HC Deb 11 December 1946 vol 431 cc1168-75
Mr. Eden

(by Private Notice)asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs whether he has any further information to give concerning the questions raised in the Note delivered to the Albanian Government.

Mr. McNeil

As Members will be aware, His Majesty's Government delivered a Note concerning the incidents in the Corfu Channel to the Albanian Government on 9th December. In this Note, the text of which was published today, His Majesty's Government pointed out that they hold the Albanian Government responsible for the mining of two of His Majesty's ships in the Corfu Channel on 22nd October, as a result of which 44 officers and men of the Royal Navy lost their lives. In these circumstances, His Majesty's Government are demanding an apology and assurances that there shall be no similar incidents in the future. His Majesty's Government are also demanding full compensation for the relatives of the officers and men of the Royal Navy who lost their lives, and reparation for the damage suffered by His Majesty's ships.

His Majesty's Government also informed the Albanian Government that, as this matter is of such importance from the point of view both of safety of life at sea and of the issues involved, failing satisfaction, they will have no alternative but to bring the matter before the Security Council of the United Nations as a serious threat to, and a breach of, international peace and security, showing criminal disregard of the safety of innocent seamen of all nationalities lawfully using this international highway.

His Majesty's Government hope that the Albanian Government will recognise the most serious view which His Majesty's Government take of these deplorable happenings, and that they will, therefore, return an early and a favourable reply.

To meet the convenience of Members I propose to circulate the text of the Note in the OFFICIAL REPORT.

Mr. Eden

While I endorse, on behalf of my hon. Friends, the Note and the action which the Government have taken, will the Minister be good enough to keep the House informed of future developments? May I also ask him why it was not possible to tell us of this yesterday, since it is in accordance with normal practice to let the House know about these things?

Mr. McNeil

We shall be happy to keep the House informed, but as the right hon. Gentleman knows, better than most Members, if we were to keep the House aware of every diplomatic note which we issue— I am not suggesting this is of an ordinary character—and if we made that a principle, it would be a fair burden on the House.

Mr. Eden

I think that if the right hon. Gentleman will look at the records, he will find that when notes of this importance are communicated, it is the normal practice to inform the House. Certainly, that has been done for many years. I only express the hope that this will be done, because these are matters of national interest.

Mr. Rankin

Was any attempt made to inquire into or seek to find out any reasons on the part of the Albanian Government for these actions?

Mr. Churchill

For murdering our sailors?

Mr. McNeil

Our position was made laboriously clear throughout these negotiations—it was not one incident, but three incidents—to the Albanian Government, and the incidents took place in an international waterway. Therefore, it did not seem to be solely the prerogative of the Albanian Government.

Colonel Sir Charles Mae Andrew

Would it be possible for the House to be informed of important' matters such as this Note, which was in the Press this morning, but was not available to the House until later?

Mr. McNeil

His Majesty's Government are most careful with regard to the wishes of the House, and most properly so; and I will undertake that any further happenings in relation to this Note will be brought quickly to the notice of the House.

Mr. Piratin

Will the statement circulated by the Minister include detailed evidence which gives the basis upon which this Note has been sent to the. Albanian Government?

Mr. McNeil

Most certainly. His Majesty's Government would not have delivered such a Note without evidence.

Mr. Francis Noel-Baker

Can my right hon. Friend say what channels are being used for these negotiations, in view of the fact that diplomatic representation is not normal between this country and Albania?

Mr. McNeil

We used the Albanian Legation in Belgrade.

Mr. Piratin

The House, however, would like to have access to this evidence. [HON. MEMBERS: "Speak for yourself."] I observe that hon. Members opposite do not want the evidence. They are prepared to trust our Minister. Could the Minister provide us with this evidence?

Mr. McNeil

The evidence, of course, is part of a mine, and I hardly think the hon. Member for Mile End (Mr. Piratin) wants that. It must be sometimes possible even for the hon. Gentleman to believe a British man speaking in this House.

Following is the text of the Note.

His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom have been reviewing the recent incidents in the Corfu Channel ending with the serious incident of 22nd October, in which two of His Majesty's vessels were heavily damaged by mines with a grievous loss of life.

2. The Albanian Government will be aware that during the war of 1939–45 some hundreds of thousands of mines were laid in the waters of the Mediterranean and North-West Europe. They will recall that in 1944 and 1945 the following areas of Albanian territorial waters were swept or searched by British minesweepers:

No objection to this action was raised by Albania or any other Power.

3. Only about 20,000 of the mines laid in the waters of the Mediterranean and North-West Europe had been swept by the end of hostilities. In order to carry out the formidable task of removing the remainder in a co-ordinated manner, an international organisation was set up in November, 1945, by agreement between the Government of the U.S.S.R., United States, United Kingdom and France. The objects of the organisation were:

  1. (1) To use the available minesweeping forces to the best advantage for—
    1. (a) the clearance of fishing grounds'.
    2. (b) the widening of all channels;
    3. (c) the establishment of clear water for vessels, repairing important telegraph cable routes;
    4. (d) the clearance of areas containing mines dangerous to surface shipping;
    5. (e) the clearance of deep anti-submarine mines.
  2. (2) To promulgate information about mines and mine clearance to the shipping of the world.

4. The International Central Mine Clearance Board was composed of representatives of the four powers mentioned above. On the recommendation of the Central Board, other Powers were invited to become members of Zone Boards. Thus, the Mediterranean Zone Board consists of representatives of France, Greece, U.S.S.R., United Kingdom, United States and Yugoslavia. Certain other Governments were invited to send observers, but Albania was not so invited because she possessed no mine-sweeping forces.

5. As the Albanian Government are aware, the second of the two objects mentioned in paragraph 2 above was fulfilled by the issue of MEDRI charts and pamphlets by the International Routeing and Reporting Authority. The areas of Albanian territorial waters swept by the British minesweepers were included in these publications. Albania, together with all other Mediterranean countries, whether represented on the Mediterranean Zone Board or not, received thirty copies of these documents and a like number of all subsequent monthly issues.

6. It was thus publicly notified that the international waterway of the North Corfu Channel was once again open to navigation and it an other swept channels, wholly or partly in Albanian territorial waters, were used by British and other ships in possession of these documents. In fact, until May of the present year, shipping of all kinds regularly used the Channel without hindrance from either Greece or Albania, the territorial powers concerned, in accordance with the normal rule of international law, which recognises that in peace and war there is both for warships and merchant vessels a right of innocent passage through straits forming highways of international maritime traffic.

7. On 15th May, however, His Majesty's cruisers Orion and Superb while passing Southward through the swept channel in pursuance of their normal occupations were fired on by Albanian batteries fortunately without damage.

8. His Majesty's Government at once protested strongly to the Albanian Government against this deliberate and outrageous breach of international law and maritime custom. They requested an immediate and public apology and an assurance that the persons responsible would be punished. The Albanian reply dated 21st May, was completely unsatisfactory. It alleged that the Commander of the coastal batteries had signalled the ships to move further off shore, that they were not flying their flags and that they hoisted their flags when fire was opened.' All of these allegations proved on investigation to be without foundation. The Albanian reply assumed that foreign warships have no right to pass through an international strait part of which is included in territorial waters, and added that the ships would not have been fired upon if they had been recognised as British ships.

9. His Majesty's Government renewed their protest on 31st May, pointing out that the Albanian reply ignored the right of innocent passage, recognised by International Law, to which attention has been drawn in paragraph 6 above. Even if the Albanian Government mistakenly supposed that they had the right to prevent such passage, the procedure adopted for asserting it was contrary to the practice accepted by all civilised nations in cases where there are reasons for requiring vessels belonging to another power to halt. In this instance no warning was given and fire was opened with twelve live rounds not fired across the bows of His Majesty's ships but aimed at the ships themselves and falling astern of them. His Majesty's Government repeated their request for the punishment of the officer concerned, for an apology from the Albanian Government, and for an assurance that there would be no further interference in the right of passage through the Corfu Channel.

10. In their reply, dated 21st June, the Albanian Government said that they had no intention of interfering with navigation on the open sea or in the Corfu Straits, provided shipping did not enter Albanian waters without permission or show aggressive intent. They reasserted the allegations made in the previous Albanian note and stated that it was not the intention to attack or damage British ships.

11. On 2nd August, His Majesty's Government informed the Albanian Government that they had taken note of this reply, that they could recognise no right on the part of a territorial power to demand the fulfilment of conditions before entry was permitted into a recognised international channel, that they could not agree to give prior notification of passage through the Channel and that if in future British ships were fired on in the Channel, fire would be returned.

12. On 22nd October, while a detachment of His Majesty's ships was proceeding through the North Corfu Channel, which as stated in paragraph 2 above had been swept, in October, 1944, two destroyer's, H.M.S. Saumarez and H.M.S. Volage, struck mines which had been laid in the fairway. The explosions caused serious damage to the two ships and a heavy loss of life. On this occasion the Albanian batteries did not open fire but a vessel of the Albanian Navy appeared Hying the Albanian ensign and also a white flag.

13. On 27th October, His Majesty's Government informed the Albanian Government that in view of the serious accidents to His Majesty's Ships the channel would shortly be swept. On 30th October the Albanian Government protested to the Secretary-General of the United Nations Organisation against what they termed "the violation of territorial waters" and "provocative incursions" by British warships. It was also alleged without any justification in fact that British aircraft had flown over Albanian territory. Meanwhile, His Majesty's Government in reply to their intimation that minesweeping would shortly take place, received a note from the Albanian Government on the 1st November, protesting against the entry of British warships into Albanian territorial waters on 22nd October and stating that there was no objection to minesweeping provided territorial waters were not entered either inside or outside the Strait. Since the part of the Channel concerned lies wholly in territorial waters this statement could only be construed as meaning that the Albanian Government refused to agree that the Channel should be rendered safe for navigation. The note also stated that the Albanian Government could take no responsibility for the consequences if the minesweeping took place and would regard it as a violation of their sovereignty.

14. The Albanian Government were thus attempting to obstruct the clearance of this serious menace to international navigation. His Majesty's Government therefore replied on 10th November, that the sweeping of the Corfu Channel would take place on the 12th. They informed the Albanian Government that the sweeping of the Channel had been unanimously recommended by the Central Mine Clearance Board on 1st November; they defined the exact area to be swept; they declared that none of His Majesty's Ships would be stationed in Albanian territorial waters; and they stated (hat the operation would be carried out in the same way as the original sweeping in 1944 and 1945 to which the Albanian Government had raised no objection.

15. On receipt of this reply and on the eve of the sweeping operation, the Albanian Government addressed a further note to His Majesty's Government stating that while the Albanian Government did not in principle object to the Royal Navy undertaking the sweeping of the Channel they proposed that a mixed commission should be set up to determine the area involved. The swept Channel had in fact existed for two years and all the information published about it was in possession of the Albanian Government. Thus it can only be inferred that their motive in putting forward this last-minute proposal was to delay the operation of sweeping the mines which, as subsequent investigations leave no doubt, the Albanian Government well knew to have been laid in the fairway.

16. The Albanian Government simultaneously addressed a second complaint to the Secretary-General of the United Nations, protesting in strong terms against the action of His Majesty's Government in presenting them with a fait accompli. They denied knowledge of the existence of the Central Mine Clearance Board in spite of the fact that a request that Albania should be represented on it had already been put forward by the Yugoslav Government, doubtless with the knowledge of the Albanian Government. Finally they again declared that the extent of the Channel could only be determined by a mixed commission set up by the United Nations and including Albania.

17. On 12th and 13th November the sweeping operation was carried out. Twenty-two mines were cut, two of which were taken to Malta for expert examination. This has shown that the mines were of German manufacture, that they were free from marine growth and that they still had grease on their mooring cables. These facts leave no doubt whatever that the mines were laid only a very short time before the date on which His Majesty's Ships "Saumarez" and "Volage" suffered damage and casualties. The condition of the mines has been verified by an independent observer who was present during the sweeping operation. Fragments recovered from H.M.S. "Volage" also confirm the origin of the mines which exploded on 22nd October and bear out the conclusions reached above.

18. Ever since the attack on H.M.S. "Orion" and "Superb," the Albanian authorities have maintained a close watch on all ships making use of the North Corfu Channel. Thus in June of this year merchant ships passing through the Channel were fired on, and during the passage of His Majesty's Ships on 22nd October, the coastal batteries were seen to be manned. It is certain that no mine-field could have been laid in the Channel within a few hundred yards of the Albanian batteries without the connivance or at least the knowledge of the Albanian authorities.

19. His Majesty's Government must accordingly conclude that the Albanian Government either laid the mine-field in question or knew that it had been laid. The Albanian Government has thus committeed a flagrant breach of International Law. Under Articles 3 and 4 of the 8th Hague Convention of 1907 any Government laying mines in war-time, and a fortiori in peace, is bound to notify the danger zones to the Governments of all countries. (This obligation in fact applies even if the zones in question are not normally used by shipping). Not only have the Albanian Government never made any public notification of this minefield but they have also made no comment on the continued issue of the relevant Medri charts and pamphlets. They thus endorsed a clear statement by the recognised international authority concerned to the shipping of the world that the Channel was safe for navigation. As a result two of His Majesty's ships have been seriously damaged and forty-four innocent lives have been lost. Moreover, this conduct on the part of the Albanian Government menaced with destruction shipping of any kind using a Channel which is a normal and recognised route for international navigation.

20. His Majesty's Government demand that an apology be made to them in respect of the unprovoked attacks upon the Royal Navy, which took place on 15th May and 22nd October, and that they receive assurance that there shall be no repetition of this unlawful action. They further demand that reparation be paid for the damage suffered by His Majesty's ships on 22nd October and that lull compensation be paid to the relatives of the forty-four officers and seamen of the Royal Navy who lost their lives in consequence of action on the part of the Albanian Government which was an undoubted breach of International Law, constituted a menace to international shipping, to the safety of which the most callous indifference was shown, and must, in view of their knowledge that His Majesty's ships habitually used the Channel and claimed the right to do so under International Law be regarded as a deliberately hostile act against His Majesty's Government.

21. As this matter is of such importance from the point of view of safety of life at sea and of the issues involved, His Majesty's Government must ask for an immediate reply. If no satisfactory reply is received within fourteen days of the delivery of this note His Majesty's Government will have no alternative but to bring the matter before the Security Council of the United Nations as a serious threat to, and a breach of, international peace and security, showing criminal disregard of the safety of innocent seamen of any nationality lawfully using an international highway.