HC Deb 28 November 1945 vol 416 cc1471-80

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

11.5 p.m.

Captain Baird (Wolverhampton, East)

I apologise for keeping the House at this late hour, but I feel strongly on this matter and I think it is worthy of discussion. It is a very important matter. I wish to appeal for an amnesty for those soldiers who were sentenced during the war for refusal to carry out an order under fire, or what is, I believe, technically termed desertion in face of the enemy. I speak of this matter with some knowledge because during the autumn and winter of last year, while with the Second Army, I was obliged to attend as an officer numerous courts-martial in Holland and Belgium. Further, in the spring of this year, in my capacity as a dental officer, I had to visit detention camps in Belgium on many occasions. The first point I want to make is that the technical charge of deserting in the face of the enemy does not really mean desertion in the way we usually understand this term. The fact that a soldier refuses to go forward under fire, even though he does not run away, technically means desertion in the face of the enemy.

There are one or two points I would like to raise about the general conditions under which these young men were sentenced. In this war young soldiers were forced to face a barrage such as no other men have had to face in the history of the world. I speak from my own slight knowledge and many other soldiers have agreed with me on this point. Then, in this war there has not been trench warfare such as was known in the last war. There was not the same cover in this war.

Brigadier Prior-Palmer (Worthing)

Were you there?

Captain Baird

I was there.

An Hon. Member

You were not.

Mr. McKie (Galloway)

On a point of Order. Is it in Order for an hon. Member to say of a Member opposite, "Take him out; he is drunk"?

Earl Winterton (Horsham)

It was said by a Member next to the speaker, the hon. and learned Member for North Hammersmith (Mr. Pritt), and I challenge him to repeat what he said across the Floor of the House.

Mr. McKie

I clearly heard the words, and that has been reinforced by what the noble Lord said. He said "Take him out if he is drunk."

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Major Milner)

If that was said —I did not hear it —it must be withdrawn at once.

Captain Baird

The numerous courts- martial I had to attend were almost similar to this extent, that almost all the cases that came before us—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

If the hon. Member made the remarks attributed to him, he must be good enough to withdraw forthwith. If he did not make those remarks, perhaps he will state that fact.

Mr. Pritt (Hammersmith, North)

I understood, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that if you did not hear a word, it was not heard. But if that is not so, I will withdraw the statement.

Captain Baird

For the first time to-night 1 have caught the atmosphere of this House and feel I am in a fighting mood. I found that the courts-martial had all certain points in common. The first and most important point was that almost all those soldiers who came before them on this charge were young boys between the ages of 19 and 24.

I want to cite one case which I remember as an example which was typical of almost all of them. It was that of a boy of 19. He had been in three actions, one after the other, for a week. At last his nerve broke. He asked to be returned to the medical officer for his opinion. He went back to the medical officer, who was the only medical officer attached to the unit, and was very busy attending the wounded men. Anyone who knows the work of a Regimental M.O. must realise that he had not time to attend to people such as this young boy. He simply asked him his name and told him to go back up the line again. Back he went again. His N.C.O., who was very sympathetic, talked to him and explained the seriousness of what he was doing, and tried to nurse him back again to become a good soldier. However, as the N.C.O. was talking to him, the barrage broke out again, and the young boy refused to go forward. He stayed all that day in company headquarters, and again at night. The sergeant-major spoke to him again, tried to convince him to go back to his comrades. He tried once or twice, but simply could not bear it, and was sent back to detention camp. He came before a court-martial. The sergeant-major and the CO. said that in the past the young boy had been a good soldier, but they said that if he were allowed to continue he would break the morale of the whole company. I agree with that. It was necessary that they should be sent to detention camps.

The point is that when we came to sentence that young fellow, and had to find he was guilty, we had instructions from 21st Army Group that, because of the great number of these cases, it was necessary to make the sentence a very heavy one. Again I agree with that. The order was that the minimum sentence was to be three years' hard labour. That young boy, who should have gone to hospital, in my opinion, went to detention camp for three years. Afterwards I had to visit detention camps on numerous occasions. I do not want to try to picture the terrible conditions of these camps. Men, again almost all very young men, were forced to do all their exercises at the double with their packs on— [Hon, Members: "Hear, hear."] It may have been necessary—

Hon. Members

It was.

Captain Baird

But it was very degrading. I want to read an extract from a letter I have just received, smuggled out of a prison camp by a young man sentenced for the crime we are discussing. He says this: I would ask, does the public really know what constitutes detention and do they know this type of offender is singled out for special severity of treatment? For example, if you commit a really shocking crime like rape or armed robbery against defenceless citizens, or operate on the black market to the detriment of one's fellow men, you do not lose Service or gratuity. But if you lose your nerve then you are deemed to have merited the loss of the above mentioned. It is an ironical fact that desertion will not protect a man from years of penal servitude, as any of the above mentioned crimes. I will summarise the argument by quoting from a letter in my local paper yesterday, which I believe puts the case very well: The forthcoming attempt by Capt. Baird to obtain an amnesty for Servicemen convicted of cowardice in the face of the enemy will, I am sure, receive the approbation of everyone, and especially those of us who have endured battle conditions at any time. As we think of these unhappy individuals, the feeling that there but for the Grace of God go all of us is uppermost in our minds. Many of the men were probably still very young, and often with only six months of Army life behind them, when the sudden impact with the carnage of war proved overpowering. In other cases, the breakdown could be attributed to faulty leadership, or perhaps the sight of a close friend blown to pieces or horribly maimed on the battlefield. Undoubtedly there were cases of inexcusable dereliction of duty and certainly it was essential that all types of faltering should be punished on the spot, otherwise discipline might have sagged, with inevitable increase in casualties. I agree with that letter. I agree that when these men were sentenced they were sentenced justly. But the war is now over, and the only argument I have heard against my case is that if we grant an amnesty to these young men it will create a precedent, and encourage people to desert in the next war. If we are preparing for the next war in this way, then refuse an amnesty, but if we are hoping to build a world without war then grant an amnesty. I appeal to the Secretary of State for War tonight to open the gates to these young men. They may have been failures in a world at war. Most of them have never known a world at peace. I am convinced that the great majority of them, if given a chance, will make a better job of it in a world of peace than they made of it in a world of war.

11.18 p.m.

Colonel Gomme-Duncan (Perth)

I have listened with a good deal of interest to what the hon. and gallant Member has said. I have learned that a dental officer can sit on a court-martial. I did not' know that. [An Hon. Member: "Why not?"] I agree. I am not trying to decry it in any way.

Captain Baird

At one place where I was stationed, for quite a while, because we were not being used in a professional capacity, we were asked to take our place in the courts-martial—medical and dental officers.

Colonel Gomme-Duncan

I accept that. I do not dispute it in any way. There are unfortunately a considerable number of cases of the type to which the hon. and gallant Member has drawn attention, but there are also a large number of cases of men who worked the thing out to the day and said, "If I commit such and such a crime I shall go to prison for so long, the war will be over, there will be an amnesty, and I shall be all right." I have known many cases like that. Whatever we want to do for the good cases, and we are all sympathetic to them, an amnesty is not the answer. Otherwise these fellows who are banking on an amnesty will get away with it. While I am sympathetic, I wish to. say, in the light of my experience of 30 years of soldiering, that that is not the answer. I hope that the Secretary of State for War will not give way on this point, so that he may be able to do something for the good cases.

11.20 p.m.

Mr. T. J. Brooks (Rothwell)

I am Speaking in the presence of several gallant soldiers who fought in the last war, and I want to bring to the notice of the House a special case, about which I wrote to the War Office some time ago relating to a boy who was charged with attempting to avoid service with his unit when on active service overseas. He was away from his unit for some time. When tried, he pleaded "Not Guilty," but he was found "Guilty" and sentenced to six years' penal servitude, of which three years were remitted on confirmation. I have been informed that this mitigated sentence is the normal one for the Serious offence of desertion in a theatre of active operations overseas.

At the trial, this boy had the services of an officer to defend him, but what kind of brief would this officer have? Reference was made to the boy's previous good character, but how would the officer know anything at all about this young man and his family? How could he be aware that there was definite mental defect in the family? The boy may have been physically fit on enlistment, and was possibly A.I, but was he mentally fit? The mental aspect of the matter does not seem to have been considered at all. There is definite evidence that this young man has the mind of a very much younger boy. We know that even the minds of men cannot always stand the terrible ordeal of battle, and we know that officers have sometimes reacted badly when under fire. I have seen officers trained, but even those who trained them could not know how they would react. If men are liable to fail, why should they be sent to gaol? Surely we are dealing with a state of mind, and are making it criminal to suffer from developed fear, especially when there already is a mental defect. Surely this should be an answer to the court. The judges are military men with military minds, with no thought but for military discipline. I want to ask the Minister whether mental specialists are employed in these cases. If not, why not? We have to appreciate the feelings and the anxieties of the families, especially where there is mental weakness in the family history. I ask that more attention be given to the case of this boy, and that the War Office should be more sympathetic to such cases.

11.25 p.m.

The Secretary of State for War (Mr. Lawson)

As this is my fourth Adjournment Debate on four Sitting Days, I think that, although I shall not ask for an amnesty for the Secretary of State for War, hon. Members might consider the possibility of a suspension of sentence. I could have wished that this matter had been debated earlier in the evening and that there had been more time for it, because it is one of the matters on which we have to answer questions that touch men to the quick. During the past few years, the House has had great Debates on the operation of the death sentence for these offences. I am glad that the death sentence for these offences was abolished, and during this war, which was, I think, the first one that has been fought without the death sentence being in operation, the men of the Army stood the test, and the results proved that the abolition of the death sentence was a very wise decision.

We have taken workmen and workwomen suddenly from their homes, their work and the community in which they lived, and put them under unaccustomed conditions. Masses of them had never dreamed of becoming soldiers, and it was a great test for them when they were put into the firing line. Before I make the statement that I want to make tonight, I would like to say that I think it is a wonderful thing that, in this long sustained conflict, particularly when heavy bombing was taking place in this country, the standard of conduct of the people of this country was so high and that there was so little sign of nerves. During the war, when I met men in Africa, Italy and other places, one of the most striking things to me was that always the men in the line, or going up to the line, were more concerned about what was happening to the people at home when the bombing was taking place —what was happening to their wives, their children, their homes, and the country generally—than they were about themselves.

That is an amazing fact. It would be a miracle if that in those circumstances someone did not fail. It is a fact that, human nature being what it is, there will always be some who break when they are under fire. The Debate tonight has to do specifically with troops sentenced for refusal to carry out an order under fire.

Of course, there are large numbers of men who have been in prison, and who are in prison, as deserters, and I think it would be wrong of me if I did not deal with them tonight in the general statement I shall make. The number of soldiers serving sentences for refusing to obey an order while under fire is very small indeed. It amounts at the present time to no more than 41, of whom only 12 have served more than three months.

Captain Baird

Did the right hon. Gentleman say that only 12 have served more than three months?

Mr. Lawson

Yes. I think that the Debate does in fact cover the larger number of men sentenced for desertion in a theatre of active operations due to the stress of war. Cases of this description have to be severely dealt with during the war, but when hostilities ended, it became clear that a more lenient policy could be followed, since the offence was not one that the individual was likely to repeat. Instructions were, therefore, issued throughout the Army in October that sentences of three years penal servitude for offences of this type —that is general desertion —should normally be suspended after the soldier had served 8 months, those of four years after 9 or 10 months and those of five years after 11 or 12 months. Further, desertion cases not due to stress of war are usually suspended after 11 or 12 months of a three years' sentence of penal servitude has been served.

Although the instruction I have mentioned refer to desertion cases only, the same policy was subsequently put into effect for other types of military offences in addition to desertion committed before V.J. Day. These have been subjected to special review and suspension is now being carried out on similar lines to those I have mentioned. These are cases in addition to desertion. I think the House will be interested in the figures that I have to give up to 5th November this year. Of 3,156 soldiers under sentence in this country on V.J. Day nearly 59 per cent. had been released by 5th November, and of 6,751 serving sentences overseas on V.J. Day nearly 37 ½per cent. have been released. These include the case mentioned by my hon. and gallant Friend (Captain Baird).

I ought to say about this 37 ½ per cent. of cases, that these are overseas cases and that the instruction was in operation in this country much quicker than it was in the overseas areas and that, to some extent, accounts for the differences between those at home and those overseas. The new policy I have mentioned has taken longer to come into operation overseas.

There are two points of view about this question. There are the critics of the lenient view. But I think, considering the standard of morale and the standard of conduct on the field generally during this war, the course I have taken is the right one. I just want to finish with this —and it is a remarkable thing. One of the Members of this House —I will not mention his name because I do not want to identify the particular boy concerned —came to see me about a particular case. The boy had been sentenced to three years. He pleaded guilty; he was quite frank about it. His sentence was suspended. He served 12 months. We did what we do in these cases. We make a practice of getting them home as soon as possible, because their people say that the neighbours may talk, as people are concerned about these matters. We sent this boy home. The boy said he had made good. I am glad to tell the House that he has signed on for seven years, as he said that he felt' that he was in honour bound to do that for the leniency that had been shown him in a case of which he said he was guilty. I had a beautiful letter from his parents. I will not trouble the House with reading it except for one short sentence. This reads: You can be sure that he returns to the Service he holds so dear, and we are sure you will never have cause to regret the action with respect to that boy. I am sure that is one piece of concrete evidence of the fact that in this particular case the human consideration given to a man in such a position, even if he has shown weakness in the face of fire, has been well worth while.

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 made upon 16th August.

Adjourned at Twenty-five Minutes to Twelve o'Clock.