HL Deb 18 March 1947 vol 146 cc462-70

5.48 p.m.

THE DUKE OF BEDFORD rose to call attention, with special reference lo the case of Gerald Percy Sandys Hewitt, to the need for reviewing the sentences passed on persons found guilty of collaboration with the enemy, that such sentences may accord better with the principles of justice, especially in the matter of their comparative length; and to move for Papers. The noble Duke said: My Lords, the matter to which I wish to call attention is the need for revising the sentences passed on persons convicted of collaboration with the enemy, with special reference to the case of a man called Hewitt, who was, I think, one of the first—if not the very first—to be tried and convicted for this offence. What appears to have happened, and I think what undoubtedly did happen, is that these men who were arrested and tried quite early—that is to say, while the war was still in progress, and war feeling was very strong—were given exceedingly long and severe sentences, but men or women who had the good fortune to be arrested later, after the war was over, received much lighter sentences, even though their offences in some cases were much more serious.

I might say that I should not have raised this matter in your Lordships' House at all if I had not first tried an approach to the Home Secretary, who declined to take any action in the matter and who did not provide any reasonable excuse. I am afraid I must add, also, that I was very unfavourably impressed by the fact that certain important documents in connexion with this case, which were sent to me by Hewitt's mother, mysteriously disappeared in the post on the very short journey from Bletchley to Cambridge, and the rather evasive replies which I received from the postal authorities led me to conclude that they had been intercepted by Government "snoopers." This custom of tampering with private correspondence (which, I think, has been admitted. by Miss Jennie Lee in a letter to one of her constituents, which defended it on behalf of the Government) is, in my opinion, in peace-time most objectionable and quite unnecessary, recalling the methods of the German Gestapo.

Hewitt—a man, I think, of about forty-three years of age—had lived in Paris with his aged mother since 1931. He there taught the English language to French pupils. He appears to have been a man rather easily influenced by those with whom he came in contact, and not always exercising the best of judgment. He seems to have come in touch a good deal with a school of thought in France which in this country would now be considered defeatist, and also with a school of thought, which was quite common in France, which held—I am not going to say whether rightly or wrongly—that France was rather dragged into the war by the British Government. I know that this was the case because friends of mine who were not interested in political questions, who were on holiday in France, even before the outbreak of war were surprised to find Frenchmen expressing the fear that England would drag France into war on the Polish issue. Hewitt was particularly impressed by a conversation he had with M. Bonnet, who occupied a very important post in the French Government of the day. He told him that the British Government were responsible for the failure to maintain peace and had thwarted every effort which he (M. Bonnet) had made to that end. M. Bonnet also told Hewitt that European co-operation would have to be brought about to prevent Germany from becoming too closely involved with the U.S.S.R. and that Britain would have to co-operate in that or be defeated.

When the German troops advanced into France and France was defeated, Hewitt and his mother escaped to Vienne—which is, I think, in the southern portion of France—which was not fully occupied by the Germans. When he was there conditions generally, especially in regard to food, became exceedingly bad, and Mrs. Hewitt's health was very seriously affected. She began to lose weight rapidly, and he had every reason to feel exceedingly anxious about her health. At about that time one of his French pupils told him that he thought it could be arranged for them to return to Paris, where Hewitt had a much better chance of making a living and of keeping his mother in greater comfort. The German authorities with whom he was put in touch also gave him some encouragement, but suggested that in return he ought to do some propaganda, not against his native country, Britain, but against Bolshevism. They represented to him that the war between England and Germany was a great pity and a great mistake, and that Russian Bolshevism was the real enemy. I would again remind your Lordships that prior to the war there were a large number of people in this country holding the same view and also that there are a large number of people in this country holding that view to-day, although we trust they may prove to be mistaken. Doubtless many of your Lordships feel very strongly about collaborators, but your Lordships must remember that you have not been in Hewitt's extremely difficult position of having to chose between a measure of collaboration and his mother's health and perhaps her life. He was indeed between the devil and the deep sea.

As a result of interviews he had with German officials, he prepared a few broad- casts in French to be given to the French people, who were by that time defeated. Some of them were anti-Communist, some of them were rather anti-Semitic, some criticized the finance imperialism of the United States, some criticized the Allied bombing of France, and only one, I think, criticized the British Government for leading the British nation into the war. Only one or two—possibly only one—of these broadcasts appear actually to have been delivered to the French people. They seem to have been very commonplace productions—I have read some of them—and indeed the Germans also considered them not sufficiently "strong meat" and seemed to have had rather a poor opinion of them. I cannot conceive that they made the slightest difference either to the war or to the war effort.

After a time, Hewitt became disillusioned with his German employers, because he observed them living in a greater state of luxury than he thought fitted in with their claim to be crusaders against Bolshevism, and he did less and less work for them. On more than one occasion he interceded successfully on behalf of Frenchmen, and prevented their being sent to Germany to do war work. I feel that what he did in that direction far outweighed any possible effect of his more or less solitary broadcasts. Later still, he oven attempted to render assistance to the French Resistance Movement. Owing to the capture of the principal person with whom he was put in touch—who was, I think, taken to a German concentration camp—he may not have been able to do very much, but at least he tried at considerable risk to himself. I have met one of his pupils who was himself in the French Resistance Movement, and who assisted American airmen who had been shot down to escape into Spain. In spite of being a most active and patriotic Frenchman he made special efforts to see me and to intercede on Hewitt's behalf. He felt Hewitt had been very harshly treated and that his position was very difficult. I was extremely favourably impressed with this young man, who seemed a very straightforward and pleasant type.

When the German army was driven out of France, Hewitt went to Switzerland for a short time. He then came back to France, was arrested by the French authorities and was kept for some time in a French prison under extremely bad con- ditions. Any offence he had committed was, I am sure, fully expiated by that alone. On top of that, however, he received the very severe sentence of twelve years penal servitude in a British court. Latterly, I believe, he has been sent to Wakefield Prison where conditions are extremely bad, particularly in regard to food. I think the Home Secretary might look into that, quite apart from Hewitt's case. Hewitt, however, does not seem to be a grumbler at prison conditions because he admits that at his previous prison, Camp Hill, he was very well treated. Even if nothing else were done for him (and I devoutly hope a great deal more will be done) it would be a great boon to him if, as has been rather hinted but not done, he could be moved to Ley Hill Prison, near Gloucester, because, anticipating such a move, his mother took a house at great expense in the Bristol district in order that she might: be able to visit him. I may say that her health is becoming increasingly bad. She suffers from angina pectoris, and the long journey to Wakefield is most distressing to her. The point I would like to emphasize especially is the severity and injustice of Hewitt's sentence for a really very mild offence in collaboration, compared with certain other persons guilty of more serious offences, or of similar ones. For example, Charqes James Gilbert, according to a Press report of August, 1946, was sentenced to only nine months' imprisonment for preparing and broadcasting propaganda for the enemy between 1940 and 1942. According to a report in The Times of December 20, 1945, Mrs. Eckersley arid James Royston Clark were charged with conspiring to do things likely to prejudice the efficient prosecution of the war. Both did propaganda on behalf of the enemy, and the Judge said that there could be no question but that Mrs. Eckersley gave herself whole-heartedly to the Germans and assisted them in broadcasting propaganda which she herself described as being directed against England, and some of the commentaries as "ghastly and frightful in their subject matter ". Mrs. Eckersley, however, was sentenced to only one year's imprisonment, and James Royston Clark was bound over for two years.

According to a Times report of November 2, 1945, Reginald Humphreys, though a member of the Royal Navy, received a sentence of only five -years' penal servitude for assisting the enemy by broadcasting propaganda. Lance-Corporal Spillman, according to a Times report of December 21, 1945, received a sentence of seven years' penal servitude for a similar offence. There is another case to which I should particularly like to draw your Lordships' attention. Corporal Francis Maton, British Commando, according to a Times report of December 21, 1945, although charged with helping the enemy by broadcasting propaganda and joining the British Free Corps and the enemy armed forces, was sentenced to ten years' penal servitude, which is two years less than Hewitt. In my opinion, that man's offence, which consisted of joining the armed forces of the enemy to assist in fighting against and killing his fellow countrymen, was far more serious even than the offence for which William Joyce and John Amery were put to death. I do not suggest in his case that the sentence was too lenient, because I do not believe in vindictiveness in these matters, but the comparison is fairly obvious. Another Service man, Warrant Officer Hughs, was charged with voluntarily aiding the enemy while a prisoner of war, broadcasting and making records in Welsh to Welsh troops with a view to encouraging them to join the British Free Corps and to fight against Britain. He received only five years' penal servitude.

I fully realize that the Home Secretary might perhaps take the line that he is always very reluctant to interfere with sentences passed by a Judge, but in view of the fact that his predecessor in office, Mr. Herbert Morrison, in operating the Defence Regulations did not hesitate to set aside even the most fundamental laws of the land, I hardly think that the present Home Secretary can cultivate too tender a conscience on the question of political offences nowadays. He might, perhaps, argue that it is not his job to standardize the sentences passed for a particular class of offence. As a general rule that may well be the case, but it is contrary to all reason that in deciding whether he exercises the prerogative of mercy he should not take into full account the very obvious and remarkable trend in the direction of greater leniency, and the obvious fact that the original severity was due to the feeling excited while hostilities were still in progress.

One of the most unpleasant features of the post-war period has been the vindictive treatment displayed on the Continent, not only towards collaborators but towards alleged collaborators. It is notorious that in Communist-controlled countries perfectly patriotic citizens have been imprisoned or put to death simply because they were not Communists. Even in France very severe action has sometimes been taken against men who, very understandably, felt that when their country was defeated they should make the best of a bad job and co-operate to a certain degree with the enemy in order to spare their fellow countrymen the greater severity of universal rule by German officials.

Although in this case a measure of genuine collaboration is admitted, I hope that the Home Secretary and the Government may feel led to show greater leniency now, and particularly review the sentence of Hewitt, and of any other persons unduly and severely punished owing to the early date of their arrest. I beg to move for Papers.

6.5 p.m.


My Lords, I will deal with this case quite briefly. I am not at all sure that it is a very desirable practice that we should consider particular sentences in this House. I am quite sure that it is an entirely useless proceeding to compare one sentence with another unless you know all the relevant facts of each case. It is inevitable that unless and until we get robot Judges—I hope I shall never live to see them—we shall get variations in sentences which Judges propound. For that reason we have established a Court of Criminal Appeal, and any person who thinks his sentence is unduly severe may appeal to that Court. Hewitt did not appeal to that Court. If and in so far as I understood the noble Duke to suggest that Hewitt's offence was not a very serious one, I profoundly disagree with him. He was a British subject and he owed allegiance to the King. He found himself in France and went to the Germans to get employment and to get money. He was paid by the Germans, I think it was, a sum of 25,000 Marks a month up to July, 1944. He then apparently left the German employment. Whether he left it out of a change of heart, or whether he thought by July, 1944, that it was possible the Germans were not going to win the war, I do not know.

Speaking for myself and, I am sure, the vast majority of your Lordships in this House, I say that any British subject who, in those circumstances, could lower himself to enter into German pay and broadcast on behalf of the Germans is a man who has been guilty of a most serious and grievous offence, an offence which must be dealt with by a severe punishment. The experienced Judge who heard his case took a very serious view of the case and thought that a long sentence was right. He imposed a sentence of twelve years and, as I have told your Lordships, against that sentence Hewitt did not appeal. The Home Secretary has looked at the case and has found no reason whatever to interfere. That is not to say, however, that that sentence, like every other long sentence, is not always periodically kept under review by Home Secretaries, and when such sentences are considered Home Secretaries, to whichever Party they may belong, are always anxious, if they can, to show leniency. But so far as this case is concerned I will say no more than this. I regard it as a very serious case indeed, and it is obvious that this man might have been tried and punished in a different way altogether. He was not in fact so tried, but he might have been tried for an even more serious offence. I have said all I want to say about this case. I regard it as a very grievous matter. A very serious offence has been committed and has been dealt with by a severe punishment and, in my submission, rightly so.


My Lords, I am glad to receive the reminder from the noble and learned Viscount that there is a possibility that the sentence may be reviewed, and I can only hope that a decision will before long be reached more in conformity with those principles of humanity which the Socialist Party continually preach but which, I am afraid, they do not always practice. I could not escape the feeling that there was some evasion in stressing the seriousness of the offence of broadcasting, not to the English people but to the already defeated French, and in brushing aside the infinitely more serious charges against English Service men who have fought or encouraged others to fight against their own country. No point can be gained by saying anything more, but I would like to say one thing. Perhaps out of ignorance, I do not know whether art appeal was not lodged because of some financial obstacle, and I do know that neither Hewitt nor his people are wealthy. I can do no more in this matter now, and I therefore beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.