HC Deb 20 April 1950 vol 474 cc462-70

Motion made, and Question proposed," That this House do now adjourn."—(Mr. Pearson.)

10.23 p.m.

Mr. Shurmer (Birmingham, Sparkbrook)

I am sorry at this late hour to detain the House, but I am concerned tonight about a woman and her two children. We are all aware that during the war quite a large number of men deserted from His Majesty's Forces. Whilst a number are still at large, I know for a fact that, even in my own great city, a number of them are in touch with their friends and relatives, many of whom, even if they are having little to do with the men, whilst not giving the game away, know where they are.

Despite the fact that many of these men would long ago have finished their service in the Forces, they are still regarded as deserters. On several occasions in this House I have expressed my wish that this position would be ended; the sooner it is ended, the better.

Tonight I am concerned to bring forward the case of a man who is not a deserter but who, I am convinced, is dead. The facts are these. Lance-Corporal Sankey, or Mr. Sankey as he then was, joined the Royal Warwickshire Regiment in December, 1938. He went to France two days after the outbreak of war and came home from Dunkirk slightly shell shocked. During the whole period between then and "D" day he was stationed with his regiment in England. Probably the War Office has his record. We know that some men have slightly black records and some have very black records during the time they are in the Army, and if they are deserters those records probably go against them.

I must admit that while his battalion was on manoeuvres, Sankey slipped home to Birmingham, where his wife was very ill. He would have got back, as some did in similar circumstances during the 1914–18 war, and would not have been missed, but he was picked up by a "red cap" in London and, as a result, was handed over to the military. He got three weeks confinement to camp. When his commanding officer realised his difficulty he was immediately given compassionate leave to go home to see his wife and the commanding officer paid his fare. During his stay in England he was promoted to lance-corporal. He was a Regular soldier, not a conscript, and probably intended to serve for a period apart from his war service

He landed in Normandy on "D" day and, on 25th July, was brought home suffering from severe shell-shock and taken to Relton Emergency Hospital, Chester-le-Street. His wife visited him there and found him in a very bad condition. He could hardly walk or talk. After being there for several weeks, he was given sick leave on 8th September and during the period that he was at home—I have checked on this from outside people and I live not far from his home—he had several blackouts and his wife felt that it was not safe to let him go about the town on his own.

At the end of his 10 days' leave he was told to report to the same sort of camp as I went to after being wounded and gassed, the 5 I.D., Horsley Hall, Gresford, North Wales. After being there a few days he was graded C.2 and then sent to Chester to see a specialist. He was there for about two days and then went back to Horsley Hall. On 25th September he walked out of the camp and has never been seen since.

I have spent an enormous amount of time over this case, and I have a number of letters with which I will not weary the House, but I have one letter from a private, who was serving in the same regiment, who says: On behalf of Mrs. Sankey I would like to give my opinion on her husband's condition as I was one of the last to see him before he was missing at Gresford. When I saw him he was in a nervous condition and his speech was very bad. I have known him since I went into the Regiment and we all went to France on D day. Another man says: I have had a talk to Mrs. Sankey … and she says there is no reason at all why Lance-Corporal Sankey should desert.… Mrs. Sankey showed me a photograph or two of her husband and I fully recognise her husband as I was stationed in his company at Tidworth, Aldershot [...] he never at any time showed the slightest tendency to shirk any duty to which he was detailed and was a most upright and efficient soldier. A few days from the time he disappeard he seemed a trifle moody, but he did not mention anything that might possibly give us a clue as to his future plans. … I overheard him say to his pals, as I was a small distance away, 'I'll be seeing you blokes later,' with a wave of his hand. He then left the camp. His wife got into touch with the military authorities and she was told that everything was being done to try to trace her husband.

Since this case was brought to my notice, I have gone to friends and relatives to find out what type of man he really was, and I can find no person who can say other than that he was a real good father, a real good husband and the type of man who would not desert from the Army or leave his wife. Even if he deserted from the Army, he would have got in touch with his wife by now. His wife told me he wrote regularly to her. They had no reason whatever to believe that he would do anything to leave them completely in the lurch.

I am fortified in my conviction that this man either committed suicide or fell down one of the disused mines, because there is not the slightest doubt that when he knew he was graded C.2, that must have preyed upon his mind. Again, we are not sure what the specialist said. I should like to know if the War Office have in their possession a medical report on this man, so that we can see what the specialist reported, apart from grading him C.2. What was the state of his mind? Was he still subject to black-outs? Was he depressed? I contend that he was depressed, because only seven days previously he was on sick leave at home and he was far from recovered from shell shock when he went back to the camp. We know that in September, 1944, men were being pushed out of the hospitals as quickly as they could; they were patched up to carry on, because the big push was on at that time.

I should like to refer to a letter the War Office sent me in April, 1946, which says: Every effort has been made to trace this soldier, but without success. A Court of Inquiry was held at the time of the soldier's being declared a deserter in September, 1944, to decide whether his absence could be attributed to any circumstances beyond his control —particularly if there was any reason to suppose that he had fallen down one of the disused mine-shafts, of which there are many near his station at Gresford. Is there any record of when that court of inquiry took place, and of whether a search party was sent out, in view of the fact that it was suspected that he had fallen down a disused mine? I imagine that if I went out round the Gresford district one week-end and I was missing —well, perhaps they would not look for me; they might be glad to get rid of me !—but suppose a party of hikers went out and one was missing, hundreds of Boy Scouts would be out over the weekend looking for him. I know of no record of any search party being sent out to look for this man. The letter, for which the right hon. Gentleman was not responsible—I received it from Lord Coverdale—continues: …the proceedings of the Court have now been destroyed; but we asked the President of the Court to give us what details he could. While he could not remember the exact circumstances of the case, he said that he had no reason to suppose that Lance-Corporal Sankey was absent because of sickness or any other misadventure. The only other officer on the court martial has since been killed in action.

I want to say quite seriously that here is a poor woman, with two young children, in ill health, who has no hopes even if she did think of getting married again: she is unable to go to work for any length of time and all she can do is to apply for national assistance. I ask the War Office to do the right and proper thing and declare this man's death by misadventure and thus give the woman her rights. I will, as long as I am in Parliament, bring this case forward unless and until I get justice. I am convinced that the bones of this man are lying at the bottom of one of the disused pits in the Gresford Colliery district. I hope my hon. Friend who is to reply to me tonight will not use the words of a previous Secretary of State for War and say, "Produce the body of this man and we will look after the widow." I cannot do that, but I do urge that this woman should be given her rights and her children a chance.

10.37 p.m.

The Financial Secretary to the War Office (Mr. Michael Stewart)

My hon. Friend has pursued this matter with the care, sympathy and assiduity with which we associate him in any case he takes up. I have myself tried to rival him in seeking to find out about this difficult and obscure case. To summarise the facts relating to the latter part of the known career of Lance-Corporal Sankey, it was in July, 1944, that he was brought home from Normandy and then described as suffering from exhaustion and severe anxiety symptoms, one of which was a stammer. When in hospital he made marked improvement except for the stammer, which persisted; there was no sign of physical injury

He appeared to be mildly depressed when in September he was considered to be fit for duty. Accordingly he was discharged from hospital with his medical category at that time C.2; but he was, within the limits of that category, considered to be fit for duty. After a period of leave he joined his unit, No. 5 Infantry Depot, on 18th September, and the next fixed point we move to is 20th October when the court of inquiry—I think my hon. Friend used the phrase court martial, but he will appreciate, of course, that it was a court of inquiry—

Mr. Shurmer indicated assent.

Mr. Stewart

—in accordance with its proper functions, declared that Lance-Corporal Sankey was absent without leave with effect from 25th September, the last date on which there was any trace of his having been with his unit. These are the bare facts about the last few months of this episode.

We have now to look at the nature of the court of inquiry. I should explain that a court of inquiry is not like a court martial, in the sense that it is not trying anyone for an offence: it is comparable to a coroner's court in civilian life. This was a fact-finding body asked to say whether Lance-Corporal Sankey was absent. He certainly did not have leave for his absence. They had to consider whether there was any good cause, which means in fact some cause beyond his control, which would account for his absence, either through death or sudden sickness or something else like that. That was what they had to decide, and so far as we can ascertain they had all the facts that could be obtained, such as the man's previous record, and any evidence of where he was last seen.

At the time of the court of inquiry the civil and military police were informed, and all the action which is regularly taken in the case of absence was taken. I cannot say that special searches of the disused pits were conducted. I think that my hon. Friend will realise that there is a limit to the amount of action which can be taken in a case of absence without leave. So far as we can find out, after this lapse of time, none of the ordinary and proper precautions was neglected.

In the light of such facts as were available, the court of inquiry reached the decision that Lance-Corporal Sankey was absent without leave, or without sufficient cause. We have been able to get into touch subsequently with the president of the court of inquiry, who states that, so far as his memory of the case goes after this lapse of time, there was no ground before the court which would have justified its coming to the conclusion that there was any good and compelling reason for Lance-Corporal Sankey's absence. This officer no doubt has since then handled many administrative matters, and the fact that he cannot charge his memory with the details of this case does not, I suggest, indicate that he did not give the matter proper attention at the time, or that he does not realise its importance today.

On receiving that officer's statement, we invited the opinion of the Judge-Advocate General on the question whether we would be right and justified in annulling the verdict of the court of inquiry. Such a verdict can be annulled, either by the Army Council or by the Secretary of State for War, acting as President of the Army Council. The advice we received from the Judge-Advocate General was that there was not sufficient ground for setting aside the decision of the court of inquiry. In the light of that, we have to put to ourselves the question, what is the right and just answer in these difficult and, indeed, tragic circumstances?

At this point I should like to record my sympathy with this man's wife and family. I know I shall carry the House with me in this. Whatever view we take of the case, hers is a tragic position. It became clear, as soon as we began to examine the matter, that certain financial consequences would follow from whatever action was taken. It was clear to us in the War Office that that should in no way affect the decision which had to be taken. That decision had to be taken on the merits of the case. Similarly, I think my hon. Friend will agree that it would not be a right and just way to proceed that out of a very natural pity for the man's wife we should, for that reason alone annul the verdict of the court of inquiry.

We have here to consider the essential principles which must guide us when we are deciding how to deal with a verdict of this kind. If a man is absent and has not had leave for his absence, I do not think it would be right to assume as a matter of course that that absence is due to death or to some cause beyond the man's control unless we can at any rate find some positive evidence pointing in that direction.

My hon. Friend has no doubt established that one possible answer in this case is that the man fell down a disused mine shaft; but we are bound to say that this is the purest conjecture and is only one of a great many conjectures which could be made. I do not believe that if, when handling such a case as this, we always assumed that we must make a conjecture like that, rather than the other conjectures which might be made, it would serve the interest of justice.

One of the facts we have had to consider is that the man has not been seen or heard of since; but, of course, my hon. Friend will realise that no definite conclusion flows from that. We have to ask ourselves, what happened when he went absent? That his absence is due to death is a possibility, but it is also a possibility that death, if it has occurred, occurred after he had absented himself without leave. We could not say, in every case where nothing further is heard of a man, that it is right to presume that the original absence was due to death or, of course, from causes beyond his control.

We have had a fair number of cases of this kind, and we have tried to examine each one as carefully as we can. It happens, sometimes, that after a lapse of years—perhaps many years—a new piece of evidence emerges. One case which comes to mind is where a letter was brought to light which was undoubtedly shown to have been written by the man to his wife on the evening before the day he was last seen. The terms and whole tenor of that letter were such as to show that that man had not intended to absent himself. That was compelling evidence which forced a reconsideration of that case.

In that connection, I listened most carefully to the letter written by one of Lance-Corporal Sankey's colleagues, and read by my hon. Friend, and my judgment was that I could not find in it the sufficiently compelling grounds for setting aside the verdict of the court, which, to the best of our knowledge, did its work properly and conscientiously; and, therefore, so far as our present knowledge goes, I must come to the conclusion that the decision is a proper, just, and right one. But my hon. Friend has suggested one or two other possible lines of inquiry into the case and in the course of going into it I have come to the conclusion that, despite the great care lavished on the case already, there may be one or two unstudied aspects which may throw light on the matter one way or another. Of course, if we continue to search for further evidence, the result may turn out in either direction, but in view of what my hon. Friend has said, I can reassure him by saying that I certainly do not regard the case as finally closed. I must emphasise that it seems on present evidence that the decision, as I have said, is just and right, but at the War Office we shall endeavour to scrutinise anything which my hon. Friend or I may be able to discover.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Eleven Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.