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British Troops, Far East (War Secretary's Visit)

Volume 414: debated on Thursday 11 October 1945

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On my return from India and S.E.A.C. I feel the House will probably wish me to make a short statement.

I left England on 12th September, 1945, and arrived back on 6th October, 1945. In 25 days—including travelling—I have spoken to troops in India, Burma, Hong Kong and Singapore—to say nothing of a large meeting in Egypt and Ceylon. I addressed organised meetings ranging from 400 to 1,400—as a rule they included representatives of many units in the particular Command. But the chief meetings were really informal talks in the men's quarters or canteens. Often I had a packed house there and answered questions by the dozen. I started in Karachi, then went on in India to Bombay, Kalyan Deolali, Poona, Secunderabad, Calcutta. I also visited Rangoon, Pegu, HongKong, Singapore and Kandy in Ceylon, and Delhi on the way home. Of all organised as well as informal gatherings I think I addressed at the very least some 60 meetings and answered hundreds of questions. I also spoke to ex-prisoners of war in Calcutta, Rangoon, Hong Kong and Singapore. Then of course there were conferences with the Commands and I should like to say here how grateful I am to the Commanders and Staffs who organised the tour at each stage and made it comparatively easy.

It is impossible for us in Britain to put ourselves in the place of these men who have been often four and five years away from home in the course of the war and who are sometimes married and with young children of whom they have seen little or nothing. They have been living, working and fighting in a climate which for them is extremely testing. They have been soldiers so long that it is not easy to remember they are workmen, craftsmen and professional men who never dreamed of leaving home and work. As the House and the country know, these men had been called upon to play a difficult part in the general strategy of the war. It had been made quite plain that the defeat of the Germans was the first priority. That was understood and accepted. But it was not surprising that as time went on these men fighting in remote and gloomy jungles should have named themselves "The Forgotten Army. "The fact is that so far from being forgotten the Government and the people of this country deeply sympathised with them in the difficult task they were called to perform. As the House will remember, after the defeat of the Germans the period of eligibility for repatriation—what is known as PYTHON—was reduced from three years and eight months to three years and four months, but in fact it was not possible to give full effect to this owing to the collapse of the Japanese and the sudden call on shipping for the bringing home of prisoners of war—and incidentally the transport of occupation troops. This had caused much disappointment among the men who in many cases have been waiting for weeks for ships to bring them home. I undertook that everything possible would be done to get shipping to relieve this block, and am hopeful that there will be a definite improvement shortly. I must also tell the House that the discussions in this country gave the impression among troops abroad that the principle of age and service was about to be abandoned. Everywhere I found the men deeply disturbed on this question. They were much relieved when I was able to give them the firm assurance that the Government were determined to keep the promise which had been given that every serving man would be treated fairly on the principle of age and service.

It is not surprising that when the war is won the men concerned just want to go home. Yet their self-control is wonderful. Perhaps the victory over themselves is not the least achievement. But because men are capable of discipline and self-control that is not a reason for lukewarm attention to their claims upon us. Far otherwise. It is the greater reason for concentrating upon ways and means of giving them at the earliest moment that return for which they ask—the return to their homes and families. I should like to give the House this outstanding impression which has been left on my mind as the result of my journey. The self-control, understanding and fine bearing of our men out there, in the circumstances I have noted, have increased my faith in the future of this country.

Could the Minister give an undertaking that shipping will be made available to ensure that every man from S.E.A.C. is brought back in time for demobilisation with his release group?

I am expecting that very early there will be a statement which will probably encourage my hon. Friend.

May I ask my right hon. Friend whether, in the course of his tour, he met any officers and could he tell us anything about their reactions?

I thought I said in my report that I had had conferences with Commands and with the officers, and that they helped me considerably in my efforts to speak to the men and to get into close contact with them.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that one of the features of his visit most appreciated by the troops was the fact that he did not attempt to answer questions evasively, and that when he could not answer a question put to him he said so and said it was a matter for Cabinet decision? Can we take it that since his return he has been pressing actively upon his colleagues in the Cabinet those matters of special interest to the men in S.E.A.C. and that he has been acting as an ambassador of S.E.A.C.? Could I have an answer?

Is my right hon. Friend aware that I have received letters from constituents whose men attended these meetings which he held with the troops in India, and that while the men themselves were reassured by what my right hon. Friend had to say to them their families at home in many cases were not reassured, and can some means be found for reassuring the families at home that their men are being looked after and will be sent home in their turn as soon as possible?

I could have made a much longer statement in which I could, with very great pleasure, have answered these questions that have been put to me, but I am arranging next week to meet Members upstairs, when I shall be able to deal with these matters more fully; and in addition to that I am looking forward to other wider opportunities for speaking to the friends and relations of the men.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that many men now serving in the Far East have been there for 43 or 46 months and that the true facts about his visit are that he has bought a brief respite of two or three months for the Government and the House and that the men expect very much else as a result of his visit?

Yes, I thought I had made it quite clear that, in fact, the reduction from three years and eight months to three years and four months was not working, and that I was very hopeful that very soon a statement will be made about the matter that will give great encouragement to those who want to see that great block removed and the three years and four months period of repatriation working better.

Is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied, apart from his preoccupation with the big question of demobilisation, that proper provision has been made for the welfare amenities for troops on local leave, and particularly that the voluntary bodies who do such wonderful work for the troops have every opportunity to carry on their work?

I should not say that I was satisfied upon the matter of attention to the requirements of men on local leave, but I was pleased to notice that there had been an improvement and that there had been some improvement in the number of voluntary workers who were giving their time and attention to the troops.

Did my right hon. Friend during the course of his tour visit any transit camps, and if so can he say whether he was satisfied with the conditions in those camps; and if he was not satisfied has he been able to take measures to improve the conditions of the men, who sometimes have to wait in those camps for considerable periods?

I was very sure in my mind that a great deal of the trouble in the transit camps arises from the fact that there are at Least double the number of troops in them that there ought to be, and I also made notes on certain other matters to which I am giving my attention.

Apart from the general question of demobilisation could the right hon. Gentleman say when we are likely to have a. statement as to the advisability of bringing out of this foul country, or disease-ridden country, with its bad climate, those men who are unnecessary from a military point of view?

:That is a very wide question and I could not give a definite answer except to say that when we get to know what specifically are our obligations I shall be glad to make a statement on that question.

May I ask my right hon. Friend whether during his visit he received any representations from the troops about the irritating and displeasing tasks which were being imposed upon them when they had nothing more useful to do?

I think there is nothing in the whole range of what I may call the soldier's gamut on which I did not have questions put to me, but I cannot say that there were many questions upon that point. I think that generally speaking it was accepted that the real trouble in these camps arises from the fact that we have these surplus troops who are overdue for their Python repatriation leave.

I think hon. Members should take note of the statement made by the Secretary of State that there will be an opportunity for them to put questions to him at a meeting upstairs next week.