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Deserters From Armed Forces

Volume 437: debated on Tuesday 13 May 1947

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

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."— [ Mr. Pearson.]

12.1 a. m.

I very much regret troubling the House at this late hour, but in extenuation, I would say that the subject of deserters to which I wish to draw attention is one that warrants such inconvenience. It is a very human problem, and it concerns what has become a great submerged element of the community, an element which has become isolated and, to some degree, despised and ostracised by the majority of the people. This tendency to classify all deserters as alike is a tendency that I deprecate. Without trying to over-simplify the matter, I would place deserters into three categories. The first and smallest category consists of those members of the Forces who were criminals before they entered the Forces. Of the treatment that will be meted out to them I can only say that I hope it will be reformative and remedial. The second category consists of the men who went into the Forces and were as good men and as sound in character as most hon. Members of this House, but who, through their experiences in the Army or the other Services, became deserters and were then forced into a life of crime. The third category, and certainly the largest of the three groups, consists of the men who are now living a clandestine life, trying to "make do" on their wits, trying to live on charity, or trying to live by means of minor crime and devices of all kinds.

The main problem relating to this third group is that it is vulnerable, in the sense that if something is not done about those men, they will be compelled, by economic necessity, to lead a life of crime. It is easy to say they are bound to be tempted sooner or later. They are without ration books, without identity cards, and they have to "make do" in every respect, and, some time or other, many are bound to be tempted to join the other deserters who have taken to a life of crime. The police are very concerned about this problem of deserters. It is most unfortunate that I have only the 1945 Report of the Commissioner of Police in the Metropolis. The phrase therein used in this connection is, in my view, an exceptional example of under-statement. It is:
"A special problem was presented by the considerable number of deserters from British and Allied Forces who, being without ration books and other proper papers, had every inducement to prey on the public in order to live."
That as I say is an under-statement. I think a colloquialism that might well be used of the deserters who have been responsible for some of the crime is that they have, to some degree, become "trigger happy," and it is because of that that the police authorities and, possibly, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, whom I see on the Front Bench, are very concerned about this. The 1945 Report, by its very nature, only touched upon the fringe of this problem, it is in the 1946 Report that we shall see the real figures revealed. I understand that, so far, nine per cent. of indictable crimes have been traced to deserters. But that does not mean anything. What about the number of crimes the perpetrators of which have not yet been traced. Many of these can be laid at the door of the deserters, apart from those for which deserters have been indicted. I have had discussions on this matter with various police authorities all over the country. Naturally, I cannot mention any names, but they all agree that something must be done immediately about the problem of deserters. It is their greatest headache today, and they are most anxious for something to be done. But by virtue of their office, the heads of these forces cannot do more than make official representations through their official channels.

My right hon. Friend the Minister of Defence made his appeal on 22nd January. There were then approximately —to use his words-20,000 deserters at large in the United Kingdom. Of what the number was in Germany, Italy, or other late theatres of war, no mention was made; but I think we can assume that there must be some substantial number. Whether it is a considerable number or not I will not venture to say. From 22nd January to 31st March, between 2,000 and 2,300 deserters surrendered, leaving a balance of something like 18,000. If the Minister of Defence is satisfied with the response to his appeal, this House, and I think I can say the country, are not. I can well understand the feelings of deserters when they looked at the statement which the Minister made. In my view there was a certain lack of warmth in it. Of course, deserters cannot be welcomed with honeyed and cloying words; but the Minister's statement lacked a certain psychological feeling and approach. Its wording was obscure, and the only bait with which he tempted them to surrender, was the statement that after trial and' a possible sentence, they would have to undergo a further 12 months' of service in the Forces before they were released.

In addition—I think on 2nd April—the Minister of Defence in my view attempted to take an unfair advantage of the feelings of the general public on this matter, and tried to create a division between the deserters—who after all are a very small minority of the men who served in the Forces—and the public, by saying that the public would resent the granting of an amnesty to deserters, or any further lenient treatment of them. The Minister went on to ask what would be the feelings of those who had lost sons while they were serving in the war, and of the men who served their full time in the war, and so on. From my reading of public feeling on this matter, I am convinced that there is no more of that vindictive and malicious feeling which the Minister of Defence tried to outline than one would expect from the British public. The country is anxious that some definite step should be taken by the Government to settle this problem, and it does not want every deserter brought' to trial and sent to prison for some misdemeanour committed largely through no fault of his own.

Why do men desert? Are we to say that they are all cowards? Even if we do, we ought to put a question mark against the word "coward," because analysis has shown that what is called cowardice may be a form of neurosis. Do men desert because they are bored, or because of some imagined grievance or injustice; is it because they are misfits to a large extent, or because of financial difficulties? Surely, too, we must accept the fact that men often were absent without leave because of domestic difficulties. Their wives may have caused them suffering, or the actions of wives of other men may have spread some rumour in their regiment or ship's company. These men are sensitive when they are in the Services, and it was the most natural thing in the world for them to begin to feel they had to go to their homes. I think it is impossible to go through a war of such dimensions as the last, without expecting some human problem of this kind. But whatever reason may be accepted for desertion, it cannot be said that these men were criminals when they deserted; they were normal human beings. That is an aspect which I think is absent from the mentality of the Minister of Defence or, if not from his mind, from the minds of the Service Chiefs, regarding this matter.

If I may go back to the first war—I have made a little research into this matter —I find that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Woodford (Mr. Churchill) was Secretary of State for War. In February and July, 1920, I notice, in answer to questions by hon. Members he was adamant in his attitude to deserters and was going to give them short shrift. In March, 1922, Sir L. Worthington Evans, who was then Secretary of State for War, showed signs of relenting and here is his reference to what was known as a "form of confession." This form of confession appears in King's Regulations, paragraphs 636 and 637, wherein it is stated:
"when it is not considered desirable that he should be tried for his offence then it is within the discretion of the commandng officer to dispense with the soldier's services without trial."
or words to that effect, and he is then enabled to take up his avocation in civilian life. I wonder if that is still in force? I wonder whether that procedure is in any shape or form being used today because if it is not, I would rather regret that. It seems to me a reasonable proceeding, and one that ought to be adopted. Let us look abroad for a moment. One of the Dominions — Canada — granted by Order in Council, an almost complete amnesty to "hostilities only" personnel—I must qualify that—in August, 1946. I have managed to get a copy of it from the Library. It is almost unconditional and shows a better and more generous frame of mind than has yet been exhibited in this country. The main grounds on which that amnesty was granted, it appears to me, were first: that there would result a substantial saving in manpower and the resources of the country in not having to keep manpower available to trace deserters and put them on trial and incarcerate them and it would not be necessary to keep trained personnel to look after them in prison. Secondly, a benefit would accrue to the nation in so far as those men who had deserted would no longer be outlaws and have to resort to crime for a living, but would be gainfully employed in civilian life and so be able to make a contribution towards the country's economic life. Does that not apply to this country today.

With the necessity for every man to be in industry that is one of my main pleas to the Minister. If the Minister, after consultation with the Services themselves, cannot see his way to granting an amnesty —I know the objections and appreciate the difficulties on the grounds of discipline while we still have large forces—may we not expect some more clemency? For instance, when he made his appeal, if he had, instead of talking about men having to serve a twelve months' term in the Forces after trial and, possibly a term of imprisonment—if he had made the penalty only twelve months' service in the Forces which they left without any reference to the question of trial and the possibility of a prison sentence, would that not have been a reasonable proceeding in the circumstances? Whether he agrees or not, it would certainly have had a much greater response than he got. There is some substance in the point that sooner or later the Government will have to do something in the matter. I ask the Minister to give encouragement, not only to the men, but to the country as a whole.

I must emphasise that these men were normal citizens when they went into the Forces and have the right to be treated as human beings, not only the men concerned, but also the men's families. Why should their families have this stigma of crime thrust on them. This is part of the tragic background which is all too often lost sight of. Then cannot something be done about reviewing the sentences on men already sent to gaol? I recently had the pleasure—and I thought it the greatest achievement in my short experience of Parliament—to get a man out of Dart-moor. I managed, after writing to the Secretary of State for War, to get some remission of his sentence. Nothing the Minister could do would give greater satisfaction than to remit in some degree the sentences of men serving for desertion. It would be a reasonable step to take. The Government must make up their mind. This cannot go on indefinitely. I said once in asking my right hon. Friend a Question that the policy of the Government was harsh and inconclusive. I have tried to outline tonight why it is harsh. It is inconclusive because if nothing is done of a definite constructive nature, then we shall have deserters tottering to their graves at 70 and 80 years of age. We shall not catch up with them. That is what it amounts to. In the meantime, we will have some of them taking to a life of crime and forcing other people to their graves. These men are good, decent men —they were decent enough when they were in the Forces. Please give them a chance to rehabilitate themselves in civilian life.

12.16 a.m.

I know how deeply the hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Austin) feels on this Matter. He has made an eloquent appeal for deserters, such as we have had from him before. If it were possible and consistent with the requirements of the Services and the maintenance of discipline to meet him on some of the points he has made no one would be better pleased than I, but I must say to him that we have to deal with the facts, in relation to what is required for the maintenance of our Forces, and of moral and discipline among those now serving or yet to be called up to service, as well as those who will volunteer. Therefore the matter has to be regarded generally in that light.

My right hon. Friend referred to the offer made by the Government to persuade as many as possible of those who are deserters to surrender. He gave the impression that there was insufficient inducement to return. We had to give a loose estimate to the House at the time. We thought that about 20,000 men in this country might be regarded as deserters. But that was a very approximate figure. I am sure my hon. Friend, with his Service experience, knows that when a man in the Armed Forces disappears from his unit, especially in wartime, it may be for one of several reasons other than deliberately absenting himself from the Service, although most cases may be within that category. He might have had an accident or lost his life by unrecorded enemy action, or seized the opportunity of serving elsewhere with a unit which he found more attractive, under a different name and different identity.

What was the result of the Government's offer? I give the actual total and not just the approximate figure. By 31st March, 2,312 had surrendered in the U.K. and 218 had surrendered overseas, so that we have achieved a figure of something like 2,500. The surrenders have been going on to some extent since that date and since 31st March we have had surrendered at home 208 and just a couple from overseas, although my returns from overseas for the latter period are by no means complete at the present moment. My hon. Friend says we must regard that as unsatisfactory in relation to our objective, I must say that to all decent think- ing men there would not seem to be anything very much wrong in the fact that of those who unfortunately found themselves in the position of being deserters, more than 2,500 accepted the terms offered by the Government to give them a clear way back, so that they might make a fresh start. From that point of view, I think it cannot be said the scheme has been a failure. We have over 2,500 men who are making good. The hon. Member made a plea in the latter part of his speech for reconsideration of sentences already imposed in these cases, as if we had not already taken that kind of action sufficiently into account. But of course it was inherent in the offer the Government made, that we should give them really lenient treatment in this matter.

I referred to deserters sentenced at a much earlier stage, not to those who surrendered.

I take the point the hon. Gentleman makes on that. I will have that examined, with a view to seeing whether past sentences during the war and in the immediate postwar period should be reviewed. I would only say that they have been constantly reviewed by the service authorities and in many cases have been the subject of substantial remissions.

; The right hon. Gentleman, referring to the number of deserters, said there were a number killed by accident or by unknown enemy action. How long will it be before the number is known? A number of wives and families do not know what has happened. I know of two men in this position. I say they are dead; but the authorities say they are alive and their wives and children are on public assistance. I know of one case especially in which if I had the chance to search for the body I could probably find it. If I was missing it is very likely I should be searched for, but this man was not. I would like to know how long it will be before the right hon. Gentleman will review the list of deserters to find out the number who have been killed and posted as deserters.

Speaking quite spontaneously in reply to my hon. Friend's interpolation, I would say that all cases marked as deserters are at all times the subject of the greatest amount of investi- gation that the Service authorities can arrange, in order to settle whether there are any circumstances arising which appear to point to any reason for the absence other than desertion.

There was a statement made in this House by the Secretary of State for War—and it was also given to me in writing—that the documents appertaining to the court martial of one man were destroyed. How can the authorities find out where that man is?

I do not think that really is completely apposite to what I have just said. No man is finally put into a list of deserters unless the authorities have examined every possible reason for his disappearance. I return to the point with which I was dealing. I think it essential that the public should know the facts. I take only a few cases, though I could take very many. There is one sentence of 15 months where suspension was recommended after only five months, so that two-thirds of the sentence was immediately removed. There are other cases where a sentence of 12 months was reduced to four; one of 15 months was reduced to five; one of 10 was reduced to three and one of 15 was reduced to three, and so on. In many cases it works out that there is actually no sentence to be worked because it is entirely suspended. There is one of six months which was immediately suspended. There is another one of 18 months immediately suspended, showing of course that the Service authorities are doing what is right in this direction. They are meeting the point of my hon. Friend that there are various degrees of offence in desertion. There are different reasons why men desert, and it is the instruction of the Service Ministers and their high staffs to those who are dealing with this matter that all extenuating circumstances should be fully taken into account. Therefore I feel that we have been a little more humane and a little more warm in our approach to this matter than perhaps my hon. Friend has given us credit for tonight.

I thank the Minister for what he has just said about deserters who have surrendered. I am really concerned now about some further appeal being made on more humane lines to bring in the rest of them.

I have laid down what were the conditions to be observed during the special period to get them in—22nd January to 31st March. They have had that opportunity for many weeks More than 2,500 accepted that offer which was open to them all. Hon. Members may ask me why did they not all take it? They are doubtless those who do not want to do any more naval or military or air service at all, and therefore do not want to conform with the position that they would have to continue for a certain period in the Service after they have been dealt with. To adopt an amnesty which would excuse them that would be unfair to all those who have done their duty, those who are doing their duty, and those who will be called up to do their duty. That could not possibly be done.

The other class, of course, is those who have actually committed crimes, of various degrees, but some of them serious, who no doubt do not want to surrender lest they be identified and dealt with not only because of desertion but also by being brought to book for crimes of a serious indictable character. We could not hope to see a large surrender of that type and I do not gather that my hon. Friend thought that either. Of course the Canadians are responsible for their own policy and also have to deal with the question of manpower in relation to their commitments and what they have to maintain, and we have to deal with our problems in relation to our commitments and what we have to maintain in that sphere. My hon. Friend said that if we had only stuck to 12 months service to be done instead of awarding any punishment at all, we might have had a better response, but that it would have been unfair, even among the deserters themselves if they had been put on that basis, when some were much more guilty than others. If we are going to deal with this at all, we must deal with it on the basis of true justice to the individual.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Order made upon 13th November.

Adjourned at Twenty-nine Minutes to One o'Clock.