Skip to main content

British Airliner, Hainan (Shooting Down)

Volume 531: debated on Tuesday 27 July 1954

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

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs whether he can make a statement about the latest incidents connected with the shooting down of a British aircraft off Hainan.

Yes, Sir. On 24th July the United States Secretary of State announced that two United States aircraft carriers had been ordered to proceed to the scene of the Chinese attack upon the Cathay Pacific airliner as a result of which three United States nationals were injured and three were still missing. The task of these ships and their aircraft was to conduct and protect further search and rescue operations in the vicinity of the crash.

I have been informed by the United States Government that on 26th July at approximately 10.05 a.m., local time, two of these carrier-based aircraft, while on rescue operations seeking possible survivors, were attacked over the high seas approximately 13 miles from Hainan by two Chinese fighter aircraft, apparently of the same type as shot down our airliner. A Chinese gunboat also opened fire upon these United States planes. The United States aircraft returned the fire from the planes and two Chinese aircraft were shot down.

I have been requested to instruct Her Majesty Chargé d'Affaires in Peking to convey a protest to the Chinese Government on behalf of the United States Government, both in respect of the six United States citizens killed and wounded in the attack on our British airliner, and the wanton interference with search and rescue operations in the area of the incident. Instructions have been sent accordingly to Her Majesty's Chargé d'Affaires.

I should add that on 23rd July, on being informed of the Cathay Pacific crash, the Hong Kong Civil Aviation Department communicated with White Cloud airfield, Canton, by radio, stating that there had been a crash off Hainan and that search aircraft, of which details and markings were given, were taking off. About an hour later a message was received from Canton air traffic control that a Sunderland aircraft already in the area would be permitted to remain but that any other war planes sent to search would be fired on without warning if they approached land. This message was against all international custom and behaviour. Her Majesty's Representative has been instructed to make a protest at Peking in respect of the nature of this message.

The House will be obliged to the Foreign Secretary. I am sure we all hope that there will be no further incidents in connection with this most unhappy matter. If any further factual information or any other information should arrive, will the Foreign Secretary do his best to inform the House about it?

Yes, Sir. Perhaps I should add this information, which has reached me. It is that Hong Kong has reported that four fighter aircraft circled over a French Constellation aircraft about 75 miles off Hainan Island. According to the pilot of the French aircraft, the purpose of the fighters appeared to be identification. The pilot has been interrogated by the Royal Air Force authorities in Hong Kong, who are satisfied that the fighters were M.I.G.s. The House will note the distinction between a search for identification and the action previously taken. I thought the House ought to know about this, in view of the Press reports.

Would the right hon. Gentleman make it quite clear that there is nothing unusual in aircraft searching the vicinity of an accident, or after an incident of this nature, for anything up to two days?

That is why I instructed our Chargé d'Affaires to make this further representation to the Chinese Government about their refusal to allow the aeroplanes to make the search.

Is the Foreign Secretary aware that the United States Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet is reported in today's British Press as saying that his forces have standing instructions to be quick on the trigger, and whilst in no way—

Order. I do not think that matter comes within the Minister's responsibility.

I was just coming to the point, Mr. Speaker. Whilst in no way dissenting from what the Foreign Secretary had to say yesterday, or condoning Chinese action, may I ask whether the right hon. Gentleman is aware of the grave implication and involvement in which this may land British forces in the Far East if it is pursued to its logical conclusion? Can he give the House an assurance that he is in close touch with the United States Government, warning them of the extreme tenseness of the situation which may be created by American action?

I really am very reluctant to make any more comment on this matter. I do not think it would be helpful. The Question of the right hon. Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. H. Morrison) was fully justified, in that these later incidents arose out of what happened to a British aircraft; but we ought not to pursue in this House what happens between two foreign countries. Everybody knows that the object of Her Majesty's Government, if they possibly can, is to prevent incidents recurring. I do not think we can help by commenting, either in a friendly way or adversely.

Will the right hon. Gentleman add information on one point? Is it clear that the American aircraft concerned were actually outside Chinese territorial waters at the time? The report is that they were.

The report which I have received—I was not there—is that they were 13 miles outside territorial waters. I think I gave this information to the House just now.