HC Deb 18 February 1959 vol 600 cc503-12

Motion made, and Question proposed. That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. J. E. B. Hill]

10.23 p.m.

Sir Charles Taylor (Eastbourne)

It is more in sorrow than in anger that I raise tonight the question of the disbanding of the Mobile Defence Corps. I believe that great grief and great disappointment have been occasioned by the decision of the War Office and Her Majesty's Government in this matter. I believe also that the decision which has been taken will fundamentally prove to be a great disservice to the country.

I ask the question, who were the men who formed the Mobile Defence Corps and what did these men do? I know that they consisted of solicitors, bank managers, a bricklayer, a carpenter perhaps, and so on and so forth. In fact, they were men who were drawn from every walk of life, who were giving some sort of voluntary service to the community. I ask also tonight what was the cost of maintaining this Mobile Defence Corps, with all the cameraderie and good spirit which was engendered within its ranks? I believe that the cost must have been extremely small, and that, in the whole cost of defence, the amount which the Mobile Defence Corps cost public funds must have been what the Americans would have called "peanuts."

What will happen to these men? Some of them, perhaps, were too old or had too many commitments for them to give greater time and service to the Territorial Army, but they were men who were brought up in the traditions of the Territorial Army and who wished to continue some sort of voluntary service. They had an urge, as it were, to do good for their fellow human beings. They were men who had, perhaps, served in one or even two wars, who were prepared to go on serving in this very worthy cause of the Mobile Defence Corps.

At the other end of the scale, there were the National Service men, young men who had completed their National Service but who wanted to continue, in some form or other, their military or part-military training, men who wanted to do something for their country in their spare time, but whose commitments, perhaps as young men starting in business or in the professions, meant that they were unable to give sufficient time to continue in the Territorial Army. The Mobile Defence Corps met the desires of men of that type, men who were prepared and were able to give as much time as they could, but who were not able to give as much time as the old pre-war. Territorial soldier gave before the war.

I went to watch a two-day exercise which took place on a Saturday and Sunday in Sussex, and I saw these men doing their work. They were as keen and enthusiastic as any men could possibly be. I watched them, and I heard that on the Saturday and Sunday they worked very hard. On the Saturday evening, there was great camaraderie in their get-together, the spirit which they knew when they were serving in the Army. Their wives were keen to give them all the support and help they possibly could in the voluntary service they were giving. On the Saturday evening, the men met together with their wives, and, during the rest of that Saturday and Sunday, they worked hard on the job required of them. Coming back to London after watching that exercise, I could not help comparing what I had seen with the long queue of "Teddy boys" and others waiting for the cinemas to open—men who were giving no voluntary service to the community whatever.

It may be said that the Civil Defence Corps will do everything that the Mobile Defence Corps could do, and that all these men have to do is to transfer their allegiance to the Civil Defence Corps. I do not believe that that is the right answer at all. I believe that the Mobile Defence Corps would have been able to turn its weight to almost any job in time of emergency. May no emergency ever arise again; but, had an emergency arisen, the Mobile Defence Corps, with the spirit of friendship and service which those men had shown, would have proved itself very useful, and the country would have seen once again that this kind of man was the salt of the earth.

We are in danger of killing the spirit of voluntary service in our country. There used to be people who helped in voluntary hospital work and other activities. Then the hospitals were taken over by the State and much voluntary service was killed. There are today very few things to which people can really devote their energy and in which they can give worthwhile voluntary service. The Mobile Defence Corps was doing that, and at very small cost to the nation. The decision to disband the Corps is a great disservice to the country. The country will lose from the fact that these men have had all their initiative, enterprise and enthusiasm killed, and I hope very much that even at this late stage the Government will change their mind.

10.31 p.m.

Colonel Sir Malcolm Stoddart-Scott (Ripon)

I wish to associate myself with every word that my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Sir C. Taylor) has uttered. If we are to have the Hi-bomb as a deterrent in this country we have also got to be prepared for defence against the H-bomb. We shall have to have not only an active defence, which can be provided for us by the R.A.F., but a passive defence which can be provided not only by civil defence but by the Army units stationed in this country.

Civil defence is organised on a local authority basis and, therefore, it is not mobile and is not 100 per cent. efficient. When we had the Mobile Defence Corps we had a mobile disciplined organisation which could go quickly to the rescue and be a reserve force for the civil defence organisation. I am sure the Under-Secretary of State for War will tell us that the Territorial Army units are nominated to replace the Mobile Defence Corps in their liaison with civil defence and in providing first-aid treatment one year in four in Territorial training. I hope that that one year when the Territorial units have to do civil defence and first-aid will not be a black year when the annual camps are unpopular and badly attended.

It is not advantageous to have liaison with the civil defence authorities only one year in four. It must be frequent enough to be efficient. I remember that in the Territorial Army for many years first-aid training was at a very low state. In the Mobile Defence Corps it was extremely high and I cannot see how we can improve much in the Territorial Army if the work of the Mobile Defence corps is only to be done by the Territorials one year in every four.

The Mobile Defence Corps utilised men in rather a valuable age group, from 35 to 55 years of age. The Territorial Army seems to attract men more from the 20 to 40 age group. There are many men, as my hon. Friend has said, who were prepared to serve Her Majesty in the Mobile Defence Corps but who are not prepared to serve a local authority in the civil defence organisation. Therefore, the disbanding of these units has meant a considerable loss of manpower to our forces.

I, like my hon. Friend, have seen some of these Mobile Defence Corps exercises and I must say that I have been very impressed by their training and tradition, and the way in which they liaise so successfully with the local authorities and the civil defence organisation. I believe that that tradition, efficiency and wonderful liaison which existed has got to be retained somehow at the same level by the Territorial Army, and I do not believe it is possible for the Territorial Army to do it if the men do civil defence liaison only one year in every four.

I should have thought that a much better way was by allocating one company of each Territorial battalion or one battery of each Territorial regiment which could be permanently allocated to civil defence duties. Such companies or batteries could use men of a higher age group, they could be rapidly expanded if there were mobilisation, they could cooperate continuously with civil defence all through the year, and they could mobilise outside target areas and not in the big cities such as Leeds and Bradford where most of our Territorial units in Yorkshire have their headquarters.

We think it terribly important that the War Office and all our staff officers, and especially our Regular Army officers, should realise that unless the Army is fully prepared to play its part in cooperation with civil defence in what may be a battle for survival, there may never be a chance for the field forces to mobilise and no chance whatever for the forces to fight in the field.

I have the very greatest admiration for the loyalty, devotion and work done by the Mobile Defence Corps. I think it was beyond praise. I know that we live in changing times, in times of transition, and that one ought not to be opposed to new methods, new units, new formations and new rôles, but I hope that the Under-Secretary is not only of the opinion but absolutely convinced that the change is a change for the better and not for the worse.

10.37 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for War (Mr. Hugh Fraser)

I wish to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Sir C. Taylor) for having raised the question of the Mobile Defence Corps this evening, especially as it gives me an opportunity to express the great appreciation and gratitude of the War Office for the services performed by the Corps. That appreciation, of course, has already been recorded by the Chief of the General Staff and by others at the War Office, but 1 think it only proper—and I am pleased to have this opportunity of doing so—to express the views of myself and of the War Office.

We realise, of course, that it is galling to those people who in a high spirit of public service have volunteered for the Mobile Defence Corps. It is especially galling when one realises that quite a few of these volunteers were people who had already suffered the abolition of Anti-Aircraft Command and the standing down of the Home Guard. But let me say at once that the reason for disbanding the Mobile Defence Corps is not because of the failure of the Corps in any way. Indeed, as my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Ripon (Sir M. Stoddart-Scott) so rightly said, it is essential that the whole Army should understand the question of civil defence and co-operation with the civil authorities.

I am sure that all those concerned at the War Office would agree that the Corps has been of immense importance in its short three years of existence, first, in producing new techniques for heavy rescue and casualty clearance, and, secondly, for building up a most valuable code of collaboration between the civil powers and the military. These three years have not in any way been wasted. Indeed, the teaching of the Army today, both the Regular and the Territorial Army, is based largely on the experience, expertise and wisdom put into its work by this Corps.

The reason for the abolition of the Mobile Defence Corps is simply that now we propose to end National Service. This is the simple and basic fact. The Mobile Defence Corps was an amalgam of volunteers and of National Service men, and it flows inevitably from our decision, which I am sure is the right decision, that if we are to have a purely Regular Army, then automatically the National Service people will not be available.

As hon. Members will recall, thirty-six Mobile Defence Corps battalions were to be formed in the Army Emergency Reserve. Thirty-three were formed up to the end of 1958, and of the 14,000 or so men enrolled less than 15 per cent. were volunteers. It was clear, therefore, that with the ending of National Service this essential rô1e would have to be taken over by some other body. This was made even more necessary by the fact that from 1956 onwards, as National Service men on the Reserve ceased to attend camps, it was impossible, except in exceptional cases or in units of exceptional efficiency, to gather together a whole battalion or even a majority of a battalion for training.

Of course, various suggestions have been put forward on what should have been done, including the thought expressed by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Ripon, that detachments, such as companies or troops of the Mobile Defence Corps battalions, should be absorbed into the Territorial Army. My department has given very serious consideration to this suggestion that members of the Mobile Defence Corps should, so to speak, be transferred as specialist soldiers to the Territorial Army battalions or regiments. This course has been rejected, first on the ground of the difficulty of training—my hon. and gallant Friend, as a commander of a Territorial unit, will be fully aware of the problems of individual drill halls in some areas—and, secondly, because the Territorial Army as such must be prepared to deal with home defence in all its aspects.

For similar reasons the possibility of transferring all the Mobile Defence Corps battalions to the Territorial Army was rejected.

The only other answer, I believe—and this is the one which we have adopted—was that the Territorial Army should add a specialisation in Civil Defence to its already existing rôle.

Accordingly, as announced in the House on 3rd December of last year, field artillery and infantry units will be given advanced training in Civil Defence techniques. This will be in addition to the light rescue and first-aid instruction which all Regular and Territorial Army units include in their normal training.

I know my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Ripon says that sufficient attention has not been paid in the past to these vital rôles, and I am sure that he speaks with immense knowledge, both of the Medical Corps and of the Army as a whole. But I believe that now, faced as we are by the huge variety of problems and threats, the Army is resolved, from the top to the lower organisations to see that the vital matter of rescue and other functions which have to be performed are an essential and main part of its work. The proposal to train Territorial Army units in this special rôle of civil defence will cover nearly all units in the Territorial Army, apart from those with an immediate overseas rôle. They will be trained in what is best described as heavy rescue work.

As my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Ripon pointed out, the Territorial Army training is divided into a four-year cycle. Each unit will, in rotation, be allotted in one of these years' to civil defence training. This year, 25 Territorial units will be undergoing this training, and next year the number will be not less than 33. This will mean that units undergo this training once every four years.

My hon. and gallant Friend suggested that this would not be sufficient. I agree that he has made a case and I will certainly look into it to ensure that the four-year cycle includes refresher courses. When, however, we have this general concentration on these great problems, plus a two weeks' camp in one of the civil defence training centres, such as Millom, in Cumberland, or Epsom, and refresher courses in addition, I believe that the Territorial Army will be more than able to play its part in civil defence. I think that on the whole, the House will agree that this is the best solution.

The maximum number of men we could have trained under the Mobile Defence Corps would have been 29,500. Under the proposed dispensation, we will be training nearly three times as many men in this vital rôle.

I believe it to be better also from the general point of view of civil defence. It will mean greater flexibility for civilian regional directors and for the Commander-in-Chief designate of the United Kingdom Land Forces, who will have under him more versatile troops capable of meeting the wide range of vicissitudes, and combinations and permutations thereof, which it may be his or their lot to repel in the event of massive high explosive or atomic bombardment.

From the point of organisation also, 1 believe this system to be preferable. By its very territorial nature, the Territorial Army is less subject to total disruption and is also well provided with its own wireless and vehicle organisations. In this connection, I should tell the House that the task of the medical sections of the Mobile Defence Corps battalions will now be taken over by the Territorial Army divisional field ambulances. These will be backed to the fullest possible extent by the divisional transport companies. It is fair to say that we believe this to be the most efficient organisation and that it is in any case a reorganisation imposed upon us by the ending of National Service.

Both of my hon. Friends have raised the question of what happens to ex-members of the mobile Defence Corps, who in the last three or four years have gained valuable experience. As I have said, this experience will be utilised in the training programmes which we propose for the Territorial Army. As my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne pointed out, however, there is here an important personal problem.

Whilst National Service personnel remain on call, they will be earmarked for mobilisation to Territorial Army units with this special rôle. As both my hon. Friends have said, however, the problem of volunteers is more complicated. Some 2,000 officers and other ranks have volunteered for this service. There are two types of national service in which they could well be engaged. First, there is the Territorial Army, and I am glad to say that already forty-four officers have asked for transfer to this army. Secondly, there is the civil defence organisation. Whatever my hon. Friends may say, that is one of the most necessary and important armies in the country. There the skill and expertise of these men will be of immense value. We have, accordingly, tried to get in contact with each individual and put forward these two possibilities.

I should like to conclude on a note both of sympathy and of hope. As for sympathy, for the Regular Army and for the Territorial Army, this period of the last ten years has been most difficult. There have been inevitable disappointments as we have tried to meet the challenges of the immediate future and the anticipation of technical and revolutionary changes in warfare. These disappointments have, on the whole, been received stoically, and the decisions taken have been loyally accepted.

Now I think that we are beginning to see the emergence of a pattern of defence abroad and at home which is really efficient and which, by 1962, will be based entirely on the principle of voluntary service. Already, the Territorial Army is more than 100,000 strong, and it is growing. I believe that, in giving it this new rôle so vital to us all, we can be assured that the Territorial Army will take it in its ample stride.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eight minutes to Eleven o'clock.

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