Skip to main content

Royal Marines Bill

Volume 446: debated on Friday 30 January 1948

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

Order for Second Reading read.

11.5 a.m.

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

The purpose of this small and, I hope, uncontroversial Bill is to increase the reserves available to the Marines on mobilisation. It may be asked why we want to increase these reserves. The reason is that the functions of the Marines have increased. Before the last war the main function of the Marines was to provide detachments on board ship, and only in large ships, to be used on operations on shore under the naval commander-in-chief. However, during the last war there developed what were known as Commandos and Combined Operations, and it is for this purpose that we need an increase in the number of Marines.

The last war exposed this shortage in a very remarkable degree. So short were we that when the Commandos were formed the Marines were not able to play their part, and an operation so typically naval as that at St. Nazaire was performed, so far as the land part was concerned, by the Army and not by the Marines, because the Marines simply were not available. For the past 18 months, however, the Commandos have been a naval responsibility, and in order to see that that responsibility can be carried out to the full, should the occasion ever arise, we desire to see that we have sufficient reserves in the Marines. The present system of reserves relies only on pensioners, who are all over 40, and voluntary entrants into the Royal Fleet Reserve, but we consider those cannot possibly be enough for an emergency.

Clause 1 (1) makes it lawful to raise a Volunteer Reserve for the Royal Marines. The number is not limited by law, but we aim at a figure of about 1,500 for a start. What the figure will be ultimately I cannot say today, but 1,500 is our immediate aim. Subsection (2) places the Reserve in the same legal position as the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, with the proviso that when mobilised its members serve as marines and not as seamen. We have done this by applying the same Statutes as govern the R.N.V.R. Subsections (3) and (4) add the Royal Marine Forces Volunteer Reserve to the list of naval reserves in the various Acts and Statutes where they are already mentioned. Subsection (6) repeals Section 2 of the Naval Forces Act. 1903, which has long been obsolete.

Clause 2 (1) allows marines to be entered for special service. That is for a period of 12 years, of which a specified number are served on active service and the remainder in the Reserve. The number is not specified in the Bill, but it is intended that it shall be seven years' active service and five years with the Reserve. The number of years is not put into the Bill, in the same way as the number of years is not put into the corresponding Act for the Navy, but is left for decision by the Admiralty. Subsection (2) is technical. The Royal Marines Act says that a man may do certain things; that is to say, he may re-engage, or have certain things done to him—for example, be brought home after his service. This Subsection states that the date on which those things may happen will be the date after his active service rather than the date after his completed service, including his period with the Reserve. The provisions in this Clause make it clear that a Royal Marine may transfer from special to continuous service, provided there is consent on both sides. There is a similar provision in the Royal Navy.

Although this Bill is a small one, I am sure all hon. Members will admit that it deals with a very great body of men. The Marines were formed as long ago as the reign of Charles II, and have a very proud tradition—a tradition which ranges from the capture of Gibraltar in 1704 to operations in Holland, France and Crete during the last war.

I would like to refer to two of the latter. The first is the operation in Crete, where Marines were landed as artillery to erect guns at a temporary naval anchorage. Immediately afterwards the German attack started on Crete, and instead of erecting guns the Marines were called upon to act as a rearguard. Owing to their very gallant action our troops were able to evacuate Crete with the success which they did, in fact, achieve. The other action was at Walcheren—a classic example of how Marines should be used. There they were used by the Navy to land and support craft in the capture of the island, a capture which enabled Antwerp to be freed to shipping. Before that Antwerp was useless as a port. After the capture of Walcheren it could be used with great effect in support of our arms.

These are only two examples of the work of the Royal Marines in the last war. In all these actions they displayed great gallantry, and won hundreds of decorations, including one Victoria Cross. This is the Force for which we desire to form a voluntary reserve. If the House will pass this Bill I have no doubt whatever that the men will come forward and that their record, if they should be called upon again to fight, will be up to the standard which the world has come to expect of a very gallant corps.

11.11 a.m.

As one who had the honour to serve in the Royal Marines during the war, I am quite certain that all ranks, both officers and men, will be grateful for the tribute which has been paid to their Corps by the Financial Secretary to the Admiralty this morning. Let me assure the hon. Gentleman, at once, that we have no quarrel with this Bill, that we welcome it and think it will do a great deal of good in cementing our Reserve Forces. I noticed that the Financial Secretary referred to the Royal Marines as perhaps not having received, in the past, the attention they should have received, and I therefore welcome the Government's action in continuing the start made by, the Caretaker Government towards getting the Royal Marine Forces fully equipped to fulfil their modern role.

The hon. Gentleman said that the Marines were continually asked to perform new tasks, and that is very true. I think the House should take note of how constantly, during the war, whenever a new task had to be performed, or a new development of war—something which had not been tried before—had to be carried out, it was generally the Royal Marines who were called upon to do the job. As, at many stages during the war the Royal Marines served with the Navy, Army, and Air Force. I do not suppose that they ever lived up more completely to their motto of "Per Mare, Per Terram." Very considerable gains in knowledge were made by the Royal Marines during the war, particularly in the sphere of combined operations. Their activities ranged from Commandos to planning, "Ack-ack" and coast defence, to building piers to speed up the discharge of ships. There is no doubt that this Reserve will capitalise that knowledge. My only regret is that there has been a gap of two years between the end of the war and the introduction of this Bill.

I can only hope now that the Bill is going through, that its provisions will be acted upon by the Admiralty with the greatest possible speed. There is, however, a danger that the keenest people, those we most want in the Reserve, will be liable to be attracted by other Reserves which are now functioning. The Financial Secretary said that the strength of the Force was to be about 1,500. Perhaps he can tell us the proportion of officers and other ranks in that number; if not, perhaps we may have the information as soon as possible. I know, from a document I have received from the Admiralty, in response to my application to become a member of this Force, that already 500 applications have been received. I hope that the figure of 1,500 will be raised towards the ultimate target as soon as possible, so that room can be made for all those who want to join the Reserve.

I welcome the provisions of the Bill for a special Reserve. The Royal Marines have been the only Force without a special Service engagement, and the short-term seven-year and five-year service which has now been introduced will do a great deal of good for recruiting, and enable the Marines to get their share of the men who are available. I would like to have some information about the method of training to be adopted. The Marines must have land and sea training facilities. The document I have here says that the original in- tention of having week-end training has been abandoned, and that it is proposed to introduce some other method. I think that is right, because people will not join the Reserves if they have to go some distance from their homes to get their training. I therefore hope that the new scheme, when it can be announced, will cover this point, and make it quite definite that adequate military, as well as naval, training facilities are available.

Finally, I am sure that all of us on this side of the House, in welcoming the Bill, would like to wish this new Reserve the success it deserves and hope that through it we shall bring and complete these arrangements with our artillery Forces to a satisfactory conclusion. I again thank the Financial Secretary for his tribute, and wish this Bill every success.

11.18 a.m.

I am sure that everybody will welcome this very belated Bill. If we were to go back into the history of the Royal Marines, and all the heroic things they have done, we might have a long and interesting discussion in the House today. The Financial Secretary spoke of the last war, but I am sure that the Royal Marines would not wish their history to remain just there. They go back a very long time. My first knowledge of the Marines in action was not in the last war, or the war before, but in 1897, also in Crete, when the Bashi Bazouks were on the rampage. I was a shipmate shortly after, a midshipman, who was wounded in the fight, and who, in consequence, was the envy of all other midshipmen in the Fleet. They had been landed on an open beach, and I asked him his impressions. He said, "It was most thrilling. The sea was rough. The boat was rocking, and I was feeling seasick. When it bumped the bottom we jumped over into five feet of water. Rifles were beginning to crack, and there were casualties all round us. Things were getting a bit 'ticklish,' in fact, most unpleasant, but what I most remember was the sergeant-major taking a small notebook and pencil out of his pocket and saying, 'The next man to speak will have his name taken.'" That is the sort of discipline which the Marines have always had.

There is no naval officer who does not owe a lot to the Marines. I went to sea at the age of 15, and I was looked after by a private of the Royal Marine Artillery, a Force which does not now exist. His name was Gunner Jibling, and I sincerely hope that he is still alive and well somewhere.

What the Financial Secretary has not told us is how and where these men are to be trained. If they are only to be trained in the same places, and with the same equipment, as the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve use at present, they will not do as well as we should like; but if they are to be trained in the various Marines' barracks, surrounded by proper Marines, that will be wonderful. I have questioned the Admiralty since the end of the war about the lack of proper training centres. Many of them, all round the coast, have been closed. If the Marines have to live a day-to-day, hand-to-mouth, existence I am afraid that they will not come up to the high standard they would desire. I am sure that we all support this Bill, but I think that we are entitled to know from the Financial Secretary how the training is to be carried out.

11.21 a.m.

I rise to ask a few questions. It is apparent from what the Financial Secretary and other hon. Members have said that one needs only a rudimentary knowledge of history, both relatively ancient and modern, to know what a debt we owe to the Royal Marines, and as one who has served alongside them I feel it is my duty, and a very welcome duty to pay my tribute to them. Considering what they have have done in the 1914–18 war and in the last war, it is amazing that they have been able to do that without what I might call a regular Reserve. As the Financial Secretary has said, their new duties now make it necessary that they should have an organised volunteer reserve.

So far as I can see, the Reserve will attract those who have already served in the Royal Marines, and presumably, the training will also be directed to the youth in the same way as in the Sea Cadets. I hope that under the National Service plan there will be ample scope for all those who wish to become Royal Marines. It is an accepted fact that family connection, especially in the other ranks, in the Royal Marines is probably stronger than in any other branch of our armed Forces. It is a connection that is often handed down from grandfather to father and son. How many National Service men does the Financial Secretary foresee being allocated in the immediate future to the Royal Marines. I have made that point before with regard to the R.N.V.R., and I think it important, because so far as I can see the majority of the National Service men will be recruited for the Army. Shall we be able to maintain the numbers required for the R.N.V.R. and the R.M.V.R. if that is the case? I hope the Financial Secretary will be able to give some indication of the figures. I add my welcome from this side of the House to the Bill.

11.24 a.m.

I think that we all welcome this Bill, and realise how apposite it is that we should have a proper provision of reserves of an age in which men are still at their peak of activity. The functions of the Royal Marines have been varied, and they have become an even more important reserve than they were in the past. In the past, the Royal Marine was an adjunct to the ship at sea; he was the corps of any force that we landed, and he covered himself with distinction all over the Seven Seas, "Per Mare, Per Terram" which means, so I am told, by sea and by land.

I do not think that there is any suggestion that the Royal Marines should attempt to emulate the vast size of the organisation of their brethren in the United States Marine Corps, but they are being given very specific functions which are even more important than those which they had in the past. We deplore the departure of the blue Marines. They had a magnificent tradition but there was no logical reason for their existing as a separate corps. The marines have now the prime responsibility of commando work, and they will probably be called upon fairly frequently to perform that function in any war we are likely to have. Therefore, the comparatively small number of marines to be kept in peacetime will be inappropriate for fulfilling their obligations in war.

I remember in the war before the last one—I am not sure whether it is fashionable to call it World War No. 1 or the 1914–18 war—but, at all events, in the winter of 1914–15 the Royal Marine battalions were sent to the Continent, and some of them were Marine reserves.

The Royal Marines are a long service organisation, and the Marine reserves were all over 40 years of age, and many of them much older. I think that they were the oldest body of fighting men ever put into the field to serve as infantry. They took a gallant part in attempting to defend Antwerp, under unpleasant and difficult conditions, and it was pathetic to see men so old having to trudge about, dig trenches, and fight alongside men who were 20 to 30 years younger. It is, therefore, very important that there should be a reserve of young men who will be partially trained, and who can be conditioned up to the full standard in a comparatively short time.

I do not know how strong this reserve is intended to be, and I, with other hon, Members, am very puzzled as to the method and procedure of their training. The training of a Royal Marine is a difficult task. It is probably the most difficult basic training of any arm of the Services. I am not alluding to the air crews in the R.A.F. That is a different matter altogether and requires specialisation. The Marine has to know many things. He has to be handy in a ship, pull his weight in a boat and be a fully trained soldier, both as an artilleryman and an infantryman. It is a very wide scope of training. I always look on the hon. and gallant Member for New Forest and Christchurch (Colonel Crosthwaite-Eyre), who served in that gallant corps, as a man who has mastered more arts in connection with the recent outburst of illfeeling in the world than anyone else I know. Therefore, training is very important and difficult.

I would like to know how these reserves are to be trained in Northern Ireland. Will they be part of the establishment of H.M.S. "Caroline" in Belfast, and will they be trained there? In my own constituency of Londonderry there is a considerable naval establishment. Will they be attached to a regular naval establishment such as that at Londonderry? Will they, for a period, go to the regular Marine barracks at Deal or wherever it may be decided to place it, and how much annual training will they be expected to put in? These matters will be of importance to the recruit. If the Minister can give some enlightenment on those points, we shall be much gratified. There is no doubt as to the usefulness of this Reserve, and we should be told what is to be the target figure for the strength of this corps in a year's time.

11.30 a.m.

I should like to ask how these men are to be trained? I see the Minister of Defence is here and I hope he will give me an answer. There have been some interesting speeches from various ex-Service Members as to the training of men we are called upon to provide. These 1,500 men are presumably to be drawn from industry, and I want to have an assurance that if they are withdrawn from industry their activities are going to be useful to the country in some other capacity. One thousand, five hundred men may seem a very small number but that is probably a token number and I should like to know exactly what the target figure is to be. A total of 1,500 men constitutes quite a considerable number when we consider that they would be sufficient to man a small coalmine. In view of the fact that at the present time there is a serious shortage of men in the coalmines I want to be satisfied that the men taken into the Marines will be doing more useful work than they are likely to be doing in the coalmines.

There have been interesting reminiscences from hon. Gentlemen who have served in the Naval Service. I remember a time when the Royal Marines were used for a different activity. In one national strike they were actually used for pumping at the coalmine. That was not any more immoral than the activities they conducted in the war before last, the object of which some hon. Gentlemen do not know. I would remind them that it was said to be a war to save democracy and to end war. Coming to the question of the training of these 1,500 men, what are they going to do? There was a speech from the Secretary of State for War the other day in which, talking about the training of soldiers, he told us that they are going to be trained for the next war by compulsory boxing. Was that speech made with the approval of the Minister of Defence? Are those 1,500 Marines going to be trained in boxing? If so, why? What on earth has this kind of training to do with modern war?

When I put questions to the Minister of Defence he takes refuge behind a smokescreen of words, and does not tell us what the war will be about nor against whom it will be fought. It is not going to be against the United States of America. We are talking in terms of war with Russia, and if there is war with Russia, what on earth are these 1,500 men going to do? I know the Minister of Defence will assure us that the Government are not going to take these men from useful industry to spend their time learning compulsory boxing. The Commandos, to whom reference has already been made this morning, were not trained boxers according to the Queensbury Rules. They were taught something like all-in wrestling. Boxing is entirely irrelevant to a modern war and so is the training given to the Commandos. As far as I can understand, the Royal Marines are also irrelevant to modern war. I should like the Minister of Defence to come down from the abstractions in which he indulges when I put questions to him and to answer the question: In the event of a real war with, for example, Soviet Russia, what on earth contribution will be made by the 1,500 Royal Marines?

11.34 a.m.

I can assure the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) that if the Marines are withdrawn from industry they will render useful service. I should have thought that anyone who took the trouble to follow their record in the last war would appreciate that they are the most useful and handy warriors upon earth. I do not know if the Financial Secretary to the Admiralty is going to reassure the hon. Gentleman that the Marines will not be taught boxing. I suppose he would prefer that they should be taught knitting or doing a course of reading in "Forward."

A left hook. I join with my other hon. Friends in congratulating the Government upon bringing in this Bill. No one who has followed the service of the Royal Marines in the last war could fail to praise their really glorious record. They are, in the best sense of the term, "trouble shooters" and the hardest jobs are always given to them. Looking back on the last war, when the dirtiest jobs had to be undertaken, it was generally thought desirable to send for the Royal Marines. The name "Marine" is honoured everywhere. I should like to say a word here about their opposite numbers in the United States. There, too, it should be said the United States Marines have to their credit marvellous achievements and heavy sacrifices, and have added glory to the great military and naval record of the United States of America.

It is an open honour to bear the title "Marine," and it is a splendid thing that the Government should create a volunteer reserve. The Government will have plenty of applicants from the very best type of young man, quite apart from those who served in the war and wish to keep up their connection with the corps. There is an hereditary system in the Royal Marines. I have a great deal of experience of the Marines, and I am surprised to find that many of them have had fathers and grandfathers in the Services before them. Certainly youngsters today will appreciate the opportunity of being able to enlist in this new Service.

I hope very much that the Admiralty is going to be generous with the new Service. I agree with my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for New Forest and Christchurch (Colonel Crosthwaite-Eyre) that for many years the Royal Marines force has been the Cinderella of the Admiralty. I am not attaching any particular blame for that lack of development. It is a fact that pay and promotion in the Marines were more meagre than anything which existed in the Army, the Royal Air Force or even the Royal Navy itself. There have been considerable improvements in recent times. I remember an occasion when it was necessary to promote some officers to general rank in the Marines. I think three of those officers were promoted on the strict understanding that they retired forthwith. That type of Irishman's promotion was not a very good thing, and in my short time at the Admiralty I tried to do what I could to secure improvements in the Service. My predecessor and successor also went to work, and today it is true to say that the conditions of service in the Marines are better than they have been at any time in its history. I hope, therefore, that the Admiralty are going to be generous and afford proper' opportunities for training. I hope, too, that the Financial Secretary to the Admiralty will reassure us on this point.

I can see no sense in weekend training for these reserves. The opportunity must be provided for proper training with the Navy, and there should be opportunities in some parts of the country for the Marines to have land training. The Army still have large and much better barracks than the Navy in most of the ports, and now that we have a Minister of Defence, who is a full-time gentleman, I hope he will look into this matter and provide the training necessary for this corps, because I cannot imagine anything worse than starting a voluntary reserve of Royal Marines and having no adequate opportunities for training. That is all I have to say. Once again I want to congratulate the Government upon this Bill. It is the best Bill that they have introduced, but, of course, that is not very high praise.

11.40 a.m.

I will, if I may speak again with the leave of the House, reply to a few questions. I am glad of the reception which the Bill has received and particularly that from the right hon. Member for Bournemouth (Mr. Bracken). Like him, I would like to pay my tribute, although perhaps it is not strictly relevant to the Bill, to the American marines, having myself come back from America only a couple of days ago. I know the extraordinarily fine work that they do.

The majority of the questions have dealt with training. The details of the training have not been worked out yet and I do not want to commit myself definitely. I should like to give the House an idea of the lines upon which we are working at the moment. We think that it will be better on the whole to have daily rather than week-end training. Our idea at present may be subject to alteration, but it is to have approximately two hours of systematic training in the evening, and 14 days a year either by sea or by land, or possibly both. We shall naturally combine as far as we can military and naval training so that the marines may fulfil their dual role.

We shall set up bases in a number of places, but we have not yet definitely settled where these are to be. I am sure that hon. Members will realise that that matter cannot be settled until we get the Bill. In spite of what the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) may think, boxing and other forms of physical training are of the utmost value in a service of this kind. I do not propose to accept the alternative which the right hon. Member for Bournemouth suggested that the hon. Member for South Ayrshire might prefer.

The only other question I have to answer was that which was put by the hon. and gallant Member for Chelsea (Commander Noble). who asked whether there would be ample scope for volunteers. Naturally, a volunteer service is open to everyone, and people in whatever service they may do their period of military training will be eligible to volunteer afterwards for the Royal Marines. It does not affect their duty to go into whatever service they are ordered to go into for their military training. Naturally, however, as volunteers afterwards, they are free to go into whatever Service they may desire. I was asked about the splitting up of the 1,500. At present we consider it likely that there will be 200 officers and 1,300 men. Those figures may be altered, as the 1,500 is only the figure which we are suggesting as a start.

Will the officers be selected from the ranks of the volunteers, or drawn from outside?

That matter has not yet been decided. We shall obviously do everything to encourage the promotion of officers from the ranks, as we are doing in the Royal Navy. I am glad of the reception which the Bill has had. I hope it will have as good a reception in the country and that the men will come forward in the numbers which we require.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the whole House for Monday next.— [Mr. Simmons.]