§ 11.9 a.m.
§ Mr. A. R. W. Low (Blackpool, North)
Last night some of us heard the Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies give the first piece—although only a small piece—of encouraging news which the Government have announced about Palestine in the last few months. It was about Jerusalem, and although the subject which I am raising today does not directly concern Jerusalem, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman who is to reply will add to the news which was given last night, if he is able to do so. I refer particularly to the question that was asked, whether the Jewish Agency have now replied to the truce proposals put forward by the High Commissioner.
I wish to direct the attention of the House today solely to the military situation in Palestine between tomorrow and the date of our final evacuation. It has been argued that a discussion on this situation in the House might be dangerous, but I do not take that view. I take the view that we have a responsibility in this House even in situations of a crisis nature like this which are dangerous, and that we should have sufficient confidence in ourselves to avoid saying anything which might worsen a very difficult situation. I hope that the few remarks I shall address to the House will live up to that intention.
Tomorrow the Mandate will have ended. I am not concerned in this Debate 2420 in saying anything about the way in which we have carried out this Mandate, or in saying anything which directly concerns the tragic events of the last six months culminating in open warfare between Jews and Arabs. Those are matters for another occasion, and, if I omit to make reference to them it does not mean that I feel anything but most deeply about the things which have happened. My object is simply to get the Minister of Defence to give certain assurances which will convince us, and the many thousands outside the House who are deeply interested in this matter, that our officers and men of the three Services, the majority of whom are in the Army, will be evacuated speedily and in safety. I hope he will be able to convince me that the considerations governing the Commander in Palestine will be the safety of his men, and that the evacuation will be completed not just by 1st August but before that date if possible, as some statements seem to indicate might be the case.
Any criticisms I may have made in this House have been directed to the right hon. Gentleman accustomed to answering Questions on this subject in the House. I have never intended to call in question the actions of those on the spot. That is something which we are not capable of doing in this House, and I deprecate remarks from the Government Front Bench, particularly from the Secretary of State for War, that we are being critical of those on the spot due to some kind of superior military knowledge which we may possess. I am a civilian, and I do not have the military knowledge or the knowledge of the facts to criticise anything which those in Palestine may be doing.
One of the main reasons why it is essential that we should understand the considerations that govern the actions a the Commander in Palestine is that if they are clearly understood, then there is less chance of incurring deep enmity of both Jews and Arabs by what we may do in the next few weeks. As I understand it, up to this evening our troops in Palestine have had a positive responsibility to be fair as between Arab and Jew, and they have been called upon, in their obligation to help in maintaining law and order, to see that Jew and Arab are treated alike as far as possible.
2421 From tomorrow that positive responsibility is at an end, and the consideration governing the actions taken by our troops will be solely that of safety and speedy evacuation. That is bound to cause things to be done which will annoy Jews and Arabs. Let it be quite clear that these things are done not with the object of annoying one and pleasing the other, but solely with the object of effecting our evacuation. If we make that clear, then there is some chance of keeping the respect and confidence of the majority of the Arab peoples and, I hope, of the majority of the Jews. It is quite clear, although we may now be withdrawing from Palestine, that we cannot vary in any way the fundamental fact that the interests of Britain and of the Arab world are most closely hound together. I hope we shall always bear that in mind.
In regard to the present military position in Palestine, I cannot say that we have had an enormous amount of assistance in the information which has been given to this House. It now appears that our forces were too weak and that considerable reinforcements had to be sent to Palestine on 1st May. According to the communiqué from Palestine headquarters on 2nd May, the Palestine theatre had not apparently received operational priority, but some other Middle East commitment had. It would appear that fighting units and tanks had been withdrawn too early owing to some priority imposed from outside Palestine. That is a reasonable inference from the communiqué which was issued, extracts of which appeared in "The Times" on 3rd May. The most important extract is this:This theatre has now assumed operational priority over some other commitments in the Middle East.What an extraordinary statement that is. What other parts of the Middle East could conceivably have had anything approaching the operational priority of Palestine during the last six months or more? It is because of the extraordinary nature of that statement that some doubts have arisen as to the real intentions of the Government in bringing back these reinforcements. I am satisfied, and I hope the right hon. Gentleman will satisfy us further, that the intention behind the bringing in of these reinforcements was exactly as stated, and that is that we were too weak to carry out the job which faced us at the time and we wanted more troops 2422 to cover our withdrawal. Not everyone has accepted that, and the right hon. Gentleman will do a service if he again states the position quite clearly.
Let me now come to the questions I wish to ask the right hon. Gentleman. I know that the right hon. Gentleman has laid in the library a directive which has been issued to commanders of the troops. L did not propose to refer directly to that document, because it was marked "Top Secret," but perhaps as it has been published in the Press, we might refer to its subject matter. When I say it has been published in the Press, I do not mean that the document as a whole has been published, but those parts of it to which I would wish to refer. That being so, I think it is reasonable to cut short my questions to the Minister, and to refer more specifically—
§ The Minister of Defence (Mr. A. V. Alexander)
There has been no publication by the Government, and I would remind the hon. Gentleman that it would not be the first time that we have had leakages from foreign sources.
§ Mr. Sydney Silverman (Nelson and Colne) rose—
§ Mr. Silverman
On a point of Order. The hon. Gentleman has just said that he proposes to read extracts from a secret document. If he does, can we see that document?
§ Mr. Low
I did not say I would read it; I said that I would refer to it. From 16th May our troops are no longer responsible for law and order in Palestine, except in so far as their own safety is concerned. That has been stated over and over again. It follows, therefore, that only those troops required for final evacuation need remain in Palestine; the rest can go as quickly as possible. Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that that is the policy? As to the number of troops to be retained, is it intended to keep any British units in any part of 2423 Palestine after 1st August, or the final date for evacuation of the main body, in any circumstances whatever? I ask this only because the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, in his speech last week, indicated that in certain circumstances—specifically if a truce was reached, and there was agreement between the two sides—we might change our position. I would like some clarification of that by the right hon. Gentleman; I would like him to refer specifically to that question. Further, can the right hon. Gentleman give us a categorical assurance that the Commander of our troops in Palestine has sufficient forces at his disposal to enable him to complete withdrawal safely, even in the worst circumstances that now seem likely? As it is the Minister of Defence who will reply to the Debate, I would also like to say that sufficient forces means not only land forces, but sufficient air support as well.
Now as to powers. We have the advantage of having seen what the powers of the G.O.C. are to be. As I understand it, he has these powers without having to refer to higher authorities. Can the G.O.C. delegate them, so that there can be immediate action on the spot? Is he allowed to take action outside the actual area occupied by his proclamation? I understand that that area is the majority of the plain, excluding the coastal towns from Nathania to Jaffa. Is he allowed to go outside if he considers it necessary for the safety of his troops?
Now I come to the question of immigrants which, as I see it, bears quite directly on the safety of our evacuation. We are told that 30,000 Jewish immigrants are waiting at Cyprus, and that 100,000 or more are waiting in various parts of Europe to go to Palestine. Also, rumour has it that some are waiting in Italy with planes ready to take them to Palestine. Would not the arrival of these immigrants, just when we are trying to organise and make effective our final withdrawal, endanger the success of our operations?
§ Mr. Low
Because it would seem to me that if they arrive at Haifa port that would almost certainly upset our organisation. It would also seem that the influx of this enormous number of immigrants 2424 must seriously inflame feeling. I would like to have a statement of policy purely from the military security angle, which is the approach to which I am directing the attention of the House. I imagine that we have taken steps with Italy, or other foreign countries, to see what can be done to prevent the wholesale arrival of such a large number of immigrants. The hon. Member for East Coventry (Mr. Cross-man) is grimacing as though I am suggesting that we have some control over these people after r6th May. I am not suggesting that; I am merely suggesting that for the sake of the safety of our troops, for which we here are directly responsible, steps should be taken to look after them in the most difficult situation which is bound to arise if all these immigrants suddenly arrive in Palestine.
§ Mr. Crossman (Coventry, East)
Does the hon. Gentleman seriously suggest that the safety of our troops will be increased if we attempt to ban immigrants from going into areas of Palestine which are now exclusively under Jewish military control? Does he think that it will improve relations between the de facto Jewish Government of Palestine and the British military commander if suggestions of a highly political character are made by Members opposite, as though they were ostensibly concerned simply with the security of our troops?
§ Mr. Low
I do not want to enter into a full discussion of this problem, but it is obvious that these matters concern the safety of our troops, whichever way a decision is made. The hon. Gentleman has put one aspect of the case; I have tried to put both sides. If we merely pay regard to what the hon. Gentleman has just said, we are appeasing the Jews because we happen to be evacuating from their area. That is not a final test of what our policy should be—
§ Dr. Segal(Preston) rose—
§ Mr. Low
I want to hear from the Minister of Defence what that policy is, and not what Members opposite think it ought to be.
On the timing of the date for final evacuation, is it governed and, if so, how much, by the quantity of stores which remains to be evacuated? As I understand it, if the level of evacuation, about which we were told in March, is maintained there 2425 must be about one more month's stores remaining to be evacuated—and that is all. Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us whether it is the quantity of stores which will delay our final evacuation, or whether there is some other reason? In particular, will he tell us whether there is sufficient shipping?
A word about troops. A question was asked in the House the other day about the possibility of special leave for our troops in Palestine. I quite appreciate the difficulties of the Service Departments in arranging special leave, but I am putting this question to the Minister not from a demagogic or sentimental point of view, but because I know from my own experience in the Middle East, where I had to stay five years because of the difficulties in connection with leave arrangements, the enormous value of a selective or ballot leave scheme. In this matter I am thinking, not so much of the National Service men who will get back soon in any case, but of the Regulars of all three services on whom the right hon. Gentleman relies for the efficiency and, in the main, the morale of his fighting Services. If he has not fully considered that already, will he now do so from that angle?
Finally, I want to ask him to make the situation absolutely clear to us and to the country so that we can understand, not only the courage of our men who are fighting there—we know that, and have come to expect it—but that all precautions have been taken to safeguard them and to speed up their evacuation. Also, will he do for the Army and the Air Force what my right hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Eden) asked the Parliamentary Secretary to the Admiralty to do for the Navy, namely, send a message to the Army and the Air Force telling them of our admiration for their conduct in the responsible, nerve-racking and perilous task they have carried out, and of our confidence that they will successfully carry out the tasks that await them during the next few weeks?
§ 11.31 a.m.
§ Colonel Gomme-Duncan (Perth and Kinross, Perth)
My bon. Friend the Member for North Blackpool (Mr. Low) has stated the case we wish to raise today with the very greatest clarity, which will enable me to say considerably less than I might have done. I must, first, express my surprise, to put it mildly, at the 2426 absence of the Secretary of State for War. I fully realise that the Minister of Defence covers all three Defence Services; but I think it is a gross discourtesy to the House, and is clear evidence on the part of the Secretary of State for War of a failure to recognise the responsibilities of his office, that he should not be here today, because practically everything with which we are dealing today affects the right hon. Gentleman directly.
I wonder whether this part of the world has fully recognised the significance of the day after tomorrow, when we, as a Mandatory Power, finally lay down the reins of office in Palestine? After all, 30 years is a long time; we have had a desperately difficult task, and in spite of mistakes we have done an extremely good job. We should realise that hundreds of millions —or certainly a hundred million, which I have seen mentioned today—of our taxpayers' money has been freely poured out by us as the Mandatory Power in Palestine—on behalf, remember, of other countries—and many lives have been sacrificed. Our critics, who have been many, do not realise the job we have had to do, and it is high time that we told them.
The Army dislikes, above everything else, being called in to the aid of the civil power. That is the most distasteful job that any soldier is ever called upon to perform. If all goes well the soldier gets no credit for it; if anything goes wrong, the soldier gets all the blame. Perhaps I might recall to the House Kipling's words:O! it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' 'Chuck him out, the brute.'But its 'saviour of his country' when the guns begin to shoot.That is the feeling today, just as much as it was 5o years ago when Rudyard Kipling wrote those lines. "Shall we be supported?" is always at the back of any responsible soldier's mind in matters of this kind; and the answer which usually comes to him in the light of past experience is, "No," Today, Palestine is only a repetition—and I say a tragic repetition—or what has gone on before.
In General MacMillan, the Commander of our Forces in Palestine, we have a first-class, highly competent, able and gallant officer, just as was his predecessor, 2427 General Barker. There is nothing wrong there; and it is right that we should say in this House, reinforcing what my hon. Friend has said, that in any remarks on military matters which we have addressed to the Secretary of State for War we have never had the slightest intention of running down or decrying the work of the commanders on the spot or of the troops they command. The officers and men out there have done their utmost. My hon. Friend said that he spoke as a civilian. I can speak as a soldier and back him up 100 per cent. in what he said in that regard. I am glad that this is one of those perhaps rare occasions when civilians and soldiers are in complete agreement.
Three main factors have militated, and are militating, against the morale and efficiency of our Forces in Palestine today. The first is this constant chopping and changing of the personnel in the units serving in that area. A commanding officer has the responsibility of knowing his men. That is the first job anybody taking over command of a unit tries to do. Also, the men and the N.C.O.'s should know each other, and know each other intimately. But in these units in Palestine this is an impossibility, and the fact that commanding officers, N.C.O.'s and men do not know each other as they should has placed in the hands of their enemies one of the strongest weapons they could possibly have.
The terrorists—I shall not say on which side, because that is not the point—who wish to attack a camp or defensive position just revel in the knowledge that the officers and men in the unit cannot possibly know each other as they should. These terrorists arrive armed, clothed, equipped and badged—and do not forget that—exactly as the men in the post they propose to attack. They arrive in armoured and non-armoured vehicles which are correctly painted, numbered and badged in accordance with the formation, a part of which they are about to attack. Nine times out of ten they are met by new and inexperienced sentries, who see these men dressed exactly as they are themselves, riding apparently in British vehicles, and think for a moment that they must be some of their own chaps. The moment of hesitation is the fatal moment when the attack is pushed in and, as happened the other day, the guard is lined up against 2428 the wall of the guard room and shot in the back, the same fate awaiting the commanding officer as he comes out of his orderly room.
Now, that was due to this fatal momentary hesitation, which is all that the terrorists wanted. It is fundamentally due to the fact that in a war area—because it is nothing Iess—there has been a change over of personnel on a peacetime basis. That is radically wrong, because a disintegrating unit cannot be an efficient unit. Hard as it may have been for these men, they should not have been given their discharge or their leave; if it is a question of war and the safety of the country and themselves, they must forego that, unpleasant as it is to do so. It is the Government's responsibility that this peace-time policy has been carried out in Palestine in units which are doing a dangerous war-time job.
As my hon. Friend pointed out, there has obviously been a serious mistake over the question of the withdrawal. I should like to know whether the Minister will frankly tell us, and above all the world outside, that those reinforcements which had to be sent are purely and simply for the covering of that withdrawal, and nothing else. It is essential that we should know that. We have in Palestine a powerful force; and any powerful, well organised force withdrawing should withdraw through itself, and sufficient operational units should have been left for the purpose. I should like to hear what the Minister has to say on that score, because it is quite obvious that if a large and powerful force is being evacuated, and if people from outside are drawn in to help; there must be something radically wrong. This reinforcements business has had the worst possible effect not only on the Jews and the Arabs but also on the British troops themselves. I will emphasise the effect on the troops by quoting a letter from a very competent officer on the spot who says:It is quite maddening to have to sit around and be shot at and at the same time to be so particularly weak that all question of reprisal has to be shelved for fear of rousing these thugs to real fury. Our country has, I fear, sunk lower than it has been for many years. At no level is there vigorous action and all because "—mark these words—we are too weak on the spot to be able to sustain such action or its consequences2429 He goes on to say:It is not the fault"—he is a comparatively junior officer—of the military leaders in Palestine. God knows they are working wonders with the men and material allotted to them and within the limits allowed by the policy of this GovernmentThat is only one of many letters which I have had from officers, non-commissioned officers and men on the spot. I hope the Minister will realise how serious such feelings are within an Armed Force placed in such a difficult situation and just what that means to the morale of that force.
Thirdly, the Government's policy for Palestine over the past year or two has had disastrous effects in these ways. The Armed Forces on the spot, particularly the Army, have a feeling that their hands are tied in spite of the assurances. They have a feeling—I am quoting their feelings; I am not saying that it is an actual fact—that the Government's orders, particularly recently, favoured the Jews as against the Arabs. They have the feeling that they will not be backed up in action which they take. Nothing could be worse for morale than the three factors I have mentioned.
I will quote another letter from an entirely different officer—it is one of many —who states that he was the second in command of a road block a few miles south of Haifa. He says:This read block was instituted because the Jews had said that they were going to attack Haifa, and we were to prevent either Arab or Jew reinforcements reaching Haifa"—a sound enough instruction. However, on a certain evening which he mentions:A staff officer came round and gave us the following orders:—he says this word was not defined but:
- (1) To allow any Jews through the road block without any hindrance whatsoever.
- (2) To stop all other vehicles. Military vehicles need not be searched unless they are carrying natives. All arms will be removed from all except military vehicles and the registered number of each arm will be handed to the Haganah section. You will retain the arms and hand them in to the Army authorities. After 15th.May they will be handed over by the Army to the Jews. All foreigners "—We were told to assume that it included everyone who was not either Jew or Palestine Arab and it included Europeans as foreigners.2430 All foreigners could be arrested by the Haganah section and taken back to their internment camp in Haifa. Those orders were countermanded 12 hours later, but they placed that post completely under the control of Haganah. The letter goes on:The next morning an officer, an Englishman, employed by the N.A.A.F.I., came along with a car and some Arab women employees for all of whom he said he could vouch, In accordance with our instructions, he was passed to the Jews for vetting, and they turned him back.This is a report from an officer on the spot, and we cannot lightly treat it.
§ Mr. Alexander
Might I be quite clear about the procedure which has been adopted? The hon. and gallant Gentleman has given me no notice that he was going to quote things of this kind or taken any possible precaution so that I should be able to deal with the matter. I understood that the Opposition did not in any way wish to cast reflections on the local commanders, but the hon. and gallant Gentleman is now raising a question about some order which is said to have been given by the military authorities What is the object of this?
§ Colonel Gomme-Duncan
I should be very pleased to tell the right hon. Gentleman the object. I would first point out that this is not news because three or four days ago there was a Question on the Order Paper which was answered by the Secretary of State for War. It is no good the right hon. Gentleman saying that he did not know anything about it.
§ Mr. Crossman
Does the hon. and gallant Gentleman suggest that this detailed order is something which was imposed upon the local G.O.C. by the Government, or is he directly attacking the honour and integrity of the G.O.C., Haifa? If he is, then he is breaking the pledge given by his hon. Friend the Member for North Blackpool (Mr. Low).
§ Colonel Gomme-Duncan
I am coming to that. I am quoting orders which have been given on the spot. They most obviously be in accordance with Govern- 2431 ment policy because the military commander has to carry out the orders of the Government. It is no good the Government trying to back out of it. I do not need to go on with that but it emphasises and proves my point about the effect on morale of such orders and what has been going on in Palestine recently. These officers and their men feel that they have a reason to be ashamed of being British at times, and that is a thing which should never be imposed on any force which has a difficult job to do.
§ Mr. Paget (Northampton)
Will the hon. and gallant Gentleman give the date of the order? Was it before or after the surrender of Haifa?
§ Colonel Gomme-Duncan
I am not concerned with whether it was before or after the surrender of Haifa. [Interruption.] The hon. and learned Gentleman, with his vast military knowledge, may laugh, but I am not concerned whether it was before or after the surrender of Haifa. This military post was to all intents and purposes put under one side in this dispute and was not neutral. That is a clear statement of fact.
Everybody will agree that the people of this country are very anxious about the Palestine situation. They should know the truth. They have a feeling, right or wrong, that the Government are hiding things. I do not say that is right, but there is a very widespread feeling. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will do something to disperse it. As we know, the Army is doing its utmost. Is every humanly possible precaution being taken by the Government to ensure the safe withdrawal of our men from Palestine? Are we providing shipping for the immigrant refugees in Cyprus, and, if so, will it be provided before we clear out of the ports in Palestine? It is no good anybody saying that the entry of large numbers of immigrants will not materially affect the safety of the troops in Palestine. Do the Government realise that the refugees in Cyprus are no haphazard collection of unfortunates by any possible means? They are very largely carefully selected partisans. Do the Government realise that a number of these refugees are not Jews, that many of them are Russians and that many of them are carefully selected and trained Com- 2432 munists? Do they also know that on occasions those people have marched from their ships to the camp in formed platoons, which does not sound like a haphazard collection of unfortunates. The situation is one which the Government have allowed us to slip into despite many warnings, and I want to know whether they realise that if things go further to the bad than at present, they as a Government are completely and absolutely responsible.
We have heard recently some talk about the statue of General Gordon. I wonder if the lesson of his death, and the responsibility of those concerned with it, has been forgotten? There is in Palestine today the chance of a far greater tragedy than anything in which General Gordon was involved. I hope the Minister will give us a full, frank statement on the points that have been raised, which are of the utmost importance, not only to the men on the spot, but to the country and the world.
§ 11.50 a.m.
§ Mr. Paget (Northampton)
The question I would like to put, through you, Mr. Speaker, to hon. Members opposite is: what is their objective in Palestine? Do they want to get our troops out with the minimum casualties and loss and in the quickest possible time, or do they want, in some indirect way, to continue to take part in the struggle that is going on? That seems to me to be the vital question.
Certain orders from General Stockwell were quoted by the hon. and gallant Member for Perth (Colonel Gomme-Duncan). I understand that those orders were issued after the surrender of Haifa, and as part of the evacuation of our troops. If the objective is to get our troops out as quickly and as safely as possible, those are absolutely correct orders. The Jews had control of Haifa, they won the battle, and the Arabs had surrendered, but we were taking our troops out through Haifa and if we wanted to avoid casualties we could do that by consent, by arrangement and by treaty with the Jews or we could do it by battle and accept the casualties? Which do hon. Members opposite wish to choose?
§ Mr. Low
I made it absolutely clear that, in so far as we were dealing with the period from 16th May onwards, the sole consideration governing the Com- 2433 mander—and governing me, as I was talking about his action—was the safety and speediness of evacuation. Is the hon. and learned Gentleman not aware that until today has expired, we are responsible for a Mandate in Palestine and for law and order and fairness as between Arab and Jew?
§ Mr. Paget
I am not saying a word with regard to the speech of the hon. Member for North Blackpool (Mr. Low). I am dealing with the other speech, and I made that clear. I would like to have an answer to this question from hon. Members opposite: both as from tomorrow and also in the past, do they want us to get our troops away as safely as possible or to accept the casualties that inevitably result from accepting battle? That was the choice before General Stockwell in Haifa, and for my part I have no hesitation in saying that he took the right decision. The Jews had control of Haifa, we had to get our troops out through that port. If we treated with the Jews then we had to say this: "Getting our troops out will not be a method of Arab infiltration into the positions which you have taken." If we were to get our troops through peacefully, that agreement had to be made. If that agreement was to be made, then the posts which we had established to bring our troops in had to be used to see that our flow of troops was not used for Arab infiltration. The alternative was to fight our way in. That was the choice, and I am quite certain that the most sensible and proper decision reached by General Stockwell saved a great many English lives, and I applaud him heartily for that decision.
I hope that sensible decision of doing this by consent and co-operation with the de facto Jewish Government which has been established in that area will be continued, otherwise we shall have to fight every bit of the way, hundreds of our people will be killed, and I do not want that to happen. I believe that no more mischievous suggestion could be put forward than that, now we have put an end to our Mandate, we should continue to interfere with Jewish immigration. From tomorrow Jewish immigration has nothing to do with us, and if we interfere with it, it will mean inevitably wholesale war not merely by the terrorists but by the very effective Jewish Army which has proved itself in battle, directed upon our 2434 Army abroad. Our losses in material and troops will be very heavy indeed if we deliberately provoke that war, as we most certainly will do if we do not remain neutral but insist upon interfering with immigration.
§ Mr. Low
I think I made it clear that I was asking questions but, when the hon. and learned Gentleman says that we have given up the Mandate, he may not be aware that we have declared a large part of the Jewish partition area of Palestine an occupied military zone for which we are wholly responsible—
§ Mr. Paget
As to the contracting area which we are controlling for the purpose of our evacuation, that area we must control for the safety of our troops. We have come to a very proper agreement with regard to Haifa, again I think through General Stockwell, by which we have given the Jews control of Haifa subject to their granting us priority for al port facilities for the purpose of our evacuation. I would urge this upon the Minister of Defence: we should make it clear, and as public as possible, at the earliest possible moment, just what port facilities we require for those evacuation purposes, so that there can be no suggestion that we are using evacuation as an indirect method of intervening in the Jewish-Arab war by preventing the Jews obtaining through the area they control either arms or munitions or reinforcements. We must also make it abundantly clear that we are making no naval blockade and no air blockade, that our sole interest is to withdraw our troops in safety, that we desire to do it in co-operation with the Jews—because that is the only way we can do it in safety and without accepting battle—and that we certainly will not indulge in any kind of action which will be a provocation to the people through whom we are bringing our troops, or indulge in any kind of intervention now that our Mandate has come to an end.
§ 11.59 a.m.
§ The Minister of Defence (Mr. A. V. Alexander)
May I say at once that to most of the points put by the hon. Mem- 2435 ber for North Blackpool (Mr. Low) I take no exception; he was asking for information, so that the large numbers of people in this country who are concerned about relatives, and so on, in the Forces in Palestine may have any proper reassurance that can be given. It is a perfectly right action to raise such questions in this House, and in the course of what I have to say, I shall try to reply categorically to the points that the hon. Member raised. I regret very much the speech of the hon. and gallant Member for Perth (Colonel Gomme-Duncan). It introduced an element into this serious question which indicated no desire in the mind of the hon. and gallant Gentleman except to score party points if possible—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."]—on a matter on which this country has acted, throughout the whole of the Mandate in Palestine, with the highest motives for the good of all the inhabitants of Palestine, whether Jew or Arab.
§ Colonel Gomme-Duncan
As the right hon. Gentleman has drawn attention to this, may I point out that I specifically said that for 30 years we have done this tremendous job, and done it extraordinarily well, against all critics?
§ Mr. Alexander
I find it difficult to reconcile that statement of the hon. and gallant Member with his statement that the Government of this great country has been so wrong and weak and that officers out there felt ashamed to be British. I do not know how he can reconcile those statements. There has been nothing in the conduct of successive Governments undertaking this great Mandate in the interests of the people of Palestine which at any time could justify anyone getting up at this, time and making such a statement. I throw it back at the hon. and gallant Member as a complete misrepresentation of the standards of British conduct and British policy and what has been accomplished for both sides, Jew and Arab, in the course of the whole period that this nation has been responsible for the exercise of the Mandate.
He quoted orders of a second in command, apparently an officer who describes himself as a second in command of a road block—evidently some very junior officer. I suggest that this bears no relation to any 2436 kind of order which any hon. and gallant Member here who has military staff experience could imagine would be given in the form in which it was quoted. He says, of course, that it had been corrected afterwards, but we have not had any Question in the House about it. The hon. and gallant Member gave no notice, and the only Question I can find or remember was a Question about a N.A.A.F.I. employee, which I believe was put by the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton), but it had nothing to do with what has been quoted this morning by the hon. and gallant Member. Yet he comes down and bases his castigatory remarks on information he has never had an opportunity to check up, and has given no notice on which a reply could be made.
§ Colonel Gomme-Duncan
I am very glad to realise that this has got under the skin of the right hon. Gentleman. I am perfectly entitled to say in connection with the effect on morale of troops in Palestine what has caused it to deteriorate and no one is better able to say that than a junior officer in a dangerous position. The right hon. Gentleman's rather disparaging reference to a junior officer in command of a post again shows that he has no firsthand knowledge of what it is like to be in command of a dangerous post.
§ Mr. Alexander
All I can say is that I cannot reconcile the remarks of the hon. and gallant Member in regard to the whole policy of the High Command in Palestine. That policy has been carried out with the full confidence and support of our military authorities in the Middle East at all times. They have had our full confidence, and would have been supplied with any strength they desired from our resources there, such as they might have requested. I think it perfectly scandalous to try to put this country into the kind of position which the hon. and gallant Member is trying to put them into this morning without any real factual support, and in complete disregard of the policy which has been carried out by the Government all the way through. It is all very well for the hon. and gallant Member to turn away and smile, but repeated assurances have been given by myself and other Ministers that the military authorities on the spot have our complete confidence and support. I say that as the Minister of Defence that we have not received any 2437 word in complaint from the military authorities to the effect that they have not had support. Not a word. In such circumstances how dare Private Members get up and make the kind of statements which have been made this morning in order to derive party advantage in the country? It is completely unjustified and not a patriotic thing to do to try to give a false picture to the world of what the real action of Britain has been in regard to the Palestine Mandate. I turn to the special question put to me by the hon. Member for North Blackpool. He asked at the outset—
§ Mr. Paget
Before my right hon Friend leaves this point, will he allow me to interrupt, because it is very important. Will he make it quite clear that His Majesty's Government fully support General Stockwell and all local commanders in the arrangements which they made with the Jews for the safe evacuation of our troops from Haifa. It is very important that that should be fully understood.
§ Mr. Alexander
I am not going into further details. The military authorities on the spot—and I do not confine it to General Stockwell, but right up to General MacMillan and all those serving under him—have had our complete confidence and support. There is no way in which we have failed to support them on any big question they have raised.
I turn to the question put by the hon. Member for North Blackpool. He asked, arising out of what was said in the House last night, whether the Jewish Agency have yet replied. I am sorry to say that up to this moment we have not yet had any reply from the Jewish Agency. Something may come through in the course of the day, and if it should come through in the course of the day, we should be very glad to communicate it. The hon. Member's remarks, I recognise frankly, have been confined to what will be the military situation between 15th May—the date on which we cease to be responsible for the exercise of the Mandate, and the responsibility for general law and order—and the final evacuation date. He asks me to give an assurance that our troops will be evacuated speedily and safely and that, if possible, they will not be retained to the ultimate date we have fixed, 1st August. I can give the most categorical 2438 assurance on that. Apparently he has studied the directive for this period from 15th May onwards, and which was put into the Library for the information of hon. Members. He will realise that it is in accord with the directive that the main consideration is the safe and speedy evacuation of our troops.
So far as stores are concerned, whilst, of course, the evacuation of valuable stores required for future needs of the Army is important, we do not at this stage regard the saving of a small quantity of stores as being so important that it should delay the evacuation of the troops themselves. I would add with a good deal of pleasure that the great bulk of stores, apart from those required for day to day maintenance of the troops and their safety, have already been evacuated, or at any rate got into what we call the evacuation enclave in readiness for shipment through the port of Haifa. The next question was whether there is sufficient shipping to make adequate arrangements for the safe evacuation of our troops. All my information is that there is adequate shipping already planned and arranged for that purpose.
Another specific question which the hon. and gallant Gentleman put to me was with regard to the troops who were sent as reinforcements early this month. I beg Members of the House to remember that when we have to face such a difficult operation as the evacuation of a country like that, in all the circumstances which are known to the House, is it not done without the most careful thought and very detailed planning by the responsible staffs on the spot. The whole basis of the evacuation of our troops and supplies from Palestine has been decided upon on the advice and on the detailed planning of the staffs on the spot. At no stage during that period has there been a suggestion. from the military authorities that their forces were insufficient. Indeed, as hon. Members opposite know, we have been questioned on that matter from time to time in the House, and either I or my colleagues have answered that there were sufficient forces on the spot.
The reason for reinforcements being sent can be put in this way: When a military plan is made some months in advance and there are scheduled phases of the plan to be carried through, every particular happening which subsequently 2439 takes place cannot always be foreseen. At the date when reinforcements were sent some events had been taking place which led the authorities to see that there might be an increased element of danger in the final days before the end of the Mandate, and during the period which had been scheduled for final evacuation. There is no other reason whatever behind this sending of temporary reinforcements. I can give the House the most categorical assurance that there has been no intention whatever to send those reinforcements in order to stay longer in Palestine; or any other ulterior motive whatever. It has never been in our minds; it has never been contemplated. I hope that the House will be satisfied on that matter.
The hon. and gallant Member, in refering to the general strength for the future, then asked whether there was now or would be in the future, sufficient troops to effect evacuation safely. I think that my answer to his previous question really covers that. We are advised that there is sufficient strength in order to see that evacuation is carried out, and with reasonable speed.
§ Mr. Oliver Stanley (Bristol, West)
I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would like to say, as I am sure is the case, that we are willing to provide any further troops for whom the Command in Palestine might ask, and that we are in a position to provide them?
§ Mr. Alexander
Perhaps I should have been a little more specific about the way in which I answered the hon. and gallant Member's question about the sudden priority accorded over other areas to the sending of reinforcements to Palestine. The High Command in Palestine is under the Commander-in-Chief, Middle East Land Forces, who has always had a reserve of strength or reinforcements, able to be deployed in whichever way they are needed. If the High Command in Palestine required reinforcements, they would make their request to the Commander-in-Chief, Middle East; there has never been any doubt about that. The publication as to priority which the hon. and gallant Member quoted is certainly not a publication of something from the Government here. There may have been some general talk with the Press out there to make sure that it was understood that reinforcements were coming, but there has 2440 certainly never been any question that, if reinforcements were required by the military authorities in Palestine, those authorities were to be given a secondary priority compared with other commitments. I hope that that is perfectly clear.
§ Mr. Stanley
I do not think the right hon. Gentleman quite understood my point. I wished to give him an opportunity to say something which may be valuable if there are any ill-disposed people in Palestine who might take advantage of any weakness. My point was that, if at any time it should appear that we have not enough troops in Palestine to guarantee safe evacuation, we have plenty more available and are prepared immediately to send them.
§ Mr. Alexander
I do not think there is any question of starting a war. Whatever military, naval or air forces were required to provide proper security for our men who are leaving Palestine would be sent there.
The hon. and gallant Member asked whether the Commander-in-Chief, in the new circumstances of this directive could delegate powers. I was rather astonished at that? The Commander-in-Chief has his directive. He is a soldier of great staff experience, and he will, either by proclamation in a particular area, or by his orders to his officers in command in the different posts or areas, see that everything is properly done to implement the directive. I do not think that there is any question of our telling him how he should delegate powers. He is the supreme commander there in that field and he will carry out the directive. We are perfectly prepared to trust him to do it. The hon. and gallant Member asked if the Commander-in-Chief could go outside the area which is considered necessary if that is required in order to secure the safety of the troops? Certainly. The hon. Member will agree that that is covered in the directive itself.
§ Earl Winterton
Before the right hon. Gentleman leaves the question of the directive, might I call his attention to the answer given yesterday—a favourable answer—by the representative of the 2441 Admiralty to a Question put by my right hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Eden), in which he asked that the thanks of His Majesty's Government might be conveyed to the Royal Navy? Will the right hon. Gentleman consider the sending, by His Majesty's Government at the very highest level, of a directive to the Commander-in-Chief, Middle East, to thank all ranks for the magnificent courage which they have shown in the face of attacks by thugs, both Zionist and Arab?
§ Mr. Alexander
The noble Lord will excuse me. We are not backward in our duty in these matters. If the noble Lord will allow me to continue answering the questions put to me by the hon. and gallant Member, I shall have something to say on that before I sit down.
The hon. and gallant Member asked me about the question of the arrival of illegal immigrants. It is not possible for us to go on retaining these persons in British territory and negotiations have properly gone on to secure the evacuation from British territory of those illegal immigrants. But they will not be allowed to use the port of Haifa while we are still there engaged in evacuating our troops.
§ Major Tufton Beamish (Lewes)
May I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether that precludes the possibility of Zionist immigrants, other than immigrants from Cyprus, using the port of Haifa?
§ Mr. Alexander
I think that the military authorities fully understand the position. They will arrange to treat the port of Haifa primarily from the point of view of the evacuation of the British Forces with all speed and safety.
§ Major Beamish
Yes, but does that preclude the possibility of numbers of ships sailing into Haifa harbour, with tens of thousands of Zionist immigrants from Bulgarian and Roumanian ports where ships are known to be ready to sail?
§ Mr. Alexander
I think the hon. and. gallant Member will be far better advised, once I have given the assurance, to leave it to the military authorities to carry it out.
§ Mr. S. Silverman
Is it not a fact that complete agreement has been reached 2442 already that top priority in the use of Haifa port is to be given for the evacuation of troops?
§ Mr. Alexander
From my point of view, with the work we have to carry out in evacuation, and knowing the limited amount of deep water wharfage space, it would not be possible to arrange for large crowds of immigrants to go through the port of Haifa. Our primary consideration is the speedy and safe evacuation of British troops. It is open to the Jewish Agency who are arranging for the safe transport of these people when they leave British territory to sends them to other places than Haifa.
The hon. and gallant Member for Perth raised the question of leave for the troops. That question has been replied to in some detail by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War, and I think that the statement he made was right, and perfectly fair. We give such leave as is possible to troops who are serving, and who have served in such difficult circumstances. But, apart from compassionate cases, we can give only that amount of leave which will fit in with the general arrangements and for which shipping is available. We shall be as reasonable as possible in that matter.
The hon. and gallant Member said he hoped that we should make the situation clear to the country, that all possible steps have been taken. I say categorically that, on these questions of the safety of the troops the strength of the troops, the time for evacuation and the like, the Government, at all stages, have done everything in their power to back up the military authorities to the fullest possible extent. One of their primary reasons for that was the safety of our troops, who have had to go through such a terrible experience. They have been shot at from both sides, and, almost without exception, they have exercised a restraint and impartiality and a standard of conduct which certainly does not put them in the position of Britishers feeling ashamed—as was suggested from the other side of the House—but something of which they can be as proud as of any campaign in which they have ever engaged. I, at any rate, feel intensely proud of them.
I would like to say this. There ha; been over and over again in the Debates 2443 of the last few weeks a sort of feeling, not always openly expressed, that there has not been complete political support—a holding back of proper collaboration in Palestine between the political and civil authorities and the military authorities. I assure the House that that is not so. I would pay a tribute on this, the last day of the Mandate, to the High Commissioner, General Cunningham, for the way in which he has carried out a frightfully difficult job. My information is that there has been full and complete cooperation and collaboration between the High Commissioner and the military authorities at all times during these difficult days, and I hope that will now he accepted generally by the House.
The Services as a whole, the Navy, the Air Force and the Army have done a really magnificent job. No one talking about the dangers of illegal immigrants can esaily assess the difficulties of the job which the Navy carried out almost without casualties, and in diverting these illegal immigrants from Palestine. It is an extraordinarily difficult job—only those who know what it means to get a fairly sizeable ship, of anything from 1,300 to 1,400 tons, right alongside vessels of the character of the immigrant ships, when they are steaming, can understand what a great job the Navy has done. I would like to say a personal, "Thank you" to the whole of the Royal Navy, and also to the Royal Air Force who have cooperated in a number of ways not only in spotting the ships, but also in supporting the military authorities in various ways in Palestine.
Over and over again, we have expressed our confidence in the Army command in Palestine. Now, when they are entering upon this last phase of a most unpleasant duty, the evacuation of troops, I would say how grateful we are to them. They have upheld the British traditions in the best possible Way. We think they have done a very difficult job with credit to themselves and their country. When history comes to be written about the events in Palestine I think there will be a far better assessment made than is being made in some quarters now of what British justice, British ideas of education and British ideas of social and economic development have meant to that country. We all pray today that in the strife which 2444 is at present going on, and which we hope will be brought to a speedy completion, a great deal of that work will not be destroyed, but will in fact, be something of a foundation on which to build up a great future for Palestine.
My last word is on a personal note. If the Secretary of State for War is not here to answer these points it is because it was quite possible that, in this Debate, other questions might have been raised, dealing with other Services than the Army. I therefore undertook, in those circumstances, to reply myself, and I take the responsibility for the fact that the Secretary of State for War is not here.