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Army Officer's Letter To Press

Volume 387: debated on Tuesday 16 March 1943

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

The following Question stood upon the Order Paper in the name of Mr. BEVAN:

48. To ask the Prime Minister whether he is aware that a letter appeared in the "Evening Standard" of Wednesday, 10th March, written by a serving officer attached to an intelligence unit in North Africa; whether he can inform the House if this letter was passed by a senior officer; and whether he has any comment to make.

In putting this Question to the right hon. Gentleman, I do so with special compliments on his health.

This Question should normally have been addressed to the Secretary of State for War, but since the hon. Member, no doubt from those motives of delicacy in personal matters which are characteristic of him, has preferred to put it to me, I will answer it myself. I have read the letter in question. I am advised that it does not fall under the restrictions of paragraph 547 (a) of the King's Regulations as it deals with political and not with military affairs. It was not passed by any senior officer. The Base Censorship deals with matters of security, which in this case are not involved, and not with matters of opinion. In reply to the last part of the hon. Member's Question, the only comment which I have to make upon the letter is that it appears to express a perfectly arguable point of view and one which is shared by many responsible people, American, British and French, in this theatre of war. As, however, many Members of the House may be at a disadvantage by not having read the letter, I should be willing, if it is desired to pursue the matter, to circulate it with the Votes.

Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that, as I have already written and informed him, had I been permitted last Thursday to put this matter as a private notice Question it would not have been put to him, and I should have been exempted from his cheap sneer to-day? In the next place, does the right hon. Gentleman realise that an officer in a field of action is commenting upon the policy of his own Commander-in-Chief, and that the Prime Minister and President Roosevelt have said that the relations between the Vichy officials in North Africa are matters to be determined by General Eisenhower in terms of military necessity, and this letter comments upon it?—[Hon. Members: "Speech."]—Does he realise that we are broadcasting to France every night asking them to sabotage the Germans there and this officer commends those who shoot the Frenchmen who obey our instructions?

It has been made clear from what the hon. Member has said that I would be meeting his wishes in circulating the letter.

May I make one point here without taking any part in the controversy between my right hon. Friend and the hon. Member? Will the right hon. Gentleman make it clear that his statement that any officer is at liberty to write a letter on political subjects applies only to Members of this House? Otherwise, is it not rather an invitation to the Army to flood the newspapers with their views on the political situation in this House and elsewhere? Will he make the point clear?

The Regulations-paragraph 547a—is as follows;

"An officer or soldier is forbidden to publish in any form whatever, or communicate, either directly or indirectly, to the Press any military information, or his views on any military subject without special authority, and he will be held responsible for all statements contained in communications to his friends which may subsequently be published in the Press or otherwise. He will not pre-judge questions which are under the consideration of superior military authority by the publication, anonymously or otherwise, of his opinions, and he will not take part in public in a discussion relating to orders, regulations or instructions issued by his superiors."
I am informed—this is not in the Regulation—that an officer or soldier can write to the Press on other than military subjects without the permission of the higher authorities.

The hon. Gentleman knows better than the War Office. The position was made clear in an answer given by the Secretary of State for War to the hon. Member for North Lambeth (Mr. G. Strauss), on 16th June, 1942. The hon. Member asked whether there was any ban in Army Regulations which prevents a soldier exercising his citizen's right to write to the Press on other than Army matters, to which the Secretary of State replied "No, Sir."

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that up to now there has been a regulation of censorship in the Middle East, forbidding officers and men from writing on political subjects connected with the Service in which they are serving; and is that now to be amended?

I was not aware of any special regulation which has been issued on the subject, and I was not so advised by the War Office, but in my answer I have made it clear that the fact that this letter did not pass through the Base Censorship had been referred to the authorities on the spot.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that numerous officers and other ranks not only abroad but in this country have been forbidden to write articles for the Press? If he will consult the Secretary of State for War concerning one editor of a newspaper who is now serving in the Forces, he will find that editor has to submit any articles which he writes before they are allowed by his superior officer.

Is the right hon. Gentleman not aware that the ban against serving soldiers in this country writing to the Press has been interpreted so severely as to prevent medical communications being sent to the medical Press on purely medical subjects?

In view of the entirely unsatisfactory nature of the Prime Minister's reply, I beg to give notice that I will raise this whole question at an early opportunity, on the Motion for the Adjournment.

Fallowing is the letter referred to:

"To the Editor of the Evening Standard.

Sir,

No newspaper is produced in North Africa for the benefit of British troops. And it is very seldom that one gets an opportunity of reading any of the London newspapers. As a result, we are all rather out of touch with events and opinion at home. Recently I had the good fortune to get hold of a batch of British and American papers. I was disturbed to find what a critical and even bitter spirit seems to be arising towards events, and still more towards personalities in this theatre of war.

There seems to be a widespread tendency to assume that any Frenchman who has occupied any official position under the Government of Vichy, whether at home or abroad, must necessarily be a traitor, or possessed of a Fascist mentality; and that to make use of the services of such a man is to betray the cause of the United Nations and the future of France.

Such an intransigent outlook can only serve to perpetuate disunity among the comparatively few Frenchmen who are lucky enough to be outside the power of the enemy—and this at a time when the German invasion of the so-called unoccupied zone has at length brought real unity to Metropolitan France. If pushed to extremes, such a policy would create the perfect condition for a bloody civil war in France as soon as she is free. From such a struggle only extremist and violent minorities might hope to profit, and in the resulting catastrophe all hope of a liberal, democratic, republican France would disappear.

This Pharisaical attitude, which is, I fear, fostered by certain French elements in London, is devoid of any real moral justification. Those who escaped from France and who have played an active part in fighting the enemy have won the respect of all. But they are not, perhaps, the best qualified to judge of the actions of their countrymen in the homeland or French North Africa, many of whom, at acute personal risk, have resisted the enemy in all ways that were open to them.

The word "collaborator," usually prefixed by the adjective "notorious," seems to have become a stumbling block in this connection. Surely a wide distinction should be drawn between those Frenchmen in official positions, high or low, who have collaborated with the Germans in the internal administration of France and those who have collaborated to assist a German victory. These last are few, and they may truly be called "notorious." But the vast majority of French officials have only retained their positions in a desire to preserve some order and stability in their country and to protect their fellow citizens from the worst excesses of Nazi theft and savagery. To start a heresy hunt against such men who, by one chance or another, now find themselves in a position to aid the common cause would be insensate folly and injustice.

The French National Committee in London have very wisely welcomed to their aid French Royalists no less than French Communists. Why, then, such a furore at the discovery that some of the leading French personalities in French North Africa have Royalist connections? Why such a campaign of calumny against M. Peyrouton, who, if he had rallied to the Free French Committee six months ago, would certainly have been accepted, but who is: now bitterly denounced by people in London and Washington who know nothing of the liberalising influence he has already brought to bear and of the reputation he has long held in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco as one of the ablest and most just administrators whom France has ever sent to North Africa?

Surely it is time that a truce was called in this campaign of recrimination. In the last analysis it is Frenchmen who must settle such differences among themselves. Our role must surely be to reduce quarrels among Frenchmen to their proper proportions, and to let it be known that we will help all Frenchmen, except proved traitors like Laval, to play a useful and honourable part in fighting the enemy. Such a policy is to the interest of the North African campaign and the wider cause of the United Nations. It also offers the only hope of recreating a great and free France when victory is ours.

Yours, etc.,

RANDOLPH S. CHURCHILL.

February 25, 1943. North Africa."