HC Deb 26 September 1944 vol 403 cc19-23
41 and 42. Mr. John Dugdale

asked the Secretary of State for War (1) why an order has been issued by the G.O.C., Middle East, stating that all soldiers must complete five years' service overseas before obtaining home leave;

(2) what percentage of men with four and a half to five, and five and over years' service abroad, respectively, have now had home leave.

43 and 96. Mr. Quintin Hogg

asked the Secretary of State for War (1) what progress has so far been made in posting home officers and men with over four and less than five years' overseas service;

(2) what steps are now being taken to give home leave to troops in the Mediterranean and Far Eastern Commands on a scale comparable with the other Services and with the troops in the British Liberation Army.

86. Sir Douglas Hacking

asked the Secretary of State for War whether he can yet reduce the period of service of troops in the Far East and other distant theatres of war.

90. Viscount Hinchin gbrooke

asked the Secretary of State for War what progress has been made since 29th June in granting home leave to troops who have served in the East and Middle East for upwards of four and a half years; and whether he expects in the near future further to shorten the qualifying period.

98. Sir H. Williams

asked the Secretary of State for War whether any change has been made as to the period of service overseas before men in the Army are re-posted to this country.

103. Mr. Kirby

asked the Secretary of State for War whether he can make a statement as to arrangements for granting leave to members of the Armed Forces now serving on the Western Front.

108. Captain Gammans

asked the Secretary of State for War the approximate number of men in the Indian and South-East Asia Command who have been overseas for three years or more.

111. Sir George Jones

asked the Secretary of State for War whether, in view of the present military situation, he can, in the near future, grant leave of absence to men who have been serving two years or more in distant countries and unhealthy climates, so that they may come home to recuperate and again see their families.

112. Mr. Reakes

asked the Secretary of State for War what progress has been made with regard to the granting of leave to men with unbroken long overseas service with His Majesty's Forces.

Sir J. Grigg

In view of the misunderstandings which, judgingfrom my mail bag, exist among the troops on those matters, I propose to circulate a full statement in the OFFICIAL REPORT, and I shall try to secure wide circulation for this in the overseas theatres.

Mr. Hogg

While desiring to await that circulation for detailed statistics, might I ask whether the right hon. Gentleman is aware of the growing bitterness of all ranks serving in the East, when they see their own situation compared unfavourably, not merely with that of the other two Services—[Interruption].

Following is the statement:

There is at present no general system of ordinary leave for troops serving overseas, and by ordinary leave I mean facilities for visiting their homes, followed at the end of the period of leave by a return to the theatre from which they came. A number of complete formations have been brought to this country on their way to another theatre of war, but, apart from these operational moves, the main flow of troops from overseas to this country takes place under a repatriation scheme, by which officers and men of the longest uninterrupted service overseas can, if they wish, be transferred to the home establishment. On arrival in this country they are given a period of leave, after which they are liable to be sent overseas again, though every effort is made to avoid this for at least three months after their arrival. I may perhaps add that in any case we intend that a soldier who has once been repatriated on grounds of length of service shall not be sent to any operational theatre other than North-West Europe unless he volunteers to go further afield. Posting to the home establishment may, in addition, be granted at the discretion of the Commander-in-Chief concerned in a limited number of compassionate cases, but I am afraid that the standard of compassion has had to be a strict one.

Whatever the ground for the repatriation, it will be obvious that all the men concerned are struck off the strength of their units abroad, and have to be replaced by reinforcements sent from this country. If we had unlimited shipping and unlimited reserves of man-power at the disposal of the Army, we could, and should, shorten materially the tour of overseas service and institute a regular system of leave from overseas theatres, subject only to the operational situation at any given moment. But, in this sixth year of war, the Army has neither the use of unlimited ships nor abundant reserves of trained men, and we have had to do the best we can with the resources available. This best, I repeat, is much less than we should have liked. It has consisted in a slight relaxation of the standards for posting to the home establishment on compassionate grounds and a gradual reduction of the maximum time for which soldiers have had to be kept overseas. At no time have we made hard and fast promises, and at no time will I make such promises unless I can be absolutely certain of being able to carry them out. In particular, we have never conferred an absolute right of repatriation to soldiers with any given length of overseas service. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said on 29th June that we had repatriated most of those with five years or more of continuous overseas service, that we were making a start on those of less than five years' service, and that we hoped in time to get down to those of four and a half years' service, or even less. 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 alt 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.

It is very difficult to forecast what the result of these directions will be, and, as I said earlier, I am particularly concerned not to make promises unless I am sure they can be carried out. One of the still unknown factors is the date of the termination of the war with Germany, as soon as possible after which the recently announced release plans will come into force, and, of course, a great many soldiers with long service overseas will fall into the earlier release groups. But, subject to fundamental reservations of this sort, I will say that I shall be very disappointed if by January next the maximum tour of service in India and Burma has not been reduced to four years—indeed, the target is a few months less. For troops serving elsewhere overseas, I hope that the tour will not in any case exceed 4¾ years, and that a considerable number of men with less than this period will have returned. Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to be able to promise this or something better quite definitely. But I cannot, and, therefore, I will not. Similarly, in view of the uncertainties involved, I cannot yet make any sort of promise that ordinary leave from North-West Europe can be instituted, especially as, in my view, ordinary leave could not be granted to one theatre without making some parallel arrangements for other theatres. Finally, may I assure the House that I regard this question as one of the most important with which I have to deal? There is, and can be, no justification for the growing habit of referring to troops in distant theatres as forgotten armies.