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Army Supplementary Estimate, 1942

Volume 387: debated on Wednesday 17 March 1943

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3. "That a Supplementary sum, not exceeding £10, be granted to His Majesty, to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1943, for expenditure beyond the sum already provided in the grants for Army Services for the year."

Schedule.
Sums not exceeding
Supply Grants.Appropriations in Aid.
Vote.££
1. Pay, &c., of the Army.1090,000,000

First Resolution read a Second Time. Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House doth agree with the Committee in the said Resolution."

There are two points which I wish to raise on this Vote. The first concerns airgraphs sent by soldiers who are with the Armies in the Middle East. I understand that the men pay a little more in order to send airgraphs in the expectation that they will get here in a day or two. In fact, some of them do not even arrive in a week or two. In one case to which my attention was drawn an airgraph had been some three months on the way. I had some complaint about this matter when I was out there recently and have myself had a striking example of the delay, because I sent one from Egypt about November, and it arrived only last week. The soldiers say that there may be some reason for this delay and that if there is a reason for it they do not mind, but what they object to is to find that a service which is supposed to provide a quick means of communication between a soldier and his relatives does not work out so well in practice although they have paid the extra charge. I do not know the reason for the delay. It has been put to me that it may be due to the movements of the Forces in North Africa, but it is also not uncommon in Iraq and in Egypt, where the Forces are largely static.

A striking thing is that I have not had any complaints from soldiers in India. The service may operate there. I was talking to someone in the precincts of the House only yesterday who had received some 10 airgraphs from India in the last three months, and there did not seem to have been any difficulties in his case. I do not know whether the Army authorities are responsible for the administration on this side, or whether the postal authorities of the respective countries are responsible, or whether it is just a matter of censorship, but I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that the delays are causing great misgivings among soldiers and I should be much obliged if he could furnish us with some explanation of what is happening. Further, if an airgraph is not delivered within a certain number of days would it not be possible to return the amount which the man has paid? A soldier receives small pay comparatively, and it is really a great hardship that a man should pay extra postage for quick transit and then not get the service.

The next point I want to put concerns leave from the Forces generally in the Middle East as well as the Fighting Forces in North Africa. It is well known that a great many of these soldiers had served long periods in India before the war broke out. It is not an uncommon thing to have a parent or a wife telling you that the soldier has been away from home for five or six years and has never had any leave. In peace-time they took their leave in India. Many of them have served in various parts of the Far East, being men who were ready trained and experienced, and they have had quite a lot of fighting. They complain and their relatives complain that there does not seem to be any system about the granting of leave. I do not know what truth there is in it, but they say sometimes that soldiers who have not been away from home anything like as long as they have have been granted leave. Everybody understands the difficulties of giving men leave at the present time. It means a long voyage, very often round by the Cape. It is not as though the Mediterranean was clear, so as to give a more direct route. There would be difficulties about the matter then, with so many men with specialist experience in our Armies in North Africa and in the Middle East. But if the right hon. Gentleman could tell us that there is some system designed to give men leave in proportion to the time they have been serving I think it would give some satisfaction; at any rate we should have an understanding of the position. We should like to know just what are the difficulties. Some of us have an idea that we know what they are, but if the right hon. Gentleman could state publicly what the difficulties are it would give a little satisfaction to those concerned.

I want to add only a few words to what my hon. Friend the Member for Chester-le-Street (Mr. Lawson) has said. In regard to the latter part of his speech, there is a class of men serving overseas to whom some consideration ought to be given. A number of men have been drafted overseas without embarkation leave who had engagements to members of the opposite sex and who, in the ordinary course of events, would have married them. The Minister knows the situation quite well. I expect the War Office and he receive as many letters as I and other hon. Members do from the girls themselves as well as from their mothers. All these people are seriously concerned at the impossibility of their daughters marrying the soldiers, who are quite willing to marry, and who, because of certain future events, ought to marry.

It has been suggested that an arrangement might be made for marriage by proxy. I believe there is some sort of system arranged in the German army to that end. This is a serious matter and not one for merriment. The parents especially are concerned that some provision should be made to enable the young people to marry, as people at home have the opportunity of doing, and so avoiding the unpleasant stigma in the future. We do not know how long these troops will be away abroad. It may be a long time. I do suggest that my hon. and learned Friend should try to make some arrangement. Fortunately the people concerned are only a small minority, but it would be well worth while the War Office finding some solution.

The other question is as to the mails. My hon. and learned Friend knows too well from his experience in the last war that the regular delivery of mails is just is important to the morale of the troops is the regular delivery of rations. Great efforts are made to see that rations come up to time, even in battle. It is true that the rations are not addressed to individual soldiers, but equal efforts should be made to see that the men get letters more regularly than they now do. I know the difficulties when troops are on the move, but there are many static troops, particularly in the Middle East, who are not getting their mails. I am aware from the correspondence I receive that it is causing depression of spirits, in men who can see no possibility of getting home, and want to hear from their families. It would be worth while for the War Office to try to speed up the mails. The Army Council are doing their best to see that the morale of the troops is high. The B.B.C. have special weeks to improve the morale of all concerned. This is a method whereby a great effect could be created in the Army. I am glad to be able to support my hon. Friend the Member for Chester-le-Street. Whoever is at fault, whether it is the Post Office or, as I am inclined to think, the Army Post Office at the other end, I hope that efforts will be made to speed up the mails.

A very good case can be made out for marriage by proxy during war-time. I have in mind the unmarried mothers, and I regard the matter with a considerable amount of seriousness. Take the case where a man has gone abroad. Had he remained, he probably would have married the woman who is to have a child. It is because of the unmarried mother and the unborn child that I am wholly in favour of marriage by proxy during war-time. I hope that my hon. and learned Friend will consider whether he is able to reply to-day to the effect that he will give this matter the serious consideration which it merits.

The other matter is the prolonged delay in the postal service from India and the Middle East. Only yesterday I received from India a letter which took a considerable time, no less than three times the normal period taken in peace time. That is very serious. I ask my hon. and learned Friend to consider whether anything can be done to expedite the delivery of letters to and from troops in the Middle East.

I intervene to emphasise the importance of keeping up morale by means of the delivery of letters. In India there have been grave reasons for complaint.

I do not think we can pursue the subject any further because it is very far from coming under the Vote we are discussing.

Then I will turn my attention to another matter which concerns the welfare of the troops.

On a point of Order. I would draw attention to the fact that we have been discussing this matter of airgraphs since we began the discussion on the Estimates. These Estimates are not what they used to be, because they are not so detailed. They are more general. We had a Ruling from Mr. Speaker on one occasion—I think it was on the last occasion, although I am not sure—that, in view of the scantiness of the Estimates now, Debates could be rather more general upon the Report stage than they used to be when we got more detailed Estimates.

Yes, that is quite so, so far as a general discussion on Army matters is concerned, but when we get on to the question of the mails we are on matters which concern another Department, and away from the Army. The matter can be discussed so far as the Army is concerned, but not when the matter concerns another Department.

I would put a further point. As a rule, this discussion would be ruled out, but I have made some inquiries about the matter. I gather that the Army have some responsibility for the administration of this matter, and, if that is so, perhaps you would rule that it is within the bounds of Order.

It is only right that I should say here that the Army has a responsibility for the mails that are despatched to the troops abroad, but has no responsibility necessarily for the transportation of the mails. For mails that go by air the responsibility is that of the Air Ministry and for those that go by sea, of the Ministry of War Transport. On the other hand, we take over the mails, for example in London, from the General Post Office, and thereafter they become our responsibility until they are delivered.

My hon. and learned Friend seems to have placed you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, rather in the position of having to give a Solomon's judgment. Will you not give the benefit of the doubt to my hon. Friend and allow him to deal with this matter?

I have already given the benefit of the doubt by allowing one short speech on the subject. My point is that, as there is great doubt as to which Department is responsible, I do not think we ought to have speeches of any considerable length on this occasion, or a general Debate upon this particular detail.

I shall not transgress. There has been intolerable delay. I used the word "intolerable." Now it is a matter of great satisfaction that Sir Archibald Wavell has taken the matter under his own care regarding India, thereby making mails definitely an Army matter, not leaving them to the Postmaster-General, who does not like to meet Members of Parliament. Sir Archibald Wavell has recognised the gravity of the delay in Durban, Bombay and other places, and I hope that the Financial Secretary will carry on the good work. This is one side of welfare. Some of us who have been working in welfare, as I have been for three years in the Northern Command, are very sorry at the untimely death, a tragedy, of General Sir H. Willans. So rich is the welfare department, however, in its personnel, that we hope that a proper appointment will be made.

There is the other matter of Army Council Instruction 84. I always call it the "Love, marriage and divorce" Army Council Instruction. It gets us welfare officers to try to reconcile erring wives and to look over the faults of faithless husbands. We do this if the troops are abroad. Then the circumlocution department is set in motion, and what is called the Navy, Army and Airmen's Families Association. One has to go to a dear young lady in Victoria Street. She generally does not know her geography very well. A letter comes, and instead of going from the paymaster to the welfare officer, it goes to this intermediate department, and there is a delay of seven to 10 days. Some of us get letters which ought to go to somebody else, because of this intermediate department run by a very efficient young woman in Victoria Street. Is there any reason why the War Office should not let the welfare department deal with it direct? We have to deal with the paymasters of the regiments in question ultimately, and say whether we have been successful in getting the hearts of husbands and wives to beat once more in general synchrony. We have had remarkable successes, but I do not want to emphasise that angle of it too much.

I would only say that welfare officers, instead of going round to units to see that all is correct, such as the food, or that the men have wireless sets, are now doing work which is completely changed, owing to the legal mind of my hon. and learned Friend the Financial Secretary to the War Office. He has evolved this Army Council Instruction 834. We forgive him for that. At any rate, the War Office in these days goes in for a more direct method, and the old red-tape circumlocution office is cut out. I am more than a little hopeful that my hon. and learned Friend will ask why this lady in Victoria Street is doing such a great amount of work. She is overburdened with work. Why should she have to go to the trouble of reposting letters and putting on the wrong addresses, leaving it to us welfare officers, possessed as we are of great initiative, to decipher them and see to what part of Yorkshire we have to go in order to bring about that great reconciliation which we so ardently desire?

I could touch upon another matter, which I am rather afraid might be out of Order. I wish my hon. Friend would tell the House some of the work of the Young Soldiers' Council which some of us started on 17th September, 1942. We went to the anniversary service, and it was a joyous occasion. It covers 85 per cent. of young soldiers under the age of 21, whose chief sin in life is irresponsibility. That is about all that is wrong with them. My hon. and learned Friend can remember from his own not too far distant past when he had a great attack of irresponsibility and like myself and many others took the wrong turning when we should have taken the right one. Detention barracks is a euphomistic term for "clink," which has another alias, because a detention barracks used to be in my own constituency and they were the old prison, reconstituted and rededicated to the Army. Happily, it was bombed almost to bits, and now my hon. and learned Friend and the Army Council have provided a very nice detention barracks for the grown-ups. But it was wrong to send these boys for three or four months into such detention barracks, though I must say that the detention barracks I went to see were almost like going to an OCTU—the lectures and so forth—but that, by the way. These young soldiers' camps are places where the whole purpose is to give a moral background to these lads of under 21. Now, Sir, if in your more leisurely periods you would, not as a task, but as a joy, read the report from some of those camps you would see that 85 per cent. of those lads have made good. I want to congratulate the War Office on breaking away from tradition and allowing these camps to be formed. I could tell you a story of one boy—but I am not allowed to tell stories.

The hon. Member's illustrations have gone rather far, and he began by promising to be very brief.

I am concluding—this was almost my last sentence—by saying that I hope nothing will be allowed to deter the War Office from continuing, not the backward look which was supposed to be the background of the War Office in the bad old days but, under the regime under which it is prospering at the present time, a forward look, and that it will not allow these progressive developments to be discontinued.

May I ask one question, that of damage to the farm crops from military manœuvres? I mean damage that can be prevented. In the old days, of course, when a cavalry regiment swept over a field using a gap in the fence you could go through and reform on the other side. These tanks take a fence or wall three abreast and often do unnecessary damage, though gates have been left open for them. I think that if the Secretary of State for War would allow us to put notices on our farms it would stop a good deal of unnecessary back chat and damage and soldiers going in and wanting water perhaps and talking to the dairy girls, as happened in my own case. If the Secretary of State would allow these notices to be put up round really important places—and after all, food production is really important nowadays, second only to the Army—I think that would stop a lot of unnecessary damage. I ask him to look into that question. It is not the fault of the troops; they do not know what damage can be done on the farms. It is not their fault but their misfortune. If anything can be done to stop unnecessary damage, by means of more notices on the farms issued through the war agricultural committees, I hope the Secretary of State will remember that.

I assure my hon. and gallant Friend that the War Office is always endeavouring to ensure that a minimum of damage is done by the troops when they are carrying out their exercises. The concrete suggestion he has made will be considered.

The hon. Member for East Hull (Mr. Muff) will not expect me to follow him in his reference to the young soldiers' battalions. If he had been in his place two weeks ago when the Motion "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair" was discussed, he would have heard me deal at great length with the work of the young soldiers' battalions. Perhaps I might content myself by saying that I entirely agree with him as to the excellent work being done and the complete justification of the experiment which these young soldiers' battalions represent.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chester-le-Street (Mr. Lawson), with other hon. Members, has raised the very important question of mails for troops overseas. I can assure them that we have been very much concerned with this particular problem, and I am not going for one moment to attempt to suggest to the House that we are entirely satisfied with the time that is taken to deliver the various types of mail to the various parts of the world in which our troops are at present serving. Perhaps I might be allowed to give to the House some picture of the problem that we have to deal with in relation to postal services for overseas Forces. Surface mails to the Middle East, East Africa, Persia, Iraq, and India are of necessity conveyed by the long sea route via the Cape, and I must admit at once that transit times are usually protracted and arrivals irregular. This is, of course, explained by the fact that dispatches depend upon sailings, which under present circumstances are irregular.

As an alternative to the surface mail, some time ago a special light air letter was introduced which is taken at a charge of 6d. Normally, as one would expect from the name used—light air letter—these letters are conveyed throughout by air, but unfortunately on occasions it has been found necessary to send consignments by sea for part of the journey when aircraft accommodation has been required for other priority traffic. I am glad to say, however, that the situation has recently improved, as the Air Ministry have provided additional planes, and now air letter services have been established not only for the countries to which I have just referred, but on an experimental basis to and from North Africa. As a result it has been found possible to accelerate air letters to the Eighth Army which hitherto circulated via the Middle East.

In addition, an air letter service to West Africa, where the troops are even more desirous of receiving communications from home, from the very nature of their environment, was also introduced recently. It is also hoped that as a result of the setting-up by the Secretary of State for Air of the Air Transport Command of the R.A.F. we may be able to secure a further considerable improvement generally in air-mail services to the Forces overseas. My hon. Friend introduced his speech with a reference to airgraphs. As regards the particular case to which he referred, if he will be good enough to let me have the particulars—the time it was posted and other details—I will certainly be glad to look into that special case.

How long is it since the new system was established? How long has it been in operation?

Cannot one send airgraphs for 3d. per letter?

That is much better, if they go all the way by air, than sending a letter?

Obviously the intention is that the airgraph letter should go more quickly, but the difficulty has been that the airgraphs to certain parts of the Middle East have had to go by the long route rather than by what is called the short route, and that very much increases the time. Each week 1,250,000 airgraph letters are sent from this country, and approximately the same number are received, and about 1,500,000 air letters are dispatched each week and about the same number received.

If my hon. Friend means the short route, the last return I received indicated that about 50 per cent. of that particular week's consignment of 1,250,000 airgraph letters travelled by the long route and 50 per cent. by the short route, but it depends upon a number of factors, including, so far as aircraft are concerned, weather conditions, and it may be desirable not to wait but to send them immediately by sea. As regards the small weight of airgraphs, the House will be interested to know that 4,500 airgraph letters weigh approximately 1 lb., which is the same as the weight of 180 air letters, so that the small weight of airgraph films does not present the same difficulties, and transmission by air can usually be guaranteed, but transmission by air perhaps by the long route as well as the short route. The intervals, of course, between airgraph despatches vary considerably, and consequently the average time of transmission covers a wide range. As regards North Africa, it is hoped to start an airgraph service from there within a month. At the moment airgraphs from this country to North Africa are being printed in this country and are being delivered as letters until such time as there is equipment available in North Africa for the necessary processing which has to take place.

The House might be interested to have some indication of the approximate transit times in the case of airgraphs, which to the Middle East is 5½ days by the short route and 10 to 12 days by the long route.

That is from the home postal centre to the base where the processing has to take place. Members know the system which is operated in relation to airgraphs. An airgraph to the Middle East takes 5½ days, to India 12 days, and to Persia and Iraq 5½ days; an air letter to the Middle East 16 days, to India 22 days, and to Persia and Iraq 17 days. For surface mails—the ordinary letter which goes the whole way by ship from this country to the Middle East, for example—the times are, to the Middle East 77½ days, and to India 75 days. The return transit times of mails from the various theatres of war are practically the same except in relation to surface mails, for which there is an increase of 10 or 12 days in respect of India and of Persia and Iraq. I can assure the House that the whole question of overseas mails, of postal services to overseas stations, receives the constant consideration of the War Office, and we are only too anxious to do everything possible to secure improvements. But we are faced with certain difficulties to which I have alluded, such as the question of convoys, the question of shipping, and the availability of aeroplanes, which depends to some extent on weather and other conditions. It is impossible to maintain a perfect system in every case, although I think that, taking it on an average, and having regard to the vast volume of mail taken from and brought into this country, the position is relatively satisfactory.

We are very much obliged for the detailed and clear explanation my hon. and learned Friend has given, including his explanation of the difference between the long route and the short route; but is he sure that most of the delay does not occur between the unit and the base? Would he give his attention to that matter?

Some weeks ago I went very carefully into the problem from the point of view of the time it takes for mail to go from the base, say in Egypt, to the front line. I do not think I am giving away any information when I say that 100 per cent. of that mail for the Eighth Army has been taken up by air and that the average time has been 24 hours. There is a very frequent air service from the base to the front line, or the equivalent of the rail head, and I do not think there has been any difficulty about that. Hon. Members who have been taking part in campaigns know that things go wrong and that there may be operational difficulties to prevent any system functioning normally at all times.

The second point to which my hon. Friend referred was the question of leave from the Middle East and from India. At the moment soldiers with six or more years' continuous service overseas may be considered for transfer to the home establishment. Release is considered on its merits, and the final decision rests with the Commander-in-Chief, Middle East Forces, in the case of those serving in that theatre. It depends, of course, on two very vital considerations, the military situation and the availability of shipping. With the best intentions in the world, it is a very difficult problem, and I think it would be wrong for me to convey the impression that there is much likelihood of any drastic reduction in the time limit, say from six years to two or three years at present. My hon. Friend suggested that there were cases in which some sort of preference was given. It is true that men are occasionally brought home on compassionate grounds where their physical presence is absolutely vital. That depends on the circumstances of each case. I think that where doctors took the view that in order to save the life of an individual a surgical operation was necessary and for family reasons a soldier had to be brought home, permission would be given.

In cases of six years' service or more are cases always considered individually or are units ever considered as units?

Each case would be considered individually, and not on the basis of a unit. If there were a unit in which 50, 100 or 150 men had more than six years' service abroad, all those men would be entitled to apply to be sent home; but, of course, permission is contingent on the military situation and on the availability of shipping, and I cannot think that the military situation up to date has been such that a Commander-in-Chief would be willing to send home a well-trained and efficient fighting unit. From time to time it has been necessary to bring home a few officers from the Middle East, to give the Army at home the benefit of their military experience and technical knowledge. For that reason we have brought home experienced tank officers who fought in Libya and in Tripolitania. They have been brought home to lecture at the various training establishments.

I see no reason why in principle any other rank, if he be well qualified to lecture in factories on his experiences as a fighting soldier, a tank driver or whatever he may be, should not be brought home. There is certainly no intention of making a dividing line between soldiers and officers.

We have brought home non-commissioned officers: I am not sure about private soldiers. The House will realise that, while it may be a poor substitute for leave to come home, facilities are given to our troops abroad to enjoy some amount of leave. The conditions are practically the same as in this country. Troops serving abroad are given up to 28 days a year of what is called local recuperative leave. They are given free travel to the nearest health resorts; and I am told that there are some excellent health resorts available to our troops in Persia, Iraq and the Middle East.

I would not like to answer that without consideration. Troops in this country, as my hon. and gallant Friend knows, are not entitled to take a greater number of days than 14. But I will look into the point, and let him know.

I spent two years in the Middle East, and this information about the 28 days is news to me. The troops there are entitled to five days' leave periodically; but those days are not allowed as a right, and if they miss them at the time they do not get them later.

Whether it is true or not that the troops get this 28 days, will my hon. and learned Friend look into the opportunities, especially in the Cairo area, for men to have a real leave at a reduced cost? He will find that facilities for British troops are nowhere comparable to those given, for example, to the New Zealand Forces. I have that information from officers who have come home.

If my hon. Friend will give me his information, I will, of course, look into it. As regards the point of my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield (Mr. Bull), even in this country leave is always given as a privilege, and if for any reason an operational or tactical situation develops—and we have all experienced it—as a result of which leave is cancelled you are not allowed to store that leave up and take it as a credit later on. I have no doubt that when my hon. Friend missed his leave he was well up in the front line, probably at El Alamein, and that the situation was such as to prevent leave being given. In normal times 28 days is the entitlement each year. My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Bellenger) will no doubt know that in the Middle East we have, in addition to providing facilities for going to the various health resorts, set up rest camps in various areas, where officers and men can have rest and change. I have no reason to believe that those rest camps are not serving a most useful purpose.

On the question of marriage by proxy, I am sure my hon. Friends will not expect me to reply now. It involves other Departments besides the War Office. But I feel that my hon. Friends, on consideration, will realise that it is an extremely difficult problem, liable to lead to various repercussions and considerable controversy; and, while I sympathise with the individual problem to which my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw referred, I do not hold out any hope of legislation being introduced to remedy the situation. No doubt those who are responsible for dealing with the question of marriage will give consideration to the views that my hon. Friends have expressed.

Does my hon. and learned Friend consider that it would create any difficulty or controversy if the proposal were limited to the case of the unmarried mother?

I have been sufficiently long in this House to know that the proposal would lead to considerable controversy. I need make no comment as to whether it is good or bad. It would be a very big innovation in the marriage laws of this country.

What would happen in respect of compensation to the unmarried mother?

Question, "That this House doth agree with the Committee in the said Resolution," put, and agreed to.

Second and Third Resolutions agreed to.

REPORT [11 th March]

Resolutions reported: