HL Deb 07 March 1944 vol 130 cc1085-96

LORD PORTSEA had the following Notice on the Paper: To ask His Majesty's Government, whether those officers and men from Jersey and Guernsey who fought at Dunkirk and were then given leave to their homes and who were not evacuated therefrom when the islands were occupied by the Germans, and were sent to concentration camps, will be in a like condition and position and will be treated after the war, as regards rank, pay and increase thereof, as if they had not been left behind, and whether compensation of any nature will be offered; and further, to ask His Majesty's Government for their views and intentions in the matter; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the notice of Motion which stands in my name is practically explanatory. It is in a measure all that I have to say to your Lordships in the remarks I am about to make. At the same time I must, with your Lordships' permission, go back a little to the history of this matter and probably repeat what I have told your Lordships before. The House is aware that the Royal Militia of Jersey and of Guernsey were unique. The service was obligatory, universal and unpaid. On the other hand, it was a civilian force under civilian law and strong in the freedom of civilian law. Every man in the islands is a free man and his land is freehold. Your Lordships will remember that Mr. Disraeli said that "the tenure of property should be the fulfilment of duty." The title of Royal Militia—they were the only Royal Militia before 1920 in the Empire—was won by them by gallantry, by deeds of gallantry for the Crown. Monarchs' charters are not so much valued nowadays as they were then, but there were charters saying that no man of the islands should be required to serve outside his islands. "Nisi in casu ubi corpus Nostri in prisona detineatur." That sounds very grand nowadays for a little place: unless the body of the King was in the hands of his enemies; then of course the islanders took their arms, went where they were told, and fought till the King was taken out of prison.

It was a proud privilege and it was a very good system. It is a great system, an educational system, and a system teaching duty, responsibility and citizen-ship. We may come to it here yet, as we did in the old days, when every freeholder had to give forty days' service to the Crown. The whole youth of the islands volunteered in 1914; seventeen per cent. of the population went to France. Again, in 1939, about the same percentage, I think, volunteered and went to France, and fought in all those battles which culminated at Dunkirk. Your Lordships will remember that there was no garrison in Jersey or in Guernsey. There were no soldiers in Jersey and only a very few in Guernsey. It was clearly stated in the House of Commons—I am very well aware of the incident because it was in answer to a question of mine—by the Under-Secretary for War (later Lord Craigavon) that if any troops were sent to Jersey or Guernsey it would be because the granting of home rule to South Ireland had had the effect of closing a large number of barracks which would otherwise be at the disposal of the Government, and that there were very good barracks in the islands. Really it was a matter of convenience and in no sense were the troops sent to the islands for the purpose of defence. That was understood.

The defence of the islands was left primarily, as it had been for centuries, to the island forces. These island forces, all well trained men and good shots, had defeated many French attacks. They had withstood Cromwell himself, and it is not necessary to describe Cromwell and Admiral Blake. They had kept their island undefiled for literally more than a thousand years. It was a safeguard. For years this system of defence had displeased the War Office and the Government, and efforts had been made to do away with the "unpaid service." The unpaid civilian force was anathema to a man brought up as a "soldier" having men under military law and under severe discipline. I myself joined in the late 'seventies—unpaid. I saw the evolution, which has not benefited the islands, has not benefited the War Office and has not benefited the defence. The islanders were finally induced to give up their privilege and their security by different promises made by the Government, and to adopt a very limited obligatory ballot, to accept the Army Act (no more civil law), and to be paid—to pay themselves indeed by taking in their own washing. They were to accept Army law and do away with their final buckler and shield, a civil force under civil law. The civil court was much more gentle in many cases than a Court Martial, absolutely fair as I have found Courts Martial to be. Perhaps I am prejudiced, but I have served on them.

Thus they really became soldiers, receiving a "solde" under the Army Act. In return for their sacrifice of freedom and security they were promised arms, guns and munitions and the great rock fortress (Fort Regent), which was built by Lord Palmerston at a cost of £1,000,000, and would be even now a great fortress, a very safe and secure place, if the guns had not been all taken away. "Ultimate defence of course remained with England. We are never ready—I will not mention Ethelred the Unready, except to say that unreadiness seems to have permeated our history—but although we are never ready we fortunately turn up trumps in the end. The final defence was left to England This unfortunately pleased the islands' majority. Although they had read about Esau and his mess of pottage, they gave up what their fathers had held. They thought their own importance—you know, my Lords, the smaller the person the more important he thinks himself (though that does not apply to me!)—the importance of their islands, and the importance of their history permitted them "to shelter under the eagle's pinions" the sure shield of their own and their fathers' land—England.

Your Lordships know the sequel of Dunkirk. On the return from France—I read in one of the newspapers that it was not a quitting or a return but a coming home from Dunkirk—leave was given to a large number of islanders, if they wanted it and asked for it, to go home. Those who accepted the offer were taken back to Guernsey and Jersey. Almost simultaneously vast numbers of troops were retired from Cherbourg and the Cotentin peninsula and were poured—that is the word—into Jersey and Guernsey. These were carried in small boats of all sorts and descriptions. The French shore is very shallow, and once they were in the island larger ships were able to get into the island harbours and take them home. And they did take them home. All these Regular troops quitting France, as soon as they arrived in Jersey, were ordered out again immediately, taking with them—this is the terrible part—all guns, arms and ammunition, and, what was worse, hauling down the flags by Government order. The Norman flags of St. George and St. Andrew, the flag of England, all were hauled down and the troops cleared out the day before the enemy came, the day before the Germans appeared and bombed and machine-gunned the islands. They all sailed away for safety, all except those islanders who had had the courage and the patriotism to fight for Government and country in France and who had been given home leave. These brave men were promptly made prisoners of war by the Germans and sent to concentration camps in Germany.

Nearly four years ago they were sent to concentration camps in Germany and they are still there, in despair and desolate. What they must have suffered and what they must be suffering! Concentration camps, as your Lordships are aware, were invented by us and named by us in the Boer War, and the very name of them is to-day cursed by Brother Boer. These are concentration camps but they are not English concentration camps; they are German, and the standard is not quite the same. But our lads did not bargain. They offered all they had—all, life itself. Their offer was accepted, and their service was accepted and made use of. Then they were overlooked. They were left defenceless to become prisoners of war, without arms, and they went to German concentration camps. I heard some wise advice given in this House a few days ago, and I shall try to follow it—"It is no good selecting epithets about such conduct." That short phrase summarizes the whole matter. Not one single word of sympathy and comfort has been sent to these people in four years, nor has there been one generous gesture. Sympathy and praise have been lavished on many, but to our very own, as they say in Ireland, "devil a word." There was a Bishop who wrote: "Friend of the friendless, Albion, where are thou?" He did not supply the answer. Such acts on the part of any Government cannot fail to have serious and permanent repercussions. If your Lordships question that, I can refer you to 1864, a sad story. Foreigners do not understand, and very naturally, the true nature and the true spirit and courage of our race, and when such elementary and sacred obligations are broken or overlooked, foreigners are apt to draw entirely erroneous conclusions, and to express them and to act on their own interpretation of our acts.

It must be said—and I say it gladly—that the German has appreciated the strategic value of the islands. He has now heavily garrisoned them and heavily fortified them. It will require a great effort to capture them. The German recognized that the islanders were a great maritime people, with a great past history, and has treated them very well according to his own standards. That does not mean to say, however, that the islanders have not suffered and are not suffering. I will give an instance in- dicating why I say that. A great many people were deported from the islands and sent to concentration camps, and these people are allowed to have prisoners-of-war parcels. What did they do? They sent their parcels to Jersey and Guernsey. They knew—it was not a matter of hearsay as far as they were concerned—that the people there were starving, and they denied themselves to send parcels to their own people in the island. They are brave men; there was no quibbling with them about starvation, as there may have been with us, full-fed as we are.

The last message which I have had from Jersey came from a relative, one of the few relatives that I have left in the world, and for whom I can vouch. It is already five months old, and it says: "Trying to live on garden produce. I envy my dead son." That son, an only son, was killed in action two years ago, and his death is envied by his parent. His earthly sufferings at least are over. AH are suffering in the islands, including both the older people who wore advised to stay there by Royal Proclamation and those who went to meet: he King's enemies at the gate. All are suffering; all are forgotten! As for the treatment of both, I remember the words of wisdom which I have already quoted—"It is no good selecting epithets about such conduct." "Are not five sparrows sold for two farthings, and not one of them is forgotten before God."

While in these camps—in slavery, of course—their islands occupied by the enemy and their voices stifled, one of their greatest privileges, one of the greatest charters given them by their King and treasured by them, has been taken away from them. The gift of Kings has been thrown into the limbo of unappreciated sacrifice, possibly through ignorance. What a treatment for the only part of our own Motherland which still remains to us! What a treatment of people who volunteered to fight for King and Country! What an inspiration to those men of our Dominions, Dependencies and Colonies, and of our erstwhile Colony across the Atlantic to take home with them! What a picture to give the foreigner; another variation of his cliché, "Perfide Albion." What a text to enlarge upon! "Waft, waft ye winds the story, and you, ye waters, roll"—the story of those who volunteered and went to fight the enemy, to dig their own graves in a German camp.

I have said that the defence of these islands was left primarily to the islanders themselves, as it had been in the past for century on century. But it was one thing to leave the primary defence to the islanders, it was another thing to accept the war service in foreign lands of every young islander that could be found in the island, because none remained—they would have been ashamed. It was another thing to use them in foreign lands and then to send them home, to be immediately trapped and sent to Germany into the concentration camps. Remember they are all trained men, from thirteen to sixty-five, and all good shots—because that is where the system was successful. There was no pay, but each company had so many prizes given to it every year for the best shots, and the allocation was generous. It was another thing to leave all the older men, in a military sense, absolutely naked to the enemy.

It did not mean that the glorious Royal Navy, in which so many islanders have served and are serving on the upper deck and on the lower deck—Saumarez, Brocks, Careys, Vicks, Dumaresqs, and last and greatest of these old families, the Carterets—should be forced to bypass the islands—islands placed by nature to command the Channel. It did not mean that the R.A.F., passing nightly over the islands, should not be allowed to drop so much as a leaflet—at least we were not told that they were allowed—or to help in any way, as was done almost everywhere else. And it did not mean either that the whole people, with their defence taken from them, should be left at the mercy of the first comer—because their guns were taken away—sans flag, sans arms, saws defence. And it did not mean that the old Norman flag of St. George and St. Andrew, the flag of England, should be hauled down by Government order the day before the enemy even appeared. I wonder what we should say of any other nation that had done that. And it did not mean that these officers and men who fought in France for King and country and were given home leave were to be handed over to the foe, were to be left to spend their youth in the camps, to break their hearts, their spirits, their health and even their faith four years ago. As I say, and repeat, they had never a single message of comfort, a sign or a signal. And that treatment to the only remaining part of our Motherland which is still ours!

And what of those officers and men in camps, those whose lives are precious to themselves and to their islands, those whose hopes have been crushed, whose health has been ruined? Some, a very few, have been repatriated. I have not seen their chief, who is a man already of a certain age. All those poor people whose faith must be unbalanced, what can we offer them in token of appreciation of their sacrifices, the long-continued sacrifice—the drip, drip, drip of the water? What can we offer by way of reparation to those who did not surrender? Remember, they did not surrender, but they were surrendered. Shade of Kitchener of Khartoum and his opinion of those who surrendered!—not of those who were surrendered in a body, young, healthy, fighting men. We hear of the Four Freedoms. Very useful they are; there are also the four R's—Remembrance and Regret, Repentance and Remorse. What can we offer? I have tried hard to bring before your Lordships—very inadequately and imperfectly, I know, but it would take an orator to do justice to the theme—the long-drawn agony of service disdained, the anguish of sacrifice unheeded, not valued, and perhaps even unknown, the terrible days of life in those camps, and the feelings of one's fellow countrymen. I have made every effort of which I am capable, old and worn-out as I am, every effort of body and of soul, to bring it before your Lordships. There was a great Scot who was well known to every man in this House who wrote, "Who does his utmost best may whiles do mair." I have done my utmost best. I pray God that more may come of it even now. I beg to move for Papers.


My Lords, I am sure your Lordships will appreciate the emotion which my noble friend has displayed on this subject, which is so very near to his heart. No one can possibly say that the noble Lord has not been a worthy exponent of what he considers to be the case of the Channel Islanders, or that he has failed to put his views effectively before your Lordships' House. I must tell my noble friend, however, that I rather regret that when I heard his speech I found it had nothing whatever to do with the terms of the Motion which he has placed on the Order Paper. Had he been able to tell me that he was going to give your Lordships such an interesting story of the earlier history of the islands at the commencement of his remarks, and had he given me notice that he was going to raise one or two other points later, I would naturally have endeavoured to ascertain what the facts are as far as our knowledge goes. But he gave me no such information, so I hope he will not think me discourteous if I do not follow him in the observations he has made.

I can assure him, however, that there is no need to educate the British public on the subject of the gallantry and patriotism of the Channel Islanders. That has been known through all the many long years of partnership, and it is recognized everywhere. We value the service of those Channel Islanders who are fighting in the Army and in the Royal Navy to-day as our brothers in arms, and I can assure the noble Lord, if he needs such an assurance, that we do feel that it is greatly to our advantage to have that comradeship and association in arms. It was a little bit unfair of the noble Lord to suggest that there was no sympathy in your Lordships' House for these people. I suppose nothing has hurt us more in the course of this war, probably, than the awful sudden change in the strategic situation which rendered it essential for us to evacuate from the Channel Islands. Although the noble Lord is perfectly entitled to hold the view that his gallant fellow-countrymen in the Channel Islands—good marksmen as we know them to be—could have put up a fight, as we know they would have done, it would have been a very grave responsibility, once the whole of that French coastline had gone, for His Majesty's Government to take any other decision than the one they did take. I have sympathy with my noble friend, but those who have made a study of similar situations in the world will agree that, under modern conditions of warfare, no other decision than that which His Majesty's Government took could have been justified. I frankly confess that it was a deep hurt and sorrow to me when the decision was taken, but subsequent events have convinced me that the decision was a wise one. Is this a time to recriminate? Is it not a time for us to make up our minds that in this great act of liberation we are going to do our utmost to see that the people of the Channel Islands are set free along with all the persecuted people of Europe and given that liberty which we are all longing to restore to them?

With regard to the Motion on the Paper, my reply to the noble Lord is very brief and very simple. I am glad to say that I can, I think, give him absolute satisfaction with regard to the points he has raised. When the Germans captured the Channel Islands there were a number of officers and men in the islands spending a well-earned leave at their homes after the ordeals they had sustained in resisting the German onslaught before the evacuation from Dunkirk. A serving soldier remains a serving soldier when he is on leave. If he is captured by the enemy he becomes a prisoner of war and he continues to be regarded as a prisoner of war so long as his status in the Army is not changed by any act of his. These officers and men from the Channel Islands have been treated and will continue to be treated in every respect in the same way as any other British prisoner of war and in the same way as they themselves would have been treated had they been captured while serving on the field of battle.

In the case of an officer this means that pay continues to be credited monthly to his account subject to deductions in respect of Income Tax and of the amounts paid to him by the enemy Government. The fact that an officer is a prisoner of war does not affect his entitlement to continue to draw the appropriate allowance in respect of his family, where this is already in issue and where the normal conditions of issue continue to be satisfied. Similarly in the case of any other rank, pay, including increments in certain circumstances, continues to be credited monthly to the prisoner of war's account. Allotments of pay continue to be issued as they were before capture and family allowance or dependant's allowance already in issue is continued subject to the normal rules.

I hope I have been able to satisfy the noble Lord that the serving men whose cause he has championed are in fact being treated by us as prisoners of war under the normal rules and that any suggestion that they are being singled out for discriminative treatment is entirely without foundation. I should like to add just one word with regard to the point he mentioned as to islanders interned or, as he put it, in concentration camps. We are aware of some half-dozen cases where the men concerned, at their own request have been transferred by the Germans to a civilian internment camp. Such men, who clearly regard themselves as civilians, are not treated by us as prisoners of war. These cases cannot be settled until after the war and all the circumstances have been examined. I can assure my noble friend that if he has any individual case in mind, which he will refer to me, I shall take every care to see that it is examined. My noble friend can rest assured from what I have said that this matter is amply dealt with and that these men who unhappily were unable to be evacuated from the Channel Islands along with the other troops are, in fact, treated as serving soldiers in exactly the same way as other serving soldiers in the Army.


My Lords, I thank my noble friend very sincerely for his generous answer. It is what I should have expected from him if he had had a free hand. I notice that no distinction is drawn between those who surrendered and those who were surrendered. It seems to me there is a very great difference. A short perusal of some of Lord Kitchener's remarks on prisoners would emphasize what I say. The late Commander-in-Chief, Lord Wolseley, said that we had, as we knew, the finest troops in the world, but there were in every regiment only about 1oo men who were brave—"what I call brave." "If they are killed," Lord Wolseley said, "I do not want the regiment. The remaining few hundreds would surrender." There is a difference between a regiment surrendering and being surrendered. Those who dabble in history, as I do a little, remember a certain regiment in New Zealand. They were called the "Scarlet Runners." The officers stayed on the field and were killed to a man. The others did not stay. They did not surrender, they were not surrendered, they took a middle path. I draw a very strong distinction between men who surrender and men who are surrendered by higher authority—particularly by a Government.

As to the strategic strength of the islands, I can only go back to history and say that, powerful enemies as the French were—always double the number of this country—they never succeeded in taking and holding the islands. Guernsey is thirty miles away, if an inch, from the French coast, and Dover is not more than twenty. Notwithstanding their guns they never to6k Dover. It was more than a week before the little island of Wake, which is only three-quarters of a mile across, succumbed, and it has put up with five attacks since and has not yet been beaten. The same is the case in regard to the atolls and islands like Pan-tellaria and others round Sicily. Perhaps "complain" is too strong a word to use, but I do complain that no word of sympathy has reached them. I do not mean from this House, because I am quite sure if it had rested with this House words of sympathy would have reached them as such words have reached almost every other possession of the Crown. But no words from the proper quarter have reached the islands. I can only repeat that I am much obliged to my noble friend for what he has said, especially with regard to myself, which I do not in the least deserve, but if he could give us a ray of hope as to what is to happen to those men who are in camps which we named ourselves concentration camps, then I should be very grateful. My noble friend is too young to remember the times when we started concentration camps. In those days we did not call them internment camps, any more than we called certain places infirmaries instead of workhouses. We called them concentration camps and treated them accordingly, and the Boer loathes the name to this day. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

House adjourned.