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Hm Ships, China (Air Support)

Volume 464: debated on Monday 2 May 1949

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asked the Prime Minister what air support was available for His Majesty's ships in the River Yangtse area on which the Flag Officer, Far East, could have called on 20th, 21st and 22nd April; of what strength could it have been; and what distance had the aircraft to fly before reaching the vicinity of H.M.S. "Amethyst."

It is not usual to provide air support for H.M. ships proceeding on their lawful and peaceful occasions, and none was available in the Yangtse area on 20th April. When our ships had been attacked, Sunderlands were sent up from Hong Kong. One of these reached Shanghai on 21st April and a second on 23rd April. In addition, a Dakota with supply dropping gear was ordered to Hong Kong. The nearest R.A.F. fighter aircraft were in Malaya, some 2,000 miles away. It was the decision of the Flag Officer, which I support, not to call upon them.

Is it not a fact that, in the middle of the 20th century, one Fighting Service is of very little use without another, and that H.M. ships ought not to be exposed to danger without air support being available somewhere near?

The hon. Gentleman, of course, is right with regard to operations of war, but in this case the ship was going up the river for a perfectly peaceful purpose, and there was no suggestion that on this occasion there should also be an offensive air force accompanying it.

Does not the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge that when he sends H.M. ships on dangerous missions into war areas, it is right to provide them with all possible protection?

I do not deny what the right hon. Gentleman has said, but the point has been made abundantly clear that this ship was carrying out a peaceful mission in accordance with a practice which had been carried on for some time, and without any suggestion of forcing a passage up the Yangtse. As the whole matter is to be discussed this week, perhaps hon. Gentlemen can develop their strategic and tactical ideas then.

Although the right hon. Gentleman's statement that the ship was proceeding on a peaceful mission is quite correct, was not the whole situation altered immediately "Amethyst" had been shelled by the Communists, and was it not very necessary to provide air support for any other British ships proceeding up the Yangtse?

In the judgment of the commander on the spot, the right thing was to send this ship up as soon as possible in the hope that they would be able to get "Amethyst" off under peaceful conditions.

Is the House to understand from the right hon. Gentleman's statement that the Admiral commanding had aircraft placed at his disposal? If so, when; and when could he expect them to be in his vicinity and available to him?

The Admiral commanding could have asked for aircraft if he desired them. The nearest aircraft were then between 36 and 48 hours' transit time away.

But were they actually placed at his disposal? After all, an Admiral there does not consider aircraft in Malaya as being at his disposal.

I have already informed the hon. and gallant Gentleman that the Admiral could have asked for aircraft if he had said that in his opinion it was desirable to have them.

If aircraft had gone with the ship, and if the Chinese population had been bombed, how would that have helped the British subjects whom this ship was being sent to help?

We cannot discuss the whole situation now. The Question only asked what air support was available, what strength it was and what distance it had to fly—not what the Admiral might say.

In view of the difficult situation existing in China, is it not an extraordinary thing that no land-based aircraft were available in Hong Kong?