HC Deb 28 June 1988 vol 136 cc337-44

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

11.49 pm
Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

I make no apology for again raising the question of the murder of British prisoners of war in May 1940 at Wormhoudt in France. The debate is essentially for the benefit of the Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces, not for my benefit. I understand that he will be the first Defence Minister in 48 years to speak on this matter.

The background to the massacre of the 80 or so British prisoners of war has been fairly well rehearsed in recent weeks, if not in recent years. Following my parliamentary question to the Home Secretary on 21 April, I briefly outlined certain of the circumstances on 25 May, as reported in columns 351 to 356 of Hansard. I need not repeat them, as I am well aware the Minister knows the background. I want to give him the opportunity to make a progress report to the House on what has been happening since the Home Secretary made his commitment on 21 April that the case would be re-examined. I hope that the Minister can answer some specific questions of which I gave him notice yesterday. I should be grateful if he would answer in detail, but if he cannot I presume that he will write to me. Because I have had no contact with the Ministry of Defence since that date, other than brief correspondence, the Minister should tell us what contact has been made with the West German authorities since April.

We are entitled to know in what year the Government were aware that Wilhelm Mohnke had returned from his Russian imprisonment. According to documents produced by the War Crimes Interrogation Unit—based on the evidence of British prisoners and later, German prisoners—he is held to be responsible for giving the order that no prisoners be taken in the barn at Wormhoudt on 28 May 1940. Mohnke was imprisoned by the Russians when we and others were looking for him.

We need to know whether the Government were at any time informed of, or involved in, any debriefing or questioning of Mohnke after his Russian imprisonment. I understand that he was debriefed by the Americans. We do not know whether they concerned themselves solely with his activities or imprisonment by the Russians several years after the end of the war, or whether they raised allegations about war crimes by Mohnke in 1940 and 1944.

We need to have it put on the record whether the Government accept that there was a massacre at Wormhoudt in May 1944 by an SS unit. To the best of my knowledge, that has never been admitted in public. Have the Government ever been requested by the West German authorities to provide any information regarding allegations of war crimes and murder involving Mohnke and personnel under his command and, if so, when? It is a matter of public record that at least twice in the 1970s the German authorities looked at some of the allegations regarding Mohnke. It is inconceivable that they did not request assistance from the British authorities. I know for certain that they did not request any help from British survivors.

We should know—I make no complaint; I have been moderate on this point—whether the Government have been asked at any time since the incident by any of the British regiments concerned to follow up the case against Mohnke. From what I have read and heard, there appears to have been silence. The Government could have done that in the normal way, which is generally behind closed doors. The public have a right to know whether that point has ever been pursued.

Another point of substance that must be raised is why the material about the Wormhoudt massacre—material that is in British hands—is still being kept secret. I shall expand briefly on this question. The Minister will forgive me for doing that, but it does not change the thrust of the question. I understand that, essentially, documents are closed for 75 years after the end of the war. That is longer than the normal 30-year rule and I have looked at some of the reasons for documents being closed for the longer period.

I understand that documents are kept closed for more than 30 years if they contain information about individuals, the disclosure of which would cause distress or embarrassment to living persons or their immediate descendants. Since 1982, when the Government produced a White Paper, Cmnd. 8531, on modern public records, they have accepted that instead of distress or embarrassment the criterion should be distress or danger. Does that criterion apply to British citizens or foreign nationals?

None of the five known survivors from the barn at Wormhoudt would be placed in any distress, danger or embarrassment by the files being made available. No descendant of any person killed at Wormhoudt, or who has now died, having been one of the few other survivors, has ever contacted me asking me to shut up and not to raise the matter. The opposite has been the case. I have been on the receiving end of requests and have quite specifically been asked by people who want to know how their father or grandfather died. Those people were not properly informed about that at the time. I accept that the people who were massacred were lost and that nobody knew about the massacre until at least late 1943.

A couple of weeks ago I was asked by a lady who is in her 50s, and through her that lady's mother who is now in her 80s, to find out how her father died in the barn. I spoke to her on the phone because I did not want to send the information in a cold way. Her father was one of two people in the barn who made the supreme sacrifice by throwing himself on top of a live grenade in order to protect his comrades. The Minister will know that I have written separately about at least three acts of supreme bravery that day which led to three British soldiers giving up their lives to protect their comrades. I have asked whether that matter can be looked at further, because the evidence about those acts of bravery is not only contained in the documents held by the Government, but is known to the five surviving eye witnesses to those events.

I stress that the release of the records would cause no danger, distress or embarrassment to any British citizen. It surely cannot be that the danger, distress and embarrassment that we are seeking to avoid is to Mr. Mohnke. The Minister must place that clearly on the record.

My next question to the Minister is whether any consideration had been given to awarding posthumous awards for bravery.

I, the House and the country would like to know whether the Government have ever acted for, or taken over, any other nation's investigation into alleged war crimes for which Mohnke is held responsible. I have seen evidence from Canada that the Government took over the investigations into alleged war crimes in 1944 in which Mohnke was involved. As my hon. and learned Friends would say, today I took further and better legal advice and found that some years ago the House repatriated the Canadian constitution. Therefore, there is no conceivable way that that could still be operated by this House. The Government certainly conducted inquiries related to Mohnke on behalf of another country.

Have the Government ever initiated contact with the West German authorities since the inception of the Federal Republic to inquire about the whereabouts and status of those men—they were all men—considered to be the perpetrators of the Wormhoudt massacre? There is abundant evidence in the British files that I have seen, and probably in the ones that are being kept closed, about the Germans concerned—some of whom were prisoners of war and others of whom were identified. It is fairly easy to check that. An enormous amount of record material from the war is still maintained, as I have discovered over the past few months.

Have the Government ever requested help from the Russian authorities? Wilhelm Mohnke was held prisoner by the Russians for several years, having been taken prisoner of war by them at the fall of the bunker of whose administration he was in charge. It is inconceivable that, having been asked by the allied powers whether they knew about him the Russians did not interrogate him or ask about his war record—where he was every day and every week of the year. That was the normal procedure. Having read the War Crimes Interrogation Unit's reports Nos. 1500 and 1650, I know that almost every German prisoner had to give details about where he had served during the war so that a pattern could be established. I imagine that the Russian military investigators did the same thing.

Have the Government ever requested help from the Russian authorities to establish whether Mohnke made any statements during his years of imprisonment in Russia about the allegations made against him in respect of war crimes such as the Wormhoudt massacre? In the late 1940s and early 1950s the British Government placed Mohnke's name on the United Nations war crimes list, so it is not as though we were not interested in the matter. The question naturally follows whether we asked the Russians about him.

As I told the Minister earlier, I shall give him more than half the time in this Adjournment debate. I hope that he will be able to make a detailed progress report. No doubt this will not be an end to the matter, but my hon. Friends and I and those who read the reports of our proceedings will read with interest what the Minister has to say.

12.1 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Roger Freeman)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) on his success in the ballot, which provides me with a timely opportunity to report to the House on the Wormhoudt massacre and the action that we have taken and will take in relation to the evidence.

This matter was first brought to the attention of the House by the hon. Gentleman on 21 April. On that occasion my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said in reply that the relevant material was being rigorously re-examined in the Ministry of Defence to see whether it provided a basis for further action. I should like to take this opportunity to say that this is clearly a most serious matter and to stress that we fully appreciate and share the concern of all those involved. If it is possible to bring anyone to justice for this crime, we must all be anxious that this should be done.

Perhaps it will help the House if I rehearse the events of 28 May 1940. There can be no doubt that on that day a considerable number of British soldiers were murdered near the small village of Wormhoudt in France. It has never been possible, despite all efforts, to discover the exact figure. That is partly due to the number of men missing from various units as a result of that day's fighting, and partly due to the removal of means of identification from the men when they were taken prisoner—they subsequently died—and the loss of many official records during the ensuing evacuation. It was not possible for us to make investigations at the spot until the area was again in allied hands in 1944.

The men, estimated to number between 50 and 150—it was probably between 80 and 90—mainly belonged to the 2nd Battalion the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, but they also included men from the Cheshire Regiment and from the Royal Artillery. The soldiers were part of the defensive perimeter being held at all cost by the allied Armies round Dunkirk, to enable as many as possible from the British Expeditionary Force and their French comrades-in-arms to be evacuated from the beaches.

In common with other actions on the Dunkirk perimeter, the fighting in and around Wormhoudt that day was very fierce and often confused. The German forces involved, though outnumbering the British, encountered stiff resistance and suffered many casualties, including the commander of the SS battalion trying to capture Wormhoudt. The accounts of those who survived that day vary in some details, but it is clear that eventually the defenders' gallant resistance was overcome and that several groups of men who had been taken prisoner and disarmed towards the end of the fighting around the village were collected together by the SS soldiers and marched off to a small barn some distance away.

A number of other prisoners seem to have been brought to join that group near the barn, and at least one man who fell out on the way to the barn was bayoneted by the SS German escorts. At the barn the men were herded inside. Any thought that our men had that this was to shelter them from the heavy rain that was now falling was short-lived.

The barn was too crowded for the wounded to lie down and the only British officer who appears to have been present was brusquely rebuffed when he protested about the lack of room in the barn. The SS troops who had taken the men to the barn then threw grenades in among them, causing many casualties. After that, some of the dazed prisoners were ordered out into the field in small groups and were then shot: the last act of some of those men was to turn and face their killers. The SS men then changed their tactics and, standing along the sides of the barn, which was of a fairly open construction, shot at those still in the building. The SS troops' final act was to enter the barn to kill any prisoners they thought were still alive. They then left the scene.

During the attack, three men at least appear to have escaped from the barn—one to hide successfully, the other two, including the officer, to be followed and shot. The officer died; the wounded man he had dragged with him survived, despite being further wounded.

Despite the ferocity of the attack, a number of men survived. Most of them stayed near the barn for between two and four days, during which time further men died from their wounds. The men left near the barn, and eventually those who had moved away from it, were all found by other German soldiers who were not members of the SS. Those German soldiers took proper care of the men and they were thereafter given the necessary medical attention and correctly treated as prisoners of war. In all, it would appear that there 14 survivors of the massacre in the barn. The House will be aware that in these harrowing circumstances there many individual acts of bravery. Witnesses have particularly testified to the conduct of the officer and two senior NCOs involved in the shooting at the barn.

The House will join me and the hon. Gentleman in paying respect to the courage and bearing of the men murdered and to the proud record of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. The hon. Gentleman has written to me about posthumous awards for gallantry, and I shall reply to him separately and soon.

The crime first came to light in this country in late 1943. That was when some of the survivors, wounded and prisoners of war, were repatriated, and they spoke of their ordeal. When their interviews were studied, it became evident that a serious crime had been committed, and investigations began. They continued from 1944 onwards.

As soon as it was possible, inquiries were made at the scene and statements were taken from several local people, none of whom, however, was a witness to the crime. Eight British survivors were eventually found by the investigators and detailed statements were taken from them. More than 50 voluntary statements were taken from 38 former SS men who had been in the regiment concerned on 28 May 1940. Others were interrogated and reported on. Some key figures, however, were not interviewed. Some were known to have been killed later in the war. Others, like the former SS Captain, by then SS General, Mohnke, could not he traced or were known to be detained elsewhere and unavailable.

The investigation had been taken over in late 1945 by the newly established War Crimes Interrogation Unit led by Lieutenant-Colonel Scotland. This unit took the information already collected and gathered much more, enabling an outline of events to be established and reports on the case to be made.

I do not wish to prejudice the outcome of this matter, but I must tell the House that from all the information and statements collected during the investigation, it was then concluded that there was insufficient evidence of identification and testimony to bring to trial any of the German SS soldiers who were thought possibly to have committed the murders.

However, Lieutenant-Colonel Scotland concluded that a German officer had been present and had been responsible for ordering the shooting of the prisoners of war. He identified this officer as the then Captain Mohnke. It is not clear from our review of the evidence on what grounds Lieutenant-Colonel Scotland was so definite in his accusation. I can say that three of the eight British survivors interviewed had mentioned the presence of a German officer. Only one gave a specific description, and he is now believed to be dead. The only evidence that Mohnke had ordered the shooting came as hearsay from two Germans, both of whom said that others had told them that Mohnke gave such an order: neither had witnessed the order being given and those who were supposed to have told them of it either denied it or could not be found.

Clearly the fact that Mohnke was not available for questioning hindered the investigation, but with no more evidence than was available in the late 1940s, the crime remained unresolved, there being insufficient evidence to bring the case to court.

Before I deal with the action that we now propose, I would like to turn to a number of points of which the hon. Gentleman kindly gave me notice, and which he has just repeated.

In 1948, the British Government of the day took the decision, after careful consideration, to cease war crimes trials. The War Crimes Interrogation Unit was wound up and responsibility for any further German war crimes trials was handed over to the German courts constituted under the authority of the allied occupying powers. The Canadian Government had ceased war crimes investigations in 1947 before the British decision, and had handed over material on unresolved cases to the British investigators. A number of Canadian cases were brought to trial by the British: those unresolved in 1948 remained so with the British decision to cease trials. However, we are now in touch with the Canadian authorities and will co-operate fully with their current renewed investigations.

With the establishment of the Federal Republic of Germany as a sovereign state, the responsibility for further prosecutions passed to the newly established sovereign German courts. That was the position when Mohnke was released by the Russians in 1955, and it remains the position today. There is, as my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary explained, no jurisdiction in this country in the present case and there is no possibility of extradition. The courts in the Federal Republic of Germany would of course have jurisdiction, and I understand that the public prosecutor in Lubeck has agreed to re-open the case and to take up the investigation.

The hon. Member has raised a number of questions about the Government's knowledge and actions concerning this case over the years. When the public prosecutor in Lubeck investigated the case against Mohnke between 1973 and 1976, we understand that he concluded that he did not have enough evidence to mount a prosecution. We have been unable to find any evidence that the Government have ever been requested by the authorities of the Federal Republic of Germany to provide information in connection with this case. Nor, so far as we are aware, have any of the regiments concerned ever officially pressed for the allegations against Mohnke to be followed up.

Similarly, we are not aware whether the British Government specifically knew that Mohnke had returned to Germany, nor have we found any evidence of British involvement in or knowledge of his interrogation on his return.

We have found no evidence that the Government have asked the authorities of the Federal Republic of Germany since its inception about any of the men thought possibly to have been the perpetrators of the massacre; nor are we aware of any approach having been made to the Soviet authorities about Mohnke.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Was there any contact from the Nachrichtensdienst, the intelligence services, or the Verfussungschutz or the Bundeskriminalamt about the 1955 events? Was no initiative taken?

Mr. Freeman

I have given the House and the hon. Gentleman the facts as available to me about contacts between the British Government and their agencies and those of the Federal Republic.

The hon. Member for Perry Barr raised the question of the closed records. Public records relating to Wilhelm Mohnke and the Wormhoudt massacre are subject to the provisions of the Public Records Act 1958. The Act provides for certain records over 30 years old to be retained by Departments for administrative or other reasons, under section 3(4); or to be closed for extended periods within the public record office under section 5(1), in accordance with the criteria set out in paragraphs 26 and 27 of the White Paper "Modern Public Records".

Those criteria are as set out in paragraph 26: exceptionally sensitive papers, the disclosure of which would be contrary to the public interest whether on security or other grounds; documents containing information supplied in confidence, the disclosure of which would or might constitute a breach of good faith; and documents containing information about individuals, the disclosure of which would cause distress or embarrassment to living persons or their immediate descendants. Paragraph 27 of the White Paper notes that sensitivity should not be deemed to cover party politial sensitivity and that distress and danger should be the criteria rather than distress and embarrassment.

A file containing reports of the incident is available for public inspection in the Public Records Office, reference TS 26/206. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware of that. I can inform the House that we have now collected and collated all the relevant material from our records, so that stage of our work is complete.

I conclude by repeating that the Government take the matter very seriously and will now make all the evidence we have available to the relevant authorities in the Federal Republic of Germany, with whom we are in touch. Further, we will co-operate in every way to facilitate their inquiries. At the end of the day, no matter how horrendous the crime committed on 28 May 1940, and however serious our concern, I think that the hon. Gentleman will agree that it must be a matter for the relevant authorities in the Federal Republic of Germany to consider the evidence and decide whether a case can be brought against any individuals who may have been involved.

The Wormhoudt massacre was a sordid, brutal and dishonourable event in a bloody war, and the British Government will do their part to facilitate justice.

12.17 am
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) on his persistence in this matter. I supported him when the matter was first raised with the Home Secretary, so I have some locus and an increasing interest in it. I say a great "Thank you" to the Minister for his most serious reply. It was an example of how an Adjournment debate on such a difficult matter should be handled. I have no doubt of his sincerity.

I return to the question of the mid-1950s because, as it happens, I was in the Rhine Army and all the Scots Greys were taken to the Hohne site—that is, the site of Belsen. It is firmly in my mind that undertakings were given—obviously, not to us as national service men—that everything would be done to ensure that those responsible for war crimes were brought to book.

From my understanding of the 1950s—and I have made various inquiries—there was an obligation on the German authorities to bring to the notice of the British anyone suspected of war crimes who returned from eastern Europe. My hon. Friend has similar information, and it ties up with the Canadian example. I admit that it is difficult to go back 33, 34 or 35 years, but the Verfussungschutz—the society for the protection of the constitution—and the German Nachrichtensdienst have extremely efficient records. Equally, the Bundeskriminalamt, the German police, are as efficient as any in the world.

What I find difficult to understand is why on earth those organisations were not asked those questions. Was there no contact? Had people simply washed their hands of it in the mid-1950s? As a young national service man in Germany at the time, I can tell the Minister that that was certainly not my impression. The undertaking was given that there would be an effort to get to the root of all these matters—not least from the French, the Americans, the British and—as it related to them—the Russians. I do not understand how a void developed in the 1950s about an agreement dating from 1947 for the Canadians and 1948 for the British.

There are people to be questioned about the undertakings given. One of the people to question is my noble Friend Lord Elwyn-Jones, who knows a great deal about what happened in Germany immediately after the war. My concrete suggestion is that those around at the time should be questioned, so that—

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half and hour, MADAM DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the debate without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at nineteen minutes past Twelve o'clock.