HC Deb 18 January 1945 vol 407 cc493-502

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

7.0 p.m.

Mr. Edgar Granville (Eye)

Now that the captains and the kings have departed, I desire to raise the question of the right to wear the Royal Flying Corps observer wings on Army uniforms. This question has been raised by means of Question and answer in the House, by the hon. Member for South Croydon (Sir H. Williams) and myself, and the position, as it has been elucidated by Questions put to the Secretary of State for Air and Secretary of State for War, is that pilots in the Royal Flying Corps in the last war are entitled to wear their pilot's wings on Army and R.A.F. uniforms, but that those who were observers are only entitled to wear the observer's single wing of the R.F.C. of the last war, on R.A.F. uniforms and not upon Army uniforms. I believe it is subject to some sort of qualification, which was made by the predecessor of the hon. and gallant Gentleman who is to reply, and that it is subject to active service, and to being mustered; also that men are only entitled to wear the pilot's wings and the single observer wings in the R.A.F., if they have not been allocated to some other flying duty, in which case another badge has to be worn.

That is the position to-day. The whole point is this. Permission having been given to former pilots of the R.F.C. to wear their double wings on R.A.F. uniforms and on Army uniforms, for some unknown and amazing reason the observer badge is not allowed on khaki. This was a minute or regulation of the Air Council dating, I believe, to June, 1940. I want to ask the hon. and gallant Gentleman for what reason on earth, or in the air, he can discriminate unfairly against this gallant band—the "Battle of Britain" pilots, the observers in the last war, the "few" of the last war—and refuse to allow them to wear the observer's badge on the Army uniform. The hon. and gallant Gentleman's predecessor, when this question was raised before, said that the observer's wing is not a personal insignia, but part of the R.A.F. uniform. I want to say, with all the emphasis that I can, that this single observer's wing was granted or awarded for operations. They were not awarded, during the days of the R.F.C., simply because one had done so many hours in the air. One had to do so many operations against the enemy, and htey were definitely looked upon by the gallant men who were able to win them as personal insignia and something which they had won.

The right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for Air has written me a letter about this matter owing to a Question which I asked earlier, and his letter is rather abrupt. I said that I wanted to raise the matter on the Adjournment, and I wished to ascertain whether it was the Air Ministry or the War Office which was responsible, and the right hon. Gentleman said in his letter that the Secretary of State for Air is responsible. I am not so sure whether the right hon. Gentleman is responsible. These Royal Flying Corps wings were awarded to the observers, who had to win them when they were in effect members of the Army. They were awarded to members of the Royal Flying Corps—not members of the Royal Air Force—who were then attached to the Army. That was before the Royal Air Force came into being. I know that since those days there has been much more red tape at the Air Ministry than there was in the past, but I am not sure that the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for Air is right and that he is really responsible. I have received a letter from a very gallant observer in the last war in which he says: To take away a decoration or mark of operational efficiency is a mean piece of work. That represents the feeling of many of these gallant men about this position.

I want the hon. and gallant Gentleman, if he will, to tell me why this discrimination has been made against the observers. His Majesty the King, I believe, wears the pilot wings, and the Prime Minister is also entitled to wear the pilot wings on his air commodore's uniform and a number of senior officers are also entitled to wear them. But these other men are not allowed to wear them and they have very strong feelings about it. They are the veterans of the Royal Flying Corps. There cannot be many of them left, and I hear that they say they are going to petition His Majesty the King, in order to endeavour to retain this hard-won honour. I appeal to the Prime Minister to see that justice is done to this gallant band of veterans, because the right hon. Gentleman himself had something to do with the Air Force in the last war. I also appeal to the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Air, who is a very distinguished flyer of this war. He has shown great courage and has distinguished service as one of the flyers of this war, but he also knows of the last war. I ask him, new as he is to his duties, to show great courage and stand up to the Air Minister so as to get the Order reversed and enable these gallant men to wear a decoration in recognition of what they went through in the last war.

7.9 p.m.

Colonel Greenwell (The Hartlepools)

In rising to support the hon. Member for Eye (Mr. Granville) at this late hour I will be as brief as I possibly can, but I would like to begin by correcting a small point upon which he has fallen into error. The observer's badge was originally a brevet in the Royal Flying Corps, but it is not quite correct to say that it was a Flying Corps brevet only, because after 1918 it was also awarded to officers again serving in the Royal Air Force. I think that the House will appreciate that point. I think a brief history of the origin of this badge and how it was awarded might help to impress upon the Parliamentary Secretary how sincerely and deeply those people who, in the past, were entitled to wear it, feel about it. In the early days of the Royal Flying Corps, when the war began in 1914, I think it is correct to say that every officer—because there were very few "other ranks" then actually engaged on flying duty—was a pilot officer. Those in two-seater machines who occupied the passenger seat had undoubtedly taken a pilot's course. Later on, as production grew, the demand for pilots became such that observers were taken without previous flying experience. Now there is a great deal of difference between a pilot's brevet and an observer's badge, and that difference is this: a pilot could gain his wings in England on learning to fly; as soon as he passed his pilot's course he was awarded his wings in the Royal Flying Corps or in the Royal Air Force. He did not get an observer's badge in that way; he had to fly for a considerable time, either in an aeroplane or in a balloon, in the face of the enemy before he was awarded that badge. Many of my friends in the last war were actually shot down and killed before they had the badge awarded to them.

Now, Sir, I will tell you the sort of thing that confronted an observer. Volunteering from an infantry regiment for the Royal Flying Corps, selected not to go home to learn to fly but to be engaged on observing duties, he would go out with an experienced pilot in an aeroplane in a two-seater squadron flying either Harry Tates or Quirks or F.Es, as we called them in those days, and he would not know what was coming to him. If he was lucky, he would gain experience as time went on without being killed in the process, and after possibly some hundreds of hours of flying time, as the hon. and gallant Member for Rusholme (Major Cundiff) will testify, he would probably be involved in a crash in which his own pilot might be killed or incapacitated. As a result he would be detailed by his flight commander to take up an absolutely raw pilot. You can imagine the feelings of an observer having to take over the enemy lines a pilot who had perhaps done a total of 20 hours' flying time. Those men, I think, had a tougher time than pilots, and the few of that happy band who escaped at the end of six or even nine months, and who got home to take a pilot's course and learn to fly, rather treasured that observer's badge. So much did they treasure it that many of my friends in those days—and I was one of them—used to sew it under the lapel of their tunic as a little memento of what they had been through. It had no insignia of the R.F.C. or the R.A.F. on it; the pilot's badge did. There are some pilots alive to-day who are only entitled to wear pilot's wings with R.F.C.; others who were there after the Air Force came into being in 1918, wear the R.A.F. I remember that in the R.F.C. then there was a totally unauthorised badge with "R.F.C." in the middle and a little "O" underneath. That was never authorised by the Air Ministry, but some pilots were so proud of having been observers that they bought those illicit badges.

There are few men involved in the wearing of this distinction to-day; it is a band which is dying out. It is a matter of small moment to the R.A.F. that such men should be allowed to wear this badge, and it will cost the country nothing, it will cost the prestige of the Air Force nothing, and it is a very niggardly thing to take away a treasured distinction from some men who have most worthily earned it. I hope, therefore, that the Parliamentary Secretary will give this question very full consideration before he turns it down.

7.14 p.m.

Major F. W. Cundiff (Manchester, Rusholme)

I wish to associate myself with what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Eye (Mr. Granville) and my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for The Hartlepools (Colonel Greenwell) with whom, I think, I share the privilege of having served in the R.F.C. They have covered the ground, and, very briefly, I would like to quote two cases. The first case is this: On a certain afternoon during the last war a B.E.2E went up to do an observation shoot with a pilot and an observer. At about 5,000 feet, just on the lines, they were attacked by five Albatross B/'s. Early in the fight the pilot was killed; the machine stalled, and he fell out, but the observer, with his very crude dual control, and with one hand on his Lewis gun, managed to fight off the five Albatross planes and somehow crash land in our own lines. He spent many months in hospital, having most of the flesh of one thigh blasted off, but eventually he became fit, and at the beginning of this war was a territorial lieut.-colonel commanding a gunner regiment. He wore this observer's badge but was told to take it down.

The second case is that of an hon. and gallant Member of this House who was serving as an observer in the Kite Balloon Section of the R.A.F. It is not very much fun having to jump even to-day, but having to jump from an aircraft in the last war, when parachutes very often did not open, was a very serious matter. This particular officer jumped from his kite balloon on three occasions. I submit that it is wrong that these two people cannot wear this observer's brevet to-day. It is something which is gained in battle, something totally different from a pilot's wings. I am not making a personal plea in this matter, because while I was an observer at the beginning of the last war I was one of the fortunate few who qualified later as a pilot. I think it is wrong that men should be told that they cannot wear this observer's badge. As has been said, it is something which is very much treasured, and I appeal to the Under-Secretary to give the matter his most sympathetic consideration and, at a later date, say that these people may put up their observer's brevets.

7.18 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Air (Commander Brabner)

First I would like to say how grateful I am to the hon. Member for Eye (Mr. Granville) for the courteous way in which he gave me information of this Adjournment Motion, and also how interesting it was to hear Members' reminiscences about the last war. While I do not think I can give a favourable answer to their request, I am sure they will not accuse me of being in any way unsympathetic to what was described just now as the "String and Tape Brigade" of the last war. I appreciate, as any man who has done any flying in this war appreciates, that their job was a real job which required everything of a most exceptional nature, particularly courage. But I think all three Members who have spoken have made a fundamental mistake in the way they regard this badge. I cannot say anything new; it has all been said before, but the plain fact is that this is a R.A.F. matter, and that this badge is not a decoration. It is a part of the R.A.F. uniform. That is something I must emphasise, because that is the whole basis of the case which I want to make.

Major Cundiff

What is the difference between the wearing of the observer's badge and the wearing of the pilot's badge?

Commander Brabner

The fundamental thing is that the badge is part of the Royal Air Force uniform. You may well say, "Why cannot observers wear the badge as well as pilots?" I should like to give a resumé of the reasons why pilots in other Services, particularly the Army, have been allowed to put up pilots' wings and not observers' wings. Before the present war the Army had a number of pilots seconded to the R.A.F. for flying duties. They underwent flying training and won their pilots' wings. They then went back to the Army and took their wings off. On a review of the matter it was decided that those who had been seconded to the R.A.F. to fly and had gone back to the Army and were liable during the succeeding four years for recall to the R.A.F. should still be allowed to wear their pilot's badge. That seems reasonable. The subject was again reviewed in 1938 when it was agreed that army officers should be given permission to wear their pilots' badge for the remainder of their service. When the war started a large number of R.A.F. officers of the last war were called up for service and it was suggested they should be permitted to wear the pilot's badge; this permission was granted. There was then a request to allow observers who were in the Services to wear the observer's badge. The Air Council considered this at some length and with very great sympathy and seriousness said: as long as they are in R.A.F. uniform they can wear the badge. Now there has never been any liability on any observer serving outside the R.A.F. for service with the R.A.F., and that is the point on which I think the argument which my hon. Friends have put to me falls down. If you permit these gallant men to put this brevet up, it becomes a decoration straight away, but it is not a decoration, though these gallant deeds of which we have heard might well be the subject of a decoration.

Colonel Greenwell

My hon. and gallant Friend has not told us how it is possible to wear pilot's wings on an Army uniform but not possible to wear an observer's badge.

Commander Brabner

Those members of the Army who are liable to service with the R.A.F. and have flown with the R.A.F. are permitted by my Department to wear the pilot's badge.

Colonel Greenwell

I think my hon. and gallant Friend is saying something quite beside the point. I was in the Army at the beginning of the war——

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Mr. Charles Williams)

We can only have questions now—no more experiences.

Colonel Greenwell

I will put it this way. If an officer was in the Army at the beginning of this war and in 1939 received by an Army Council Instruction permission to wear pilot's wings, he was in no measure liable to return to the Air Force. He might have been an elderly gentleman who happened to be in the Army, and who could not be expected to serve again in the Air Force.

Commander Brabner

I am sorry I am not making myself entirely clear, but I was coming to that point. I had been talking about pilots who were liable to be recalled to the R.A.F. At the request of the War Office, pilots who had qualified in the last war in the R.A.F. were per- mitted to wear their pilot's wings as a gesture. They were permitted to do so by the R.A.F., just as R.A.F. officers of the last war are allowed to wear the wings to-day.

Captain Prescott (Darwen)

Why cannot a similar gesture be made to observers?

Commander Brabner

I have only a short time left and there are two other points I want to bring out. These pilots were liable for service, except in the cases of older men, with the R.A.F. At the same time, the pilot's wing badge was current in the Army. When Army officers were allowed to wear the R.A.F. pilot's wings on army uniform, the observer's badge was not current in the Army, and there has never been any liability for Army officers who thought they might have a right to wear this badge, to serve with the R.A.F. on flying duties. It has been the policy of the Air Ministry to resist, and I think rightly, applications from any other Service to wear part of the R.A.F. uniform. We have had applications from the Royal Observer Corps, the police, special constables and St. John Ambulance Brigade, and I have seen dozens of applications from other services for permission to wear what is not a decoration but what is part of the R.A.F. uniform.

The case I am making is that we are doing no more in keeping this to the R.A.F. than other services are doing with their badges. No Army officer is entitled to wear a naval badge with his uniform, and no naval officer is entitled to wear the badge of any other Service. He is not even entitled to wear R.A.F. pilot's wings on naval uniform. The authority for seconded Army officers to wear the flying badge on Army uniform has been broadened to bring in the classes of men who won their pilot's wings in a former time. At one time this permission was granted only to officers, but it has been extended to soldiers. In April, 1940, the Army Council asked that the R.A.F. observer's badge might be worn on Army uniform but the Air Council felt unable to agree since the badge is not current in the Army as a flying badge, whereas the pilot's wings are. There is, in my submission, no ground for wearing the observer's badge unless a case can be made that it is a decoration and not part of a uniform. I hope that hon. Members will accept that point. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] It is fundamental to the argument that this is not a decoration but a part of the uniform. I hope that hon. Members will not think I am in the least unsympathetic to the heroic deeds of these "string and tape" men who fought in the last war, but I ask them to accept the view of my Department in the matter.

It being half-an-hour after the conclusion of Business exempted from the provisions of the Standing Order (Sittings of the House), Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order, as modified for this Session by the Order of the House of 30th November.

Adjourned at Half after Seven o'Clock.