HC Deb 01 December 1947 vol 445 cc162-8

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

10.31 p.m.

Sir Ian Fraser (Lonsdale)

On 12th November of this year I asked the Prime Minister a question about war decorations and medals. He told me that those granted to individuals, presumably for acts of gallantry or good service, were given to the individuals as their names appeared in the Gazette. That is satisfactory so far as it goes, but I would like to ask the Under-Secretary of State for Air to tell us whether these awards for gallantry and good service are up-to-date or whether they are in arrears in any way. I have noticed in the daily newspapers within the last day or two, since I put down this Question, a statement that some thousands of decorations due to airmen are in fact in arrears, and I would like to know how far the Fighting Services are up-to-date or in arrears, and what steps are being taken to expedite delivery of these awards.

But the main matter about which I want to speak is not awards for gallantry and for exceptional services, but ordinary medals which ordinary soldiers, sailors and airmen and their women equivalents are to receive for having served in the Armed Forces; that is, the Campaign Stars, the Defence Medal and the War Medal. I have looked up the history of this matter very briefly so far as the period after the first world war was concerned, and I find that on 16th November, 1920, the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition—it is curious to look up HANSARD over the last 30 or 40 years and to find that, whether the matter be important or relatively important, he was answering these Questions—said that 3,000,000 war medals had been struck by 16th November, 1920. On 25th November he said that the Victory Medal was being distributed. Within two years, almost exactly, after the end of the first world war, millions of medals had been struck and were being distributed.

The Prime Minister, in answering me last week, said that none of the ordinary service medals would begin to be issued until towards the end of next year—three to three and a half years after the end of the war. I ask the Government whether they cannot expedite this matter, and whether it is necessary that there should be so much delay. I have a few questions to ask the Under-Secretary about this whole subject, because I think it is of some interest to some seven to eight million people. We must know just where we stand.

The Mons Star, the General Service Medal and the Victory Medal were the three medals issued to the ordinary fellow after the first world war. The Mons Star was made of bronze, and the General Service Medal of silver—I think it was made of the ordinary coinage silver, which is 92 per cent. pure silver. The Victory Medal was made of a gilding metal 80 per cent, copper and 20 per cent. zinc. It is to be presumed that the Stars for the last war will be made of bronze. I do not know whether the General Service Medal and the Defence Medal are to be made of silver, or of gilding metal, but whatever metal it is to be, there is plenty of copper and zinc about to supply the tonnage required. As for the silver which might be required, the Government have taken away all our silver coinage, and therefore must have the few tons of silver which would be necessary.

So it cannot be shortage of metal which is causing delay. It may be said that there is a shortage of labour, or of the plant needed for pressing these medals, or for "striking" them, as it is termed; but the technique of mass production has improved enormously in 30 years, so there is surely no reason why it should take three and a half years this time to do a job which was well on the way two and a half years after the 1914–1918 war. After the 1914–1918 war, the medals were made at the Royal Arsenal factories and by private firms, and I want to ask who is to make them now?

My second question is whether the designs for these medals have been approved, and whether these designs have been placed in this House for hon. Members to inspect, or whether they will be placed in the House for such inspection? I have given the Under-Secretary notice of these questions, so I hope he can answer them. I want to know, also, of what metals the medals are to be made, and who is to make them. Do the Dominions make their own medals, do we make them for the Dominions, or do we send them the dies so that they can strike their own Medals? Are the names of the recipients to be stamped on the side of each medal, as was the case after the 1914–18 war? Are we to wait until all the medals are ready before distribution is begun, or will they be distributed as they are ready? Will those eligible for them have to apply individually, or will the medals be sent to them in accordance with names supplied by the Record Offices? Those are the questions I wish to ask.

In conclusion, I would say that I was in Sunderland the other day when there was a British Legion parade and rally in which some 3,000 ex-Service men and women took part. They were people who had taken part in the 1914–18 war and the last war. I was surprised to see that not one was wearing medals, and inquired the reason. I was told that with the notice convening the gathering was a suggestion that the older men of the first war should leave off their medals out of a sense of respect for the younger men, who had no medals to wear. It seems to me to be a pity to have to suggest to people that they should leave off their medals for any reason; and it seems to me to be a pity to disappoint the younger men by keeping them waiting unduly long for their medals. After all, whether it is for gallantry or for good service or whether it is an ordinary medal for serving in the Armed Forces, a medal is something of which a man has a right to be legitimately proud. It seems to me that men should be encouraged to wear medals on ceremonial, or quasi-ceremonial, occasions. Cause for discouraging this should not be given. Could we not have the medals by next Remembrance Day, instead of waiting until the end of the year before distribution begins?

It may be suggested that if we make all these medals in the next few months, we shall be prejudicing the export drive; but many of those medals will be exported to men who came from the Dominions and Colonies to help this country during the war. Whether they pay for them or not, I do not doubt that the export of medals from the old country will be cherished and the export will bring a decent reward in loyalty and good feeling. Lastly, this is surely the time when a little symbolism and a little colour will help those who have served King and country so well to think well of their service and to speak well of the Armed Forces, and it may do something to liven up an otherwise drab and dreary world.

10.41 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Air (Mr. Geoffrey de Freitas)

The hon. Member for Lonsdale (Sir I. Fraser) speaks on ex-Service matters with particular authority, as he is a distinguished President of the British Legion. He put his points under, roughly, two headings which he set out, and I shall attempt to answer them under those headings. First, he dealt with the individual decorations and medals such as the O.B.E., D.S.O. and the M.C. and M.M., and the corresponding awards in the Navy and Air Force; and secondly, with the General Service Stars and Medals such as the Campaign Stars and the Defence Medal.

With regard to the individual decorations and medals, I am asked whether the Service Departments are up to date in the issue of these medals. Out of the 128,000 such awards, 104,000 have been issued. Except for the D.F.C., with which I shall deal separately, the delay in issue is, in most cases, because the medals have been returned to 'us marked "address unknown." Therefore, I hope the hon. Gentleman will let it be known throughout the Legion that anyone who has not yet received his individual award should write to the Admiralty, the War Office or the Air Ministry, as the case may be, giving his up-to-date address. This applies to all individual awards except the D.F.C.

The D.F.C. position, unfortunately, is not so good. The Royal Mint and private firms, so far as the boxes are concerned, are hard at work. I have seen the crosses being made at the Mint, and I can assure the House that neither the crosses nor the boxes were designed for easy production. The fact is that we have been able to issue only 13,000 of the 20,000 awarded. The hon. Member made a special plea for issue by next Remembrance Day. Here, as far as the D.F.C.s are concerned, I can say that most of the remaining 7,000 will have been issued by next Remembrance Day, but there may then be several thousands still to be made. I shall do nothing which would lower the standard of craftsmanship or of the materials used in the making of these crosses, but, with that in mind, I will do all I can to increase the rate of manufacture. So far, only awards gazetted before 1944 have been issued. Now, in this category, that is, crosses gazetted before 1944, we have also had cases of crosses being returned to us marked "address unknown," and I hope anyone whose D.F.C. was gazetted before 1944 and who has not yet received it, will write to the Air Ministry giving his up-to-date address.

In the second category, General Service Stars and Medals, that is, Campaign Stars, the Defence Medal and War Medal, the hon. Member compared the position to-day with the position after the last war. The conditions of the 1939–1945 war were very much more damaging to our economy. The industrial effort of the 1914–1918 war was so different that the manufacture of Campaign Stars actually started during that war. One Campaign Star—the Mons Star—began during the period of the war. Furthermore, of course, there were only a few hundred thousand of them, and it was not long before they were made. Our production task is very different now, and instead of a few hundred thousand Cam- paign Stars, we need eight millions of them. Of course, there was no question of their being manufactured during war time; but, in spite of that, by the end of this month we expect to have finished all the Campaign Stars, and the machines will then tackle the Defence Medal immediately, and the War Medal as soon as possible.

I was asked about the Defence Medal. It is ready for striking to start; this will start very early next year. So far as the War Medal is concerned, it is designed, and I expect the sample medal will be approved soon. There are 12 million of these medals, in addition to the eight million stars, and I expect that these 12 million will be finished in two years. This will be a high rate of production—about half a million a month—and we shall only reach that because we shall not be stamping the name of the owner on the back of the medal. With the huge number of 20 million, the manpower needed would be far in excess of our resources.

The distribution problem is one which has given us a great deal of thought. We had to bear in mind the need, in dealing with these 20 million, of speed as well as accuracy, and at the same time the necessity for using manpower and materials carefully. One decision which has been made is fundamental. We shall make one distribution, and one only, to each person. To do otherwise would involve not only an enormous amount of clerical work, but also the increased consumption of scarce materials such as cardboard. It might also very well lead to considerable misunderstanding and disappointment if an ex-Service man or woman, expecting three or four medals or stars, received only one, and that in turn would doubtless lead to a great deal of correspondence. It follows that distribution cannot begin until each of the distributing authorities has several hundred thousand, at least, of the medals, and large supplies of the packing boxes. The Prime Minister said that he did not expect the distribution to start until late next year. I would like to assure the House that we shall do our best to improve on this, but I cannot be too hopeful. It may well be that the boxes will hold us up.

The hon. Gentleman asked me certain specific questions. He asked, for instance, what the stars and medals are to be made of. The Campaign Star is made of bronze, and in appearance it will be the same colour as the old Victory Medal of the last war. The Defence Medal and the War Medal are made of cupro-nickel, which is the same material as that of which the 1947 shillings, florins and half crowns are made. The hon. Gentleman further asked me what the stars and medals looked like, and whether we could have samples in the Library so that they could be inspected. The public has seen photographs of the Campaign Stars, for these appeared in most national newspapers in March, 1946. Photographs of the Defence Medal appeared in some newspapers in August this year. The War Medal, as I said earlier, has not yet been finally approved. I expect that approval very shortly, and, of course, photographs will be available for publication.

Sir I. Fraser

Can specimens he made available?

Mr. de Freitas

Certainly. Specimens of the Campaign Stars and Defence Medal will be in the Library tomorrow. Until the War Medal has been approved, the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, it will be impossible to do so with regard to it. I have also been answer who is making the medals. The answer is, the Royal Mint and the Royal Ordnance Factory at Woolwich. A question was put to me about the Dominions. All the Dominions except New Zealand are making their own medals, from dies made here in the Royal Mint. We are making the medals for New Zealand.

It will clearly be some little time before all ex-Service men and women have the medals to which they are entitled. I quite agree with the hon. Member that this world would do well to have a little more colour and symbolism, and at functions such as a British Legion rally, ex-Service men and women should not forget that it is perfectly proper to wear ribbons by themselves. The ribbons will go a long way to provide the colour we all desire, and they will be regarded as symbols of the gallantry, service and comradeship for which these medals were awarded.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Seven Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.