HC Deb 19 April 1951 vol 486 cc2143-54

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Popplewell.]

10.25 p.m.

Air Commodore Harvey (Macclesfield)

I propose tonight to direct my remarks to the age and training of soldiers serving in Malaya. On 9th April, I wrote to the Secretary of State for War informing him that I had been successful in the ballot for the adjournment debate and I hoped that he would reply to the debate. So far I have had no reply or acknowledgement from the right hon. Gentleman. I am not complaining unduly, but an hon. Member, a few moments ago, referred to manners on this side of the House, and I thought that the Secretary of State for War would at least have had the courtesy to reply to my letter. I have no doubt that the Under-Secretary of State, with his usual ability, will give us what, I hope, will be a better answer than we should have got from his right hon. Friend.

I believe that I am right in saying that hon. Members on both sides of the House are gravely concerned about the existing arrangements for training soldiers out in Malaya, mostly National Service men. Parents are anxious, as we all know from the number of letters which we receive from constituents and others in the country, who know that we interest ourselves in these matters.

We have been informed by the Secretary of State for War that the minimum age for soldiers serving in Korea is 19 years. Elsewhere, which includes Malaya, it is 18 years three months. The Secretary of State for War said in the House on 6th March last, I think it is a question of training rather than of age."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th March, 1951; Vol. 485, c. 226.] Personally, I think that in a time of so-called peace, 18 years three months is too young. Let us consider the training aspect of these young men who are sent out to fight at that age. I quite agree that to fight in Korea is a most difficult job of warfare. I once spent a winter in Manchuria and I know what the weather conditions can be like. I have often thought of these young men struggling there in that campaign.

But the war in Malaya—and it is a war—is an equally difficult one. It may be even more difficult in some respects than the war in Korea. The Secretary of State for War went out to Malaya with the Colonial Secretary and saw the conditions. I had the honour of going out there with a Parliamentary delegation, including my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Lennox-Boyd), and we saw the conditions. I think that all of us who have been there know only too well how difficult it is. The country consists largely of jungle through which one cannot push one's way. It is a very difficult climate and one is bitten by leeches and mosquitoes and the conditions generally are extremely difficult.

When these young men are ambushed, there is practically no opportunity whatever to retaliate. Usually there are about 20 soldiers on patrol, and they may be ambushed by anything up to 100 bandits who fire from cuttings in the jungle, and by the time one looks for them they are gone. I want to quote two letters which I have had from constituents. One is from a lady who has a son now serving in Malaya. This is a passage from her letter: My boy was with the 1st Battalion of the Worcestershires in Johore, and the last letter he wrote was on 10th February. He was then up in the jungle swamps, sleeping on his rifle and 36 rounds of ammunition on the hard ground, with not even a blanket. He was only 18 years of age when he went out, a care-free, happy boy. I received a photograph of him in January. He looks a serious, grown man. He says their guns are old and worn. They only have half enough to eat and it is badly cooked. No wireless, no letters; with only tents to sleep in, and bitten to death by mosquitoes. One boy in the company shot himself. He could not stand it. Others, he says, are nervous wrecks. I make allowance for a mother writing that letter and probably reading into her son's letters, but it gives some idea of what parents are thinking and believing.

I also have a letter here written by an officer to the mother of a soldier who was killed. It is a charming letter condoling with her. I will not read it all, because it is private, but the officer, who was second-in-command, said: The patrol never had a chance of retaliation, although I feel this will be little consolation to you in your very great loss. That shows that these men do not get a chance to fight back and defend themselves as happens in open war.

I ask the War Office and the Government to take these matters into consideration. The Malayan campaign is every bit as difficult as the Korean war. At the moment these men receive 10 weeks' basic training in this country, followed by six weeks' continued training—16 weeks from the time they are recruited until they leave for Malaya. I believe there may be a week or two thrown in. Taking into account embarkation leave, weekend leaves, 48-hour passes and other duties that have to be carried out, there is precious little training time. But the point is that these men ought to carry out training on the spot, in a secure area in Malaya itself, where they can be taught the real conditions of jungle warfare and do so before they go on active operations.

We are told by the Government that these men get approximately four weeks' training when they arrive in Malaya. That has already been mentioned, and I do not want to go over old ground, but soldiers have been known to get only two weeks' training. I should be well satisfied if we had a definite assurance that they would get not less than six weeks' training in Malaya. I do not think that is enough, but I recognise the difficulties and what the Government have to do in this matter.

The Secretary of State has said that men can do their training with the units to which they are posted. That is not at all satisfactory. Soldiers join their regiment or battalion in Malaya and it may be called out suddenly to chase bandits or undertake active operations, and these recruits or National Service men with very little training find themselves in with the others having to go and fight.

What is required is a special area for training. I believe there are parts of Singapore island which could be used. No doubt it would cost more money and more time. We have one million men in our Forces today, and when the Malayan campaign started nearly three years ago we had nothing like that number of men. Yet they are still getting this meagre amount of training.

These suggestions may not be ideal ones, but the responsibility is that of the Government. I can assure right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite that there is one thing for which they are loathed by the people of this country—for the way they are sending these boys of 18 years and three months out to Malaya. My advice to them is to review this matter, if they have not done so already, and tell the country these young soldiers will get at least six weeks' training on the spot. If they do not do so, they will be hated more than they are at the moment.

10.34 p.m.

Lieut.-Colonel Bromley-Davenport (Knutsford)

I shall keep the House only for a few moments. I should like the Under-Secretary, when he replies, not to give the platitudinous answer which I think he and the Secretary of State have given before, that these boys give a good account of themselves and that American officers pay a high tribute to their work. Of course, they will give a good account of themselves. We know they do. They will fight and die as their fathers did before them. But that is not the point.

We do not consider—and I know I am not alone in this—that these boys have been properly trained. We consider that 18 and 19 is too young. To give a simple illustration, let us take the case of boxing. I have seen inexperienced boys being put into the ring against seasoned and older opponents. The result is that these boys are knocked cold in the second or third round. The audience pay tribute to the courage of the unfortunate boy, of course, but the point is that the boy should never have been put into the ring against a seasoned opponent in the first place. I consider it is exactly the same thing with Malaya and Korea. These boys should not even be there in the first place if they are insufficiently trained.

I do not think it is possible to train infantry troops in six or eight months to fire their weapons properly and also in how to make tactical use of the ground. These boys should have more training. They should go through battle schools for longer periods when they get out to a theatre of war. I ask the Minister—and I do so, I think, on behalf of all parties—to let these wretched boys grow up and get a bit more training.

10.36 p.m.

Mr. Emrys Hughes (South Ayrshire)

I should not like this debate to conclude without making it clear that the point of view strongly and vehemently expressed has strong support from this side of the House. I have a letter from a mother of a soldier who was called up in August. He is an only son and was on the high seas in December, being killed in action in Malaya. I also have a letter from a brother of a soldier in my constituency who was killed in Korea. These letters come from far too many parts of the country to be ignored. I do not know what period of training is supposed to be necessary before a soldier is sent into battle.

Mr. Nabarro (Kidderminster)

Two years.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

An American soldier has four months' training in Korea before being sent into battle, and at the other end of the scale a South Korean conscript is sent into action after only one month's training in the army. I hope that we shall see an end to this sort of massacre of our people without training. The War Office should review the attitude it has taken in relation to this question of training.

10.38 p.m.

Mr. George Ward (Worcester)

I wish to intervene for only two minutes, as so many parents of men in the Worcester Regiment live in my constituency. There are, as the House knows, two aspects of this matter. The first deals with the past, the five men who have already been killed. We want to satisfy ourselves that these men could not have escaped their fate had they had better training. In pursuance of this, I asked the Secretary of State on what date the five men of the 1st Battalion the Worcestershire Regiment who were killed on 22nd February, arrived in Malaya; and what training they received between the date of their arrival and the date on which they first went into action against the enemy. The Secretary of State for War answered: I have called for this information and will write to the hon. Member."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th March, 1951; Vol. 485, c. 265.] That was on 20th March, but I have not yet had that information, and I hope he will let me have it without any more delay.

The next points I should like to raise deal with the future. We want to ensure that similar incidents can, so far as humanly possible, be avoided. There are two needs: first, that these men not only have adequate training before sailing abroad, but also that they have adequate training in jungle warfare on the spot before they go into action; secondly, that the minimum age limit of 18 years three months should be raised to 19 years, as in the case of troops for Korea. If in Korea, why not in Malaya? We consider it right to oppose the Communist terrorists in Malaya, and we make no protest about that; but the Government carry a very heavy responsibility towards these young men who go out on our behalf, and they should have the very best equipment and training that can be given. We rely on the Government to see that these matters are put right.

10.41 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for War (Mr. Michael Stewart)

In replying on this extremely serious subject, I will come straight to the point because of the time left to me, and summarise the regulations as they are at present. A man may not be despatched to Malaya until he has reached the age of 18 years and three months. In fact, if we take the National Service man, he may not enter the Army until he is 18 years and 3 months of age, and 18 weeks' service has to be added to that because regulations provide that he must have had 16 weeks' training and 18 weeks' service; that allows for leave, and other things. So, there must be 16 weeks' training, and on to that there must be added, to the age of 18 years and 3 months, a voyage of about one month, during which he receives further training.

Air Commodore Harvey

On a troopship—how can the hon. Gentleman count that?

Mr. Stewart

The hon. and gallant Gentleman questions that statement, but I can assure him that those directly responsible for these men have made most particular requests that this troopship training should continue in accordance with regulations. Then, on arrival in the Far East, there is one month's intensive training in jungle warfare, so that the soldier will be more than 18 years 9 months, as a minimum, before he is engaged in any combatant duties. Of course, as a Regular soldier, a man can join at a somewhat earlier age, but he cannot be engaged in operations until he is something over the age of 18 years 6 months. I say this in order to summarise the present regulations; the ruling that a man must have at least 16 weeks' training is universally and rigidly adhered to.

Now, what would be the effect of raising the age? A very large proportion of the men in the Army, both National Service and Regular, are in the younger age groups. It follows, with regard to National Service men, because of the age which Parliament has laid down, and the nation has accepted, that they must be in that category. The actual age composition of the Army would be lower than it is if there had been a greater increase in Regular recruiting in recent years because of the number of men who join the Army before the compulsory age for National Service. The bulk of the Regulars are quite young men.

It follows that, if we were to raise the age at which a man can be sent out to the Malayan theatre, it would give us a large number of soldiers in the Army of whom one would be obliged to say that the theatres in which they might be used would be extremely limited. It would further mean that, when a unit went overseas, there would always be a certain number of men taken away from it. One would add to the difficulty and complexity of proper training in this country. If we did that, we should be defeating the ends which hon. Members have in mind, because in this matter training is very much more important than age. I think that is generally accepted.

We ought to notice this, too. I do not think a regulation regarding age could properly be confined to Malaya. It ought to be extended to Eritrea where we have to engage, in turn, against bandits. It is also right to say that it ought to be extended to a number of areas in the Middle Eastern Command. The effect of all that would be a concentration of large numbers of the youngest soldiers in a very limited number of theatres. I am extremely doubtful whether that would be in the interests of the young men themselves. It would not be at all wise, I think, greatly to increase the numbers of very young men in an army of occupation such as we have in Germany at the present time.

I am forced to the conclusion, therefore, that while we have the present age of National Service and the present age at which young men may join the Regular Army, the age at which we send them to Malaya follows, whether we like it or not, inescapably from that. The only way of avoiding that would be to alter the age of National Service and the age at which a man may join the Regular Army, which I cannot discuss as it would involve legislation and be out of order.

Here we have something which Parliament and the nation have accepted. Indeed, far more important I judge than this question of age is the vital question, "Are these men's lives endangered because they have not received sufficient training when they are sent on these operations?" That is the question on which everything turns. The hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Macclesfield (Air Commodore Harvey), who raised this topic, quoted two letters. In one there was the phrase that the young man referred to in that letter did not get a chance. I think the hon. and gallant Gentleman will agree that it is bound to happen in operations of war that a young man runs into danger where he is attacked by an enemy in such a fashion that he has no chance to retaliate. One could not conclude that the man who suffered that mischance had not been properly trained. That is a disaster which might befall any soldier of any age and however well-trained.

The other letter contained very serious allegations and I hope the hon. and gallant Gentleman will furnish me with sufficient details to be able to pursue an inquiry into these allegations. But I must say, in fairness to all responsible, that I cannot accept the circumstances of a suicide among the troops in Malaya without a very thorough investigation to see whether that report was correct. I have at present no evidence to lead me to suppose such an event has occurred. The hon. and gallant Gentleman will agree that we ought not to accept it without an inquiry.

Air Commodore Harvey

I will certainly ask my constituent if she has any objection to supplying the name. I do not think she will, in which case the hon. Gentleman will be armed to inquire into it fully.

Mr. Stewart

I shall be very glad to do so and perhaps, therefore, it will be better for me not to pursue that particular case further. But regarding training, it is suggested that these men receive very little training. They get, in this country, six weeks' basic training at a group training centre, followed by 10 weeks' continuation training with the unit in this country, followed by the month's training on the troopship, followed by the month's intensive jungle training in Malaya. Those are minimum figures.

Air Commodore Harvey

How long in Malaya?

Mr. Stewart

One month's intensive jungle training. Those are minimum figures. For example, if I may now refer to the tragic case in which the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. G. Ward) has an interest even greater than that which we all naturally feel in this matter, I would say this. Of the five soldiers to whom he referred, two were Regular soldiers and had been in Malaya since June of the previous year. Of the three National Service men, two had been there since November and one since December. All of them had received at least one month's intensive jungle training and in the case of two of them there was an additional period of three weeks. I cannot accept the view that after this period of training a man is not in a position properly to look after himself on operations. If I did I should be going against the very wide range of opinions which my right hon. Friend and myself have been very careful to collect in this matter.

Air Commodore Harvey

I am sure the hon. Member does not want to mislead the House. He has given the impression that when they arrive in Malaya there is a month's intensive training. He must know that young men going out to the Orient for the first time are afflicted with all sorts of local complaints—"Singapore tummy" and so on—and they have to acclimatise themselves. I wish the hon. Gentleman would give the real facts and not give this impression which we all know not to be correct.

Mr. Stewart

I will not accept the idea that every young man who goes out there suffers to that extent. There is this problem of health, but it is by no means universal or as general as the hon. and gallant Gentleman suggests.

We have considered whether this period of training ought to be extended. If it could be made possible, I will consider the suggestion that we should extend that period from a month to six weeks, but I can go no further at the present time. One hon. Member urged me not to give platitudinous answers that these young men are giving a good account of themselves. That was a comment of my right hon. Friend and it was made because the hon. and gallant Member himself used a form of words which suggested that they did not give a good account of themselves. It was proper that my right hon. Friend should deny that suggestion.

Lieut.-Colonel Bromley-Davenport

The hon. Gentleman is completely misleading the House. I do not consider these statements to be correct.

Mr. Stewart

The hon. and gallant Member asked how we could expect these young men to give a good account of themselves? Once he had said that, it was obvious that my right hon. Friend had to deny the apparent imputation. If the hon. and gallant Gentleman did not mean what those words seemed to say, I readily accept that; but as he had said them, it was necessary for a denial to be made.

Lieut.-Colonel Bromley-Davenport rose

Mr. Stewart

I have not time to give way. My hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) spoke of the massacre of these young men. Every one of these casualties is a tragic and serious incident, but I think we ought not to use words like that. The actual number of casualties between May, 1948, and the end of March of this year is 119 killed or died of wounds and 181 wounded.

The final point I would make is this. Neither in the case of the men of the Worcesters nor in any other of this list of cases has there been anything in the setting in which the tragedies occurred where one could say with any approach to proof or even probability that these men were killed or wounded because they had not been sufficiently trained to be able to give an account of themselves. The evidence and the facts are against the contention that we are sending these men out improperly trained. The more one examines the episode in which the young men of the Worcesters were involved, the more clear it becomes that it could not be said that their misfortune was due to lack of training. So it is with every incident one examines. So it is with every officer who has been in the theatre and whose opinion one takes. I will look and see whether we could make an extension on the lines suggested, but apart from that the House will, I hope—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock, and the Debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Five Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.