HC Deb 07 December 1950 vol 482 cc544-51
The Minister of Defence (Mr. Shinwell)

With Mr. Speaker's permission, I propose today to make a second statement on the course of operations in Korea.

The House will recall that my previous statement covered the course of operations up to 16th November. The position on land at that time was that the American 8th Army, including the 27th British Commonwealth Brigade, was actively patrolling in the area of Pakchon in the north-west of Korea. The other British formation, the 29th Brigade Group, was concentrating in the south of Korea and had already begun local operations against guerrillas.

On 24th November, the American 8th Army began their offensive towards the Yalu River. This offensive made steady forward progress until the 28th, when it was brought to an abrupt halt by the Chinese Communist offensive. The British Commonwealth 27th Brigade took no part in the advance, having been left in its position north of the Chongchong River.

The Chinese offensive was launched in overwhelming strength. The Headquarters of the United Nations Command announced that some 200,000 Chinese were committed with considerably larger numbers in support. The full brunt of the attack fell upon the American 8th Army who were forced to fall back. By 30th November a wedge, some 50 miles in width, was driven between the 8th Army in the west and the American 10th Corps which had been operating in the east. The United Nations forces were thus split into two unconnected wings. It is convenient from this point to follow separately the desperate rearguard actions fought by each wing.

In the east, the only British unit with the American 10th Corps is the 41st Independent Commando, Royal Marines. At the time of the Chinese attack the United States Marine Division was in the Chosin Reservoir area, elements of another United States Division had reached the Manchurian border, while a South Korean Division was approximately 200 miles north-east of Chosin on the coast. As a result of the strong enemy attack in the Chosin area it has been necessary to withdraw the two last-mentioned formations. At the present time the 10th Corps is opposed by at least seven Chinese divisions, and the build-up continues. Our latest report is that the Commandos are engaged in very bitter fighting alongside the American Marines in a determined attempt to extricate themselves from the danger of encirclement. Supplies have been dropped and considerable numbers of wounded have been evacuated by air.

In the west, the British Commonwealth 27th Brigade—which, as the House knows, in addition to the Middlesex Regiment and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, includes an Australian battalion—has been taking part in the rearguard actions on the right of the American 8th Army. In the early stages of the offensive the Middlesex Regiment was engaged in overcoming strong enemy road blocks south of Kunuri. The British 29th Brigade Group, which comprises the 8th Hussars, the Northumberland Fusiliers, the Gloucestershire Regiment and the Royal Ulster Rifles, was in reserve at the outset of the offensive. It has now been committed to the battle and its first task was to cover the withdrawal of the 8th Army through Pyongyang. This Army is now holding a line south of the town, but the House will appreciate that I cannot on security grounds say more as to its precise location.

Both our Brigades have played a full part in these most difficult operations, and all reports pay great tribute to the excellence of their morale and fighting qualities. I need not stress to the House the severe strain which is put upon the spirit and discipline of troops by battles of withdrawal in the face of an enemy so vastly superior in strength; and these operations are being conducted in conditions of bitter cold and hardship. The Turkish Brigade has also been heavily engaged. It has fought with great gallantry against heavy odds and has fully upheld the fine fighting tradition of the Turkish soldier.

The latest estimates we have received from General MacArthur's Headquarters indicate that there are now some 270,000 Chinese in contact with the United Nations forces in Korea. Of this total, nearly 200,000 are on the front of the American 8th Army in the West, and over 70,000 are attacking American 10th Corps in the East. Behind these first-line troops, it is estimated that there are nearly half a million Chinese available to support the operations. The figures show the numerical superiority of the forces against which the United Nations troops are contending.

Units of the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force have played their full part in this struggle. By sea, the blockade of the west coast has been maintained, and by air, the Sunderland flying boats have continued their patrol activity over Korean waters. Royal Air Force transport aircraft are also now engaged in casualty evacuation from Japan to Singapore and on to the United Kingdom. The Naval and Air Forces of other Commonwealth countries have also been playing their part.

In bitter fighting in the east on 29th November the Royal Marine Commando lost eight killed, 26 wounded and 35 missing. No details are yet available of the casualties in the 27th and 29th Brigades in the recent fighting, but reports to date indicate that they have not been heavy. Up to the beginning of the Chinese offensive, the total casualties suffered by our Forces had amounted to 52 killed or died of wounds, 174 wounded and five missing.

On 29th November the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition asked whether I had any figures of United States casualties. My latest information, which is based on figures published by the United States Defence Department, shows that total United States casualties up to the beginning of the Chinese offensive were rather more than 30,000, of whom slightly over 5,000 were killed. I am sure the House would wish to join with me in expressing the deep sympathy we feel for the relatives of these men and the whole American nation.

The Prime Minister is now discussing in Washington the grave situation that confronts us. It is full of peril and difficulty. No one knows what the outcome will be. It would be foolish to underestimate the size or determination of the Chinese intervention. We may have to prepare ourselves for still harder tidings. His Majesty's Government are fully aware of the anxiety which must be felt by the relatives of those serving in Korea, and indeed by the whole country. We share their anxiety. I am sure that the House will want to record its admiration for the gallantry with which our Allies, particularly the United States soldiers, the main bearers of the burden, are fighting this desperate and unequal battle.

Mr. Bellenger

It is quite obvious from my right hon. Friend's report that British troops, apart from American troops, are engaged in a very heroic exploit, and that they probably will continue to be so engaged. Will the commanding officers out there follow the usual practice at the appropriate moment of submitting despatches to the Secretary of State for publication, so that our own people in this country can know the full extent of what they have been through?

Mr. Shinwell

Naturally, we are anxious to furnish the utmost and the most precise information, both to the House and to all concerned in this country, but when our troops are fighting these rearguard actions and there is considerable confusion and movement, it is not easy to demand of those on the spot that they should send despatches every day to the United Kingdom. I am quite sure that they are doing their best to furnish the necessary information.

Mr. A. R. W. Low

Has the right hon. Gentleman seen to it that there are adequate reserves of equipment available, or likely to be available in the near future, to cover any losses that may inevitably have taken place in the withdrawals?

Mr. Shinwell

I am not in possession of information which would enable me to give the hon. Gentleman a precise answer, but, certainly, a matter of that kind would not be overlooked.

Mr. Driberg

Has my right hon. Friend seen the very serious despatch in The Times "today, containing the statement made by Mr. Stassen, after his long conference with General MacArthur yesterday, and will he repudiate the views therein attributed to General MacArthur himself, particularly the proposal for a deadline at midnight tomorrow, followed by full-scale atomic war against China?

Mr. Shinwell

I have been asked to furnish the House with a statement on the military position, so far as my information enables me to do so, and I deprecate entering into a discussion of statements made at General MacArthur's headquarters.

Sir Peter Macdonald

Will the right hon. Gentleman undertake to make another statement on the position in Korea before the House rises for the Christmas Recess?

Mr. Shinwell

If there is information which, in the judgment of the Government, should be conveyed to the House, certainly, it will be done.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

Could the Minister tell us anything on the whereabouts of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders?

Mr. Shinwell

I have given some indication of their geographical position, but as to their future disposition, I would rather say nothing.

Mr. John E. Haire

Has my right hon. Friend any information as to the identity of the commanders of the Chinese troops taking part, or are they still officially to be regarded as irregulars?

Mr. Shinwell

We depend very largely for information on Command Headquarters. We have a liaison officer at those headquarters, but so far we have not been furnished with information about the personalities who are controlling the Chinese intervention.

General Sir George Jeffreys

Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us something about one other portion of the Allied forces, and that is the South Koreans? Are they in a position, or in a condition, again to take any considerable part in the Allied operations, or have they to be entirely written off?

Mr. Shinwell

My information is—and I thought I had given it to the House—that some of the South Korean formations are withdrawing. As to their capabilities for continuing the struggle, I should not care to offer any opinion.

Mr. Harold Davies

Is my right hon. Friend aware as Minister of Defence that, in this report in "The Times" today, headed "A Stassen Plan for Korea," high Commonwealth officials are expressing surprise that Mr. MacArthur seems to be defying the Administration by making statements—[Interruption.] The shouts from the other side of the House do not matter to me. I am putting my point of view. May I express, here and now in this House through the Minister of Defence—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."] May I ask the Minister of Defence if he will make it known to the Prime Minister that, on these benches, at least some of us—I clearly speak for myself—will have nothing to do with this affair if an atomic bomb is dropped on China?

Air Commodore Harvey

The right hon. Gentleman referred to wounded being flown home to the United Kingdom. Is he satisfied that there are sufficient aircraft for the purpose; if not, will he consider arranging for B.O.A.C. to assist in this most important operation?

Mr. Shinwell

I do not know what the hon. and gallant Gentleman is suggesting, but, so far as I know, we have sufficient aircraft.

Captain Ryder

Can the right hon. Gentleman say whether the casualties which he has listed include naval casualties, and whether there has been any damage to His Majesty's ships in action?

Mr. Shinwell

So far as I know, no serious damage has been sustained by any of His Majesty's naval ships. As regards the casualties, these include naval casualties, but I must make it quite clear only up to the date of the Chinese offensive.

Mr. Rankin

I gather from the statement of my right hon. Friend that there were 400,000 troops available in Manchuria, and that, in addition, there were another 500,000 Chinese troops. Could he say when that knowledge came to the ears of the High Command in Korea?

Mr. Shinwell

I cannot say.

Mr. Grimond

If the Minister feels that he can safely do so, could he tell us something about the equipment of the Chinese army, especially in regard to air warfare—anti-aircraft and air services?

Mr. Shinwell

I understand that they are not using many aircraft, but occasionally aircraft fly over. As to their general equipment, although they are not heavily armoured, they seem to be fairly well equipped.

Dr. Barnett Stross

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, the whole House understands how serious is the statement he has made, and understands how very onerous is the problem that faces the Prime Minister and President Truman and, further, deplores any outside observations that may militate against a proper solution of the situation facing our two leaders?

Mr. Shinwell

I fully recognise the importance and validity of what my hon. Friend has said.

Mr. Beverley Baxter

May I suggest to the Minister of Defence, in view of the statements made in the Lobbies and on the Floor of the House, that there is a section of Members of this House ready to urge the withdrawal of British troops from Korea, and that the rest of the House repudiates that completely? May I also say—and, I think, on behalf of many of my hon. Friends—that much as we regret it and look upon it with horror, if the occasion comes when it is a choice between the destruction of our men and the use of the atomic bomb, we believe we will back the most extreme measure?

Mr. Shinwell

I prefer not to answer the latter part of the supplementary question which relates to the use of the atomic bomb, but I must answer the first part of it. Quite emphatically, there is no thought in our mind nor in that of the American authorities, of withdrawal.

Squadron Leader Burden

May I ask the Minister of Defence whether Royal Air Force fighter or bomber aircraft have been engaged, whether he can give us any details and particulars, and whether there have been any losses?