HC Deb 12 June 1996 vol 279 cc397-404

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

8.11 pm
Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne)

We have all heard about the forgotten army in Burma, a memorable phrase coined by the late Earl Mountbatten. The debate tonight is about the forgotten squadron—a group of brave men who have fought for more than 50 years ago to have their squadron properly recognised.

No. 273 Fighter Squadron was originally formed during the first world war, and was disbanded at the end of hostilities. The squadron was reformed on 1 August 1939 in Ceylon, where it withstood the most ferocious Japanese attack. The squadron went on to be one of the most forward squadrons during the Burma campaign, as it was based just 260 miles south of Japanese lines. It was the first squadron into Rangoon and into Saigon. Its pilots flew sortie after sortie from airstrips cut from the jungle or from dried-up rice fields.

Conditions were far from ideal, and 14 pilots were killed. Since the days of the last war, others have died from natural causes, but the spirit of 273 Squadron has lived on, in the survivors and in the families of those who have not survived.

The campaign, spanning more than 50 years, has sought to give the squadron the recognition it so richly deserves by means of a squadron badge. I was wholly unaware of the history of 273 squadron until I received a letter from a constituent, Mr. Miles Bayly, known affectionately as Bill. He wrote to me on 6 March and told me that he had served as pilot in Burma with 273 Squadron, and also told me of the attempts to obtain a squadron badge since November 1944.

As he put it: many members of the squadron who came from the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand are now all well into their seventies with the likelihood of a limited remaining life expectancy. Thus it would seem fitting and most appropriate if this question could be resolved now before they, and the squadron, sink into oblivion—'unwept, unhonoured and unsung'. I was touched by that appeal, and immediately raised the matter in correspondence with the Ministry of Defence. I asked for the debate tonight because the MOD is still putting forward what are, in my opinion, inadequate reasons for not honouring the squadron. To grant it its badge would be a relatively small thing for the Ministry, but it would mean so much for the survivors of 273 Squadron, their families and the families of those who did not survive.

The squadron is, I am told, the only active service Fighter Command squadron that fought in any the theatre of war in the second world war, and suffered significant losses, and yet was not granted its own badge. You may ask, Madam Deputy Speaker, why that has presented a problem. Over the years, the MOD has put forward a number of different reasons or excuses.

It is said by Ministers, and most recently by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence, Earl Howe, that badges are not approved for disbanded units. That can hardly be of any real relevance, because the original application for the 273 Squadron badge was submitted from Ceylon in 1943. The request was received in Whitehall, after some delay, in November 1944, before the squadron was disbanded for the second time.

I take the view, not unreasonably, that any delay after the application was made is a matter for the MOD, and not the fault of the squadron. After all, it was certainly not within its control when it was disbanded at the end of the war.

The actual design for the badge comprises the ancient Asian fylfot or cross Gamadian on a castellated fess, symbolising peace and good will. Superimposed on that is the black widow spider, with the motto "Toujours Prêt". It is said that the cost of granting badges in such circumstances would be "prohibitive", apparently because each design submitted must be approved by the College of Arms and Her Majesty the Queen. I would like the Minister to tell us what sort of costs we are talking about. I cannot imagine that they come even close to outweighing the sacrifices made by those who did not survive—or, indeed, by those who did.

Amazingly, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, who wrote to me on 21 May, said that, apart from the cost of granting badges in such circumstances being "prohibitive", it would immediately be non-effective". Well, that may be strictly true in terms of a squadron that no longer exists, but that is far from the case when one considers the feelings of those involved. A squadron does not cease to exist in the hearts of its men merely because it is disbanded. It is important to note that the squadron was disbanded once, and re-formed, and then disbanded a second time. Heaven forbid, there is always the possibility that it may be re-formed in the future.

Another reason for not granting the badge that has been given in the past, and in the Under-Secretary's letter most recently, is that the design originally submitted by the unit incorporated a fylfot, which is synonymous with the swastika. While there may be some similarity between the fylfot and the swastika, the former, which in Asia symbolises peace and good will, is considerably older than the swastika, and was recognised, and in general use, thousands of years before it was hijacked by the Nazi party.

It would indeed be the height of absurdity if that Royal Air Force squadron were to be denied its badge design of choice because of the modern pretensions of the Nazis, one of the very enemies against whom it was fighting. Be that as it may, it has been put to me that, if this still appears to be an insurmountable objection to the granting of the badge, the survivors are prepared to consider a change in design. I think that is only fair, and I hope that it will provoke a dialogue with the MOD and with the College of Arms.

A further objection is that parts of the design and the motto have been incorporated into the badges of other units. I am told that there is no formal objection to the use of a motto more than once. Indeed, King George VI granted 617 Squadron the motto "Apres Moi Le Deluge", which was already in use. I have explained that the survivors are willing to consider a change in the design if it is thought appropriate.

Incidentally, I have received a letter from another constituent, Mr. Reg Baldwin, who pointed out that, during the 1914–18 war, the British National War Savings Committee used an emblem very similar to the swastika.

Another reason that is put forward from time to time is that the granting of 273 Squadron's request would open the floodgates for other units. In addition, there is a rule that a squadron should exist for five years before and after receiving recognition of its badge. Only one other squadron has been mentioned as being in a similar position to 273 Squadron. I very much doubt whether there would be a queue of other units seeking recognition after all these years.

I am told that there are a number of squadrons that did not come within the five-year rule, but they still received badges—including Squadrons 272, 274, 353, 617 and 684. For example, 177 Squadron existed for only two years and seven months, and it was granted a badge after it was disbanded. I have already made the point that 273 Squadron had no control over its disbanding, but that it certainly made its application for a badge before that date. Moreover, it can trace its history back to the great war.

As if this were not enough, there is also a regulation saying that those who made conspicuous contributions are exempt from the normal requirements. I am afraid that I must part company with the Minister, who said in a letter to me: The lack of a badge should not detract from the very great contribution made by those who served in 273 squadron. However, the letter fails to recognise that those who suffered the privations of the Burma campaign and who put their lives on the line on a daily basis feel that their recognition is incomplete without the badge being approved. It means that their badge cannot appear in the RAF church, St. Clement Danes, or in the RAF club in Piccadilly or in the RAF museum in Hendon. That is the issue here, and that is why I urge my hon. Friend to apply a fresh mind to it.

I shall quote from a moving letter that I received from John Taylor MC, from Dorset, who had read of the efforts of 273 Squadron to obtain recognition. He wrote a letter to the editor of The Times and spoke about the involvement of the squadron in his activities when he was attached to the 5th Indian division near Rangoon. He talked about the Gurkhas being cut off on the banks of the Sittang river and about 273 Squadron coming on to the scene.

He stated: First, they bombed a machine gun post occupied by the Japs, which fired straight down the railway line for the Jap railway. Armed with 5001b bombs they dived in sequence, in spite of Jap efforts to discourage them. Finally, a lucky strike got a bomb to enter the post via an opening. Watching, I saw the roof lift about a foot. After that, the machine gun was silent"— adding, in a masterpiece of understatement— and crossing the line from one side of our perimeter to the other became much easier. Secondly, two nights later, the Japs had succeeded in getting 150 men and 75mm guns into caves on the cliff of the Sittang River … I counted 142 shells which landed in our area within half an hour. I took bearings of the gun flashes". The information was then passed on to 273 Squadron.

He continued: it was later reported that three or more of the guns had been knocked out by bombs. He concluded: For these two actions 273 Squadron have surely earned the right to be treated in exactly the same way as all other Squadrons of the Royal Air Force, who were so helpful to us on the ground. With respect, Mr. Taylor is in a far better position to judge the true contribution of 273 Squadron than any civil servant in Whitehall. The men of 273 Squadron risked their lives flying Spitfires in the heat of battle, alongside the forgotten army. Many paid the supreme sacrifice, and now—50 years later—there are only 90 survivors. They seek the recognition that they and their fallen comrades so richly deserve.

8.15 pm
The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Nicholas Soames)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) on securing this important debate tonight, and I am delighted to have the opportunity to reply to it. My hon. Friend deserves great credit for bringing this matter to the attention of the House.

Many hon. Members have made representations to my Department on this important matter. I pay a warm tribute to the efforts of my hon. Friend's constituent, Mr. Bill Bayly. I also pay a warm tribute to the dedication of Miss Jane Pelling, who has worked tirelessly with veterans and their dependants to enlist the support of hon. Members in bringing an important and interesting matter before the House.

I have listened with great care and interest to the points made by my hon. Friend. I share with him—he knows that I mean this—the sentiments that he has expressed about the contribution that the men in 273 Squadron made to the heroic struggle in the far east. They were dark days, and we all owe an immense debt of gratitude to those gallant Royal Air Force men who fought so well against the Japanese. They performed a valuable service. I am reminded of the words of Field Marshal Lord Slim, who, in speaking of the RAF's part in victory, said: I do not think that such devotion has been surpassed in any air force, and I doubt that it has been equalled. The 273 Squadron made a particularly noteworthy contribution, first in resolutely defending Ceylon, and then, once the tide had turned, in speeding the retreat of the enemy's forces by constantly harassing their ground positions. As my hon. Friend said, their efforts were not made without supreme sacrifice—and a number of valiant squadron members sadly lost their lives on other occasions during the campaign.

I want hon. Members to understand how deeply I share in the wish of all those who are keen—rightly and admirably—to keep alive, green and fresh, the cherished memory of those fine young men of 273 Squadron and its significant contribution to winning the war in the far east. We should and do remember their efforts. We should do so as a tribute to those who sadly died. Succeeding generations should look back with pride and in wonder at the achievements of their forebears.

I deeply wish that it need not have been necessary for my hon. Friend to bring this matter before the House today. I wish also that it could have been possible to accede to the request of Miss Pelling and fellow supporters of the 273 Squadron and to award a badge to the squadron. However, as the many hon. Members who have made representations to me are aware, the award of a badge results from a detailed process, to which are rightly attached long-standing rules that have been applied faithfully and consistently over the years for very good reasons.

Indeed, it is precisely the ancient traditions, rules and conventions of heraldry that make an officially approved badge so special—and they are the rules that prevent my Department from responding positively to this request.

I therefore hope that the House will forgive me if I pause a moment to explain a little about the significance of squadron badges. I will also touch on the process by which those badges are awarded. That is important in understanding why my Department has been unable to agree to the award of a unit badge to No. 273 Squadron.

The control of heraldry, and therefore of unit badges, squadron standards and the Queen's colours in the Royal Air Force, is entrusted to officers of the College of Arms, who are appointed by the sovereign for that purpose. The granting of new arms is the prerogative of the sovereign, as she is the Fountain of Honour. That prerogative is delegated by letters patent under the Great Seal to the Kings of Arms-Garter, Clarenceux, Norroy and Ulster in England and Northern Ireland, and Lyon in Scotland.

My hon. Friends may be aware that heraldry first appeared in this country about the middle of the 12th century. Its object was twofold: on the one hand there was a need to identify one person from another in battle, when mediaeval armour completely covered the wearer and made him indistinguishable save by the banner, shield and surcoat of his arms; and on the other there was a requirement to identify him when conducting business. In a time when writing was not commonly practised, documents were "signed" by affixing to them the seals of their arms.

Heraldic insignia consists of arms, crests and badges. Arms are borne on a shield, and crests on a helmet, corresponding to their original uses. Badges are a separate category. They are devices which stand alone, and were used—as they are today—to mark and to identify property. They are possibly the oldest form of heraldic insignia.

Before the 18th century, Army regiments tended to be raised and supported by the officers who commanded them. The commanding officer thus placed his arms on colours and uniforms in order to signify his control of the unit. From that time on, however, a royal warrant laid down that no regiment might bear on its colours the arms or crest of its colonel, thereby asserting the prerogative of the Crown to raise armies.

Regiments were henceforth the King's regiments, and therefore any badges borne on their colours must be royal badges or badges approved by the sovereign. That rule against displaying arms and crests of individuals and corporations has since been generally enforced. When badges were instituted for Royal Air Force units, a similar rule was laid down.

Badges, not crests, are used by all three services. The various devices are heraldic in nature, and are controlled by heraldic officers—the newly appointed inspector of Royal Air Force badges is Garter, Principal King of Arms. Royal Air Force badges are designed to bear some allusion to the services or associations of the units to which they are assigned. All unique badges receive the approval of Her Majesty the Queen before they are issued and recorded.

Badges are approved, I stress, as a means of displaying to the world the unit's pride in its service to the sovereign. Therefore, giving the badge a memorial significance— while in many ways a wholly admirable sentiment—plays no part in its essential nature, which is simply as a unique unit identification. It is the standard of the fighting unit that is more appropriately identified as a memorial, bearing as it does the battle honours of the unit. My hon. Friend and I have been privileged to see many regimental and unit standards of the three services displayed with great reverence in churches and cathedrals throughout the length and breadth of this land.

The procedures for obtaining a badge include a requirement that the unit should have been in existence for a least five years or, exceptionally, have made some conspicuous and meritorious contribution to the good name of the Royal Air Force—clearly No. 273 Squadron did that. It must have at least five years further service available to it. Furthermore, the design of the badge and motto must be in a form acceptable to the service chain of command who will recommend the design to the College of Arms for endorsement.

The College of Arms must also be satisfied that the proposed design is unique and heraldically correct. In the case of Royal Air Force unit badges, the heraldic decision is made by the Inspector of Air Force Badges. Finally, if the criteria are met, the badge is submitted to the sovereign for Her Majesty's personal approval.

I hope that that general explanation of the award of unit badges will help my hon. Friend to understand—as I know he does—the great difficulty that I have in responding positively to the request for a unit badge for No. 273 Squadron. A badge design was first submitted by 273 Squadron for approval in November 1944. That design, which we are told was being used by the squadron throughout the Burma campaign, was rejected by the Air Command South East Asia, by the Allied Air Commander-in-Chief, by the Air Ministry and by the College of Arms.

As a consequence, the squadron was requested to submit an alternative design. It did so, but regretfully that also was rejected, as it duplicated both a design and a motto already in use. The squadron was accordingly invited to submit a further alternative design. In March 1946, on the instructions of the then Air Command South East Asia, no further action was taken on the resubmission of an alternative unit badge. Under the rules then current, such a resubmission on behalf of a disbanded unit would not have been allowed—neither, I should add, would such a submission be acceptable today.

No. 273 Squadron is not alone in not having a unit badge. Indeed, there are some 80 former Royal Air Force flying squadrons for whom no badge was approved for a large number of reasons. Some, like 273 Squadron, were disbanded before a design could be agreed, and there were those who simply failed to apply.

I know that, over the past 30 years, a number of requests for the award of a badge have been rejected. I know—and wholly appreciate—that those decisions have been met with great disappointment and sadness by those who have advocated the award of a badge for 273 Squadron. They rightly point out that, without a unit badge, there can be no representation of the squadron alongside the replica slate badges in the floor of the Royal Air Force church of St Clement Danes in the Strand, or at the Royal Air Force museum at Hendon.

As I hope my hon. Friend will appreciate, I share fully in the sadness of those who regret that it is not possible for an official badge to be accepted. However, I am truly at a loss to see how the House can be asked to change an event in history: put simply, the squadron was disbanded before a badge could be awarded. Nor am I able to seek the approval of Her Majesty the Queen regarding the award of a badge that is not required to identify equipment in the service of the Crown. That would amount to the reversal of a policy approved by previous sovereigns, which has stood the test of time over the past 200 years.

That said, I believe that there are a number of steps that might assist those hon Members who believe, as I do, that the squadron deserves better recognition. I believe that there could be no more fitting memorial to that heroic squadron than if the group who have campaigned so splendidly were to form into an official squadron association. My hon. Friend may not know that Garter, King of Arms may, by letters patent, grant an heraldic insignia to squadron associations. In the absence of an official badge, that may enable the veterans of 273 Squadron to gain, in part, what they desire.

Furthermore, it would potentially facilitate the provision of a permanent memorial to 273 Squadron. I am pleased to say that, following discussions that I have had via the relevant command, the trustees of St Clement Danes would be prepared in principle to give sympathetic consideration to a request from the supporters of 273 Squadron for a memorial of an approved design to take its place in the body of the church along with those of other squadrons. My Department will of course be delighted to assist in bringing that to fruition if it is the wish of a newly formed squadron association.

We all agree that we owe a huge debt to those who fought so valiantly, and who sacrificed so much, in order that subsequent generations should enjoy freedom. That debt can never be fully repaid. I hope that the House will understand and accept my explanations of why it has not been possible to accede to the request for the award of a unit badge to the disbanded 273 Squadron.

I hope that my hon. Friends will agree that the lack of a badge in no way diminishes the fine record of 273 Squadron. The men of that squadron are neither unwept, unhonoured nor unsung. Nor does it deny the squadron its rightful place in history among all the other units which gave so much in the cause of freedom. As I have said, many other squadrons for one reason or another have, like 273 Squadron, not been awarded a unit badge.

I hope that the House is encouraged by my remarks about the possibility of placing a memorial in St Clement Danes. I commend that course to those who have tonight brought the record of 273 Squadron so admirably to the attention of the House. I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne on his measured, persuasive and elegant presentation tonight.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty minutes to Nine o 'clock.