HC Deb 26 November 1945 vol 416 cc1010-8

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

9.30 p.m.

Lieut.-Colonel Martin Lindsay (Solihull)

In raising the subject of honours and awards in the Army on this Adjournment Motion, I wish to concern myself with decorations for gallantry for the rank and file; that is to say, awards of the Distinguished Conduct Medal and the Military Medal for warrant officers, N.C.Os. and men. I have no complaint to make on behalf of officers, as, in my judgment, the officers were, relatively speaking, adequately catered for in decorations. I raise this matter because, time and again in this war, soldiers were recommended for decorations for gallantry by. the commanders who witnessed their bravery and these recommendations were turned down by higher authority; and because, even at this late hour, it is not too late for the Army Council to issue a supplementary list of decorations and remedy what I hope to show is a scandal.

The reason that so many of these recommendations were turned down was the iniquitous rationing system, whereby each of the Services was given so many decorations, according to its relative size. The Army, for example, was told that it could have so many decorations, which were sub-allotted until a unit was told that it could have, say, one or two decorations for a certain length of time. It is obvious that this system favoured, out of all proportion, the air crews of the Royal Air Force. By the very nature of their duties, the majority of the R.A.F. do not fight, and all their decorations are therefore concentrated upon a comparatively small number of men in the air crews. It was, therefore, correspondingly harder to get decorations for the soldier who was in a Service where a relatively higher proportion of men fight.

I do not wish to suggest that the Royal Air Force has more decorations than is its due. I do not say that for a moment. I have the greatest possible respect for the gallantry of the men in the R.A.F. What I do say is that the Army is under-decorated. We have a situation today in which we can walk anywhere we like and see scores of men in the R.A.F. wearing the D.F.C. or the D.F.M., but we have to go much further to find men wearing the M.M. or the D.C.M. I think of a company-sergeant-major and the signal sergeant in my own unit These two N.C.Os. miraculously got through all the way from El Alamein to Bremen and fought in over 50 actions. Both were recommended four times for awards, which were turned down.

This is not a personal grievance of mine. I am speaking for every officer who commanded a battalion of infantry, a field company of Royal Engineers or a regiment of artillery or tanks, and I say that we were ashamed and embarrassed, in wearing decorations for gallantry, while being unable to obtain for our men the recognition they so justly deserve. We knew perfectly well that, if it were not for the gallantry and bravery of the rank and file, no officer would ever qualify for an award. I want to stress that this grievance is one of all arms in the Army, although I may be speaking mainly from the point of view of the Infantry, because that is the arm in which I happened to serve and therefore know best. The Infantry did not have the publicity of the Royal Air Force or the Airborne formations or the Commandos. Therefore, I do not think the losses that were suffered in the Infantry are generally known.

I would quote as an example the last campaign of my battalion. First, perhaps I may tell the House, for the information of those who have not been in the Army, that in an Infantry battalion the fighting is mainly done by about 25 officers and 550 men, all the rest being clerks, store-men and so forth, who are left out of the battle. In the battalion in which I had the honour to serve in that last campaign we lost 75 officers and 953 men. I mention those figures because I want to show that those men for whom I am pleading tonight—men particularly in the rifle companies—knew perfectly well every time they went into action that it was almost certain they would be killed or wounded, because, for a man to go through a dozen actions in an infantry battalion and not to be killed or wounded, is like a coin turning up heads six times running. Therefore, I say that those men had a very high degree of courage, and their officers' claims that the gallantry of their outstanding men should be recognised by a decoration should not lightly be set aside on bureaucratic grounds.

Indeed, I often wonder whether the fighting men have been sufficiently recognised by the nation. It is quite true that we give these men a medal or two, but we give precisely the same medals to the girls sitting in offices in Brussels or Paris, or to soldiers unloading at the docks 200 or 300 miles behind the line. For the dead we can do nothing except to look after those they leave behind—and I often doubt whether we do this adequately— but there is one thing we can do for the wounded which, if we had a spark of imagination, we would do, and that is to copy the example of our American Allies and give them a medal. I see no reason why we should not do so. I have given notice of this suggestion to the Under-Secretary, and he will say whether there is any reason why such a practice is undesirable.

I have mentioned what I call the iniquitous system of rationing these decorations. I would like to give actual figures, so that hon. Members can see how it affected a unit—if hon. Members will forgive my mentioning my own former battalion, the 1st Gordons in the 51st Highland Division. This battalion took a part in the break-through of the Siegfried Line in February of 'this year, and at the conclusion of a fortnight's fighting, in which we lost 20 officers and 183 men, we recommended 12 N.C.O.'s and men for decorations. We were told that our ration was one decoration, and the other n were turned down. The House may think that that is just one operation; but what happened at the next? The next operation was the assault crossing of the Rhine, in which my old Brigade, 153, was in the lead. At the end of that series of operations, we were told that the ration of decorations for the whole Brigade, in-including officers, was six. That is a scandal, the magnitude of which can only be shown by a comparison with the R.A.F. 153 Infantry Brigade's assault crossing of the Rhine was as important as any single operation which the R.A.F. undertook such as, for example, the operation against the Mohne Dam or the sinking of the "Tirpitz." I do not know much about the Mohne Dam, but the assault crossing of the Rhine brought the end of the war very much nearer than the sinking of the "Tirpitz." During this operation, on a basis of 500 men in the assault wave of each of the three battalions, we had 1,500 men in close contact with the enemy, of which incidentally, 15 per cent, were killed or wounded. The ration of awards was six for the whole Brigade, including officers, which is 0.4 per cent.

It may interest the House to know how that compares with the scale of awards awarded to the R.A.F. in the operations against the Mohne Dam and the sinking of the "Tirpitz." This afternoon I asked a Question in the House and the answer I received was that immediate awards were granted to 31 per cent, of the members of the air crews who took part in the operation against the Mohne Dam and to 7 per cent, of those who took part in the operation against the "Tirpitz." Thirty-one per cent, for the Mohne Dam operation is a scale of decorations 78 times more generous than our scale for the assault crossing of the Rhine, and the award for the operation against the "Tirpitz" is a scale of decorations 18 times as generous as that of our ''Jocks'' for that particular operation. I will leave it to the judgment of the House whether these figures prove conclusively the utter inadequacy of the scale of decorations that we were allowed for our men, the warrant officers, N.C.O.s and men in the infantry and also in the other arms who fought in the Army.

The right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for War is, we all know, a man who has the greatest possible sympathy for the men in the ranks. We do not doubt that for a moment, and 1 put it to 'him that this is a great opportunity for him to show the sympathy he has for the men in the ranks. I invite him to tear up the utterly inadequate brief with which, I have not the slightest doubt, the Military Secretary's Branch, in the full stride of its unworthiness, has provided him, and to admit to the House that a case has been made out for reconsidering the whole question of awards for those men for whom I have been pleading tonight.

Sir Frank Sanderson (Ealing, East)

My hon and gallant Friend said 0.4 per cent, and I think he meant 04 per cent.

Lieut.-Colonel Lindsay

No, Sir, I meant what I said. It was 0.4 per cent.

Sir F. Sanderson

Practically half-per cent.

Lieut.-Colonel Lindsay

Just under a half-per cent.—six awards in 1,500.

9.44 p.m.

Lieut.-Colonel J. R. H. Hutchison (Glasgow, Central)

A child once included in its prayers the words: "O God, make bad people good, and good people nice." I believe that this country's war record and its undoubted altruistic postwar motives do, perhaps, allow it to rank among those who claim to be, at least, not bad, but it has on these matters a great opportunity of showing, in the eyes of foreigners, that it deserves. to rank among those who are nice. Some months ago now His Majesty agreed to the institution of the King's Medal for Valour and other medals to be granted to those gallant foreigners who have aided people who went from this country to help in the struggle behind enemy lines. They fed and protected our men, and they suffered; they bound up the wounds of our people, including airmen, who had to bale out of stricken aircraft. Over a year and a quarter ago a list of the names of such gallant Frenchmen and women was submitted for recognition, but up to date nothing has materialised. Over one month ago, I asked the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for War what had happened to this list, and I was informed that it was going through the official channels. What a labyrinthian maze these official channels must be, and what a piece of gaucherie we must have landed ourselves into, when I tell you that the French authorities, many months ago, did in fact bestow, in generous measure, their decorations to our people who went to their country.

I was glad to hear the Secretary of State for War say, only a day or two ago, that the way of the people of France and Britain must inevitably in the future lie along the same tracks. What a chance to show a little recognition of the people of that country for the way in which they risked their lives, day after day, in order to help our folk. We see a constant procession of Measures of great importance passing along the Floor of this House and holding the stage for all too short a time, but they are Measures of control and restriction of personal liberty, Measures which the ordinary man in the country in no wise wants. These little human touches seem to get lost so easily in the maze of officialdom, and I ask the right hon. Gentleman to avert his eyes for one moment from the dazzling attraction of Marxism doctrines in order to search through these files and records and pick out what is lost. He who gives quickly, gives twice. There is now no chance to give twice. I ask that, at a time when all the world is bringing gifts, there may be bestowed on these gallant French Allies of ours some little token of appreciation of the risks they ran and of all that they did for our people.

9:48 p.m.

The Secretary of State for War (Mr. J. J. Lawson)

May I thank the hon. and gallant Gentleman who introduced this matter for being kind enough to send me an indication of the general line which he was going to take?. He will be interested to know that on the strength of what he told me, I prepared my brief, sc I was not dependent on the Military Secretary at all. I think that the House would like to congratulate him on the fact that he was pleading the cause of the "other ranks." I must say that I warmed to his words as he spoke of the deeds particularly of those with whom he had been in direct contact. He wonders whether we have given sufficient consideration to those who fought our battles. We always wonder that during wars, and we wonder it shortly after them, and then we begin to forget. I would like to give assent to his plea tonight and I hope that his words have not fallen on barren ground altogether.

But I think, at the same time, that there are more vital and appreciative medals that we can give the men who fought our battles, than even the medals they wear. He says that the Americans give medals for wounds. That is just- a matter of opinion; it may be a matter of sentiment, and I confess that, particularly in war time, I warm to the sight of a wound stripe on a man's arm. It seems to me, at that particular time, at any rate, to have preference over the medal as such. I do not rule that out as a matter for consideration. I think the House ought to know that there is a system upon which this is done, but I am sure that there has been no rationing in this war. A regular experience on the last occasion was that they used to "come up with the rations" or at least that was what was said. The system under which honours and awards are dealt with in all three Services was approved by the Committee on Honours and Awards in Time of War. The House will be interested to know that there is a regular organisation for this, but no system. No system could adequately solve a problem of this kind. Everybody knows that while there are men who do deeds that are seen, there are a multitude of deeds worthy of decoration that are not seen. Even when it comes to the awards mentioned by the hon. and gallant Gentleman it is a little difficult to find out who should be chosen for the honours. I am sure however that the House would agree on one thing and that is that while one could give too few medals you could also give too many and make them too cheap. That is one of the dangers.

It is a fact, of course, that in addition to the awards that are given as a result of recommendations, the Commander-in-Chief can confer immediate awards for gallantry, taking into account the units which have been most severely engaged in the fighting and their operational roles. They are for gallant and distinguished service. I think the House and the hon. and gallant Gentleman who introduced this Debate, would be interested to know that up to September, 1945, the number of D.C.M.s awarded was 1,650 and M.M.s 13,500. I should also tell the House the periodical awards for the final operations in North West Europe, including the crossing of the Rhine, are now being considered, with many thousands of names for Mentions in Dispatches. I am therefore not in a position to say how many decorations and medals will be conferred on officers and men in any particular formation for any particular action. I would say, as the hon. and gallant Gentleman particularly mentioned the 51st Highland Division, that they have received over 300 immediate awards for gallantry since D Day.

Lieut.-Colonel Lindsay

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that some 30,000 men were involved, and that his figures, although they sound very large, are something in the region of 1 per cent.?

Mr. Lawson

There may be something in what the hon. and gallant Gentleman has said tonight, and I shall certainly see that, so far as I am concerned, the Army Council will give the matter its full consideration. I also say, however, that there is always the danger in too many medals rather than too few, but I did think the House would be interested to know the number of medals which had been given in this particular instance since D-day. I said at the outset that I could not pretend that the present system is perfect. Nobody who knows anything about the Army or war would suggest that there could be a perfect system. One commander will sometimes press for more awards than another commander does. On one point I should like to make myself perfectly clear. Conditions of service in fighting are entirely different in the three Services, and any attempt to pursue a detailed comparison of the methods adopted by the Services in making these awards could not to my mind serve any useful purpose. I think the House will also agree that if this were pursued too far it would probably result in bitter feeling which nobody would care for.

What the hon. and gallant Gentleman said will receive my attention and the attention of the Army Council. I do not think there is any one who would wish to undervalue the courage and endurance of the great masses of men, no matter what their regiment—because there were one or two in addition to the 51st, I think—who fought our battles during this war. I am sure it would be the wish of the British people, if they could, to award every one who played their part in the winning of liberty for us, some mark or some recognition of their good will and their appreciation. All I can say to the hon. and gallant Gentleman and to the House is that we will take note of his words. I will conclude by reminding him that on this occasion the medals, very definitely, were not rationed. If they have been too few it has been merely because there is a desire among those who have to make these awards not to make medals too cheap, however much they might wish to give credit to those who have fought the battles of the people of this country.

Major Boyd-Carpenter (Kingston-upon Thames)

Will the Secretary of State, in reconsidering this matter, bear in mind the percentage of awards to strength ruling in the Armies of our Russian and American Allies, as compared with those of our own?

Mr. Lawson

No, I do not think that is a matter for consideration. This is a matter for doing justice according to our standards. I think that is what the House and the country would like to have done, and in so far as we can do it, we will.

Lieut.-Colonel Hutchison

Since the Secretary of State has made no reference to the important point on which I asked for his assistance, I conclude that it does not enter his sphere of activity and should be addressed to the Foreign Office.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Ten o'Clock.