HC Deb 05 November 1956 vol 558 cc1970-8
The Minister of Defence (Mr. Antony Head)

At 0515 hours G.M.T. British and French paratroops were dropped in the Port Said area. Landings were made on the airfield to the west of Port Said and around the bridges to the south of the town.

Repeated warnings have been given to the civilian population of Port Said to keep away from clearly defined areas of danger.

Since then my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has read a telegram from the Allied Commander-in-Chief.

I gave the House an undertaking that I would say something in amplification of the circumstances of the sinking of the Egyptian frigate "Domiat."

At 0130 hours on 1st November the cruiser "Newfoundland" was moving up the Gulf of Suez when she observed a darkened ship passing her in the opposite direction. "Newfoundland" turned parallel with her and identified her as an Egyptian frigate. A signal was flashed to her to "Stop or I fire." This was correctly acknowledged and the frigate appeared to slow down. "Newfoundland" signalled to report she had stopped.

The frigate then switched off her navigation lights and trained her armament on the "Newfoundland." The latter then opened fire and the frigate opened fire immediately afterwards. After five minutes the frigate was seen to be sinking and firing ceased. Searchlights were trained on the water to assist in rescue work and 70 survivors were picked up.

Rescue work continued for an hour and a half, after which a marker buoy was dropped and the South African vessel "President Steyn" was asked to continue the search.

Mr. Stokes

My right hon. Friend has said that if the Prime Minister's statement means that there is a general cease-fire nobody would be more delighted than we on this side of the House. Am I to understand from the Minister of Defence that the statement means that, or that it relates only to the garrison at Port Said?

Mr. Head

The right hon. Gentleman and ourselves are in an identical position about this. The only information we have of the situation is the telegram which has been read out. [HON. MEMBERS : "Read it."] I am quite prepared to read it again if the House so wishes. It says : From Allied C.-in-C. Governor and Military Commander Port Said now discussing surrender terms with Brigadier Butler. Cease-fire ordered.

Mr. Stokes

Then it would appear that it is probably limited to Port Said. That being so—otherwise, my questions become irrelevant—will the Minister say whether the parachute troops were dropped on both sides of the Suez Canal or only on one side, and whether he has had any information as to the strength of the garrison at E1 Fayid? Are they in force further down the Canal or is the main body of the Egyptian troops withdrawn towards Cairo?

Thirdly, having regard to the fact that the Canal is now effectively blocked and that it will be a considerable engineering operation to clear it, which really cannot be done successfully without the peaceful co-operation of the Egyptian people, can instructions now be given to change Her Majesty's Government's policy and to stop bombing the people who have been the victims of the major aggression?

Mr. Head

The location of the troops was, as I have said, some to the west of Port Said on the airfield, which is seven or eight miles to the west of Port Said, the others astride the two bridges to the south of the town west of the Canal. The necessary vessels, and so forth, for the clearing of the Canal are, of course, included in the force which is now present off the Canal, and I cannot help feeling that the clearance of the Canal would take place a great deal faster with our cooperation than if no British resources were used for that purpose.

Mr. P. Williams

In the interests of minimising the casualties among British troops, can my right hon. Friend state whether there have been any casualties in naval actions this far?

Mr. Head

I do not want to be categorical, but I should say that today's operations were restricted to airborne troops. I have no detailed information about casualties as a whole, but, from reports, I should say that there is every hope that they would be very light.

Mr. Hale

Can the right hon. Gentleman confirm or deny the report that an Israeli plane was shot down by British forces last night? Can he say whether the landing this morning was timed precisely at the time of the expiry of Mr. Hammarskjöld's message deliberately, or by chance? Was the reply to the United Nations, who sat waiting for him for some hours, deliberately delayed until after the operations had been initiated?

Is he aware that I have had a radiogram from Egypt which reports that residential areas in main Egyptian towns are being indiscriminately bombed, houses, streets and passenger buses are strafed with bullets by raiding planes … British radio stations are now threatening the bombing of railway stations, waterworks, electricity supply. British journalists in Cairo give eye witness reports of destruction of civilian property, mosques, schools and churches. Number of killed and wounded, amongst them innocent women and children, mounting hourly … That telegram is signed on behalf of the Egyptian Federation of Trade Unions.

This, after all, is the country to which the right hon. Gentleman was exporting tanks two months ago and offering loans of £30 million and £40 million only a few weeks before. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that statements made from the Government Front Bench recently have been so far from the truth that it is difficult for us to know now where we can get reliable information?

Mr. Head

The timing of this operation was based on the only possible thing on which one could carry out such an operation; that is, operational considerations, which would mean a considerable time ago, and it had nothing to do with Mr. Hammarskjöld's speech—[HON. MEMBERS : "How long?"] The hon. Gentleman asked me whether it was timed with Mr. Hammarskjöld's speech, which was made only a few hours ago. The timing of this operation was fixed at least two days ago.

I have been carefully into the question of the areas bombed and the extent and the accuracy of our bombing. I would say that what is contained in that telegram is completely untrue. The bombing has been absolutely and strictly limited to military targets, and has been extremely accurate.

Mr. Drayson

Can the Minister of Defence say whether Colonel Nasser is drowning in the lickspittle of the party opposite?

Mr. Grimond

May I ask whether this news from Egypt—which we must all welcome if it means a cessation of hostilities—does not give us a chance to set about binding up the wounds in the Western alliance? At this stage of world events, with the happenings now taking place in Eastern Europe—and which may be repeated in other countries in Eastern Europe—it is tragic that we should be separated in any degree from our allies and the Commonwealth, as I am afraid that we are. Cannot we, therefore, say something rather more encouraging about the Canadian proposal for observers than has so far been published? Cannot we make it clear that, anyway, within the near future we will accept some observers in the area and some chance of a direction to hand over the future to the United Nations?

Mr. Lloyd

That point was made clear by the Prime Minister, and we have said it again and again. When a force is constituted we are perfectly willing to hand over our responsibilities to it. By that statement we stand. But it must be a force constituted with sufficient strength and with the means to carry out this task.

Mr. de Freitas

Is it the fact that Colonel Eley, the United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation representative in Cairo, protested to us that the terms of the British radio announcement, making a change in the future of our bombing tactics would be such that, as he said, there would be terrific loss of civilian life? Does not that very much endorse what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) when he read out the terms of that broadcast? Will the Minister of Defence, in those circumstances, say what reply was given to Colonel Eley? After all, he must have some knowledge about it—it was in The Times this morning?

Mr. Head

These targets were carefully selected and every single airman concerned took a pride in the operation not from the point of view of damage, and so forth, but purely that he carried out his mission without loss of civil life. As regards Colonel Eley's statement about this change of programme causing great additional loss of life, events that I have had full information about since the change was made do not confirm that statement.

Mr. Stokes

May I press the right hon. Gentleman on two points? First, with regard to the leaflets, is it or is it not true that leaflets have been dropped on both sides—both on the Israelis and the Egyptians—or only on one side? Secondly, pursuing the important point about the Suez Canal and its blocking, it is obvious that there can be no danger to British shipping for quite some time. One of the objects of the Government's intervention was to take care of £50 million of British shipping that was going to be in the neighbourhood. Clearly, none of it is in the Canal or likely to be there for a long time. Surely this makes it inexcusable that the bombing should go on of so-called military targets, such as military centres and telephone exchanges, which are bound to be in the middle of civilian centres?

Mr. Head

I admit that it is hypothetical, but the chance of British shipping being damaged if there had been no intervention by us would have been much increased. On the question of bombing telephone exchanges, if some hon. Gentleman will give me details of what telephone exchange, or where, I will look into it. So far as I know, not one telephone exchange has been bombed.

Mr. Burden

In view of the concern on the question of the efficiency and accuracy of our bombing, will my right hon. Friend consider the possibility of making available in the Library of the House of Commons reconnaissance photographs taken of the bombing, with details of that bombing, for so to do would set the minds of a great many people very much at rest?

Mr. Head

I regret that I could not hear the whole of that question. If the House would like to see photographs subsequently I will try to make them available.

Mr. Hamilton

Can the right hon. Gentleman tell the House how he knows that no civilian life has been lost in Egypt and, further, whether the conflict be short or prolonged, will he give an assurance that atomic weapons of no kind will be used?

Mr. Head

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has misunderstood. I never said that no civilian life had been lost. I said that every possible attempt had been made in these operations to reduce the loss of life to the absolute minimum. So far as the use of atomic weapons is concerned, that hardly seems to arise in the light of the telegram which has just come in.

Mr. P. Williams

Is my right hon. Friend aware that last night the Leader of the Opposition, in a scurrilous party political broadcast—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Such language is not proper.

Hon. Members


Mr. Williams

Mr. Speaker, may I have your permission to withdraw the offensive phrase and ask my right hon. Friend to note that if he wishes to have information about bombed telephone exchanges he might well ask the Leader of the Opposition, who referred to this in his speech last night?

Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. Time is running very short.

Mr. K. Robinson

May I ask the Minister of Defence, or the Foreign Secretary, if they have any further news about British civilians? Have they seen the report in The Times today, which contrasts the successful evacuation of 1,300 Americans by the American Embassy with the total failure of the British Embassy to evacuate a single British civilian? In view of the fact that the Government have been three months preparing this aggression against Egypt, is not this criminal negligence?

Mr. Selwyn Lloyd

We had a certain amount more information about British civilians and the Embassy staff and certain other people through the Swiss authorities. On the question of arranging evacuation, on repeated occasions we encouraged those who were not essential to leave Egypt. So far as the others are concerned, we have no reason to believe otherwise than that they are safe.

Mr. Stokes

Arising out of the statement by the Minister of Defence that he knows nothing about the bombing of telephone exchanges and other communications, is he aware of the telegram sent to the United Nations during the night, which stated that the British radio bad announced an imminent switch, including communication centres, railway stations and telephone exchanges, many of which were located in densely populated areas, in their bombing?

Mr. Lloyd

May I answer this, as this matter was referred by the Secretary-General of the United Nations to me, at once? I gave him categorically my word and the word of the Government that no such orders had been issued.

Hon. Members


Mr. Stokes

Will the Foreign Secretary say why it was announced on the British radio?

Mr. Lloyd

I do not know where this came from.

Air Commodore Harvey

May I ask whether it is not evident that communication with Egypt is still good, as my right hon. Friend has only just received a cable? Secondly, may I ask why the party opposite looks so (miserable because a cease-fire has been ordered?

Mr. Beswick

With regard to the cease-fire, can the Foreign Secretary say, with his knowledge of history, whether on any occasion in the past a body of British people has cheered so loudly when a big nation has beaten a small one like this?

Mr. Lloyd

The cheers on this side of the House were due to the fact that it looked as though casualties would cease.

Mr. Harold Davies

May I ask the Minister of Defence whether he and his colleagues will see that, when it is consistent with the security and interests of the nation, this House will be provided with White Papers showing what kind of propaganda or military commands have been issued in the name of this House in the Middle East? Secondly, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether it is not obvious—we were all delighted to hear of the cease-fire—by the phrenetic cheering of hon. Members opposite that they were willing to grasp at any straw? Will the right hon. Gentleman now take courage in both hands and extend this cease-fire in accordance with the United Nations Resolution?

Mr. Head

The hon. Gentleman asked me first about the publication of a White Paper. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has already said that he would consider that. With regard to the extension of the cease-fire, I am not quite clear about the hon. Gentleman's meaning. If he means the extension in Egypt itself from Port Said to the rest of Egypt.

Mr. Davies


Mr. Head

—I am certain that that will be the Commander-in-Chiefs aim at the earliest possible opportunity. I think that it would be entirely wrong on an occasion like this, where only he knows the situation at Port Said, if we here were entirely to take charge. His aim has been to minimise the casualties.

Mr. Gaitskell

Is the Minister aware that, in our opinion, what is necessary now if this is, as we suspect, an entirely local cease-fire, that Her Majesty's Government, without further ado, should themselves accept the cease-fire generally for Egypt as a whole, and not pursue their course of forcing Egypt to unconditional surrender?

Mr. Head

I think that the answer to that is that the right hon. Gentleman should wait and see exactly what it is.

Mr. J. Eden

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the B.B.C. has been broadcasting to the Arab world details of the shameful partisan demonstrations sponsored by the Opposition? [HON. MEMBERS : "Read the Observer."] May I ask the Leader of the Opposition and his hon. and right hon. Friends whether they wish out of this issue that Egypt or Britain should win?

Mr. Hector Hughes

The Foreign Secretary was asked a question earlier about Cardinal Mindszenty, but he was then unable to give an answer. Is he now in the position to tell the House whether he knows anything about the whereabouts or the safety of Cardinal Mindszenty?

Mr. Lloyd

The only report which I have is to the effect that he is in the United States Legation in Budapest. I am not certain whether that is true or not.

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