HC Deb 19 April 1948 vol 449 cc1443-6
The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Ernest Bevin)

A fortnight ago today we heard with horror of the air accident over Berlin in which a Russian Yak fighter came into collision with a B.E.A.C. Viking passenger aircraft, and all the passengers and crew of the Viking and the pilot of the Soviet fighter lost their lives. In my statement immediately after this accident I asked the House to withhold judgment until the facts were fully established. I thank the House for their response.

I have now received the report of the Court of Inquiry set up by the British Commander-in-Chief in Germany which has been investigating the collision. I am arranging for the publication of this report as a Command Paper,' which will be in the Vote Office today, but the House will, I am sure, wish to hear the results of the inquiry at once. Before I read the findings, however, I would like to say a word about the attitude of His Majesty's Government throughout this episode.

We had at our disposal evidence which seemed to establish prima facie the facts of the collision and which seemed to show that the highly tendentious accounts issued by the Soviet authorities immediately following the unfortunate accident were unjustified. However, we decided to wait for the result of a proper investigation of all the facts which could be obtained before giving our account to the House.

The steps which were taken to deal with this case were as follows. We decided to ask the Russians to co-operate with us. Accordingly, General Robertson proposed that he and Marshal Sokolowsky should appoint a joint Commission of Inquiry, on which the French and Americans would also be represented. This was refused. General Robertson then accepted the Soviet proposal for a joint British and Soviet technical investigation. When the experts met, however, a difficulty arose because the Soviet representative refused to hear oval evidence unless either side wished to query any written statement which had previously been submitted. The Russians also refused to hear statements from witnesses other than British or Soviet nationals.

General Robertson, therefore, gave instructions for our investigation to proceed on the basis of a hearing of all material witnesses. He invited Soviet representatives to be present, and also American and French observers. The Russians did not attend. American and French observers were present.

The facts have now been established and I will now read the findings of the Court of Inquiry: After the most careful consideration of all the evidence produced before us we tender the following findings as to the causes of the collision under investigation. We are unanimous in our views and have had no difficulty in arriving at our conclusions, which, in our opinion, are overwhelmingly supported by the oral and written evidence placed before the Court.

  1. (1) There was no evidence to show that the collision was anything but an accident.
  2. (2) The Viking aircraft was in an airworthy condition and at the time of collision was proceeding on its normal course in favourable flying conditions. It was 280 yards outside the two-mile circuit of the Soviet airfield at Dalgow and when the collision occurred was turning away from it.
  3. (3) The Yak fighter, which had been performing aerobatics in the vicinity of the collision for some time before the collision occurred, dived down from a considerable height in a power dive and passed the Viking close to its starboard wing. It then turned in a steep left-hand climbing turn. While still steeply banking, the Yak collided head on with the Viking, with the result that the leading edge of the Yak's starboard wing and the leading edge of the Viking's port wing came into collision and both wings were severed. When the wreckage of the Yak was examined it was found that the Yak's undercarriage and wheels were locked in the upward position and that the tail wheel unit was retracted into the up position, thus showing that the Yak was not preparing to land.
  4. (4) The pilot of the Viking was in no way to blame for the collision and had no opportunity of taking avoiding action.
  5. (5) The presence of the Soviet fighter was never notified to the British authorities and the fact of its being in the air at the time was not known to the Soviet officials of the Berlin Air Safety Centre.
  6. (6) The collision was caused by the action of the Soviet fighter aircraft, which was in disregard of the accepted rules of flying and, in particular, of the Quadripartite flying rules to which the Soviet authorities were parties.
  7. (7) The Viking aircraft exploded on hitting the ground and, although there is no direct evidence to prove such a fact, the 14 passengers and crew met instantaneous death due to the impact and the explosion."
The report which accompanies these findings has been examined and the evidence mentioned in the report justifies the findings. I am satisfied that no blame is to be attached to the pilot of the Viking. General Robertson is sending a copy of the report and findings to the Russian Commander-in-Chief in Berlin and is also sending copies to the United States and French Commandersin-Chief.

In view of the facts now established, His Majesty's Government will proceed to claim compensation from the Soviet Government. In conclusion, the House will, I am sure, wish to reaffirm its sympathy with the relatives of those who unfortunately lost their lives in this disaster.

Mr. H. Macmillan

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to associate my right hon. and hon. Friends with the expression of deep sympathy with the relatives of all the victims of this terrible accident. I would' like to add, also, that I hope His Majesty's Government will press their claims for compensation with the utmost vigour. Perhaps I may be allowed to ask one question. What steps are being taken to ensure that such an accident shall not be repeated?

Mr. Bevin

Certainly we shall take up the claim for compensation immediately. We have received oral assurance that there will be no interference and that any such occurrence is unlikely to occur in the future.

Mr. Vernon Bartlett

Is there any truth in reports that Soviet fighter aircraft have carried out similar aerobatics in the past to the danger of British aircraft carrying on their normal business?

Mr. Bevin

I have seen that in the Press. As to whether there is any evidence, I shall have to make inquiries. I have tried my best to keep this inquiry strictly to this object.

Air-Commodore Harvey

If there is any indication or sign of interference in future, will the right hon. Gentleman not hesitate to put on jet fighter escorts? Will the right hon. Gentleman see that the facts he has given to the House are broadcast on all foreign wavelengths, so that they will be known by everybody?

Mr. Bevin

Yes, the report will be broadcast in the Overseas Service, and it will be issued as a White Paper this afternoon in the House, which will ensure it great publicity. It is very authorative. With regard to putting on fighter escorts, I am going to assume that the Soviet will be sensible, and, therefore, I shall not indulge in any threats of any kind.