HC Deb 27 October 1953 vol 518 cc2754-64

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

10.12 p.m.

Miss Elaine Burton (Coventry, South)

I have a great deal tonight to get into a short time, and I want to leave the Under-Secretary of State as much time as possible to reply, so I hope that hon. Members will forgive me if I talk rather fast. There are various points which I want to get on the record and to which I am anxious to have the reply of the War Office.

The question of the amenities of the troops in Korea is a non-party one. Every hon. Member of this House and the public outside are anxious that the men in Korea should have the best provision possible made for them. In order to get the answers, I have myself been to the War Office and discussed the matter with the Under-Secretary. I told him that I was very anxious to know the position concerning the amenities as it is today. I am sure that it was through no fault of his that most of the answers I was able to get referred to the future. I want to be fair, and I realise that it does take time to get answers to these questions, but I should like to stress that neither I, nor the families of the men out there, nor the public will be satisfied with what is to be. We want to know how the men are getting on at the present time.

The sources of information that I have used have been journalists who have been to Korea, the families of the men who are out there, the men themselves when they have returned, and by my own work over three years under both Governments. I should like to put it to the Under-Secretary that the position today is slightly different under this Government in that the fighting has actually ceased. The provision of amenities is no less important because of that. I would quote the special correspondent of "The Times" who on 11th August, in Korea, wrote a report on this matter. That report was published the following day: Now that the fighting in Korea has stopped, it becomes all the more important to ensure that the morale of our men does not suffer. More and better amenities are called for and the call can be answered by everyone, from the War Office down to mayors, mothers' meetings, and private persons. However hard our boys work on digging defensive positions and training against any eventuality (including possible treachery by the enemy), boredom is the great danger. It was bad enough to fight a war in a country lacking all western amenities. It is little better to do garrison duty with hardly any distractions or amusements. Such facilities as exist here are rudimentary. The list of points that I raised with the War Office, and to which I await the answers with much interest tonight, include the following. First, wireless sets. I was told that there were few in each unit and that they were neither numerous enough nor good enough. Is it true that the ratio at present is one set to every 50 men, and what about the quality of the sets? Next, sports equipment. The general opinion from my informants was that sports equipment is lacking, but the War Office have informed me that the provision is entirely adequate. I am anxious to have the details. We all know full well that cricket pitches or football grounds cannot be built on the hillsides in Korea or on the sodden paddy fields, but we all know that our men will find somewhere to play if they have sufficient footballs, bats, balls, boxing gloves and sports gear. I hope that the Under-Secretary tonight will say exactly what is available out there now for these 20,000 men.

Next, unit canteens, N.A.A.F.I. road-houses, mobile vans. We want to know how many of each are available, how many men each one serves, what is sold in them, and how accessible they are to all. Then with regard to cinema shows, I believe there are at present about 35 projectors out there. How frequently does this mean that each man should be able to see a show, and what type of film is available? I should also be glad if the Under-Secretary can say whether it is true that the Coronation film which was out there did not remain there long enough for nearly every man to see it. Concert parties, I have been told, are very few and far between. Those that are there are mostly from Australia and New Zealand. Could we know whether British artistes have not been able to go, whatever the reason, and could we be told what is to happen in the future? Finally, I raised with the War Office the question of rest centres in Korea and Japan. What do they provide? How often might the men expect leave now to visit either?

I told the Under-Secretary that what I thought was wanted, from the information that had come to me, were more club houses, more cinemas—I do not, of course, mean grand "Odeons" or anything like that—canteens with wooden floors, dance music, reading matter and voluntary workers to help to entertain the troops. I know that the W.V.S. have started, but there seems to be plenty of room for organisations like the Y.M.C.A. and the Salvation Army. That is what I asked the War Office.

Only last night I received a very long cable, about which I have not been able to tell the Under-Secretary. It has come from Maurice Fagence, the Special Correspondent of the "Daily Herald," who has recently returned from Korea. The day I was going to see him to talk about this subject, unfortunately for me he was sent to British Guiana, and this cable has come from British Guiana. I wish to make it clear that I do not expect the Under-Secretary tonight to reply to matters of which I have not given him notice, but they are important and I hope that in due course he will be able to answer the points that I am going to make.

This cable consists of half sentences with the word "stop" occurring frequently in various sections. I hope, therefore, the House will understand if in the sections I quote the sentences may be rather disjointed. I propose to quote to to the Under-Secretary six sections of the cable. This is from Maurice Fagence recently returned from Korea: Give Korean troops leave in Tokio they can afford. Most non-American troops in Korea get American rates of pay. Anyway Tommy is poor relative there. Most Tommies can just afford to go to rest camp in Korea for sheer joy of rest from parades and good clean sheets. You see soldiers of 16 countries surging in middle of Tokio, but few Tommies. Those who go bust with savings and visit Tokio go to our Commonwealth rest camp at Ebisu, an outer suburb of Tokio. Ebisu is nice camp providing real rest under hotel conditions with little military discipline. And there is a free bus to town, but what's the good of going to town on a Tommy's meagre savings. That's why our boys hang about streets round Ebisu, often a prey for worst type of Japanese girl. The second section I should like to quote: Unescorted troops are plundered shamelessly in Tokio night spots but some troops can afford it. Tommy can't. His cash will run to about one night out if he is a good manager. By booking floor space in Tokio's night clubs (huge affairs more for the masses than are the London kind) in quaint wrestling halls, Geisha parlours (they are not brothels as Mum imagines), theatres giving medieval plays, etc. we could enable Tommy to do Tokio properly at nominal cost. My question to the War Office is, What about taking this floor space in Tokio to give the Tommy a decent break there?

The third section reads: Then our lads want home wireless sets. Most they own have been bought out of the Army's sale of empty beer bottles. Our radio station known as Crown Unit was described to me by an American radio man from the Yanks fine station known as Vagabond as' Two dollars' worth of junk apparatus kept working by loving care and a miracle!' Range is few miles only; reception feeble; programmes not good despite best efforts of loyal staff. The fourth section reads: Our boys need more cinemas and a few British films for a change. They get nothing but Hollywood stuff. They want to see British newsreels. I saw 30 lads recently at an American film show. In the Yank newsreel was included 30 seconds shooting of a golf match in Scotland. When some pictures of typical small British homesteads came into the background they brought the house down. I want to ask the War Office, what about more British newsreels? Is it true that these are very few in number?

The fifth section is something which will cheer the Under-Secretary's heart: N.A.A.F.I. canteens, gifts shops, mobile shops and ye olde worlde roadside cafés are wonderful—in no Army is there anything approaching this service. But why the devil close cafés down at 6 when the soldier is knocking off duty? But the British Tommy loves to go to the Salvation Army tea place behind the Australian lines. It is cheap and homely and informal, just the place for a good old gossip or argument. Incidentally, Australians sent a warrant officer to Japan to buy kits that could be built into model railways, motor boats, etc., afterwards painting them and working them, also carpentry sets, fretwork, chemistry outfits, plane modelling kits and the like. We could try this. This is the question I want to ask. Need the cafés be closed at six o'clock, and what about our Salvation Army having more cafés out there? What about getting some of this craft work like the Australians have done for our men out there?

The sixth section says: There is crying need for books. American canteens sell scores of thousands of American books and hundreds of thousands of magazines every month. Few British soldiers can reach these places and tastes aren't necessarily the same. N.A.A.F.I. sells no reading matter whatsoever. I haven't come across single British organisation that does. I want to ask the War Office what can be done about getting more books to our men out there. Maurice Fagence closes his cable with something which I think everybody will be pleased to hear. He says: I have never seen face of a general that oozes love of his men like that of Commonwealth Divisional Commander General West. He would do anything to make their winter more endurable. He should have the means. I want to underline that, because that is the burden of my complaint tonight: he should indeed have the means.

Lastly I come to the question which I have raised so often in this House, that of postage to our men in Korea and Christ-arias parcels. As everybody knows I consider the postage rates for our men in Korea grossly unfair. I have attacked this Government on them and I attacked my own. I hope I shall get a bit further this time than before. I can see no reason why our men, in addition to being sent to a desolate land where their amenities are less than anywhere else, should also find themselves in the position that it costs more to send things by air to them than to a place nearer home.

We have raised in this House frequently this question of letters and newspapers going to the men out there, and I know that the Under-Secretary of State will agree with me that he must have had cases of mothers and families who have been to him or have written and have said that it is quite beyond their means to send the papers, the magazines, the letters and the small parcels to their men out there. I have always considered it essential that there should be a flat rate by air for our men overseas, and I hope one day we may get that.

To return to the immediate problem of Korea, this Christmas is the first Christmas since the armistice was signed, and I want to know if the War Office will make a very strong plea to the Treasury that this year anyway, for the month of December only, all parcels up to 3 lb. in weight should be sent free by air mail to those few men who are left in Korea. It is always reckoned that journalists are hard-boiled specimens of humanity. I do not know whether the Under-Secretary of State read descriptions of the journalists last Christmas and the Christmas before when they were writing about the men in Korea and the joy that a parcel from home had brought them. It is not the same getting a postal order and going and buying something at N.A.A.F.I. To make this concession for the month of December only would not cost a great deal more than it has cost in the past. It would be a minute contribution when we think of all that has been spent in Korea.

I am hoping that tonight we shall get the answers to the first part of the question I raised, and afterwards I should be glad if the Under-Secretary of State will let us have a statement on the suggestions that have been made through Maurice Fagence's cable.

10.29 p.m.

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

May I say, straight away, that I am glad that the hon. Lady the Member for Coventry, South (Miss Burton) has raised this question tonight because it gives me an opportunity of disclosing how much is already being done for our troops in Korea. The hon. Lady courteously informed me of a number, at any rate, of the points she proposed to raise, because the new ones that have come from the "' Daily Herald "representative are new to her and new to me. We had a private meeting at which we both unmasked our guns because, as she has said, there is no antagonism and no party point in this discussion.

The hon. Lady has been most devoted in her attention to, and thought for, the troops in Korea, and she has from time to time been tilting, side-saddle, at authority. So much so, and so well has she done it, that she may earn the soubriquet "Florence Nightingale of Korea." It will not be the first time that femininity has hurried to the comfort of the troops.

War has been described as being weeks of boredom punctuated by a few moments of intense fear and, as the hon. Lady has recognised, boredom can be a deadly enemy to both morale and discipline. But it would be a great mistake if it were thought that our troops in Korea had nothing to do, or even little to do at the present time. They are engaged on fairly arduous training and are preparing defensive positions against the possibility, for one reason or another, that attack should come again. Quite a proportion of these troops are in forward positions under operational conditions and living under much the same conditions which they experienced before the armistice. The majority of the remainder sleep in tents with raised floorboards, space heaters and hurricane lamps. The rest, and they are quite a proportion, are in huts or buildings. The huts are of the improved Nissen type. Our general policy is to replace dugouts by tents and to replace tents by huts and buildings.

The hon. Lady has asked me for a general exposé, which I should like to make, of what is being done, what will be done and how much has happened up to date. But I regret that I have to withhold that information, because what I would say for Monday would be wrong for Tuesday, as welfare stores are going out there and are in the course of transit at the present time. Therefore, at no moment could one say, "This is exactly what we have there." My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War and I realised that, as soon as the truce conditions obtained out there, there was a need for, and an opportunity to, improve welfare and amenities. I believe I can say without exaggeration that in practically every field of welfare and amenity improvements have already taken place and will continue to take place.

I shall not be able to reply tonight to some of the many questions which the hon. Lady asked me, but in my view she left out one of the most important considerations for the men now in Korea. That is the question of education. This, surely, is a great opportunity for them to widen their education and to learn handicrafts and hobbies. To be able to give these facilities we have more than doubled the staff of the Royal Army Educational Corps in Korea, and we are sending out equipment for such things as woodwork, toy making, art and many other handicrafts and hobbies; and we hope that full advantage will be taken of them.

As the hon. Lady herself stressed, the next main welfare is N.A.A.F.I. Before the truce conditions, we had out there four hutted canteens, one tented canteen and various road houses and gift shops. The hon. Lady has asked me what each stocks. It is really impossible to say, because they vary so much. We are putting an additional 17 mobile vans on the road, but it would be impossible to say what one of these vans contained at any one time and relate it to the larger hutted canteens. We are erecting two more hutted canteens and a club at Seoul. There will be such things as pianos, radios, table-tennis sets, dart-boards, and so on, particularly in those where that remarkable organisation, the Women's Voluntary Service, operates.

The hon. Lady rightly stressed the importance of sports equipment. I believe that there is no shortage of sports equipment, and although we have had lists sent out of the sort of things which are desirable, in the main these needs are being satisfied. They are satisfied in three main ways—the grant of War Office non-public funds to the extent of £10,000 for overall welfare has already been made available for the current year. In addition, there is a grant of £800 a quarter out of public funds, and thirdly, there are the P.R.I. funds held by each unit which are available for the purchase of just such things as the hon. Lady has in mind.

I should like to take the opportunity of thanking a fourth source of welfare equipment, namely, the public, who have sent wireless sets, boxing gloves, dart boards and many other items. Among them rank N.A.A.F.I., the Scottish Whisky Association, the P. & O. Line, the British India Line, Brush Electrical Engineering Co., while London Transport and Liverpool Corporation have each made a bus available for the purpose of allowing expeditions in Japan to go on sight-seeing tours. To all of them, and the public who have sent other articles our thanks are due.

The hon. Lady asked about radio. In this my conscience is absolutely clear. I think the soldiers are extremely well served. There are, as she said, sets to the scale of one to 50 men, and we have a total of 600 sets out there. I think some criticism might have been levelled at the broadcasting stations which are under Australian responsibility. The two main and the one subsidiary stations are having new equipment sent out, and I am sure that will bring about an improvement. As regards the cinema, we are sending out six new projectors, bringing the total to 34. Admission is free with five to six changes of programme a week. She said that there was a paucity of British films. Well, the newest British films are going out as well as new American films in addition to older British films such as "The Third Man," "Red Shoes," and perhaps less appropriately "Whisky Galore" and "The Happiest Days of Your Life." I am informed that the film "Elizabeth is Queen" was offered to all Commonwealth units, and it was still there in August, so that if there was anyone clamouring to see it it was still available.

With regard to the concert parties, I would like to pay tribute to the artistes who have helped out, often for a lesser sum than they would have earned at home, and I hope they had some measure of reward in the enthusiasm with which they were greeted. For example, Mr. Gavall, the guitarist, paid innumerable visits to units, and left many soldiers twanging away merrily on the guitars he taught them to play. In the winter months there will be 11 or 12 Australian and Canadian concert parties, and eight British—a fair proportion.

There will be available each month throughout the winter—with the exception of December—two or three concert parties for the men. December is more difficult because of the pantomime programme at home. It is impossible to say how often the soldiers will be able to see one of these shows, because it depends on the complexity and ambition of the programme. Some, like Mr. Gavall, could be moved around easily, but if a man wanted to see a show he could possibly see one a fortnight.

Up to now there has not been much object in taking leave in Korea. There was very little attraction. We have been sending parties on leave to Japan and, there, we are trying to organise these sight-seeing tours to avoid the sort of temptations the hon. Lady spoke about. She raised a very much bigger question than the question of welfare and amenities when she started talking about pay. I am afraid that it would be too big a subject to go into in the time at my disposal tonight. Indeed, I did not know that the question of pay would arise, or I would have briefed myself more completely.

This question of leave is very much in our minds. When the hon. Lady thinks there is less leave being granted than might be given, let her remember that the soldiers in Korea are accumulating home leave. Realising what little attraction there was in local leave in Korea, we have a special scheme for them to accumulate leave which they use up when they come home.

There is, finally, the question of postage, and particularly of Christmas parcels. As I have said before to the hon. Lady in a much earlier debate, I want to underline, first of all, that the country is subsidising Army postal facilities to the tune of about £1¼ million a year; and if she were really to press this idea which she has advocated tonight of having a flat rate everywhere, we would either have to find a very much greater sum from public funds or else have soldiers in Germany paying a higher rate to subsidise soldiers in Malaya and Korea, and then we would have the paradox of soldiers in Germany paying more than the civilians. I do not think, in all honesty, that the postal rates are unreasonable. People have their eyes fixed far too much on fast airmail rates, although for papers and special Forces letters there are reasonable rates available.

As to the Christmas 3 lb. free parcel of last year, I wish I could say to the hon. Lady that we shall be able to do something more this year, but I cannot at this stage say what will ultimately be decided. I should like to emphasise again the use that can be made of surface mail, and those people who are going to send surface mail to Korea should be thinking of it now. The arrangements are extremely reasonable, but they require a certain amount of foresight and preparation.

As the hon. Lady indicated, there is a postal order scheme. I do not think it is a bad idea, instead of sending a man a parcel, to send him up to £2 by means of a postal order so that he can change it into local currency or use it at the N.A.A.F.I. Then there is the N.A.A.F.I. gift scheme, by which one can choose out of a list of parcels made up in various ways, and indicate——

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

Adjourned at Eighteen Minutes to Eleven o'clock.