§ Mr. Albu
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that very great distress has been caused to parents of soldiers who were 413 concerned, because of what they consider the utterly inadequate information given to them? Will the summary that he is going to publish state the causes of the fire and whether there is any truth in a rumour published in the Press that the fire was caused by the letting off of a thunder flash by an officer in order to wake up the soldiers inside the barn?
§ Mr. Head
I am aware of the particular case to which the hon. Gentleman refers. We have done our best to send individually to parents all the knowledge that came out of the court of inquiry. The long and the short of it is that, despite a very lengthy inquiry, it was impossible to establish the real cause of the fire. I can tell the hon. Gentleman now that one thing that was ruled out was that the fire was caused by a thunder flash.
§ Mr. Bellenger
In cases in which there is considerable public interest, would the right hon. Gentleman consider holding inquiries other than by an ordinary Army court of inquiry which, as he said, is privileged, which means that the facts are not really disclosed to the public?
§ Mr. Head
As I have said repeatedly before, the great advantage on a court of inquiry is that the proceedings are privileged, which means that those who give evidence have to give evidence; whereas otherwise evidence must be voluntary, with legal representation as in an open court. Over a long period courts of inquiry have done a good job and have been proved to be a satisfactory way of holding inquiry. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that in this case absolutely nothing has been held back. There was a most careful and detailed inquiry, in which everyone wished to find out the origin and cause of the fire.
§ Mr. Ian Harvey
In view of the very serious allegation made by the hon. 414 Member for Edmonton (Mr. Albu) about the conduct of an officer, will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that the report which is being published completely vindicates all the officers concerned?
§ Mr. Head
I may not have been listening, but I did not actually hear any particular allegation, except that there was only one young officer present. As I have said, if the hon. Member will read the report I think he will find this. In addition, the report itself completely vindicates the conduct and behaviour of certain officers who were concerned and about whom there has been correspondence with the parents concerned.
Following is the summary:This fire in which four men tragically lost their lives occurred in a barn at Mattighofen in Austria at about 1 p.m. on 11th March. The 1st Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment had been taking part in a strenuous exercise with the United States forces which had ended about an hour before, and "C" Company of the Battalion were resting in the barn awaiting orders to move. The fire started in dry hay and speedily got out of control in spite of strenuous attempts by troops and civilians to put it out as soon as it was discovered. The fire brigade was summoned and arrived promptly but they were unable to save the men trapped in the barn. Two doctors were quickly available to attend the casualties, and an American helicopter was on the scene to take the injured to hospital by 1.45 p.m. I am satisfied that everything possible was done to prevent loss of life and that credit for fighting the fire and tending the casualties is due to all concerned.There is insufficient evidence to determine the cause of this fire. Some possibilities can almost certainly be dismissed. An examination afterwards indicated that faulty chimneys or an electrical fault in the wiring of the barn were unlikely to have been to blame. Similarly, spontaneous combustion of the hay in the barn seems most unlikely. On this occasion the hay had been cut and stacked for at least five months, whereas internal ignition seldom takes place more than three months after stacking. Nor is there any truth in rumours that the firing of a Very-light pistol or a cooking apparatus was the cause of the fire. This leaves two possibilities which cannot be entirely ruled out but neither can be said to have been a very likely, let alone a certain, cause. First is the possibility of a lighted cigarette end. Because of the presence of highly inflammable hay in the barn orders were given that there should be no smoking and the examination of witnesses produced no evidence that this rule was disobeyed. It seems certain that no-one was sleeping in the hay where the fire started, and the fact that the fire began at a point about 10 feet above ground level makes it very unlikely that a cigarette end discarded by a passer-by could have been the cause.415There remains the possibility that a battle simulator, that is a kind of fire-cracker, was to blame. Very shortly before the fire was discovered the company received orders to move, and two officers let off a cracker outside the barn to awaken the company. This cracker was ignited outside the barn about 19 feet from where the fire began. The position at which it was set off makes it unlikely that a spark could have travelled directly into the hay stacked inside the barn and subsequent experiments with similar crackers add to the doubt. Several of these crackers, which are of American manufacture and much less powerful than the British thunderflash, were set off in the middle of dry hay and failed to ignite it. Further, the fragmentation of the crackers never went beyond 12 feet and signs of scorching were negligible In addition, a photograph of a cracker exploded during darkness shows that the flash radiates no more than about 1½ feet, and it seems plain that a freak explosion would have been necessary if a fire-cracker were to have caused the fire.To sum up, it is not possible to assess the probable cause of the fire; it is even possible that it was caused by some agency of which there was no evidence at all. These conclusions have been reached after exhaustive examination of all the available evidence and I am satisfied that a more satisfactory conclusion could not be reached.