HC Deb 08 October 1946 vol 427 cc34-42
Mr. Speaker

Unfortunately, at the beginning of Questions, I forgot that there were two Petitions to be presented in relation to a statement which is to be made by the Secretary of State for War, and, therefore, it is only fair to allow them to be presented before the statement is made.

Mr. Garry Allighan

Mr. Speaker, I have here two Petitions, one signed by nearly 10,000 residents in Gravesend in respect of two men of Gravesend, and one signed by 1,614 people, being the total population of the village of Cuxton, in respect of one Cuxton man in the paratroop corps, protesting against the sentences and humbly petitioning a revision and reduction in the sentences. I beg to present the Petitions.

Petitions to lie upon the Table.

Mr. Frederick Lee

I beg the House to receive a Petition signed by 35,000 people. The Petition asks for sympathetic reconsideration of the sentences passed on 243 British paratroops now held in Malaya.

Petition to lie upon the Table.

Mr. Ivor Owen Thomas

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I have a Petition here which I beg leave to submit in respect of Private—

Mr. Speaker

I have no notice of that. I have not seen anything on the Petition Blue Paper about it, and it is, therefore, not in Order.

Mr. Thomas

Unfortunately, I only picked up the Petition in the post this morning.

Mr. Speaker

I am afraid the hon. Member's Petition is out of Order. I think the fact that he has received a Petition is made perfectly clear, but it cannot be presented here unless it has been properly put to the Table.

The following Questions stood upon the Order Paper:

91 and 100. Captain Bullock

—To ask the Secretary of State for War (1) if he has received a report on the conditions prevailing in the camps where the 243 paratroopers are serving their sentences for mutiny in Singapore; and if he is satisfied with the conditions there;

(2) if he will make a statement on the sentences passed on the 243 paratroopers who were found guilty of mutiny by a court martial at Singapore.

92. Mr. Austin

—To ask the Secretary of State for War, whether he has considered the findings of the court in the matter of the trial of men of the 13th Parachute Battalion; and whether he will review the sentences passed with a view to their remission.

Mr. Shurmer

—To ask the Secretary of State for War if he is aware that public opinion has been shaken by the severity of the sentences passed on the 243 paratroopers at Singapore: and, in view of this, if he will consider an immediate review of the sentences.

Mr. Gibson

—To ask the Secretary of State for War whether, in view of the bad conditions at the rest camp at Maur, he will give favourable consideration to revoking the sentences which the court martial has imposed on the paratroop regiment involved in the protest against these conditions.

96. Mr. Anthony Greenwood

—To ask the Secretary of State for War whether he will take the earliest opportunity of reviewing the sentences recently passed on 243 men of the 13th Parachute Battalion.

98. Mr. Asterley Jones

—To ask the Secretary of State for War whether he will make a full statement on the circumstances leading to the recent court martial of men of the 13th Parachute Battalion, S.E.A.C.; and what action is now being taken with regard to the sentences imposed.

99. Mr. Gammans

—To ask the Secretary of State for War if he will make a statement on his intentions with regard to the sentences imposed by the courts martial at Kluang in Malaya.

101. Mr. Wyatt

—To ask the Secretary of State for War if he will make a statement giving all the circumstances under which personnel of the 13th Parachute Battalion, S.E.A.C, were arraigned for court martial; and whether, in view of the exceptional circumstances he will consider giving instructions forthwith to have all or most of the sentences suspended.

102. Mr. T. J. Brooks

—To ask the Secretary of State for War if he will have an inquiry made into the sentences passed on the 243 paratroopers by a recent court martial in Malaya for alleged mutiny; and if he will suspend all the sentences until a full and special inquiry has been made into the alleged offences against military regulations.

104. Mr. David Jones

—To ask the Secretary of State for War whether he has considered the conditions under which the men of the 13th Parachute Battalion lived from June to July, 1946, and, having regard to the evidence of the treatment meted out to these men by the officers concerned, if he is prepared to review the sentences passed by the general court-martial.

110. Mr. Warbey

—To ask the Secretary of State for War what action he has taken to order a review of the sentences passed at a recent court-martial on 253 men of the 13th Battalion, Parachute Regiment, and to institute an inquiry into the alleged unsatisfactory condition of the camps at which these men were stationed.

112. Mr. Longden

—To ask the Secretary of State for War if he has considered the sentences that have been passed on the 243 paratroopers from Kluang Camp, Malaya; and if he will take steps to have these men brought home and given the right to restate their case and to serve their punishment here.

113. Mr. Yates

—To ask the Secretary of State for War if he is aware that in the case of the 243 Paratroopers in Malaya recently court-martialled, some have complained that whilst walking in four inches of mud working conditions have become unbearable, while one soldier has complained, particulars of which have been sent to him, that he was only able to have one bath in 11 months; and if he will review the sentences in the light of these complaints and report to this House upon the steps he proposes to take to prevent a repetition of such working conditions being imposed upon any section of His Majesty's Forces.

115 and 116. Mr. Piratin

—To ask the Secretary of State for War (1) if any, and if so what, inquiry has been made into the conditions prevailing at Kuala Lumpur at the time when an alleged mutiny took place; and what disciplinary action, if any, has been taken against any officer or other rank responsible for such conditions;

(2) if he has considered the protest made by 55 ex-Servicemen from all commands against the harsh punishment inflicted an the men of the 13th Lancashire Parachute Regiment, which was forwarded to him by the right hon. Member for Mile End; and what action he proposes to take thereon.

Mr. Bellenger

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I propose to reply to these Questions by making the following statement on the mutiny which occurred in the 13th Parachute Battalion on 14th May at Muar Camp, Malaya, at this, the first opportunity, after the re-assembly of the House.

The battalion arrived at Muar Camp from Java on the night of 5th May, and was shortly afterwards joined by a draft of 120 men, 50 straight from this country and 70 who had been away from the battalion for the previous six months due to illness. Muar is a tented camp and conditions were undoubtedly bad, and although it had been previously occupied by another unit from whom this battalion took over, much required to be done to bring it up to a reasonable standard of habitation. It lacked proper facilities for washing, feeding, cooking and recreation and there was not electric light in all tents. There were several reasons for the bad conditions of the camp, the most important of which were that the changeover from the war to the peacetime system of administration was in the transitional stage and a certain failure on the part of the battalion, and advance party in particular, to help themselves. The commanding officer, however, took immediate steps to have these conditions improved after the battalion's arrival, but there was a heavy fall of rain which was quite unexpected and which caused living conditions in the camp to deteriorate considerably.

On the evening of 13th May there was a certain amount of discontent in the canteen and the word "strike" was mentioned. Later the lights were put out and someone asked those present if they were prepared to stick to what had been arranged. At about 7 a.m. on 14th May, about 260 men congregated on the sea wall in a sullen mood, and when ordered to disperse by the orderly officer made no move. They later moved to the canteen and here they were addressed by the commanding officer who told them that they should air their grievances in the proper way, that he could not entertain collective grievances, and that if they refused to return to duty they would be guilty of mutiny. He gave them a direct order to return to their companies. As the men did not respond to this order the commanding officer reported the matter to his superior commander. During the afternoon the divisional commander arrived and addressed the men, who had again assembled on the sea wall. The commanding officer then put out company markers and ordered the men to fall in. They did not do so, and the divisional commander ordered another battalion to take them into custody. None of the officers or N.C.Os. took part in the mutiny, nor had they any previous knowledge that it was going to occur.

Two Courts of Inquiry were assembled on 17th and 22nd May; one to inquire into the causes of the mutiny and the other to inquire into the conditions in Muar Camp. As a result it was decided that all the 258 men concerned must be brought to trial for mutiny. The trial commenced on 12th August and was completed on 19th September. Of the 258 men charged three were acquitted and all the remainder were convicted. Of these, eight were sentenced to 5 years' penal servitude and to be discharged with ignominy. The General to 3 years' penal servitude and to be dis-carged with ignominy. The General Officer Commanding-in-Chief as Confirming Officer did not confirm the proceedings in the case of 12 accused who were accordingly released, and in the remaining 243 cases commuted all the sentences to 2 years' imprisonment with hard labour and to be discharged with ignominy.

There can be no shadow of doubt that these men were rightly charged with mutiny. The law regards mutiny as a most serious military offence and provides death as the maximum penalty. Mutiny may be described as the act of two or more soldiers who join together, whether actively or passively, in resistance to, or disobedience of, lawful authority. The obedience of lawful orders is vital in any fighting Service, and it is obvious that in the Armed Forces any form of resistance to lawful authority, whether active or passive, cannot and will not be tolerated. I am waiting the advice of the Judge Advocate-General on the legality of the proceedings and I will make a further statement when I have received it. The proceedings of the trial arrived in this country only a week ago and it has not yet been possible, owing to their great length, to complete a full review.

Mr. Shurmer

Could the Minister say what is going to happen to the wives and children of these men while they are waiting; and will any provision be made for them while they are awaiting a decision?

Mr. Bellenger

Perhaps I can best answer that question by saying that I hope to make a very early statement indeed. The matter is now in the hands of the Judge Advocate-General and I am awaiting advice as to the legality of the proceedings. As soon as I receive that— which I think will not now be too long— I shall make an immediate statement to the House.

Mr. Wyatt

Will my right hon. Friend institute inquiries to discover who was responsible for this camp being in this disgraceful condition, and then see that severe disciplinary action is taken against them as well as against these unfortunate paratroopers?

Mr. Bellenger

I have already taken action in that direction.

Mr. Eden

In view of the widespread distress which inevitably this matter has caused everyone, can the right hon. Gentleman be a little more definite in telling us when he hopes to make a further statement? For my part I have no objection, and I think it quite right that he should take time to make the further statement, but I think both the House and the country would like to know when that further statement may be expected. Clearly, every effort should be made to make it as soon as possible.

Mr. Bellenger

I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman, and I hope to be in a position to make the further statement this week.

Mr. Austin

Is my right hon. Friend aware that conditions at the camp were so intolerable that the men, however much they may have wanted to conform to military discipline in regard to dress and bearing, found it impossible to do so, and will he bear that in mind?

Mr. Bellenger

I have already admitted in my statement that conditions in the camp were far from ideal, but under no conditions can mutiny be excused.

Captain Bullock

Can the Minister make any statement as to the conditions in the prison in which these men are serving their sentences? Are they better than those in the previous camp in which they were?

Mr. Bellenger

They are not serving their sentences in prison. At the present time they are in a tented camp, but under fairly reasonable conditions.

Captain Bullock

I thought I said prison camp.

Mr. S. Silverman

Would my right hon. Friend explain an apparent inconsistency in his original statement? He said he was awaiting a report from the Judge Advocate General as to the legality of the proceedings; yet, before saying that, he said there could be no doubt whatever that these men were rightly convicted. Is there not inconsistency there?

Mr. Bellenger

I think my hon. Friend did not hear my sentence aright. I said I had no doubt that these men were rightly charged with this offence.

Mr. Stephen

Would not the right hon. Gentleman have acted in the same way as these men in these intolerable conditions?

Mr. Bellenger

I am very glad the hon. Gentleman has put that question to me. I served in the first world war, at times probably under worse conditions than these, and I say, with full cognisance of those facts and the fact that I was a soldier in the ranks, that mutiny cannot be excused.

Brigadier Low

Will the right hon. Gentleman say two things? How many men, other than the 258, were there in this battalion; and of the 243 how many belonged to the group of 120 which had only just arrived in that theatre?

Mr. Bellenger

No, Sir, I cannot give that information without a Question being put down. Not all the men refused to obey the order. These are the men who did.

Mr. Yates

My right hon. Friend has referred to the fact that in regard to war conditions his experience has been very much worse. Is he not aware that we are now in times of peace?

Hon. Members: Are we?

Mr. Yates

I would like to ask my right hon. Friend whether, in the course of his statement, he will assure the House of the steps he proposes to take to prevent a repetition of these disgraceful conditions in times of peace?

Mr. Bellenger

It is true that we are in times of peace, although I regret to say that overseas, and particularly in these parts, the conditions relating to peace bear no relation to the much better conditions at home and in certain commands nearer home. I am doing what I can to improve those conditions.

Major Poole

Will the Minister give the House an assurance that in no circumstances will these men be taken to India to serve their sentences, but that, if any sentences remain to be served, the men will be brought to this country to serve them?

Mr. Bellenger

I would ask my hon. and gallant Friend not to press a question like that, because the matter is more or less sub judice. I am awaiting legal advice from the Judge Advocate General.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

I would remind the House that a further statement has to be made, and further questions may prejudice the matter which is under consideration. I suggest we had better now proceed to the Orders of the Day.