HL Deb 15 April 1948 vol 155 cc151-4

4.41 p.m.

LORD VANSITTART had given Notice of his intention to ask His Majesty's Government whether, in the event of the joint inquiry proving abortive, they will claim from the Soviet Government full compensation for the families of all British subjects killed as the result of a collision between a Russian plane and a British transport plane; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: I beg to ask the question standing in my name on the Order Paper, and to move for Papers.


My Lords, while investigations into the incident are still in progress, it would be premature to put forward a claim for compensation. In the meantime, the British Military Governor has expressly reserved all the rights of His Majesty's Government in this matter, If, as a result of the investigation, His Majesty's Government are satisfied that the Soviet pilot was to blame, they will claim compensation.

It was the hope of His Majesty's Government that the Soviet authorities would co-operate with the British authorities in Berlin in establishing the facts and, indeed, on April 9 the Soviet authorities agreed to the British Military Governor's suggestion for a joint technical investigation by experts of the two Powers. On April 12, however, the Soviet representative on the joint inquiry refused to receive evidence from witnesses other than those of British or Soviet nationality, and in particular declined to hear German witnesses on the ground that they would be unreliable. He also declined to take oral evidence from or permit cross-examination of even British and Soviet witnesses unless either side wished to query any point in their written evidence. Subsequently, the Soviet representative notified the British representative that he was willing to permit interrogation of witnesses, but only after what he called an analysis or establishment of the objective information as to the circumstances of the crash. Moreover, he still insisted that evidence should be taken only from British and Soviet subjects.

Since, in view of the loss of American life, it would be ludicrous not to hear American eye-witnesses, and since His Majesty's Government cannot agree that a witness should be regarded as unreliable merely because he is a German, the British authorities have had no option but to continue with the investigation themselves and to take evidence from all witnesses who present themselves in accordance with normal democratic procedure. The British authorities are still ready, however, to continue the investigation jointly, and have expressed the hope that the Soviet representatives will continue to be present during the investigation. The Soviet representatives, however, have not so far appeared. The British authorities will, of course, permit any witnesses whom the Soviet authorities may wish to present to give evidence and will make available to the Soviet authorities all evidence presented to them.

I will add this. The Soviet authorities, both in Moscow and in Berlin, have published a version of the accident in which they attempt to lay the blame on the British aircraft. It is most deplorable that they should have thought fit thus to pre-judge the issue. It is even more regrettable that the author of an article to this effect which appeared in the overt Soviet newspaper in Berlin, the Taegliche Rundschau, was General Alexandrov, who is the Soviet representative on the joint investigation. The Soviet story is that the Viking aircraft failed to give warning at the proper time of its approach to Berlin, and dived out of low cloud and collided with the Soviet fighter which was about to land. While the full facts cannot be established until after the investigation has been completed, it is known that visibility at the time of the collision was some five miles.

To make my statement complete, I would further add that the Military Governor's first suggestion was that he and Marshal Sokolovsky should jointly appoint a commission of inquiry, but that the Americans and French should each be invited to be represented thereon. The Soviet authorities could not accept that procedure. In those circumstances His Majesty's Government felt that the essential thing was to have a technical inquiry, in which the Russians would participate, in order to ascertain the facts. To have insisted on a four-Power commission of inquiry would, in effect, have meant that there would be no joint inquiry at all. By proposing the technical investigation, which has now commenced its work, we ensured that the Russians were given the opportunity of co-operating with us in establishing the facts. The fact that the Soviet authorities have now to all intents and purposes withdrawn from the joint investigation shows that they have no wish to establish the facts but only to use the inquiry for a propaganda campaign. Nevertheless, by making the offer we have made plain our desire to arrive at a fair and accurate conclusion as to the facts. It was, of course, made clear in our offer that if no unanimous conclusion was reached the two parties would report separately.


My Lords, while thanking the noble and learned Viscount for his extremely lucid and detailed reply, from which it is apparent that the Soviet conception of a commission of inquiry is no more than a farce and a fraud, I am, for my part, exceedingly relieved that that joint inquiry has not been held, particularly (as the noble and learned Viscount has just said) as it was to be used for propaganda purposes—I may add, "as usual." As to the substance of my question, the noble and learned Viscount has given me all the satisfaction I can expect at the present stage—namely, that if circumstances warrant it, a demand for compensation will be made. I fully recognise that he could say no more in present circumstances. I would only express the hope that if and when the demand is made, it will be energetically pushed. There is a widespread opinion in Europe, and I think it is justified, that what I might call the "Berlin blackmail" has been staged by the Soviet Government with a view to discrediting Western democracy in view of certain impending events in Europe, such as the Italian elections. The earliest opportunity should be taken to demonstrate that Western democracy has not lost its virility. With those remarks, I beg leave to withdraw my Motion, reserving the right perhaps to return to the subject on some future date after the commission of inquiry has reported.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

House adjourned at ten minutes before five o'clock.