§ The Minister of Defence (Mr. Antony Head)
The air plan, carried out by the Royal Air Force, the Fleet Air Arm and the French Air Forces, has been to neutralise the Egyptian Air Force. This has been largely accomplished by means of bombing attacks on airfields by Valiants and Canberras, followed by low level ground attacks. The object of the bombing attacks was to prevent the Egyptian Air Force from operating during the low-level ground attacks, in which Venoms of the Royal Air Force, together with Naval aircraft and French aircraft took part. The plan was devised to achieve the maximum destruction of Egyptian aircraft with the minimum loss of Egyptian life. A very high degree of accuracy was achieved.
1874 After this phase, the attacks are being switched to other military targets, particularly armour, and successful attacks have been made in the past 24 hours.
Many hundreds of sorties have been flown. One Venom aircraft is so far unaccounted for.
Four blockships have been sunk in the Port Said approach to the Canal. [HON. MEMBERS : "By whom?"] By the Egyptian Government.
Reports indicate that Egyptian forces are withdrawing in some disorder to Kantara and Suez, and there are indications that some have reached the Canal area. Egyptian armoured units are moving from the Delta to the Canal area.
Repeated warnings have been given to the Egyptian civilian population to keep away from airfields and purely military installations.
§ Mr. Stokes
Will the Minister of Defence give some indication of the degree of success of the air attacks? Has he yet been able to ascertain how many aeroplanes of the Egyptian Air Force have been destroyed? Can he give any information about the Canal base and the material which we have there? Has that now been occupied by the Egyptians and have all the British people who are normally resident there gone away? Are we to understand from the absence of any comment on the matter that up to the present moment there has been no landing of army units, whether French or British, in Egypt?
§ Mr. Head
The right hon. Gentleman asked me to give an estimate of how many Egyptian planes had been destroyed. The photographic reconnaissances to see the result of these attacks are still being analysed, and I would rather not give a precise number now because it is not yet at hand from Nicosia, but all indications are that the vast majority of these attacks were very successful, and I think that the destruction of planes has been high.
So far as the base is concerned, during the period of the original Suez crisis, before fighting broke out between Israeli and Egyptian forces, the base was evacuated of all families and all personnel who were not essential to the minimum running of the base. When this sudden occurrence took place, a 1875 rapid warning was sent to the British personnel in the base, but we do not know how many got away or what the position is. There are indications that some have been taken into custody by the Egyptian authorities.
The answer to the last part of the question is that no landing has taken place.
§ Mr. Stokes
Has the Egyptian Army taken charge of the base? Further, has the Minister any information as to the position of our own nationals in Cairo? Has there been any trouble there at all?
§ Mr. Head
When these British personnel, who were non-combatants—civilians—left, the base was empty and in the hands of the Egyptian authorities, but, as the right hon. Gentleman is probably aware, the vast majority of the really valuable and important material in the base has been removed. I think that the question of our nationals in Cairo is a matter more for the Foreign Secretary than for me.
§ Mr. Wigg
May I ask the right hon. Gentleman three questions of which I have given him notice? Would he tell the House what equipment has been used in these operations which was supplied by mutual security aid and whether the permission of the United States Government has been obtained for the use of that equipment?
The second question is whether he would be good enough to tell the House at what time the first warning was given to the residents, not only to the Egyptians but to the Greek, Italian and French communities, of the possibility of an attack upon Egyptian airfields, and how long was there between the first warning and the attack upon the Heliopolis national aerodrome? Is the Minister aware that the statement made by the Government caused complete panic among the 200,000, many of them foreign, nationals in the vicinity of that aerodrome?
My third question is whether he will confirm that among the first objects hit was the Almaza hospital at Heliopolis?—
§ Mr. Head
On the question of warning, I would remind the House that there were a very large number of MiG fighters on the ground in Egypt. To give early warning of impending air attack is to put our own airmen in considerable danger. Secondly, I would remind the House that these attacks did not take place simultaneously. They were phased one after the other and, because of some doubt about casualties, one attack was cancelled altogether.
Thirdly, I would say that, so far as all our information goes, the one thing that has been extremely marked in these attacks is the very light loss of life so far as we know. [HON. MEMBERS : "How do you know?"] I am told that the Egyptian Government themselves have stated that the total loss of life does not exceed 100.
Lastly, the hon. Gentleman asked me about Almaza hospital. There is on the edge of the airfield at Heliopolis a large building which was a hospital but which I understand is now a military school. It is right on the edge of the airfield and, although I am not 100 per cent. certain, the last information we had was that it was not used as a hospital but was a military school.
The hon. Gentleman asked another question about American equipment under the mutual aid programme. It is operationally quite impossible and impracticable to segregate items of equipment one from the other throughout a force like the Royal Air Force. It would be perfectly impossible to have such a force—it could not be done—segregated in two parts in that way.
§ Mr. Wigg
The condition on which the American Government supplied and paid for this equipment was that it should not be used without the prior permission of that Government. Would not the right hon. Gentleman agree that while it may be operationally necessary in fact to limit the time of warning, if the warning is 1877 limited the Government have no right whatever to boast of the fact that they have given a warning unless they are using the technique followed by Hitler of giving air-raid warning in order to create chaos among the community?
§ Mr. Head
On the question of equipment, it is manifestly impossible—indeed, we could never do anything under those conditions. This equipment is mixed up throughout the whole pattern of our force. On the question of warning, the hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways. If a warning causes panic, that may be so on one side ; on the other hand, what it causes in panic may be better so far as saving life is concerned. What I think has been valuable is that throughout these operations every attempt has been made, and when the radio station was taken out recently we gave three warnings for sixty-five minutes before the operation and, as far as I know, there were no casualties.
§ Mr. de Freitas
Will the right hon. Gentleman comment on the serious problem in international law caused to the aircrews who are ordered by the Government to carry out operations of this kind where they are likely, however skilful they may be, to kill civilians?
§ Mr. J. Amery
Would my right hon. Friend, or perhaps the Foreign Secretary, say whether the sinking of the block ships in approaches to the Canal constitutes a breach of the 1888 Convention? [interruption.]
§ Mr. Stokes
I suppose the Foreign Secretary will answer that question in a minute. I want to return to the warning. Does the Minister of Defence seriously tell us that he thinks a quarter of an hour's warning to a civilian population of a country with whom we are not at war is sufficient to enable them to take measures of self-preservation? Surely it is outrageous that only a quarter of an hour's warning should be given. Does the Minister really say that a quarter of an hour is enough?
§ Mr. Head
I suppose the ideal warning would have been to name the airfields some five or six hours beforehand. The hon. Gentleman seems to have overlooked the fact that when we gave the 1878 requirement we said that we held ourselves free to take such military action as was necessary, and that had happened some hours before. Secondly, I would point out to the hon. Gentleman that the action was restricted entirely to those airfields which were well away from highly-populated centres. Thirdly, although this might not be the optimum amount of warning, I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows enough about military operations to know that if we gave such a warning some considerable time in advance we would run increased risk for our pilots.
§ Mr. Burden
Is it not a fact that the aerodromes bombed were military aerodromes with a large concentration of MiG 17s and as military aerodromes they would not be occupied by civilian population? Do not the photographs show that the bombing was concentrated on the aerodromes? Finally, have the Egyptians been issuing warnings to Israeli civilians before lobbing shells into Israel?
§ Mr. Head
The photographs that we have so far seen showed that the bombing was extremely accurate. By what we can see on the photographs there was an infinitesimal amount of damage done to private dwellings. There was one airfield in which there was, we thought, a serious risk of civilian casualties, and, as I have said already, that operation was cancelled, for that reason.
§ Mr. A. Henderson
In view of what the Minister of Defence has just said, is it not time that we stopped this bombing in Egypt? The Prime Minister has said that we are taking police action, but could there be a more complete mockery of the word "police" and of the use of police action than to authorise the bombing, even of military airfields? I asked the Prime Minister yesterday a question, in reply to which he said that he could not give any undertaking. He was today asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell) to give the same undertaking. Will the right hon. Gentleman not reconsider his refusal to stop this bombing, which is giving great concern not only to the people of this country but to people in other countries, and is also a defiance of the Resolution passed by the United Nations General Assembly?
§ The Prime Minister
Some days ago I think I told the House of the action that it was in the Government's mind to take. That action we have carried through and are carrying through. I can only add that, so far as the action against Egyptian airfields is concerned, I do not believe it would have been possible to take more precautions in respect of the actual targets than were taken by the Royal Air Force. That has been our purpose. I confirm what my right hon. Friend the Minister of Defence has said, that when we were informed that there was likely to be a large civilian population in the neighbourhood of one aerodrome. which had a large number of Russian bombers on it, we immediately, in spite of that fact, cancelled the arrangements we had made.
§ Mr. Gaitskell
May I make one last appeal to the Prime Minister? We really have a new situation. So far as we understand the position, the fighting between Israelis and Egyptians in the Sinai Desert is virtually at an end. Would it not be wise, in the light of that fact, of, the Assembly's Resolution, and of the proposals, which we all welcome, for a United Nations police force, that instructions should now be given, in accordance with that Resolution, to cease all further military action? I beg the Prime Minister to understand that upon his answer to these questions public opinion will judge him.
§ The Prime Minister
I made plain in the debate, when we were supported by the House after a Motion of censure had been moved by the Opposition, the reasons why we were taking the action that we had to take. The Government remain absolutely convinced that to proceed with this action is the best way of limiting hostilities and of getting an early separation of the forces on both sides. Therefore, we consider it our duty to fulfil that obligation.
§ Mr. Wigg
On a point of order. In fairness to the Minister of Defence, may I point out that he made what I think must be a slip of the tongue? I want to draw the right hon. Gentleman's attention to the words which he used. He said that the Heliopolis aerodrome was not a populous area. He knows that that is not true.
§ Mr. Speaker
I think we ought now to get on with the debate. The House has had a very good run of questions, much more than I would normally have thought it my duty to allow. There is a Motion before the House. I would ask hon. Members who catch my eye to remember that the time of the House is short and that if they confine what they have to say to a very few words it will be gratefully received by the whole House. There is no necessity to go over the whole ground again. Hon. Members should confine themselves to special points which interest them. Mr. Head.
§ Mr. R. A. Butler
On a point of order. May I ask that the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs should now make his statement on Hungary? He came here at the request of the Opposition—[Interruption.]—to make a statement on Hungary. If he does so now I think it will enable us to have a clearer debate on both statements. [Interruption.]
§ Mr. Gaitskell
I could not hear exactly what the Lord Privy Seal said, but I understand it is not that we should bring finally to an end our discussion on Egypt and the statement of the Minister of Defence, but that the Foreign Secretary should now make his statement on Hungary, that we should have a brief period of questions and discussion on it, and then return to the other subjects. In that case, speaking for my hon. and right hon. Friends, I am prepared to accept that.
§ Mr. Callaghan
On a point of order, before the Minister of Defence slips away. The right hon. Gentleman promised us further information about the sinking of the frigate by the "Newfoundland." We did not get the statement from him until we had had some interchanges here this morning. May I ask him and the Prime Minister to take note of the fact that the Opposition and the country will expect regular reports on the military situation as soon as the House of Commons commences every day.
§ Mr. Collick
On a point of order. We have had a statement from the Prime Minister, but not one back bencher has had an opportunity of asking him questions. In the interests of private Members I ask you. Mr. Speaker, to consider that fact.
§ Mr. Speaker
The hon. Gentleman should address his complaint to the Privy Councillors on his own side of the House. The Foreign Secretary.