HC Deb 14 June 1944 vol 400 cc2095-104

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

Mr. Parker (Romford)

I wish to raise a matter arising out of the answer given to a Question I had down on 9th May. With the Whitsun Recess and a very large number of bookings of the Adjournment ahead, it has meant that the opportunity to raise this matter has been considerably delayed. I would therefore like to point out to the House that the original Question was to ask the Prime Minister: why British Forces were used to disarm Greek ships in a British port after 95 per cent. of their officers and men had signed a memorandum urging the creation of a comprehensive National Greek Government of Resistance? After receiving the Prime Minister's answer, I put a further question to him: Can the right hon. Gentleman inform the House why we continue to intervene in Greek affairs, and support people who have no backing in Greece itself?"—[OFFICIAL. REPORT, 9th May, 1944; Vol. 399, c. 1708–9.] In view of the Prime Minister's further answer I gave notice that I would raise this matter on the Adjournment. It is, I think, a little unfortunate that, in dealing with this matter, the Prime Minister has asked the Admiralty to reply rather than the Foreign Office. I have no personal objection, of course, to my right hon. Friend answering, but the point of raising the matter on the Adjournment is to deal not only with the actual mutiny but with the rather wider issues that led to the mutiny.

In dealing with the actual mutiny, I should like first to ask the Government what exactly has happened with regard to the mutiny. Has there been an amnesty with regard to the people concerned? Are the ships now in Greek hands and being manned by Greek sailors? Under whose command are they? Are they in definite service and in use at the moment? I would like also to deal with the rather wider question. I would say, of course, that like other hon. Members I welcome the information that was given about the attempt to create a National Greek Government to see that all Greek forces were united in fighting the common enemy. But the point I raised in connection with this original question and which I want to raise again now is, how far are the Government in this country, by their policy, helping the creation of a National Greek Government of resistance and helping our Greek Allies as a whole in the joint war against our common enemy, Hitler? I was very much upset to read a report, from the Associated Press correspondent in Cairo, this morning, which said that Mr. Papandreou, the Greek Prime Minister, has given the National Liberation Front, known as the E.A.M., a few more days to join the so-called Government of National Unity. Unless E.A.M. falls into step it will be denounced publicly, he warned. The courts-martial on Greek soldiers and sailors involved in the recent mutinies in the Middle East will open next Monday.

I want to raise the point whether different treatment will be meted out to those who took part in the different mutinies in the Middle East, and those who took part in similar demonstrations to support the creating of a Greek National Government in this country. If there is to be an amnesty to the Greek sailors in this country, why has there not been a general amnesty to all Greek Servicemen who took part in demonstrations favouring a Greek National Government? Personally, I very much resent the interference which has continually taken place by our Government into Greek affairs, and the opposition which has been' shown in the past to attempts to create a Greek National Government; and I regret very much some of the remarks made by the Prime Minister in his recent speech, which seamed very anti-E.A.M. in sympathy.

This is all the more strange because the E.A.M. is very much less Communist in its leadership than is, for instance, the Tito movement in Yugoslavia. We have been told, in some sections of the Press, that the E.A.M. in Greece is a movement made up largely of looters and people of that kind; that it has to maintain itself on the people, by carrying out undesirable acts; and we have been told, on the other hand, that the Col. Zervas Group in Greece is all that could be desired. I would put the point that the group of Col. Zervas has been maintained by the British, by sending in supplies and munitions, and that, without that assistance, it would have disappeared. On the other hand, by refusing assistance recently, in food and military supplies and so on, to the E.A.M., we have forced that movement to collect for itself supplies in a country where they are very short, and we have, therefore, helped to give it the reputation of looting, and of taking supplies by force. I was particularly surprised that the Prime Minister rather held up favourably the troops of the Quisling Government in Greece, and stated that they were defending the country against looting by the National Resistance Movement.

I know, from my own experience, that Greeks, both in this country and in the Middle East, want to fight the common enemy, and that there is a great deal of resentment at the disarming which took place, in this country and in the Middle East, of the Greek forces. Both here and in the Middle East, you had an impossible position. There was a feeling, among both officers and men, that they wanted a change of Government, and to be associated with the National Resistance Movement in Greece. It think it is very unfortunate that we took active steps to assist in the disarming of the First Brigade which had a very fine record of fighting against both the Italians and the Germans in Greece, and after it arrived in North Africa. The main difference we had with it was that it wanted to continue fighting but alongside the E.A.M., with a National Government in existence which it could support.

It seems particularly unfortunate that we ourselves supported the Greek camarilla in Cairo, in taking steps against them after the Americans refused to intervene. When we were asked to intervene, so sympathetic were our own troops to the Greeks that Indian troops mainly had to be employed in disarming them. The fact that 100 men were killed in that fight is a thing which has not been overlooked by Greek friends of this country, and, in carrying out this disarmament, both in this country and the Middle East, it seems to me that the Government themselves must take full responsibility. I would like to know whether they were fully consulted before these steps were taken here and in the Middle East, or whether it was carried out by officers in command without reference to higher authorities. There is much feeling also amongst Greeks that the fact that 100 Greeks were killed in that disarmament in the Middle East is not widely known here, while, at the same time, many references were made to another unfortunate event by the Prime Minister, in this House, when he accused the Liberation movement of having killed a particular officer of the British Mission with Colonel Zervas. The latter case he said was one of murder, but, in the other case, no explanation is given of what happened. It is very unfortunate that the Greeks compare these two things one with another and cannot understand the line taken by our own Prime Minister with regard to the unfortunate death of this British officer.

It is a fact that a court-martial was held, and that a British officer was on the court-martial. Also it is not generally known in this country that the court-martial reported and the verdict was unanimous that an accident had taken place, although it was due to the negligence of the Greek officer in command. There is a very big difference between an accident and murder, and no statement has been made in this country of the result of that court-martial. I understand that a new inquiry is to be held into the matter to elucidate further points, but the Greeks in this country very much resent the line taken by the Government in regard to this incident, and are setting one against the other—the killing of 100 Greeks when a brigade was disarmed and the unfortunate suggestion of murder to which so much reference has been made here. Greece is an ancient Ally and friend of this country and there is much resentment at the seeming interference of our Government in its affairs.

It seems to me that the Prime Minister has a very strong bias in this matter. He appears to have a passion for kings, and he seems to think that it is possible, at this late date, to carry out the late 19th century idea of planting the British idea of a constitutional monarchy in the Balkans whether the people in those countries want it or not. Surely, it is quite wrong that we should try to force our views of government on Greece. I would suggest that the Government of this country should cease interfering in Greek affairs and backing up those Greeks round the King, but that they should suggest, without enforcing their views, that the best way to attempt to create a Greek National Government is to have an amnesty, not only for the Greeks in this country but in the Middle East, and that only by having that amnesty carried out will you hold out any hope of a new National Government coming into being. Only in that way will there be a hope that the Greeks will be able to take their full part in the war for the defeat of Hitler. We take the view that it is very wrong for the British Government to back up one small group round the King and even, at this particular stage, by that action, perhaps, prejudice the attempt to create a really National Greek Government.

I would point out that, in the course of this war, we have seen the British Government accepting the views of national movements of resistance in different countries even though they were not in favour of them earlier. They did so in Yugoslavia with Tito, and they did so in Italy and very largely with the Free French, and I suggest that it is high time that they dropped these attempts to interfere in Greek affairs, because the national Greek movement of resistance is the main body responsible to the Greek people. They should do their best to work with them, so that we can get a real National Greek Government which would work with us, and, after the war, create a Greece friendly to this country. If that is done I have not the slightest doubt that we shall have our old friendship with the Greeks once more and have Greece fighting with us in the war, and as a loyal friend after the war. If not, we shall be building up great trouble for ourselves in the future and delay the winning of the war.

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

I regret the fact that my hon. Friend should have seen fit to raise this particular question at this time, and very largely on an ex parte statement, in this matter. The Greek position to-day is not represented purely by but by other groups as well. I am sure that my hon. Friend knows there was a very representative conference in Lebanon, when arrangements were made for all parties in Greece to come together in a Government of unity, making it clear that ultimately the people of Greece will decide for themselves what form of constitution and Government their country will get. Places are reserved by M. Papandreou for representatives of the E.A.M., although E.A.M. have not accepted them up till now. It is a great pity, with things at this stage, that this matter should be represented to the House in this purely ex partestatement. It is quite unreasonable. My hon. Friend made it clear at the outset of his speech that he had not anticipated that the unfortunate representative of the Admiralty would be called upon to reply to the kind of representations he was going to make to the House. Nevertheless, when I relate his remarks to what has occurred as far as the Navy is concerned, I still feel that it is perhaps unfortunate that the matter has been raised in this way.

When Greece became a prey to Fascist attack, an attack as foul and wicked as anything in history, she had before her eyes, quite plain to her, a picture of all the other countries that had become the victims of Nazi and Fascist aggression. I think, looking back, the picture she had before her might well have meant that she would have quailed in front of it and not have been inclined to resist, and yet she decided, with her eyes open, most gallantly to resist. The Royal Navy, for whom I speak to-night, in common with the rest of His Majesty's Forces, came at once to her aid. This could only be done at the time at the cost of gravely weakening our operations in the Mediterranean and North Africa, which were then vital to our own safety. But we gave our aid ungrudgingly and without stint, although it did not avail to save Greece from being overrun. I do not think that any of us in this country have ever regretted, or ever will regret, the step we took to try and assist Greece. We are proud of the steps we took to help a brave nation. Our help was not limited to the manning of our own ships, but we lent to the Greek Navy several valuable warships to be manned by the Greeks themselves and to take their place side by side with us in their fight for life and liberty. In recent months there has been political dissension among the people of Greece. We all regret that. We went into the fight to bring the strongest possible organised force against the foe.

These differences in Greece, however, reacted on her armed forces, including her Navy. Mutinies began in the Greek Fleet and continued until numbers of Greek warships in the Mediterranean, were immobilised, including several of those vessels which had been transferred from the Royal Navy to the Greek Navy. At the end of the month the vessel which I think my hon. Friend had particularly in mind in the course of his remarks, which was in a British port in this country, was due to be recommissioned at Chatham with a Greek crew and to be renamed for transfer to the Greek Navy. On 24th April it became clear that there was considerable political unrest amongst the Greek officers and men at Chatham from whom the crew was to be drawn. Mutinies in the Mediterranean had begun in just this way, and we felt—and when my hon. Friend asks who takes the responsibility, the Government take the responsibility—that the unrest at Chatham would almost inevitably develop into mutiny, particularly if the ship were sent to its natural theatre of operations in the Eastern Mediterranean.

I must repeat that the Greek mutiny which had already resulted in the immobilisation of several vessels on loan from the Royal Navy was very much in our minds. If we proceeded with the loan of this further vessel, it was clear that we might be faced with the immobilisation of still another valuable vessel. This was on the eve of the great assault on the Continent in which the Admiralty and the Royal Navy would bear a responsibility greater than at any time in history. At all times our responsibility for prosecuting the war effectively and bringing it to an end must come first in our minds, arid it must override all other considerations. We could not possibly at that time have run the risk of placing another destroyer in the hands of a crew who might at any time refuse duty, as their compatriots had refused duty in the Mediterranean, whilst under the operational command of the Royal Navy.

On 28th April instructions were accordingly issued, that the ship was not to be commissioned with a Greek crew but was to be commissioned under the White Ensign. Unfortunately, some Greek parties had already gone aboard and it was necessary for them to be told to leave the ship It was reported the same day, however, that the Greek officers and the ratings had been withdrawn without incident. In these circumstances there is no justification for speaking of the disarming of a Greek ship in a British port. The House will appreciate, I think, from what I have said, that our 'actions were dictated by operational reasons alone; they were dictated in the exercise of our great responsibility for the prosecution of the war. May I say to my hon. Friend, in view of what he said just now, that I think it would be a travesty to call that, or our other actions, an interference in Greek affairs? If there was any support generally going on in the earlier years of the war when Greece was with us, we have never done any more than support at the time the existing Government who had themselves resolved to oppose the German menace, and from that period onwards we have lent our aid at all times until quite recently to those Forces who were fighting in Greece.

I feel sure my hon. Friend would not wish to suggest that right through the organisation of resistance in Greece E.A.M. have never had assistance from His Majesty's Government, because they have had it until a recent date when it was impossible to go on supplying arms in order that internal Greek factions might fight each other. That is a very different position from organising the unity of a nation in strength to go on, as it had previously, fighting the common enemy. Speaking for myself, I would be the first to pay my tribute to the past exploits of the Greek Navy. They have done very gallant work in this war. Think of the services of ships like the "Queen Olga" and the "Adrias." They have done magnificent service in a naval war and I would be the first to pay them a full tribute and a tribute to the generally noble part played by Greece in resisting Axis aggression.

As regards my own Department's view in the matter, may I say that, as the Prime Minister explained in the House in the recent Debate on foreign policy, the loan of this ship will certainly be reconsidered if, as we hope, the Greek Navy returns finally to discipline and duty. I think I am entitled to hope very much from the amount of agreement already achieved at the Lebanon Conference and the fact that Greek ships abroad now are manned by Greeks, that soon they may be brought up to their full strength and made fully operational again. At that time I. would be only too glad to consider recommending His Majesty's Government to allot another ship in place of the one which was commissioned under the White Ensign instead of under the Greek flag. I beg my hon. Friend, instead of raising the matter as he has done to-day, putting purely one point of view on statements which it is almost impossible for him to check fully, because they come from ex parte sources, to lend us his aid in getting the Greek people united behind the Government to be formed as a result of that conference in Lebanon, a Government which will represent all parties and will march shoulder to shoulder with us in the common cause against the enemy, and will leave that nation completely free to decide for itself its own form of Constitution and Government when the common foe has been defeated.

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