HC Deb 10 November 1950 vol 480 cc1339-48

3.10 p.m.

Colonel Crosthwaite-Eyre (New Forest)

I am grateful for this opportunity to raise on the Adjournment a matter which we do not often have a chance to discuss. In our broad defence debates, it is very difficult to raise questions of detail of one Service, or a particular part of one of the Services. Anyone who did that would find himself out of tune with the overall situation being discussed. Therefore, I am glad to have this opportunity to raise this question of the Royal Marines.

It is not necessary for me to tell the House of the history that the Corps has had in the defence of our country, or of the many roles it has been called upon to play. I shall refer only to those roles which have been given to it, since 1945, under the reorganisation which naturally took place at the end of a major war. The Royal Marines were given three tasks. Firstly, in accordance with their old traditional role, they were given the task of producing the necessary detachments for His Majesty's Fleets. Secondly during the war, they were given two new roles—to provide Commandos and to man the minor landing craft.

If we consider these duties for a moment, I think it will be agreed that they make the Royal Marines one of the most important forces this country has for use in time of crisis. The last two years of cold war have shown how often the Royal Marines have been called upon to meet an immediate situation. One need think only of the movements of the Royal Marine Commando Brigade. They found themselves in Malta after the war, and they were then called upon to cover the evacuation of Palestine. They then moved to Akaba, when trouble there between the Arabs and the Jews looked like boiling up to a major incident. From there, they moved to Malaya, and then on to Hong Kong. They are now back again in Malaya.

It is now clear that it is more necessary for us to have a striking force on D minus one than on D plus one. We cannot look forward any longer to a period of "phoney" war, in which it will be possible for us to regroup our defences. This time, we have to have a striking force ready before the crisis, and not at some time after the crisis, according to how the war progresses. It is against this background that I want to ask certain questions.

My first question is in regard to the strength of the Royal Marines. The strength is set at the arbitrary figure of one-tenth of the Navy. I have asked on several occasions what is the justification for this figure. I have never been able to get a conclusive answer, except that Nelson possibly settled it and that the Admiralty are just as satisfied with that decision today. It means that at the moment the strength of the Royal Marines is 12,500—that is, when we discussed the Estimates earlier this year. That figure is to be reduced this financial year to 10,000. I find it very difficult to believe, once the requirement for ships' detachments has been met and the requirement for one Commando Brigade has been met, that anything will be left over to meet the third requirement of manning landing craft and taking part in a combined operations.

We were assured, on 27th March, by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Admiralty that a figure of 10,000 was sufficient. That view might have been right then, but I suggest that the figure needs to be reviewed and amended today. Surely the first lesson we have learned this summer, particularly in Korea, is the necessity of having a striking force immediately available; not a force that can be collected in a few weeks or months, but something that is there, poised and ready, and able to be used in time of need. We have heard General MacArthur's pleas for seasoned troops and how he welcomed our one Royal Marine special unit, which I think was raised by special recruitment, including wireless appeals. It was raised literally in hours, and it has done extremely well in Korea. I believe I am right in saying that they took part in four special operations of which three were outstanding successes. No doubt the Parliamentary Secretary can tell us a little more about the history of that unit when he replies.

Supposing we had had a Royal Marine Commando Brigade in the early days of the Korean War when this type of troops, lightly equipped but seasoned in battle, would have been of the utmost advantage to General MacArthur in his first desperate defence of Southern Korea. May I also refer again to the present position in Malaya? There the rate of "incidents" is higher than ever before. What would we not give to have a second Royal Marine Commando Brigade to help in combatting them? Whether we look at the possible demands of the United Nations or our own immediate requirements, the necessity for an increase in the type of troops such as the Royal Marine Commandos is clear on grounds of policy.

I wish to say a word about combined operations. We were told last March that there had been a re-alignment of operating functions and that now the Director of Plans was to take over in addition, without any increase of staff, the duties of the Amphibious Craft and Material Department. At the time the Parliamentary Secretary to the Admiralty claimed great credit for it and said that it showed what streamlining could do and how in fact in the course of reorganisation one department could take over the jobs previously done by two. I wish to ask how this has worked out and whether the hon. Gentleman is satisfied with the numbers of combined operations craft, the crews, and the scope for training which is available today.

May I remind him again of Korea and of how the breakout from the bridgehead we held in South Korea was, if not entirely due to successful combined operations, at least more than helped by them. That is the perfect example of how necessary it is for any Great Power to have efficient and immediately effective combined operations personnel and material.

I wish to ask the hon. Gentleman two questions. Will he say how many landing craft we have at the moment?

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Admiralty (Mr. Callaghan) indicated dissent.

Colonel Crosthwaite-Eyre

If the hon. Gentleman will not tell me, will he tell me if he is satisfied with the number?

Mr. Callaghan indicated dissent.

Colonel Crosthwaite-Eyre

If I cannot get an answer to either of those questions, I do not know if I dare to go on to the next, which is: How many crews has he got for landing craft? What is the number of personnel as far as his responsibility goes? I know it has nothing to do with him whether Army units use the facilities for training, or how many are under training. But we do know that possession of these craft is vital and we know that if we cannot use them in an immediate emergency we shall suffer. The hon. Gentleman knows how important it may be in an immediate crisis to send small task forces to many parts of the world and many of them would depend on amphibious craft and material in order to perform their function. If we have not got the craft and landing crews, I think we are running a grave danger.

Much money has been authorised in the last few months for defence. I feel that a little spent now on the Royal Marines would more than pay a handsome dividend. We could have at least a cadre of a second Royal Marine Commando Brigade, a force which would be of such immediate and valuable use wherever in the world today.

Nor do I believe to increase the strength of the Royal Marines as I suggest would be as expensive as my proposals may seem. For their many duties the Royal Marines have to maintain a number of training establishments. Some have been closed, but, comb the tail as you will, the majority must remain. I believe the intake through these establishments could be doubled without increasing the staff attached to them. Few equal opportunities exist of adding to our teeth without adding to our tail.

For these reasons, I firmly believe it will be a service to the country to extend the strength of the Royal Marines, and recognise the services they can render in policing, preventing the spread of conflict, and, although such we hope will not happen, in the event of emergency.

3.22 p.m.

The Parliamentary and Financial Secretary to the Admiralty (Mr. James Callaghan)

The hon. and gallant Member for the New Forest (Colonel Crosthwaite Eyre) has curtailed his remarks because he knows I have another engagement, and I am very much obliged to him for doing so. I welcome this debate. It is quite true, as he says, that when we discuss the Navy Estimates particular points such as this tend not to receive the attention which they ought to have. I am certainly very glad to be able to come to the House and have an opportunity not of displaying all the wares in the shop window but, at any rate, of indicating broadly what we are doing in relation to some of these defence problems.

The Royal Marines can congratulate themselves on having in the House a champion who is so well informed and pertinacious as the hon. and gallant Member for the New Forest. Because of his knowledge he makes whoever occupies my post for the time being investigate and search into the particular points he raises. That is all to the good; that is what Ministers are here for.

The role of the Royal Marines is quite clear, but as the hon. and gallant Member says, events have compelled a change in that role to some extent. As I am never tired of emphasising and will always insist upon so long as I am at the Admiralty, the fact that our major task is the prevention of attack by submarines, at any rate during the first part of any future trouble, means that the Navy is using and is tending to use rather smaller ships than before. The consequence is that the Royal Marine detachments one always finds manning gun turrets in the larger ships are no longer required to the same extent. They cannot be placed in small contingents on smaller ships with the same facility as on larger ships, and they prefer to serve under their own officers rather than to be under a naval officer in a smaller ship.

As the hon. and gallant Member will appreciate, that has meant that the number of Royal Marines providing detachments for service in His Majesty's ships has declined. That decline, however, has been more than made up by the other role which they assumed with such great glory during the war, that of providing Commando units. The Third Commando Brigade which is now serving in Malaya, and which is doing a first-rate job, has more than eaten up, as it were, the decline in the number of men who were at sea. Therefore, this amphibious role of a Commando unit, of being put in first, and then, when other forces are ready to take over, being taken out again, is a role which the Marines are specially well designed to fulfil. We have had nothing but the highest praise from those on the spot for the work which the Royal Marines can do.

As the hon. and gallant Member said, they are a lightly armed force; and, what is more important, they are mobile. They do not need a lot of time to pack up their household furniture before they move. The Royal Marines can be got on to the job at any time, and that is the reason why they have paraded in practically every corner of the world where there has been trouble since the war. They are an extremely useful mobile force for that purpose.

As the hon. and gallant Member reminded us, they have served in the Mediterranean, Cyprus, Akaba, Hong Kong, and Malaya, and now, of course, there is a detachment in Korea. That is a great tribute to the mobility and quickness with which the Royal Marines can move, and it is an attribute which we must keep highly developed. We must not allow them to become over-burdened by a great deal of furniture. They must remain mobile. That also means, as the hon. and gallant Member recognises—he did not make a complaint of it—that they will move around the world where there are trouble spots, and will do the particular job where they are required to do it.

I was asked why the strength of the Royal Marines is fixed at one-tenth of the Vote A strength of the Navy. I do not think that that is the case. Many beliefs exist which have no foundation in fact. The number of Royal Marines is fixed by reference to the number required for the role they have to fulfil and so far as I can make out there is no admission or any fixed percentage of the total number of men who are carried on Vote A of the Navy Estimates. It is true that when the Estimates were being discussed I said that the number of Royal Marines would be reduced to 10,000, but I want to make a correction and to say that that will not take place during the current year.

There are still substantially more than 10,000 Royal Marines—I prefer not to go into exact figures—and, of course, there must be a continuous review of their numbers in the light of the tasks they have to fulfil. I would never agree to an arbitrary restriction of their numbers to 10 per cent. of naval personnel —it might be more, or it might be less. It would be stupid to say that the Royal Marines shall be any fixed percentage of the number of men serving in the Navy. I give the hon. and gallant Member the assurance that it would be the intention of both my noble Friend and myself always to look at the numbers required by the Royal Marines with reference to their task and not to any fixed percentage.

I was invited to say a word about the operations in Korea. The Royal Marines have been successful in the tasks they have carried out. I am not surprised. There was a high proportion of volunteers among those who were so quickly assembled. The origin of the force in Korea was that General MacArthur asked whether we could provide any volunteers for the type of role that was clearly "right up the street" of the Royal Marines. As soon as that requirement was made known, the request went out and a force was gathered together. It is not comprised wholly of volunteers, because it must be a balanced force. Therefore, some categories of men have been drafted.

The work they have done has brought forth the highest commendation. They have taken part in a number of operations, and I should like to read a sentence from the report of the American commander who was in charge of one of their operations. In his report, enclosing the covering report by the commanding officer of the Royal Marine unit, he said: It is felt that the report of the Raiding Force Commander— that is, the Royal Marine commanding officer is entirely too modest. The conduct of the personnel of this fine fighting force has not been brought to light by such a factual report. We do not seem to be able to gild the lily quite in the way that other people can, and this genius for understatement seems to have brought forth that remark. The American commander goes on to say: The death of Peter S. Jones, in selfless, unquestioning performance of his duty, is cause for the keenest regret and, at the same time, exemplifies the indomitable fighting spirit of our most welcome allies. That sentence about the death of Marine Peter Jones has peculiar poignancy for me. His father and mother are constituents of mine. He is one of the few Royal Marines who have been killed in action there. I am particularly proud to think that his part in this action should have been brought to notice in this way. The commander goes on to say: The plan for the raid undertaken demonstrates the highest form of co-operation between all elements involved. He concludes: It is an inspiration to serve with such fighting men. That is the tribute which has been made. It is a very good thing that it should go down in our records. The American naval commanders have been most generous in the way in which they have sought to bring the Royal Marines right into the picture and to enable them to play their full part in the work which has been going on.

There are some questions which I do not find it easy to answer. I am really not in a position to satisfy the hon. and gallant Member about the combined operations craft, or the amphibious landing craft of which he spoke. He has brought them to my notice. I prefer not to go into detail about them, but I will undertake to investigate the matter and to try to satisfy myself as far as I can on the points he has brought to light. I hope that he will not be dissatisfied at not getting an answer, but that he will be satisfied that he has done his duty by bringing the questions to my notice in this way. They certainly will have my fullest investigation.

On the question of reserves, I should like to say that we hope to see the R.M.F.V.R.—the Royal Marine Forces Volunteer Reserve—building up faster than it is at present. It provides a very fine body of men. We hope to give greater opportunities for recruitment by opening sub-centres in one or two areas where they do not exist at present. I hope that that will provide a fine reserve of men for some of the purposes which the hon. and gallant Gentleman outlined and about which I prefer not to comment this afternoon.

I am very grateful to the hon. and gallant Gentleman for compressing his remarks and also for bringing these matters concerning the Royal Marines to my notice in the House this afternoon.

Colonel Crosthwaite-Eyre

Would the hon. Gentleman care to say anything about the proposal for the establishment of a cadre of a second Royal Marine Commando Brigade?

Mr. Callaghan

That was the point I was attempting to skate around without saying anything about it at present.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-Seven Minutes to Four o'Clock.

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