HC Deb 17 December 1963 vol 686 cc1047-9

The following Question stood upon the Order Paper:

66. Mr. PAGET

To ask the Secretary of State for Air whether he will now make a statement about the circumstances attending the crash of a Belgian transport aircraft on the Sennelager range in Germany on 26th June.

The Secretary of State for Air (Mr. Hugh Fraser)

With permission, I will now answer Question No. 66.

The reports of the British and Belgian investigations into the accident to a Belgian C119 transport aircraft at Sennelager range, near Detmold, on 26th June, 1963, in which 38 Belgian Servicemen lost their lives, have now been received and studied.

The aircraft crashed after having been struck by a white phosphorous smoke mortar bomb. It had been flown across the line of fire of an active mortar range at a time when firing by a British Army unit was in progress. The range authorities ordered "cease fire" as soon as the aircraft was seen; but by this time the mortar bombs had been fired and were in the air.

The aircraft had come under the air traffic control of R.A.F. Gutersloh and was preparing to land there. The most careful inquiries have, therefore, been made to establish the circumstances in which it came to be over the range. This has been a difficult task involving many calculations based sometimes on conflicting data. The results must inevitably fall short of certainty. But the conclusion which has been reached, and which I fully accept, is that the aircraft was under close control by the Gutersloh ground control approach when it flew over the Sennelager range and was hit by a mortar bomb. Responsibility must, therefore, rest with the Royal Air Force.

The air traffic procedures at R.A.F. Gutersloh have been in operation for many years, as has the neighbouring range. Hitherto, their safety had not been doubted. But it has now been shown that safety margins were insufficient. I can assure the House that this has been put right. I have, moreover, given instructions for safety margins at all other R.A.F. stations to be rechecked.

The most careful consideration has been given to the question of individual responsibility. The Commander-in-Chief, Royal Air Force, Germany, has concluded, in the light of all the circumstances, that no individual officer was so blameworthy as to be deserving of punishment. I agree with this view. The system itself, after many years of successful operation, is now seen to have been based on insufficient safety margins. As I have said, these have now been increased.

Her Majesty's Government wish to express again their deep regret for this tragedy and the heavy loss of life. Arrangements have been made to consider urgently claims for compensation from the next of kin.

Mr. Paget

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we on this side join with him in a sense of deep sympathy with the victims of this appalling tragedy and in the sense of contrition that we should have been responsible? Is he further aware that this was an accident in which the odds were millions to one against, and is he aware, also, that we are glad that no individual has been made a scapegoat for the tragedy? It would be an appalling thing to place responsibility for it on any one man's shoulders unless he were plainly guilty of a substantial neglect.

Can the right hon. Gentleman assure us that the dependants of the dead will receive compensation at least as generous as that to which they would be entitled under their own Belgian law?

Mr. Fraser

I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for what he has said. I am sure that, in so far as these people can be adequately compensated, it will be done.