HC Deb 09 November 1956 vol 560 cc517-28

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Godber.]

4.1 p.m.

Mr. Wedgwood Benn (Bristol, South-East)

This adjournment debate has been arranged at very short notice, and I should like to pay my personal tribute to the Minister who has agreed to deal with what, I think, will turn out to be one of the most explosive consequences of the policy we have seen pursued during the last week. I suggest that the House should consider this this afternon as the very first of the many post mortems we shall have on the events of last week.

I think we may now say that the Prime Minister's unhappy military venture has come to a conclusion. A week ago he announced that an ultimatum had been presented to the Egyptian Government under which they were obliged to allow British forces to be stationed in Egypt to guarantee the safety of the Canal. The position now, as we all know, is that the British Government have agreed to a cease-fire and that Nasser controls almost all the Canal. Therefore, this is an appropriate moment to look at the events of last week and see what lessons we can learn from those happenings.

In that spirit, I wish to refer to the subject of the broadcasts put out by "The Voice of Britain". I understand that there was in Cyprus a broadcasting station, about the ownership and control of which I am not quite clear, called Sharq Al-Adna. That station used to broadcast in Arabic to the Middle East, and when Her Majesty's Government took over they re-named broadcasts from that station "The Voice of Britain" and broadcast from it on behalf of the Supreme Allied Command, certainly until today, when no transcripts have come in.

"The Voice of Britain" has been speaking for this country and we are morally under the necessity to look into those broadcasts to see exactly what has been said. Through the courtesy of the B.B.C. and the generosity of the Foreign Office in making these things available I have been able to study the transcripts. What I have studied and propose to reveal to the House now is, I believe, so sensational that it merits a tribunal inquiry to be set up at once to see where responsibility for this catalogue of lies, stupidity and folly really rests.

I must tell the House also that, in doing this, I feel bound to compare the broadcasts by "The Voice of Britain" with the statements made by the Prime Minister in this House. The disparity and discrepancy between the two statements is so great that I feel it my duty to raise it this afternoon, and I have notified the office of the Prime Minister that I propose to do this. May I say first that my interest in overseas broadcasting did not begin with "The Voice of Britain" broadcasts. At one time, for a very short time, in a most undistinguished capacity, I served in the Overseas Service of the B.B.C. Since then I have always taken a great interest in broadcasting, because I think it is very important that the true voice of Britain should be heard abroad.

Therefore, I begin by saying that my complaint about this whole situation is that it is technically appallingly badly managed. I cannot, of course, now consider the policy which lies behind it—we have debated that and will no doubt do so in future—but the experience of the B.B.C., which is an experience unrivalled in the world as an organ of stressing the voice of this country, has been built on one very simple thing: it is to tell the truth. Throughout all the years, even during the war when we were broadcasting to Germany, and since the war when we were broadcasting behind the Iron Curtain, the B.B.C. Overseas Service has always stuck to the truth. That is why it is accepted and why the chimes of Big Ben are known all over the world in a happy context.

If we have a broadcasting station, therefore, and a war breaks out and we feel that we must broadcast, then we must always stick to the simplest principle of all—to put out the truth. That requires a degree of directive from high authority and proper consideration at every stage of the long and short-term effects of telling lies.

The first task of "The Voice of Britain" was to explain to the Egyptian people exactly why a British ultimatum had been presented to them. I find it very curious that there is no record of "The Voice of Britain" broadcasting to Israel at any stage since the Prime Minister said that the intention of the ultimatum was to compel both sides to disengage. I think it is very odd—indeed more than odd—that at no stage has a transcript been received of a broadcast directed to the Israeli troops advising them to keep clear of the Canal.

Be that as it may, let us consider exactly what the position was. I want to quote, first of all, the Prime Minister's own statement to the House in which he explained, on 30th October, as reported in columns 1279 and 1347 of the OFFICIAL REPORT, the reasons for this action. He said—and we all remember the statement: I must tell the House that very grave issues are at stake, and that unless hostilities can quickly be stopped free passage through the Canal will be jeopardised. Moreover, any fighting on the banks of the Canal would endanger the ships actually on passage. One of my hon. Friends, if not all of us, was intensely suspicious of the Prime Minister's motives; my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. R. E. Winterbottom), as reported at column 1298 of the OFFICIAL REPORT for the same day, asked the Prime Minister this: Will the Prime Minister give the House an assurance that those troops will be withdrawn as soon as the Israeli-Egyptian clash is over, or temporarily settled, and that the occasion will not be used to keep British troops in the Canal Zone in furtherance of the dispute between ourselves and the Egyptian Government? On that I want a categorical assurance. HANSARD records that the Prime Minister indicated assent, but lest the Official Reporters should have strayed from their task, I found the exact pasage, in column 1347, where the Prime Minister said: I want now to deal, if I may, with one or two other points raised. The hon. Member for Brightside (Mr. R. E. Winterbottom) and one or two other hon. Members asked whether British troops, and other troops, will be withdrawn once the hostilities cease. Of course that will be so; certainly. It is our intention that they shall be withdrawn as soon as possible. The last thing that we want is an enduring commitment of that kind—the last thing."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 30th October, 1956; Vol. 558, c. 1279–1347.] Those are the Prime Minister's words. He utterly repudiated, on 30th October, the assertion that the Canal dispute had anything to do with the movement of the troops.

May I remind the House what "The Voice of Britain" said only two days later? On 2nd November, at 12.45 G.M.T. the bulletin put out ran as follows. This is the first bulletin addressed to the Egyptian people from the Voice of the Allied Armies Command: O Egyptians, this is the first blow which has befallen you. Why has this befallen you? First because Abd Al-Nasir went mad and seized the Suez Canal which is of vital importance to the world. …Accordingly the Allies shall continue taking measures with increasing force until peace is restored and the Canal is placed above political and national ambitions on the understanding that we are in a position to apply further force to attain our objective and shall do so if necessary. Our fighters and bombers are now flying over you. …The strong forces of the Allies intervened only in order to put an end to violence in Egypt, and to put the Canal under international control. There is a direct contradiction between the words of the Supreme Allied Command and those of the Prime Minister, and I do not suggest that either of them can be exonerated. I believe that on these and other issues a committee of inquiry is vital in order to determine why this situation arose.

Of course, the Prime Minister, on 3rd November—whether because he had heard "The Voice of Britain" or had changed his mind, I do not know—came out with it, and said: The second point which the right hon. Gentleman raised and with which I want to deal concerns his question of why we had included the Suez Canal in the second paragraph of our reply. We considered that carefully. The object—as I think hon. Members will see when they have had time to study the reply—is to show that we shall try to use this situation to deal with" all the outstanding problems in the Middle East, and it would be unwise to leave any one of them unresolved."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 3rd November, 1956; Vol. 558. c. 1867.] So we have the position, not only of "The Voice of Britain" flatly contradicting the Prime Minister, but of the Prime Minister contradicting himself. In those circumstances, it must have been quite impossible for those responsible for that broadcasting station to have had any directive at all from London. That sort of thing is technically disastrous. It weakens the appeal of the station and, in this case, revealed the true nature of the aggression to which this country has been committed.

I have time to mention only one other major point which has arisen out of a study of HANSARD and these transcripts, and that is the question of what sort of operation was this which we were undertaking at that moment. The Prime Minister said that this was a "police" action, and I quote now, not a HANSARD extract but from the Prime Minister's broadcast, to which I listened, and of which I have the official text. The broadcast was made on the night of Saturday, 3rd November, when the Prime Minister said: The Government knew, and they regretted it, that, this action would shock and hurt some people. The bombing of military targets—and military targets only—it's better to destroy machines on the ground, than let them destroy people from the air. We have to think of our troops, and of the inhabitants of the towns and villages. Later, we find a passage in which he said: All my life I've been a man of peace, working for peace, striving for peace … That was all meant to show to the British people that our attack on Egypt was designed solely to destroy the military establishments, and that, of course, humane considerations, above all, influenced our bomber pilots. But now we come to the broadcast of "The Voice of Britain," which began within a very few hours of the Prime Minister coming off the air in this country. He came off the air at 10.15 p.m. on the Saturday, and at 0525 hours on the Sunday, "The Voice of Britain" began broadcasting to the Egyptian soldiers as follows: Now listen carefully to us. You have hidden in small villages. Do you know what this means? It means that we are obliged to bomb you wherever you are. Imagine your villages being bombed. Imagine your wives" children, mothers, fathers and grandfathers escaping from their houses and leaving their property behind. This will happen to you if you hide behind your women in the villages. You are soldiers and duty requires that you defend your villages and not bring destruction upon them. You have nothing with which to defend yourselves. … We will find and bomb you wherever you hide. One thing which you can do is to wear civilian clothes. And go to your homes to see if any soldiers or tanks are concealed in your villages. Tell them to clear out before we come and destroy these villages. If they do not evacuate, there is no doubt that your villages and homes will be destroyed. Is that police action? Is that "The Voice of Britain"—which has been going out now for the last week or more? Is that technically, politically or morally right? Of course it is not. It produced in my mind a feeling of revulsion which, in my young life, I cannot recall ever having felt before. It is the voice of "Haw Haw" and of Nazi-type brutality. It demands an inquiry.

It demands an inquiry for one other reason. In the broadcast on the following day, the people were told—and I quote the transcript of the broadcast of Monday, 5th November. 1652 hours G.M.T.: Very soon it will be dark. Soldiers in Port Said, you are in a hopeless situation. Protect your lives. It is not your duty to die for your homeland. Your duty is to live and serve your homeland and return to your families and homes. The previous day they had been told that if they returned to their families and homes as soldiers their families and homes would be bombed. Is it right for a broadcasting station one day to say to the soldiers, "If you go home we will bomb your mothers, wives and children," and to say to them the next day, "Go home to your wives and children, it is your duty?" This is m the character of false news, which is, in itself, a crime.

I come now to one final point, which, from my point of view, has the most heavily charged emotional undertones of anything I have mentioned. As I said earlier, this radio station was originally a private enterprise Arab station, broadcasting to the Arab world until it was taken over. On Saturday, 3rd November, at 11.18 G.M.T.—I am afraid there is no explanation of this, although I will try to tell the House what I have heard subsequently—the following statement was broadcast. According to the monitoring report, it is called an "in person" statement by the director of the former Sharq Al-Adna Station. This is the broadcast: Being the Director of the former Sharq Al-Adna Station, I wish it to be known for our listeners in the Arab world that the Arab staff of the station are obliged under the circumstances existing in Cyprus to remain at work. Listeners must understand that while the feelings of the staff are naturally with their Arab brothers, they are no longer free agents. There is no question that the director of this station broke in on the microphone himself without the authority of the military and broadcast this appeal from his heart to his own brothers in Egypt, who were being at that moment bombed by the British. I rate this message as being quite as tragic as the last messages coming out of Budapest.

That man was compelled to broadcast this filthy propaganda to people who were of his own race and family, and who were being bombed by the British Indeed, as soon as this happened, the censorship in Cyprus clamped down and an order was given to newspaper correspondents that the words "Voice of Britain" were to be put on the stop list.

Mr. George Wigg (Dudley)

Will my hon. Friend ask the Government to give an assurance that no bodily harm has come to the man who made that broadcast?

Mr. Benn

My hon. Friend has touched on one of the many consequences of this business. I can only say that a newspaper correspondent with whom I have been in touch, and who arrived from Cyprus very recently, said that a rumour had gone round that there was trouble at the Arab station, that at that moment the military censorship forbade the use of the words "Voice of Britain" in any cables back home, that total censorship existed and that none of the British newspaper men were allowed to go to see "The Voice of Britain" station or how it operated.

I have said enough to justify a tribunal of inquiry, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) urged yesterday in the House.

Mr. Wigg

War criminals.

Mr. Benn

I believe that my right hon. and hon. Friends will not only put down a Motion demanding a tribunal of inquiry into the circumstances, but that if at any time they are in power they will enforce it to see that the people responsible for this—

Mr. Wigg

Are brought to trial.

Mr. Benn

—are brought to trial for what is clearly a criminal act.

Mr. Wigg

Hear, hear.

Mr. Benn

It has done terrible political damage to this country. It is morally wrong, and it is not the voice of Britain. I do not envy the Under-Secretary of State, who has to reply to this debate. The Foreign Secretary denied responsibility when I raised this matter in the House on Monday. The Minister of Defence was not willing to step in. Now, we are to have an answer from the deputy to the Secretary of State for War. I do not envy him, but there is one course open to him. Either he should repudiate, on behalf of Her Majesty's Government, the action of these men, although most of them, we know, were under duress imposed by the Government, or else the hon. Member should take the only course of honour open to him and follow the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and the Economic Secretary to the Treasury and resign.

I feel, and, I think, most people in the country when they hear this story will feel, that the greatest crime of all is to speak with a false voice in the name of Britain. I conceive that you, Mr. Speaker, are in a sense the voice of Britain. You derive your authority from a representative people. It is your job to supervise political change peacefully. It is your job to guarantee liberty of expression and liberty of conscience, and I like to see you, and in what you stand for, the true voice of this country. I desperately hope that we may soon have here a Government who are willing to repudiate these crimes and seek, slowly and painfully, to build up the good name of Britain.

4.20 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for War (Mr. Fitzroy Maclean)

I have been asked to reply. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) for having given me some notice of the main points which he intended to raise, but as this debate was arranged at very short notice I am not able to give him answers to all of them immediately.

I think it would not be a bad thing if, first, I said a word about how this station came to be used for the broadcasts to which the hon. Member has referred. It was, I think I am right in saying, a commercial broadcasting station. Under its licence it was possible for the Cyprus Government to make use of its facilities in time of emergency, and under that clause of the licence the facilities of the station were requisitioned for use by the Allied Commander-in-Chief in the present emergency.

The hon. Member has suggested that the director of the station made a broadcast claiming that he was in disagreement with this policy and giving the impression that there was duress involved. I think that is what the hon. Member said? I have no knowledge of that matter. The hon. Member mentioned it to me on the telephone this morning. He said there had been some such incident of that kind. I have not had time to investigate it, but I will certainly look into it without delay.

Mr. Wigg

Will the hon. Gentleman make a statement to the House as soon as he has ascertained that this man, if he is still alive, suffered no physical harm? Will he make a statement to the House to that effect?

Mr. Maclean

I will certainly investigate—

Mr. Wigg

Will the hon. Gentleman make a statement?

Mr. Maclean

I will investigate the matter. I have said that I will investigate the allegations made.

The broadcasts from which the hon. Member has quoted, which, I gather, form the main basis of his complaint, were made under the general authority of the Allied Commander-in-Chief, and he was acting under a general directive from Her Majesty's Government.

Mr. Benn

Which Minister?

Mr. Maclean

From the Government as a whole, but the Minister of Defence, I suppose, is the Minister immediately responsible.

Mr. Michael Stewart (Fulham)

Does the hon. Gentleman realise the seriousness of what he is saying, that what the Government have said in this House has been one thing, that what was said over "The Voice of Britain" contradicted it? Both those statements could not have been true. The hon. Gentleman has now told us both of them were made with the authority of the Government.

Mr. Maclean

I am coming to that point in a moment.

The terms of the general directive were that all possible use should be made of psychological means for the purpose—[Laughter.] It is all very well for the hon. Gentleman to laugh, but it was for the purpose of avoiding casualties.

Mr. Benn


Mr. Maclean

There has been a certain amount of divergency between the two sides of the House on the importance of that very thing. The broadcast from which the hon. Member has quo: ed invited Egyptian Army soldiers to do one of two things, either to go home and put on civilian clothes and become in fact civilians—in other words, to desert—or alternatively to keep away from towns and villages so long as they remained soldiers and so long as they had weapons with them, and to persuade other soldiers to do the same. The clear purpose of that broadcast was to keep down casualties all round; to keep down civilian casualties in the first place, and also to keep down Egyptian Army casualties, and to keep down our own casualties. I am sorry to say that hon. Members opposite have not shown great solicitude on that last point.

Hon. Members


Mr. Benn

Mr. Speaker, would you please ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw that? Everyone on this side of the House opposed this operation from the outset, and it is monstrous to suggest that we are not concerned about casualties.

Mr. Speaker

There is nothing to withdraw. It is all a matter of debate and expression of opinion. There are two sides to every question and it is my duty to see that they are both expressed.

Mr. Maclean

Hon. Members opposite have not shown as much solicitude as they might have done for the need to keep down British casualties. They have been kept down very largely owing to the skill and restraint with which these operations have been carried out. And I have only to refer to the remark of the Leader of the Opposition when he talked about a premature close to operations.

The hon. Member for Bristol, South-East, said that it was a contradiction to tell soldiers to go home and also tell them to keep away from their villages. That point is quite easily cleared up. We hoped, naturally, that they would lay down their arms and go home, but what we wanted to avoid was that they should go and take refuge, as they had done, in towns and villages and shelter behind the civilian population and inflict casualties on our own troops from that point of vantage. That was made clear in the broadcast to which I think the hon. Member is referring and which is in fact no contradiction whatsoever.

I ask hon. Members to realise that what matters in all this is what actually happened, and what actually happened is that never has greater care been taken in any military operations in history, not only to avoid civilian casualties, but also to inflict the fewest possible casualties on the opposing forces. It would have been quite easy to make absolutely sure of the landings and all that by heavy bombardment, but that we most carefully avoided. In this policy we were remarkably successful and there were remarkably few casualties all round.

These broadcasts, of which such a lot has been made, were designed to meet the tactical situation which faced the Commander-in-Chief at the time. They were designed to have an impact on a special audience and therefore they are not comparable with the statements of policy made by the Prime Minister. It is all very well to talk about Hitler and Goebbels and so on. The fact is that it is implied that we carried out these threats, but we did not carry them out. No towns or villages were bombed, and there were practically no civilian casualties at all and very few military casualties, fortunately, on either side.

I am perfectly glad to accept the assurances of hon. Members opposite that they are as concerned about casualties as we are—though they have not always shown it—and I am sure that hon. Members would not suggest that we should have been justified in neglecting any measure that would have the effect of saving British and Egyptian lives, even at the risk that these measures might be misinterpreted here. I would point out that these announcements have been carefully picked from a large number, most of which invited the civilian population to keep away from military targets.

I do not think that any military force has ever, even at possible prejudice to its own conduct of operations, been so scrupulously careful to give warning of the targets which it was going to attack before it attacked them, in order to give the civilian population time to get out. Surely hon. Members opposite would not suggest that we should have neglected this psychological means of reducing casualties even at the risk that our efforts would be misinterpreted and exaggerated for political ends.

The Question having been proposed after Four o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-nine minutes to Five o'clock.