HC Deb 07 April 1955 vol 539 cc1424-32

4.38 p.m.

Mr. William Hamilton (Fife, West)

On 27th February the Ministry of Defence published the booklet "Treatment of British Prisoners of War in Korea." I think it was vitally important that they should publish it, for several reasons. It was the first occasion that United Kingdom troops had actually been prisoners of war in Communist hands. It was the first occasion that a war had been waged for the principle of collective security in which United Nations troops had taken part. I think that it was the first occasion when our prisoners of war had been subjected to the kind of brain-washing, the political indoctrination and the mental and physical torture which are now well-known characteristics of the totalitarian and Communist regimes throughout the world.

The publication of the booklet was, therefore, no more than a Government duty to the 978 men and their relatives— indeed, to the whole nation, which gave support to the war as a test of the strength of the United Nations. I believe that the publication was necessary to call attention to another vital matter; the existence in this country of people who clearly have an allegiance to foreign power ideologies, people who are prepared to befriend and help the enemies of this country even in time of war.

There are powerful reasons why the Government should publish this document and just as powerful reasons for granting Government time in which to discuss it and its implications. It is nothing short of scandalous that a private Member should have to try to snatch half an hour on the last day before the Easter Recess in order to raise a matter so vital not only to the men involved, but to their families and to the nation as a whole.

The Questions that were asked in this House and the Press comment which followed the publication of the document were quite clearly evidence of a widespread public interest in the matter. Before I deal with the booklet itself, I propose to make one or two points which, though connected with it, are not connected with the specific matter contained therein.

The first point is one with which, I think, the public are not too well acquainted. It is that a note was apparently issued with the booklet which made it quite clear that it was not a Parliamentary publication. Therefore, it does not enjoy absolute privilege. I think I am right in saying that the booklet contains libellous statements about at least five British Commonwealth citizens whom I will mention by name in order to get them on the record.

They are Alan Winnington, of the "Daily Worker," Michael Shapiro, also of the "Daily Worker," Jack Gaster, a well-known London Communist lawyer, Mrs. Monica Felton. a sinister and repulsive kind of figure, Wilfred Burchett, an Australian by birth, who was. I think, the correspondent of the French Communist newspapers in Korea, "Le Soir" and "L'Humanité."

If this is not a privileged document, and if the statements contained in it about these people are libellous, can the Minister say whether the issuing of the booklet ranks as a challenge to those five people to sue the Ministry for libel, and would the Minister gladly accept such a challenge? If these people did not issue such a challenge, would that not be tantamount to admitting the accuracy of the charges made against them in the booklet?

I believe that at the moment Winning-ton and Shapiro are in Peking where, no doubt, they are receiving the rewards of their treacherous activities in the course of the Korean war. I do not know when they are likely to come back to the United Kingdom, if they ever do, but I should like to know whether action against them is contemplated by the Law Officers of the Crown.

My second point—again outside the pamphlet itself—is whether, in view of this new menace, the political indoctrination and the brain-washing to which our troops may again be subjected in any future war, though God forbid that there should be a future war, steps are now being taken to help our troops face a possible similar ordeal.

My third point is this. It is difficult for me to understand why no comparable document has been issued by any other member of the United Nations involved in the Korean war. Of course, I may be wrong in saying that no comparable document has been issued by any other country, but, as far as I know, that is so. Has the United States issued a similar document? As we all know, they suffered most in the Korean war. Has action been taken by the United Nations to collate the evidence that, quite clearly, came into their hands? If I might quote from his book, "The Cause of Peace," Trygve Lie says, at page 340: Early in the fighting deeply disturbing reports of shooting of prisoners and other atrocities began to come in. Have these reports been published? If they have, would the Ministry of Defence make them available to hon. Members?

The contents of the booklet itself bear out in less vivid language what has already been written in books by the prisoners. In the last week or two I have read four such books. I have not time to quote them, but I shall mention them by name. There is "The Edge of the Sword" by Captain Anthony Farrar Hockley, D.S.O., M.C., the Adjutant of the Second Battalion of the Gloucester Regiment. He speaks of United States soldiers being shot in the back of their heads after having their hands tied behind their backs with telephone cable. He speaks also of the ice-box punishment—about being put into these little boxes. He quotes Jack Gaster, the London Communist lawyer, as saying: The food I have seen our men eating would make a British housewife's mouth water. I do not think that the food in the Army anywhere, least of all when a man is a prisoner of war, would make any British housewife's mouth water. He also mentions Mrs. Felton and Alan Winnington. I think that the Ministry has been right in withholding the names of the prisoners though it has been asked to mention them, but many of them are mentioned by the Adjutant of the Gloucester Regiment.

There is the book by the Rev. S. J. Davies, M.B.E., M.A., C.F., "In Spite of Dungeons." He was the only survivor of four chaplains who were captives in Korea. He describes how the Red Cross were never allowed to serve the prisoners of war in the camps—again merely confirming what Trygvie Lie mentions in his book. He speaks about being put into one of these tiny cells 6 ft. by 4 ft., and mentions numerous prisoners who underwent those things—C.S.M. Morton, C.S.M. Gallagher, and Major Sam Weller. He describes how the Dean of Canterbury's book "I Appeal" was used to sap the prisoners' resistance. He speaks of tape-recorded conversations between Mrs. Monica Felton and United States Air Force officers, who were confessing to the use of germ warfare, being played back to prisoners.

There is, therefore, nothing in the pamphlet which has not been described much more vividly in books. There is "General Dean's Story." General Dean was a United States General who was three years in captivity. He was put in a cage 4 ft. by 4 ft. in which he could neither stand nor stretch. He endured 68 hours of continuous interrogation. He mentions Burchett and Winnington.

Lastly, there is the book by Philip Deane of the Observer"—"Captive in Korea." That describes the treatment that civilians got. He repeats how G.I.s were shot in the back of the neck and describes the vile treatment meted out to Captain Vyvyan Holt, the interned British Minister, his vice-consul Mr. George Blake, his pro-consul and others. He witnessed the cold-blooded shooting of Lieut. Cordus H. Thornton of the U.S. Army. Compared with these books the Ministry's pamphlet is a mild, dull, dusty, musty, cautious civil service document.

The sum total of it all is surely a most fearful story, and not the least horrifying feature of it is the ruthless, wicked, inhuman exploitation of the relatives of these lads in this country. The pamphlet quotes statements that were made by mothers whose lads were prisoners, from whom they had not heard except through the medium of the "Daily Worker." I should like to ask how these women were questioned. It must have been a most difficult and harrowing experience both for the women concerned and the people who questioned them.

I thought it my duty to raise this issue in the House, and I bitterly regret that the Government have not thought fit, in the interests of the nation as a whole, and particularly in the interests of the men who suffered so much and their relatives, to provide the time themselves. All I can say in my last minute is that I sincerely hope that everybody who values the British way of life and the free way of life will have learned the lessons that can be learned from this hellish tale.

4.51 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Air (Mr. George Ward)

Before I answer the specific questions put to me by the hon. Member for Fife, West (Mr. Hamilton), may I start with a very brief glimpse of the background of the Ministry of Defence booklet which is the subject of this debate?

It became apparent, when the main batch of prisoners of war was released from Korea in September, 1953, that the men had been subjected to treatment which was unparalleled in our experience. A smaller batch of sick and wounded prisoners had been released earlier, in April, 1953, but, as the introduction to the booklet explains, the Chinese had been very careful to include in this earlier batch of released prisoners several "progressives," as they called them—men who had accepted Communist indoctrination and were favourably inclined to the Communist cause. Therefore, many men of this first batch, when interviewed, claimed that they had been very well treated, and it was not until the main batch was released in September, 1953, that the truth began to become clear.

All the prisoners released in September, 1953, were interviewed in Korea, before they were repatriated, by four Service officers sent out from the United Kingdom, and these four officers were assisted by a number of officers already serving in Korea. The object of these interviews was two-fold. First, we wanted to try to find out what had happened to a number of men who had been posted as missing and about whom we had had no further information, owing to the complete inadequacy of the Communist casualty returns. Secondly, we wanted to determine exactly the kind of treatment our prisoners had received in the camps. I would emphasise that the whole procedure at these interviews was informal. and that the men were encouraged to tell their stories in their own way.

On their return to England, these men were again interviewed, either in batches or individually. This was done to supplement the necessarily rather hurried interviews which had been possible in Korea, and also for the purpose of checking on any discrepancies which might have appeared between the stories of various individuals. Information was also obtained from captured enemy documents, enemy publications, photographic reconnaissance, and sources of that kind.

The reports of the interviews, and other material available to us, made it certain that our prisoners had been subjected to barbarous and methodical ill-treatment while they were in the camps with the sole object of forcing them to accept Communism. We thought that Parliament and the public should be fully informed about this situation, and it was for this reason that the Ministry of Defence issued this booklet. I am glad that the hon. Member started his speech by according a welcome to the booklet. I am sure that his sentiments will be echoed by hon. Members on both sides of the House.

Every statement in the booklet can be attributed to a particular ex-prisoner, and in most cases the statements are corroborated by other ex-prisoners. There has been some criticism because the specific sources of information were not quoted and names were not given. We felt that the men concerned would not want their names to be given. In fact, some returned prisoners were asked whether they wanted their names to be given to the Press when this booklet was published, and a very considerable number of them preferred, for quite understandable reasons, that this should not be done. That, to our minds, confirmed the rightness of our original decision.

The lessons to be learnt from the treatment of these prisoners by the Communists are now being carefully studied, with a view to modifying, if necessary, our instructions to Service men about their conduct if they are captured. The Dominion authorities are working closely with us in this investigation, and we are in touch with the United States authorities, who are themselves conducting an inquiry of their own. It is not possible to forecast the results of this investigation, and, indeed, it may even be against the public interest to publish the results.

The hon. Member asked why the Government did not give official time for debating this booklet. That is more a question for the Leader of the House than for me, but the Government were content to leave the Ministry of Defence booklet, with its objective presentation of the facts, to speak for itself. I have no doubt, however, that if the official Opposition had made representations to the Government through the usual channels for time to be given for a debate, they would certainly have been considered.

The hon. Member referred to the printed slip enclosed with the original booklet and asked whether it was a challenge to anyone, for example, to the Communists and fellow-travellers he mentioned in his speech, to sue the Ministry of Defence, which published the booklet. There was no intention, on the part of the Government, of trailing their coat deliberately in that way. On the other hand, the booklet was not a Parliamentary Paper for which absolute privilege was claimed. The Government left it open to any person who felt himself aggrieved by the statements in the booklet to go to the court in the ordinary way, if he so desired. The hon. Member asked whether other countries had published similar booklets. The answer to that is" No, they have not done so."

As to a campaign against relatives, there was no interviewing of relatives by Service authorities. The campaign against relatives was brought to the notice of Service Departments by S.S.A.F.A. and similar organisations. Their representatives had been consulted by relatives who had been approached by Communist and Communist-sponsored organisations, or who had been sent Communist propaganda, direct in some cases from Peking.

Some of the relatives concerned wrote to the War Office, complaining about the approach of Communist organisations and forwarding copies of the propaganda which they had received. They also provided us quite voluntarily with information about the manner in which they had been approached, and—

It being Five o'clock Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, till Tuesday, 19th April, pursuant to the Resolution of the House yesterday.