HC Deb 06 April 1948 vol 449 cc32-3
Mr. Churchill

(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs whether he has any statement to make on the present situation in Berlin, including the destruction of the British passenger aircraft with the loss of 14 lives.

The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Ernest Bevin)

Yes Sir. I should like if, if I may, to answer these two points separately.

As the House will have heard, a British European Airways aircraft was approaching Gatow aerodrome in the British sector of Berlin from Hamburg yesterday afternoon when a Soviet fighter aircraft collided with it. As the result of this both aircraft crashed to the ground and all the occupants were killed. I wish to take this opportunity to express the deepest sympathy of His Majesty's Government, and I am sure, of the House, with the relatives and friends of the victims in this appalling occurrence. The British aircraft fell 2½ miles North-West of the Gatow airfield in the Russian zone, and the Soviet fighter fell just inside the British sector of Berlin close to Gatow airport.

I am awaiting a full account of the disaster. The information which I have received so far shows that the British aircraft was proceeding on the ordinary route, and that according to routine instructions, warning should have been given by the Soviet authorities that their fighter was in the air. No such warning was given. After the crash the Soviet authorities took immediate charge of the British aircraft, and later in the day British representatives went to the scene to investigate and to gain access to the bodies and the baggage. A cordon of British troops has been placed round the Soviet aircraft, with one Soviet sentry.

The Soviet General, with whom the British Commandant in Berlin dealt, expressed a desire to deal with the occurrence with proper calmness. Immediately on hearing of the disaster, the British Commander-in-Chief, General Robertson, communicated with the Soviet Commander-in-Chief, Marshal Sokolovsky. In this communication, after stating the facts that I have given, General Robertson asked for an immediate assurance that Marshal Sokolovsky condemned as strongly as he did that the Soviet aircraft was being flown without prior notification and in a manner to cause the catastrophe. He also requested a positive assurance that British aircraft using the corridor in accordance with our mutual agreement would be immune from molestation. General Robertson also reserved all the rights of His Majesty's Government.

General Robertson also had an interview with Marshal Sokolovsky yesterday evening. General Robertson's actions in this matter have our full approval. At the interview, General Robertson made it plain that he had no wish to prejudge the cause of the catastrophe until a proper inquiry had been held. The form and scope of this inquiry is at present under consideration. Marshal Sokolovsky then gave General Robertson orally the assurances for which the latter had asked. A written reply to General Robertson's communication is awaited. In view of the assurances which have been received, the British Commander-in-Chief has countermanded the instructions which he gave that British civil aircraft should receive fighter protection. I understand that the United States Commander-in-Chief took similar action.

I wish to make it clear, pending the results of tae inquiry, that I have no information to suggest that the conduct of the Soviet aircraft was in any way the result of direct instructions from the Soviet authorities. Routine flights to and from Berlin by British aircraft are continuing in the normal way.

In view of what I have said, I trust the House will agree that it is undesirable that there should be any further speculation or recrimination about this tragedy. I am pressing for an inquiry to be held as soon as possible, and until the results are known I suggest that judgment should be reserved.

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