HC Deb 21 November 1950 vol 481 cc188-92
37. Mr. Driberg

asked the Secretary of State for War if special cold-weather clothing has now been issued to all the British troops in Korea.

42. Mr. Low

asked the Secretary of State for War whether all British troops in Korea are now in possession of suitable winter clothing; and when this reached the forward troops.

The Secretary of State for War (Mr. Strachey)

As the House knows, two separate British formations are now in Korea. The 29th Brigade Group was formed in this country for the Korean campaign and was most carefully equipped, not only with supporting weapons and transport, but with protective winter clothing. I inspected this clothing at Colchester on 25th September before the Brigade left and I can assure the House that it contained as complete a range of garments designed to protect the wearer against sub-zero temperatures as the ingenuity of our specialists can devise.

Some of the principal garments were woollen underclothes, heavy woollen socks and jerseys, leather jerkins, lined rubber boots, leather gauntlets, windproof smocks and trousers, and kapok coats. This clothing went to Korea with the 29th Brigade and is being issued to units as they arrive. The 29th Brigade is, therefore, fully equipped and there is no question of relying on American supplies of protective winter clothing.

The other Commonwealth formation in Korea, the 27th Brigade, contains two British battalions, the 1st Middlesex and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. As the House knows, these two battalions were sent to Korea from Hong Kong on 26th August at the urgent request of the Commander of the United Nations forces. The American authorities accepted the fact that these battalions could only be sent if their maintenance with stores and equipment, other than ammunition, but including winter clothing, could be provided from American sources. The American authorities accepted this responsibility and I have no doubt have discharged it to the very best of their ability.

On 25th August they informed us they might require help with winter clothing from us. Additional British winter clothing, originally intended as a reserve stock for 29th Brigade, arrived in Korea on 3rd and 8th November, and this clothing has, of course, been available to meet the needs of 27th Brigade. Finally, full stocks of British winter clothing, specifically provided for 27th Brigade, were sent from this country on 4th October and these have now arrived in Korea.

The House can, therefore, be assured that ample supplies of protective winter clothing of both British and American pattern are available in Korea for both 29th and 27th Brigade. But this does not mean that there may not have been difficulties during the past two weeks in issuing all the items of winter clothing to units taking part in the operations in Northern Korea. I understand that there have been very great problems in supplying units engaged in these operations, many of which have had to be supplied by air. Thus the reports, which I have read with great concern, of the slow arrival of particular items of winter clothing to units of 27th Brigade, must be the result of these supply difficulties to the advanced units. I can assure the House that our commanding officers in Korea will make the utmost endeavour to see that every man in the front line gets every item of winter clothing which he so urgently needs. We have received no representations on the subject from our Commanders in the field. There is not the slightest doubt that ample stocks of the clothing are available in Korea.

Mr. Driberg

While thanking my right hon. Friend for his very full and clear reply, may I ask if he can explain the reasons behind the delay and difficulty in supplying clothes and getting them actually issued to the Argylls and to the Middlesex? He said that they had been available in Korea since certain dates. Has there been any misunderstanding with the Americans about the necessary air-lift?

Mr. Strachey

No, Sir. I do not think there has been a misunderstanding. I think that the difficulties have been the physical ones of reaching the troops in the front line with their clothing, which had to compete in priority with ammunition, food, and all the other supplies which were going over very heavily burdened supply lines.

Mr. Low

Taking full account of what the Minister has said, is it not really very unsatisfactory that the Minister of Defence should, no doubt unwittingly, have misinformed the House on Wednesday last when he said that the front line troops had already been provided "with what is required"; is it not clear from what the Minister has just said, and from the reports which appeared in the Press on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, that the front line troops were not provided at that time, and will the right hon. Gentleman further explain why the Australian battalion of the 27th Brigade was provided much earlier with heavy winter clothing, whereas the British battalions were not, even although the time available was probably the same?

Mr. Strachey

I cannot agree at all that my right hon. Friend misled the House in this respect. If hon. Members want an impartial witness of what has reached the troops in the front line, I quote from today's issue of the "Daily Express," in which—[Interruption.] I call it an impartial witness, but I think I am giving hon. Members opposite something on that. Their correspondent with the forces in Korea begins his despatch in these words: I do not think you people at home need worry about the winter equipment of this 27th Brigade. We look as if we were going to the Pole with Shackleton or Scott. If there were delays earlier in bringing up the equipment, as there may have been—it is quite possible—I suggest that it was because of the difficulties of all the supplies to these men in the front line.

Brigadier Medlicott

Does the Minister recall that in the late war a very great quantity of supplementary clothing of this kind was provided, and very admirably provided, by voluntary sources working through the county territorial associations and the Director of Welfare. In view of the possibilities of a great increase in demand, is any machinery of that kind in contemplation, having regard to its proved usefulness in the last war?

Mr. Strachey

We would not wish to rely on voluntary efforts, however well intentioned, although we should welcome them. This clothing is for the Korean climate. Very special protective clothing is needed, and has been most carefully provided.

Mr. Eden

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman to clear up one point which I did not quite follow? What was the date when these supplies from Britain arrived? The right hon. Gentleman talked about delay in getting things up the line—we can all understand that—but when did this material actually arrive in Korea?

Mr. Strachey

The first part of it arrived when the 29th Brigade arrived. It came from the same ships.

Mr. Eden

On what date?

Mr. Strachey

I have not that date, but the second lot arrived on 3rd and 8th November and a third lot arrived three days ago.

Mr. Bellenger

Is the House to understand from the statement of my right hon. Friend that supplies for the British troops in Korea are dependent on stocks being sent from this country, and, if so, can my right hon. Friend give an assurance that adequate reserves of winter clothing and other personal equipment are now on the spot in Korea?

Mr. Strachey

Yes, Sir. I repeat, as I said in my main answer, that there is not the slightest doubt that ample stocks of clothing are now available in Korea.

Earl Winterton

Will the right hon. Gentleman make clear, as I am sure he will, one very important constitutional point? He spoke of the Americans having taken responsibility for the supply of clothing, food and equipment, but will he make it quite clear that while that may be an arrangement between him and the American Command, he, and he alone, is responsible to this House for the welfare of the British troops? This is a very important point.

Mr. Strachey

What I am responsible for as a member of the Government is having made the arrangements in respect of those two battalions—not in respect, of course, of the whole force of the 29th Brigade, but of those two battalions—which were sent from Hong Kong. We made the arrangements with the Americans that, as a condition of complying with their very urgent request to send those battalions, those two battalions, and they alone, must be supplied, except for ammunition, from American sources, and we take the responsibility for making that arrangement.