HC Deb 17 November 1944 vol 404 cc2239-42
The Prime Minister (Mr. Churchill)

I have two statements, which, with permission, I should like to make to the House. The first concerns a scheme which we have been working out for a system of short leave for troops overseas.

On many occasions recently, and from all quarters of the House, there has been pressure to effect some reduction in the present period of overseas service in the Army. The Secretary of State for War has explained the many difficulties of operations, of shipping and of man-power which stand in the way of reducing, at this juncture, the overseas tour in the Army. I have myself also pointed out quite recently, in relation to this very question, the over-riding need for doing nothing which will weaken our effort in the fighting theatres at this climax of the war.

The problem is an intractable one, but it has been approached from every angle and with all sympathy for the men who have been separated from their families at home for all too long by the exigencies of the war. The limited reductions in the length of the overseas tour in the Army which restrictions of shipping and manpower admit, have recently been stated in the House by the Secretary of State for War. The same man-power difficulty does not arise where men leave the theatre of war for a relatively short period, and return to their units thereafter; and the recent general improvement in the shipping situation has enabled the time taken on the journey in sending men on leave to be reduced considerably. The War Office have, therefore, proposed to me that the system of repatriation of men with long continuous service overseas should be supplemented by a leave scheme for the benefit of those who, while not yet qualified for repatriation, have for a considerable length of time overseas borne the burdens of campaigns fought often in the most adverse climatic conditions. A plan has been worked out to afford a period of leave at home of about four weeks' duration to a number of men who have borne the main burden of battle in the fighting line, after considerable overseas service. Operational and shipping considerations necessarily restrict the benefits of this scheme to a proportion only of those whom we should like to bring within its scope if these considerations permitted.

A total quota of about 6,000 men per month—if you take 13 four-weekly periods in the year, about 80,000 a year—to come home under this scheme, has been allotted to the following overseas theatres: Italy and North Africa, Middle East, Persia-Iraq, India-South East Asia and East Africa. Within that quota at intervals of every three weeks or so Commanders-in-Chief will select the men to come home. This leave plan must be subject to war needs in each theatre, and the Commander-in-Chief has complete discretion in suspending it on that account if need be. Again, it will clearly need review when hostilities with Germany come to an end, at which time the claims upon shipping and man-power of the Government release plans, which, of course, are on a vast scale, would have to claim priority. The application of this scheme to British officers and men in the Indian Army will be the subject of a later announcement. The numbers concerned here are not very great.

Of course the existing arrangements for posting home of men on urgent compassionate grounds will continue unaffected by this leave scheme, as will also the entitlement to repatriation of men who have served continuously overseas for those periods which my right hon. Friend indicated in this House on 26th September as the present objective in the reduction of the overseas tour of service in the Army. This is in addition to, and not a substitution for, anything going on now.

No doubt the shortening of the overseas tour in the Army is much better than a system of short leave at home. No doubt also the working of this leave plan will give rise to inequalities as between man and man. Nevertheless, I commend this plan to the House because I feel that the impossibility of achieving some general overall reduction in the Army overseas tour should not preclude all hope of seeing their families for those who cannot be posted home. The Secretary of State for War informs me that a scheme of this nature, although it must for obvious reasons be limited in scope, will be welcomed by the Army overseas as a genuine effort to meet, to some extent, the natural desire for leave of those who have been serving abroad for long periods, and his opinion is confirmed by the strongly expressed views of Commanders-in-Chief. This I can, myself, corroborate, as the result of recent talks with General Wilson and General Alexander.

I hope it may prove possible that a contingent of men from the Mediterranean theatre may benefit from this leave scheme in time to be with their families for Christmas. From the more distant theatres, men will arrive home in the early weeks of the New Year. The problem of the British Armies in North-West Europe is different. It may be that within a reasonable time it will be possible to institute some system of short leave to the United Kingdom on the lines enjoyed by our Armies in France and Belgium in the last war. But such plans must turn on events we can, none of us, foresee. They depend on how the great battles go.

Captain Peter Macdonald

Will the Prime Minister confirm that the reference to the South East Asia Command includes Burma? As regards the European Forces, is it not a fact that troops are given leave in Paris and Brussels and hospitality is arranged for them?

The Prime Minister

Of course, it includes Burma; the South East Asia Command, indeed, is principally concerned at this time with Burma. As far as local leave in theatres of war is concerned, that is a matter for the Commanders-in-Chief, and much is done to give a break and change to the officers and men who are in this heavy fighting. But I am looking forward to a period, which I cannot forecast now, when it will be possible to introduce something like a short leave to England scheme from France and Germany such as we had in the last war.

Mr. Kirby

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman if he would be good enough to keep under constant review the position of officers and men on the Western Front so that they do not get into a state of mind in which they think they are "so near and yet so far"?

The Prime Minister

This campaign only opened on 6th June, and though it has been one of great severity, it has not reached the point where we can withdraw anyone from the front, even for a short leave period, least of all now that the battle has become general along the whole front.

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