HC Deb 21 March 1951 vol 485 cc2431-6
The Minister of Defence (Mr. Shinwell)

With your permission, Mr. Deputy-Speaker and that of the House, I should like to make a brief statement on the course of operations in Korea.

In my last statement I was able to report the existence of a favourable military situation in Korea. This trend has continued and the initiative is now with the forces of the United Nations. There is no doubt that the offensive of the United Nations forces is meeting with success. This policy is characterised by limited but forceful advances designed to destroy enemy forces rather than to achieve spectacular territorial gains.

It is not easy to give an accurate assessment of enemy losses, but as an example it is estimated that in a six-day period during the present United Nations offensive, the enemy is believed to have lost 18,000 killed and a similar number wounded. Of the latter, a large proportion no doubt died from want of proper care and medical attention. Heavy bombers have constantly attacked installations and communication centres, and with the advent of spring and longer daylight, the opportunities for this form of attack will increase.

My last statement covered the period up to 20th February. On that day, the position was that in the west the 1st and 9th Corps had secured the south bank of the Han river and in the centre of the peninsula the 10th Corps had succeeded in halting a strong Chinese counter-offensive directed towards Wonju.

On 21st February, 9th and 10th Corps launched an attack in the centre of the peninsula to straighten out the bulge in our line caused by the Chinese counter-offensive. The British 27th Brigade led this attack towards the North-east from Chipyong. The Canadian Battalion had by this time joined 27th Brigade and saw their first front line action during this operation. I am informed that they gave an excellent account of themselves.

A slow and methodical advance, against varying opposition, continued in weather conditions which were the reverse of favourable. Low cloud hampered air support of the ground forces, and deep mud gravely complicated the problem of normal supply to the advancing units. To overcome these difficulties air supply was resorted to, and by 2nd March the bulge in our line had been completely eliminated. After a brief pause for regrouping, the United Nations Army launched a further offensive on the 7th March with the object of keeping the enemy off balance and still further disrupting any plans which he may have had for launching a counter-offensive.

Seoul was re-occupied in strength on 16th March by United States 1st Corps, to which the British 29th Brigade is attached, and units of this Corps are now well north of the town. In the centre of the peninsula, which has been the scene of the hardest fighting, 9th and 10th Corps are north of an east-west line through Hongchon, while on the east coast, South Korean units are some ten miles south of the 38th Parallel.

Throughout the land fighting, French, Belgian, Dutch, Greek and Turkish troops have given strong support. The French Battalion was recently awarded a United States Presidential citation. This was to mark the gallant stand made by this battalion early in February at Chipyong.

During the period under review, His Majesty's ships and aircraft of the Royal Navy, together with ships of the Royal Canadian, Australian and New Zealand Navies, have been engaged in providing gunfire and air support and maintaining the blockade of the west coast of Korea in support of the United Nations Army offensive. Commonwealth Naval units, with protective air coyer provided by aircraft from the light carrier H.M.S. "Theseus," gave close supporting fire to the United Nations advances on the west coast from Inchon across the Han River to the limit of the present offensive in the vicinity of Pukhan River.

H.M.S. "Theseus," working alternatively with U.S. Carrier "Bataan" as averaged 50 sorties per day in good weather, and the work of both ships has earned the highest praise from all concerned. During recent operations H.M.S. "Belfast," accompanied by the Australian Destroyer "Bataan," encountered miles of pack ice, some of the ice floes being 20 feet across. The weather has been intensely cold; as much as 23 degrees of frost were recorded.

Since 20th February, Vice-Admiral Andrewes of the Royal Navy has been in command of the United Nations blockade and escort forces operating in Korean waters. His ships include those of the Commonwealth, United States and Dutch Navies.

Aircraft of the Royal Air Force continue to play a full part in these operations. Sunderland flying boats, averaging between 450 and 500 flying hours a month, are maintaining patrol and search activity over Korean waters in co-operation with United Nations Naval Forces. Hastings and Dakota aircraft are carrying reinforcements to the battle area, and are ensuring the evacuation of wounded personnel with a minimum of delay. Aircraft of the Royal Australian and South African Air Forces are assisting in all these tasks.

I regret to inform the House that, since making my previous statement, the following casualties have been suffered by naval and land forces: killed and died of wounds, 20. The number of wounded is 65, and three are missing, who are believed to be prisoners of war. The Royal Air Force has so far suffered no casualties.

Brigadier Prior-Palmer

Has the right hon. Gentleman anything to add to the statement he made last time with regard to names of prisoners of war and their whereabouts, or any further information concerning our prisoners of war in enemy hands?

Mr. Shinwell

I believe that some names have been sent in to the War Office; I am not quite sure about the Royal Air Force. Perhaps the hon. and gallant Gentleman would put down a Question to the respective Ministers.

Mr. H. Hynd

Is advantage being taken of the present relatively favourable military situation to re-open peace efforts?

Mr. Shinwell

That is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary.

Mr. Blackburn

Will the right hon. Gentleman immediately consult with the Attorney-General about the fact that the "Daily Worker" is giving advance information about casualties, is attributing to our captured soldiers and airmen anti-British and anti-United Nations statements, which are criminal offences for them, and is acting for our enemies in Korea as "Lord Haw-Haw" acted for our enemies in the last war? Will the right hon. Gentleman immediately consider whether these treasonable activities ought not to be the subject of criminal proceedings?

Mr. Shinwell

Yes, Sir. I will bring the matter to the notice of my right hon. and learned Friend.

Mr. Blackburn

I am much obliged.

Mr. James Hudson

Does it remain a major object in the advance of the United Nations Forces that they shall not proceed, apart from minor tactical movements, beyond the 38th Parallel?

Mr. Shinwell

I believe that is the present intention.

Mr. J. Langford-Holt

The right hon. Gentleman was reluctant to give an estimate of the total casualties which the enemy are considered to have suffered. He did, however, give the casualties for six days, which presumably he supposes to be representative. At the rate of 6,000 a day, which was the figure he gave, the enemy's casualties must have reached 1¾ million since the beginning of the campaign. Is that what the right hon. Gentleman is suggesting? Is that a reasonable figure?

Mr. Shinwell

The fact that the figures are very severe on one day, does not mean that they are the same on every day.

Mr. Langford-Holt

Was the right hon. Gentleman suggesting that the figures for these six days were representative, or were they exceptionally high casualties on that occasion?

Mr. Shinwell

These figures have been furnished. I am anxious to furnish the House with all the information I can about the state of the enemy's forces and the number of casualties which have occurred. I have received this information. I am very anxious at the same time not to give the House information which cannot be regarded as reasonably accurate.

Mr. Driberg

In view of this morning's report of a complete ban on all mention of the 38th Parallel in news reports from Korea, will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that there will be no major advance northwards beyond that parallel without full consultation with all those concerned, including His Majesty's Government?

Mr. Shinwell

I have already said that these are questions which it appears to me ought to be addressed to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary.

Mr. Harold Davies

Has my right hon. Friend any confirmation or denial of the allegations which have been made that a major menace exists in the Korean campaign in the form of bubonic plague and smallpox? If he has any such information, can he tell us whether we are taking medical precautions to combat any likelihood of this disease breaking out among our own troops.

Mr. Shinwell

I am glad to say there is no evidence that bubonic plague and a peculiar form of smallpox, which are endemic in the northern part of Korea, have affected our forces. I understand, however, that many casualties have occurred both from bubonic plague and smallpox among Northern Koreans, and presumably among the Chinese forces, but we cannot be expected at this stage to render them any assistance of a medical kind.

Brigadier Peto

I understand that the Minister said there had been no casualties in the Royal Air Force. Does that refer to the period since his last report?

Mr. Shinwell

I made very careful inquiry about this matter. When I was first informed about it I thought it might be regarded as unusual, but the latest information I have is that so far there have been no casualties.

Brigadier Peto

Since the right hon. Gentleman's last report?

Mr. Shinwell

Yes, since the last report. This is the latest report. I cannot speak about the period up to today, but within the last week. I do not want any misunderstanding about this. I am informed that so far there have been no casualties among members of the Royal Air Force.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

Could the Minister give some information about the South Koreans whom we are supposed to have gone into Korea to liberate? Is he aware that the Agent-General for Relief in Korea has said that there are 3½ million refugees and that if this fighting goes on for another month there will be famine in Korea? Does not my right hon. Friend realise it is time this senseless slaughter came to an end?

Mr. Shinwell

I must say that neither the United Nations nor the United Kingdom are responsible for beginning the aggression in Korea. If heavy casualties have occurred in Southern Korea, the responsibility must rest with the Northern Koreans.