HL Deb 14 June 1945 vol 136 cc590-5

2.13 p.m.

LORD RENNELL rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether the present admirable arrangements made by the Service Departments for the reception and dispersal of British prisoners of war from Germany will be maintained to deal with prisoners of war returned from the Far East. The noble Lord said: My Lords, the question which stands in my name, and which is one that will interest and affect thousands of people in this country in respect of their next of kin, now prisoners of war in the Far East, gives me the opportunity of drawing attention to the organization which has been set up, and which is now rapidly approaching the term of its utility, to deal with the repatriation and dispersal of our prisoners of war returning from Central Europe. The influx is almost over, and has been completed, as your Lordships know, very much more quickly than was anticipated, thanks largely to the magnificent work of the R.A.F. and the United States Air Forces in bringing the men back. They were, as is well known, collected on air strips and airfields all over Europe, and within a few hours delivered, without any formality, here in England, to the reception and dispersal camps which were set up.

The Air Forces have done remarkable work, but the major part of the administrative burden inevitably fell on the Army, and in particular on the War Office, and on the Commands in which these dispersal camps were situated. I have had the opportunity, as I expect many of your Lordships have, of talking to a number of these repatriated prisoners of war in circumstances in which they felt themselves quite free to speak, and if necessary to criticize. I have spoken to men varying in rank from Brigadiers to private soldiers. The account which all of them have given has been the same: they feel profound admiration and gratitude for the way in which the organization has worked. Some of the private soldiers and other ranks have said that they were astonished at the speed with which they were dealt with, and at the pleasant way in which everything was done. One of them said that he was genuinely surprised and appreciative to find how welcome he appeared to be in the Army organization which had been set up to deal with his return.

Your Lordships will realize, from the contact which you will have had with these people, that the administration required has been no small task. In the first place it has required the sorting out of the troops of the United Kingdom and Dominion Forces, and then, when they have been received here, it has been necessary to deal with the mass of administrative detail inseparable from the return of people from these camps. They have had to be identified, provided with their own papers and with pay, medically examined, given new uniforms, interrogated on their experiences and to find whether they had any complaints to make of their treatment while in enemy hands, and so on; advice has had to be sent to their next of kin that they have arrived, and finally there has been their dispersal. In every case that I have come across—and I believe that it is true of everybody who has been brought back—the whole of that very complicated administrative process has been got through in a very few hours, and hardly any one, if fit enough to be dispersed, has been kept more than a night in one of these camps before being sent home. In many cases they have arrived home before the telegram announcing their arrival has been received.

As several of them have said, in spite of this very complicated process and the amount of paper work and administration involved, they have never felt that they were being kept waiting, and they have never had to queue up. As many other ranks have said to me, from the moment that they landed until they were dispersed to their homes they never once felt that they were being ordered about. That is a very remarkable tribute to this organisation, which must have required a great deal of foresight on the part of all concerned and, what is much more than that, it must also have required the personal attention of all those concerned in it. Those concerned will, however, wish to remain anonymous, and not to break the tradition (which has been broken in other and quite incorrect circumstances) of not naming the people concerned. We know, however, that the organization mainly responsible has been the Directorate of Prisoners of War at the War Office, on the Adjutant-General's side, and it is therefore fitting that that should be the direction in which the most grateful thanks not only of your Lordships but of everyone connected with prisoners of war should be tendered, together with the congratulations of your Lordships' House on the work which has been done. The person responsible in name is the Secretary of State for War, and it is to him, therefore, that I would wish, in asking this question, to express the thanks which I am sure that all your Lordships feel.

I should like in conclusion to express the hope that this organization which has been set up, and which has now finished its work for the simple reason that the influx of prisoners from Central Europe has come to an end, will not be broken up, but will continue in existence to deal with the return of our prisoners of war from the Far East when that time comes in, I hope, the not too distant future. That will require an even more complicated organization than was set up to deal with the men returning from Germany. The men returning from the Far East will, I hope, be brought back by air, in the case of those fit enough to travel in that way, and so they will have to cover long distances and pass through staging camps. I feel sure that if the organization which now exists is perpetuated they will be dealt with in the same sympathetic and efficient manner as the men who have returned to England from Germany, only a few hours' flight away. In asking the question which stands in my name, therefore, I would express the hope that those who have been responsible for this work up to now will continue to be responsible for it.

2.19 p.m.


My Lords, the answer to my noble friend's question, which he has put in such gracious and generous lan- guage, is, generally speaking, Yes. The arrangements which have worked so well in dealing with the tremendous problem presented by the large numbers returning from Germany will be closely followed in the case of the return of our men now in Japanese hands. There may be modifications of detail but the problem is in essence the same wherever the ex-prisoners, come from. They want to get home and it is the Army's task to get them home as quickly as possible. They must, as the noble Lord has pointed out, be medically examined, given clothes up to the normal standard, lave their documents put in order, and be issued with pay. All this kind of thing, as a great many of us know, can be tedious and irritating, especially to those in these circumstances who have been parted from their families for such long periods of time, but it is in the interests of the men that this should work smoothly, and from all the reports it has in general been carried out with sympathy and understanding.

A total of some 168,000 British officers and men have, since the 1st January, been brought out of German captivity, over 140,000 of them by air. They represent all Services and troops from the Dominions, India and the Colonial Forces. Your Lordships may be interested to learn that the planning for this achievement began early in 1943 in the Directorate of Prisoners of War at the War Office. The plans had to be integrated with operational forward planning and co-ordinated with the other Services and with the representatives of the. Dominions and India. Later on, as the outline began to take shape, co-ordination with United States and Soviet representatives also became necessary. For this purpose, early in 1944, a combined British-American Planning Committee was established in London. This Committee integrated the various interests concerned and formulated the lines which the plans should take.

These plans had to cover prisoners of war held by the Germans in the area of what they choose to call Greater Germany; that is, not only Germany itself but lands beyond its frontiers which they have appropriated. It had to be sufficiently flexible to deal either will piecemeal recoveries during operations or wholesale surrender in chaotic conditions. As it turned out, both assumptions were fulfilled in succession. In the early stages it seemed likely that evacuation from the Continent would have to be effected by land and sea by all the normal lines of communication. The provision of air-lift for almost the whole commitment only became possible during the final phase. I am glad to be able to say that the machine stood up to the strain very well, and the whole operation has been smoothly and efficiently completed, thanks in great measure to the untiring efforts of all ranks in the reception camps.

Tribute has already been paid to the United States Forces—and I am glad the noble Lord stressed that—and to the Royal Air Force for their splendid cooperation in bringing our men home from all parts of Europe. The Royal Air Force also deserve our thanks for the excellence of their arrangements at the airfields at which the men were landed in the United Kingdom before dispersal to the reception camps. I should also like to refer to the special facilities given by the General Post Office, which I have witnessed myself, and which enabled every repatriate to send a free telegram on arrival to his next-of-kin. The telegrams were, I hope, sent off, although some of them may not actually have arrived before the prisoners got home. The Women's Voluntary Services, assisted by many other civilian volunteers, played an important and telling part in the welcome accorded at the reception camps, and often worked far into the night altering the men's uniforms, and sewing on flashes and medal ribbons.

The war organization of the British Red Cross Society and the Order of St. John who throughout the war, as your Lordships know, have done so much for our prisoners by providing them with food parcels, medical and surgical" supplies, books and clothing, continued during the period preceding their liberation to make every effort to bring to them food to supplement the meagre diet supplied by the Germans. Red Cross parcels were used from time to time by the military authorities after their liberation, and after they had arrived here the organization provided them with refreshments and gifts, which were much appreciated. I have made it my business to visit some of these reception camps, including the Australians' at Eastbourne and the South Africans' at Brighton, and I should like to pay a tribute to the local authorities and inhabitants in these areas for the generous welcome and practical aid they gave to the repatriated prisoners, which won high tribute from those gallant Dominion soldiers with whom I conversed.

I should also like to say that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State, as my noble friend mentioned, has taken the greatest interest in this matter, which is of such great human interest to the Army. The whole of this organization, as I know, comes repeatedly under his eye; and since that particular department of the War Office does not come under my direct responsibility, perhaps I may be permitted to say that, talking to scores of these ex-prisoners of war, I find unbounded gratitude for and admiration of the clockwork precision, the speed, the comfort and forethought displayed in the organization from the day of liberation to the dispersal of repatriates to their homes. We have, in fact, moved the equivalent of a great Army back to their own people, with very short notice, in record time, and with a smoothness which might have been thought impossible but for the co-operative organization by the Combined Services, already displayed on D-day and the other great occasions which led to final victory over Germany. I am indeed grateful on behalf of the War Office to the noble Lord for the generous words he used in asking this question, and I can give him every assurance that we will endeavour, as far as in us lies, and, I hope, just as successfully, to solve the other problem of our prisoners of war from the Far East.


My Lords, I thank the noble Lord very much for his answer, which I am sure will reassure a great many people who still have relatives and friends in the Far East; and I should like to express the hope that those who have in the past criticized, perhaps not always knowing the full facts of the case, what the War Office and other parts of the Army organization have done, may in this particular case, which has been brought home to them very closely, realize that the difficulties from which the War Office and the Army very often suffer are not so much of their own making as they perhaps thought.