HL Deb 24 November 1942 vol 125 cc200-22

LORD MARCHWOOD had given Notice that he would ask His Majesty's Government whether they will, in view of the statement that the Civil and Military Divisions of the British Empire Order are of equal status, state precisely the circumstances under which officers and men of the Merchant Navy are eligible for naval decorations; and also move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, before speaking to my Motion I should like to express my appreciation and thanks to the noble Viscount, the Leader of the House, for the trouble he has taken to arrange a date for the Motion which suits the convenience of everyone concerned with it. The purpose of the Notice standing in my name is to ask His Majesty's Government whether they will, in view of the statement that the Civil and Military Divisions of the British Empire Order are of equal status, state precisely the circumstances in which officers and men of the Merchant Navy are eligible for naval decorations; because despite the recent statement of the noble Lord, the Minister of War Transport, and answers given by Ministers to various questions on the subject in another place, there is still uncertainty and confusion with regard to awards for gallantry to the officers and men of the Merchant Navy.

Quite apart from every other consideration, I am sure your Lordships will agree that it is due to these gallant men that the Government should give a clear ruling, free from ambiguity, which will remove all doubts. Judging by Ministerial pronouncements and by the way recent awards have been bestowed, some in the Military and others in the Civil Division of the Order of the British Empire, there appears to be no settled, consistent policy in the matter. At times it looks as if selection were made on occupational grounds; at others, one is almost forced to the conclusion that it is done on the principle of the lucky dip. The First Lord of the Admiralty states that the policy is that officers and men of the Merchant Navy "should receive naval decorations when engaged in operations which amount in effect to sea battles." This, in view of certain recent awards, suggests the conundrum: When is a battle not a battle? And the answer would appear to be When a Merchant Navy officer or man is given an award in the Civil Division of the Order of the British Empire.

The Prime Minister, replying to a question on the subject, stated that naval awards are now available for the Merchant Navy for gallantry in action with the enemy. If that simple, straightforward statement were allowed to stand without qualification or variation, the case would be met and everyone would be satisfied. I should like to repeat that, so that the Minister who is going to reply will know exactly what is in my mind: if that simple, straightforward statement were allowed to stand without qualification or variation, to form the basis of awards, the case would be met and every- one would be satisfied. It would certainly obviate the need for any sea lawyer's judgment as to whether there had or had not been a battle.

The Prime Minister also said that it is not proposed to vary the long-standing custom that the appointments of civilians shall be in the Civil Division and of military personnel in the Military Division of the Order. This suggests another poser: Are officers and men in the Merchant Service to be considered civilians when defending their ship in the face of enemy attack, or are they to be considered combatants? Here again unfortunately one does not know until one sees what award is given, and recent awards provide no clue. Taking the Prime Minister's dictum that naval awards are available for the Merchant Navy for gallantry "in action with the enemy" and the First Lord's restriction of them "to sea battles," one finds it quite impossible to understand on what grounds the decoration of the C.B.E. Civil Division was given recently to Captain Capon, whose ship when carrying refugees from Singapore was attacked continuously for several hours by enemy aircraft, three bombs from which hit the ship wounding some of those on board and starting many fires. The aircraft were driven off and the fire parties got the fires under control when they were again attacked for two hours by 47 aircraft, and these were also driven off by the combined fire from the ship and her escort, one aircraft being shot down and another damaged. The Master's coolness, leadership and skill are reported to have been outstanding and it was in a great measure due to his handling of the ship during the attacks that she and the refugees on board were brought to safety. These facts are beyond dispute and surely in such circumstances no-one would have the temerity to say that Captain Capon was a noncombatant, for he fought bravely and successfully. Ridiculous as it may sound it would be just as accurate to say he was a pacifist as to describe him as a non-combatant.

The noble Lord, Lord Leathers, speaking in the debate on September 8, said of the Merchant Navy that their services were beyond praise and that it was right that officers and men should be eligible for all the gallantry awards that are available to those in the Royal Navy. Why then, I ask again, were Captain Capon and those under him not given naval awards? According to the Minister of War Transport they were eligible for them; according to the Prime Minister's definition they were "in action with the enemy," and whatever conception the First Lord may have of what constitutes a "sea battle," Captain Capon and his crew certainly played a very vital part in one.

To say, as the First Lord does, that the action fought by Captain Capon's ship does not fall within the "sea battle" definition, that it was essentially defensive and that the honours to the Captain and his men were chiefly in recognition of service in saving the damaged vessel, belittles a very gallant action. It also does much less than justice to the merchant sailors who took part in it, and it is to be hoped the Government will adjust matters by transferring the awards given from the Civil to the Military Division. The case I have quoted is not an isolated one; there are many others—which rather lends colour to the impression that there is some definite reason why the naval awards in the appropriate Division are withheld. I suggest that it would be far better to disclose the reason than remain silent, seeing that that attitude fosters a feeling of disappointment and soreness.

I hope it will not be thought for a single moment that in stressing the point 1 belittle in the slightest degree the valour, courage and devotion to duty which are necessary to earn civil awards, for one sees on so many occasions that the gallantry displayed by civilians cannot possibly be excelled. Gallantry is gallantry wherever displayed. It wears no uniform exclusive either to civilians or the Fighting Services. It is the type of award that is the consideration, not its value as a measure of gallantry; it is a matter of principle. If the personnel of the Merchant Navy are to receive decorations for fighting, they should be given the appropriate honour, which should be military in character and not civilian. The eloquent and generous tribute paid to the Merchant Navy by the noble and gallant Earl, Lord Beauty, when moving the Address in reply to the gracious Speech from the Throne, touched the hearts of all who heard him, and it will be gratefully remembered by those serving in the Mercantile Marine. He pointed out that in comparison the Merchant Navy had suffered greater loss in personnel than any of the other Services and that their devotion to duty was beyond all praise. As a serving officer in the Royal Navy he welcomed the decision that gallantry awards were to be given the Merchant Service officers and men upon the same basis as those in the Royal Navy, and the assurance given by the noble Viscount the Leader of the House that his remarks concerning the Merchant Service would receive the close and sympathetic attention of the Government, was most welcome and reassuring.

The nation wishes to see an end of this discrimination and pettifogging treatment of the Merchant Navy, for it is not only unnecessary, but it is unfair. Once again, therefore, I ask the Government to rise to the occasion and wipe away for all time these invidious distinctions and differences of treatment. Let the men of the Merchant Navy, who are doing a really splendid job, have the satisfaction of knowing that it is appreciated; that the nation intends them to have a square deal in return, and that the Government are prepared to give it. I beg to move.


My Lords, it is rather disturbing that such a delicate question as that of honours for one of the great Services of the State should again have to be debated in your Lordships' House so soon after the last occasion, when Lord Marchwood moved his Motion which had such effect, and which gave a great deal of pleasure to many of us. But I agree with the spirit of what he said this afternoon, and I do not feel that the Government have left the situation in a satisfactory state by their recent decision, which was, your Lordships will remember, that a merchant seaman was to be eligible for naval honours when the occasion was one which could be considered to be, in effect, a naval battle. I find it difficult in these days to define what a naval battle is. These are not days of great fleets of twenty or thirty battleships on each side, drawn up in line of battle, fighting each other as at Trafalgar or at the battle of Tsushima or on other great occasions in history. Naval battles at the present day are comparatively small affairs judged by the standard of naval history.

Was the action off Cape Matapan a battle or should we call it an action? Was the fight off the River Plate a battle, or was it an engagement or a small action? If merchant seamen had been present on these occasions, would they have come under the new rule and been eligible for naval honours, or would they have been treated as if they were merely casual civilians strolling about the battlefield? If in the case of a great fight such as the convoy to Malta, which we all have in mind, or the convoy to Russia, when there are probably fifty merchant ships and a couple of dozen warships or less, fighting continuously and fiercely for two or three nights and days, it is illogical to call the naval mart a fighter and the merchant man a civilian, surely when the number of ships engaged is less—if there are only two or three merchant ships and one or two warships present at the engagement, or even if there is only one merchant ship fighting against a submarine on the surface, firing their guns at each other and gallantry is specifically performed—you cannot say that in principle it is all different, that the situation is not great enough, that the battle has not been big enough to allow us to change the rule, and that accordingly the civilian seaman must get a different type of honour from that given to his naval comrade.

I do not think you can stand there. That does not seem to be right. After all, no matter in what circumstances the gallantry is performed, a man's gallantry is of exactly the same nature whether there are ten, a hundred, or a thousand ships on the scene of action at the time. I have spoken before, and I do not apologize for speaking again, to emphasize that it is of vital importance that it shall be agreed and understood that there is no question, as my noble friend Lord Marchwood properly stressed, between the honours awarded for civil gallantry and honours awarded for gallantry by the Fighting Services of the Crown. There is nothing that is more difficult to win than a civil gallantry decoration—the George Cross or the George Medal. Every case must be one of specific individual bravery which has been witnessed by two or more persons, who must sign a report that they witnessed the act and must describe what they saw, and that report must be investigated by one or more responsible persons before it comes to the Committee over which I preside. I am glad to say that the number of cases with which we have to deal to-day are so few that we have really very little to do. After all, gallantry needs opportunity, and opportunity can only come to civilians in this country, as a rule, if air raids take place. Therefore, the fewer decorations for gallantry by civilians, the fewer bombs are being dropped on our heads.

But if, for instance, a big town like Plymouth or a London borough is subjected to a very fierce and continuous battle for many hours—perhaps for three or four days running—we do not say to that town or borough, "You have fought a great action, let us have a list at once of twenty, thirty, or a hundred names of people whom you want to select and whom His Majesty would delight to honour." That was done in the last war in the Fighting Services—I do not know whether it is still done when a great occasion has occurred and honour and glory have come to our arms. In the case of the civil awards that is not done. We do indeed induce every authority to take the greatest care that gallantry is looked for and reported as soon as possible; but it must be a specific act by an individual. Also we have been most careful to keep the standard of civil gallantry very high. Why is that so? It is because when I toured the country two years ago, when the Orders were first instituted by His Majesty, to explain the principles on which we wanted to carry out His Majesty's intention, I found the strongest determination amongst civilians of all types, from the highest to the humblest, that the gallantry standard should be kept at the highest possible level. Therefore there can be no question, whatever decision is made by the Government on a problem in respect of which it is admittedly most difficult to give complete satisfaction, of any distinction being made between civil and military or naval awards in themselves.

Having gone so far as the Government have gone, having decided, as we may say, to decorate the ship, they surely should not spoil it for a ha'porth of tar. Let them go boldly forward on the line they have taken, and let them recommend that on all occasions of fighting at sea awards for gallantry shall be without distinction. The sea is a battlefield. Whenever you are on the sea in these days, it is a battlefield. When you leave port you go into battle, you face mine, submarine, torpedo, or bomb at any moment. The battle is continuous, and it never stops. There is no reason to stop at the words "when it can be considered as a naval battle". The award of naval honours should extend, in my opinion, to the merchant seaman on all occasions; not because it is a greater honour, because it is not, but merely because it is more appropriate and gives the merchant seaman the status that is his by right. It is not only when he is engaged in battle that he should have that right, but also in relation to any consequence of enemy action that befalls his ship. If the ship, for instance, has been damaged by the enemy and the enemy has flown away or gone underwater, the seaman is very likely fighting for the life of his ship, ready to give his own life for it. In those circumstances when he does some very brave deed, and perhaps sacrifices his life, he should not be told that "the enemy were not present and therefore you can only get a civil decoration." He should, in those circumstances, still be eligible for naval honours.

We all remember the very remarkable case of a pilot in our gallant Air Force not long ago who had been bombing over Germany and whose aircraft had been very severely damaged. Eventually he came to the conclusion that the only thing to do was to tell his crew to save their lives, and he hung on to his aircraft as long as he could to allow them to do so. Ultimately he lost his life in landing here. What award did that gallant man get? He got the Victoria Cross. The enemy was no longer present, but he was committing an act which was necessary as a consequence of enemy action. That is as I understand it. If that is right, then we must be logical and must similarly agree that in other spheres of action as long as you are on the battlefield you should be eligible for a proper military award. I would also make this point. On the civil battlefield in this country, if a sailor in the Royal Navy is ashore and assists the civil authorities in helping them to do something at his village or his farm in dealing with the effects of an air raid, for example, what award does he get? He gets a civil award. He is on the civil battlefield, and he gets a George Cross or a George Medal or something of a lesser distinction.

I will not go into the problem that the noble Lord, Lord Marchwood, has raised about the military and civil elements in the British Empire Order, because that is a most difficult and controversial question which must have a great deal more serious consideration. But I would like to say finally that I do feel that some steps ought to be taken to ascertain the feelings of the Merchant Navy itself. I have tried to do so myself, and I find there is a very considerable conflict of opinion. In the debate in this House on the 8th September the noble Lord, Lord Winster, your Lordships may remember, read a letter which he had received, I think, from the National Maritime Board and from the Officers Association in which they expressed the view that asking them to receive this or that honour was not in compliance with any wish expressed on behalf of the Merchant Navy, that their wish was to do their duty and let them be rewarded or not in a way that was considered best by their King and country. I do not think that is altogether a satisfactory position.

It is the same in the Fighting Services. The Fighting Services, so called constitutionally, also do not want to consider what honours they are going to get. It is the last thing of which they think. Nevertheless there are people, one or two in each of these Services, whose duty it is to think about these matters, and to he quite sure that on such a great and delicate subject proper thought is given to ensure that there is consistency and that everything is ordered as it should be ordered. I think it is a great pity that the heads of the great Merchant Navy—I agree they are not centralized in exactly the same way as the Fighting Services—have not been brought into consultation on these matters. They also have a duty to their men, and I do not think it is satisfactory merely to say that they care for none of these things. It is sad that the noble Lord, Lord Marchwood, should have to move this Motion and that I should have to support it; yet I feel that somehow, if he had not originally moved his Motion, nothing would have been done. That is an unsatisfactory thought, because we must remember that the merchant seaman is always in the battlefield, he is fighting our battler, we depend on him, and he should in every respect be eligible for the honours and privileges that fighting men are getting in this war.


My Lords, when the noble Lord, Lord Marchwood, put the Motion originally on the Paper, my noble friend asked me to study the subject and to ascertain the views of the personnel of the Mercantile Marine and particularly of the National Union of Seamen, with whom we always have very close relations. The Motion was postponed owing to the indisposition of Lord Bruntisfield. I would like to congratulate the noble Lord on his recovery. I am glad to see him here to-day in his usual rude health. The postponement has, however, given a little more time for the investigation I was undertaking. I consulted the officials of the National Union of Seamen and I understood they had discussed this matter with their colleagues on the National Maritime board. Their views, which I am now asked to express, may be put in this way. Needless to say they appreciate the lively interest which Lord Marchwood takes in the men of his old cloth, if I may so put it. He is an experienced seaman himself, and he never forgets, and we all value that characteristic. But as regards the National Union of Seamen—and l believe in this case they also speak for the officers' organization—they have asked the to state quite categorically that they have no desire to be associated in arty way with any suggestion which might appear to attempt to impinge on the Royal Prerogative. The question of what kind of decorations should be given as awards for gallantry is a matter in the discretion of His Majesty, and they have no desire whatever to make any suggestions with regard to the matter at all. That is quite categorical.

They also ask me to say—and here their attitude is the same as that described by the noble and plant Lord who has just addressed your. Lordships—that what they are primarily concerned with is using their greatest exertions and endeavours to hasten the victory which we must achieve if their life and the life of any of us is to be worth living in the future. Their whole energies are bent to that end. They also ask me to remind your Lordships that after the war there will be many acute problems affecting the Mercantile Marine and its personnel; that they, for their part, are very exercised as to their future, and that they want to be quite sure there will be no return to the bad conditions at sea which were suffered by so many seamen before the war. I hope that when these matters come up for consideration after the war all your Lordships who have shown such appreciation of the fortitude and devotion to duty of the men of the Mercantile Marine will be, as I am sure you will be, deeply sympathetic to their claims for fair and just treatment. That, I believe, is the reward they look for if there is to be a reward for doing what, after all, is only their duty.

I would add one further sentence with reference to what has been said both by my noble friend Lord Marchwood and my noble and gallant friend Lord Chatfield. The question whether merchant seamen should be recognized as combatants is very delicate, and no one knows better than the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Chatfield. Seamen under International Law are civilians and are entitled to the privileges of civilians. The fact that they defend themselves when attacked—the right of every citizen—the fact that they are prepared to defend themselves against piratical attacks as in this war, does not alter their civilian status. In this case the status of a civilian is no sort of stigma at all. This is a very delicate matter, and it might be very inadvisable to interfere, or to appear to interfere, with the civilian status of the merchant seaman. The fact that International Law at sea has been torn up, and that centuries old established rights and usages of seamen in the great wars of the past have been thrown away by the modern barbarians whom we are fighting to-day, does not alter the fact that one day we shall reestablish International Law. That is one of the objects for which we are fighting.


May I ask my noble friend whether he would agree that it is to the disadvantage of merchant seamen when they become prisoners of war, as a great many of them have, if they are treated by Germany or Italy as civilians in the prison camps? If they are treated as fighting men they will get all the attentions and privileges to which fighting men are entitled. If they are civilians they will not get those privileges and may suffer far greater hardships.


I am informed that the representatives of their union accept that position, but it does not alter their anxiety as to their position when the question of permanently altering the status of the merchant seaman is under examination. I venture to suggest that one of the most certain things in this world is, that we must restore respect for International Law at sea, and then the status of the merchant seaman will become a matter of great importance. All I am doing is to put this forward as a consideration which must not be lost sight of in the well meant and sympathetic efforts of my noble friend Lord Marchwood and others, to bring about these changes and reforms. I am putting forward the anxiety felt by seamen themselves when any question of altering their status permanently is under discussion. What I have said I think fairly represents the views of the spokesmen and representatives of seamen themselves, and I am sure that His Majesty's Government will bear it in mind when this matter comes up for decision.


My Lords, I will occupy your attention for two or three minutes only. I would like first to say that I was glad to hear the remarks of my noble friend who has just spoken as to the position of the National Union of Seamen in regard to an inquiry about the status of merchant seamen, because when my noble friend Lord Marchwood asked for an inquiry to make sure of that the Union was quoted against those who spoke in favour of it and it was said the Union did not want anything of the sort. I support my noble friend Lord Marchwood who, it must be remembered, speaks for the Honourable Company of Master Mariners, which is a very influential Company, and must be taken to know something about the feeling among officers of the Mercantile Marine. Since the last time that I had the pleasure of supporting him on the question of decorations for merchant seamen I had been under the impression that all was well and that officers and men of the Mercantile Marine were entitled to the same decorations as the officers and men Of the Royal Navy. If that is not so, and apparently it is not, I think it is deplorable that the action which we thought would be taken has been limited by these quibbles. I do not want to inflict upon your Lordships the same arguments which I tried to put forward on a previous occasion. Deeds speak louder than words, and the fact is that the Merchant Navy is now an integral part of the Fighting Services. When they take part in any operations there ought to be no distinction between defensive and offensive action. If you start to go into that you will get into a hopeless tangle. If a man takes part in an action against the enemy it does not matter whether it is defensive or offensive.


Surely my noble and gallant friend recognizes the difference between a merchant seaman defending his own ship and a merchant seaman in an armed merchant cruiser?


Surely he is defending if attacked whether he is defending himself or the ship or the cargo that is being carried to help our Army.


When a man is serving in an armed merchant cruiser he becomes a combatant. He is different from a man serving in a ship armed for defence—a centuries old practice. A man in the latter case remains a civilian.


I entirely disagree with my noble friend Lord Strabolgi. It depends on the operations that are being carried out. If you carry out an attack and part of the attacking force consists of merchant ships, how can you pretend that the seamen are civilians when they are taking as great a part in the action as anyone else and doing the same work as the Army Service Corps does for the Armies on land? We have been told that 16,000 merchant seamen have lost their lives at sea in this war. That figure was given some weeks ago and so that number must have been considerably added to now. To that number you must add those who have died after being brought ashore and those who have been ruined in health and strength through long hours of exposure. Whatever may be said as to whether a man is a civilian or a seaman the Merchant Navy have made good their case to be considered as combatants whenever there is a question of awards or rewards. I am sure that if your Lordships were to take a strong line in insisting on their being treated in that way, you would have all officers and men, their admiring comrades, in the Royal Navy, and millions of people throughout the country at your back.


My Lords, I should like first to offer an apology to my noble friend Lord Marchwood for having been unavoidably prevented from being in my place last Tuesday which was the day originally fixed for the discussion of his Motion. I am afraid I caused him some inconvenience and I am indebted to him for his kindness in postponing his Motion. The noble Lord who moved this Motion has, I know, this subject very much at heart. I hope that in listening to my reply he will not feel that I am influenced by any prejudice against the Service of which he is one of the representatives in this House. The Motion which he has put on the Paper asks a specific question—namely, whether, in view of the statement that the Civil and Military Divisions of the Order of the British Empire are of equal status, His Majesty's Government will state precisely the circumstances under which officers and men of the. Merchant Navy are eligible for naval decorations. The speech of the noble Lord and the discussion which that speech has prompted strayed far beyond the limits of the original Motion. I make no complaint of that at all; but I would observe that many of the points raised bear most directly upon the Prerogative of His Majesty the King. For instance, the question whether it is right or proper that the Military Division of the Order of the British Empire should be closed to officers and men of the Merchant Navy. In replying for the Government it would be wholly improper for me, as the representative of the Admiralty in your Lordships' House, to say anything which might be interpreted as an encroachment upon the Prerogative of the Crown, and I intend to take good care not to do so.

Let me first of all answer the point specifically referred to in my noble friend's question. In a previous debate, which took place in your Lordships' House on September 8, my noble friend, Lord Leathers, when announcing that His Majesty had been graciously pleased to allow naval decorations—the D.S.O., the C.G.M., and the D.S.M.—to be awarded to officers and men of the Merchant Navy in addition to those naval decorations, the V.C., and the D.S.C., for which they were already eligible, made quite clear, I think, the circumstances in which these naval awards would be appropriate. I will quote his words: The object in mind is that military awards"— in using the word "military" my noble friend meant it in the naval sense, of course— are appropriate for merchant seamen when engaged in operations which amount in effect to sea battles. Now my noble friend Lord Marchwood said that that was not sufficiently clear. I will come back to that point in a minute, but let me say here that the term "sea battles" does not necessarily cut out small naval actions which could not, in any sense of the word, be described as battles. Lord Chatfield asked: What is a battle? Well, it is very difficult to say. Certainly actions such as he described—the River Plate engagement, for instance—which, perhaps, cannot be described technically as naval battles, would not be cut out under the phraseology which has been used.

Lord Marchwood now asks me for a precise statement of the circumstances in which the Merchant Navy are eligible for these decorations. I should be very happy to oblige him but, though the spirit is willing the flesh, I am afraid, is very seriously handicapped and for this reason. May I first of all amplify the statement which my noble friend Lord Leathers made in the recent debate? In general, officers and men of the Merchant Navy are eligible for Royal Navy honours, decorations and medals for gallantry and distinguished service, such as would earn similar rewards for the Royal Navy in operations which are in effect sea battles. The circumstances in which they are eligible for such awards cannot be more precisely stated than that for the reason that they cannot be precisely foreseen. Indeed, I think any attempt at greater precision is to he deprecated for there would then be a very real danger that the effect of laying down exact rules might be to exclude, because of meticulous definition, cases of an unprecedented or unusual kind which it might be desirable to see qualify for Royal Navy awards.

Several noble Lords who have taken part in this debate have put questions which I think stress the truth of what I have said. They ask: What is a battle? What is going to be allowed and what is going to be cut out? I think that the less precision I use in answering those questions the better it will be for those who hope to qualify for the award of naval decorations. And in this connexion I would like to remind your Lordships of the procedure which governs the recommendations and submissions for the award of these honours, because it bears very much on the whole point. The Orders in Council governing Royal Navy awards and the Statutes of the D.S.O., make them available to the Merchant. Navy for such services in action with o the enemy as may seem to the First Lord of the Admiralty to qualify for such awards, and each recommendation is considered on the qualities, circumstances and merits of the action and conduct. For these purposes the First Lord enjoys the advice and assistance of the Honours and Awards Committee which sits in the Admiralty under the chairmanship of a Vice-Admiral in His Majesty's Navy, and is assisted by two Merchant Navy Captains when Merchant Navy cases are under discussion. The sort of case which noble Lords have mentioned to-day, when there is some doubt as to whether the award should be a naval decoration or not, would be considered by that Committee, and these two gentlemen, who are themselves men of the Merchant Navy, have full opportunity of expressing their view. I think the interests of the Merchant Navy would be well looked after by these two gentlemen. It would, therefore, seem to be infinitely preferable to refrain from circumscribing this procedure with precise or definite formula. I suggest that the object which I understand that the noble Lord has in mind is far more likely to be achieved if those concerned are allowed a wide measure of latitude.

The noble Lord, having failed on a previous occasion to round his mark, has put about on the other tack and, sailing his ship close-hauled, has come up to windward once more, his topsails shaking with indignation, and has returned to the attack. I am referring now to his plea that there should be no differentiation between the Royal Navy and the Merchant Navy in respect of awards within the Order of the British Empire. I am most unwilling to be drawn into any sort of comparison of the services rendered and the hazards endured by the seamen of the Royal and Merchant Navies respectively; suffice it to say that the debt which the nation owes to both of them is irrepayable. It is upon the valour and endurance of both that the safety of the British Empire and its ability to achieve victory chiefly depend.

I must remind your Lordships that the provisions of the Statutes governing awards for gallantry for which officers and men of the Merchant Navy may or may not be eligible are not the concern, in the first instance, of the Admiralty. This is a matter entirely within the Royal Prerogative. Moreover, as the result of a recent decision, recommendations for the Order of the British Empire in respect of the Merchant Navy are now sent to the Prime Minister for submission to His Majesty by the Minister of War Transport and not by the First Lord of the Admiralty. The First Lord, please observe, still makes recommendations in respect of naval awards for the Merchant Navy. It will be seen, therefore, that this particular matter is less than ever one for the Admiralty. I trust that what I have said will make it clear to your Lordships that, whilst it is within my competence to answer the specific question posed in the Motion, the other point raised by the noble Lord is outside the province of my Department. However, since the noble Lord has made much of his latter point, and as it is my duty to-day to reply for the Government as a whole, I feel that I must, out of courtesy to him and to other noble Lords who have referred to the subject, give him an answer, even though, for reasons which I have stated, I do so with some diffidence. I think I had better say at once that it is the view of the Ministry of War Transport—and I have the authority of my noble friend for saying this—that it is important that the present position should be maintained, and that the proposal submitted by the noble Lord to-day should not be adopted. As the noble Lord himself has said, it has been officially stated on more than one occasion that the Civil and Military Divisions of the Order of the British Empire are of equal status.


No one disputes it.


The nature of the award depends simply upon the calling of the recipient, and not upon the merits of the service performed; and it is not considered that military awards within the Order are appropriate for those serving in civilian occupations, however gallant be their exploits. It is really no reflection upon the seamen of the Merchant Navy to describe them as civilians. On the contrary, the fact that a calling which is unversed in the arts of war and not subject to any code of discipline, beyond that associated with the traditions of the sea, carries on undaunted in the face of unparalleled hardships and perils, can do nothing but add lustre to the glory of its achievements. So far as my Department is concerned, it is of the utmost importance that the equality of the status of the two Divisions of the Order of the British Empire should be fully and widely understood, if only because, apart from other pertinent considerations, the Admiralty have in their service very many thousands of civilian employees. Some of these nave performed acts of the very greatest gallantry in circumstances which cannot be described as other than in the face of the enemy. Take, for instance, the staff of the dockyard in Malta. The noble Lord, Lord Chatfield, said that the sea was in a different category, because gallantry at sea was performed on a battlefield. It would be impossible to nave a much tougher or rougher battlefield than Malta, and very similar conditions will be found at times in Plymouth and in other industrial towns in this country. These men to whom I am referring are civilian employees—the case of a dockyard worker in Malta was mentioned in the newspapers only three days ago—and they have been rewarded with appointments in the Civil Division of the Order of the British Empire.

Any step, therefore, which might depreciate the value of these awards in the public esteem would, from the point of view of the Admiralty, be most regrettable. It is in fact much to our interest to effect the reverse process, and to discourage anything being said or clone which will foster the misconception that an award in the Civil Division is less meritorious than one in the Military Division. If this debate succeeds in correcting this unfortunate and wholly erroneous idea, then it will have served, I believe, a most timely and useful purpose. I have endeavoured to explain why the noble Lord's original question cannot be answered with precision, and I have elaborated, I fear somewhat tediously, the important and far-reaching considerations which surround his further plea. I have had to tread delicately in so doing; but let nothing that I have said be taken as in any way detracting from the glorious achievements of the Merchant Navy. There exists in the Royal Navy, I know, the most profound admiration for their brother seamen. They are proud to sail in company with them and they realize, as fully as we all do, that it is their combined efforts and devotion to duty which will ultimately spell the doom of our enemies.


My Lords, I am sure that my noble friend who has just replied for the Government is entitled to the gratitude of the House for taking the opportunity of correcting the misconceptions which he suggests have existed with regard to the two categories of awards under this Order. At the same time I think the House will feel cordial admiration for the manner in which he has presented a case which is rather complicated. I fancy that the mover of the Motion spoke under a sense of strong emotion, but I hope he will see his way not to press the Motion after the clarification of the matter just made on behalf of the Government. The noble Lord, Lord Bruntisfield, has been careful to point out the danger in all these matters of trying to define precisely the intentions, which would really defeat the object in view, because it would entail the risk of forfeiting an award which men otherwise might receive and to which they would be entitled. He emphasized that this is more a matter for the Ministry of War Transport than for the Admiralty. He also at some length indicated the complication introduced by the question of the Prerogative of the Crown, and it is a very proper custom of the House to speak no word which would impinge on that.

He made the point that these actions that have been referred to are, in fact, sea battles, and cannot be more precisely described. The reason why I ask the indulgence of the House in intervening in this debate, is that I am probably one of the few members of the House who have recently had the experience of a considerable sea journey in convoy. During that journey I had the opportunity of speaking with a great number of naval ratings who had been recently torpedoed, and who had been gathered up from various points and were being repatriated. During that prolonged journey I spoke with many of these men, and I was deeply impressed with the instances of heroism on the part of the Mercantile Marine recounted by those naval ratings. I am sure that the House will be in entire sympathy with the desire that these men should receive the highest awards for their great service to the country. While I understand the strong feeling of my noble friend Lord Marchwood, on the other hand I quite appreciate the points made by the noble Lord who replied for the Government, but my main object in rising was to emphasize the hope that whatever may emerge from this debate, the utmost generosity to the men of the Mercantile Marine should be accorded in the interpretation of the rules which govern the making of the awards.


My Lords, I am sure you have all listened with interest to the views expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Bruntisfield, and I can assure him that, though, I am disappointed with the reply. I am in no way indignant. I deplore that the Government cannot see their way to do what we have asked, and that their spokesman has to use special pleading and hair-splitting arguments to explain away the case I have made. I do not wish to divide the House because I understood from the noble Lord that if we left the question to the Committee which has been appointed on which two Captains of the Merchant Navy sit, it might be possible to decide on rather a broader basis what is a battle. That, I think, goes a long way to meet the contention I have put forward. I have endeavoured to make my case reasonably and quietly, but I feel very deeply indeed on this question. My noble friend pointed out that many of these matters are entirely outside his province, and I appreciate the difficulty of his going further than he has done. But I do sincerely hope that when it comes to rewarding bravery, the Committee to which he referred will do their utmost to be generous and see that the definition of a sea battle is very comprehensive.


I do not want there to be any misunderstanding about this because if I gave the impression that the Committee have any official responsibility in making recommendations I was quite wrong. In the first instance these recommendations are considered by a Committee which will have the benefit of the advice and guidance of two members of the Mercantile Marine, but they have no ultimate responsibility.


I quite see that. The debate has rather tended to develop into a matter of legal argument. I am no lawyer, but if I were to be asked what is a battle, I would say that any fighting at sea between ships of opposing nations, whether above, on or below the sea, quite irrespective of their numbers, should be regarded as a sea battle. That definition may quite possibly shock the experts of the Admiralty, who may distinguish between skirmishes, encounters, minor actions, running fights and a battle like Jutland. Again I say let the interpretation of a battle be comprehensive, and I shall be satisfied. There is abundant lip service given to these gallant men on every occasion and the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, when speaking just now, referred to the many acute problems that will have to be dealt with after the war. There were many acute problems that had to be dealt with before the war, yet very little was done by the various organizations he referred to until they were stirred up to get a move on. When this was done, within about three weeks they said "We have done this" and "We have done that." If we can inspire them with the energy to do these things we have achieved a great deal. I disagree in the main with what he said regarding these organizations. Sailors, as a body, are very inarticulate and do not want to bring forward their own case. They are afraid of losing their jobs. I have letters here which absolutely contradict the view expressed by the noble Lord.


I must protest. The noble Lord surely does not wish to lead your Lordships to suppose that the National Union of Seamen have accomplished nothing for seamen in forty years of striving?


I am glad to say they have done something, but they could do a great deal more, and I am glad they are getting a move on at last. Here is an extract from a letter sent to the Honourable Company of Master Mariners referring to the statement made by the noble Lord, Lord VVinster, the other day. It says: When the official quoted by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Winster, says that opinion in the Merchant Navy is divided on the matter, I find myself sceptical of the correctness of his statement. That I will not go into, however. I do admit that there is said to be a strong division of opinion regarding the question which I am raising. It is not pleasant for me, when the Government tell me they can go no further, to get tip and plead the case again. I was told definitely by Lord Leathers on the previous occasion that it was right that officers and men of the Merchant Navy should be eligible for all the gallantry awards that are available to those serving in the Royal Navy. I have given to the House my view of what I feel is the right thing to be done for these men, and I have had splendid support. I see that there are reasons why it cannot be done to the degree and ex- tent which I have suggested. I therefore hope the Government will give their most sympathetic consideration to all that has been said, and that the Committee mentioned may in their wisdom widen the scope of their decisions. In these circumstances I ask leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.