Skip to main content

Troops, Korea (Amenities)

Volume 496: debated on Tuesday 26 February 1952

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."—[ Major Conant.]

12.30 a.m.

Earlier tonight, or rather last night, before we were involved in a discussion on the delicacies of chocolate and milk, we heard a good deal about Korea. I wish to raise one particular aspect of the operations there, namely, the amenities available to our troops in that theatre, using the term "amenities" in its widest sense.

I am drawing attention to this subject, because I was able to visit the United Nations front in Korea during the Christmas Recess. Only two other hon. Members of this House have visited Korea since hostilities began, the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr. Driberg) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Aitken). In some ways it is a pity that more hon. Members have not been able to make that journey.

So far as my own visit was concerned, I would express my thanks both to the American and our own military authorities for the facilities they put at my disposal, particularly the Commander-in-Chief of the Commonwealth Forces, General Bridgford, who lent me his plane to visit the front, and the Divisional Commander, General Cassels, for letting me see everything I wanted to see and answering all the questions I wanted to ask; and for allowing me to have the experience which is rather unusual for an ex-intelligence officer of going into action in a tank against the enemy.

My experience was that the morale of the troops was extremely high. They were in good heart, they were well fed and, after some regrettable delays, I think well clothed. But they have some grouses. They are discontented about pay and allowances. The nature of the United Nations Command throws into relief the disparity in the rates of pay. Our troops are almost the worst paid troops with the possible exception of the Turks and the South Koreans. Even the Greeks and the French are paid more than our men.

All ranks, and particularly officers, resent having to pay Income Tax on their pay. The Commonwealth Forces, the Australians and the New Zealanders do not pay tax, and the Canadians pay tax only on the first 30 dollars of their pay. There is also some discontent about there being no local overseas allowance. Troops who have been peace-time soldiering in Hong Kong had this allowance, but when they went to Korea they found it was withdrawn. The excuse has been that there is nothing on which to spend their allowance in Korea. There are no clubs, cafes, golf clubs or cinemas. But the troops from Hong Kong who have gone to Korea have, in many cases, had to leave their wives in Hong Kong and have to maintain them while they are in Korea.

It is a good thing that gratuities have become payable and that these men are receiving them, but it is important they should know when they became payable. I understand they become payable when the men are posted away, but only the other day I had a letter from a National Service man's mother to the effect that her son, demobilized six months ago, had not received the gratuity he was entitled to. I ask the Minister to assure the House that he will do everything he can to ensure the gratuities are promptly paid.

There was also some complaint at the N.A.A.F.I. prices. Articles like shaving brushes and tooth-brushes, and soap and cleaning equipment bear higher prices in N.A.A.F.I. stores in Korea than in other theatres, notably Germany. I would ask the Minister to keep a strict watch on these prices and to bring them into line with those charged in other theatres.

I wore the clothing issued when I was in the front line and thought it extremely good and adequate, but I did see some men who wore last year's clothing, with battledress and woollen jerseys. I ask the Minister to assure the House that all ranks have now been issued with the new type winter clothing. There was also a complaint about equipment, particularly stoves, or space heaters as they are called, and I would ask the Minister to see whether all these needs have been met. I know of at least one firm in this country with a supply of heaters that could meet any deficiencies there may be.

Then there is the lack of entertainment. Korea is a very bleak place and there are few recreational facilities. There is a very great need for live entertainment, and there was great disappointment when it ceased last November. The excuse given in official quarters was that it was too cold for entertainers to go out there, yet that did not deter the Americans from sending a plane load of stars to entertain their forces at Christmas time.

Mr. Carroll Levis, a well known entertainer, offered to take a party of six out, and there is no doubt it would have been appreciated by the troops, but the offer was turned down. I understand some concert parties are due to go out in March, but entertainment is wanted now, particularly entertainment provided by someone like Mr. Carroll Levis or even Miss Gracie Fields. There is also need for mobile film units. It may be that more of these are now available, but five weeks ago the men told me that there was only one such unit in the whole Commonwealth Division. I would appreciate it if the Minister would say whether these cinema projectors are now reaching the command in greater numbers.

Another point is mail. I understand the men have still to pay postage in some cases on their letters home. Cannot this charge be remitted? Another point is that on gifts of more than 10s. their relations are liable to Customs and Purchase Tax. This applies even to gifts purchased in the N.A.A.F.I. For example, if Japanese silk goods, such as a kimono costing about £2 10s., are sent, it does seem unfair that the recipient should have to pay Customs Duty and Purchase Tax on it.

There are good supplies of newspapers, but I did meet with the complaint that these were largely confined to national dailies and weeklies and magazines. There is a feeling that there should be some local newspapers, because the men like to have the local news and gossip from their home towns. At present these papers have to be sent by relatives at a cost perhaps of 2s. per paper by air mail, and I wonder whether this charge could not be remitted or supplies of local papers sent out.

In conclusion, I should like to quote from a letter I received the other day from an ex-trooper in the 8th Hussars which summarises how many of the men feel on this question of amenities. He says:
"In August, 1950, I was recalled to the Colours, and I served that last terrible winter in Korea. Our clothing was of the poorest to meet the climate—we had only battle dress and a so-called windproof. I would like to state that, although I served from 1939 to 1946 with Tank Regiments in Africa and Italy, I have never undergone the hardships imposed upon us by the Korean climate, by the complete lack of entertainment of any description, and by the absence of reasonable leave. I would like to thank you for visiting the troops, as one of our main grouses was that no one in authority ever visited us. Had they done so, they would have seen how the Government had neglected their troops in one of the hardest wars of all times."
Whatever the faults may have been in the past the Secretary of State now has a great opportunity of putting them right. I would ask him most seriously and earnestly to take that opportunity, and in doing so to earn the lasting gratitude of our troops in that theatre who are fighting with other United Nations forces in the cause of freedom.

12.43 a.m.

I too had the privilege of visiting Korea, not quite so recently as the hon. Member, but I did much the same trip. I visited the troops beyond the Imjun River, and saw something of the conditions and difficulties under which they were fighting. Everything I heard, from Army headquarters, corps headquarters, divisional headquarters, right down to the front line, was that our troops probably have the lowest standard of welfare and pay of any of the European troops in Korea. Even the Turks, who were the lowest paid soldiers on this side of the iron curtain—and among the bravest—are now on the American standard of pay, which is four times that of the British soldier.

On the other hand, it was a proud and splendid thing to hear some of the comments, which applied from the Army commander down to the humblest G.I., about the record of our troops in Korea. Everywhere you heard expressed this high regard in which our troops are held for their fighting skill, courage and discipline.

I want to take up the point made by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Belfast, North (Lieut.-Colonel Hyde) about newspapers. During the last war the importance was recognised of getting newspapers out to the troops oversea. The W.V.S. organised a very efficient method of collecting national and local newspapers. I think the emphasis in this case should be placed on the local newspaper, and if these efficient ladies were asked to go into high gear again I think they would do it. I am sure that if transport facilities could be arranged—and they should be—it would be possible to arrange matters so that every soldier in Korea would regularly get his local paper. In that grim and desolate country —and anybody like ourselves who is privileged to go there—will realise that news from home means a very great deal to our soldiers in Korea.

12.45 a.m.

In the minute or two left to me I would echo what was said by the hon. and gallant Member who raised this subject, and I would congratulate him for having done so. I would echo what he says about local overseas allowance.

As some hon. Members will know, a number of us raised this question repeatedly throughout the last Parliament without getting any satisfaction at all; but, looking at it in retrospect, I do not think that it was the fault of the War Office, or any intentional meanness on their part. They sent repeated signals to the Commander on the spot asking if a case could be made out for overseas allowance, and perhaps he did not realise that this repetition was a hint. But he replied that he could not make the case, and I think that as a small consolation, or substitute for that, the late Government decided in August or September on the special gratuity scheme; and that, although not very much, is better than nothing.

Now there is a new Government, and there has been a change of Commander out there, and I can only express the hope that the Under-Secretary will look sympathetically at this question.

12.46 a.m.

Almost all the points in this discussion this evening have been the subject of recent Parliamentary Question and answer or the subject of Adjournment debates. But, I am glad that the matter has been raised afresh in order that our troops who are fighting so gallantly in Korea may know that their problems and troubles are constantly in the minds of hon. Members here. The fact that the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Lieut.-Colonel Hyde) was able to visit them in their distant fields will, I am sure, be greatly appreciated.

Let me say, first, that the morale and health of the troops out there is good; and when one gets these two factors there is probably not much that is radically wrong. Of the many questions touched upon by the several hon. Members who have spoken, I think that the most acute is that of pay, and if I set forth the factors which play upon this complicated situation, I would ask hon. Members what, in the circumstances, they would have done. The first factor, to the exclusion of all others, and which is the most pressing of political matters today, is the need for national economy.

The second is that the British Army has always accepted that we should pay a soldier the same wherever he is asked to perform a task, and whatever that task may be. That is a principle which should not be lightly abandoned because the moment one tries to make an increase of pay for, say, fighting, or suffering some special hardship, one embarks upon a sea of endless trouble.

How can one assess the degree of discomfort in, say, Korea, as compared with Malaya, or the Canal Zone? Again, how can one assess the degree of discomfort in different parts of the same theatre of operations? The complications are deep and widespread. Let us also remember that, however unfavourably—I agree that from many aspects they are unfavourable —our rates of pay compare with those of other countries, they at least compare not unfavourably with civilian rates at home.

We must also realise that we, almost alone among the nations who have sent contingents to Korea, have also got important garrisons elsewhere. The United States, our Dominions, Turkey and Greece have virtually only one fighting zone to consider, whereas we have the Canal Zone and Malaya and the other commitments of a far-flung Empire.

Let us remember, too, so far as the United States and Canada are concerned, that the pay of their troops has to bear some relationship to the cost of living in their countries. They are high cost of living countries, and their troops very often have to send home from their pay something to help to maintain their families. Our troops are not the lowest paid, although we come fairly low down the scale. Turkish, Indian and other troops are lower. But the Turks draw ahead from us, as so many Continental nations do, in the pay of their officers.

Income Tax has been mentioned. Only some of the countries exempt pay from tax. Income Tax in one form or another is levied, as with us, by the United States, Canada, Greece and Turkey.

I admit that there is a gap. My first reaction, like that of my hon. and gallant Friend, was one of resentment, but, bearing in mind all these facets to the problem, I still return to the question that I should like hon. Members to ask themselves: What would they have done in these circumstances? Hon. Members may retort by asking what we have done.

The hon. Member for Maldon (Mr. Driberg) mentioned the Korean gratuity. In an attempt to narrow the gap—I do not pretend that it comes anywhere near closing it—the Government instituted a Korean gratuity and extra terminal leave, and since the terminal leave is paid leave, it is another form of reward. The gratuity for a private is on the basis of £10 for service in the Korean theatre up to three months plus £1 per month for each month thereafter. A private may earn something in the region of £25 and a 2nd Lieutenant something like £45. Nor must we lose sight of the provision for marriage allowance, which many of the other nations fail to provide.

If we were to double the Korean gratuity, it would cost the Services, on the basis of the numbers involved in that theatre in the past year, an extra £432,000 a year. But I will undertake to see that those who are entitled to gratuities are not held up waiting for them to be paid. These problems of comparative pay always occur when troops of different nations are fighting alongside one another in the same theatre. They arose in the First and Second World Wars, and I am afraid that they will never be eliminated until there is a United Nations Army paid out of a common budget.

Now a word about the local overseas allowance. What has been said is broadly true. It is an allowance instituted to compensate our troops for serving in areas where the cost of living is higher than it is at home. Whether the question was put to the G.O.C.-in-C. out there in the form suggested by the hon. Member or not, it is clearly open to him at any time to make out a case for it in Korea, but he has not made out such a case, and it is hard to see how it can be made out at the present time.

In Hong Kong the position is otherwise, and the local overseas allowance is paid there. We have been asked why, when a husband is posted away from Hong Kong to Korea, the allowance is withdrawn from his family in Hong Kong. The answer is buried in the problem of trying to provide for a united family in the Services abroad. When the husband goes to Korea the family for the moment can no longer be considered to be united. Consequently that family is offered a homeward passage free, and incidentally if that passage is accepted it eases the acute housing situation in Hong Kong. If that passage is refused, the local overseas allowance is withdrawn altogether. They well know the purpose of the local overseas allowance and what will happen if the passage is refused.

Now a word on N.A.A.F.I. prices. The prices of some articles are higher, and some lower, than of comparable articles in B.A.O.R., and at home, but overall they compare not unfavourably in spite of the high cost of transporting the goods to that theatre. In this connection N.A.A.F.I. are making arrangements for a better supply of films for cameras, and for the developing of films.

On clothing, it is generally admitted that the clothing furnished to all troops is as good as the best. Although the situation came in for a good deal of unfair criticism, the earlier forecasts which my right hon. Friend gave to the House have been exceeded. As to space heaters, although there was some initial delay owing to production difficulties in the United States of America, our full requirement of 3,900 of these heaters has now been met. Mention has been made of a concern in this country which might be able to supply them, and we would be glad to have the name of that firm.

I come now to the question of entertainment. It was at the express request of the Command out there that no entertainment parties were sent in the period between November and February, owing, no doubt, to the weather. However, the hon. and gallant Member, with that well-known sense of humour possessed by all his countrymen, may perhaps have helped in part to remove that deficiency. From March onwards increased provision is being made, and eight parties from the United Kingdom and Australia are to visit the theatre at monthly intervals. Mobile cinema shows have been arranged, and each major unit now has two 16 millimetre projectors for films supplied by the Army Cinema Corps and the United States Army.

Lastly a word about mail and newspapers. Regarding homeward mail, lightweight letters by air are carried free for the Forces without limit. Ordinary airmail letters cost 2½d. for one ounce. Civilians pay 2s. 6d. for the same weight. I will take up with N.A.A.F.I. the question of whether N.A.A.F.I. goods, such as silk articles, can be exempted from Purchase Tax and Customs Duty.

The question of supplying local and provincial newspapers was raised in August, and when we asked Korea Command for its views the reply was that there was no great demand for weekly provincial papers but a constant demand for more national Sunday papers. These with others, are sent out on the basis of one paper for every five men. They are flown out and issued free.

I hope that all this, unrolled rather rapidly, will serve to show that the needs and wants of the troops in Korea are very present in our thoughts. They on their part have shown that our youth has not lost either its vigour or courage. We want to do all we can in return for the fine job that they are doing, but I ask them, and hon. Members, to remember the financial limitations by which we are so hard pressed just now.

Before the hon. Gentleman sits down, may I ask whether the extra leave facilities in Japan, which mean that troops can spend more money there, will provide an excuse, as it were, for a local overseas allowance? Will the hon. Gentleman look into that?

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at One o'Clock a.m.