HC Deb 11 May 1964 vol 695 cc32-7
Mr. Healey

(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Defence whether he will make a further statement on the operations in the Federation of Southern Arabia.

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Peter Thorneycroft)

No military engagements of any consequence have occurred during the last few days. Traffic is moving freely on the Aden/Dhala road. The initial objective of the operation has, therefore, been achieved. The present phase of the operation is one of consolidation and reconnaissance in the area to the east of the road, where positions are still held by hostile tribesmen.

As the House knows, my right hon. Friend the Colonial Secretary is in Aden now discussing the situation with the High Commissioner and the Commander-in-Chief. I do not think that there is anything that I can usefully add until he has reported on his visit.

Mr. Healey

We would all, on both sides, wish to express our admiration of the courage, skill and endurance of the British troops who are fighting under appalling conditions, but we are rather disturbed at the reported shortage of helicopters in this campaign, which was a serious deficiency also in the Borneo campaign. Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us something about this? We are also disturbed by the evident confusion in political direction of operations by Her Majesty's Government. I should like to ask one or two questions about this.

First, can the Secretary for Defence give a final answer on the question of the authorisation of the bombing with 1,000-lb. bombs? He will be aware that it was stated by the local commander that authorisation was sought of the Secretary of State for Defence in Whitehall, and was given, but this was denied yesterday to the Press by the Ministry of Defence, who said that such authority was neither sought nor required. I gather that there has been another statement since then. It is rather disturbing that there should be an obvious confusion between the local command and London about precisely what is or is not proper without reference to London.

Secondly, can the right hon. Gentleman throw more light on the resignation of the British commander of the Federal forces, who served for only a fortnight? It is said that he resigned because the Federal forces, once handed over to the Federal Government, were inadequately supplied and were not getting adequate financial assistance from Her Majesty's Government. Can the Secretary of State for Defence tell us something about this?

Mr. Thorneycroft

The last point is a quite separate one from the operations. One is concerned with the arrangements for the logistics and administration of the Federal forces. A team of Defence and Colonial Office representatives is examining the matter now. If the hon. Member will put down a Question on that separate point, I will answer it separately.

I agree that in this as in other operations, helicopters have proved of the greatest use. They have been used to the full and we are taking all necessary measures to ensure that adequate numbers are available.

With regard to the use of bombs, the Government gave full authority for our troops to be supported in this operation by all necessary means. I should like to make it absolutely plain that we have no intention of committing troops to battle without seeing that the commanders on the spot have complete authority to give them necessary cover to minimise casualties. That authority was given for this operation generally. It was not necessary to seek it for this act of bombing. The authority was given for the operation.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

Since Mr. Khrushchev has been sounding forth about the bombs to which the hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) has referred, will the Government ensure that the fullest possible publicity is given at the United Nations and in the world at large to the barbarous cruelty of the bombing done by the MiGS and the Ilyushin aircraft given by the Russians to the Egyptians in the Yemen?

Mr. Thorneycroft

Fairly wide publicity has been given to the continuous bombing of tribesmen in the Yemen, including the use of napalm, but I certainly note what my hon. Friend has said.

Mr. Grimond

While nobody would wish to embarrass the troops during the course of this difficult operation, can the Minister assure us that when it is over he will represent to his colleagues that there should be a reconsideration of our responsibilities in the area and of the method of how peace and progress are to be assured? Secondly, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there is anxiety in the country that the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations should have to leave London at this crucial moment for other negotiations? Will the Government, in due course, consider the situation in the Commonwealth Relations Office?

Mr. Thorneycroft

I quite agree that there are political problems in the area, but it serves little purpose to pretend that it is possible for political consideration to be given to problems of this character unless and until military control of an area is obtained. That is a prerequisite and I hope very much that that situation will not be blurred by vague and rather waffly talk of a possible political solution.

Mr. P. Williams

Will my right hon. Friend find a way of expressing to the relatives of those who have been killed in the fighting the sympathy of this House, more particularly because of the way these matters have been reported in the Press from time to time?

Will my right hon. Friend also give a clear and precise undertaking to the House that anything that is carried out in the South Arabian Federation will be for the defence of British interests and that, should there be further incursions from across the border, the British Government will feel free to supply arms, if need be, to the Royalist forces in the Yemen, which is the régime that we recognise?

Mr. Thorneycroft

I think that it would be the feeling of the whole House that we extend our deepest sympathy to the relatives of men who were killed fighting gallantly in operations of this character.

Certainly, it is our purpose to defend British interests, although I think that in this area interests even wider than the narrow interests of this country are served by the actions which are now taking place. Operations over the frontier are a quite separate question. I am concerned here, as is the Question, with gaining control within our territory.

Mr. Shinwell

Are we to understand from the Secretary of State's reply to the Leader of the Liberal Party that the Government are not concerned about seeking possible political solutions? Will the right hon. Gentleman explain his statement that the visit of the Commonwealth Secretary is to ascertain the military position? If a member of the Government has been sent out to ascertain the military position, should it have been the Commonwealth Secretary? Should it not have been somebody associated with the Secretary of State's own Department? Can the right hon. Gentleman explain why the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations has been sent and what he is authorised to do?

Mr. Thorneycroft

I was very far from saying—it is within the recollection of the House—that political problems do not arise in this area. Political advances must be sought. Indeed, it is for that, among other reasons, that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is there at this moment. What I did say, and I re-emphasise it, was this, that political solutions are not possible unless military control is obtained in a situation of this kind. There are too many people who are willing to talk loosely of political solutions and thus detract from the need of the supporting action which is going on.

Sir T. Beamish

In view of the fact that a charge was made yesterday in Cairo that an imperial Power had been dropping bombs on towns and villages in the Yemen, will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to make it absolutely clear that apart from the attack on the Yemeni fort at Harib, the nearest village being half a mile away from the fort and the attack being carried out with the greatest accuracy, there have been no attacks with British bombs on any single village or any town in the Yemen?

Mr. Thorneycroft

No bombs have been dropped on the Yemen. The attack at Fort Harib was not a bombing raid at all. It was a rocket attack. These operations, are, of course, all fairly and squarely within the territory of the Federation.

Mr. Healey

Yes, but surely, for that reason, the prime responsibility for dealing with the incidents should lie on the Federal army itself? I do not think that the House would easily accept the view expressed by the right hon. Gentleman that the situation in the Federal regular army is irrelevant to what is going on.

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he will promise the House a statement, before the Recess, on the reasons for Brigadier Williams's resignation and the steps which have been taken to produce a more efficient regular army? It is possible.

Secondly, may I ask him this? We all agree that we do not want to make the task of our troops on the ground more difficult, but he will agree that an armed conflict sometimes arises because political and economic issues are not properly dealt with. Can he tell us, since he referred to the visit of the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations and for the Colonies, whether his right hon. Friend is to look at the extremely contentious question of the situation of the Federation and whether he is empowered to offer more economic aid to the inhabitants of the Federation, since it was not the Leader of the Liberal Party but the Secretary for the Interior of the Federal Republic who said that the main reason for the revolt was the inadequacy of the economic aid?

Sir K. Pickthorn

On a point of order. May we be told how long, how varied, how relevant or irrelevant debating points are to be, and still pretend to be supplementary questions?

Mr. Speaker

All that I am allowed to permit on these occasions are a few questions. The length of the questions asked limits the opportunity for other Members to ask them, because I can allow only a few. The Private Notice Question for which leave was given was relevant to operations. I think that we ought to bear that in mind.

Mr. Thorneycroft

If I may answer the only operational point in the hon. Gentleman's supplementary question, if I may say so, his supplementary rather illustrated the point I had in mind in my earlier reply, that to blur the fact or loosely to confuse that what we are meeting here are tribesmen who are armed, equipped and trained—armed with light automatic weapons, equipped with radio and mortars, and trained over the frontier—with a vague assertion about wrong political judgment in the Federation is not to do our troops a proper service.

Mr. Wyatt rose

Mr. Speaker

What we cannot do is to have a debate about this without a Question before the House.