HC Deb 05 December 1956 vol 561 cc1243-53

The following Questions stood upon the Order Paper:

149. Mr. WIGG

To ask the Paymaster-General whether he will make a statement on his visit to Port Said.


To ask the Paymaster-General if he will make a statement on his recent official visit to Egypt.

The Paymaster-General (Sir Walter Monckton)

With your permission, Sir, and that of the House, I will answer Questions No. 149 and 150 together.

Yes, Sir. I went to Port Said on 24th November to see for myself the damage caused by the recent allied operations and to obtain what information I could, in the course of a visit which lasted only 24 hours, about the numbers of Egyptian and other nationals who had died or been wounded as a result of the operations. I also inquired about the arrangements for transmitting Press and other information from the city.

I made a thorough tour of Port Said in a Land Rover and flew all over the city in a helicopter at low altitude. I interviewed not only members of Her Majesty's Forces who had taken part in the operations, but also several prominent nationals of other countries, including Egyptians, who were available and willing to assist me.

One of the main concerns of those who planned and took part in the operations was to limit damage and loss to the lives and property of Egyptians and other nationals. I am fully satisfied, from everything I saw and heard, that all practicable steps were taken to this end. Some of these steps, such as the warnings given to the local population in advance of particular operations, increased the danger to the allied forces, but the risk was deliberately accepted.

The property damaged consisted, first, of part of the poorest quarter which consists of small and inflammable huts. Rocket launchers withdrew into this section of the town and it had to be attacked. It took fire and burned rapidly in a strong wind, and one-fourth of the section was destroyed. This is the only large area of destruction in the town. Secondly, a number of buildings, or groups of buildings, that had been converted into strong-points received heavy damage from rocket attacks, which were remarkably accurate. Thirdly, a large number of wooden beach huts, many containing stocks of ammunition, caught fire and were destroyed when the sea-borne forces landed. Finally, some other buildings received damage which was mainly superficial.

The vast majority of the buildings in the city were unharmed, as can be seen from the photographs. The fact that the damage is as small as it is in a city of the size of Port Said, captured after some protracted street fighting, provides the strongest evidence of the great care taken by the allied forces to minimise damage.

Whereas damage to property can be inspected and assessed, it is more difficult to obtain an accurate estimate of the numbers killed or even of those wounded, and within the limits imposed by the time and materials available to me I could not ascertain a really reliable figure. The information I obtained, however, leads me to believe that the estimate of 540 wounded, previously given, is reasonably near the mark.

It is more difficult to make any assessment of the numbers killed or died from wounds. The number of wounded in military operations is normally several times greater than the number killed, and a figure of the order of 540 wounded would lead one to expect a number of dead of approximately 100, as originally estimated, but various statements made to me lead me to think, that it is at least possible that the figure may well have been higher. As I have said, however, it was impossible in the time available to arrive at a firm estimate. Inquiries are continuing with a view to arriving at as accurate a figure as possible.

The indiscriminate issue of arms by the Egyptian authorities to the local civilian population, including women and boys aged 12 and upwards, before the operations began, and the use of beach huts, flats, houses, police stations and even a hospital for storing ammunition and weapons, undoubtedly caused the damage and casualties to be greater than they need otherwise have been.

Full preparation had been made in advance by the British authorities to restore normal living conditions in Port Said as quickly as possible. Some of the preparations, such as the provision of food and water, fortunately proved unnecessary, and although during the first few days of the occupation water and electricity were short or cut off in some areas of the city, both were rapidly restored. By the time of my visit some shops and cafes had already reopened and the population were moving normally about the town.

It is safe to say that in no military operation of its kind has greater care been taken to protect the lives and property of the local population, and great credit is due to Her Majesty's forces for the care and restraint which they showed.

I met representatives of the Press during my visit whose main concern was that certain physical difficulties in the communications between Port Said and elsewhere should be overcome. I took steps both at Port Said and Cyprus to ensure that these difficulties should be reduced to a minimum.

Mr. Wigg

May I, on behalf of my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friends, express our sorrow at the bereavement suffered by the families of all those who have lost their lives, of whatever nationality, and say that, so far as we can, we shall do all in our power to see that nothing like this ever happens again?

May I say to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that we have established at least one fact, that the Minister of Defence did not give the House accurate figures on 21st November—for whatever reason—and that the number of killed and wounded is certainly higher than the figures given by the Minister of Defence? Would the right hon. and learned Gentleman say whether, if he cannot give accurate figures, he agrees that the figure of 3,000 killed and wounded, given by Mr. Nehru, is much nearer the mark than the figures given by the Minister of Defence?

Sir W. Monckton

The result of going out there, and making such inquiries as I could, was to bring to light some information which had not been available to the Commander-in-Chief, and, therefore, had not been available to my right hon. Friend. As to the figures, I would only say that the older I grow the more reluctant I am to base firm conclusions on insufficient data. But when one is asked for an estimate, one gives the best one can and that is no doubt what the advisers of my right hon. Friend did on the earlier occasion. I have said that so far as the killed and those who died of wounds are concerned, I should not be surprised to find the number higher. I would say, with all reserve—because inquiries are still going on, and I do not pretend that they could be finished in as short a time as I had—that if the figure turned out to be 300 I should not be surprised; but if it turned out to be a 1,000 or more I should be greatly surprised.

Dr. Summerskill

As I put down a Question on this subject two weeks ago, and the Minister of Defence had not the details, may I ask whether the right hon. and learned Gentleman can confirm or deny that the bombing cut off the water and light supply from the general hospital, in consequence of which surgeons were unable adequately to operate on the injured?

Mr. Remnant

Which hospital?

Sir W. Monckton

There was no bombing in the ordinary way. What I was talking of was attacks by rockets on strong points during the operation. Whether, in the case of any hospital, it did result in the cutting off of power I could not say without notice.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

Can the right hon. and learned Gentleman tell us why, if he was satisfied that the Minister of Defence had given accurate figures, he went to Port Said to investigate? Can he tell us what neutral Press correspondents he consulted? Did he consult the correspondent of the American Newsweek who estimated a figure of 2,000 and, also, the special correspondent of a Swedish news agency, who counted 257 deaths? Is there not also evidence to prove conclusively that the Minister of Defence deliberately underestimated these casualties?

Sir W. Monckton

I am quite satisfied that my right hon. Friend gave an estimate which he thought was right. I have said, I think, that there may have been more killed than the number of which I have spoken. In the course of my visit I did not have the opportunity of meeting all the representatives of the Press of all countries. I certainly did see those I could, both Egyptian and neutrals—

Mr. Lewis

Who were they?

Sir W. Monckton

—but I am not going to say who they were, because they particularly asked me not to, for reasons which I appreciate.

Mr. J. Eden

Is not it a fact that it is extremely difficult to establish figures of casualties among those who were opposed to our forces unless there is complete co-operation by them and careful documentation by them? Would my right hon. and learned Friend ask his right hon. Friend to emphasise to those of Her Majesty's Forces who took part in these operations that all right hon. and hon. Members on this side of the House are extremely grateful to them for the fact that they risked considerable danger to themselves by conducting these operations in such a humane manner?

Mr. G. Brown

Is the Paymaster-General aware that in pressing this matter none of us on this side of this House is criticising the forces or the precautions they took, but that the facts still need to be established? Some of the things said surprise some of us. Would the Minister say, first, how it came about that facts were available to him in a rushed 24-hour visit which had not been available to the Commander-in-Chief and the advisers of the Minister of Defence when he told us, on 21st November, not only that he reaffirmed the figures but, as he said dogmatically: The British have a great reputation for truth in these matters."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st November, 1956; Vol. 560, c. 1750.] thereby seeking to establish that he had the truth at his hand? What new facts came to light and why should they have come to light?

Secondly, does the right hon. and learned Gentleman not realise that this continual reference to the poor quarter of Port Said burning rapidly only heightens one's feeling that the figures are still wrong, because that is exactly where one would expect overcrowding and, therefore, heavier casualties? Thirdly, as he says that he did not really have time to do the job, and that inquiries are still proceeding, does he propose to make another statement on the subject later?

Sir W. Monckton

I do not know whether it will be for me to make another statement. I made this statement only because I had made the visit and I was asked about it. No doubt the appropriate Minister will give the figures when they are ascertained.

I was glad to hear what my hon. Friend said about the general view that the troops had behaved with great care to avoid loss. I am sure that we all agree. As to the other matter—the difference between the figures originally suggested and those I am suggesting today—surely we all agree that if one is out there well after the event and one can spend even a day, when one has some experience of making investigations, in seeing people who may not have been willing to see those who inquired previously, new facts may come to light. They came to light, and I have given them to the House.

Mr. Stokes

May I press the Paymaster-General on the question of the number of killed? I am puzzled by the fact that the major damage in Port Said was in what I call the hutment areas, the areas where bodies are not going to be lost. Is the Paymaster-General aware that there are particular regulations applying to the burial of bodies in Egypt? Surely it ought to be possible to ascertain the number of people killed. There ought not to be any real difficulty about it. There appears to be no mystery about the number of people wounded. Can the Paymaster-General tell us whether the figure of 100 is right or whether the figure is a great deal more?

Sir W. Monckton

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will do me the justice of assuming that I did try to see what records there were in writing and whether the normal records of people in hospital were kept in the ordinary way. I can only say that it did not help. Such records as I saw were not satisfactory and not kept in the normal way; it may well have been because of the events taking place. As to the shanty town, I thought it right to mention that that is where the most damage occurred, but I took into account such material as I had got about the number of people killed there.

Mr. P. Williams

In view of the propaganda efforts made by the Nasser régime to exaggerate the number of casualties, and of efforts made in other quarters, can my right hon. and learned Friend assure the House that the publicity and propaganda efforts of our Administration will be used to the utmost to convey the truth of the situation throughout the whole of the Middle East?

Mr. Hamilton

Can the right hon. and learned Gentleman explain whether there was any urgency about his return to this country if he were willing to establish the facts? Does he not think it rather unfortunate that, in attempting to romanticise the exercise, he referred to "knights errant" in what was blatantly an imperialist aggression?

Sir W. Monckton

I should like to say a word about the urgency of the exercise. Anyone who has had to investigate a matter of this kind, in the circumstances in which it would have had to be investigated now, would realise that it could not be done adequately in a short time. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why did the right hon. and learned Gentleman not stay?"] It would take a great deal of preparation and examination to do it. What I thought was desirable was that I should go out, see for myself what could be seen, gather what I could of the other information, and give it to the House. That is what I have done.

Mr. G. Brown

May I press the right hon. and learned Gentleman again on the question of a further report? Is he aware that the greatest propaganda effect against this country will be if facts were eventually established which we showed reluctance to establish ourselves? Would not it therefore, from a propaganda point of view, if that is what we are concerned with, be better that we should seem willing to clear up the matter and give the fullest information ourselves before somebody else does?

Sir W. Monckton

I said that I had done my best. I have tried to keep to the material I have got and I have said that further inquiries were going on with a view to giving the facts. I am confident that the results will be given to the House and the country.

Mr. C. I. Orr-Ewing

If my right hon. and learned Friend is to make a further statement, will he also ask the Egyptian authorities how many Egyptian Army officers have been arrested and shot by Colonel Nasser, because the figure of 40 is generally believed to be an underestimate?

Mr. J. Hynd

Can the Minister tell us why the Commander-in-Chief, with the resources at his disposal, was unable to ascertain, at least approximately, the total number of casualties in what the Minister himself has said was a comparatively small area of destruction? Further, will he explain why, when the Minister of Defence was giving the figure of 100 killed to the House the other day, he insisted that that was the maximum figure and claimed that he had complete reliance on the information given him by the Commander-in-Chief?

Finally, will the Minister tell us why, in view of the difficulty of getting this information, foreign Press correspondents, including war correspondents, were excluded from the area of main damage by the military authorities, as we are assured by some of the neutral war correspondents?

Sir W. Monckton

As far as I know, they were not, but that is not my responsibility. As to whether the Commander-in-Chief would have got more accurate figures, I am sure that the House will realise that I went over—I will not say that I went over by choice—at a moment when things were much quieter. The Commander-in-Chief has a great many things to do, including the collecting of information of this sort. It is not unnatural that anyone going out as I did should have opportunities to add to the material available.

Mr. Wigg

In view of the unsatisfactory nature—

Mr. Warbey

On a point of order. I had a Question on this subject—Question No. 67—which I put to the Minister of Defence. He asked me to await the statement by the Paymaster-General. I awaited the statement. May I now put a supplementary question, Sir?

Mr. Speaker

I think that that is reasonable.

Mr. Warbey

As it is now already clear, as the truth begins to come out, that hundreds and possibly thousands of innocent people have suffered from the Government's so-called police action, can the Paymaster-General say whether it was really necessary that so many people should be butchered to make a Jamaican holiday?

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker


Mr. Mikardo

On a point of order. May I direct your attention, Sir, to the fact that Question No. 41 on the Order Paper is in my name and that I, too, was asked by the Minister of Defence to await the reply of his right hon. and learned Friend. Being a good boy, I did so. I should now like to put a supplementary question. May I ask by what means within the rules of order I can shed the cloak which for long has made me an invisible man?

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member is not at all invisible; I sometimes think that he is very obvious. On looking back, I understand that what the hon. Member said is quite true. A whole lot of Questions was answered together. I see the names of the hon. Members for Reading (Mr. Mikardo) and Dundee, East (Mr. G. M. Thomson). They can both ask supplementary questions, but no other hon. Members.

Mr. Mikardo

I am obliged, Mr. Speaker.

May I ask the Paymaster-General what was the point of his going on this investigation if he could not stay long enough to ascertain the facts? Was it necessary for him to go all the way to Port Said in order to come back and regale us with the answer to a simple proportion sum between the wounded and the dead? Does he dismiss as "Nasser propaganda" the eye-witness account of the correspondent of the Daily Express, who said that he saw far more bodies than the number that the Minister of Defence gave to us?

Sir W. Monckton

As to the necessity for the journey, it was not merely to establish the number of casualties. I thought it was a very good thing to be sure of the damage, which could be inspected and assessed. As to the mere proportion sum, I have not said that the figure of 100 is necessarily wrong. I have said that I expected a figure of that order by the proportion sum to which the hon. Gentleman referred, but that my inquiries made me think that it might be higher. There is nothing wrong with that.

Mr. G. M. Thomson

Did the Minister meet the correspondent of The Times there? Is he aware that, on the day after the Minister of Defence categorically reaffirmed this figure of 100 dead, The Times correspondent at Port Said said that nobody in Port Said could understand where the Minister got his facts? Is he also aware that the French Foreign Secretary told the French Assembly that he estimated the number of dead as about 300? In view of the very imprecise nature of the report that has been given to us, and of its importance to the good name of Britain, will the right hon. Gentleman go back, or ensure that somebody else goes back, to continue the investigation?

The Minister of Defence (Mr. Antony Head)

As these questions concern the facts which I stated, perhaps I might explain something to the House. Directly after the operation I gave an estimate of the casualties which was given to me of the dead and wounded. I then sent a signal back asking whether the figures could, so far as possible, be checked as I knew there was considerable interest in them and stories were already going around about the matter. I got a reaffirmation saying that, from all the data available, that was still the best estimate they could provide.

I know, from further correspondence with the Commander-in-Chief on this subject, that it is almost impossible to be precise on the number of casualties, partly because of the speed of burial and partly because in Egypt there is a rule that no body may be exhumed after 24 hours of death, for health reasons. All my experience of war, which, I grant, is limited, shows that, after battle, the estimates of newspaper men and soldiers of the number of dead is likely to be tremendously in excess of the actual number.

Mr. Wigg

In view of the unsatisfactory nature of the reply, I beg to give notice that I will raise the matter on the Adjournment. I submit to you, Mr. Speaker, that it might be a suitable subject to raise on the Motion for the Adjournment for the Christmas Recess.

Mr. Speaker

We will see about that.