HC Deb 17 December 1946 vol 431 cc1745-9
25. Mr. Piratin

asked the Secretary of State for War whether he will make a statement regarding the condition? on the s.s. "Empress of Scotland" arising from which, some 300 Servicemen walked off the liner and refused to embark; and, in view of previous incidents of this kind, if he will give an assurance that the accommodation for transporting Servicemen, particularly on long journeys, will afford reasonable space and amenities.

27. Mr. Swingler

asked the Secretary or State for War if he will make a statement on the circumstances under which the troopship "Empress of Scotland" sailed for the Far East on 10th December; what was the nature of the accommodation; what was the ration scale issued; why the latrines were badly sited, and what steps were taken to deal with the men's grievances.

Mr. Bellenger

As the answer is long, I will circulate it in the OFFICIAL REPORT.

Mr. Piratin

Can the Minister give the House an assurance that the matter will be thoroughly investigated and that steps will be taken to ensure that reasonable amenities are provided for the soldiers? Is he aware that one of the grievances was that the amenities for the officers and nurses on the upper, decks were quite suitable, but they were not suitable for the soldiers down below?

Mr. Bellenger

I have made a close investigation and I am satisfied in my own mind that the majority of the troops in this ship were satisfied with the conditions when she was due 10 sail.

Mr. Churmer

In view of the fact that there have been a number of there demonstrations in the last 12 months, does not my right hon. Friend think it desirable that someone in authority should make a complete inspection of messing, living and sleeping arrangements before the troops embark and ensure that there is no reason for them to complain?

Mr. Bellenger

I agree with my hon. Friend and that is done on every occasion before a ship sails.

Mr. Eden

Can the right hon. Gentleman say, in view of the considerable interest that this Question and the supplementaries have aroused, whether he could not make a statement at the end of Questions even in a shortened form so that the House would have the full information?

Mr. Bellenger

That is as the House wishes. I am at its service.

Mr. Medlicott

Is the Minister quite satisfied that the administration arrangements are in order and, particularly, is he aware that the Army Welfare Department appears to have no jurisdiction over the welfare of the troops from the moment they step on board ship, and is not this a loophole?

Mr. Bellenger

Perhaps we should clear up the position as to whether I am to answer the Question at the end of Questions. I am quite willing to do so if the House wishes.

Mr. Speaker

That is a question for the Minister.


Mr. Bellenger

The following is the answer to Questions 25 and 27 which I proposed to circulate:

The troopship "Empress of Scotland" was scheduled to sail at 8 a.m. on 10th December for the Far East with Army and R.A.F. drafts and men returning from leave. At about 8.15 on the evening before, some men walked off the ship without having made any complaint in the normal manner at the final inspection which had just started. In spite of this act of ill-discipline, their subsequent complaints were investigated by the troopship's inspection officer, and some slight adjustments were made to the berthing. The men went on board once more. Owing to fog, the vessel was unable to sail until the evening of 10th December, and during the day men walked off on two further occasions, the last time being just before the ship sailed. I might add that only a small proportion of the men were involved in these acts of indiscipline.

The troopdeck accommodation in the ship is for 1,906 passengers, which represents a considerable improvement on the scales in force during the peak of troop movements, when the ship was rated for 4,432 troopdeck passengers. The actual number embarked, including the men who walked off, was 1,794. The rations issued were in accordance with the approved scales. The menus for the first two meals issued on board were very good and the following are the details:

Mid-day (9th December).

Evening Meal (9th December).

Some of the latrines are not conveniently sited, but this arises from the constructional difficulties inherent in the conversion of a passenger liner into a troopship carrying large numbers.

Apart from the immediate investigation of the complaints which I have mentioned, a court of inquiry was assembled on 11th December at which the complaints and the facts were more fully investigated.

At present, until postwar troopships designed as such, are available, we must continue to use converted vessels. The amenities in these, however, have been much improved and the number of passengers much reduced, since the days of active operations during the war.

Mr. Gallacher

Is it not very obvious that conditions must be very bad when men take such action? Does it not mean that, after 600 men had left, there would be much better accommodation?

Mr. Churchill

What would have happened had it been in Soviet Russia?

Mr. Bellenger

I think the hon. Member exaggerates a little. It was not 600 men who walked off. I think the idea was a natural inclination of some of the men to try to remain in this country over Christmas.

Earl Winterton

In view of the fact that after the 1914–18 war there were instances of this kind, which were proved to be due to certain political influences from abroad, will the right hon. Gentleman look carefully into the matter and see whether the same influences, which were Communist after the 1914–18 war, were not the instigators in this incident?

Mr. Bellenger

I do not know the political complexion, neither do I inquire, of the troops I have to look after, but I would very much doubt whether there were very great Communist influences in this matter. At any rate, the greater number, whatever their political complexions, sailed quite peacefully.

Mr. Swingler

In view of what my right hon. Friend said, will he say why a statement was issued from Western Command Headquarters admitting that certain conditions were unsatisfactory in this troopship? In view of complaints coming from other theatres about unhealthy conditions on troopships, will he take immediate steps to improve the standard?

Mr. Bellenger

There is a limit to what I can do in the way of improving conditions in troopships. But I can assure my hon. Friend that considerable improvements have been made, and are being made, within the limits of labour and material to do this work. I can also assure him that the inspection of troopships is very strict indeed, and I can see no reason why men who were to sail on this ship to the Far East should walk off when they have to go back to the Far East in any case.

Lieut.-Colonel Thorp

Will the right hon. Gentleman say what he means by "walking off" the ships? Were there no checks?

Mr. Bellenger

Perhaps that was not an entirely correct term. They clambered off the ship by getting down the safety nets.

Mr. Nally

Does my right hon. Friend realise that there is all the difference in the world between reading out a menu, and the way in which that food is actually served to the men? Can we have an assurance that in troopships special steps will be taken to see that the catering staffs axe adequate, and that the food listed is served in a way that makes it eatable?

Mr. Bellenger

I think it is reasonable to assume that if 1,500 men did not complain of their food, it was all right.

Colonel Gomme-Duncan

May I ask the Minister whether, in view of the fact that troopship conditions are so much better than they used to be, he is satisfied with the training these men have received at the hands of commanding officers? Are we not up against the fact that in wartime very young commanding officers are an excellent thing, but in peacetime there has to be experience in training troops?

Mr. Bellenger

No, Sir. In this case it was not a question of complete units going under their commanding officers, when, perhaps, these incidents might not have occurred. It was a case of reinforcement drafts and men returning from leave. I have no reason to complain of the training the commanding officers are giving to men in general.

Mr. Rogers

Does the Secretary of State not think that part of the trouble was due to the fact that too big a proportion of available accommodation was allocated to officers?

Mr. Bellenger

No, Sir. I would not agree with that, and I would urge the House not to make too much of this. I am quite sure in my own mind that there was really no serious grievance amongst these men, and I believe they are now on their way back to their units.

Mr. Gallacher

On a point of Order. Is it permissible, now that supplementary questions have been finished, to ask if it is in Order for the right hon. Gentleman to make accusations against the Communist Party about troubles which took place after the last war, before there was a Communist Party in existence? [Laughter.]

Earl Winterton

This seems to be no laughing matter. I have stated what must be in the knowledge of every hon. Member who was in the House at that time that there was such Communist agitation after the last war. What I asked the right hon. Gentleman was to say that there was no such foreign Communist agitation which in any way got hold of these men.