HC Deb 20 December 1955 vol 547 cc1845-52
Mr. Wigg

(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for War whether he will make a statement about the future of the Territorial Army, Reserve Forces and the Home Guard.

Mr. Head

I will, with your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, make the statement which I undertook to give to the House at the earliest opportunity.

As the House is aware, the Government have been reviewing modern defence requirements. The rôle of our Reserve forces has changed. The conception that it would be possible to send from these islands in global war 10 or 12 fully equipped reserve divisions with their appropriate corps and Army troops is no longer realistic. Therefore, the Government have decided that only two Territorial divisions will remain organised at full scales, together with the necessary supporting troops. These two divisions are required to meet our N.A.T.O. commitments. The remainder of the Reserve Army will be reorganised for the tasks which we can foresee.

The House will appreciate that it is extremely hard to make exact predictions at the present time about the course of a future war. Initially, the Reserve forces will have to help maintain the life of the nation and to deal with raids, sabotage, etc. They must be capable of acting in the closest co-operation with the Civil Defence services. They must also provide the reserve fighting power necessary for home defence in all its aspects. They constitute the country's potential strategic reserve. They will, therefore, continue to be organised as military forces with a fighting capacity.

The divisional organisation will be retained. It affords the best method of control, both operationally and geographically. There will be no requirement for armoured divisions. The two armoured divisions and the Lowland mixed division will be converted to infantry divisions. Six armoured units will, however, be retained for the support of our N.A.T.O. divisions. The airborne division will be reduced to a parachute brigade group of about four to five battalions and the remainder of the division will be absorbed in infantry divisions. Apart from the two divisions and supporting troops available to meet our N.A.T.O. commitment and some light anti-aircraft units, there will be no requirement for non-divisional artillery. Consequently, a number of non-divisional artillery units will convert to other rôles. A considerable number of Army Emergency Reserve units will have to be disbanded, but it is hoped to be able to offer the great majority of their volunteers the opportunity of transferring to other units.

I fully realise that this reorganisation will involve far-reaching changes in the Reserve Army; but these changes are based on present-day strategical requirements and if the Reserve Army is to remain what it is today, the best Reserve Army in the world, we must keep up to date with modern developments. The Territorial Army depends on its volunteers. Their record in the past has been unique. I feel confident that this tradition of service will continue to inspire young men to offer themselves for this important task.

I have been asked about the bounty. We are going to increase it for the Territorial Army from £12 to £20 after a qualifying period of three years, and there will be similar increases for the Army Emergency Reserve. I know that details of these changes are eagerly awaited. They will be given at the earliest possible moment; but if proper consultation is to take place we cannot rush it.

In 1951, the Home Guard was formed again at a time when there were virtually no fighting units in this country. During this time the Home Guard made a most important contribution to our state of preparedness and general plans for defence. Furthermore, there is no doubt that, should war come, the Home Guard would play a most valuable part in the general scheme for the defence of this country. Details of its future role on mobilisation are now being worked out within the general pattern of Home Defence.

After careful consideration, it has been decided that the Home Guard shall be placed on a reserve basis. It is intended that sector commanders, battalion commanders and two other members of each battalion shall remain to keep war plans up-to-date and maintain the lists of those registered for service. I hope that sector commanders and battalion commanders will agree to carry on with this important work. The paid permanent staff will remain at their posts to effect this reorganisation, after which their services will no longer be required. Detailed instructions will be issued very shortly.

I should like to assure the Home Guard that they will have an essential part to play in our future defence organisation and their ability to mobilise rapidly and carry out the tasks allotted to them will be of great importance. I am sure that the whole House, whatever their personal views may be about the creation of the Home Guard, will wish to join me in thanking them most sincerely for their loyal and selfless service during the past five years.

Mr. Wigg

The right hon. Gentleman will no doubt have observed that the Director-General of the Territorial Army warned the Reserve forces that they were going to be messed about with. Would the right hon. Gentleman be good enough to tell the House the date on which the messing about starts and the date at which it will be completed? Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that during this period the country will be devoid of any Reserve forces of any fighting value at all?

Mr. Head

The hon. Gentleman, as usual, is quite wrong. This reorganisation will take place as any reorganisation does in any military formation, gradually, in phases and periodically. At the moment, there is an extremely efficient Reserve Army in being. It will be gradually reorganised. It is quite improper to say that there will be no Reserve forces capable of doing anything during that period.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

I would like your guidance, Mr. Speaker. A fortnight ago I tried to get a Private Notice Question accepted in relation to the burning down of the Admiralty, and you refused permission on the ground that there was no urgency. How does this subject suddenly become a matter of urgency?

Mr. Speaker

As a matter of fact, the Secretary of State for War gave me notice earlier that he wished to make this statement.

Brigadier Prior-Palmer

Was I right in understanding that certain Territorial armoured divisions would be converted into infantry? If that is the case, does my right hon. Friend mean that some of the yeomanry divisions, with their long traditions in that particular rôle, are now to be converted to infantry? Would it not have been very much better to let them become cadres of their old units rather than completely change their rôle?

Mr. Head

I may not have understood my hon. and gallant Friend, but the answer is that they could not become cadres of their units if we have found that there is no requirement for those armoured units. Some of them will become reconnaisance regiments and some will be retained as tank units for support of our N.A.T.O. divisions. Otherwise, there is no alternative to converting them into infantry.

Mr. Stokes

We realise the importance of the statement which the right hon. Gentleman has made, but why has it been so long delayed? Are we to understand from the statement about airborne divisions that there will be no complete arrangement whereby a division can be airborne? That has an immense effect on the strategic reserve. Secondly, when is the right hon. Gentleman going to make a statement about recruiting for the Regular Army. That has an enormous bearing on National Service and on the Armed Forces as a whole. Is the dead hand of the Treasury continuing to oppress him?

Mr. Head

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the airborne forces. I take it, if I am not being patronising, that he was mixing them up with air transport units. That we are aiming for in a big way. So far as the airborne units are concerned, we do not envisage in global warfare, at any rate in the earliest stages, if ever, that a whole airborne division would be dropped. I think that that is realistic. Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman asked when I could speak about the Regular Army, its recruitment and conditions of service. I hope that I will be able to give it—and when I say "I," I should say that I hope it will be given out—at the time of the Service Estimates.

Mr. Stokes

I do not take the right hon. Gentleman's statement as indicating coming events casting their shadows before, but may I ask whether it is reluctance on the part of the Treasury that is preventing him from going ahead? The country is getting fed up with the fact that the terms of Regular recruitment are not good enough and that, in consequence, young men are being messed about when they should not be messed about. The right hon. Gentleman himself has said that if he could get enough recruits the period of National Service could be reduced. Surely he can tell us what is stopping him putting forward better terms for Regular recruitment.

Mr. Head

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister stated at Bournemouth that an announcement on this particular matter would be made at the time of the Service Estimates. As far as the Treasury is concerned, I feel confident that between now and then we shall have nothing but concord and co-operation with that Department in that respect.

Mr. Maclay

May I ask whether my right hon. Friend realises the full implications of his statement, and if he will most carefully study them? May we assume that there will be a full opportunity for debate?

Mr. Head

Yes, Sir. I imagine that these matters will be debated at the time of the Service Estimates.

Mr. Bellenger

Does the Secretary of State for War realise that his statement creates a most revolutionary position in the constitution of the Reserve forces, and cannot be taken in isolation, for example, from at least one of the other Services—the Royal Air Force? Would it not therefore be possible for him to issue some more extensive explanation of what is in the mind of the War Office? It is quite impossible to consider this in isolation by Question and Answer today, because many of us still believe that this change in our organisation needs something more than a Ministerial statement. It needs consideration by a Committee of the House, or by a committee even wider than that.

Mr. Head

I should make plain at once that this statement on the reorganisation of the Reserve Army arises as part of the review of the whole aspect of defence and is not one isolated statement. Secondly, in both the Defence White Paper as a whole and in the Army Estimates a good deal will be devoted to this particular matter.

Mr. Renton

With regard to the proposals to disband the non-divisional artillery units, will my right hon. Friend remember that the men in those units are trained as gunners? Will he do his best to keep them serving as gunners by having them posted to those artillery units that are to be retained?

Mr. Head

Within this reorganisation there are a great many men who have done a particular specialist rôle extremely well, but it is impossible to retain them in that particular rôle if we are to reorganise in the way which we think will meet our requirements.

Mr. Strachey

Does not the Secretary of State agree that the announcement of the simultaneous abolition, apparently, of the Reserve Army and the other Reserve forces does remove the original purpose of National Service? Is he not at least turning his mind—and if he is not, will his successor—to the question of meeting the other purpose, our distant commitments, by improved Regular Army recruiting, which now must surely become the essential way of meeting that purpose?

Mr. Head

As I think the right hon. Gentleman will agree, that is a slightly different question. It is true—and I think that I have myself said so frequently—that the main object of National Service today is to increase the size of the active Army rather than to train men for the Reserve Army. As for increasing Regular Army numbers, no object is nearer to my own wishes or aims than that.

Major Legge-Bourke

My right hon. Friend has mentioned the airborne part of the Reserve Army. May I ask whether he can give an assurance that those units which came into existence as airborne regiments as a result of the recent war will be retained as such and, in particular, whether the Cambridgeshire Regiment will be retained? If it is not to be retained, it will cause great consternation indeed.

Mr. Head

I fully appreciate my hon. and gallant Friend's interest in that particular battalion. I think we should be able to retain within the airborne forces all, or the vast majority, of those who are parachutists. As my hon. and gallant Friend knows, about half the men are non-jumpers and half are jumpers. I think that we shall retain all the jumpers, but they will be in fewer units.

Mr. Stokes

In view of what the Secretary of State has just said about the important part which National Service bears in relation to the Regular Army, is it not possible for him to make a statement earlier than is at present anticipated? That is what the country is waiting for. We had a debate weeks ago, but nothing has happened.

Mr. Head

The date for the announcement has always been—as has been stated by the Prime Minister, and constantly repeated by others—at the time of the Estimates. That is when it will be made.

Mr. Baldwin

In his reorganisation plan for the Home Guard, will my right hon. Friend consider making attendance at the instructional parades compulsory? Otherwise, if mobilised, these half-trained men may be a danger to their comrades.

Mr. C. Pannell

Will the right hon. Gentleman dilate rather more fully on that part of his statement which seemed to indicate that he was, himself, to be transferred to the strategic reserve?

Mr. Head

I intended no innuendoes of that kind.

Mr. Simmons

As gentlemen of the yeomanry appear to object to serving with the P.B.I., may I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he will equip them with polo ponies and enter them for the Olympic Games?

Mr. Head

The hon. Member is an old enough soldier to know that the cavalry—now tanks—and the infantry have always had jokes at one another's expense, but have always fought well together.

Mr. Nairn

Can my right hon. Friend give an assurance that the 51st Highland Division will be one of those retained to serve the country overseas if the need arises?

Mr. Wigg

On a point of order. In view of the unsatisfactory nature of the reply, I would normally ask leave to give notice that I would raise the matter on the Adjournment, but I should like to say to the Secretary of State that if this is the last occasion on which he will—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member prefaced his intervention by saying, "On a point of order," and then went on to state that he would like to say something to the Secretary of State. I would tell the hon. Member that points of order must be directed to me.

Mr. Wigg

The point of order I wish to put, Sir, is that though it is now impossible to give notice to the present Secretary of State that one is going to raise this question on the Adjournment, the Army and the country are thrilled by the news that he has got the sack. I would point out—

Mr. Speaker

That is not a point of order.