HL Deb 28 January 1941 vol 118 cc236-46

LORD PORTSEA had the following Notice on the Paper: To ask His Majesty's Government as to the dropping of leaflets on the Islands of Jersey and Guernsey with information as to the general situation for the benefit of the islanders cut off from communication with the mainland, and to ask if broadcasts can be made to these same islanders and whether suggestions for such broadcasts can be accepted from islanders on this side of the Channel; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I brought this matter before your Lordships' House in the late autumn, since which time I have done all that could possibly be done. Yet, although I have been met with extreme courtesy by all the officials and friends to whom I have spoken, I can get no further. There is some obstacle in the way. What that obstacle is I cannot discover, unless indeed it is officialdom. "Here I stand; I can none other." I claim as a right the help, fair-dealing and protection of every free man subject to the Crown in this matter, which is of importance to thousands of Norman islanders who are now in His Majesty's service. What can I do? I grant you the task is too big for me; I am perfectly ready to admit that; but someone must bell the cat, and "Touch not the cat bot a glove" is a wise motto. My glove is clean; it is the sincerity of my motives and of my heart, and it is the intense and all-pervading loyalty and love of honesty and honour represented by the Norman islanders, particularly those who are now fighting in His Majesty's Services.

These islanders are the remnant of a great people, a people from whom many of your Lordships, like myself, derive and are proud so to derive. They represent our mother country, a people who have led us and still lead us in peace and in war. They trusted us and we deserted them. We deserted them in their hour of need; we cast them off when this war was forced upon us as an old shoe is cast away, without a word, without a blow struck, without a shot fired for the first time in their history; indeed, without allowing them to fire a shot, for all arms and ammunition, all guns were taken away, and the people of the islands themselves and the fort were disarmed. The Government did this and now tell us they did it in the hope that the people would not be bombed or killed—a dangerous argument. It did not take the Government a thousand minutes to abandon what had been a Crown possession for a thousand years—the old and only Appanage of the Crown, the only such Appanage in the Empire. The Government have stripped the islands of men, as I have said—leaving, of course, only the older ones—have stripped the islands of guns, arms, munitions, dismantled the great fort that was built by Lord Palmer-ston at the cost of a million of money, pulled down the flag of St. George and the flag of St. Andrew and the Union Jack itself, and made an ignominious Cappor-etto. Will that Union Jack be ever again broken from the mast?

The Crown accepted the services of thousands of islanders, first of all in the Regular Forces, in the Navy, the Army, the Air Force and the Merchant Service; when war came the two Royal Militias and every man of fighting age in the islands volunteered and joined up and are now serving in His Majesty's Forces. It is for these men that I plead. When this had come to pass, and not till then, the Government abandoned the islands, deserted the people. The "justification" is that the people might have been bombed and killed by the invader! That is a very dangerous argument. It is one that might be extended to every part of the country. I do not abuse the German. He is a fine soldier and a disciplined man, but his views on conquests and our views are not quite alike. There are, perhaps, men in this House who remember Dînant in the last war. There are many of us who have read of Poland in this war. In the Great War in which many Norman islanders assisted—practically 17 per cent. of the population—I saw women and girls in the towns and villages from which the Germans had been expelled practically at the point of the bayonet. Their story was not a pleasant one. It was not one to dwell upon. It was a story to turn the sluggard's blood to flame. The Government left our women, children and young girls in the islands after they had taken away their men and their guns. It is hard to say whether that was hypocrisy, cowardice or stark-staring poltroonery. Our women, children and young girls are for the most part still there.

My nearest relatives are still in the islands, as they thought it their duty to stay. I thought it my duty to stay on this side, though I am not quite so sure that I was right. Now we are proposing to listen—proposing to listen as yet only—to Italy's request when she makes it to save her women in Ethiopia from a nation five thousand years old, professing Christianity, to save them from these "Natives, to save them from men and women who have been bombed, gassed and brutally used by these women's husbands and by the women themselves. It is our duty to do so, but it will be a hard duty—our duty not as the "friend of every country but our own," but as Christian men and Englishmen. At the same time we have abandoned, and we are continuing to abandon, our own people and we will not let them have one word of information as regards their friends, their men on this side.

The crocodile is said to shed tears. All those who remember Alice—there is hardly one who does not—remembers that the carpenter as he ate the oysters held his handkerchief before his streaming eyes. There are worse things than death, my Lords, much worse. The islanders have defended their island for centuries against a foe at least as strong, at least as brave and as able as the German himself. At one time half of Jersey was in the possession of the French. The other half remained in the possession of the islanders. That continued for six whole years at the end of which time the islanders were able to put the French out of their land. I quote that so that your Lordships may see that they are a people who are not free except that they fought for their freedom. They are free men—there is no serf blood in the islands—and they value freedom as much as any other country in the world, as much as this country itself. To enable them to defend their land these islanders submitted to universal and obligatory service, and that service was unpaid—not a penny was paid—from the age of 13 to the age of 65. Personally, I joined at 13. I bought my own uniform and my own horse. We were a very splendid force until the "War Office said that we were an anachronism, and induced us, to lower the age of 65 to 40, to put ourselves under Martial Law, and to pay ourselves, to take in each other's washing. Our people believe, with a very great man, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, that He is not worthy to live at all, that for fear or danger of death shunneth his country's service and his own honour—seeing that death is inevitable, but the fame of virtue is immortal.

Aye, and the shame remains, shame ineffaceable and ineradicable.

And now we torture, and torture deliberately, the fighting man on this side and his people at home. To those people whom we deserted, and apparently still desert, though we have the means at hand we will not send any word that their men are safe and well. The justification given me is that we might annoy the Germans—annoy the Germans! The Germans, in the meantime, have the wives, the daughters, the children and the sweethearts of the men who are here in thousands, who have volunteered and are ready to die for us. "No truce with Diabolus while Mansoul stands." I read a speech which I hope that your Lordships have also read, a speech which was delivered on Friday last by a man whom we all know and admire and for whom many of us—myself included, if I may venture to say so—have a sincere regard. I have adorned my opening remarks with words from his speech. Those words seem to justify me and to fit my plea. He said: With the spectacle across the Channel of what happens to countries and people who do not resist Hitler, there is not one of us who would not sacrifice all that is ours, rather than that such a catastrophe should overtake this home of freedom.

The Norman Islands were the home of freedom. It was a freedom not built in cowardice or by Danegelds; it was the liberty, the freedom, of a free people, free for a thousand years, free so far back as our history goes. In those words there spoke a man. He did not want to desert the Appanage of the Crown.

He did more; he quoted the words of President Roosevelt—and thank heaven for that man, for we have every cause to do so. President Roosevelt said: There are four freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom from want, freedom from insecurity, and freedom from fear.

"That was gloriously said," said the orator. It is a consoling thought to people" like myself, when one talks of fear, that "The coward dies many times before his death." I would increase the number of times! And was there yét another freedom, said the orator, a fifth freedom, without which no country could truly claim to enjoy liberty. It was the freedom of every citizen, however unin-fluential, however unpopular, however wrongheaded, to appeal to the law and to the Courts to protect him from injury and insult even if the wrong were committed by the misuse of official power. My Lords, I offer that man my heartfelt thanks. The islanders will not forget him or his words, though his words may not have been deliberately addressed to them. His words appealed to me, and I appeal through them to your Lordships' House.

I appeal in the name of all the men of the Norman Islands, in the name of the fighting men of those islands who are on the mainland, that our people in the islands may be informed—and not merely once or twice, or grudgingly—by the B.B.C. or by leaflets or in some better way, through someone that the islanders know and can trust (which is very important) that their fighting men in this country are well and cheerful, that they never forget their people and their homes, and that they never forget, while duty calls them and while life lasts, to serve the King. Think of these thousands of islanders, men who were in no wise obliged to come—they were exempted by Royal word—but who volunteered and came to fight for that which they look on as their country, and for their King. They came in swarms. Think of their daily agony of mind, caused by officialdom—not one word from them to their people for seven long months. Word is coming to them from Jersey and Guernsey—ten words at a time. The latest message is dated July 10, six months ago. The people here cannot send or have sent one word to their wives, to their sweethearts and to their children. I ask your Lordships to help them.

We drop millions of leaflets on other peoples, people who do not want them, who do not ask for them and who in many cases laugh at or are afraid of them. We drop toys on Corfu, one of the loveliest islands in the world—toys ! It belonged to us at one time, but, when we left, the people there did not realise the blessings of British rule, and they let us go without a word. They did not appreciate "their glory. We can drop leaflets, for every night practically planes pass or repass our islands. For some reason we do not do so; the only one I can think of is fear—it does not sit properly on this country—fear that the Germans may do us some harm. They have the islands in their hands, they have the populations in their hands, and we are afraid they may do us some harm. We are being punished by officialdom—I think it must be officialdom—by he refusal to let our people have the news of their own kin. Our reward for our service and for the services which we gave in the Great War—and which we are more than ready to give now—is the reward of a sinless Prometheus. I beg to move for Papers.


My Lords, may I interpose fox a moment to express the regret of my noble friend Lord Strabolgi that he is unable to be present to-day? He will be acquitted of any negligence, I am sure. I have just had a message from him that he is suffering from a chill.


My Lords, the noble Lord opposite, who takes so passionate an interest in the fate of the Channel Islands, having raised this subject, it would not be right that no voice should be raised from any quarter of the House to express the interest which I am sure your Lordships feel in the fate of our fellow subjects in those islands; and since in earlier years I was myself brought into official relationship with the islands and twice visited them on behalf of His Majesty's Government, perhaps my voice might not unfittingly be raised to express what I am sure is the general sentiment. Although constitutionally the business of the Channel Islands is transacted in this country through the Privy Council, often in fact it is managed technically, if I may so express it, by the Home Office, and, unless I was wrongly informed, I believe I was the first Home Secretary who ever visited the Channel Islands in an official capacity. Earlier than that as Under- Secretary I went there in order to help to resolve certain difficulties that had arisen between the Home Government and the Governments of the islands.

Anyone who has visited them will not only be aware of the great interest of their institutions and the charm of the localities, but also will be grateful for the friendly hospitality extended by the island authorities, and, above all, will come away with a deep sense of the pride of the Channel islanders in their free institutions and their intense loyalty to the Crown. The surrender of the islands to Germany in an earlier stage of this war came as a great shock to the public opinion of this country. No one who is not acquainted with all the military considerations can express any useful opinion as to the necessity for that action. We must believe that it was strategically necessary, or it would not have been done. When I heard the noble Lord express his deep pain at the hauling down of the Union Jack, I sympathised with him fully, but I felt no small surprise when he asked the question: Will the Union Jack ever be broken again over the islands? I feel sure that your Lordships must all have felt the same sensation when you heard those words. Surely without any shadow of doubt the Union Jack will be again hauled to the top of the flagstaff when the day comes for peace to be declared.


Perhaps I phrased it badly. Will the islanders themselves, deserted as they have been, be willing to break that flag at their mast? Will not they be content with their own flag of St. George?


I am afraid the noble Lord's intervention has made the situation worse than it was before. He has not only suggested that the British Crown might be disloyal to the islanders, but also that the islanders might be disloyal to the Crown. Of that, I feel certain, there is not the smallest danger.


Hear, hear.


I am glad to hear the noble Lord's corroboration of that, and his inquiry, I am sure, was intended to be rhetorical rather than a political declaration or suggestion. Yes, surely, when the war is over the islands will return to their allegiance, and the British Crown will restore its authority. They are the most ancient of all its possessions. The Channel Island connection and the words spoken in this House when the Royal Assent is given to Acts of Parliament in Norman French are the two connections still surviving of the old Duchy of Normandy with the British sovereignty, and we may feel certain that, after these hard trials are over, the islands will be restored to their old constitutional position. Meanwhile, undoubtedly His Majesty's Government ought to do all that is possible to comfort and encourage the islanders in their hard trial. What is being done in that respect I do not know. The noble Lord has indicted the Government for neglect and we must await the reply that will be given by their spokesman. Certainly we would wish to do nothing which would be likely to increase the difficulties of the islanders under German occupation and to worsen their hard fate. If it be possible to disseminate news among them and certainly to establish proper connections between the families that are separated through the German occupation, it would be the desire of your Lordships that that should be done, and we will await with great interest the statement of the Government as to the measures that have been or can be taken.


My Lords, we all realise, I am sure, not only from the debate today but from what fell from the noble Lord six months ago, that the cause of the Channel Islands is very near to his heart, and for that reason, moved by the sincerity and obvious feeling of what he has said, we may perhaps forgive some of what, I think, was an unmerited castiga-tion of the Government for what he called poltroonery and cowardice. The noble Viscount has fully dealt—much better than I could—with the loyalty of the islanders, and has refuted the suggestion that their defence was abandoned from any reason of indifference to their interests or safety. It did not need the noble Lord's eloquence to stir our sympathy for the tragic lot of those—mostly women and children—who have been left in the Channel Islands. We certainly value our fellow citizenship, and we have every confidence that when this time of tribulation has passed they will again become loyal subjects and renew their ancient allegiance.

The noble Lord who moved talked of the British Government having deserted the Islands and having left them to be bombed and machine-gunned. He talked of the dismantling of the forts which date back to the time of Napoleon III, and he suggested that the fact that a hundred years ago these islands defended themselves for six years against foes as strong and at least as able as our foes to-day, was a conclusive argument against surrender under present conditions. I am not briefed on defence problems. They are not touched upon in the noble Lord's question, but it must be obvious that air and submarine warfare has revolutionised the position and the prospects of defending the islands. It is evident that the problem of local air superiority would have meant an impossible task for the Royal Air Force. The nearest point of the islands is fourteen or fifteen miles from the coast of France, and four or five times as far from Great Britain. Is it not certain that, in direct view of the French coast and under ground observation from the aerodromes which fell into the hands of Germany at the surrender of France, the possibility of effective local air superiority to defend the Channel Islands would have been very different from what it was when the Germans tried their offensive over here? The noble Lord made it a reproach that the Government came to such a quick decision to abandon the islands. There would have been strong ground for reproach if they had hesitated. It would have been a wicked loss of life to subject these islands to a hopeless defence if the Government were convinced, as no doubt they were, that such a defence would have been hopeless, and would only have inflicted terrible losses on the civilian population.

I am sure we all realise the cruel fate that the islanders are now suffering, and certainly the Government are most anxious to do everything in their power to alleviate the anxieties of those who are still in the islands about their relations who are serving in the British Forces. The noble Lord did not mention that a very considerable step has been taken since he last raised the matter. I understood him to say that news was coming in from individuals in the Channel Islands to their relations serving over here, but it is also the case that messages are being sent to the Channel Islands. He said it was impossible to send from here. I took down his exact terms—that the Government would not send word that the people over here were safe and well to their relations in the Channel Islands. I can only read the announcement which was made in November in another place: The Foreign Relations Department of the Red Cross and Order of St. John has succeeded in arranging a special message scheme for the Channel Islands. Persons desiring to communicate with their relatives or friends in the islands can do so by taking ten-word messages to certain Citizens' Advice Bureaux, the addresses of which may be obtained at the nearest Post Office. The cost is 6d. per message, including reply. Messages must be written in English or French, and must deal with family matters only. They will go by air mail to Geneva, there to be dealt with by the International Red Cross Committee, but replies should not be expected for some weeks. That is a very considerable alleviation of the anxieties of the Channel Islanders about their relations serving in the British Forces, and I can assure the noble Lord that any further steps that can be taken will be most sympathetically examined by the Government.

He suggests in his Motion the particular measures of dropping leaflets and making broadcasts. In his speech he said it was very cruel that broadcasts were not allowed telling the islanders that their fighting men are well. He told us there were thousands of these fighting men, and I do not see how you could broadcast a general message of that kind. You could only read out a long catalogue giving details about several thousands of separate individuals, and that, clearly, is better dealt with by individual messages.


I meant a general message from the troops in England to say that they are well.


I cannot believe that any general message could alleviate individual anxieties about relatives, but I can assure the noble Lord that the general question of giving encouraging information to the Channel Islands is a matter on which the Government feel very sympathetic, and his proposals have been, and no doubt will continue to be, very carefully examined. I am sure the noble Lord will see that it would defeat his purpose if the Government were to give notice to the Nazis that they were going either to drop leaflets or to make broadcasts.




Because the Nazis would, no doubt, take steps to defeat our purpose. If we gave notice that there were to be broadcasts to the Channel Islands, it would be a great encouragement to them to confiscate the wireless sets in the islands. So it is obvious that to give notice in advance of any further steps that might be possible would really defeat the end the noble Lord has in view, and would only enable the Nazis to forestall and impede any remedial measures which might be found possible. I can only say, in conclusion, that we full sympathise with the position of the Channel Islanders and, as far as possible, through the Red Cross or otherwise, and in any way that may be discussed between the noble Lord and the Departments concerned, the Government are anxious to do everything in their power to alleviate the position.


My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his reply. I have, I imagine, no right to answer him, and so beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

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