HC Deb 28 July 1950 vol 478 cc893-913

1.58 p.m.

Professor Savory (Antrim, South)

I believe there is no example in history of so small an island as Heligoland playing such an extremely important part. It is only one mile long from north-west to south-east, one-third of a mile wide and a quarter of a square mile in area. The population of the Frisian natives, the people who speak Heligolandish and—I must insist on this most emphatically—are not Germans, at the last census taken in 1933 was 2,721.

Frisians constitute one of the oldest races in north-west Europe, where they lived as a distinct people for over 20 centuries. The Frisians were the principal opponents in that part of the world of the Romans. The Romans recognised their valour by conferring upon them the title of "socii," which means allies. We here in this country are under a great debt to them. King Alfred, when he wanted to build his fleet, sent to Heligoland for Frisian builders, and if we look at the statute of Alfred in the Royal Gallery, it will be seen that he is holding in his hand a Heligoland or Frisian ship.

In their early history the Frisian people were united under kings, and later they formed a confederation of seven Frisian Sealands. At the present moment they form a national minority in Holland, in part of Germany and in Slesvig. West Frisians live in the Netherlands; east and north Frisians, which include the Heligolanders, in Germany and Slesvig. From 450 to 850 the Frisians were the greatest maritime power in the world, and the North Sea was nothing but a Frisian lake. In the 14th century Heligoland with Frisia became part of the Duchy of Slesvig. From the year 1714 onwards it came directly under the Danish Crown.

Our connection with it arose in 1807 at the time of the Napoleonic blockade. In that year we laid seige to it—we had been at war with Denmark—and it was occupied in 1807. At the Treaty of Kiel in 1814 it became a Crown Colony of Great Britain, thanks to the efforts of that great Ulsterman, to whom I must pay a tribute, Lord Castlereagh. No doubt, hon. Members will remember that in their youth in their stamp collection amongst the most highly prized stamps they had were those beautiful stamps of Heligoland bearing a portrait of Queen Victoria.

Heligoland was very content under our rule and we preserved for them their Frisian language and customs. Why did we hand it over to Germany in the year 1890? [HON. MEMBERS: "A Tory Government."] A Tory Government! I am not a party man, I am an impartial historian. I do not care what Government it was if that Government committed a mistake I will attack that Government. Heligoland was ceded to Germany ostensibly as compensation for the Protectorate which was given to us over Zanzibar and the Island of Pemba. Historians maintain that was perfectly monstrous, because Zanzibar and Pemba were already British Protectorates. Bismarck had tried to persuade Lord Granville as Foreign Secretary to hand over Heligoland but Lord Granville had the common sense to resist. Why Lord Salisbury should do so is to us at the present time incomprehensible. My dear father—and I must pay a tribute to him—strongly protested against it. He said that to hand over Heligoland to Germany was as bad as handing over Gibraltar to Spain, or Malta to Italy.

Great indignation was expressed by the British people over Heligoland at that time. They did not want it to become German. They wanted above all to maintain it as British. But Heligoland was handed over, and at once the Prussian jackboot was applied in exactly the same way as I described on a previous Adjournment Motion that the Germans applied it to Schleswig. The Prussians tried to suppress the Frisian language; they tried to prevent the people from studying in schools their own native Heligolandish. They tried to impose German upon them, a language which they had never spoken or learned, except as a foreign language. The great explorer, Stanley, tried to console the British people by this famous phrase. He said that in taking over Zanzibar and the neighbouring Pemba they were getting a new suit of clothes in exchange for a trouser button. He compared Heligoland to a trouser button. I think if he had had the experience which we have had of two wars he would have changed his language.

The Treaty of Versailles had stipulated the complete destruction of the fortifications, as they had formed a strategical protection to the mouths of the Elbe and the Weser and the Kiel Canal. The Treaty laid down that no similar fortifications should be constructed in future. Why did the British Government, having information that these fortifications were being constructed in flagrant violation of the Treaty of Versailles, not take some step, as they might so easily have done at the time, to prevent it?

Mr. Emrys Hughes (South Ayrshire)

Another Tory Government!

Professor Savory

We cannot help deploring these things with the hon. Member for South Ayrshire.

Let me from the point of view of these unfortunate people point out that this Frisian language is entirely different both from Dutch and from German. All philologists agree in classifying it with English. English belongs to the Anglo-Frisian group and early missionaries who went out there from England were able to make themselves understood by the inhabitants of Heligoland without the aid of any interpreter. The affinity between the two languages, English and Frisian, is very well represented by this famous old rhyme: Bread, butter and green cheese Is good English and good Friese"— that is good Frisian.

The old Frisian literature contained many fine epics, and the modern great literature dates back to the 17th century when the greatest name is that of Gysbert Japicx. Today in the Netherlands the Frisian language is taught in the primary and secondary schools of Friesland. At four Dutch universities there are at the present moment Professorships of the Frisian language. The North Frisians, whom I with the hon. Member for Lady-wood (Mr. Yates) visited last year in their Islands, want to be reunited, not with Germany but with Schleswig. They want autonomy within the framework of the Danish State.

Heligoland is not simply an isolated island which happens to be a target for our bombardment. It is the very core of all the Frisian countries. Heligoland forms a connecting link between the West, the East and the North Frisians.

It is a rock, like Gibraltar. It is a great harbour. It is a beacon for the Islands, and symbolises for these people the relation of the Frisians to the sea. Without Heligoland, Friesland, the Frisian countries, would simply be a mutilated body.

To come down to this last war; on 12th May, 1945, Heligolanders were compelled to leave their island at the command of the British. They were allowed to take with them only what they could carry. Everything else they lost. We have often had it stated in reply to Questions in this House that the terrible destruction took place during the war. That is not the case. The worst destruction took place on 18th April, 1947, nearly two years after the Armistice. Let me read what an eye-witness has said about this: In the underground shelters, vaults and passages, objects worth millions of pounds were destroyed, which might have served the cause of peaceful reconstruction. Modern machines, a completely equipped power station, Diesel trains ready to take the rails, materials and tools of all kinds. That was a terrible devastation and I cannot help thinking with the writer of the article that it left "a horrifying picture of senseless desolation."

I maintain that this continued bombardment is a breach of International Law. I have been consulting—and I speak here in deference to a great lawyer—a very distinguished Professor of International Law and he points out that this continued devastation is absolutely prohibited by Article 3 (g) of the Hague Regulations. Professor Oppenheim, a great authority and a Professor of International Law at Cambridge says this, and he is speaking simply of wartime: A measure of permissible devastation is found in the strict necessities of war. As an end in itself, as a separate measure of war, devastation is not sanctioned by the law of war. As I say, he is speaking of wartime. How much stronger is the argument when it is applied to a time of peace.

Then again my argument is supported by the 35th Conference of the International Law Association which in 1928 resolved: Damage to or destruction of immoveable property is only permitted for the purpose of attaining a specific military objective. Indiscriminate, wanton, and general devastation or destruction is prohibited.

Mr. John Hynd (Sheffield, Attercliffe)

I am sure that the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Professor Savory) wishes to be fair, but the impression he has given the House is certainly that the destruction of immoveable property and other devastation which is apparent in Heligoland has something to do with the bombing exercises. But he must be aware that the destruction of underground tunnels was the result of air raids and occurred long before the bombing exercises started.

Professor Savory

I said most emphatically that it was in 1947. I have here the very strongest evidence that this bombing is going on. Here is a letter signed by 11 fishermen, describing fully the appalling bombardment which took place, starting at 12.30 on 22nd June of this year. I propose to send this letter to the Secretary of State for Air.

Even now, there are 250 Heligolanders who were born under the British flag who are still alive. The people of Heligoland, through their Aldermen, sent a petition to the British Government. I will only quote the essential parts, as I wish to leave time for other speakers. It is dated 1st January, 1946, and it says: It is almost impossible for us to believe that Great Britain and its people, to whom a lot of other small nations are again thankful for their regained freedom and liberty, should have forgotten their former subjects, the natives of the Crown Colony of Heligoland. I ask hon. Gentlemen to mark these words: If it is impossible to come back under British rule, then we would prefer to come back under Danish protection, as the Island's history has never been German, but Danish for many centuries. In this petition they are only repeating what they asked for after the First World War. They demanded, they implored and begged the British Government to take them back. Here, they are repeating the plea. They want the British to take them over and to restore their liberties, their customs and their language.

These people, after having appealed to the British Government, have appealed now to the German Federal Chancellor, and I have the original letter here signed by the Minister of Foreign Affairs to their spokesman, Mr. Franz Siemens. I do not want to read the whole letter. I will summarise it. It points out that the Federal Government, through the Chancellor, Dr. Adenauer, are doing everything they can to support this request of the people of Heligoland. The Chancellor regrets that up to the present these efforts have produced no considerable results, and the letter continues: … yet it is to be hoped that the incidents described by you"— That is the last terrible bombing of 22nd June— will contribute to a revision by the British Government of its point of view. A very important body, the Federal Council for Minorities, sat in Holland on 1st July. All minorities from many countries were represented, and they passed unanimously certain resolutions requesting the British to stop immediately the bombardment of the Island, and, secondly, to grant the population the right to return to their native island and to live under the laws and customs which have hitherto been in force. A third resolution says: The Council further begs Great Britain and the Allied Nations to recognise the ex-territorial nature of Heligoland, while the population freely determines its own future; to give the inhabitants of Heligoland the right of self-determination in order that they may decide themselves to what State they wish to belong. That is the unanimous demand of this most important body which sat in Holland on 1st July. I have here pitiful letters from these people of Heligoland. They have written again and again asking me to take up their cause. Their plea can be summarised in a beautiful poem, written in Heligolandish, of which I will quote only the first two verses: Grey Heaven, Grey Misery, Death lowers over Heligoland's rock Grey sea and abandon—a silent God and comfortless grief. Black Mourning, black Night Heligoland's joy has passed for ever Heligoland's laughter has long ceased The only Cry is that of the Seagulls.

2.15 p.m.

Lord Malcolm Douglas-Hamilton (Inverness)

It is with pleasure that I support what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, South (Professor Savory). We have listened with great interest to his discourse on Heligoland and his exposition of the position of the Frisian people. This is a matter which should appeal very strongly to the British people. It is essentially one of support for a small people who want to return to their own land. Once the Frisians were British. I believe now that the Danes claim that they are Danish and the Dutch claim that they are Dutch.

I should like to ask the Government exactly what is the reason why they put obstacles in the way of the return of these people. Is it because, as was hinted by the Secretary of State for Air the other day, that island was a base for offensive operations during the war? If that was the case, then surely there would be an argument for continuing to bomb Cuxhaven and Wilhelmshaven. Is it because the Royal Air Force can find no alternative place? I should like a frank answer to those questions.

I have spent a number of years in the Royal Air Force, and I cannot believe that the Service is so devoid of imagination or capacity that it cannot find another suitable target. Why do the Royal Air Force need this target? Is it for navigational training, or so that they can see the effects of bombing. If it is for navigational training then a point off Heligoland would do just as well. There could be observation posts on the island to observe bombs being dropped into the sea. If it is the land which is required for bombing purposes, then Scharhörn, Trischen or Memmert, uninhabited islands off the north-west coast of Germany, could be used for the purpose. No people want to go there, and they would provide a suitable alternative.

I should oppose very strongly any suggestion that uninhabited Scottish islands should be used, as has been suggested by one hon. Member. We hope to persuade people to live on these islands, if there are any where no one lives at present.

Mr. J. Hynd

Would the hon. Gentleman say who was the hon. Member who suggested that?

Lord Malcolm Douglas-Hamilton

I cannot remember.

Mr. Hynd

I think the hon. Gentleman is wrong.

Lord Malcolm Douglas-Hamilton

I can remember that the hon. Gentleman himself mentioned it and said that he, too, was opposed to it.

Mr. Hynd

I assumed that that was the reference. I do not want to be misrepresented. I did not suggest it.

Lord Malcolm Douglas-Hamilton


Mr. Hynd

I suggested that the German Press, in pursuance of this campaign, were suggesting publicly that a Scottish island should be used.

Lord Malcolm Douglas-Hamilton

I am sorry if I misunderstood the hon. Gentleman. I merely wished to say that I was entirely in agreement with his suggestion that a Scottish island should not be used. There are islands off the North-West coast of Germany which could be used. This is a case where the Government could show a little magnanimity which would have a tremendous effect throughout the world.

2.20 p.m.

Mr. John Hynd (Sheffield, Attercliffe)

I had not intended to take part in this Debate, but, after having listened to the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Professor Savory), I think that I ought to intervene. Every one will pay tribute to the sincerity and humanitarianism which inspired his speech and that of the hon. Member for Inverness (Lord Malcolm Douglas-Hamilton). It is desirable, however, that this matter should be put in its proper perspective. The hon. Member for Antrim, South, painted a picture which gave a clear impression that the devastation in Heligoland was, in fact, due to the bombing exercises which are going on. That, of course is not the case. The devastation on Heligoland was caused by the air raids during the war.

I have read practically all the reports in the German press on this issue, and I must say they are, apparently deliberately, calculated to give the impression that the devastation has been caused by the operations of the British Air Force since the end of the war. The facts are that the air raids which took place on Heligoland completely destroyed every building on the island. They completely destroyed the whole surface of the island, till there was not a single street recognisable or, in fact, visible, and the whole surface of the island was just a series of pot holes. Nothing could be cultivated on the top soil, nor is it there to restore.

That was the position which faced our people when they went to Germany.

They also found that, from end to end, Heligoland was honeycombed with three lairs of tunnels, and vast halls stocked to the ceilings with probably tens of thousands of tons of explosives in the form of mines, cases of ammunition and so on. These, incidentally, had been damaged by the reverberations of the bombing and by looters on their deserting the island.

As far as my recollection goes, our occupation authorities were so concerned about the preservation of the island that, recognising that these tunnels and the explosives must be destroyed in some way or other, they invited responsible German authorities to examine the situation and to suggest an alternative method to exploding for the removal of the ammunition. These authorities were unable to suggest any alternative, and they agreed that the only thing to be done was to blow up the tunnels with the ammunition in them.

This had the effect of collapsing certain parts of the surface of the island, but those parts had been completely destroyed as the result of the earlier bombing. I do not think anyone in this House will doubt my humanitarian approach to the German situation, least of all the hon. Member for Antrim, South. Hon. Members know of my persistant attempts to try and bring an end to the unnecessary, wanton destruction that has gone on with regard to the demolition of industries, and my intervention with regard to the Salzgitter factories, the Keil torpedo centre and a large number of other cases.

But if it is necessary that there should be bombing exercises by the Royal Air Force, where it is important to mark the results of the dropping of bombs on solid surfaces, I can imagine no more suitable spot than an island already completely devastated and remote from any kind of human habitation. After it was found essential that these tunnels and explosive stocks should be destroyed, we went so far as to get scientists to examine the bird life on the island and to set off small experimental explosive charges to frighten the birds to a safe distance before the tunnels were blown up, so that they would come back and settle again when the later big explosions had taken place. The German authorities expressed appreciation of how that had been done, and how it had been instrumental in preserving bird life. That was the sense in which this thing was approached.

The noble Lord the Member for Inverness drew attention to the fact that it has been suggested that if bombing exercises are necessary Heligoland should not be used. The German Press go so far as to suggest that we should use some Scottish island. I emphasise that, to indicate the kind of propaganda that is being made in the German Press about this thing. It is most unfortunate that that kind of suggestion has ever been made.

However remote some of the Scottish islands may be, even though there may be only one or two crofters there, at least there is someone there and there is something growing there, whereas in Heligoland there was nothing but a solid fortified stronghold of German military power during the war, which had to be demolished as a military base. I should imagine, therefore, that it was very suitable for bombing exercises. It is particularly appropriate, or inappropriate, that this question should have been raised at this stage, because, for the last two days, we have been discussing a very serious world situation and considering large measures of austerity to be applied to the people of this country which, presumably, will include the shutting off of vast areas of land, which could be used for agriculture and other purposes, to allow for infantry, tank and even bombing exercises.

After all, the Germans have no army, navy or air force, and have none of our obligations. If the only complaint is that we are using a remote spot away from the mainland, where there is no habitation, of any kind and that it is an inconvenience to people who otherwise might live on that rock, it is taking it out of perspective if this is all that Germany is to contribute to the defence of Germany and of the rest of Western Europe.

I appreciate that the main burden of the case put by the hon. Member for Antrim, South is the frustration of the people who previously lived on this island and who want to go back. I appreciate the long historical association with this country and with Denmark, and so on. But let us put that, too, in proper perspective. These people were driven from the island as a result of war operations. Those who remained there had to be removed for the purpose of destroying this fantastic network of tunnels, loaded with tremendous quantities of explosives, put there by the Germans. There were tremendous submarine shelters of heavy reinforced concrete which had to be destroyed.

It would have been out of the question, in any case, to set about restoring the surface, the housing and other amenities of Heligoland for many years; whereas on the mainland of Germany, where these people are living at present, there are vast arrears of housing to be overcome. Therefore, there is no real net reduction in the housing accommodation available for these people, and many more millions of unfortunate homeless people driven into Germany for one reason or another. I do not think it is a practical proposition to suggest that we should stop bombing and invite these people to come to Heligoland tomorrow, next week, next month or next year, because there would be nowhere for them to go.

One point made on the other side struck me as irrelevant to this discussion. It was suggested that we should declare the independence of Heligoland and either link it up with this country or Denmark or leave it as an independent State. Hon. Members must know that we cannot do that, in loyalty to our obligations to Germany and our associates in the United Nations and in the administration of Germany. We have protested against the seizure of Silesia to be handed over to Poland, and the seizure of the Saar by France. We have declared categorically that we will not recognise these, until a peace treaty has been signed and all questions of frontiers and territorial rights have been settled in the proper way. It would be equally wrong to take unilateral action with regard to Heligoland.

We have to recognise that it is an integral part of Germany until its final fate has been settled. I am sorry that I have had to say this in the House, because I know it will be misrepresented in Germany, where my position has been Very well known until now. I know it will be misrepresented in this country, but I feel that if we are to face this issue honestly, it is desirable that the facts of the situation should be clearly presented. It should not be left entirely to what, I fully understand, is a legitimate sentimental demand of homeless people to write off history, and to get back to where they started.

2.31 p.m.

Mr. Grimond (Orkney and Shetland)

I may be regarded as having something of a vested interest in islands but, nevertheless, I think everyone must be grateful to the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Professor Savory) for raising this subject today. Whatever conclusion we reach, it must cause us the gravest concern that these people should be kept away from their homes.

I want to address myself to only two of the reasons which have been given for the continued bombing of Heligoland and for the fact that the Heligolanders are not allowed to return. First of all, it has been said that the island was so badly devastated that these people could not, in fact, return. But we in this country learned of the extraordinary devotion which people can show for their homes. After our cities had been destroyed we often found people still living in them, or returning to them at the earliest possible moment, although it seemed that nothing could exist except devastation and rubble. I think it is most unfortunate that the Heligolanders cannot make their homes again in their own country, and I think we should be chary of asserting that these people, who are so willing to try, could not return to their island. It must be borne in mind that a great many of these people are fishermen, and I know from experience in Scotland that fishermen, who, after all, get their livelihood from the sea, will live in places which many men would say, could not possibly support life from off the land at any rate.

The other and far more serious reason which has been given is that there is no other suitable target for our Air Force. I agree that if that is really the case at this time, then the Government have a right to ask the Heligolanders to accept this very great sacrifice in the interests of the whole of Western Europe. We must be absolutely sure, however, that the Government have probed every conceivable alternative. I suggest that this is a Western European problem. We were told yesterday that our defence is not a matter for ourselves alone. Can the Government honestly say that there are no other uninhabited islands, no other means of providing targets for the Air Force?

Like the hon. Member for Inverness (Lord Malcolm Douglas-Hamilton), I would regret the bombing of any Scottish island which is, or might be, uninhabited. No one would regret it more than I. But there may be certain places, like Rockall, which are uninhabited and uninhabitable. There may be islands round Ireland which are uninhabited and will never be inhabited again, and there must be similar islands around the coast of Europe. I do not want it to be thought that I am advocating the bombing of Scottish or any other islands, even if uninhabitable. I should deplore it. But if the alternative to bombing an uninhabitable European island, is the continued bombing of Heligoland, then I say that, other things being equal, this would be preferable.

2.33 p.m.

Mr. Martin Lindsay (Solihull)

I am much more in agreement with the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. J. Hynd) than with my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, South (Professor Savory). My hon. Friend has the respect and affection of everyone in this House, not least for his characteristics of kindliness, but I do not think it should go forward without correction that we, on these benches, wish to support any proposals which are likely to interfere with the efficient training of the R.A.F. or weaken the policy of being firm with the Germans. Indeed, I would support the Government in any attempts they are making to be firm with the defeated Germans, even in a bad case—although I do not think this is such.

I was not very much impressed with my hon. Friend's argument that these people are not German. They have been under the German flag for 60 years and, in my opinion, they are, by absorption, just as much German as any other minority in the country. Their late Government led them into the last war and I do not know that they made any protest at the time. I am sure it is extremely inconvenient for them to suffer this type of bombardment in their own homeland, to which they want to return, but I remember that not so very long ago many millions of people were put to a great deal of inconvenience by the Germans.

The Royal Air Force has to have bombing ranges. Everybody is agreed about that, provided that the bombing ranges do not happen to be anywhere near where those people live or near any place in which they have an interest. That has always been the case. As to the argument that there are other uninhabited islands available, I should like to think that in a short time we shall have an Air Force sufficiently strong to need bombing targets on other uninhabited islands, as well as Heligoland, which suit their training requirements.

Again, I am not in the least impressed by the argument that this action is contrary to The Hague Convention. I think it is monstrous impertinence on the part of the present Western German Government to invoke that argument, when Germany has never kept any international conventions when it has suited her purpose to break them. To invoke a convention only when it happens to-suit the Germans is nothing but hypocrisy. I hope that the Government will stand firm and will have no nonsense about it, and that if it suits them, they will continue to use this island for the same purpose.

2.36 p.m.

Mr. Paget (Northampton)

The speech of the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. M. Lindsay), shows a state of mind which will make it quite impossible to defend Western Europe. If this idea of savage hatred, of contempt for German interests, is to be maintained, I would point out that it is not the sort of idea which will make Western Europe defensible.

I would be inclined to agree that it is hyprocrisy to invoke The Hague Convention. No nation, including ourselves, even went through the motions of abiding by The Hague Convention in the last war. Our bombardment of German towns was a flagrant breach of The Hague Convention, which specifically forbids it. The only time we seemed to be interested in The Hague Convention was in invoking it against German generals who had been fighting in Russia, where, needless to say, it was not applied by the Russians. The hon. Member for Solihull is an old friend of mine, and there is nothing personal in my remarks. But I feel that his was a most unfortunate and unhappy intervention in this Debate.

In spite of the very effective factual case presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Attercliffe (Mr. J. Hynd), whose humanitarian views are in no way challenged, I prefer the case made out by the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Professor Savory), although I feel that the hon. Member for Antrim, South, may be a great deal more inaccurate about the facts than was my hon. Friend.

The issue, as has been said, is an emotional rather than a practical issue. To take a German island which today is uninhabited, and perhaps uninhabitable, but which is an island of great history and tradition, and to say that we will use it as a bombing target, is an offence which will be resented by every German. If Western Europe is to be defended, these people must be our friends. There are those who say, "What an outrage that the Germans should suggest that we should practise bombing on one of our own uninhabited islands."

Mr. Martin Lindsay

Hear, hear.

Mr. Paget

Such an attitude is quite wrong. The hon. Member for Solihull says "Hear, hear," but none the less his is an attitude of mind which makes any possibility of frank and free co-operation in the defence of Europe quite impossible. We cannot hope to work with the Germans on terms other than those of equality. That equality expresses itself not only in purely utilitarian forms. It expresses itself in sentiment, and in respect for other people's feelings. At the moment, probably, the bombing of Heligoland does not much injure property. There is a perfectly good utilitarian case for it. But, it injures the possibility of good will, and on that ground it ought to stop.

2.40 p.m.

Mr. Yates (Birmingham, Ladywood)

I intervene because of the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Attercliffe (Mr. J. Hynd), who made a very flimsy case in suggesting that it is impracticable to have bombing elsewhere; that because one part of a country has been devastated we should keep it in a state of devastation, and that we should never allow the people who lived there to return to their birthplace. Suppose that the Germans were using a Scottish island for bombing practice. Suppose the Heligolanders or Frisians were doing so. I think that, probably, that would have been resented in this country and that it would have been suggested that they should practise their bombing in some part of their own country.

I think that the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Professor Savory), who raised this matter, raised it very sincerely and rightly. He has done so before, and I have sometimes felt that the question has not received the fair consideration to which it is entitled. For that reason I give him support here today. I think it is an outrage to public opinion that an island to which the Germans, in their own country, could go to find beauty and culture and science, is now being completely laid in ruins. I think that this is a dreadful policy.

The suggestion of the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Lindsay), that we should continue to bomb Heligoland because the people who lived there were Germans, is an even bigger outrage. It does not seem to me to matter whether those people are Germans or Frisians, or of any other nationality. The fundamental consideration is: What is to be the future of those people who lived there, whose home it is? They at least ought to be consulted, if we believe in the right of self-determination. I hope the Government will give serious consideration to this matter, and that this country will not go on with this policy.

2.43 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Air (Mr. Crawley)

I am sure we all admire the persistence and passion with which the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Professor Savory) always supports the case of minorities. As the hon. Member for Inverness (Lord Malcolm Douglas-Hamilton) said, it is a very attractive quality, and one which we should all like to think our country was famous for. We have shown our sympathy already with the representations the hon. Member has made, because when he brought our attention to the fact that the cemetery had been hit by some bombs dropped in practice, we stopped bombing and carried out an investigation on the spot, and moved the target to a point where it was no longer possible also to hit the cemetery. I also enjoyed the hon. Member's historical survey, as one always does; but he will not expect me to answer for the mistakes of the Government of Lord Salisbury or of any Government between the wars.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Attercliffe (Mr. J. Hynd) said, one must really try to put this thing in its proper proportions. The hon. Member for Antrim, South, spoke again today of 2,700 Frisians who wanted to go back to their homes on this island. As a result of the representations he made to the Air Ministry before, only a week or two ago I flew round this island, within a few feet of its summit, and had a very close look at it. I think hon. Members ought to know exactly what its condition is.

At the moment it is the nearest thing to the Warsaw Ghetto I have seen in Western Europe. It is literally a rock sticking out of the sea, and just a mass of rubble, with two or three long spits on either side, of which one was used as the Germans' naval base. There is no question of anybody's home being on that island, nor can there possibly be any question of more than a handful of people—of fishermen—gaining their living there again. What were the industries there, or what sort of life was supported there? It had a fashionable seaside resort and a great naval base and arsenal. I do not think anybody can imagine that any Government—it would have been a German Government if a peace treaty had been signed—would spend money on making a seaside resort there amid a heap of rubble while Germany has so many other problems. Nor could there be any possible consideration of reviving the naval base.

So, what we are really considering is, whether it is now right to allow a few fishermen—they could not be more than a handful—to go to live there in whatever conditions they please, but necessarily very hard ones and ply their trade there, or whether the use to which we are putting it is really more important, and more in the interests, not only of all of us, but of those fishermen themselves.

I should like to correct one very misleading impression the hon. Member for Antrim, South, made when he spoke about the bombardment of 1947. There was no bombardment in 1947. There was the demolition of the arsenal and naval base under the agreements by which war installations were destroyed in Germany, and in other parts which the Germans had armed. As my hon. Friend the Member for Attercliffe pointed out, Heligoland was the most thoroughly organised arsenal and the most important naval base.

The hon. Member asked about machinery and other things being destroyed which might have had a peacetime value. The only conceivable purpose of the greater part of that machinery on Heligoland was naval. The power station might, of course, have served the seaside resort, but only in a very secondary capacity. There was no deliberate and indiscriminate devastation of Heligoland. There was very deliberate and scientific destruction of a most important and dangerous naval base and war-time arsenal. The effects—the very heavy effects—of our war-time bombing increased the general devastation of the island.

The question that we have to decide is whether, in view of the international situation, it is right to go on using Heligoland as a bombing target, or whether we ought to allow a handful of fishermen to return there to make their homes on the Island and ply their trade there. Were the international situation different from what it is, I have very little doubt that I should be giving a different answer, but the international situation is as it is, and as we have been discussing it in the last two days; and one has to consider the problem in that light.

I should like to tell the House why it is that Heligoland is so uniquely suitable as a bombing target. We have all had the same idea as has occurred to many hon. Members who have spoken in this Debate, that there must be some other place we could use. When we come to consider all the factors concerned, however, we see that it is very difficult to find anywhere else which combines as many of the advantages for target purposes as Heligoland. We have not found anywhere else within range of these islands for normal bombing practice.

We have got to have an island which is of a certain size. It must stick out a certain distance from the sea in order to be a good radar target to be bombed from a height. It must also be a certain distance all round from any land, not only because one does not want to disturb people on the land, but so that there is a good margin of safety if anything goes wrong and it is necessary to jettison the bombs, quite apart from bombing practice.

It must also be in a part of the world where the climate is reasonable and, although the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) may not like to hear it, we have had a look round his part of the world, and round a great many parts of the British Isles. The fact is, although there are a good many rocks sticking out of the sea, from this point of view none of them combines all the qualities that Heligoland has, and climate is one of the great difficulties.

Mr. Grimond

Our climate has some advantages, then.

Mr. Crawley

If the hon. Gentleman likes to take it that way, so much the better.

Mr. Emrys Hughes (Ayrshire, South)

What about the Russian climate?

Mr. Crawley

Lastly, there is another very important point, that when doing a bombing exercise it is not only the crew in the bomber to whom practice is given, or to whom it is desired to give practice. Heligoland has the advantage of being geographically in a position which can give practice to all sorts of other units concerned with the air defence of this country—a position which is not held on any island off the north-coast of Scotland, or off the coast of Ireland, or anywhere else.

When all these considerations are taken into account, there is nowhere else which combines all the qualities which must be possessed by a target for live bombing practice from high altitudes, and if we are to have an effective bombing force, it is necessary to practise bombing with live bombs. Practice bombs have not the same ballistics; they are not so accurate, and they do not therefore give the bomb aimer real training. Live bombs are quite different in their flight, and so on, and it is only when they are used that accuracy can be obtained.

Of course, it is unpleasant and, in a sense, distresing to have to think of these things, but nobody—particularly nobody who has attended the Debates in this House in the last few days—can really believe that we can maintain our way of life or help the Germans and the Frisian Islanders to maintain theirs without doing these things, and I honestly feel that we have a right to ask both the former inhabitants of this island and all those who are so naturally interested in their case to accept the position. The Germans themselves, for they are concerned, are not yet in a position to contribute to any considerable extent to the defence of the West. Yet this is a way in which they can really help us to assure their defence, and exactly the same goes for the islanders themselves.

If it is a question of sentiment, I cannot believe that the present German Government would want to make this a sentimental issue. Heligoland has not been in the possession of Germany for very long. As the hon. Member for Antrim, South, reminded us, it was only ceded to Germany in 1890, and in so far as it has any sentimental value for the Germans it can only be as a great military base from which two terrible wars were waged against the people whom we all hope the Germans will now consider their friends and Allies. I should hope that if any tradition was worth breaking, and if any sentiment was worth changing, then the German sentiment about Heligoland was such a one. I think we can appeal to the Germans with real sincerity, and with a real desire to further co-operation with them, to let this position stand.

Mr. Paget

Surely the Government will repudiate the suggestion of the hon. Member for Ayrshire, South (Mr. Emrys Hughes), that Ayrshire should be used as an alternative target?

Mr. Crawley

I do not think the Government need repudiate all the suggestions made by every hon. Member, particularly some of the suggestions of our hon. Friend the Member for Ayrshire, South (Mr. Emrys Hughes).

Mr. Emrys Hughes

I have not intervened in this Debate except to make a brief reference, and it was not to Ayrshire.

2.55 p.m.