HC Deb 05 June 1967 vol 747 cc753-62

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

Mr. Dennis Walters (Westbury)

Today, the question of war and peace has been very much on my mind—indeed, on all our minds—and it is perhaps opportune that we should be discussing an episode of war which took place some 23 years ago. I am very pleased to have been given the opportunity to raise in the House the case of Mr. Alfred Newton, although I greatly regret that it has been necessary to do so owing to the failure of the Minister to consider and to concede Mr. Newton's claim, in spite of all the arguments which have been put forward and the evidence which has been presented to him. There is, however, still time for the Minister to change his mind, and I hope that he will do so in the course of this short debate.

The facts are as follows—and about these facts there is no disagreement. In June, 1943, Alfred Newton and his brother Henry, two courageous British officers operating with S.O.E. in occupied France, were captured by the Gestapo. Although brutally tortured first at Lyons and then at Fresnes Prison, they remained silent. Their remarkable courage and loyalty is referred to by Michael Foot in his recent book on the S.O.E. It has been freely conceded by the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office in their exchanges with me.

Transferred to Buchenwald Concentration Camp, they survived two years of living hell which inflicted severe and permanent damage to their health. In appalling physical condition they were repatriated to Britain in 1945. They were both awarded the M.B.E. Henry Newton, the more severely injured of the two, received a 100 per cent. disability pension and has lived in semi-retirement ever since. Alfred Newton, greatly assisted by the unswerving devotion and courage of his wife, continued working until compartively recently. There is no dispute about the facts so far. As I have said, the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office Ministers with whom I have been in touch over the last year have willingly confirmed the gallantry, the stoicism and the integrity of the two Newton brothers.

We come to the element about which there is disagreement. In January, 1943, Alfred Newton received a communication at his safe house in Lyons that a radio message from London had been received promoting him to captain. He had, in fact, been told before the commencement of this tour that he was due for promotion. He returned to England in 1945 and in due course he raised the matter, but he was told that there did not seem to be any record of this fact. In reply to my question to him last year as to why he had not pressed the matter at the time, he wrote to me as follows: Frankly, the petty squabble about this promotion hurt me almost as much as the unpleasantness I endured behind enemy lines and the inhuman torture I received because it came from my own kin. Feeling sick and very tired, I resolved to be above such pettiness and that is the reason why I took no further action—happy with the thought that at least I had the esteem and commanded respect among my surviving brother officers. 'S.O.E. in France'—. He is referring to the book which was published— has reopened an old wound, but in spite of it all, I want to believe in British justice. When one considers that Alfred Newton had just returned from two years in a Nazi concentration camp after months of torture in a Gestapo headquarters, it is perhaps hardly surprising that he was feeling sick and tired and unable to pit himself against what must have appeared to him entrenched and limited bureaucracy.

In July, 1946, he received a communication from the War Office on relinquishment of his commission telling him that he would be granted the honorary rank of lieutenant. Clearly in the letter the word "lieutenant" is overtyped over the word "captain". That document is here. At about the same time he received an Army Form X205, which is instructions to discharged or released personnel. In this document "captain" is crossed out and "lieutenant" written next to it. This document is also here. A third document he sent back to the War Office and it is not in his possession, but in this, too, "captain" was erased and "lieutenant" was substituted.

I have here a letter dated 27th July, 1966, from Colonel Buckmaster, who was in command of the French Section of S.O.E. It reads: My attention has been drawn to passages in HANSARD which concern Mr. Alfred Newton "— This was in reply to a Question that I asked— and I am happy to confirm that to the best of my recollection a message was sent in late 1942 or early 1943 through a wireless operator working in occupied France announcing the promotion of both Mr. Alfred and Mr. Henry Newton to the rank of captain. Both these officers were arrested in April, 1943. I have also a letter from Miss Vera Atkins, who was Colonel Buckmaster's principal assistant at the French Section of S.O.E. It reads: I should like to confirm what I told you when we met. I believe that it had been decided, probably at a Section meeting, to promote Henry and Alfred Newton to captains and that a message was sent to them in the field congratulating them on these captaincies. When Alfred raised the question a few weeks ago it immediately stirred a chord in my memory. Because of the passage of time, I can only say that my instinctive reaction and quite positive reaction leaves me in no doubt as to the correctness of Alfred Newton's claim. With all good wishes for the success of your efforts in this case. The reason why Alfred Newton did not press his claim at the time is quite obvious. I referred to it earlier in my speech. I must say that I should have thought that his comment in his letter to me, if nothing else, should shame the Minister into some action tonight.

Dame Irene Ward (Tynemouth)

Hear, hear.

Mr. Walters

To summarise, the evidence in favour of a promotion of Alfred Newton is as follows: first, Alfred Newton's own word; secondly, three separate documents, two of which are still in existence, in which "captain" is either overtyped or crossed out; and thirdly, there is Colonel Buckmaster's letter, and fourthly Miss Vera Atkin's letter.

I feel that I am asking for justice and belated recognition for a particularly gallant British officer who has sacrificed his health for his country, and who had repeatedly risked his life before that. I sincerely hope that the Minister will give justice and recognition tonight. I cer- tainly hope that he will not refer to the issue of precedent as he did in his letter to me of 1st March of this year.

He can rest assured that there are not hundreds of other officers who served with S.O.E., who were told that they had been promoted to captain in the field, who were brutally tortured by the Gestapo in Fresnes Prison, who just survived two years of Buchenwald, waiting to pounce in order to claim their promotion. That is just bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo. The Ministry claims that there is no record available. It is widely known that many documents connected with the S.O.E. were destroyed at the end of the war.

Moreover, it is also the case that, from time to time, documents do get lost, both in the Defence Department and in the Foreign Office. Only recently we were reading that the text of the Munich Agreement had disappeared from the relevant Foreign Office file. I do not think that it would be at all exceptional if this particular document had got lost or mislaid.

One of the least attractive British characteristics is the occasional mean way in which we reward people who have served their country with devotion, and the shabby way in which we haggle over recognition. In Italy, or France, or the United States, or indeed the Soviet Union, how different this would be. No existence in the shadows for their Alfred Newtons, but rightly the fullest reward and public recognition.

I am not asking for anything spectacular tonight, only that the promotion from lieutenant to captain, for which there is strong circumstantial evidence, should be confirmed. I am asking the Minister to exercise the benefit of the doubt, to act with a modicum of generosity, to put right an omission and thereby repay a fraction of what Alfred Newton has given to his country in courage and in suffering.

9.44 p.m.

Dame Irene Ward (Tynemouth)

I want to add a brief word in support of the case put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Mr. Walters). I simply cannot understand why, in view of the circumstantial evidence which has been produced, there should be any argument about the matter at all. Over the years since the war, because I had one or two connections with S.O.E. during the war, I have made certain representations over a great many cases of one kind or another.

In my own small way, I have made representations about this particular case. I can confirm what my hon. Friend has said, that very often the Foreign Office has said that it is very sorry, that it cannot go into certain actions that have taken place because the documents had been mislaid or lost. Part of the problem about Mr. Michael Foot's book was that many documents were incomplete and he was unable really fully to develop some of the writings which he embodied in his official history of the S.O.E. I must say that on the one or two occasions, when I have not had the circumstantial evidence produced by my right hon. Friend and have made representations to the Foreign Office, as I understood it at the time the benefit of the doubt was always accepted by the Foreign Office. Indeed, we all in this House know that in general it has always been the policy of Her Majesty's Government at tribunals and the like to give the benefit of the doubt whenever possible. I cannot see that in this case there is any reason why the benefit of the doubt cannot be given.

I do not want to take up the time of the House, because I want to hear what the Minister has to say. I must, however, say with all the emphasis which I can command that I would be horrified and scandalised if the case which has been put forward by my hon. Friend, and the support that he has had from Colonel Buckmaster and Miss Atkins, who know a great deal more about the kind of circumstances than any official in the Foreign Office who did not serve in S.O.E., is not accepted.

If the case put forward by my hon. Friend is not accepted, certainly my faith in justice and humanity to those who served this country so gallantly and so well in our hour of need will be shattered once and for all. I am not adding any more than that, except that I have never heard how a case of this kind, which has so much circumstantial evidence to support it, could be denied by the Foreign Office or the Ministry of Defence. Therefore, I can only hope that we shall tonight get a satisfactory answer to the case which my hon. Friend has put for- ward for so long and for which he has fought so hard.

9.47 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. William Rodgers)

I am sure that the hon. Member for Westbury (Mr. Walters) was quite right this evening to raise the case of Mr. Alfred Newton, because he has shown a close personal interest in it over a period and he has been most persistent in seeking to unravel its complexities. I am glad that the hon. Lady the Member for Tynemouth (Dame Irene Ward) also has been present because, as she has said, she has made representations about the case.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept it when I say that he put his case with great feeling and very movingly. He will, I am sure, grant the same good will and as much generosity on the part of those who have dealt with the case from this side, even if our views may in any respect be different. I certainly agree with the hon. Member that bureaucracy is the enemy. It would be absolutely wrong for any Minister at any time to use bureaucratic reasons for failing to take an action which, for other reasons, should be taken.

The whole story involves the intricate and inevitably, in some ways, still controversial story of the Special Operations Executive in France and the tragic consequences, as the hon. Member has said, of the gallantry of some of its own members. It is only necessary to turn, as the hon. Member has done, to the pages of Mr. M. R. D. Foot's thorough and sober account of S.O.E. to get a vivid sense of the nature of those operations and to recognise the achievements of S.O.E. and of the devotion, and often the cruel suffering, of those who worked in it.

I should like to make it clear that we are not discussing this evening—we would not be competent to do so—the merits of Mr. Alfred Newton in any claim which he may have had to be promoted to captain. The plain fact is that there is no question of his ability or of the most courageous way in which he carried out his duties. Twenty-five years after the event, I have the profoundest respect not only for all that he did, but for all that he clearly was in those terrible times. I would like to add my tribute to that of the hon. Gentleman to his gallantry stoicism and integrity.

But, if we were considering merit, it is worth recording that officers in S.O.E. had lower ranks than at a distance would seem appropriate. As Mr. Foot himself says in his book: S.O.E. as a body set little store by rank. Most of the senior officers were of relatively low rank, the second in command of the whole organisation being only a squadron leader. The majority of S.O.E. agents dropped into France were lieutenants, which was the normal rank for a saboteur like Alfred Newton.

As we all know, Mr. Alfred Newton and his brother suffered appalling treatment following their capture and he consequently receives a 100 per cent. disability pension and has received the maximum in compensation paid to any individual out of the fund for victims of Nazi persecution.

Although to some of us any recognition, whether of this kind or of any other, must seem very slight when set against the hazardous operations in which he was engaged and the fate he suffered, it is also good to reflect that, after the war, Mr. Newton was awarded the M.B.E. in recognition of his outstanding services.

We must therefore start, as did the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Lady, from a prejudice in favour of doing what we can for Mr. Newton and of trying to put his heart at rest. At the end of the day, we cannot be generous enough to those who served with such distinction. It would certainly be my wish and, I am sure, that of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary that we should lean over backwards to try to meet the hon. Gentleman's plea. We should like to find justification for doing something which obviously matters to Mr. Newton and should also matter to the House.

On the other hand, it would be wrong and, of course, unfair to many others to take any steps if we were not satisfied that the case for doing so had been fully made out. I cannot believe that Mr. Alfred Newton himself would want us to act except out of conviction that we were following the right course. The plain fact is that, despite the coincidence mentioned by the hon. Gentleman and the recollections of Mr. Newton and others, there is simply no record whatever of his promotion to captain having ever taken place. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will believe me when I say that our examination has been exhaustive—

Mr. Walters

By "others", I presume that the hon. Gentleman means Colonel Buckmaster and Miss Atkins?

Mr. Rodgers

If the hon. Gentleman will wait, I will answer some of his questions. I have rather less than the 15 minutes which I had been led to expect.

The hon. Gentleman said something which was probably a slip of the tongue—that we had refused to consider or to concede, but he will probably admit that we have considered very fully. Whether we have conceded or will concede is another matter, but he cannot honestly say that we have failed to give a great deal of attention to the matter. Of course, he is right—it is well known—to say that administrative arrangements in S.O.E. at this time left something to be desired. After the war—the hon. Lady has drawn this to Ministers' attention many times—the organisation was disbanded in haste. No doubt there were mistakes, both at headquarters and in the field, which may have involved instructions not being carried out, but the personal files of those immediately concerned in this question are still in existence.

A careful search through those documents and relevant War Office files has shown no trace of any recommendation for Lieutenant Newton's promotion. It has to be remembered—this point was made to the hon. Gentleman by my hon. Friend the Minister of Defence for Administration—that military officers serving in S.O.E. could not be promoted without the agreement of what was then the War Office. It would have been rather unusual in the circumstances of S.O.E. for a lieutenant who had been given the substantive rank of lieutenant only in October 1942—it is possible that some people's confusion may have arisen from this—to be promoted captain in the following February. I am certainly ready to admit that this itself could not be ruled out. That is why we would not dismiss, without a thorough investigation, the experience on which Mr. Newton bases his belief in his promotion.

As the hon. Gentleman has said, Mr. Newton states that early in 1943 he was told in the field by a brother officer that he had seen a signal congratulating Lieutenant Newton on his promotion. We cannot know the reason why Lieutenant Newton was spoken to in these terms. However, no confirmation of this oral message was ever received and no copy of the signal has been found.

It is easy to speculate on what, in fact, happened. The most feasible explanation—and this may account for the memories of several people about it—is that a discussion took place about the possibility of promoting Lieutenant Newton. If the outcome was a decision to do so, this decision was apparently never implemented, for one reason or another. But I think it true to say that this kind of discussion was not unusual. There may have been others who hoped and believed that they would be promoted and were disappointed that this did not happen. There are probably those who nurture to this day a grievance at not receiving the promotion which they believed they were entitled to—on good grounds. After this passage of time the details are likely to remain obscure. All I can say is that nothing was ever put through to the effect that Lieutenant Newton had been promoted.

The hon. Gentleman referred to Colonel Buckmaster and Miss Atkins. There are the memories of the head of Mr. Newton's section of S.O.E. and of another staff officer in the same section. Both of them say, in good faith, that to the best of their recollection a message was sent at the time congratulating Lieutenant Newton on his promotion. But they are not able to say categorically that he was promoted. They are unable to be positive about it.

Then there is the question of why Mr. Alfred Newton received two documents—the hon. Gentleman mentioned three—from the War Office after the end of the war, one of which at least was addressed to him as Lieutenant Newton but on which the word "Lieutenant" had been substituted for the word "Captain", which had been erased. The fact is that a mistake had been made on a single internal document in the Military Secretary's department of the War Office. This was later corrected by the Personnel Branch and the rank was changed before the documents were sent out. In the light of the rest of the history of this case and of the hon. Gentleman's present interest in it, this may sound a curious story. I am sure he will admit, on reflection, that, on its own, it is an entirely convincing one and not at all surprising in the circumstances of the time.

There are other facts that should be taken into account. If there were time I would dwell on the point made by the hon. Gentleman about the circumstances at the time when Mr. Newton returned to England. We have, for example, consulted the Administrative Officer who, one might have expected, would know about this promotion. Although he remembers that a discussion took place, he does not remember that a record was ever made to the effect that Mr. Alfred Newton was promoted. We must also reflect, despite what people may think 20 years after, that immediately after the war, whatever the circumstances, those who had been close to Mr. Newton and knew his personal circumstances did not take the view then that he had received promotion.

The hon. Gentleman has made the best possible case which could be made for Mr. Newton. However, I have reluctantly reached the conclusion that the evidence at present existing does not justify the very exceptional measure of a retrospective promotion to Captain for Mr. Alfred Newion.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minu to Ten o'clock.