HC Deb 12 June 1945 vol 411 cc1611-20

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

9.37 p.m.

Mr. Sorensen (Leyton, West)

I wish to raise the question of the alleged whipping and maltreatment of West African soldiers. Over some four years I have had various kinds of information brought to me, sometimes by white people and sometimes by Africans, complaining in various ways of the treatment of African soldiers. Naturally, I made a great allowance for exaggeration, distortion or imagination, but I could not help feeling that in some cases there was some truth in the assertions which were made. I put a number of Questions down to the Secretary of State for War. I elicited the fact, for instance, that there are, I think, some 30 or 40 offences in the prisons of West Africa which might involve the whipping of those detained. Apart from that I was very concerned with the fact that there were many offences committed by West African soldiers particularly which sometimes, at least, brought to them what I would describe as the medieval and deplorable punishment of whipping.

I do not suggest for a moment that the regular or the irregular practice of this punishment is widespread. It is more than probable that it occurs only here and there and under certain circumstances, but I want the House to accept this assurance that I have not pursued this matter lightly or maliciously. In fact, I held my hand until the war was over lest anything I said might be used by the enemy against us. I only raise this matter now because I am very deeply concerned in the matter, and also I feel there may be something in the many allegations which have reached me from various sources. I, therefore, want to hear from the Parliamentary Secretary, who I understand will reply to the few words I have to say, whether the specific allegations J quoted to him in the letter from an African soldier are capable of denial. I cannot help feeling there may be some truth in them.

Is it or is it not true that it has been the practice to try and to punish some of the African soldiers by making them bear heavy loads, or by holding large stones in their hands? It has been stated to me that sometimes the punishment has been even more grievous than that. I do not necessarily accept it as truth; I only want to know. In the letter which I forwarded to the War Office certain definite statements were made. I want to know what is the result of the somewhat lengthy inquiry into these allegations. I think it is not denied that there are certain punishments such as whipping or flogging imposed by courts martial. I also want to say that from many quarters I have heard it alleged that, irregularly decided by courts martial, floggings did take place. I would like to say more on this, but I will conclude by abjectly apologising to the House, and to the Parliamentary Secretary who is to reply, for having to dash away to catch a train. The other point is that while I do not believe that all the assertions are true, yet I do believe that sometimes, here and there irregular happenings do take place, and for the sake of our good name, reputation, and the ever-increasing spirit of fraternity between the white man and the black, I earnestly exhort the Parliamentary Secretary to see whether irregular floggings can be abolished altogether, or some consideration given on the point.

9.41 p.m.

Captain Prescott (Darwen)

As I was attached to the West African Frontier Force and had some experience as to the manner in which these troops were treated and disciplined, I think I should give the House the benefit of my experience, if I may term it so without impertinence. It is, of course, true that for some offences against the military code it is possible for a court-martial to award a sentence of whipping. I hope I shall not fee thought in any way un Christian or unsympathetic towards native troops when I say that it is not possible to treat them or discipline them in the same way as European troops. They expect a different kind of treatment; they are accustomed to a different way of life, and they do not regard a whipping—that is not really the correct term, neither is beating—in the same way as European troops.

I know from personal experience that many of them definitely prefer a form of corporal punishment to a stoppage of pay, detention, or any other alternative form of punishment. If it be administered in a humane manner, and if they be justly treated, then there is still, I think, some thing to be said for the power of corporal punishment remaining in the hands of a court-martial, and for them to be allowed to award it. It is perfectly true that in some instances there has been an abuse of this power. I have known of instances, but I would say, from my own personal experience, that they are few and far between.

In any Army you get those who are not all they should be, but, by and large, I think the European officers and the the British N.C.O's have set a very high standard in this force. Many of the troops and European officers and N.C.O's whom I knew now form part of the 14th Army in Burma. I think they have done a very good job there, and the good job they have done is in no small part due to the training they received when in West Africa.

May I give just one instance of what occurred to a brother officer of mine in West Africa? He was with his battery on the line of march and the native troops were carrying all the guns in a dismantled form. They halted for a rest, and when the rest was at an end, they were ordered to pick up their guns and march. Some two or three of the native troops refused to obey the order, and they lay on the ground and clutched at the scrub, and would not pick up their guns and continue the march. The whole of the company watched with great interest, wondering what the British officer would do. Had he not taken prompt action difficulties might have arisen from a disciplinary point of view.

He got hold of the native sergeant-major and ordered him to give each man who refused to obey the order three strokes across the backside. These were given, and they then picked up their packs, and continued the line of march. The officer who gave that order rendered himself liable to be court-martialled, because when I was in West Africa any European officer who struck a native trooper was under the orders of the General Officer Commanding-in-Chief, to be court-martialled. I think the officer took the right course, the only course open to him.

I conclude by putting these propositions to the House: First, while I have great respect and liking for native troops, I submit that at this stage in their civilisation power to administer corporal punishment may well be necessary, and it is not regarded by them in the same light as it is by Europeans. Secondly, it is within my knowledge that cases have arisen in West Africa in which this power has been abused by young subalterns inexperienced in the command of native troops. I do not believe that that abuse has been large. I believe that by and large European officers of the West African Frontier Forces and British non-commissioned officers have set a very high standard, and they are well liked and loved by the native troops. The way in which they have commanded those troops is instanced by the very fine performance they are putting up with the 14th Army in Burma.

9.47 p.m.

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

I would not in any way complain, and no Member of any Government would have the right to complain, about a matter of this kind being raised in the House on the Adjournment, or on any Motion. All the subjects of His Majesty, whether black, white, yellow or brown, who are subject to the Colonial Office, may have certain grievances, and, if any hon. Member of this House feels that the grievances are sufficiently justified to deserve ventilation on the floor of the House, he would be quite right in bringing them forward. The hon. Member for West Leyton (Mr. Sorensen) put his case very moderately. On the general matter of corporal punishment, I hope that the House will forgive me for saying very little. I remember that, just before the war, there was a very great and violent division of opinion in this country on the general subject of corporal punishment, so much so that an important Bill which was then being discussed in the House was never passed, after a great many months of discussion in Committee stage upstairs, because the war broke out too soon. I would therefore say that, on the general question, this is not a right moment to discuss it.

I therefore confine myself to the general allegations which the hon. Member for West Leyton put forward in a letter to the War Office, and on which he asked for specific replies, not, of course, necessarily supporting those allegations. He complained in respect of a certain Private Ogunnoiki, who put forward to the hon. Member certain suggestions of maltreatment, on which I now have something to say. Private Ogunnoiki, I should say, was a deserter. He had enlisted at Lagos on 29th October, 1940, aged 18. He deserted some four years later on 1st February, 1944. He then made certain allegations with regard to his treatment, on which I shall now have something to say. Any statement put forward by a deserter from the Army ought to be treated with, at least, a certain reserve, and very strong corroborative evidence ought to be desired before the evidence which the deserter puts forward is accepted as correct. He complained of his treatment after he had, in fact, deserted and he then put forward these allegations about things that had happened to him, so he said, about three years previously, in October, 1940. Private Ogunnoiki said that, on arrival at the prison camp to which he was sent after his desertion, the first thing that happened to him was that he was treated to what was known as a "welcome flogging." I rather suspect that expression; I doubt very much if a West African native would have invented an expression of that kind. Where it came from I do not know. With regard to the allegation that he was beaten when he arrived, I would reply with a flat contradiction.

Corporal punishment, in the sense of flogging, I am informed, is never inflicted on soldiers in Nigeria, except as a valid sentence following a general court-martial. Any such flogging, or beating, on arrival at a prison or detention camp, would be a legal offence, and there would be severe disciplinary action. His next allegation was that he was subject to field punishment, which was accompanied by flogging, and that he and other prisoners were obliged to carry heavy burdens on their heads. Most people who have been to West Africa know that the carrying of heavy burdens by natives on their heads is not uncommon, even if they have not been sentenced; they often find it preferable to carrying such loads in their hands. It is true that during detention men are obliged to carry, as a form of punishment, pretty heavy burdens. These detention camps are pretty severe; otherwise, it would be no good having them in those countries. It is admitted that men are sometimes made to carry heavy burdens as a punishment. So far as field punishment, accompanied by flogging, is concerned, on certain occasions, when men have proved recalcitrant in those prisons, the provosts, who are native N.C.O.'s, have been found to strike men with canes. When this matter was brought to the attention of the general officer in command out there, he gave orders that this was not to happen, and that during field punishment no cane must be used on the prisoners.

A much more serious series of allegations was made by Pte. Ogunnoiki to the hon. Member for West Leyton. He alleged that men had died of ill-treatment in No. 3 West Africa Military Prison or in No. 34 Military Hospital. A great deal of trouble was taken to check these allegations, and the House will gather from the size of this file that a great deal of trouble was taken to examine the whole case. Even after the matter had been examined, I took a certain amount of personal trouble to go into every case and to find out what these men died of. I have a list here of the men in question who are alleged to have died from ill-treatment, which I could give to the House if desired. One man in particular, a certain Private John Will, had been admitted to hospital suffering from acute meningitis, and no connection with any treatment he may have received in prison, however good or ill, was established in relation to the cause of his death, which was, in fact, due to his complaint. I have a list of some six or seven other cases of the same kind, in which death was pretty clearly, or quite clearly, established to have occurred as the result of perfectly well-known diseases. There is one case, for instance, that of Private Bakari Ngiema, who died of bronchial pneumonia.

I think, therefore, that it will be seen by the House—and I could quote the other cases if hon. Members wish—that there is really no substance whatsoever in these allegations that the men died of ill-treatment. A good deal of trouble, too, was taken in asking the doctors, nurses and orderlies in the hospitals concerned whether they had any knowledge what so- ever of any ill-treatment at all, and every one of them firmly denied knowledge that, when any of these men had been sent to hospital, they were found to have been suffering from ill-treatment, or that the reason for their coming to hospital was the result of ill-treatment. One further allegation that was made and which I think I should mention was this. It was suggested that an instruction was given to the European troops in West Africa that there was to be no fraternisation at all with the natives. That is wholly contrary to the traditions of the British Army. After all, a British soldier, whether he is black or white, is a soldier of the King, and he is treated, or should be treated, by others of different colours on fair and equal terms, and any such suggestion of instructions being given to avoid fraternisation, not only, I think, are unfounded, but certainly would be contrary to the general policy of H.M. Government.

I think, finally, I may say this. There have been one or two allegations flying about on the West coast of Africa of the kind I have mentioned, and I think it is only right, therefore, that I should tell the House that the General Officer Commanding has received an anonymous letter containing allegations similar to these, and that he ordered his Staff Officer to investigate all these allegations on the spot and at once. The report was and I may remind the House again that the letter which he received was anonymous— to the effect that these reports were completely baseless, that in fact prisoners in detention camps are firmly handled, as indeed they have to be, because if you once allow offences of a serious nature to go unpunished in wartime, discipline would very seriously suffer. The No. 3 Detention Barracks mentioned by the hon. Member has been visited on many occasions by the General Officer Commanding and by members of his staff, and there has been no sign, according to their report, of any improper treatment at all. It may be said, of course, that they visited these detention barracks by appointment. That may have been so, but men who rise to the rank of general in the Army are not quite blind, as I remember when I was a subaltern. They are pretty shrewd people, and if there is any treatment which is not as it should be, of the persons concerned, I think it pretty certain that it would have been found out.

One further allegation made, which I must mention, was that the complainant, Private Ogunnoiki, was prevented by a certain Regimental Sergeant-Major Hook from complaining to an officer in July, 1944. It is rather difficult after a considerable space of time to investigate to the full some trivial complaint of that kind. Actually, if anything of the kind had happened, it would be absolutely and entirely alien to Army traditions, and such a complaint should have been handed forward to the superior officer. I have no reason to believe, as is the case, in relation to the rest of those complaints made by the private in question, that there is any more justification for this complaint than for the rest. Therefore, I would say that I really think that although the hon. Member was justified in raising these complaints, he will realisewhen he reads it in Hansard that the answer is very complete, and that the allegations which he has put forward on behalf of the African complainant are completely unfounded.

10.3 p.m.

Mr. Austin Hopkinson (Mossley)

While I think that the House, or such as is present, would agree that the case put forward by the hon. Member is cogent, and is convinced also that those allegations are trivial and untrue, I do not think the matter ought to rest there. Anybody who has had to deal with negro workers or troops—and I presume from the gentleman's name that he was of the negro race and not of another race—knows that the negro idea of truth, is completely different from ours. If a white man asks a negro a question, in nine cases out of ten, the negro will give the answer which he thinks the white man will like. It shows great simplicity and a desire to please, and as the negro's conception of truth is not exactly like ours, somebody must have started this, probably some white man. I think that the War Office, before they drop the matter altogether, should prove that there is no cogency in the allegation and ought to make further inquiries as to who it was who started this, and see if this negro was questioned by some white man and gave all these replies. On the whole, I am inclined to think that the ingenuity of the allegation is such that it must have been so.

Mr. Mathers (Linlithgow)

Has not the hon. Gentleman the Member for Mossley (Mr. Hopkinson) actually destroyed his own case? He accepts that there is no proof whatever and that the charge has been disposed of. It can only be disposed of by some method of making inquiries, and if they are answered in the way that he indicates in order to please the one making the investigation, nothing is proved either one way or the other.

Mr. Hopkinson

I was merely proposing, in justice to the man himself, that the House should not think he should be condemned because he was telling a pack of lies.

10.5 p.m.

Mr. Edmund Harvey (Combined English Universities)

I think that the point which has been made by the hon. Member for Mossley (Mr. Hopkinson) covers a much wider field than Africa, because there are many other countries in which too frequently the desire to please in giving a reply carries weight rather than the desire to be absolutely accurate. I am sure the greatest care has been taken by the Financial Secretary in examining these allegations, and I believe that the mere examination by him and by his Department will have had a good effect. I think that even though some of the charges may have been very much exaggerated, we have had evidence this even- ing from the hon. and gallant Member for Darwen (Captain Prescott) that, from his personal experience, in a number of cases there have been, actual instances of illegal corporal punishment.

I wish the Financial Secretary could have dealt with that piece of personal experience, which carries all the more weight in that the hon. and gallant Gentle man himself 'believes that corporal punishment, under proper conditions, may be advantageous and the best method of en forcing discipline. I hope that as a result of that statement in the House, further inquiries will be made by the War Office and that we can have the assurance that the utmost care will be taken—I am sure it is the wish of the War Office and of the High Command—that instances of that kind do not occur in future. I believe also that very many in this country, as well as in West Africa, would feel profoundly thankful—

It being half an hour after the conclusion of Business exempted from the provisions of the Standing Orders (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 Seven Minutes past Ten o'Clock.