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Armed Forces (Deserters)

Volume 463: debated on Wednesday 30 March 1949

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

1.43 a.m.

I very much regret keeping the House at this late hour but I feel that the matter of an amnesty for deserters which I have the privilege of raising is of vital importance to the nation. It concerns not only the lives of a great number of men, but the welfare of thousands of wives, many thousands of children, and many mothers and fathers—all of whom are anxiously waiting for the day when those from whom they are parted and in whom they still have faith shall be once more free to live a normal life. I refer to men who deserted between 1939 and V.J. Day, 1945. If there was time, I think I could prove that many of these men were not cowards but that all sorts of different circumstances were the cause of the unfortunate step they took. None of us can know the state of their minds at that time and know the bitterness in their hearts as the result of the many difficulties and domestic problems that face them.

If I am not boring anyone I would refer to one or two of the letters I have received which present the position of these men. One has written:
"If only I could have another chance to be able to start afresh after the wasted years of self-inflicted torture and to know that this horrible nightmare is over"
Another writes as follows:
"For myself, I do not smoke, drink, gamble or go dancing. I would like to get married when I am free. That's all I want to do, to settle down to a normal married life."
Another letter is from a man who volunteered at the outbreak of war, and three months afterwards his wife went completely to pieces. His mother was seriously ill and this drove him to desert. He only intended to stay at home a few days to try to put things right, but his nerve failed him and he never returned. His wife has gone grey and looks 20 years older than her age. The Government terms for surrender are too much for him and he is still on the run.

A woman writes to say that her little girl, seven-and-a-half years old, has only seen her daddy three times. She writes:
"He is living miles away under an assumed name. My husband's wrong is being inflicted on two innocent victims. I am frequently followed and questioned concerning my husband."
She signs herself "a distressed wife." Another man writes:
"Don't treat me as a coward. I served in the Fire Service from 1939—"
he was 36 years old then—
"—until 1943 when I was discharged on medical grounds, and in June, 1944, was conscripted, hated the thought of that, and, being called up in the Army, deserted."
This man had two sons who served in the Army during the war and he has now lost his business, home and family, and he dared not go to his daughter's wedding or to his son's wedding. He says:
"I thank God I've not become a thief but have struggled along and made a poor but honest living."
Here is the case of a boy aged 16 who joined the Navy at the outbreak of war, served on a Russian convoy, at the sinking of the Scharnhorst, and at the D-Day landings. When his father became ill, and was dying with cancer, he was refused compassionate leave and was posted to the Far East. He cleared out and is still on the run because he thought he might never see his father alive again.

These men are not criminals. In fact, the Home Secretary recently said, in answer to a Question, that the amount of crime due to deserters was not anything like as high as it was alleged. So on 22nd January, 1947, the Minister of Defence told us there were something like 20,000 deserters, that they had no civilian status and were dependent for food and clothing on charity or on breaches of the law relating to rationing or controls, and that in many cases they were leading an underground existence. He said it would be an advantage to these men, and to the nation, if they surrendered and were able to resume their normal lives as free citizens. He said they would be given to 31st March, 1947, to surrender under certain conditions. That is what has kept the men on the run at the present time; that is the reason why they have not surrendered. By 2nd April, about 1,615 men had surrendered, and 968 of them were serving sentences of detention.

I am sure it must have been plain to the Government at that time that the inducement would not be very helpful, especially when some who surrendered were receiving anything from six months to two years detention under conditions that were not very satisfactory. It is all very well, Mr. Speaker, to talk about the prisons at the present time, and to say that the detention camps are different from those of a few years ago. It is like everything else. Men still have suspicions in their minds if you try to tell them the treatment meted out today for the few months or weeks they are in detention is far different from what it was formerly. They realise that once they get there, whatever may be the conditions, they are not able to get out again.

It is surprising to read a letter I have had from a man who has served a term of detention. He write:
"I was one who surrendered on March 19th, 1947. The Government said that you would get your court-martial in between 10 to 14 days, but I waited for six to seven weeks without a court-martial. During that time my wife and children, of whom I have four, never received one single penny allowance…I absented myself for seven months. I went to work and got my wife out of the debt she got in…I surrendered myself again…I was sentenced to 12 months' detention and my family allowances were not being paid for some time."
Another who surrendered was a man in the building trade who for the first four years of the war had done wonderful work in housing something like 28,000 people during the terrible bombing of London. This man joined the Army and owing to difficult conditions at home, not being able to get a manager to run his business, deserted and surrendered himself at the request of the Minister of Defence, and was given a good character and yet got two years' imprisonment. He escaped on 13th December, 1947, and says:
"Today I still carry the scars of the barbed wire through which I climbed."
Another man who was sentenced to 12 months' detention was A.1 physically. He was discharged from detention after six months, and two months afterwards was discharged from a military hospital Grade D, a physical wreck with no pension. Then there is the case of the R.A.F. man whose wife, suspected of tuberculosis, was expecting a baby, and was living in the East End of London during the bombing. He deserted to come home to look after his wife during her confinement. He was afraid to go back to his unit and surrender. He went back to his old job, suggesting that he had been finally discharged. He joined the Home Guard and rose to the rank of captain. When he surrendered he got 21 months. Some of these cases are really frightening men from surrendering.

The hon. Gentleman has mentioned the terms of sentence. Has he any information after what period these sentences were suspended?

I have got the fact that some of them were reduced, but the fact that these men are having their sentences reduced makes no case when the men who surrender do not know what the terms of imprisonment will be, or by how much their sentences will be reduced.

It is estimated that there are 8,000 out of the 21,000 deserters still residing in this country. It was said that about 10,000 were men enlisted from other countries, such as Eire. They have gone back to Eire and are living a free and full life. Why cannot we give these others a chance to return to normal life with their wives and families and pull their weight in industry? It is obvious' they are not pulling their weight, because the majority have a fear that at any moment someone may put his hand on their shoulder any day or night, and they may be arrested.

We are behind in this country on the question of an amnesty, and I want to refer to the action taken by the Dominions. In Australia on 14th June, 1946, Mr. Forde, Australian Minister of Defence, stated:
"Army authorities have given consideration to action to be taken in relation to 7,879 members of the Forces declared to be illegal absentees during 1939 to 1945. The Army authorities decided to discharge them in absentia immediately. The records of such members will be endorsed to the effect that their discharges were made on account of misconduct during service. Discharge under these conditions automatically precludes them from eligibility for war gratuity, war medals, rehabilitation benefits and war service homes."
Mr. Forde pointed out that the decision to treat deserters in this way was exactly similar to the decision made and the action taken after the 1914–18 War. He went further and said that any pay due to the soldier during his honourable ser- vice ought to be paid to him on his discharge.

In Canada on 14th Aug. 1946, the Governor-General in Council made the following Order:
"Whereas there are at present approximately 14,100 persons who are absent without leave or in a state of desertion from the naval, military and air forces of Canada, of whom approximately 8,100 were called out for service under the provisions of The National Resources Mobilisation Act, 1940, and 6,000 are General Service personnel;…
"now therefore, His Excellency the Governor-General in Council, on the recommendation of the Minister of National Defence…is pleased to make and doth hereby make the following Order:
"All members of the Naval, Military and Air Forces of Canada and persons called out for compulsory military service under the provisions of The National Resources Mobilisation Act, 1940, who absented themselves without leave or deserted prior to the 1st day of January, 1946, and who have not since that date either surrendered themselves into Naval, Military or Air Force custody or control or who have not been apprehended…shall, for all purposes, be deemed never to have been enlisted or enrolled or appointed to or to have served with the Naval, Military, or Air Forces of Canada.…"
In South Africa, on 25th November, 1945, Proclamation No. 257, amending the Regulations of the Coast Garrison and Active Citizen Forces, said:
"Provided that a soldier who has been absent without leave from his duty for a period of not less than 90 consecutive days, may, in the discretion of the Adjutant General, be discharged with effect from the date on which such absence commenced."
On 15th December, 1945, Proclamation No. 3 was made referring to the same matter. Queen Victoria marked the Jubilee year of her reign in 1887 by offering a free pardon to all deserters from the Army and Navy. The one condition was that they came forward between specified dates and made a declaration of their offence. I cannot say the number who came forward.

In conclusion, I ask the Government to take the right step, and to grant an amnesty to these men as the Dominion Governments have done, and in this way to bring happiness to thousands of homes and to young children who have never seen their fathers. Do not let these men continue on the run, living these underground lives. We shall never get them back. I do not think the Government need think of saving face. I do not think the public will mind. With all the pub- licity which has been given to this, I have never yet received one letter denouncing my action on behalf of these men.

I served in the 1914–18 war, and I served during the heavy bombing in Birmingham, and was never prepared to give any quarter to a man not prepared to do his job. But one reaches the stage when one realises that it is impossible to understand what was in the minds of these men. At one period I brought up the question of two missing men. There are thousands of missing men in this country. Their wives, mothers and fathers do not know where they are. The authorities say these men are on the run. I believe that one of those to whom I referred is dead. This action I suggest would bring to light whether these men are alive or dead. I plead with the Minister to think this matter over, to consider the matter from a humanitarian point of view, and to give these men a chance to get back into their free life, a life which I feel confident would bring them into the service of the country if it was again involved in war.

2.0 a.m.

The question which my hon. Friend has raised in such moving terms tonight is one that affects all three Services and it is a matter of regret that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Defence could not be here personally to answer my hon. Friend. I am in a sense standing in his place. Although some of the examples I shall quote relate more particularly to the Army, what I have to say on the general question applies to the Services as a whole. I trust I shall carry my hon. Friend and indeed the whole House with me on this point, that desertion is a serious offence. It is not to be regarded as some technical matter which can be brushed aside now that the war is over.

I understand that my hon. Friend was pleading particularly the case of war-time deserters. If this offence is committed in war-time, it means in every case that the man who deserts adds materially to the danger to his comrades who stand by their duty. If it is committed in time of peace, in a country which has compulsory National Service, it threatens the whole basis of that National Service. If we were to accede to the suggestion of my hon. Friend and grant an amnesty for war-time deserters, we should be subjected immediately to pressure to extend that amnesty to those who have subsequently deserted.

What are we to reply to those men who might say to us, "I had grave personal anxiety, but while the war was on and my country was in danger I remained at my duty. I deserted, but I waited until the danger was over and hostilities had ceased." Could we grant an amnesty to war-time deserters and refuse it to men who advanced that argument? I believe that for what my hon. Friend is asking could not remain within the limits he put forward.

Because in the Dominions which my hon. Friend quoted they have not the problem of having to maintain National Service in time of peace. What are we asking of our young men? We are asking them to render a period of National Service. The great majority do that readily because they know there is no arbitrary picking of this man or that, but a general obligation, the exceptions to which are only such as have been decided by Parliament after very careful consideration. If they felt that those who have at any time dodged their obligations can have that set aside and be given an amnesty, we attack the whole basis on which we ask young men to undertake the obligation of National Service in time of peace.

My hon. Friend did not quote, as well he might have done, the examples of the Dominion of New Zealand and the United States. Their practice in this matter is almost identical with that of the United Kingdom. Of all the countries mentioned, the United States is the only one which has, as we have, National Service in time of peace. Even among the Dominions which my hon. Friend mentioned, there are a number of obstacles put in the way of an amnestied deserter. For example, in Canada, he finds certain penalties and restrictions apply to him when he tries to fit himself into civilian life, and Australia makes a distinction in the way in which it treats deserters. The moral we draw from this is that we cannot argue conclusively from the practice in other countries. We must judge this matter in the light of the needs and prac- tice of the United Kingdom at the present time, in the light of the immense and terrible danger which this country suffered in time of war and its decision to have National Service in time of peace.

In referring to the general justice in this matter, I might mention the lenient treatment accorded to those who surrendered, or were apprehended, on or before 31st March, 1947, in response to the appeal by my right hon. Friend. Those not completely forgiven will have served the comparatvely brief sentences awarded them; but if we adopted the suggestion of my hon. Friend, these men could say, "Why did we not wait until a bit later, and then we could have got away with it altogether?" A plea for an amnesty for deserters in the face of the seriousness of the offence can only be advanced if there is some special, over-riding argument put forward. My hon. Friend has tried to find such an argument, partly in the treatment afforded to deserters who have been apprehended or who surrendered.

I also suggested that there is a suspicion in the minds of some of the men; we know the treatment in the "glasshouses" and it is no use saying the "glasshouses" are not there; if a man gets there, he knows he may not be able to get away.

During the war, there were a number of serious abuses, but I should regret it if this House ignored the enormous improvements in "glasshouses" since the war.

On this question of the reasons for desertion, I agree that not all these men deserted for reasons of cowardice, and it does not become us, sitting in the safety of this House, to pass moral judgment on the motives of men who deserted in time of war; but, always, it was a compassionate or personal motive. It was that the man put his private obligations before loyalty to his comrades. During the war, as hon. Members know, most careful attempts were made to meet individual problems of this kind. There was compassionate release, or leave, for indefinite or fixed periods, and a man serving abroad might be posted to the Home Establishment. Every overseas command had a board, consisting of all ranks, to consider the cases, and no member of the board knew the rank of the applicant. By reason of urgent personal circumstances, a man could submit the facts— as did the great majority—to the fair and equable judgment of his peers. But the man who deserted said, in effect, "I will be the judge of how urgent are my needs; I will not submit them to an impartial tribunal." The private convenience and judgment of a deserter was more important than his obligations to his fellows.

As to the treatment of those who have surrendered, or been apprehended. First, let us take the case of those who surrendered on or before 31st March, 1947, in answer to the appeal by my right hon. Friend. It is true that because of the considerable number of surrenders that occurred at that time there was some delay in bringing some of them to trial. That was largely mitigated by the fact that they were in open and not close arrest. Further, when their cases came up every conceivable relevant factor was taken into consideration, including length of honourable service they had before the offence was committed, any compassionate reasons and their previous record. After the sentence was passed the general practice was to say that about two-thirds of that sentence would be suspended, and if there was some special compassionate reason there was a further suspension.

My hon. Friend has mentioned sentences he believes to be heavy. Here are some examples of sentences, and what happened to them: Sentence of 21 months detention—suspended after four months had been served; Sentence of two years detention—suspended after six months; Sentence of one years detention—suspended after three months. It was rare indeed for anyone who surrendered to the offer of my right hon. Friend to serve more than six months. With regard to those who surrender or are apprehended outside the terms of that offer, not only can they earn the one-third remission for good conduct, but their sentences are subject to review every six months and account is taken of any factor overlooked before the courts. Many of the cases are dealt with by the commanding officers within the limited power of punishment they possess.

No. I cannot give way as I have only a moment or two left. Am I, in what I am saying, giving my hon. Friend the Member for Sparkbrook (Mr. Shurmer) a flat negative? Not entirely. I say that if ever it can be brought to our notice that any particular case, having regard to all the facts, has been treated with undue harshness, we shall be very ready—and I speak here for my Service colleagues as well—to look into it.

We shall endeavour to try the man who surrenders now with justice and humanity. As I was saying, if any case is brought to my notice or that of my Service colleagues where it is felt that justice has not been done, we shall do our utmost to review the matter. We cannot accept that the deserter should say once again, "I am to be the judge. The compassionate circumstances in my case are such that I should receive no penalty." If he really feels that, and is anxious to come back, will he not submit his case to those authorities who have shown they are prepared to weigh his claims with justice? Mr. George Bernard Shaw has said in some context:

"Anger is a bad counsel: cast out anger. Pity is sometimes a worse: cast out pity; But do not cast out mercy. Remember only that justice comes first."
It is in that spirit that we approach this problem.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Wednesday evening and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Thirteen Minutes past Two o'Clock.