and it was agreed that the transfer should take place, but it was made quite clear that the transfer of those soldiers was not to be regarded in any way as a precedent and that any further absentees or deserters from the Polish Army could not expect to be treated in the same way. That was made clear by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. It was also made clear that steps would be taken, again as a result of representations to the Polish Government, with a view to some machinery being set up for the purpose of dealing with the anti-Semitic complaints which had arisen.

Now my hon. Friend is asking that further representations should be made with regard to some 21 other absentees or deserters—call them what you will. I think that the position of the Foreign Office and the Government was made quite clear in the reply which my right hon. Friend the Minister of State made when this matter was debated three weeks ago, and in the reply which the Foreign Secretary gave my hon. Friend on Wednesday of this week. It is not fair to say that all the Jewish soldiers serving in the Polish Army are dissatisfied. It is interesting to note that, from November, 1940, to February of this year, the number of deserters among the Jewish soldiers in the Polish Army was no larger than 17, a relatively small number. Indeed, notwithstanding the fact that a commission was set up to deal with the complaints which were made when the 200 soldiers absented themselves, only six complaints were made and are now being investigated by the commission. Those complaints are on matters which arose some time ago—some of them dated back over a year.

It being half an hour after the conclusion of Business exempted from the provisions of the Standing Order (Sittings of the House), Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order, as modified for this Session by the Order of the House of 25th November, till Tuesday next. pursuant to the Resolution of the House this day.