HC Deb 03 June 1947 vol 438 c3
8. Mr. Keenan

asked the Secretary of State for War when the hon. Member for Kirkdale will receive the report of the promised inquiry about the maltreatment of soldiers detained in a former prisonerof-war camp at Tahag, Egypt.

Mr. Bellenger

I have had exhaustive investigations made into this matter and have myself spent considerable time in going through the evidence. I am now in a position to make a statement. As it is necessarily very long, I will, with permission, circulate it in the OFFICIAL REPORT.

Mr. Gallachcr

Will the Minister tell me when he is going to circulate the report of the inquiry into the treatment of prisoners at Tel el Kebir?

Mr. Speaker

That is another question.

Following is the statement:

As I informed the House on 11th March, I ordered a Court of Inquiry to be held to investigate certain allegations made in the Press of improper treatment of those held in arrest as a result of the mutiny at Tel el Kebir between 8th and nth November, 1946. I have now received the proceedings of this Court of Inquiry which show that a most thorough examination of all the circumstances has been made. The sequence of events was as follows: On the date in question, the garrison of Tel el Kebir contained mostly technical units and installations and comprised some 4,000 British troops and 15,000 others including Egyptians, West Africans and German prisoners of war. A further 11,000 Egyptians came in daily for work; thus 4,000 British troops were respnnsible for the supervision of some 26,000 Africans, Egyptians and Germans. Moreover Tel el Kebir is a very important installation. It is the "wholesale" depot for the support of the Land Forces in the whole of the Middle East and holds warlike stores, clothing and general stores worth many millions of pounds. It also includes large workshops with valuable machinery and tools which have to be looked after. On 7th November, the new release programme was announced in the Press. On 8th, 9th and 10th November, a series of meetings were held to discuss this programme and were attended in all by some 2,000 men, or about half the British garrison. On the mornings of Saturday, 9th November, and Monday, 11th November, a number of men either failed to return for duty or left their work to attend meetings. Officers who tried to attend these meetings were excluded or not allowed a hearing, though one commanding officer did manage to warn his men that what they were doing was mutinous. Meanwhile, as a result of the mass meeting on the Saturday night, at which threats to seize arms were uttered, the officer commanding troops asked for reinforcements. Three battalions which arrived on the Monday morning in response to his request occupied key points such as armouries and the power house. If this had not been done an ugly incident might have occurred. This had a salutary effect; the men returned to the camps and by that afternoon all was normal, with depots and installations again working. It was obviously not possible without completely disrupting the work of the garrison to arrest and charge with mutiny all the men who had banded themselves together and absented themselves from parade, nor indeed was it desirable to do so. It was, therefore, decided to arrest only those believed to have been the leaders. Between 11th and 20th November, 89 such men were arrested and these men were further questioned by the Investigating Officer, with the result that to N.C.Os. and men were finally brought to trial by Court-Martial. Four of these were acquitted, whilst proceedings in the case of the six who were convicted were not confirmed by the Commander-in-Chief, M.E.L.F. The remaining 79 were tried summarily by their commanding officer and in the majority of cases were found guilty. The allegations which have been made have been gone into in great detail by the Court of Inquiry and after studying their Report I am satisfied that all, apart from two or three minor exceptions, are entirely unfounded. I will deal in some detail with what I regard as the two most important of these allegations, firstly, that confessions were extracted from the arrested men under duress and, secondly, that the accommodation in which they were held was unsatisfactory. With regard to the first allegation, an Investigating Officer was appointed, and his sole duty was to discover by questioning those under arrest, who were and who were not the ringleaders. In each case, at the conclusion of the interrogation, the Investigating Officer said that if the soldier wished to make a statement he could do so to another officer, but that there was no compulsion of any kind to make such a statement. He also stressed that any such statement would be made after caution, and that if any man wished for time to consider his position he was free to do so. Finally, I would say that no information which was given to the Investigating Officer during interrogation was used during the trial. The information was used solely to find out who were the real culprits, so that it might then be possible to find witnesses willing to give evidence against them. There is no doubt, and it is admitted by the Investigating Officer, that he ordered the arrest in error of one of the accused, but this soldier was acquitted by the court. Bearing in mind the extremely difficult task he had to perform, the methods he employed were in general unexceptional, and I am satisfied that this officer carried out his duty fairly. As regards the allegations concerning accommodation, the substance of these is that the men were confined in the cells of an abandoned prisoner of war camp where conditions were crowded and dirty, and that this treatment was deliberate in order to induce the men to confess. It was necessary for the local commander to make arrangements at short notice to segregate and hold in safe custody the 89 men who had been arrested. After making use of such cell accommodation at Tel el Kebir as was not already occupied and of 25 cells at Moascar, 30 miles away, the only remaining possibility was to use prisoner of war camps. Two of these camps were still occupied by Germans and, as it was obviously undesirable to confine British prisoners in camps occupied by Germans, it was decided to reopen the vacant prisoner of war camp. This camp, consisting of two compounds of 16 and 6 cells respectively and an enclosed area capable of holding up to 500 men, was reasonably close to Tel el Kebir and thus accessible to the regimental officers of the men concerned. Preparations were immediately made to carry out such small repairs as were necessary, to clean up the area and to move in the necessary stores such as tentage, palliasses, blankets, mosquito nets, etc. The 89 men were then disposed as far as resources permitted in the vacant cells at Tel el Kebir and Moascar, with the balance at the prisoner-of-war camp. All the administrative arrangements made for the occupation of the prisoner-of-war camp were those normally made when a camp was occupied by British troops, including cooking, sanitary and lighting arrangements. During the time the camp was in occupation, the Officer in Charge of the guard and the guard itself lived in the camp under the same con ditions as the accused (except that.they had greater freedom) and although, as is indeed the case whenever a new camp is freshly occupied, there were minor difficulties and discomforts to be overcome, these were quickly put right. The mass of evidence compiled by the Court of Inquiry clearly shows that the conditions in this camp were no worse than in any other detention camp in the Middle East. The prisoners were frequently visited by their regimental officers and made no com- plaints, and it is noteworthy that when they eventually left the camp, all but four of them expressed their gratitude to the Officer in Charge for the efforts he had made to improve the conditions under which they were detained. Any suggestion that these men were placed in appalling conditions in this camp in order to compel them to confess is fantastic in the extreme. There were cockroaches in some of the cells—there are liable to be cockroaches in any camp in the desert—but immediately these were reported action was taken to deal with them. There were mosquitos, as there are in most other camps in that area. For a short time the latrine did smell as may occasionally happen in all latrines in field service conditions, but this was quickly put right. After reading the whole of the voluminous proceedings of the Court of Inquiry, I am in full agreement with the Commander-in-Chief, M.E.L.F., in emphatically repudiating the charges that harsh and unfair treatment was accorded to British soldiers in this case. The actions of the authorities on the spot in their prompt handling of this mutiny have my full support.