HC Deb 20 December 1945 vol 417 cc1584-96

2.24 p.m.

General Sir George Jeffreys (Peters-field)

The matter to which I desire to call attention is one on which I asked a Question recently of the Secretary of State, namely, as to the existence of an Army Council Instruction forbidding visits by Colonels of regiments to officers' training units with a view to getting personal touch with candidates for commissions in their regiments. Before proceeding further, in view of the fact that there was some misunderstanding, I would like to make it clear to which officers I am referring. In some units, it is customary to refer to the officer commanding as "the Colonel." This is not strictly correct, as the appropriate designation is "theCommanding Officer," and it is not the commanding officers to whom I am about to refer. It is to the Colonels of regiments in the strict sense of that term. Every regiment has at its head a Colonel, or, in the case of certain regiments and corps, there may be two or more Colonels-commandant, and paradoxically, as it may seem, these Colonels of regiments and Colonels-commandant, are,in fact, Generals, cither serving or retired. These Colonels of regiments have a number of responsibilities, as to one of which, in particular, I shall have something to say directly.

In answer to my Question on 4th December, the Secretary of State said: Iam aware of the instruction referred to. The selection and posting to regiments of officer cadets is the responsibility of the War Office in the light of Army requirements as a whole, and cannot depend entirely on personal preferences for particular regiments, or on personal recommendations. I then asked the Secretary of State whether he was aware of the existence of War Office Letter 26/General/5183, issued to all Colonels of regiments, in which the responsibilities of Colonels of regiments are laid down, the first of these being, and I quote from the Order: The nomination of suitable candidates for commissions in the regiment.

The Financial Secretary to the War Office (Mr. Bellenger)

What is the date of that?

Sir G. Jeffreys

The date of the letter is 9th April, 1936. It has never been cancelled, and was issued to me, as Colonel of a regiment, this year. I then asked the Secretary of State how those instructions were to be carried out, in view of the Army Council Instruction to which I have referred.The Secretary of State replied—again I quote from Hansard: I am much obliged to the hon. and gallant Gentleman for directing my attention to this rule. I must say that it is no desire of mine that, these candidates should be segregated from visitors, but I must make it clear that the War Office have a responsibility in this matter which it cannot delegate to anyone, officers or anybody else." —(OFFICIAL REPORT, 4th December, 1945; vol. 416, c. 2096.) I am still asking how this, the first of the responsibilities laid down in that War Office letter to Colonels of regiments, is to be fulfilled if the Colonels are to be prohibited from visiting officer cadet training units and getting into personal touch with candidates, and potential candidates, for their regiments, and thus getting at first hand the opinion of the commanders of the cadet training units regarding them. This selection and posting of officers is a very important matter, and it is not by any means one which can be effectually dealt with by the War Office alone, for the War Office necessarily has to judge from reports and particulars on paper.

Here I would say that good conduct, education and diligence, important as these are, are not by themselves sufficient qualifications for an officer, for, in addition, character, personality and the power to command and lead others are of immense importance. These latter qualities cannot be fully gauged from paper reports. A good idea can, however, be formed by personal contact with cadets and with the commanders of cadet training units, and it is that personal contact which Colonels of regiments are anxious to get in order to fulfil the responsibility laid down by the War Office letter, and which contact it appears to be the desire of another branch of the War Office—" A "branch—to prevent them getting. In other words it appears that the right hand of the War Office is taking one line and the left hand of the War Office is taking another.

Another point I wish to make is this: From the point of view of regimental spirit and esprit de corps it is very desirable that as many candidates as possible should have a regimental or a county connection and association. The Colonel of a county regiment would most certainly pay great attention to this, and a candidate with such connections would, other things being equal, be more likely to be a success in a regiment than one who had not got them. Perhaps if I may quote an extreme example to illustrate, I think it will probably be agreed—certainly by Scottish Members—that a South country young man, however excellent he might be, would probably be less effective as an officer in a Scottish regiment than would be a Scotsman. To carry it a little further, I would say that if you drafted a young man from a county in, say, the Midlands to a South country regiment, that young man would be likely to be less effective as an officer there— assuming his qualities were approximately equal— than would be a young man who came from the county in question. One of the greatest efforts made by Colonels of regiments is to get local county young men to serve in their county regiment. The only other thing near to that is a regimental connection. The principle is exactly the same. The local interest which someone would have who had some connection originally with either the regiment or the county from which it comes, is very valuable indeed and it is one of the points which colonels try to elicit when they interview, if they can interview, candidates for their regiments.

I sometimes wonder whether the real reason for the attitude of "A" Branch of the War Office in this matter is that they know the importance attached to it by the regiments. During this war, while sometimes paying lip service to the regimental system, they have, in practice, continually shown their antipathy to it by treating both officers and other ranks as mere units which can be drafted and posted anywhere regardless of the county or regiment to which they belong. That in my opinion is a mistaken and a deplorable policy. I fully admit that occasionally shortages render it necessary, but it is not a policy which should be adopted as the ordinary policy of posting, and that, I fear, is the case at present and it certainly has been in the past. It is because they believe in the regimental system, and because they wish in the words of the War Office letter which I have quoted—" to nominate suitable candidates," suitable in every way "for commissions in their regiments" that Colonels of regiments wish this Army Council Instruction to be rescinded.

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will argue that it was because of war conditions that this Army Council Instruction was issued. That pretext no longer holds good. I do not think it was really necessary under war conditions, but the war is over happily, and that reason no longer holds good in any way. There is not the slightest difficulty in regular, arranged visits by Colonels of regiments to officer cadet training units, and I believe that commanding officers of those training units would welcome them, and it would make for the proper fulfilment of the long standing and traditional duties of Colonels of regiments if this Army Council Instruction were to be rescinded and freedom in that matter restored to Colonels of regiments, as I hope may be the case.

2.35 p.m.

The Financial Secretary to the War Office (Mr. Bellenger)

We are learning from the evidence which is now emerging at Nuremberg and other places, that the German High Command had some apprehension about a war on two fronts, but today the War Office has been attacked on three fronts. Therefore, I enter this battle with some little trepidation, but I hope the War Office will emerge victorious from the battle as the British Army did in this war, and in the war which preceded that—to which, I think, the hon. and gallant Gentleman applied his mind mostly in the speech which he has just delivered.

If I may deal with the first attack which was presented by the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for North Black pool (Brigadier Low) which concerned the retention of officers, as opposed to other ranks, beyond their release date for their groups as announced, I regret this, as does my hon. Friend. I believe that when a plan is made it should be adhered to as far as possible, but all operations during the war were always subject to unforeseen circumstances, and the unforeseen circumstance in this case is that not so many officers volunteered to defer their release as we expected. Therefore, the fact emerges that there is a great danger, the more we speed up release, that we shall be out of gear in the ratio between officers and other ranks. I am sure the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for North Black pool will understand that it is very necessary that we should keep a certain definite proportion between officers and other ranks if we are to run the Army most efficiently. As I listened to what he said, I had the impression— although he rather denied it— that his remarks were an echo of the recent censure Debate, when an attempt was made by his Leader, and other right hon. Gentlemen on the Front Bench opposite, to break the age and service release scheme, and that the Government will not do.

Brigadier Low

May I make this quite clear? I agree with the Government in their policy. On no account must we break the age and service principle as far as it affects the general parity between different theatres. My point was that there was no reason to apply it to only those officers who are taken out of the Bevin scheme in any case, if the military necessity clause is applied to them by groups.

Mr. Bellenger

Perhaps I have misunderstood the hon. and gallant Gentleman, but if he wishes me to answer him on the plane as he has presented it, namely, the overall picture as it affects all theatres, then I do not see what substance his argument had when he mentioned that there were numbers of officers in this country who were doing nothing. I would first of all challenge that assertion. This country is what I may call the depot for reinforcing all theatres overseas.

Brigadier Low

Can I make that clear—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Major Milner)

I hope hon. Members will not intervene if it can be avoided. We are much behind with our programme.

Mr. Bellenger

May I give a few figures? I will not bother the House with too many, but I have to do so to satisfy, if I can, the hon. and gallant Gentleman that the Army are not retarding the releasing of any groups of officers merely because they want to keep a large number of personnel in the Army. To ensure efficiency the run out should have been in the nature of 8 per cent. of officers to 92 per cent. of other ranks but, in fact, the composition of the groups bore little relation to that ratio. The groups are composed, especially the middle groups, up to 26 and 27, of other ranks in relation to officers out of all proportion to the figures I have just given, and in groups 1 to 10 the ratio was in fact 30 per cent. of officers to 70 percent. of other ranks, and even by group 22 the ratio is 11.3 per cent, of officers to 88.7 per cent, of other ranks. I think the House will see, therefore, that if we were to release officers and other ranks as their turn came, we should soon have a disparity between the officers and the other ranks which would lead to reduced efficiency in the Army.

There are certain theatres of war which are more affected than others, and in view of the large number of letters we have received at the War Office from hon. Members, and also from the general public, about the East and West African troops and their non-commissioned officers and officers, perhaps I might say a word about that? A large number of East and West African troops were mobilised for the war effort and they were officered and N.C.Oed. by British personnel. The House will perhaps be surprised to know, as I was when I read the figures, that there are something in the order of 10,000 officers in those East and West African formations, with the result that, owing to the difficulty of demobilising those coloured troops, it was found impossible to release their white British officers and N.C.Os. I am afraid the result has been a feeling amongst those British N.C.Os. and officers that they have not been treated fairly in relation to other officers and N.C.Os. else where. However, we are in the process now of demobilising those coloured troops, and I hope that before long the situation in relation to these particular officers who are at present with West African and East African formations will soon be much better, and that they will take their turn for release in accordance with the programme and the announced policy of His Majesty's Government.

Now in relation to the specialists to which the hon. and gallant Gentleman referred, it has always been understood in the release scheme that certain officers and other ranks coming into that would not be able to be released in their turn because of the very nature of their specialist work. We have tried to keep this as low as we possibly can because we do not want to defer more officers or other ranks merely because they happen to be specialists, but the fact remains that if we are to keep the Army in a state of efficiency in all theatres, we cannot release essential officers who are specialists— medical, professional, or trade specialists —and that has resulted in a certain number whose release has been deferred. That number is much smaller than many people think, and we are doing our best to replace these specialists as far as we possibly can.

The hon. and gallant Gentleman asked whether the delay in announcing the terms for officers was having any effect on this situation. From my own experience when I recently visited the B.A.O.R., I know that officers holding emergency commissions at the present time would like to know what terms can be expected for the Regular Army in the future, and we are doing our best to get those terms out. If it were only Army terms we were concerned with, the matter would be comparatively easy, although less easy than in the case of other ranks, but we are endeavouring to get some uniformity between the three Services, and that accounts for the delay in announcing the terms for the officers of the post war Army. We hope that very soon after the House returns from the Christmas Recess we shall be able to announce those terms.

I think, in concluding this particular part of the subjects which have been raised, that all I need say is that we have done better than we thought we should do when Field Marshal Montgomery made his first announcement to the officers of B.A.O.R. In the recent announcement made with regard to Groups 22 and 23 for officers, we have accelerated their release, because, when it was originally announced, we thought that it would be necessary to "freeze," if I may use that term which is a military and an economic one, the officers in these two groups until after 10th February. We now find, and we have said this, that we shall be able to release them, starting on 10th January and 23rd January respectively.

Brigadier Low

In dealing with this question of deferment, I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman heard that the word used in this Order was "extensively."

Mr. Bellenger

I am dealing with three subjects, and there are others to follow when I have resumed my seat. That is the reason why it is impossible for me today to deal more elaborately with the question that has been raised by the hon. and gallant Gentleman. If I had taken the length of time that the three previous speakers have done, then I am afraid I should be "deferring" the other Members who wish to raise matters on the Adjournment.

Now, may I turn to the remarks of the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Manning-ham-Buller), who has raised a matter affecting his own constituency? Although this is a very laudable aspect of an hon. Members duties, I want if I can to give him, because it only affects his own constituency, some assurance, and I hope that he will find it more satisfactory than the hon. and gallant Member for North Blackpool has done in the remarks which I have just made, which do not seem entirely to satisfy him. The hon. Gentleman the Member for Daventry is con- cerned with one of the ordnance depots in his constituency. He went into ratherancient history about the origins of that depot. I do not know whether he is aware, but it may be of interest to him to know that this ordnance depot originally started as a Royal Pavilion, it then became a prison, and eventually an ordnance depot. It isa very ancient building, and that is all the more reason for us not to look at this matter with ancient ideas. We have got to modernise our ideas.

That is the whole problem that is affecting the transition of industry from war to peace, and it applies also to matters in the military sphere. Weedon originally served a very useful purpose, but, as the result of the expansion of small arms and equipment of that nature, it was necessary during the war to build a larger depot, and that is the reason why Bicestercame into existence, with the result that Bicester, from the point of view of economy and efficient handling of these matters, is a much more modern depot than Weedon. If we were going to shut down Weedon altogether, then I agree that the hon. Member would have reason for his apprehension, but such is not the case. We intend to keep Weedon in existence, although its functions will be somewhat different from what they have been, but the result to civilian employees engaged a Weedon will not be so devastating as the hon. Gentleman led us to believe. As a matter of fact, the number of clerks in question will only be, I think, 46, and of that number, owing to the transference of some of the functions from Weedon to Bicester, 15 have volunteered to go to Bicester to serve there, and the other 31 civilians, who are surplus to Weedon's requirements, are being placed in other employment in association with the national service officer.

Mr. Manningham-Buller

The hon. Gentleman will understand that there are not onlycivilian clerks employed at Weedon. There are a large number of civilians from the surrounding district, and Bicester did not come into function until July, 1944.

Mr. Bellenger

I am informed that it came into operation much earlier than that and althoughBicester may not have functioned so intensively for D-Day as the hon. Member might have wished, the fact remains that it was in operation by D-Day, and the fact also remains that it will now operate in relation to the plans of the Army for ordnance depots in the future. Ido not think that he need have any apprehensions of a large amount of unemployment in relation to Weedon unless it is that Weedon, as all ordnance depots, will have to reduce considerably. As he truly said, the war has come to an end and, therefore, it is necessary that we should reduce the volume of work and employment at many of these depots. This is inevitable if we are going to turn over to much more productive enterprise. I hope that I have been able to assure the hon. Gentlemanthat, in the case of Weedon, the situation is not so bad as he has been informed. As we shall be using Weedon for bulk stores we shall be able to provide a large amount of work or, at least, a certain amount of work for civilian employees there. It is theintention of the War Office to employ as much civilian labour at these ordnance depots, not only Bicester or Weedon, as we possibly can; and it is not the intention of the War Office to create large commands at these depots in order to provide work for senior officers.

In reply to the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Peters field(Sir G. Jeffreys), who referred to a letter dated 1936, I would say that the policy in that letter, which was a prewar policy, was altered by the Army Council Instruction of 1941.

Sir G. Jeffreys

The hon. Gentleman has taken no notice of the fact that I informed him, in answer to the hon. Gentleman who rose when I was speaking, that the letter was still being issued to the Colonels of regiments. It was in fact issued to myself as Colonel of a regiment this year.

Mr. Bellenger

It looks as though I must apologise for a mistake having been made in sending out these letters. The policy is laid down in the Army Council Instruction of 1941, and it is not the intention of the War Office to follow a policy that might have been good in the time of the Crimea War or the Boer War.

Colonel Lancaster (Fylde)

That policy was in force until 1944. It is no good going back to 1941, because at that time it was not in force.

Mr. Bellenger

I cannot speak with authority as to what happened before I came to the War Office, but in speaking about the policy which we are going to follow, both my right hon. Friend and I are of the opinion, supported by our military advisers, that the old policy of Colonels commandant, and Colonels of regiments going to the cadet schools and creaming off, as they did, the best of the cadets at the schools for their regiments, cannot apply to the Army of the future.

Sir G. Jeffreys

That is not the case.

Mr. Bellenger

There is not the slightest doubt, and the hon. and gallant Gentleman knows it, that certain regiments, more popular than others, had the choice of officers, and indeed that was the whole purpose of some of these Colonels commandant, who certainly were very much retired, as the hon. and gallant Gentleman said, going to these cadet schools, so that they could pick out the individuals they wanted for their own particular regiments. May I say that there is a good deal to be said for the old county regimental tradition, but the fact remains that in future, it is not going to be possible to recruit on a county basis. [Hon. Members: "Why not"] Not only in this war but in the Great War, it was not possible to reinforce these regiments by county personnel and it was therefore necessary for example to dilute famous Scottish regiments with those who came from the South.

Sir G. Jeffreys

May I. interrupt again? The hon. Gentleman speaks about the last war, and perhaps he will say that I am very much out of date but I know a bit more about the last war than he does, and I know a good deal about these reinforcements. In the last war reinforcement from other regiments was not done as a policy. In this war it has been done as a policy.

Mr. Bellenger

It has been doneas a policy as the result of the experience of the Great War which the hon. and gallant Gentleman has talked about. It was done as a specific policy and will be followed as such. The hon. and gallant Gentleman says that he knows more about these subjectsthan I do, but perhaps I am also a little ancient, like the hon. and gallant Member for Peters field. I served in the Great War as he did, and saw it from the other end of the scale. He saw it from the general officer's end, and I, from the other rank's end. This system does not prevail in the Royal Navy or the Royal Air Force, where they have one general service tradition.

Although I am not going to say that preference will not be given to some of those who indicate a preference for certain regiments, as all cadets can do at the present time at the O.C.T.Us. by indicating their first, second and third choices, nevertheless, the overriding principle in relation to this matter is the good of the Service itself. What is necessary for the Service in the case of officers will be done, and although an opportunity will be given to cadets to specify their choice of different regiments we must reserve to ourselves at the War Office the right to post officers to those regiments which we think are best in the interests of the Service. What was done in the past resulted, especially in the Great War to which the hon. and gallant Gentleman was referring, in some regiments having a surplus of officers while other regiments, not so popular, were very short of officers. As long as we have this variation in regiments of which the Army is composed, we must provide the officers to fill up the vacancies in all of these regiments.

Viscount Hinchingbrooke (Dorset, Southern)

On what basis does the hon. Gentleman imagine that the Territorial Army can be maintained in the future if he now proposes to do away with the territorial method of recruitment?

Mr. Bellenger

I am not dealing with the Territorial Army at the moment. It has not yet been definitely settled what is to be the basis of the Regular Army and auxiliary forces in the future. I hope that many of the distinctive features of the Territorial force will be retained, but I am not prepared to say at this moment that they will be retained in precisely the same form as theywere before this war. The hon. and gallant Member for Peters-field has not raised that issue. He has raised the issue of the Regular Army.

Sir G. Jeffreys

I beg the hon. Gentleman's pardon. I raised the issue of Colonels of regiments. A Colonel of a regiment is the Colonel of the whole regiment, including Territorial battalions.

Mr. Bellenger

I misunderstood the hon. and gallant Member. I thought he was referring to the Regular Forces, but if he is also including the Territorial Army then the answerI have just given to the Noble Lord stands. We do not know precisely what the basis of the auxiliary forces will be in the future. Many consultations are going on at the present time. I would urge the House to consider this matter in its widest aspect. Before the war which has just ended I listened in this House to a fight by those who maintained that the Scots Greys should keep their horses, at a time when we were trying to mechanise the Army. I would appeal to hon. Gentlemen in all parts of the House tomodernise their minds, and not be obsessed by something which may have been good 50 years ago, but which no longer holds good.