HC Deb 12 April 1948 vol 449 cc750-62

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

9.59 P.m.

Mr. Driberg (Maldon)

Walsrode is a small town in Hanover, in the British zone of Germany. On 18th October last, some of its citizens took part in the harvest celebration of a German club or society, in a private room at a restaurant, whose sequel has led to Questions in this House and ultimately to this Adjournment Debate. I am grateful to some of my hon. Friends who have taken an in-terest—

It being Ten o'Clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Mr. Driberg

—in the matter, and I know that there are many others who would have liked to be here tonight but, unfortunately, could not be. I ought to start by emphasising that this case has nothing to do with the much-publicised case of Bad Nenndorf, which is, I believe, still before the courts. It is, however, an example of the same unfortunate tendency, which, I hope and believe, is not widespread among the occupying Forces in Germany.

The story starts quite simply, with a commonplace café brawl. Some British soldiers, who were probably a bit drunk, tried to get into this private German celebration. When they were told, "Sorry, this is private; you cannot come in," there was the usual kind of argument. Unfortunately, several people were injured in the brawl that followed, because some of the more high-spirited of the intruders went away and came back armed with sticks and spades and tried to force their way in. Later, some British officers came to see what had happened and to make inquiries, and the young German ex-Serviceman who has been the subject of our questions in this House, Werner Kleindienst, acted as interpreter. So his name and address were taken. Later, he was questioned again, more thoroughly, by a British officer and two N.C.O.s. His statements were taken down, and everything seemed to be all right.

A night or two later, at midnight on 21st October, Kleindienst was sent for again. He was rather surprised at the time of night, but he supposed that he was going to act as interpreter once more. On the contrary, he was treated on this occasion more like a criminal and, indeed, I am afraid that he was treated as we do not allow the worst criminals to be treated in this country. They did not start interrogating him until 2.3o a.m. He was then asked whether he was prepared to tell the truth now. He said that he had told the truth at his previous interrogation. As soon as he said that, it is alleged that he was hit hard repeatedly in the face, with the fist, by one or other of his interrogators, so that he was soon bleeding fairly profusely.

This process of interrogation and bullying went on for a considerable time. It is alleged that he was beaten with rubber truncheons on a part of his body, the ribs, where he had been severely wounded during the war; and that when he told his interrogators this, they did not show him any mercy but, on the contrary, made him take off the heavy waterproof which was cushioning their blows and, in general, went on behaving in this absolutely deplorable way until the unfortu- nate youth gave way, weakened, and was made to sign what he later said were wrong and untrue statements implicating innocent Germans in the trouble that there had been.

This interrogation, interspersed by bullying, went on from 2.3o till 5.15 a.m. continuously. It was not until 9 o'clock the following night that he was allowed to go home and see a doctor. Incidentally, three others were ill-treated, he says, in the same way. As soon as he could, he revoked the evidence that he had then given under duress. Medical certificates have been sent to the War Office showing that he was unfit for work for a week, and proving the nature of his injuries. I may add that those who know him personally, both British and German, testity that Kleindienst is a quiet, sensible youth, a reasonably credible witness.

Complaints about this were brought to the notice of several hon. Members, who took them up with the War Office, and, towards the end of January, my right hon. Friend wrote to several hon. Members telling them that there had been a court of inquiry in November, that the court had established that "some undesirable methods" had been used in this interrogation, but that there had been "an element of exaggeration" in the accounts of what had taken place, and that, in any case, disciplinary action had been taken and the matter might be regarded as closed. That, in effect, is what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has repeated to this House on the various occasions on which this matter has been raised at question time, although, on the third occasion, when he had evidently gone into it more thoroughly than before, he did use much stronger language. On 24th February, he admitted that the behaviour of the officer and two N.C.O's concerned was "improper and unworthy of the British Army." Hon. Members in all parts of the House, including the hon. Member for Westmorland (Mr. Vane), who asked a supplementary question, were not satisfied on two important points—(a) that the disciplinary action that had been taken was, in fact, at all adequately related to the gross offences which had been committed, and (b) that it had been made-sufficiently clear to the German people concerned, and in the neighbourhood, that British soldiers do not normally be- have like the worst kind of Nazis and that, it they do, they are punished for it. It is impossible to imagine a worse advertisement for an occupying Power and for democracy—the beatings, the threats, the disregard for justice and truth, the extorted false evidence and, above all, the macabre circumstances of the interrogation after midnight, going on for half the night.

I hope my hon. Friend can tell us a little more about these things tonight. In particular, will he tell us in what respect, if any, these reports have been exaggerated? There are independent witnesses available. The father of one of the young men concerned, although certainly not an independent witness—he would be a biased witness—went and fetched several German policemen and they were able to see through a window something of what was going an. Has the evidence of these independent witnesses been taken? In one of his answers, the Secretary of State referred to the fact that there was "a great deal of conflicting evidence." Of course, there would be conflicting evidence, because the only witnesses on behalf of the officer and the N.C.O.s were, presumably, they themselves—and they naturally were not going to incriminate themselves. I would like my right hon. Friend to say in what respect any of these reports have been exaggerated. The letters which I have seen from Kleindienst himself, and others in the neighbourhood, have been extremely circumstantial and fairly convincing.

My right hon. Friend said that the disciplinary action taken was that those concerned had been "reprimanded and transferred to other duties, or, in one case, released from the Army." I started by saying that this case had nothing to do with Bad Nenndorf, and I am bound to add that those involved are very lucky indeed not to find themselves in the same sort of position as the defendants in the Bad Nenndorf case. As the hon. Gentleman the Member for Westmorland pointed out in a supplementary question, unless the officer concerned is a Regular Army officer, a reprimand is really not a very serious punishment. If he is coming out of the Army any way in a few months' time, it does not matter very much to him.

Again, will my hon. Friend tell us whether these men are still employed in Germany? They have been transferred to other duties, but are they still in positions in which they can order Germans about? That would seem undesirable. My right hon. Friend, in reply to a supplementary question by my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Mr. SkeffingtonLodge), said that if they were not tit to command Germans they were not fit to command anybody, which I think sounded a little more unworthy than he meant it to sound. I think I can see what he meant. Actually, of course, in an occupying Army there" is surely required a very special sense of responsibility and of conduct towards the inhabitants of the country. In contrast with the Bad Nenndorf case, the names of these men have not even been published. I am not sure that we ought to press for this. I do not want to seem in any way personally vindictive. After all, at least one of the men has got off completely scot-free, and the others have been merely reprimanded and transferred to other duties; but, as I say, I do not wish to seem vindictive. In a sense, one can sometimes pity a bully or a persecutor almost as much as one pities his victim.

The second important point that I have sought to make in my Questions, and which I want to make tonight is: Will my hon. Friend take steps, as I have said before, to make it as widely known as possible in Germany that justice has been done or that it will be done if my hon. Friend is not satisfied that it has yet been done? In one of his answers to me, my right hon. Friend said: I imagine that Questions and answers in the House of Commons are published in Germany."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 10th February, 1948; Vol. 446, C. 203.] With all respect, that is really rather an inadequate reply. German newspapers are pretty short of space, just as English newspapers are, and, as a matter of fact, whether we like it or not, they do not go out of their way to publish gratuitously material that is friendly to the occupying Power. They do not like us as much as all that, however much we may kid ourselves. Could my hon. Friend suggest, therefore, whether some special steps can be taken to let the people of this small town of Walsrode know that those Englishmen who behaved in an unworthy way last October have been punished, that justice is impartial in this country and, as far as possible, in any country that is under the control of Great Britain? Then, perhaps, justice will have been done, and everybody concerned will see that it has been done.

10.14 p.m.

Mr. Benn Levy (Eton and Slough)

I am very glad that this subject has been raised by my hon. Friend tonight, because it is one which involves important issues of principle and of precedent. Even at the height of the war very few people could be found to contend that all Germans and all Japanese always behave disgracefully; and equally I think very few people would be disposed to maintain that no Britons and no Americans ever behave disgracefully.

What is important is that when there are incidents of reprehensible behaviour the consequences which follow should be clear, and unmistakably in accordance with British tradition. Particularly is that important when we are in the position of an occupying Power and when the most important function we can fulfil is to set a valuable democratic example. Of course such incidents as these cannot be completely avoided. They are bound to happen, and we can congratulate ourselves that they happen as rarely as they do. But when they do happen, it is important, first of all, that there should be a response of public indignation, which in fact there has been, and which my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr. Driberg) has given the House an opportunity of expressing. Secondly, it is important that there should be proper action from the authorities.

It is on this second point that I feel we have been inadequately served. One would have thought that there would be the fullest and frankest investigation and the fullest and frankest reports of that investigation, but that in fact was not what happened. When the question was originally raised in the House of Commons, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War replied that there had been a full investigation and that disciplinary action had been taken. When he was pressed, however, to explain what was the nature of the disciplinary action, he declined to disclose it, and the conclusion was widely drawn that the disciplinary action not only did not meet the case but in the opinion of the Secretary of State himself it did not meet the case, and that it was for that reason that he was reluctant to disclose it. He was again pressed in the following week, when he replied that further inquiries were still being made, and in the third week he finally admitted that what many of us had feared and expected was in fact the case—that the only punishment meted out was a reprimand.

The issue of publicity, which my hon. Friend has mentioned, is all-important in this case; but quite naturally, in view of the inadequacy of the penalty, the Secretary of State for War was apparently reluctant to stimulate a great deal of publicity. I feel myself that in a case of this kind, if an investigation has been made, if there has been only a reprimand, and if the Secretary of State for War, as apparently he did, felt that was inadequate, steps should have been taken to review the matter, or at least there should have been a frank admission in the House of Commons that in this instance justice had miscarried. I believe myself that far better results would have been achieved in that way.

Now that the matter has been raised on the Adjournment, however, I want to ask my hon. Friend four straight questions. First of all, what was the exaggeration, if indeed there was exaggeration, in the accounts which some of us in all good faith have been giving on this matter in the House? Secondly; what was the nature of the investigation which was held and which resulted in a mere reprimand? Was it a court martial proper; what rank were the conducting officers; how was it constituted? May we know something about the constitution and nature of the investigation? Thirdly, what was the nature of the reprimand? Was it the kind of reprimand I myself frequently received in the Services, or was it a really serious reprimand of a kind which Regular officers dislike? Even if it were of that kind, it is a very lenient punishment in this case because, as the hon. Member for Westmorland (Mr. Vane) has pointed out, it is of very little consequence except to a Regular officer. The last question is, would my hon. Friend say something on the issue of publicity? If he will answer these four questions, even at this late stage, some purpose will have been served.

10.19 p.m.

Mr. Hector Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

Time is very short, but I want to ask one short question. Admissions have been elicited from the Secretary of State, and on them two questions arise. What are the rights of the aggrieved man? What effect has this on British prestige in Germany? I think it would be right for the Under-Secretary of State, when replying, to make clear what the rights of the aggrieved man are, particularly his rights to compensation, not only for the indignity which was inflicted upon him, but for the physical assault. What system of redress is available to him? I think that should be clearly indicated, so that the man may know what steps he may adopt to get justice done.

10.20 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for War (Mr. Michael Stewart)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr. Driberg), who has done what he said he would do earlier, that is, raised this matter in order that the facts may be more fully stated, which, I agree, is an entirely desirable step. I am grateful to him, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Eton and Slough (Mr. Levy) and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for North Aberdeen (Mr. Hector Hughes) for the moderate way in which they have phrased what they have had to say on this undoubtedly serious matter.

I would accept at once the description given to the origin of this matter by the hon. Member for Maldon. It was this episode at the festivity at Walsrode. It resulted in a brawl. Consequent on that, some British soldiers found themselves in hospital. Disciplinary action was taken against others. It was made clear to the officer who investigated the matter that in the case of Herr Kleindienst it was important to reach the truth as soon as possible about the episode at Walsrode. I stress that because this officer was evidently extremely anxious to complete his investigation as speedily as possible, and to make it as full and just an inquiry as possible. I think it was that anxiety which led him and those working under him first to an error of judgment and then, secondly, to that worse error which has brought us to the matter we are discussing tonight.

The interrogation of Herr Kleindienst occurred on 20th October. I think no complaint arises on that. After that, the officer in charge of the investigation pursued his inquiries, which took him over a wide area; and he did not return again until midnight on 21st October. He was anxious immediately to continue. It appears that he got some further information which made him suppose it would be useful again to question Herr Kleindienst and some other Germans. His anxiety to continue the interrogation as speedily as possible led him to make what we must regard as the first error of judgment—the continuing of the investigation at this late hour. In fact, Herr Kleindienst and three other Germans were interrogated from 2.30 until about 5 o'clock in the morning, as the hon. Member for Maldon has told the House. Of the four Germans who were then interrogated, we may notice that two have made no complaint about anything that occurred during the interrogation. The interrogation was carried out by a British officer and two N.C.Os.

As was previously said, it is true to say that on this matter there is a conflict of evidence. I may say that the evidence to which my hon. Friend referred was before the court of inquiry. My hon. Friend the Member for Eton and Slough asked what was the nature of the inquiry. It was an ordinary court of inquiry such as is set up to investigate any doubtful matter, from which disciplinary action may or may not result, according to the findings of the court. A great deal of other evidence was before the court of inquiry, and I think that the decision was taken by the military authorities to set up that court of inquiry before there arrived in Germany the Ministerial inquiries following upon the matter's being raised in this country.

Mr. Selwyn Lloyd (Wirral)

What was the rank of the officer presiding over the court of inquiry?

Mr. Stewart

I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman will not press me on that point.

Wing-Commander Millington (Chelmsford)

Are we to understand from what the hon. Gentleman has just said that in this case an inquiry was held and that, as a direct result of the court of inquiry, without charges being made or any kind of hearing being held, a reprimand was issued to certain soldiers?

Mr. Stewart

No, I have not reached that stage of the story. I was saying that at the time of the court of inquiry a great deal of evidence was heard, and it is at this point that I can answer the question of exaggeration. It was at first represented, and a certificate was forthcoming from a German doctor which suggested that Herr Kleindienst had been very badly manhandled. But if the report from the German doctor—which personally I feel we must reject—had been fully correct, Herr Kleindienst would have had to be subjected to repeated and violent attacks, both by blows from fists and with rubber truncheons. The court of inquiry established that he had been struck with a rubber truncheon and with fists; but it is noticeable that we have evidence from one British Army officer and an official of the Control Commission who saw two men who made complaints on the following day, and one of whom had a bruise, and the other of whom had abrasions on the shins such as would have been caused by his being kicked on the shins. In the face of that evidence the court of inquiry, having weighed up the matter, came to the conclusion that the original complaint had been exaggerated, but that none the less there had been some assault.

In view of the evidence I have just quoted, and having read the report of the court of inquiry, I feel that we are justified in saying there was exaggeration of the complaint. We know how easy it is for such exaggeration to arise: a man is naturally outraged at being manhandled at all, and it is difficult for him to give a precise and objective account of the extent to which the abuse occurred. One other piece of evidence which leads us to this conclusion is that the German inspector of police at the police station where this occurred, who on several occasions went into the room in which the interrogation took place, stated that he saw nothing of which he considered complaint could be made. So there is independent evidence in favour of the British officers—evidence other than that which they themselves gave on their own behalf. In view of that, it seems to me that the violence used must have been on only one occasion, in a single outburst of temper. That is why I should regard phrases such as "behaviour comparable with that of the worst kind of Nazi" as exaggerations.

I know it will be in the mind of the House that, even if there is exaggeration, it is still a very grave matter that violence should be used at all in an interrogation. None the less, I hope that the House will bear in mind that, though this complaint has been the subject of serious exaggeration, that it should occur at all is very serious, and, as my right hon. Friend has said, is unworthy of the reputation of the British Army. Following the court of inquiry it was decided that the offenders should be dealt with summarily. Therefore, the reprimand was a summary reprimand, but its effect, and the way in which it is kept in the man's record, is the same as if it had been a reprimand imposed by sentence of court martial. That, I think, covers the question asked by my hon. and learned Friend.

Mr. Selwyn Lloyd

By whom were these men dealt with summarily?

Mr. Stewart

By their superior officers.

Mr. Selwyn Lloyd

That is not quite an answer.

Mr. Driberg

Was the officer a Regular soldier?

Mr. Stewart

No, the officer in question was not a Regular soldier, the effect of that being to make the punishment lenient for the nature of the offence. However, I think that what was in the mind of the military authority in imposing so lenient an offence was the fact that they had no reason to suppose that there was any deliberate intention to collect this man and manhandle him; that the intentions of the British personnel were correct at the beginning, but that they committed an error of judgment in holding the interrogation at this hour; but that there was not a deliberate intention to manhandle, although there was a deplorable outburst of temper during the interrogation.

For those reasons I cannot but feel that it would be giving too great a weight, and treating this matter too heavily, for us to take special measures to give it publicity in Walsrode. I believe that what has already been said will not escape the notice of the German population there. Similarly, I do not feel, in view of the evidence we have of the nature of the man's injuries, that a question of compensation here arises. This unpleasant incident, regrettable to the reputation of the Army, has occurred; it has been the subject of a full and careful inquiry by the Army itself, of its own initiative; and we make quite clear that interrogations of this kind must be conducted in reasonable circumstances, and that the use of violence of any kind, in any circumstances, will be regarded as a serious and grave offence. I hope, therefore, that the House, having heard that explanation, will feel that the interests of all parties are best served by agreeing that this matter has now reached a conclusion.

Mr. Driberg

Was it established by the court of inquiry whether Kleindienst had altered his previous evidence during this interrogation when he was manhandled? He says that the object of the interrogation was to get him to alter his evidence.

Mr. Stewart

It appears that at the end of the interrogation he did make a statement contrary to that which he had previously made, and that he withdrew it later.

Mr. Hector Hughes

Will the Under-Secretary indicate what procedure is—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock, and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Twenty-nine Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.