HC Deb 11 July 1961 vol 644 cc210-7

The following Question stood upon the Order Paper:

96. Mr. G. BROWN

To ask the Minister of Defence if he will make a statement about the military operation in Kuwait; and, in view of the difficult conditions under which the British forces are serving, what arrangements are being made for the welfare of the forces and their early replacement.

The Minister of Defence (Mr. Harold Watkinson)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will now answer Question No. 96.

Yes, Sir. As the House already knows, at the Ruler's request we were successful in deploying a reinforced brigade group in Kuwait in six days. This was a very creditable achievement by all concerned. In mounting such an operation at very short notice, troops were bound to meet some initial hardship, but they have taken it in their stride.

Heat is, of course, the main problem. Even so, the number of cases of heat exhaustion has been on an average only 12 a day needing hospital treatment. I am glad to be able to tell the House that the medical facilities available are very comprehensive. Where those in Kuwait are not adequate, provision exists for evacuation, either to Bahrein or Aden, or to H.M.S. "Bulwark". There has been only one fatal casualty; this was accidental.

A great deal is being done by the Services themselves, by the Ruler of Kuwait and by the Kuwait Oil Company, to provide creature comforts. Beer and soft drinks with ice are being made available in large quantities, and a free issue of 50 cigarettes a week has already been approved for the first fortnight of the operation. Arrangements are being made for the forces to have film shows, and newspapers and books are being flown out. There is a plentiful supply of fresh water and salt tablets.

I have asked my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for War to take a small party to Kuwait to see whether anything further should be done.

As to the future, two companies of the Coldstream Guards and a Hunter squadron have already been withdrawn. We shall withdraw further forces as soon as the situation allows and rotate those that remain as frequently as possible.

What I have said represents only a bare outline of both the operation itself and of the measures being taken to improve the lot of the troops. With permission, I will circulate further details in the OFFICIAL REPORT.

Mr. Brown

May I thank the Minister of Defence for making that statement and say, on behalf of all my right hon. and hon. Friends, that, whatever our views about the operation itself, we all understand the problem with which our troops out there have to contend? We admire the way in which they are doing it and applaud very much their courage in very tough and difficult circumtances.

I want to ask the right hon. Gentleman some questions. He referred to frequent rotation. How long does that mean that a soldier will have to serve in what must be for us incredibly difficult conditions out there in the sand, away from Kuwait City and Ahmadi? How long will he be there before he is able to get back for a little relaxation? How long will anybody have to serve in Kuwait before he is relieved by someone from Kenya, from here, or from somewhere else? Has the right hon. Gentleman considered how we can reduce the size of the force we have there, which, on the whole, looks rather over-gunned for the operation?

Mr. Watkinson

I think that the right hon. Gentleman has misunderstood what I said about rotation. Rotation within the theatre is now going on. For example, the right hon. Gentleman will see from the much fuller notes which I am circulating that a rest camp by the sea for 500 troops opens today. He will see a long list of things which are being done. For example, some men are being flown back to "Bulwark" for a night's sleep and a clean up. He will see quite a long list of things done within the theatre. I cannot make any detailed statement on the rotation of troops from elsewhere to the theatre. I agree that it is necessary and my original statement was intended to show that we clearly recognise the need for this.

As to the number of forces there, as I have said we have already withdrawn two companies and a Hunter squadron. We shall be only too happy to withdraw more forces or all the forces as soon as the Ruler considers that his position is secure.

Sir H. Legge-Bourke

While entirely endorsing the congratulations my right hon. Friend expressed for the way in which the operation had been carried out, may I ask him whether he is aware of the very serious concern which is felt by a great number of us about the appalling slenderness of our reserves and the tenuousness of the lines of communications to our troops in Kuwait? Would he, therefore, give an assurance that he will resist with all the power he possibly can any attempt by the Chancellor of the Exchequer to reduce the expenditure on defence?

Mr. Watkinson

That is quite another matter.

Mr. Wigg

Will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind in the arrangements he has made that the worst is yet to come and that the temperatures in this area will rise between now and the second week in August?

Before the operation was undertaken did the War Office consult Professor Woodruff, the Army's Consultant on Tropical Medicine? Did it consult Dr. Cuthbertson, the Army's Consultant on Physiology and Nutrition, because is it not generally considered that heat hyperexia should not occur if the precautions and diet are competently handled? Did the Government take any steps to consult Professor Maegraith, who has done research on the spot into extreme heat conditions in the Kuwait area?

Would the right hon. Gentleman be good enough to say whether the War Office has yet authorised Brigadier Horsford to spend £250 a day on soft drinks, because he complained last week that he was unable to get authorisation for this?

Mr. Watkinson

I quite agree with the hon. Gentleman about the problems of heat. A very large proportion of the statement I am circulating, which is far too long to read to the House, is devoted to a detailed description of the medical facilities. They are very large. They allow quick evacuation to air-conditioned hospitals. There are specialist services dealing with the problems of heat exhaustion. The situation is reasonably adequately covered. If it is not, the Under-Secretary of State for War will no doubt report on this as soon as he returns, but I think that it is covered.

Perhaps I can best answer the other question the hon. Gentleman asked by saying that I think that all the reasonable needs of the troops are now being met. On the whole, this operation was carried out with expedition and efficiency. Most of the problems, although they are severe—I accept that—were thought about in advance.

Mr. F. Harris

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the operation has proved without question the vital need of our bases in East Africa?

Mr. Watkinson

I think that the operation shows that we have to have mobile, well-trained forces quickly available to bring to any trouble spot. At least this operation has demonstrated that we have those.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

How much a week is this adventure costing us?

Mr. Watkinson

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will table a Question.

Mr. Wigg

Will the right hon. Gentleman consider asking the Leader of the House to arrange an early day for a debate, because whilst we want to do nothing whatever to embarrass those on the spot there are some questions about this operation which need to be asked and answered?

Mr. Farey-Jones

As this Question deals with the welfare of our troops, may I ask my right hon. Friend to give every possible facility to the Malcolm Clubs organisation which exists at Bahrein, for which we have already augmented our staff? The staff are prepared to work in Kuwait in the cause of our troops.

Mr. Watkinson

My hon. Friend will find that the long statement being circulated contains a list of the facilities which will be available and I understand that probably the Malcolm Clubs will be among them.

Mr. G. Brown

May I ask two other questions which seem to arise out of this? First, is it not clear that, although we have managed the operation, it has used up all our transport aircraft facilities? Is the right hon. Gentleman giving thought to the issue which would arise if we had to mount another operation at the same time? Should we have the transport aircraft to do it with? Secondly, arising out of what was said yesterday about coming out of Kuwait, is he giving thought to how we get the force out when the time comes to do it?

Mr. Watkinson

In answer to the second part of the question, the Commander-in-Chief is already preparing a properly phased withdrawal plan. In answer to the first part of the question, I do not agree with the right hon. Gentleman. Transport Command of the Royal Air Force was not excessively overloaded, as can be seen from the fact that we were very quickly able to divert it to move the 19th Brigade to Kenya.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

On a point of order. In view of the unsatisfactory nature of the reply to my question, I beg to give notice that I will raise the matter on the Adjournment at the earliest possible moment.

Following are the details:

Following General Qasim's announcement on 28th June, 1961, of his intention to annex Kuwait, the Ruler asked Her Majesty's Consul-General in Kuwait on the morning of Friday, 30th June, for military assistance. It was decided, in the light of indications that Iraqi forces in the Basra area were being reinforced with tanks that it was vital to get some forces in their quickly. The first landings were, therefore, made on the morning of Saturday, 1st July, and the forces which moved into Kuwait that day consisted of 42 Royal Marine Commando from H.M.S. "Bulwark", a squadron of Centurion tanks of the 3rd Carabiniers embarked in H.M.S. "Striker" and L.S.T. "Empire Gull", and by No. 8 Squadron R.A.F. Hunter fighter-bombers. These were supported by No. 208 Squadron R.A.F. Hunters and Nos. 13 and 37 Squadrons operating from bases in the Persian Gulf, and by the frigates H.M.S. "Loch Alvie" and H.M.S. "Meon". Landing ships and landing craft of the Royal Navy and civlian-manned landing ships were engaged on bringing in vehicles and stores.

By the evening of 2nd July, the ground forces in Kuwait had been built up by the flying in of two companies of the Coldstream Guards, 45 Royal Marine Commando, and by the arrival of additional tanks, together with armoured cars of the 11th Hussars, whilst additional Hunter and Canberra aircraft were available for immediate operations. The Headquarters of 24 Infantry Brigade had also arrived under the Brigade Commander, Brigadier D. G. T. Horsford.

The following two days saw the arrival by air of the 2nd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, and advance elements of 24 Brigade, including units of the Royal Artillery and the Royal Engineers. The build-up of our force was substantially complete by Thursday, 6th July, by which time the 1st Battalion, The King's Regiment and the 1st Battalion, the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers had arrived. Meanwhile, the naval strength had been increased by the arrival in the Persian Gulf of the frigates H.M.S. "Loch Fyne", and H.M.S. "Loch Ruthven" the aircraft carrier H.M.S. "Victorious", from the Far East station, with a destroyer and frigate escort, was available in support if required.

The crews of the transport aircraft and of the Canadair transports of the Royal Rhodesian Air Force which were placed freely at our diposal at the outset of the operation, as well as of a number of charter aircraft, put up a splendid performance in the face of considerable difficulties, including adverse weather in Kuwait itself. The air crews were well supported in all this by their ground crews.

It says much for the skill and efficiency with which this operation was carried out by all concerned that, in the space of only six days and with only a minimum of warning, this considerable force, complete with all the necessary supporting arms, equipment and stores, was assembled, deployed and ready in all respects for action. Great credit for this is due to the Commander-in-Chief. Middle East, Air Marshal Sir Charles Elworthy, who was in command of the operation, and to his subordinate commanders and staffs. The commanders and staffs at Headquarters, Near East Command in Cyprus, at the Far East Headquarters in Singapore, and in East Africa also faithfully played their part, as did the Ministry of Defence and the Service Ministries here in Whitehall, and the many people elsewhere in this country who were involved. It should also be mentioned that the communications staffs have dealt magnificently with the immense load of urgent signal traffic, in spite of great difficulties arising from adverse radio propagation conditions.

No description of the operation would be complete without a tribute to the individual sailors, soldiers and airmen on the spot, who responded so promptly to the demands made upon them. They took all difficulties in their stride.

The main hardship has been the heat. The number of cases of heat exhaustion however has been surprisingly small, and there have been on average only 12 cases a day evacuated to hospitals, well under 1 per cent. of the total force. All major units have medical services attached to them. In addition, a field ambulance, a medical unit in which there are 7 doctors, is responsible for controlling collection and evacuation of sick soldiers. Heat casualties are evacuated by road or helicopter to the civil hospitals in Kuwait, and from there serious cases may be taken by air to the R.A.F. hospitals in Bahrein and Aden. There is, in addition, in Kuwait a heat casualty treatment centre which is a medical unit specifically trained and experienced in the treatment of heat casualties, and which is air-conditioned. The civil hospitals in Kuwait have a fully trained and experienced staff available for advice on the prevention and treatment of heat effects. It also is air-conditioned, and fully equipped for this purpose. H.M.S. "Bulwark" too is air-conditioned, and certain cases are being evacuated to her. Service specialists are available in Aden and Bahrein, who are expert in these hyperpyrexial diseases and senior consultants in hygiene and medicine are available at all times, both in the Near East and United Kingdom, to fly out to the Persian Gulf if necessary.

Diet is an important factor in the prevention of heat exhaustion. Information in London is that no difficulty is being experienced in providing a palatable and adequate ration. A sufficient supply of water and of salt is vital. Salt tablets are being issued and an adequate supply of good drinking water to meet heavy requirements is available. Cold drinks and ice are included in the ration, and there is a supplemenary issue of ice in addition. Fresh bread has been issued daily since D + 1 and fresh fruit since D + 2. A plentiful supply of soft drinks is available. The main limiting factor has been the lack of refrigeration. This is now being overcome. Apart from what is being done by the Services themselves, the Ruler of Kuwait has generously given a free issue of 3 bottles of soft drink a day with ice. Local Kuwaiti firms, including the Kuwait Oil Company, have also been very liberal in giving assistance.

All troops now serving in Kuwait have been thoroughly briefed on the elementary techniques to be adopted in avoiding the effects of heat. Many of the troops were of course already acclimatised to heat. The medical officers of units from the United Kingdom were fully briefed on this problem before leaving.

On the welfare side, a great deal has been done. A N.A.A.F.I. party left the United Kingdom by air on 6th July and it is hoped that they will be operating to some extent this week. In the meantime, N.A.A.F.I. stores in bulk arrived in Kuwait last week to supplement those taken in by units. These stores included adequate supplies of beer and cigarettes. A free ration of 50 cigarettes a week for each man has been approved for the first fortnight of the operation, and beer is on sale under unit canteen facilities. Arrangements have been made to fly out newspapers and books, and a special grant of money has been made available for the purchase of extra sports equipment locally. The Kuwait Oil Company operate 8 cinemas to which they are prepared to admit troops under local arrangements. The R.A.F. Cinema Corporation has also flown out extra cinema projectors. Forward troops may despatch mail free of postage up to 16th July and from then onwards any troops in Kuwait will be able to despatch mail at United Kingdom rates. In addition, the Council of Voluntary Welfare Workers have offered a mobile canteen, staffed by the Salvation Army, as soon as it can be moved there, and the Malcolm Clubs are prepared to set up facilities when suitable conditions and facilities can be provided. A seaside tented rest-camp is being built which is being occupied today by 500 men of all Services. An air-conditioned camp for a further 500 men has been offered by the Kuwait Oil Company and has been accepted for use as a rest-camp in 10 days' time. The Oil Company is providing further hospitality at Ahmadi for 370 all-ranks daily in air-conditioned private houses and clubs including the use of swimming clubs. 200 men daily are sent to H.M.S. "Bulwark" for a clean-up and rest. Laundry contracts have been arranged for the whole force.

A senior Inter-Service team from H.Q. Middle East (Aden) went to Kuwait last week to make an on-the-spot study about conditions and welfare. The small party under the Under- Secretary of State for War is due in Kuwait on 12th July, and will consider what further can be done. Meanwhile, the Commander-in- Chief has been authorised to provide all the amenities and creature comforts that he can.