HC Deb 28 May 1952 vol 501 cc1360-9
The Prime Minister

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I should like to make a statement on the military situation in Korea.

Since the armistice talks began last July, there has been a great change in the military position in Korea. The Communist forces have taken full advantage of the lull in the fighting to reinforce, re-organise and re-equip their armies. The size of the force in the field against the United Nations Command is not far short of one million men, compared with a total of just over 500,000 last July. Although the number of enemy formations has been increased, this reinforcement has largely consisted of building existing units up to full strength. The fresh troops are mainly Chinese.

At the same time, the enemy's strength in armour and artillery has steadily mounted. They are now believed to have over 500 tanks and self-propelled guns. There have been large increases in the numbers of anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns, heavy mortars and field artillery. Rocket launchers have also made their appearance

Despite our air superiority over the immediate battle area, the enemy have also been able to build up large stocks of all types of supplies during the past ten months. There has been a marked increase in the size of the enemy air forces, which have about 1,800 aircraft compared with some 1,000 aircraft last July. About a thousand of these aircraft are jet fighters, mostly MIG 15s.

There is no evidence at present of an imminent enemy attack, but with their reinforcements, the Communists are now in a position to launch a major offensive with little warning and could maintain the initial pressure of their attacks for some time. The United Nations Forces have not been idle during the last 10 months. They now hold the most strongly defended line that they have ever occupied across the peninsula and they are, of course, backed by strong close support air forces.

Ground operations have only been on a small scale since last July, but the United Nations Air Forces carry out regular heavy attacks against enemy positions. These air forces are playing a very important part in limiting the enemy's chances of launching a successful offensive. Their chief task is to put out of action and keep unserviceable the major North Korean airfields capable of being used for jet fighter operations. As an example of their success, our accurate night bombing made the Communists abandon their effort to base jet fighters on three new airfields, which they constructed in the Sinanju area last autumn, and on two other airfields, which they had enlarged to accommodate jet aircraft. The result of these operations has been that the United Nations has air superiority over the immediate battle area. A large proportion of the Chinese aircraft are still stationed in Manchuria. The lack of forward airfields would seriously handicap them if they attempted to carry out a sustained air offensive.

The other main objective of the attacks by our air forces is to disrupt the flow of supplies to the enemy, to limit their troop movements and destroy their supply areas. The success of these attacks has severely restricted rail traffic in North Korea and has forced the enemy to limit vehicle movement almost entirely to the hours of darkness.

Ground operations in Korea consist at present of reconnaissance patrols and probing attacks. Our Forces hold strong defensive positions, strengthened by field fortifications, wire and mines and the Communists have also strengthened their defences. Patrolling is active and determined on both sides.

The Communists have launched a number of attacks of up to regimental strength, supported by heavy concentrations of artillery and mortar fire. These attacks have been contained by United Nations Forces and in almost all cases any ground lost initially has subsequently been regained. In this static situation, the United Nations Command is taking every opportunity to relieve units for rest and re-training.

Ships of the Royal Navy are operating on both the west and east coasts of Korea and serving with them are units of the Australian, Canadian and New Zealand navies. A force, including two British light cruisers and one British aircraft carrier, maintains command of the Yellow Sea and patrols the west coast of North Korea between the Gulf of the Yalu River and the Han River estuary, thus cutting all enemy sea communications between China and North Korea and between North Korea and the battle area.

This force also prevents the enemy from invading the numerous islands lying off the west coast which are held and used by our Forces. Guns of our naval units also regularly engage enemy troops and other military targets on this coast. Our aircraft carrier provides coastal reconnaissance and daily air strikes against enemy targets on the mainland and gives close support to the army when required.

British destroyers are frequently engaged in vigorous and effective action off the North Korean coast. Her Majesty's ship "Charity" was recently straddled by four enemy guns while supporting American minesweepers in the Taedong estuary. She promptly returned the fire and knocked out three of the four enemy guns.

Although they have not recently been engaged in heavy fighting, troops of the Commonwealth Division take part daily in patrols and probing attacks, and they have maintained their reputation of being in the highest rank of the divisions in Korea. They are occupying one of the most vital defensive positions of the Allied line across the peninsula covering the approaches to the capital city of Seoul. There are Canadian, Australian, New Zealand and Indian units in addition to our own in the Division and their team-work under the most stringent conditions has proved an outstanding success.

The Royal Air Force squadron of Sunderland flying boats continues to take an active part in the anti-submarine and shipping patrols which ensure the security of the sea lines of supply between Japan and Korea. A number of R.A.F. fighter pilots have been serving with American squadrons and they have acquitted themselves with distinction during their tour of duty. South African and Australian squadrons have also been playing their part in United Nations air operations.

So far this year the losses suffered by the United Kingdom forces have been 68 officers and men killed and 168 wounded; four are prisoners of war and four are missing. Our total casualties since the beginning of the war in June, 1950, now amount to 3,250–513 killed, 1,601 wounded, 939 prisoners of war and 197 missing. Her Majesty's Government wish to express their sincere condolences with the bereaved and with those who have been and are anxious about the wounded, missing and prisoners.

I am sure that the House will wish to record the admiration we must all feel at the bearing of all ranks in the trying conditions in Korea. We can only hope that a satisfactory armistice and peace settlement will soon crown the efforts they have made.

I have also to inform the House that my noble Friend the Minister of Defence has received an invitation from General Mark Clark to stay with him in Tokyo and visit the battle-front in Korea. I think it is most desirable that this invitation should be accepted. Lord Alexander proposes to go to the Far East at an early date. On his return a further statement will, of course, be made to the House.

Mr. Shinwell

The House will welcome the news which has just been imparted to us that the Minister of Defence will shortly proceed to the battlefront. At any rate, he will have the opportunity of entering into discussions with the commander on the spot so that, subsequently, we might be more fully informed on what is going on. I wish to ask the right hon. Gentleman one or two questions arising out of his statement. Probably he will agree that the statement is a strange commentary on the armistice negotiations which are now proceeding. He probably would also agree that the statement discloses a very grave situation—that Chinese and North Korean forces have available more than one million men and that they are liberally supplied with modern weapons, in particular modern tanks and 1,000 modern jet fighter aircraft. Moreover, it would appear that they are able to launch an imminent offensive if they are so disposed.

The question I should like to ask the right hon. Gentleman is whether the Government are being fully informed by the United Nations Command as to the steps which may be required to meet a major offensive of this kind. Presumably, British and Commonwealth troops would be fully deployed in a situation of this kind. The House will wish to have further information on these matters. I would also remind the right hon. Gentleman that this is the first statement we have had on the course of military operations since the Government were returned last year. It might have been advisable if we had had more frequent statements.

Finally, may I ask him about the more than 900 British prisoners of war? Can the right hon. Gentleman give any information to the House about their treatment and their general situation? The House would wish to know what the position is in that respect.

The Prime Minister

I certainly could not answer that last question without notice. I should be very glad to answer it or to have it answered by my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Defence.

With regard to the general situation, I should have thought what I have said to the House sufficiently sustained the right hon. Gentleman's contention that the situation is very grave. It is very grave, but the United Nations Commander, the American general on the spot, believes that the United Nations are capable of holding a violent offensive should it be made against them on the breakdown of the peace negotiations.

No one can pronounce about battles before they are fought, but that is the view that is taken by the military authorities of the United States who furnish, I think, nine-tenths or more of the troops engaged with the enemy—that should not be forgotten—and who are responsible for taking the necessary measures.

What those measures would be I cannot presume to forecast at all, but I feel that during the last 10 months we have been engaged in truce making under extraordinary conditions. I do not think there has ever been any will to peace on the side of the enemy, who were suffering so heavily when the truce was begun and who have certainly improved their position in the meanwhile.

The reason why we have not made a statement on the military operations is that no operations were going on apart from the air forays and the patrolling which I have described and which has also been fully reported in the newspapers. Of course, once the truce breaks down, if it should, and large-scale military operations begin, then much more frequent statements will have to be made to Parliament.

Mr. Shinwell

In view of the protracted nature of the armistice negotiations, would not the right hon. Gentleman agree that a case can be made out for the summoning of a United Nations conference—particularly of the nations participating in the Korean affair on the United Nations side—to consider the whole situation? Would it not be desirable that such a conference should be held?

The Prime Minister

That is really a question which might well await the return of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. It is not a purely military question by any means.

Mr. Driberg

Can we have an assurance that when the Minister of Defence is in Tokyo he will fully discuss the question of the possibility of having British representation at the truce talks and also the question of the conduct of the prisoner of war camps on Koje Island and, if possible, will visit the British troops who are now taking part in guarding those camps?

The Prime Minister

Lord Alexander and General Mark Clark are great personal friends. As everyone knows, General Mark Clark commanded an army under the supreme command of General Alexander. They are trusted friends who know a great deal about the subjects with which we are now concerned. I think that it would be a great advantage that they should talk all matters over freely between them, but I certainly would not presume to attempt to prescribe beforehand exactly how and in what way and to what extent they should deal with particular matters.

Mr. Hollis

Can the Prime Minister tell the House anything about Communist guerrilla activities in South Korea?

The Prime Minister

I have not any information on that, without notice.

Mr. A. Henderson

As a very large number of trained and experienced pilots are required to maintain a front line strength of 1,000 jet aircraft, can the Prime Minister say whether there is any evidence of the nationality of the pilots?

The Prime Minister

Certainly the Chinese seem to be picking it up very quickly.

Mrs. Castle

Further to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr. Driberg), is the right hon. Gentleman aware that what is worrying the House is the lack of reliable information available to us about the prisoner of war camps and about the screening of prisoners, and that we are anxious that there should not only be talks between the Minister of Defence and his colleague over there but that there should be, as a result of his visit, a full, factual report to the House on these points, which are most obscure at the moment?

The Prime Minister

I am sure that there is a great deal of concern over a lot of things that have happened in Korea. Everyone—no one more than our Allies in America—has not been by any means contented with the course which these events have taken. However, these matters are now receiving the concentrated attention of the Government principally concerned—the United States Government—which is acting for the United Nations and, I must again remind the House, which has the overwhelming majority of the Forces employed. Further measures are being taken and I think it would be wrong if the other nations who are contributing token forces, in many cases, to the United Nations armies, leaving the main bulk of the work to be done by the United States, did not take their part in this difficult question of the handling of the prisoner of war camps. It may well be that they will all make a valuable contribution, not only in forces, but in policy.

Lieut.-Colonel Elliot

Is not my right hon. Friend also aware that, although the House is distressed about the situation in the prisoner of war camps, it would not be correct to say that that is what is mainly troubling us? It is the grave general situation which has been disclosed, and which we hope will be discussed with the commanders in Tokyo.

The Prime Minister


Mr. Harold Davies

Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that the House is getting less information on the Korean situation than his equally great predecessor Mr. Gladstone was giving the House in the time of the Crimean War? Does he also realise that we on this side of the House could not throw our weight into any major activity there without the information being before us? Will he, therefore, for the sake of the House, insist that the Minister of Defence supplies us with the information on the situation on Koje Island and at Pusan?

The Prime Minister

I am afraid I have not got at my fingers' ends the exact part which Mr. Gladstone took in the Crimean War; it was even before my time. There really have been no military operations on a large scale going on. Truce talks have been going on and, therefore, there has not been that regular military information which would be very right and proper in other circumstances, and which will, I can assure the House, be freely and fully given should we not, unfortunately, reach the conclusion of a lasting truce.

Sir R. Acland

Can the Prime Minister tell us anything about the work of the United Nations Civil Administration Command in Korea, the number and condition of civilian refugees in their care, who are alleged by reliable reports to be very numerous and in very bad conditions; and whether the British personnel take any share in the work of this Command? Could that also be considered by the noble Lord during his visit?

The Prime Minister

If the hon. Gentleman will put a Question on the Order Paper, I will see what information on this matter is at our disposal.

Mr. Cocks

Can the Prime Minister say where this great mass of material, including jet planes and self-propelling guns, came from?

Sir Waldron Smithers


The Prime Minister

Although there are movements ever being made in aerial locomotion, it would be premature to suppose that they came from the moon.

Mr. Nicholson

Could my right hon. Friend give us any information about contacts with the United States? Am I right in thinking that we are bound to make these inquiries through the State Department, and, if that is the case, could not some more direct channels be arranged?

The Prime Minister

Of course, all the regular contacts through the Foreign Office and the State Department continue, but we are in very close personal relationships with the leaders in the United States, and can at any time, if we desire, address them directly. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has been from hour to hour, during the last anxious days, in close personal contact with Mr. Acheson, and it must not be thought at all that matters rest upon the routine contacts established through diplomatic channels.

Mr. Nicholson

The Prime Minister has misunderstood the drift of my question. Is he aware that even the State Department finds difficulty in eliciting this information owing to internal American conditions, and would it not be more convenient to us to have more direct contact with the Pentagon?

Mr. Emrys Hughes

Is the Prime Minister aware of the great disquiet in this country, expressed recently by the Archbishop of York, about the widespread use of the napalm bomb, which is indiscriminately burning up villages, including women and children, schools and orphanage buildings, and so on? Is it not time that the Government realised that there is a great volume of opinion in this country that we should complete a withdrawal from Korea, because the war there can no longer be described as anything like an international police action, but as one of the most cruel and futile wars in history?

The Prime Minister

The napalm bomb is a question on which carefully considered answers have been given by my hon. Friend, and the whole matter was considered by the Cabinet in relation to the conditions of warfare now prevailing. As to the general case of the war in Korea, that occurred before we had to bear the burden of public office, but very prompt and courageous action was taken by the Labour Party, who were then the Government, and who gave immediate support to the United States, and thus a grave act of aggression was confronted with effective physical force.