HC Deb 12 October 1944 vol 403 cc2061-76

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn." [Captain McEwen.]

5.42 p.m.

Mr. Quintin Hogg (Oxford)

Before I begin what I have to say, I would like to thank the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for War for having come here himself at short notice in order to answer the case which I propose to press upon his attention and the attention of the House. There is a story in Hans Andersen, which is comparatively well known, about a trickster who visited the court of a certain king and offered to clothe the king with a most sumptuous material which was to have magical properties. These properties were that if a person was of pure heart he could see the beauties and embellishments on the brocade, but that if he were not of pure heart he could see nothing there at all. The king was induced to order a suit of clothes made of this material whereupon he appeared in court horribly and unmistakeably naked. But with one accord his courtiers said he had the most sumptuous regal robes and induced him to go into the streets to be admired by his populace, who immediately spoke to one another in terms of the greatest admiration about the way their monarch was clad, until, in the background, a little boy said to his father, "Why, Daddy, he has nothing on at all," whereupon the whole populace laughed because they could see it was no more than the truth.

Now, in this House we have for years patiently accepted the argument which has been put forward on military grounds that the period of overseas service for the Army should be substantially longer than for any other Army fighting on either side in the war, or for either of the two Fighting Services with which the Army is associated under the command of His Majesty the King. I think it is necessary to say, plainly and clearly, from the back benches of this House that that argument is no longer acceptable to ordinary people and that the administrative reasons, sound as they may appear to those who are responsible for the formulation of Government policy, do not correspond with the ordinary common sense of mankind. What is the situation? The fact is that there are officers and men in the Army, now abroad, who have been away continuously for periods up to five years. A great number of them are married, they are of quite high age and some of them have families at home. That is not the situation in the Air Force, where the period of service overseas is three years. It is not the situation in the Navy; it is not the situation with our South African or other Dominion troops; it is not the situation with the Americans, who serve a period, I believe, of two years. It is not the situation with our Indian or African troops. In fact, there is no other army in the world whose soldiers are compelled to serve abroad for this period, who are compelled to be so long away from their homes in circumstances which are so foreign to all that they have been accustomed to. That is the situation.

My right hon. Friend was asked about a week ago, by two or three Members, what he hoped to do in the matter. He told us that by next January his hope was to reduce the period of service to four years in the case of India and Burma, and to four and three-quarter years in the case of other stations overseas. I think the time has come for back-benchers to refuse to accept a ruling of this kind. I believe that it would be possible for His Majesty's Government, if they so desired and had the courage to do it, to reduce the period of overseas service to three years within the next six months. If it is reasonable to do it for the Americans it is reasonable to do it for our men; if it is reasonable to do it for the Air Force it is reasonable to do it for the Army; if it is reasonable to do it for our Dominion or other Allies it is reasonable to do it for ourselves. It is not right to make of our Army a class which is, in this sense, depressed. It is a magnificent tribute to the morale of the men of our Army that anyone should have ventured to attempt an inequality of this kind. But I believe it is possible to press a man's morale too far, and I prophesy that unless this ruling is altered my right hon. Friend and his friends will have a great deal more trouble in administration and discipline than if they had heeded the words of those who are not so fully acquainted with their inner councils and information. For two years since I have been back from the Middle East I have been steadily inundated with letters from my comrades overseas and their relatives begging me to pay attention to this matter. I believe other Members have been so placed. We have replied patiently on each occasion—sometimes to the great disappointment of those who have put their trust in us—first, that the Mediterranean was not open and that they must wait; second, that ships were required for preparation of the Second Front and they must still wait, and, third, that our lines of communication had to be built up so that our Forces in Normandy could be supplied, and that they must wait still longer.

But there comes a time when this argument, which has changed more than once during the course of this controversy, cannot be adhered to any more. If the manpower situation is so bad for us it is bad for the Americans; if it is bad for our Allies it is bad for ourselves. If shipping is the difficulty it is as bad for others as it is for ourselves, and it cannot be just or ultimately prudent even on military grounds to compel the British Army which, after all, has borne the heat and burden of the day to suffer this rank injustice as against its sister Services, and as against its gallant Allies who fight by its side. The weight of evidence which is accumulating in our post-bags is too heavy to be disturbed by purely administrative argument.

I do not want to burden the House with quotations of a poignant kind. Some letters make difficult reading, especially when they come from parents. I can honestly say that I have had representations from every rank from every overseas station, from every type of unit—fighting units, base units, line of communications units—in the bitterest terms complaining of this decision, which I myself believe to be both unnecessary and unjust. Here is one from a captain in the Tripolitanian area. He says: The following lengths of overseas service compare with our own as follows—Americans two years, South Africans three years, H.C.T. Africans three years, Indians two years, R.A.F. (married) three years, Royal Navy 2½ years. They all go home for a minimum of three years. Why does not the Army? How can the Government expect the morale of our troops to be so good when they are sanctioning such schemes? The sea route from the Middle East to the U.K. is no longer and certainly no more dangerous now than from the M.E. to India or S. Africa. It has before been admitted that shipping is no longer a problem. Why cannot then our troops get home leave after a reasonable time? Here is another from a sergeant in East Asia: Because our Parliament will soon be reassembling I am writing to you in the hope that you will bring forward the vexed question of repatriation. We consider this to be of vital and urgent importance to us and we are hoping that something may be done soon. The first and most obvious thing which embitters us is the comparison between the length of service overseas of our American, Colonial and Indian colleagues, none of whom are required to do more than two years away from all that they hold dear. A very sore point is the term of service for R.A.F. personnel posted to India, namely three years for married men. Is not the wife of a soldier as eager to see her husband as the wife of an airman? I know what my wife would reply. She has asked me too many times when I am coming home. It seems that once again the Army is to be called upon to bear the brunt of the sacrifice. I will not touch on the moral aspect of the proposed five years' separation, which will be obvious. I contend that it is not conducive to marital fidelity and there have been numerous cases of domestic trouble. Here is another from a bombardier in a battery of gunners: To sit at home and talk glibly of 4½ years is one thing, to be parted from wife and family is entirely different and amounts to punishment especially to a middle aged man. I am speaking with nearly four years' experience and it is a disgrace that we alone should be treated in this way. Another, a sapper in the Middle East, pointed out that because he was four weeks more than six months at home after he had served in Dunkirk he had to spend a further year in what he described as exile owing to the operation of the Python scheme. Here is another: I left England in December, 1940, I was 31 years old my wife will be 30 in December. We both wanted a child before we grew too old. The stipulated length of service out here is still four years and eight months, which we all consider too long especially when we are told that no preferential treatment is given to R.A.F. personnel yet they get home after three years. Do not think I am of a Bolshie disposition, but such actions as the Army are committing is asking for trouble. I hesitate to go on quoting these. The morale of our troops in these overseas stations is suffering severely by the firmness with which this rule has been adhered to by the Government. I have had two or three letters written since the right hon. Gentleman gave me his answer. They are painful because they do an injustice to the right hon. Gentleman himself. I believe he is not personally responsible for this particular wrong. That he is politically responsible there can be no doubt. I believe the Government policy has proved a mistake and I seriously believe that in the future they are going to have serious disciplinary trouble if they go on doing this wrong thing; and 'I do not believe that it is necessary in the interest of operations, as they assert. No one in time of war would lightly disregard the argument that operational considerations should come first, but we are entitled in our capacity of critics with some knowledge of the world to dispute the manner in which the principle is applied and to say that it can only have a seriously damaging effect upon our war effort in the Middle East as well as committing a serious injustice to those whom it penalises. I trust that the right hon. Gentleman will exercise his full influence, as the Secretary of State, who is supposed to protect the soldier, to remove this wrong and I seriously suggest that, if he fails to carry his way in the counsels of the Government he ought to take the course which Secretaries of State as men of honour have taken before him when they have found that justice cannot be done to those for whose interests it is their duty to fight.

5.59 P.m.

Mr. J. J. Lawson (Chester-le-Street)

I think the House will agree that the hon. Member in raising this matter has pot only rendered a very great service to the men concerned, but has expressed opinions that the House will be pleased to have heard expressed. I hope the right hon. Gentleman is going to give this matter patient and sympathetic attention. We quite understand that, as things have been previous to the freeing of the Mediterranean, he was considerably harassed in a situation like that, but I think it is nothing less than the duty of Members of the House to do what the hon. Member has done, to press for very serious consideration of this matter in the light of the proved facts. I think no greater test could come to any young man than to be married, and sometimes to have young children, and yet to be separated wide seas apart from wife and home affairs. Our men were never put to such a test as that in the last war. At any rate the bulk of them were fighting in Europe. They got regular leave. I do not think the right hon. Gentleman needs any argument or any evidence, even from the hon. Member for Oxford (Mr. Hogg), to prove the devastating effect that this is having on marital relations.

I have given a case or two to the War Office, and they have told me that they are very sorry, and that they know what the situation is, but that nothing can be done about the question of leave. Most Members will be receiving most pitiful letters about unfaithful wives—although I do not know whether they can be regarded as unfaithful because the woman is put to a very great test as well as the man in these long separations. I receive letters about cases where one would scarcely have dreamed that anything could go wrong, so warm had been the relationship between husband and wife previous to the husband going into the Forces. These conditions are made worse when there are small children.

It being Six o'Clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Mr. Lawson

A young man who is married, who misses those first early years with his children, misses what is almost the most fragrant thing in human and married life. That is the great sacrifice Which these men are making. I have heard, and I am addressing a Question to the right hon. Gentleman about it, that even the four years' limit overseas without being brought back does not apply to officers.

The Secretary of State for War (Sir James Grigg)

Emergency commission officers are treated in the same way as the other ranks. I think that there may be an occasional exception with Regular officers, but I am not certain about that. Ordinarily, the rules are the same.

Mr. Lawson

I am much obliged to the right hon. Gentleman for that answer. Whether the men are in the Middle East or in the worse conditions of the borders of Burma and in India, we say that it is too great a test to put men to to keep away from home for so long. I was glad to hear the evidence that the hon. Member for Oxford gave about the limits that are put to service in the other Forces and other armies. That is an almost unanswerable case. It is true we have not the reserves that America has, but I do not think that America would find any fault — their whole tone has been in that direction— men who have served conditions such as our men have served under in the past few years getting reasonable consideration. I am sure that the American soldiers themselves would regard it sympathetically and with understanding, since they undergo pretty much the same experience.

6.4 p.m.

Colonel Clarke (East Grinstead)

I support the case that has been so admirably put by the hon. Member for Oxford (Mr. Hogg). On 4th July last there was a somewhat similar Debate on the Adjournment on the question of home transference. At that time I had only lately returned from the Central Mediterranean Force, and I was able to put a case based on personal experience and my own painful interviews with my men. I do not want to repeat myself now, but I want to make one point. Four-and-a-half or five years away seems to me too long. Since I spoke on this matter on 1st July I have had many letters and have been carrying on the work of my Regimental Families' Association. Nothing that has come to my notice through those channels has in any way altered the opinion with which I came home. To the temporary soldier four-and-a-half or five years really seems an infinity; he cannot see the end of it. Nor can his friends at home, his wife or his fiancée or his children. That produces a feeling of apathy, and apathy leads to irresponsibility and to the sad cases to which reference has already been made. I am certain that if the period were three years, half the work of the Soldiers', Sailors' and Airmen's Families' Association would not need to be done.

6.7 p.m.

Mr. Tom Brown (Ince)

I support the contention of the hon. and gallant Member for East Grinstead (Colonel Clarke), and I think the Secretary of State will have some difficulty in resisting the plea put forward by a man who has just returned. Like the hon. Member for Oxford (Mr. Hogg), I am receiving letters every day, and other Members are, too. In addition, almost every week-end I spend time receiving the claims of parents, mothers, wives and sweethearts on behalf of men who have been serving overseas since the beginning of the war. It is difficult to satisfy them with the answers that one can give. It should be remembered that the answers given by the Secretary of State for War 18 months or two years ago will not satisfy the people to-day, because of the changed circumstances which have manifested themselves since July, 1942. Coming into the Chamber after lunch to-day, I picked up this letter at the Post Office. It is one of many which I have received this week. It is dated 10th October, and says: I feel it necessary as a constituent to write to you regarding the position of leave for our soldiers in the Middle East. It will be unnecessary for me to remind you that under normal circumstances our soldiers can only expect to return home after four and a half years' overseas. The overseas service of members of the Royal Air Force is three years. Why should there be differentiation in the period that has to be served by members in the different Services? If we are all in this war together, there should be uniformity of overseas service, whether it be short or long. The letter goes on to say: I have no wish to make this just another letter of complaint, as you will no doubt receive enough of these, but I do feel that sufficient interest is not being taken in the soldiers overseas. Eighteen months of further separation is a very high price to pay for the privilege of being in the Army rather than in the Royal Air Force, and there does not seem to be any logical reason for it. Then the writer goes on to say: I see from the newspapers that various Members of Parliament have raised the question in the House and I should like to know that you intend to follow suit. Hence my rising to my feet, after receiving that letter. We all appreciate the difficulties of the Secretary of State for War, but I want to put forward again the strong plea which has been made that the time has now come when there should be a change of attitude by the War Department towards our men who have served overseas for so many years. I hope that the Minister will respond to our appeal, and cut out this rigidity which his Department is capable of and has applied in days gone by.

6.12 p.m.

Colonel Viscount Suirdale (Peterborough)

I do not wish to keen the House more than a minute. We are all anxious to hear my right hon. Friend's reply. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford (Mr. Hogg) on raising the matter. I feel that the troops in the Middle East, in India and other places are subject to considerable injustice and from the letters which I have also received it is clear that their morale is being submitted to very considerable strain. The reasons for that are, I think, four. The first is that all want to get home to see their families and their wives. The second is that they feel it is unfair that they should have to stay out there longer than the Air Force and longer than others of our Allies. The third reason is that there is a feeling of suspicion that it is unnecessary. I think the most astonishing reason of the lot is that which I get in letters saying: "What we really feel is that there is a complete lack of sympathy in London and in the House of Commons." I do not think that is true. I know there is tremendous sympathy in this House. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]I think it is probable that there is also great sympathy on the part of my right hon. Friend and other members of the Government. What is important is that the Government should show their sympathy with these men. The only way in which they can do it in a practical way is by taking steps to put the matter right. I feel that if they have the will to do it they can go a very long way towards dealing with the matter.

6.14 p.m.

Mr. Woodburn (Clackmannan and Stirling, Eastern)

I should like to treat this matter from a slightly different aspect. Other hon. Members have spoken for the soldiers, but I should like to speak not so much from their point of view as from that of the soldiers' wives. Unfortunately the position has been intensified in a most heartrending fashion by the order which was issued in the Middle East and which offered to officers and men the opportunity of getting home if their wives were over 30 years of age and were willing and anxious to have a family. The age of 30 was the first idea. Many of the men wrote home to their wives and raised hopes that they were coming home on leave. Suddenly they found that the age was raised to 35, and the hopes which had been raised in the minds of those women have been frustrated and disappointed.

This has caused great emotional hardship and really intense resentment which ought never to have been caused. I suggest to the Secretary of State for War that the matter should have been very carefully considered before such an order was issued. I am sure that the whole House supports the hon. Member for Oxford (Mr. Hogg) in raising this matter, and I hope that the Secretary of State will take special note of cases where this kind of feeling has been aroused and will try to get the order restored to its original intention, instead of being reduced to a few hundred cases as it is now. I hope that he will treat this matter sympathetically and seriously when he replies and not as an attack upon the War Office. I hope he will regard it in the light of the best interests of the men, women and children at home.

6.16 p.m.

Mr. Bartle Bull (Enfield)

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford (Mr. Hogg) and I say, as he did, that the period of service overseas for the Army should be shortened. Like him, and like many other Members in the House, I have had many letters from my constituents whose menfolk are serving abroad The man-power position in the United States has been mentioned; it is a little different from what it is here. I do not know whether the figures have been published as to what age groups have been called up, hut most certainly they have not called up married men to anything like the same degree that married men have been called up in Great Britain. I know that since the American War of Independence—or the Revolutionary War, as they call it—we are not sent here to legislate for the American Colonies, which are now the United States, but the best that the British can do is to point out to them that in our British history we have only lost one war, which was when we were fighting against Britishers and using German troops.

Earl Winterton (Horsham and Worthing)

What has that to do with the matter?

Mr. Bartle Bull

I do not speak as long or as often as the Noble Lord. I understand that the point is how best to help these men—

Earl Winterton

Hear, hear.

Mr. Bull:—

I am most grateful to the Noble Lord—who are serving abroad. I think the worst thing we can do is to give them false hopes. I know from personal experience how strongly they feel about this matter. From what I have had to do with the Secretary of State on these matters I think he has done as much as he possibly could. No one who has had any correspondence with him or with his Parliamentary Private Secretary on cases of hardship could do other than realise that everything possible has been done in those cases.

One other point has been mentioned. Various hon. Member have discussed the question of the Army in relation to the Navy and the Air Force. The only observation I would make about that is that I agree that there is great hardship on men in the Army as opposed to, those in the Navy or the Air Force. I would like the Secretary of State to tell us something about that matter. Is not the explanation that naval and Air Force operations are based upon Great Britain? Then we have responsibilities in France, Italy, India, Burma and so on. Hon. Members who know anything about India will be aware how long it takes to train soldiers for that type of warfare. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, and I support him, but I think the most wicked thing possible is to raise false hopes.

6.18 p.m.

The Secretary of State for War (Sir James Grigg)

Before I come to the main part of my speech perhaps I will just dispose of two subsidiary points and correct slightly the information I gave to the hon. Member for Chester-le-Street (Mr. J. J. Lawson). The rules are the same for all officers and all men, but, as my hon. Friend knows, there is a provision that when a man's turn comes, if, for military reasons, he has to be kept back and unfortunately cannot go when his turn comes—

Sir Henry Morris-Jones (Denbigh)

We cannot hear what the Secretary of State is saying.

Sir J. Grigg

Naturally, that happens rather oftener in the case of officers than it does in the case of men.

Mr. J. J. Lawson

There is already strong feeling about it in its application.

Mr. Critchley (Liverpool, Edge Hill)

Would the Secretary of State for War be good enough to address the Chair, and then we could all hear him.

Sir J. Grigg

The second point was that raised by the hon. Member for East Stirling (Mr. Woodburn), that is, about the special order which was issued in the Middle East, and the explanation of the attenuation of it. I have not had a report on it. As soon as I have I will make a statement in the House. I have made inquiries, but I am not in a position to give the full story, and I prefer, if the House will allow, not to give a partial story.

Mr. Bellenger (Bassetlaw)

When does the right hon. Gentleman expect to get it? Can he not cable?

Sir J. Grigg

Let me come to the main case. With a great deal of what the hon. Member for Oxford (Mr. Hogg) said, I find myself in agreement. In fact I am extremely grateful to him and other hon. members for the moderation with which they have stated their case. The only point on which I would join issue with him is the assertion that this practice rests on an administrative rule which it is quite simple to alter, that it is entirely unnecessary and is an arbitrary imposition on the part of the War Office themselves. If that were the case it would be all perfectly simple. It is not a rule of that kind at all. The present practice represents the most we can do with our present resources. When I made my statement a fortnight ago it was made in the light of a detailed review of what was the maximum we were likely to be able to achieve with our present resources. Therefore I cannot accept the hon. Member's contention that it is merely a matter of being able to promise if only I wanted to.

Naturally, nothing would give me greater pleasure than to be able to promise more, particularly as there is a very strong case to be made if it is possible. Anyhow, I probably know better than any other hon. Member whatever the size of their postbag how the shoe pinches and where it pinches, because I get the concentration of all their postbags on this matter. I realise the importance of this matter to the troops. The House and the Army can be perfectly sure that if, a fortnight ago, I had been in a position to promise more than I did then, I should certainly have done so. All my efforts will be devoted to doing more than I promised, but the worst possible thing to do would be to promise something and then not to fulfil it. That is why I was concerned a fortnight ago to make clear that I would not make promises unless I was certain that I saw a reasonable certainty of being able to carry them out. That is why that statement must, I am afraid, stand, until I can see clearly that we can do better. That is why I am not in a position to say anything to-day which qualifies or calls in question anything I said then.

Earl Winterton

The right hon. Gentleman no doubt has regard to the constitutional position. The clearly expressed wish of this House, with one rather incoherent exception, is strongly in favour of the proposal put forward by my hon. Friend. Would the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance to the House that he will bring this fact to the notice of the War Cabinet, and repeat to them that it is the almost unanimous feeling of the House?

Sir J. Grigg

Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman would wait until he has heard an explanation of the position we are in and then see whether it is so easy as all that, No constitutional practice can force people to do the impossible. As regards the situation, I often bring it to the notice of my colleagues, and I shall certainly do so on any occasion when I think any assistance from them will ameliorate matters.

Several other hon. Members have made some play with the fact that the War Office has during the history of this subject shifted its ground, that originally the difficulty in doing better in shortening the tour of service was shipping, and now it is man-power. It is not very surprising that the War Office should have shifted its ground, seeing that the circumstances have so completely changed. At one time the obstacle to repatriation was quite definitely shipping. Convoys had to go all the way round the Cape, and had to be heavily escorted; and, apart from that, there were very heavy losses from U-boat attacks. It is barely a year since the Mediterranean was fully opened. In the meantime the great attack on North-West Europe was being planned. The relief to shipping was counteracted by the necessity of bringing large numbers of American soldiers, destined for Normandy, and their equipment and stores, across the Atlantic. So far as the Army in this country was concerned, preparations for the assault on Normandy proceeded on the basis of putting, into that venture every man, with equipment and weapons, that we could. That was clearly wise, I think, because it offered the best prospect of an early knock-out of Germany. Once the expedition had been launched, the shipping position would obviously ease; but, given the fact that we had put every man we could into the assault, we should be hard put to it to maintain our forces, and so maintain the maximum strength until the knock-out had been administered.

In other words, once the Normandy campaign had started, our difficulty would be in providing replacements, and not in actually shipping them. Here is the ex- planation of the apparent change of ground. It is one which, I think, should carry conviction to everybody. Personally, I believe, and I think rightly believe, that the great generality of the troops serving abroad would quite willingly forgo a greater reduction in their all-too-long tour of service overseas if it meant a hastening of the final defeat of Germany. A fortnight ago I said, in my statement: With a view to accelerating this process, I have, since the Foreign Secretary's statement, given directions that the provision of replacement drafts is to be given the highest priority even though this is in some cases at the expense of keeping up to strength our Armies engaged in active operations. Special consideration in these directions was given to troops serving in India and South-East Asia Command in view of the particularly arduous conditions in the Far East."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 26th September, 1944; Vol. 403, c. 19.] But this process is one which cannot be carried very far. It is really a question of weighing each consideration against the other; of weighing the necessity for the keeping up of our strength against accelerating the replacement of men of long service in the Mediterranean and the Far East. That is the situation in which we find ourselves. I think it is a perfectly reasonable explanation of the change of ground which has puzzled some Members over the last two years, and a perfectly natural explanation of why it is necessary to ask the troops who have served abroad a very long time continuously to forgo a rapid reduction of their tour of service abroad, in the hope that the coup de grace in0 North-West Europe' will be administered that much more quickly.

Two subsidiary points are the question of the Royal Air Force and of the Americans. In the case of the Royal Air Force, I, personally, am extremely sorry that we cannot get the Army tour of service down to theirs. Our manpower situation is not in the least the same as theirs. A far greater proportion of the Army than of the R.A.F. is overseas; and when intense fighting starts, the casualties of the Army are much greater than theirs, and the replacement needs are much greater accordingly. As far as the Americans are concerned, there is no doubt that, as one or two hon. Members have pointed out, the Americans have very large reserves of man-power which have not been ventured yet in the fighting, and their situation is a great deal different from ours. As a matter of fact—

It being half-past Six o'clock, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.