HC Deb 12 December 1944 vol 406 cc1197-206

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

7.10 p.m.

Lieut.-Commander Hutchison (Edinburgh, West)

The subject which I am raising to-night is of a rather unusual nature. It concerns the treatment of cases in which soldiers who are on active service disappear under peculiar circumstances, without a trace. The type of case I have in view is not of course the normal one which might be expected to arise if a man is missing as a result of operations in the firing line. That type of case is ultimately dealt with as if the man had become a casualty, and his dependants are eligible for pension. The type of case I have in view is that in which a soldier—or indeed a sailor or an airman—disappears mysteriously while serving in an operational zone but not in the actual firing line. My two reasons for bringing forward this matter to-night are first that I wish to raise a specific case about which I have had a very prolonged and voluminous correspondence with the War Office and, secondly, because I want to draw attention to this general question having regard to the fact that we shall have to maintain Armies of Occupation in many European countries before very long and that it may very well be that, by the activities of underground movements, mysterious occurrences of this nature may happen from time to time. It is necessary that the procedure by which these cases are dealt with should be reviewed.

Perhaps I may begin by explaining the present practice for dealing with the type of case in which a man disappears when serving overseas in some theatre of war. My hon. Friend the Member for Normanton (Mr. T. Smith) is, I understand, replying for the War Office, and he will no doubt correct me if my statements are wrong. What happens at present I understand is that a search is made for the missing man and if he is not found within a reasonable time a court of inquiry is convened. Unless any evidence to the contrary is adduced before that court of inquiry—let us remember that there will probably be no trace—the man concerned is declared to be illegally absent, under Section 72 (1) of the Army Act. Thereafter, and after some lapse of time if the man has not surrendered to the authorities or has not been apprehended, this finding of the court of inquiry under the terms of Section 72 (2) of the Army Act, has the legal effect of a conviction for desertion, as if the man had been tried by court martial. Thereby, the man incurs the stigma of deser- tion, and his family suffers the substantial penalty of having the Army allowances, war service grants and so forth withdrawn.

I am going to suggest that this procedure may well operate harshly, and that it has done so in the particular case I am going to raise. To begin with, no onus of proving desertion is placed on the military authorities and furthermore no benefit of the doubt appears to be given to the missing man in any of the proceedings of a court of inquiry. I feel that this procedure requires revision and I hope that the Government may be convinced by the arguments that I am going to put forward to-night. I am going to illustrate my case by citing the details of this particular case, on which I have had long dealings with the War Office.

It concerns a young Edinburgh man, married with a family, who joined the Royal Scots in 1940. Subsequently he went with the first battalion of the Royal Scots to India. He was a good soldier, took part in active service and was wounded in Burma in March, 1943. After leaving hospital, he returned to his unit which, in the autumn of last year, was stationed about 80 miles from Poona. On 30th September, 1943, this man, Lance-Corporal Norris, was provided with a railway warrant and sent to No. 3 Indian-British General Hospital at Poona to see an eye specialist. He was short-sighted and required spectacles. There is evidence to show that he reported at the hospital and indeed spent the night there and saw the eye specialist on the following morning. On 1st October he was discharged from hospital, with orders to return to his unit, but the moment he left the hospital precincts he disappeared, and nothing has ever been heard of him since.

I come to what I think is the most extraordinary and serious part of this tragic occurrence. I am afraid that I must stress the point that it confers no credit at all on the military authorities in India. Hon. Members will scarcely believe that although this man disappeared on 1st October, 1943, this fact was not known to the military authorities in India until January, 1944, when the commanding officer of the 1st Battalian Royal Scots received a letter from Mrs. Norris asking if anything had happened to her husband, as she had not heard from him for a very long time and he was a regular writer. I would like to quote from letters on this point. The first is a letter to Mrs. Norris by her husband's company commander, and is dated 26th January, 1944. It contains these words: The fact that he was not admitted to hospital only came to light when his mail was returned to the unit and on receipt of a letter from you. The second letter bearing on the same subject was written by the adjutant of the Battalion to Mrs. Norris, on 25th September, 1944, and says: On receipt of a letter from my mother in January, I immediately made inquiries by telegram of 2nd echelon and the paymaster, who both gave September, 1943, as their last record of him. I ought to explain that the adjutant's mother knew the Norris family. We have the extraordinary circumstance that the man's disappearance was not known until word was received from Scotland three or four months later. It appears there was no proper checking system between the unit and the hospital. Thus I have an extract from a letter written by the adjutant, the same letter as I have referred to earlier, to Mrs. Norris, which says: At the time in question, admissions and discharges to hospital were not intimated to the unit in a great many cases, and therefore it was not commented on that he had not returned, but he was published in orders (copies of which go to 2nd echelon and the paymaster) as having gone to hospital. Is that not a very strange state of affairs. Here was Norris's mail piling up in the hospital and his pay accumulating in the hands of the paymaster, yet neither the hospital nor the paymaster thought fit to make any inquiries as to what had happened to him. Nothing was done until the Colonel received the letter from Mrs. Norris in January, 1944, three and a half months later. Then the trail was quite cold and no trace could be found of him, but that did not stop the court of inquiry which was held some time later in the summer, from declaring that he was illegally absent.

Thereafter in September, 1944, all allowances to Mrs. Norris, the man's wife, were stopped, and I am very sorry to tell the Members of the House that she is in poor health, and both she and her son are in receipt of public assistance from the Edinburgh public assistance depart- ment. There is no means of helping her from any Service source at all. It is no use my saying very much about the Army authorities in India over this matter but I do think the people responsible in India are deserving of every censure possible for their negligence. What I want to do is to get this decision reversed or overruled. I hope the Secretary of War will see fit to overrule the decision of the Court of Inquiry. I believe it is in his power so to do. I urge this on three grounds. My first reason why the decision should be overruled is because of the negligence of the local military authorities in India in having allowed four months to elapse without knowing that Lance-Corporal Norris was missing, thereby allowing a state of affairs to arise which not even a Scotland Yard detective could be expected to unravel. It is, I feel, impossible to trace a man in a country like India after three or four months' delay.

Secondly, I want to stress the point that conditions in India are not normal I think every one realises that unfortunately there has been and is a good deal of excitement, unrest and crime in that vast country. Here we have to imagine the case of this young soldier, short-sighted, inexperienced in a strange land, being discharged from hospital and perhaps having to wait for a while before getting a train back to his unit. Maybe he goes for a walk and is decoyed down some alley way or back street and is set upon, robbed and murdered. I suggest to the House that in all probability Lance-Corporal Norris was the victim of foul play. I challenge anyone to say that is in any way an unlikely theory——

Viscount Hinchingbroke (Dorset, Southern)

Did the evidence which the hon. and gallant Member is about to give come before the Court of Inquiry?

Lieut.-Commander Hutchison

I cannot say what evidence came before them. I am giving my theory that he may have been decoyed and murdered. I am stating facts as far as the correspondence is concerned. That is my theory, which I think is a very reasonable one, that he has been the victim of foul play. Strange things happen in Eastern countries like India and that is not at all an improbable solution.

But the third ground on which I urge the Secretary of State to over-rule the Court of Inquiry is that of character. I say that in a case like this where there could not possibly have been any substantial evidence of any description before the Court of Inquiry they should have paid due regard to his record as a soldier, and his character, I hope to be able to show, was first-class. For instance, I will quote from a letter sent from the colonel commanding the 1st Battalion of the Royal Scots to Mrs. Norris. It is dated 17th May, 1944, and reads as follows: Lance-Corporal Norris was known to be a first-class soldier, and I personally do not think for one moment he is a deserter. He is well spoken of by his company commander and it is known that he used to write home quite regularly. Secondly, a letter from the Adjutant, also written to Mrs. Norris, dated 25th September, 1944, which runs as follows: Since we first realised that anything was amiss I can assure you that everything possible has been done to trace your husband but without, I am afraid, any results. The only way it could be done was by posting him as a deserter though we knew that was one of the last things he would be. Finally, a few days ago Mrs. Norris received from a soldier in her husband's regiment a newspaper published in India but printed in English. Unfortunately, this paper had not got the name on it or the date, but it could be easily identified as a fairly recent issue. It refers, for example, to the strike at the Manchester gas works. This paper devotes a large part of a column to dealing with this case, including a large-sized photograph of Lance-Corporal Norris and has evidently been inserted either by the police or the military authorities in India. In this newspaper it is stated, among other things: His unit emphasises the fact that Norris was a first-class soldier happily married with a wife in Edinburgh and was definitely not the type of man to desert. They feel his disappearance must be due to loss of memory or foul play and would be grateful of any information about him. That has been circulated in the Press in India, which shows it comes from some official source. There is an overwhelming case for treating Lance-Corporal Norris as a casualty and his family should be eligible for a pension.

I come to my final point. I want to apply the lessons of this case to the more general situation which may arise. We are faced to-day, as we all know, with a tragic situation in Greece. Much fighting is going on and there may be occurrences of this same kind there. The same set of circumstances will face us in other occupied countries and will face the Allied Armies when we get into Germany. Are we to understand from the way in which this case has been treated that any British soldier who disappears without trace in an occupied country is automatically to be treated as a deserter by a Court of Inquiry. If so, that is a very serious matter indeed. One can easily imagine cases of sentries or groups of perhaps one or two men on leave in some German town or area disappearing. After all, it is known to the whole world that the Nazi underground movement is being feverishly organised by Himler and what is more likely than that they would murder any Allied soldier they got hold of, and the Germans are past masters in deeds of that description and of disposing of remains without trace. This is a serious matter indeed. These things are only too likely to happen in the occupied countries. It would be monstrous and unjust if any British fighting man who disappears were to be more or less automatically treated as a deserter. An Army of Occupation will not be any picnic for those who take part in it, and we in this House have a duty to try and protect the rights of our soldiers in this matter. For that reason I ask the Government to give serious thought to this question both in the interests of the good name of our soldiers, sailors and airmen and the financial security of their families.

7.28 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Fuel and Power (Mr. Tom Smith)

I would like first to explain that in the absence of the Financial Secretary to the War Office, who is ill, and the unavoidable absence of the Secretary of State for War I have been asked to deal with this case. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for West Edinburgh (Lieut.-Commander Hutchison) indicated to me a couple of days ago the points he intended to raise, and I took the precaution of going very thoroughly into all the correspondence, which transpired, and of obtaining as much information as possible with regard to what has taken place. It must be remembered that under Section 72 of the Army Act, when any soldier has been absent without leave from his duty for a period of 21 days: A court of inquiry may as soon as practictable be assembled and inquire in the prescribed manner on oath or solemn declaration, which such court is hereby authorised to administer, respecting the fact of such absence. There is no denying the fact that the court of inquiry has been carried out strictly within the terms of the Army Act, but the question with regard to the lapse of time before the inquiry took place is perhaps a little understandable. My hon. and gallant Friend said that Lance-Corporal Norris left his unit to visit Poona to fulfil an appointment with an eye specialist. This was in September, 1943.

I am informed that when he did not return to his unit the unit presumed that he had been admitted to hospital. Some time elapsed. When mail was returned to his unit, and his wife began to ask why she had not heard from him, the fullest possible inquiries were made at No. 3 Base Hospital, and all hospitals in Poona were asked for information. But the results were negative. In April, 1944, a court of inquiry was set up. It was unfinished, owing to the unit proceeding on active service. In June, 1944, the court of inquiry was completed, and they found that Lance-Corporal Norris had been absent without leave, and was, therefore, a deserter. Consequently, the allowances for his wife and child were discontinued.

With the best will in the world, the Secretary of State has no power to vary that discontinuance of allowances. It is not for him to discuss whether the court of inquiry, properly set up, were right or wrong in their verdict, because he has not seen the background of the evidence. Anyone familiar with the discussions which used to take place on the Army (Annual) Act knows that the procedure is specifically laid down by this House. Therefore, I think the hon. and gallant Member will not charge the Secretary of State with having discontinued the allowances. As to whether the Army Council ought to have known this proceeding, my hon. and gallant Friend is perfectly entitled to put that forward. But the court of inquiry was set up to determine, not whether Lance-Corporal Norris was a good soldier or not, but whether he was absent without leave. I am told that, although there is a good deal of sympathy with the wife and child—and no constituent can ever charge the hon. and gallant Member with not persisting in his point of view on this case—the fact remains that, while all inquiries have been made—and I have seen the paper with the photograph of the man, asking whether anybody knows anything about Lance-Corporal Norris—up to now there has been no fresh evidence. If any more evidence can be found, the case will be reconsidered. I promise that I will convey to the Secretary of State for War the hon. and gallant Member's plea and the arguments he put forward.

The second point is: what is likely to happen in enemy occupied countries? My right hon. Friend says that if the military situation in enemy-occupied territory is such that there is danger of soldiers being murdered, the military authorities will take steps to provide against that by laying down "out-of-bounds" areas, and ensuring that soldiers do not go about singly in "in bounds" areas where danger exists. If a soldier did disappear, it may be presumed that the commanding officer would be alive to the possibility of foul play, and would cause immediate investigations to be made into that possibility. If there were any reason to suspect foul play, the court of inquiry would be informed, and would take that into account. In order, however, to make quite certain that courts of inquiry do consider the possibility of foul play, instructions are being issued. With regard to the second point, a good deal of what my hon. and gallant Friend had in mind is being done. It is one of these things on which no general statement could be made, because every case must be dealt with entirely on its merits.

Lieut.-Commander Hutchison

Could that provision about foul play have been applied in India?

Mr. Smith

That is beyond me at the moment. I can only say that that has been done. Every individual case can be dealt with only on the evidence available, and it must be presumed that members of these courts of inquiry will exercise their functions in accordance with the law, and make quite sure that they give full consideration to the possibility of foul play, and instructions are being given to ensure this. The Army Council would annul a finding which was shown, by subsequent information, to be unjustified. I can only say that I have been very thoroughly into the case, that I have given the information to the House which would have been given had the Financial Secretary been here, and that I will pass on to the Secretary of State for War what my hon. and gallant Friend thinks may have happened.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-three Minutes before Eight o'Clock.