HL Deb 06 April 1948 vol 154 cc1116-21

3.43 p.m.


My Lords, I trust your Lordships will permit me to interrupt the course of this discussion to make a statement similar to that which is being made simultaneously in another place by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary.

As the House will have heard, a British European Airways aircraft was approaching Gatow aerodrome in the British sector of Berlin from Hamburg yesterday afternoon when a Soviet fighter aircraft collided with it. As the result of this, both aircraft crashed to the ground and all the occupants were killed. I wish to take this opportunity to express the deepest sympathy of His Majesty's Government and, I am sure, of all your Lordships with the relatives and friends of the victims in this appalling occurrence.

The British aircraft fell 2½ miles north-west of the Gatow airfield in the Russian Zone, and the Soviet fighter fell just inside the British sector of Berlin, close to Gatow airport. A full account of the disaster is awaited.

The information received so far shows that the British aircraft was proceeding on the ordinary route, and that, according to routine instructions, warning should have been given by the Soviet authorities that their fighter was in the air. No such warning was given. After the crash the Soviet authorities took immediate charge of the British aircraft and later in the clay British representatives went to the scene to investigate and to gain access to the bodies and the baggage. A cordon of British troops has been placed round the Soviet aircraft, with one Soviet sentry. The Soviet General, with whom the British Commandant in Berlin dealt, expressed a desire to deal with the occurrence with proper calmness.

Immediately on hearing of the disaster, the British Commander-in-Chief, General Robertson, communicated with the Soviet Commander-in-Chief, Marshal Sokolovsky In this communication, after stating the facts that I have given, General Robertson asked for an immediate assurance that Marshal Sokolovsky condemned as strongly as he did that the Soviet aircraft was being flown without prior notification and in a manner to cause the catastrophe. He also requested a positive assurance that British aircraft using the corridor in accordance with our mutual agreement would be immune from molestation. General Robertson also reserved all the rights of His Majesty's Government. General Robertson also had an interview with Marshal Sokolovsky yesterday evening. General Robertson's actions in this matter have our full approval.

At the interview, General Robertson made it plain that he had no wish to prejudge the cause of the catastrophe until a proper inquiry had been held. The form and scope of this inquiry is at present under consideration. Marshal Sokolovsky then gave General Robertson orally the assurances for which the latter had asked. A written reply to General Robertson's communication is awaited. In view of the assurances which have been received, the British Commander-in-Chief has countermanded the instructions which he gave that British civil aircraft should receive fighter protection. I understand that the United States Commander-in-Chief took similar action.

I wish to make it clear, pending the results of the inquiry, that we have no information to suggest that the conduct of the Soviet aircraft was in any way the result of direct instructions from the Soviet authorities. Routine flights to and from Berlin by British aircraft are continuing in the normal way. In view of what I have said, I trust the House will agree that it is undesirable that there should be any further speculation or re crimination about this tragedy. We are pressing for an inquiry to be held as soon as possible, and until the results are known I suggest that judgment should be reserved.

3.48 p.m.


My Lords, if I may, I would ask leave of the House to follow my noble friend and to make a statement on the general situation in Berlin, using the words employed by my right honourable friend, the Foreign Secretary, in another place.

The House will have seen from the Press the general trend of events in Berlin. The difficulty began with the departure of the Soviet representatives from the Control Council on March 20. The House will remember that, owing to the failure to establish economic unity in Germany, we have been compelled to establish, in conjunction with the United States, a bi-zonal authority. Further, owing to the breakdown of the four-Power meeting in November and December, it was decided that there should be consultations with the three Powers in the western zones, in order to consider what steps could be taken to make those three zones viable. The Soviet representative demanded a report of those discussions, which were purely consultative. Our representatives in Berlin were not aware that this demand was going to be made, and declined to present a report. Accordingly, the Soviet representative walked out. As no decisions were reached at this consultative conference, there was no report to make. Therefore, meetings of the Control Council and its subordinate committees and directorates are at present in abeyance.

Another problem which has arisen is in connection with the Berlin City Kommandatura, where the Soviet authorities refused to attend eight of the committees. We are ready to discuss the reorganisation of this body, and, in fact, apart from these eight committees, the body is still functioning. Arising out of all this, the British representatives, in consultation with their United States and French colleagues, are doing their best to negotiate with the Soviet authorities for a resumption of the normal activities of all these bodies in accordance with existing agreements.

These acts of the Soviet authorities were followed by another unilateral action affecting travel regulations between the British Zone and the British sector of Berlin. On March 31, the Soviet authorities announced the introduction of new regulations at twenty-four hours' notice. No opportunity was given for consultation or discussion, notwithstanding the fact that there is a clear Four Power Agreement for the occupation of Berlin, of the validity of which there can be no doubt. It should be explained, however, that the regulations for travel to and from Berlin are not so clearly specified. When the arrangements were made, a good deal was taken on trust between the Allies, and, until this event, travel has been reasonably satisfactory. On the roads, British travellers have shown their documents. On military trains this has not been required, since the trains were supplied by and were under the exclusive control of the British military authorities. This new difficulty which has arisen results from the Soviet demand that Soviet military personnel should board the trains and examine the passengers' documents.

This whole question of travel is now under discussion between the Soviet authorities on the one hand and the British, American and French on the other. We must await the result of these discussions, and I should make it clear that His Majesty's Government would welcome an agreement. In view of the arrangements for the occupation of Berlin, we cannot yield our right to free access to and from these sectors of occupation, which is essential to maintain our forces and fulfil our obligations as an occupying Power. I do not want to exaggerate the issues or to say anything which would aggravate an already difficult situation. I regret what has happened, but if there is good will the difficulties are capable of solution. The British Commander-in-Chief and the British authorities in Germany have the full confidence of His Majesty's Government in handling the position.

3.52 p.m.


My Lords, I think the whole House will be grateful to the Government for the full statements that have just been made by the noble Lord, Lord Nathan, and the noble Lord, Lord Pakenham. I do not propose this afternoon to make any comment on the undoubtedly serious statement that has been made by Lord Pakenham. Obviously, these wide issues require further consideration, though I am afraid it is evident that the recent actions of the Soviet authorities in Berlin can only tend further to impair relations between Russia and the Western Powers. I hope that that matter will be present in the minds of the Soviet Government themselves. At any rate, we are glad to hear of the firm line that is being taken by His Majesty's Government on this question.

Now a word about the statement which has been made by Lord Nathan. I think we are all glad to know of the strong representations that have already been made by General Robertson to the Soviet authorities. I hope it has been made clear, and will continue to be made clear, that there must be no recurrence of so shocking and deplorable an event which has resulted in the loss, the avoidable loss, of British lives. The impression I gained from the noble Lord's statement—I do not want to go into it for reasons which I am sure are appreciated by all your Lordships—is that the disaster itself resulted from an accident, but I think it is difficult to reject the conclusion that it is an accident that ought not to have happened. Whosoever was responsible, whether it was the authorities on the ground (and I imagine it was not they) or the pilot, the Russian plane ought not to have been where it was when the accident took place. An event of this kind and the circumstances which surround it can only tend to exacerbate relations between countries concerned. I hope it has been made abundantly clear to the Russian Government that, in the interests of international good relations, such risks must not be run, because they may result in the loss of valuable lives and they tend to cause friction which we all wish to avoid.

May I add that noble Lords on these Benches join with Lord Nathan in tendering to the relations of the victims of this lamentable disaster our deepest sympathy in the cruel loss which they have sustained?

3.56 p.m.


My Lords, noble Lords on these Benches have no desire to raise any criticisms on either of the two statements that have just been made by the noble Lords, Lord Nathan and Lord Pakenham. The course, the firm course, taken by His Majesty's Government is such as, I believe, the whole House will support. We share the hopes which have been expressed that, in both these matters, some more friendly conclusion may be reached. The recent news of the good progress that has, at last, been made in the councils of the Four Powers with respect to the Peace Treaty with Austria is a good augury. I trust that brighter prospects which seem apparent there may also be reflected in Germany.