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Lieut-Colonel Gates

Volume 388: debated on Thursday 22 April 1943

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

On 17th March last I raised a complaint against the conduct of a training battalion officer, and the Parliamentary Secretary to the War Office gave me a reply which I thought was unsatisfactory and inconclusive. I afterwards put a Question to the Secretary of State for War, and his reply was to the effect that a further complaint which I had made would be investigated and action taken. I am asking to-day what action has been taken. I have no more complaints to make about this officer. My complaint is now against the Secretary of State for War, not personally, but as the Parliamentary head of the Department responsible for retaining this officer in employment and for promoting him in rank after they had considered his case. In his deply on 17th March the Financial Secretary said that all the incidents had been inquired into and that the situation which had arisen at this training centre had come to the knowledge of this officer's superior officers. I doubt that, because if the facts that these superior officers knew were put before the appropriate authorities at the War Office then the latter were very lax in the action they took. I am not prepared at this moment to state some of the incidents which were, in my view, not reported to the appropriate authority at the War Office, which I believe was the Army Council, because I do not want to hurt the feelings of certain innocent people who might be involved, but I must warn the right hon. Gentleman that unless his reply to-day is much more satisfactory than was the reply of the Financial Secretary I may be forced to state the nature of these incidents, and if I do that, a shiver of horror will, in my view, pass through all the homes in this country, from which boys have gone into the Army.

When the Financial Secretary replied he said it had been decided that this officer was unsuitable to command men. I may be very innocent, but I took it that this officer had been put into a position in some office in the War Office in Whitehall where he would very likely be signing documents or writing documents and would not be in command of men at all. But that is not so. I am not saying that my hon. and learned Friend misled the House, but I am innocent, and I think a lot of other Members are innocent, and I took it that he was in a job where he could not injure men or, as he himself said, make their lives miserable. He is actually out inspecting men, and he has been known to do some little badgering about saluting, which I understand exercises the minds of very many officers, heaven knows why. I do hot understand anybody desiring any other human being to salute him. That is completely beyond my comprehension.

Does the hon. Member not know the origin of saluting? When a private soldier is saluting an officer or a captain is saluting a major he is not saluting a superior officer, but is saluting the King's uniform.

The original reason for saluting was to show that the man had not a knife in his hands or any other weapon to attack his officer. While it may be a case of saluting the King's uniform, I cannot understand the wearers of the King's uniform who hold commissions wanting to be saluted. I am quite sure that in many cases the men do not object to saluting—there is nothing in that at all—but I certainly do not understand anybody considering himself so superior that he wants to be saluted. I understand now that this officer has had selective promotion, and that means that in his dealings with both officers and non-commissioned officers and men he has a great deal more power to-day than he had when he was in command of a training battalion. The Financial Secretary seemed to suggest that this officer made some great difference in this battalion when he came to it. I have been at some little pains to make inquiries, and I understand that when this officer came to this battalion it was a good and efficient battalion, and I understand it is still a good and efficient battalion, so the statement that he made some great change in the battalion is obviously untrue.

I know the right hon. Gentleman is in a difficulty. I feel that the case was sent to the wrong authority. This officer's case was referred, not to the War Office authority, probably, but the Army Council. He could have been court-martialled, but I understand that is impossible now, because he has already been tried by the Army Council. I contend that the whole of the facts were not before the Army Council, and that if they had been they would have taken an entirely different view; at least, I hope so. The right hon. Gentleman can have it whichever way he likes. Either they throw these training battalions into the country and pay no more attention to them, and anything from pitch-and-toss to manslaughter can occur in a battalion and they do not pay any attention to it; or—and this is important—if they knew of the incidents that happened in this battalion right from the start, the incident of January, 1942, and the incident of June, 1942, and no action was taken until I raised the matter, then I consider that my complaint is well-founded, and that backstairs influence must have been exercised in the War Office. This man boasted of it and, in fact, received the precise appointment which he boasted he would get. The right hon. Gentleman can have it either way. Either the War Office do not pay any attention to these training battalions or there was undue influence exercised on behalf of this man at the War Office. It may be that both statements are true.

I have only one other point to raise, and I think it is a very important one. I want to know whether any decision has been come to regarding the records of illegal punishments inflicted on these men. A number of men must have received these punishments quite illegally, and they are on the records. I understand that it is contended that it would be very difficult to remove them. I suggest that all punishments of this character, if need be, ought to be removed from the records of these men, because it will be far better to clear a dozen guilty men than to make one innocent man suffer. That is all I ask, and I hope I shall have a more satisfactory reply on the continued employment of this gentleman in the position he now holds.

There has already been one Debate on this subject, and I do not propose, any more than the hon. Member did, to traverse the whole field of that Debate, but I should like to give the House a brief account of the past history of the matter as I see it. Colonel Gates was removed from the command of a training battalion towards the end of 1942. The removal occurred as a consequence of an adverse report by his brigadier, which stated that Colonel Gates, although energetic and keen and possessing considerable ability, insisted upon a very high standard of drill and turnout in his battalion, regardless of whether such a standard could reasonably be attained in existing conditions, and enforced sterner disciplinary measures for its attainment than should be necessary. His district commander, who knew him personally and knew his work, in passing on the report referred to Colonel Gates's conspicuous success in training large numbers of men—and that disposes of one of the hon. Member's points—and considered that his only faults were excessive zeal—a very rare fault in these days—and lack of forethought, which led him to make use of unorthodox methods. His area commander agreed that Colonel Gates was a capable and zealous officer with a high standard of discipline but considered him unsuitable for the command of a training unit, as his energy was at time misapplied and his judgment not always sound; but he strongly recommended him for further employment.

Colonel Gates appealed to the Army Council against the adverse report, and the matter therefore came before the Army Council in its judicial or appellate capacity. The decision, come to early in 1943, was to confirm his relinquishment of the command of his training unit but to employ him in a first-grade staff appointment as and when there was a suitable vacancy. I have seen some suggestions, and the hon. Member has repeated them to-day, that this was a disreputable decision, come to on account of undue influence, but I have read the papers myself, and I find not a shred of support for any such suggestion. Indeed, I do not see how there can be, because all these appeals have to go to no less than three members of the Army Council.

That brings me to the last Adjournment Debate on this subject. The next thing is the Question to me on 30th March by the hon. Member opposite, demanding that Colonel Gates should be thrown out of his new appointment on account of two so-called new incidents. One of these, which I will call for short the "yapping dogs" incident, I dealt with at the time and, as I thought, to the satisfaction of the House generally. I have seen a full account of the annoyance, I might almost say persecution, to which Colonel Gates was subjected, and I can only say that my own patience would, under a similar strain, have given out much more quickly. On the second complaint I said that I was making detailed inquiry. As a matter of fact, I asked the General Officer Commanding in charge of the Command in which Colonel Gates is now serving, to go into this matter personally and to go into Colonel Gates's performance of his duties. The General Officer Commanding is a man in whose judgment and impartiality I have the utmost confidence. He was not in the Command in which the previous incidents occurred. There can be no sort of question whatever of any pull in this case.

In regard to the specific incident which related to a rebuke to a non-commissioned officer for saluting badly, the General Officer Commanding reported that he himself had been into the matter, and he could see nothing that was wrong, and, moreover, it had occurred a day before the publication in the Press of the Debate in this House—not that that is more than of minor relevance. As regards his work generally, the General Officer Commanding reported that Colonel Gates was a most enthusiastic and efficient officer who set an extremely high standard. His fault, if he had one, was that he was an individualist. That is a horrible fault, I can see that. [An HON. MEMBER: "So was Crippen an individualist."] He was not; he was a pluralist. In his enthusiasm, Colonel Gates was inclined to take the straight road to his objective—another horrible fault—and thereby perhaps offend others whose standard was lower and who were inclined to favour an easy life. He was satisfied with Colonel Gates's work in every respect and had no complaints to make about it. At the same time he had warned him to be extremely careful to avoid incidents or anything which could be represented as an incident. The Commander concluded that should Colonel Gates's work appear to him in any way unsatisfactory he would, of course, take action to have him changed, but this was certainly not the case at present.

May I say on that point that even if I accepted the hon. Member's invitation and removed Colonel Gates from the Army, Colonel Gates would have an appeal to the Army Council and to His Majesty, and in the face of that, his appeal would certainly succeed. Now let me read to the House a letter which has been forwarded both to me and to the hon. Member for Penistone (Mr. McGhee) by another Member of this House. It is not the only one of this kind I have received, but it will do for my present purpose:
"Dear Sir,—May I occupy a moment of your time, in the interests of fair play to Lieut.-Colonel Gates, as voices (uninformed) are being raised against him in the House?
My son, one of your constituents, served under him as a driver and lance-corporal in France and through Dunkirk. My son is now a captain serving overseas. He has been eloquent in praise of Lieut.-Colonel Gates both as a man and as an officer, and regards his service and training under him as the most valuable part of his service. He has told me too that he is a highly efficient officer, and a man who got things done—a necessity in a war of this sort."
I agree about that. The letter goes on:
"From France I had letters telling me of the personal interest Major Gates (as he then was) took in the comfort and care of his men and that morally he was a good example to officers and men. One would think that common decency towards a man who, it is admitted, was instrumental in saving hundreds of lives at Dunkirk, would have kept' lay journalists from seeking copy that way, but if, Sir, you can raise a voice in the House for fair play, I with others shall be grateful. I would say from what my son has told me, that Lieut.-Colonel Gates is at heart kindly and approachable and still continues correspondence with young men he has helped with counsel and training and who have served under him, in regard to their progress in the field. I would add that I have written to this effect already to the Under-Secretary of State for War."
Perhaps the House and the hon. Member will bear with me while I read another document, addressed to the electors of Penistone. It says:
"The Government's hesitating and aimless foreign policy has been the main contributing factor to the present Imperalist war."
I think that must have been the Italian attack upon Abyssinia. I was in India at the time, so I am not sure what it was. The document goes on:
"It has been, and it will be, made the excuse for increasing the already swollen Armed Forces."
Those who were at Dunkirk will have a good deal to say about the swollen Armed Forces,
"I unhesitatingly pledge myself to oppose and resist by every constitutional"—

May I rise to a point of Order? The hon. Member for Penistone (Mr. McGhee) is raising a matter on the Adjournment, consequent upon receiving a reply which he considered unsatisfactory to a Question addressed to the, right hon. Gentleman, and he is exercising the right of a Member of Parliament to raise a matter on the Adjournment. Is it in Order for a Minister of the Crown to quote from a document of years ago in such a way as to prejudice the issue raised by the hon. Member?

An hon. Member has a right to make out his own case in his own way, and the Minister is equally entitled so to do. [HON. MEMBERS: "Go on."]

I am not seeking your protection, Mr. Speaker, for anything I have said about the Armed Forces of the Crown. I was justified at the time I made that statement, and so was Baldwin. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] If this point is to be raised, I want to know why the Tory Party and large numbers of the members of this Government not only did not help to swell the Armed Forces but helped to build up Hitler and his power.

I go on with my quotation:

"I unhesitatingly pledge myself to oppose and resist by every constitutional means every proposal to increase armaments of any kind; especially, in particular"—
and this is the point I really want the House to hear—
"I am opposed to supplying the means for aerial warfare for the continuance of which the Tory National Government is mainly responsible."

Are we to understand that the right hon. Gentleman is entitled to go back and quote statements that have been made by a Member years and years ago when he is replying to this point? Are you prepared to allow it, Mr. Speaker?

It is not for me to stop hon. Members on any side of the House from quoting statements by other hon. Members. It is not my duty to censor hon. Members' speeches.

Would it be in Order for us on this side to quote commendations of Hitler made by Members on the other side of the House?

The point is this, that it was an extremely sage remark which Shakespeare put into the mouth of I think:

"Use every man after his desert, and who should scape whipping?"
That being so, I think the hon. Member for Penistone might indulge in a little more charity.

I desire to ask the Minister without Portfolio some questions——

Do I understand, Mr. Speaker, that in your calling on the hon. Member for The High Peak (Mr. Molson) this question which has been raised by my hon. Friend and replied to by the Minister is now closed?

That was my intention. Any other course is not fair to other hon. Members who have been informed that they are likely to be called on other subjects.

There have Only been two speakers, and the Minister has imported something entirely new.

I had been notified that the Debate on this subject was going to be very short.

Further to that point of Order. The Minister has introduced a highly important controversial matter. I for one have some very important things that I want to say in reply to the statement.

Is it not within the power of the House itself to determine whether it moves on to another subject?

I beg to withdraw it, but I am still of the opinion, Mr. Speaker, that you ought to have given us an opportunity to answer him.