HC Deb 08 December 1953 vol 521 cc1932-42

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

10.18 p.m.

Mr. William Ross (Kilmarnock)

The matter that I am raising tonight is one at once singularly distressing and, I frankly confess, rather perplexing. When one considers the answer I got from the Secretary of State for War on 24th November, and his describing Private Armour as a man who disappeared …into thin air without trace…."—[Official Report, 24th Nov., 1953; Vol. 521, c. 177.] I think we shall agree that to describe it as perplexing is no overstatement; and when we consider the state of mind of this boy's mother I think we shall appreciate exactly how distressing it is for her.

It is over a year ago, just five days over a year ago, since first I wrote to the Secretary of State for War on this matter, on 3rd December, 1952, when the matter was first brought to my notice, that this young lad, a National Service man, had disappeared in Korea and was posted illegally absent. The first his mother heard of the matter was a notification from the regimental paymaster in Edinburgh that the boy's pay had stopped. When we understand that this boy's mother had been left to bring up a family of six, of whom this boy was the eldest son, and that there were still at home at that time another boy, who is now himself in the Army, and three young sisters we shall appreciate exactly what this meant to that family, a family that has been bound closely by ties of its own troubles.

It happens sometimes that soldiers do desert, although for the life of me I cannot see why anyone would wish to desert in Korea, especially if he has been through action and has acquitted himself well in it. If this had been Paris, Hong Kong, Singapore or a home station somewhere in London it would be appreciated, but to post this young man illegally absent in these circumstances is. I believe, quite wrong.

Let us have a look at the circumstances. I have asked all along for evidence justifying the description of this young man as "illegally absent." I have asked the War Office to tell me what they did to trace him and what they are still doing. I have been forced to the reluctant conclusion—and I am not alone in this—that the efforts to trace this young man have been rather perfunctory and if I have reached that conclusion the fault lies only with the War Office.

I have asked the War Office to produce evidence showing me why this young man was declared illegally absent. Not a single shred of evidence has been produced except that the man has disappeared. I have asked them to tell me what they did to trace him, and they have not given me a single specific illustration of what action they took. All they used was a general phrase which anyone could repeat.

I raised this matter first in confidential correspondence because, obviously, that is the right kind of thing to do in a matter of this sort. Not once have I been told what kind of search has been carried out. Therefore, I am entitled to ask a number of questions, because all the War Office say was that the lad was in a safe area and that he did not report for sentry duty on 4th May, 1952. It took me nearly a year to get that fact out of the War Office. A court of inquiry was held and he was declared illegally absent. What happened at the court of inquiry or what was said was not told either to his mother or to me as his Member of Parliament.

The first question I want to ask is about this business of a safe area. How safe is a safe area in Korea? This young man was a member of the battle patrol of S Company of the 1st Battalion, King's Own Scottish Borderers. Were patrols going out from this safe area and from the place where this young man was stationed at the time? Was this area populated at all? We should remember that he had been in action. Anyone who knows the Far East—and I had some experience of that field of activity myself during the war though not so far East as this young man—will know how difficult it is to describe any area safe in circumstances such as I have envisaged them, because there are the possibilities of penetration by enemy patrols, motorised or otherwise. If he was far from the actual battle area, could we be told how far? I think that Colonel Came, V.C., had to wander round for about a fortnight in what was definitely not a safe area before he could give himself up. This might equally well have been a no-man's-land, where trouble could come to a young man at any time.

There are other questions. If a person intends to absent himself and do it willingly, what about his kit? I have not been told, nor has his mother been told, whether any part of this young soldier's kit was left. Did he take his razor with him? If anyone intends to desert deliberately I know, as a soldier, that he would take his razor with him. So far as I know, this young man left his billet with another young man to go to a canteen. He could not get what he wanted in that canteen and he said that he was going to a nearby canteen. From that time, nothing has been seen of him.

If there was intention to go absent there would have been evidence in the man's actions and in what he took with him. Instead of that, there is evidence left behind to show that this man's absence was not voluntary. Surely it is not fair to the man's regiment, to the man's own character and to the man's family to describe him as illegally absent in face of a letter which the mother received from the young man's commanding officer. I will read part of it. It was dated 2nd June, 1952, and came from Major R. C. Robertson-McLeod, 1st Battalion, K.O.S.B. He said that the boy had been reported absent early in May. I want the House to note the date. He paid tribute to his "usual steadiness and good character." He then said—and how in the face of this any court of inquiry could bypass this and describe the man as illegally absent is beyond my comprehension— I am convinced his absence is not voluntary, as he was, as you well know, definitely not the type to get into trouble, especially as he had only a few more months to serve. Taking the man's record and the fact that by December of last year he would have served his two years and would have been back home with his mother, I think it is obvious that a very full search on the spot should have taken place. Did it take place? It may well have done so, but if it had been one of my men in my unit and we were in a safe area resting, we certainly would have all gone out to look for the boy, knowing him and his character, and knowing that he was not the kind to get into trouble. Did a search take place on the spot? It is astounding that after a year of correspondence I should have to ask this question.

Information has not been volunteered as to whether a search took place at all. What inquiries took place? Were inquiries made of nearby units—the Canadian unit as well as others—and if so what was found out? We must remember that it is nearly two years ago since this boy disappeared into thin air without a trace. I am sorry to have to say this, but living people leave traces wherever they go. Did the fact that this boy was posted illegally absent have any effect on a search for him? He just becomes filed as illegally absent and it is a matter for the military police to pick him up, at railway stations, probably near his home, trying to contact relatives; and this boy's mother has not had a single note of any kind from the boy.

Mr. A. Woodburn (Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire)

Is it not the practice in modern warfare to go out and collect prisoners from other armies in order to get evidence about their regiments? Do not those men disappear into thin air?

Mr. Ross

That is the sort of thing I envisaged when I put the original point about penetration by enemy patrols.

If a man is posted as illegally absent, the search is entirely different from that when a man is posted missing. In the case of a man posted missing, the search is confined to the locality in which he was known last to have been. In present circumstances, there being some kind of armistice and contact with the enemy, inquiries can be made to ascertain whether the man is alive or not. But if a man is posted as illegally absent, the search is scattered all over the place and the man becomes something on a file. In most cases, picking up a man who is illegally absent is merely a matter of watching his home. It is little wonder that no solution has been found to the problem after two years. It stems from a wrong finding by the court of inquiry.

The War Office may not have been active, but the boy's mother has been. In December, 1952, she sent an appeal to the "Sunday Post," asking if anyone could give her news of her son. She received a letter from Mrs. Crawford, of Peeblesshire, who also had a son in S Company of the K.O.S.B. A company in the Army is not very big. We should also remember that this company travelled out by troopship from Britain to Korea, and the men would get to know each other well. I recollect my journey from Glasgow to India in the early stages of the war. We were sick of looking at the same faces before we got to India.

Mr. J. McGovern (Glasgow, Shettleston)

It is the same here.

Mr. Ross

It is easier to leave the Chamber than it is a troopship in the middle of the ocean.

The lady wrote her letter to the boy's mother on 14th December, 1952. She said: I have a son who was in S Company, K.O.S.B., too. We had a letter from him written on 8th May and he said they had been out on patrol duty on Sunday night, 4th May"— that is exactly the date on which this boy is reported illegally absent— and one of the boys had been taken prisoner. On the Monday night, 5th May, they were out again and raided a village and got the boy dead. I wrote to him and asked what the boy's name was, and when he wrote back he said his name was Bill Arnold and he came from Hurford. in Ayrshire. Private Crawford, who sent that information to his mother in June, was himself reported missing in July, 1952.

The Under-Secretary of State for War (Mr. J. R. H. Hutchison)

The hon. Member said that the letter was sent in June. He means May.

Mr. Ross

Yes, in May, but it will probably be found that it was as near June as it was May. Private Crawford was reported missing early in July, and it was later discovered that he was taken prisoner. But recently, of course, this boy Crawford has been released. He has been interviewed by the relatives of Private Armour, and he has declared once again that he knew him. There is no reason why he should not—being in the same company—and he has confirmed what he said before and that he had seen Armour's name on his identity disc.

In view of that, I think it is most unfair for the Secretary of State for War to stand up in this House and describe that evidence as flimsy evidence. I think that the court of inquiry should be reconvened in view both of the fresh evidence and also of the passage of time. How long can this situation continue?

I asked the Secretary of State for War how long this ignominious uncertainty was to hang over this man, and he gave me practically no reply at all. I suggest that it is time that the court of inquiry was reconvened in order to reconsider its conclusions, and that an effort was made to trace this man on the spot and in the area in which he disappeared, and to get in touch with the North Korean authorities to see if they will help, and also with the Canadian military authorities who were there at the time. In view of the lad's character and his record in his unit, and because, owing to the known evidence in this case, there is need for very urgent reconsideration, I ask the Minister to undertake such a course.

10.37 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for War (Mr. J. R. H. Hutchison)

I hope that the hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross) has left me sufficient time in which to answer the points he has raised. I will try to go through them as rapidly as possible in view of the shortness of time. The hon. Gentleman began this debate with the time-honoured phrase about an unsatisfactory reply. Up to a point, I can agree with him inasmuch as the situation is thoroughly unsatisfactory. It is also thoroughly unhappy, but it is not exactly as the hon. Gentleman has outlined it. Some very mysterious and conflicting statements have been made. Let me unfold the story as the War Office knows it.

Mr. Ross

If very mysterious and conflicting statements have been made, how is it that in all the correspondence I have had on the subject with the hon. Gentleman's Department I have not heard one word about them?

Mr. Hutchison

The hon. Gentleman must allow me to unfold this case in my own way, because if we do not follow it chronologically we shall get into difficulties.

The hon. Gentleman is perfectly right in saying that on 4th May Armour and a friend went to a canteen to buy some things. Armour and his friend parted on that day, the friend returning to duty and Armour going on to the Canadian canteen to complete the purchases. That was the last that anybody saw of him.

The area about which I was asked is an area to which a unit is sent to be in reserve and in which there is usually no fighting—and there was no fighting at that time—and where men can walk about and make their purchases and behave like ordinary free individuals. Therefore, it would be extremely unlikely that enemy action in that place at that time could account for the man's disappearance.

Mr. James H. Hoy (Leith)

Civilian action?

Mr. Hutchison


I now come to the man's character and what the company commander said. He has been at pains to point out that it was a personal opinion and did not, in his view, conflict with the correctness of the finding of the court of inquiry. He said that this young fellow showed the usual steadiness which he expected in his unit, and was a man of good character. But I am bound to say that there were already on his record sheet two entries for absence without leave before the unit went to Korea.

Mr. A. C. Manuel (Central Ayrshire)

That is understandable.

Mr. Hutchison

It may be understandable, but it does show that while still in Britain and while his unit was under orders to go to Korea this man, on two occasions, went absent without leave.

The court of inquiry was held very soon after this soldier had disappeared, and such an inquiry is the proper and recognised way of dealing with such a matter as this; of collecting all possible evidence from adjoining units, and from people on the spot in order to arrive at a proper conclusion. This court came to the conclusion that Private Armour was absent without leave without good reason. Let me say, at this stage, that that finding in no way lessened the degree of the search for this man. Every unit has a responsibility for accounting for its own members in battle and out of action, and so, by this finding, there was still a responsibility on the unit to find what had become of him. The search continued, and the Military Police were searching also.

Then, into this tragic and unhappy story comes Private Crawford, who knew this man well, and served in the same platoon. Private Crawford went on patrol on 4th July—that is, two months later—and was captured. Fairly recently he has been repatriated, and now I come to the mysterious letter of 12th December from Mrs. Crawford to Mrs. Armour, arising from a letter which she said she had received from her son dated 8th May. Of course, we at once thought that this would make the whole situation clear; we found that the mother stated her son had been on patrol on 4th May, and that one of his pals had been lost to the enemy. The letter added that on the next night that pal's body had been found, and it turned out to be Private Armour. But, after the most careful checks had been made, it was established that there were no patrols from this unit on that night; there was no fighting at all.

When Private Crawford came back, we confronted him with this, and he most stoutly denied ever having written that letter, and the hon. Gentleman is leaving a false impression if he suggests that we have not probed this matter pretty well. Indeed, apart from contact with our own men who have come back, and particularly with Private Crawford, we have inquired of American and Canadian units which were in the area. Private Crawford seemed to be able to supply the necessary evidence, but now he flatly denies that he ever wrote the letter. I should very much like to see that letter; the letter from the son, and not that written by the one mother to the other.

Mr. Ross

Yes, but the relatives of Private Armour have, since his return, seen Private Crawford, and he holds by his story.

Mr. Hutchison

On the contrary, I have it in writing that he never wrote such a letter. There was no patrol in which either he or Private Armour could have taken part on the night of 4th May, and the court of inquiry would most certainly have known that fact, quite apart from what anybody else says. I hope the hon. Gentleman does not suggest that is not so. So, there is this mysterious conflict of evidence; and here we have a further statement.

Three days after his capture, Private Crawford was being led away to some place of captivity when he happened to see a body lying in a trench. As we know, he knew Private Armour well, and although he was not allowed to touch it, and saw it from five yards' distance, he thought it was Private Armour. In his own words, it was "badly bruised and messed about." But it was not decomposed, and had no equipment on it, nor regimental uniform, nor any insignia which could be identified. All this body had was an Army shirt, trousers, and boots.

I am told by the medical authorities that in the heat of the Korean summer a body decomposes in about 21 days. If this was Armour, he had been wandering about for some six weeks between 4th May and the date on which he was killed. He had succeeded in escaping any form of detention, had not connected up with anybody during those six weeks, had made his way northwards some miles across the Imjin River, through our own lines and through the enemy lines, and had there met his death. Anybody looking at this bundle of evidence will agree with my right hon. Friend that it is extremely flimsy. We have had cases on record with much more circumstantial evidence than this that have turned out to be very wrong at the end of the day, such as cases of men who deserted in France. We had one the other day in which a man disappeared in 1940, and was classified as dead. The widow was just about to remarry, when, after the amnesty the man turned up. It is for the protection of all concerned that we should be as sure as it is humanly possible to be before we presume death.

I do not want to say that we are going to let the thing rest. We are continuing to sift and hunt for evidence, and to examine prisoners of war. We are in contact with the authorities out there to see whether we can find anything more which will allow us to re-examine this matter and to presume the man to be missing rather than presume him to be dead.

Mr. Ross

Has the War Office been in touch with the North Korean authorities?

Mr. Hutchison

I cannot tell the hon. Member that, but I should doubt whether the North Korean authorities would be very helpful. Surely the best source of information is the prisoners of war who come back, and those are being examined.

Mr. Woodburn

Speaking impartially, I do not understand how the War Office can presume illegality.

Mr. Hutchison

It is not illegality, but absence without leave—the hon. Member put too much stress on the word "illegal." It is absence without good reason. Those were the words used by the court of inquiry. There is the situation as we have seen it, and as disclosed by the evidence we are able to collect We are trying to collect more evidence. The position is thoroughly unsatisfactory for us. Nobody would be happier than we to be able to assure the parents that there was no stigma of absence without leave, or even to be able to come to a decision one way or the other. On the evidence we have, I am afraid that we cannot do so, and the hon. Member must leave us to search for more evidence.

Adjourned accordingly at Twelve Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.