HC Deb 23 June 1954 vol 529 cc424-7
59. Mr. Stokes

asked the First Lord of the Admiralty when the first information regarding the impending passage of the French ships through the Straits of Gibraltar which took place on 11th September, 1940, was received by the Admiralty, and from whom it came.

68. Mr. Stokes

asked the First Lord of the Admiralty when the signal from the Consul-General in Tangier about the impending passage of the six French warships through the Straits of Gibraltar, sent on 9th September, 1940, and received by the Foreign Office at 07.50 hours on 10th September, was received by his Department.

Mr. J. P. L. Thomas

The first information regarding the impending passage of the French ships through the Straits of Gibraltar was received in the Admiralty at 11.50 p.m. on 10th September from the Naval Attaché, Madrid.

The message from the Consul-General in Tangier was received in the Admiralty on 14th September.

Mr. Stokes

I know—[Laughter.] Well, I do know; this is a serious matter —but in view of the fact that on 12th July the Admiralty gave instructions that the French ships were not to be interfered with unless they were known to be going to enemy-controlled ports, and that the message sent by the Consul-General art Tangier on 9th September, which was also sent to Admiral North, was known to have been received in the Foreign Office early on the morning of the 10th, and no instructions contradicting the instruction not to interfere with the French ships were sent to the Admiral, will the First Lord now explain why Admiral North was so severely treated, having regard to what subsequently happened at Dakar?

Mr. Thomas

In reply to the first question, it was not known by Admiral North at the time whether the ships were going to enemy-occupied ports or not. In reply to the second question, it is true that the signal from Tangier reached Admiral North on 9th September and reached the Foreign Office at 7.50 a.m. on 10th September. There was a delay in distribution from the Foreign Office, due to the accumulation of work, I understand, in the Cypher Department of that office, and that the signal itself bore no special priority mark and so did not reach the Admiralty until 14th September. The fact remains that the signal from Tangier did reach Admiral North on the 9th.

Mr. Stokes

I know about that, but the First Lord has not yet explained why it took four days to get from the Foreign Office to the Admiralty. Surely the Admiral at the other end would assume that the Foreign Office transmitted the signal immediately, but if he was left for nearly 48 hours without any contrary instructions, had he not a right to assume that the instructions therefore remained as they were on 12th July, 1940?

Mr. Thomas

Even if he assumed that the instructions remained as they were on 12th July, he still should have made his ships ready for action in case of an order by the Admiralty, in view of the fact that he did not know whether the ships were going to enemy-occupied ports or not.

Captain Ryder

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that many of the officers serving at the time, while not wishing to join in any reprimand or castigation of Admiral North, nevertheless felt then that the decision to replace him by a younger officer, one who is held in high repute in the Navy, was a wise decision, and that officers not only in the Navy but in the other Services, too, support the Admiralty in its decision not to hold an inquiry?

Mr. Thomas

I would remind my hon. and gallant Friend that these personal cases are extremely distressing to the people involved, to those who support them, and to those who feel bound, on the evidence before them, to turn down their requests. Admiral North was one of many officers who suffered from the fortunes of war in this way. The other officers have, however, remained silent, probably because they realise the principle that the Service Departments have a right, above all in war-time, to remove an officer in whom they have lost confidence. Let me make this clear, as I had not time to do so when the right hon. Gentleman asked his original Question—I regret that it was cut short, Mr. Speaker: there is absolutely no slur in any way or any stain upon Admiral North's honour.

Commander Maitland

Does my right hon. Friend realise that since the Govment of the day shot Admiral Byng on his own quarter deck, pour encourager les autres, no naval officer has ever expected justice from any Government, and that that is perfectly well understood? Could not the matter be now dropped?

Mr. Stokes

If the intervention made by the hon. and gallant Member for Merton and Morden (Captain Ryder) is assumed to have allowed my case to go by default, may I ask whether, in contradiction to what the hon. and gallant Gentleman has said, the Minister will remember that no fewer than five Admirals of the Fleet, three of whom have been First Sea Lords, have made representations to him on this matter, and that it is hardly likely that they would have done so unless they thought that Admiral North had a case of real standing?

Mr. Thomas

I repeat what I said originally. They certainly asked for an inquiry, but their main reason for coming to me—as Lord Chatfield has stressed in the Press on more than one occasion—was to have an inquiry in order to avoid publicity such as we are now having, which might be harmful to the Navy, and I said that I was prepared to stand my ground.

Major Legge-Bourke

May I ask you, Mr. Speaker, to give a ruling as to what does and what does not constitute a historical Question? Question No. 59, as it stands on the Order Paper, appears to be a historical Question, and when I, on other issues, have attempted to raise matters relating to the past, particularly the responsibility of earlier Administrations than the present one, I have often been told that historical Questions are not in order. I should be glad, Sir, if you would clarify what constitutes a historical Question.

Mr. Speaker

I should not like to give a ruling on such a wide matter without consideration. It is quite clear that this matter was in order. It is a matter of controversy which is at present engaging public attention, and proceedings have taken place upon it. I think that the Question on it was in order. I have sufficient experience, although it is short, to avoid giving expression to wide generalisations as to what falls within one category and what does not. If the hon. and gallant Gentleman will put his question to me in a more concrete form, I will endeavour to give him a reply.