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Attacks On Hm Ships China

Volume 464: debated on Tuesday 26 April 1949

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(by Private Notice) asked the Prime Minister whether the Government will make a statement about the situation on the Yangtse River, and the circumstances in which His Majesty's ships were attacked and British sailors killed and wounded.

On a point of Order, Mr. Speaker. In order to obtain your guidance for future occasions, may I draw your attention to the fact that there is a Question on the Order Paper today, No. 25, which, I understand, was withdrawn this morning. It must have been put down two days ago. Does not the fact that it is on the Order Paper preclude a Private Notice Question?

Actually there was an error made. I understood that the Question was withdrawn earlier. It is very difficult on the first day after the Adjournment—it is all very well when hon. Members are here—to get hold of hon. Members, when they are miles away, to ask them to withdraw. So I have used my discretion. If I have broken the practice, I have broken it. I thought it was only right that the Leader of the Opposition should ask an important Question of this kind.

I am afraid that this statement will necessarily be a long one. The House will wish to have a full account of the circumstances in which His Majesty's ships were fired upon in the Yangtse River with grievous casualties and damage.

I will first explain what our position is with regard to the civil war in China. It has been repeatedly stated in this House that our policy has been governed by the Moscow Declaration of December, 1945, in which the United Kingdom, the United States and the Soviet Union declared a policy of non-intervention in China's internal affairs. In view of the considerable British interests in China and of the presence of large British communities, His Majesty's Government decided some months ago that His Majesty's Ambassador and His Majesty's Consular Officers in China should remain at their posts and this was announced to the House by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary on 9th December. We were not alone in the decision to remain at Nanking. Other Powers represented there, with the exception of the Soviet Union, reached the same decision, and there has since been full consultation between the members of the Diplomatic Corps at Nanking.

In the disturbed conditions which have prevailed in recent months, warships of various Powers have been at Shanghai and Nanking so that in the event of a breakdown of law and order as the result of hostilities they would he able to assist in the evacuation of their nationals. When the Chinese Government decided to move to Canton, it is true that a warning was issued about warships in the Yangtse. Nevertheless it is a fact that since that time the movements of our warships in the Yangtse have taken place with the full knowledge and consent of the National Government of China. I want to make the point therefore that when the incident took place to which I am about to refer, H.M.S. "Amethyst" was proceeding on her lawful occasions and that there was no other properly constituted authority to whom His Majesty's Government were under an obligation to notify her movements even had they been in a position to do so.

The House will wish to know whether any steps were taken by our authorities in China to make contact with the Communist authorities. Some time has lapsed since Communist forces overran Mukden, Peking and Tientsin where we have Consular posts. His Majesty's Consular Officers at these posts have been endeavouring for some time past to reach day-to-day working arrangements with the local authorities. Their approaches have, however, been rejected on every occasion without any reason being given for such a rejection. The same policy was followed in rejecting a letter from His Majesty's Consul in Peking about the "Amethyst" when the incident had occurred.

In conformity with the decision to remain at Nanking, His Majesty's ships had been relieving one another at that port at regular intervals for some months past. On this occasion the object of the passage of H.M.S. "Amethyst" was to relieve H.M.S. "Consort" at Nanking. Opposing Chinese forces had been massed along the banks of the Yangtse for a considerable time and there were repeated rumours for some weeks that the Communists were about to cross the river. H.M.S. "Consort" was already due for relief, but this relief was postponed in view of a Communist ultimatum which was due to expire on 12th April and which might have been followed by the crossing of the Yangtse. On 12th April His Majesty's Ambassador learned that the ultimatum had been extended to 15th April. The relief had therefore still to be postponed. Only on 18th April was it learned that the final expiry of the ultimatum might lead to the crossing of the Yangtse by Communist forces on 21st April.

The necessity for relieving H.M.S. "Consort" as early as possible remained. She was running short of supplies after a long stay at Nanking and in any case a frigate was considered more suitable than a destroyer to be stationed at that port. The Flag Officer therefore decided, with the agreement of His Majesty's Ambassador, that the passage should be timed to allow "Amethyst" to reach Nanking a clear twenty-four hours before the expiry of the latest Communist ultimatum. Had there been no incident, "Amethyst" should have reached Nanking on 20th April. It was in the light of these known facts that the decision was made for "Amethyst" to sail and this decision was in my opinion correct.

Thus early on Tuesday, 19th April, the frigate H.M.S. "Amethyst" (Lieut.-Commander Skinner) sailed from Shanghai for Nanking, wearing the White Ensign and the Union Jack and with the Union Jack painted on her hull. When "Amethyst" had reached a point on the Yangtse River some 60 miles from Nanking, at about nine o'clock in the morning on the 20th, Chinese time, she came under heavy fire from batteries on the north bank, suffered considerable damage and casualties and eventually grounded on Rose Island. After this the Captain decided to land about sixty of her crew, including her wounded, who got ashore by swimming or in sampans, being shelled and machine-gunned as they did so; we know that a large proportion have, with Chinese help, arrived at Shanghai.

Vice-Admiral Madden, the Flag Officer, second in command, Far Eastern Station, ordered the destroyer H.M.S. "Consort" (Commander Robertson) from Nanking to go to "Amethyst's" assistance, and the frigate H.M.S. "Black Swan" (Captain Jay) from Shanghai to Kiang Yin, 40 miles down river from the "Amethyst." "Consort" reached "Amethyst" at about three in the afternoon and was immediately heavily engaged. She found the fire too hot to approach "Amethyst" and therefore passed her at speed down river. She turned two miles below and again closed "Amethyst" to take her in tow. But she again came under such heavy fire that she was obliged to abandon the attempt, although she answered the shore batteries with her full armament and signalled that she had silenced most of the opposition. Half an hour later her signals ceased, though in fact she was making a second attempt to take "Amethyst" in tow, having turned downstream again. This attempt also failed and she sustained further damage and casualties during which her steering was affected. She therefore had to continue downstream out of the firing area.

Meanwhile, the cruiser H.M.S. "London" (Captain Cazalet), wearing the flag of Flag Officer second in command was also proceeding up the Yangtse at best speed. The three ships "London," "Black Swan," and "Consort" met at Kiang Yin at about eight that evening. It was found that "Consort" was extensively damaged; she was ordered to proceed to Shanghai to land her dead and wounded and effect repairs.

At about two o'clock in the morning of the 21st the "Amethyst" succeeded in refloating herself by her own efforts and anchored two miles above Rose Island. She could go no further as her chart was destroyed. Her hull was holed in several places, her Captain severely wounded, her First Lieutenant wounded, and her doctor killed. There were only four unwounded officers left, and one telegraphist to carry out all wireless communications. Later the same morning the "London" and the "Black Swan" endeavoured to close the "Amethyst," but met with heavy fire causing some casualties. The fire was of course returned, but the Flag Officer then decided that it would not be possible to bring the damaged "Amethyst" down river without further serious loss of life in all ships; he therefore ordered the "London" and "Black Swan" to return to Kiang Yin.

At Kiang Yin they were fired upon by batteries, and suffered considerable casualties and damage. Both ships afterwards proceeded to Shanghai to land their dead and wounded and to effect repairs. That afternoon a naval and a R.A.F. doctor with medical supplies and charts were flown by a Sunderland aircraft of the Royal Air Force to the "Amethyst." Both the aircraft and the "Amethyst" were fired upon. The ship was hit, but the Sunderland managed to transfer the R.A.F. doctor and some medical supplies before being forced to take off. The "Amethyst" then took shelter in a creek.

During the night of the 21st-22nd "Amethyst" succeeded in evacuating a further batch of her wounded to a nearby town. After doing so, she moved ten miles up river under cover of darkness, though under rifle fire from the banks, and again anchored; she then completed the landing of all her more seriously wounded, including her Captain. I am sorry to say that this very gallant officer, who had insisted on remaining with his ship up to this time, died of his wounds soon after. There remained on board three Royal Navy officers, one Royal Air Force doctor, 52 ratings and eight Chinese. At about this time Lieutenant-Commander Kerans, the Assistant Naval Attaché at Nanking, reached the ship and assumed command.

Another courageous effort to reach "Amethyst" was made by the R.A.F. in a Sunderland on the afternoon of the 22nd, but the aircraft was driven off by artillery fire without succeeding in making contact. The "Amethyst" then moved a further four miles up river. She was in close touch with the Flag Officer, and after a number of courses had been considered, it was decided that she should remain where she was.

Perhaps I may at this point anticipate two questions which may possibly be asked. First, how was it that H.M. ships suffered such extensive damage and casualties, and second, why they were not able to silence the opposing batteries and fight their way through. In answer to the first, I would only say that warships are not designed to operate in rivers against massed artillery and infantry sheltered by reeds and mudbanks. The Communist forces appear to have been concentrated in considerable strength and are reported as being lavishly equipped with howitzers, medium artillery and field guns. The above facts also provide much of the answer to the second question, only I would add this. The Flag Officer's policy throughout was designed only to rescue H.M.S. "Amethyst" and to avoid unnecessary casualties. There was no question of a punitive expedition and H.M. ships fired only to silence the forces firing against them.

I will at this point briefly summarise the losses and damage which resulted.
  • H.M.S. "London"; 13 killed. 15 wounded.
  • H.M.S. "Consort"; 10 killed 4 seriously wounded.
  • H.M.S. "Amethyst"; 19 killed. 27 wounded.
  • H.M.S. "Black Swan"; 7 wounded.
In addition, 12 ratings are still missing. Of the damage to the ships, the "London" suffered the most severely, having been holed repeatedly in her hull and upper works. The damage to the "Consort" and the "Black Swan" was less serious. "London" and the "Black Swan" have already completed their emergency repairs. The "Amethyst" suffered severe damage but was repaired by the efforts of her own crew so as to be capable of 17 knots.

When H.M.S. "Amethyst" was fired upon by Communist forces H.M. Ambassador instructed H.M. Consular Officer in charge at Peking to communicate to the highest competent Chinese Communist authority by whatever means possible a message informing them of this and seeking the issue of immediate instructions by them to their military commanders along the Yangtse to desist from such firing. A subsequent message emphasised the urgent need of medical attention of the casualties and reiterated the request for instructions to prevent further firing upon these ships of the Royal Navy engaged in peaceful and humanitarian tasks. The local Communist authorities, however, refused to accept the Consul's letters.

At this time Mr. Edward Youde, a third Secretary in His Majesty's Foreign Service who has a good knowledge of Chinese, volunteered to try and contact the Communist forces north of Pukou in the hope of reaching some commanding officer with sufficient authority to stop the firing. H.M. Ambassador agreed to this attempt and Mr. Youde passed through the Nationalist lines on the night of 21st April. Thanks to his courage and determination Mr. Youde succeeded in reaching the forward headquarters of the People's Liberation Army in the Pukou area on 23rd April. He described the situation as he knew it when he left Nanking on 21st April and pointed out to them the peaceful and humanitarian nature of the mission of H.M.S. "Amethyst" and requested that she be allowed to proceed to Nanking or Shanghai without further molestation. Their headquarters took the line that clearance had not been obtained from the People's Liberation Army and that she had entered the war area. They also complained of heavy casualties incurred by their troops as a result of fire from H.M. ships. They refused to admit justification of self-defence. After consulting higher authority the headquarters stated that in the circumstances they would be prepared to allow the ship to proceed to Nanking but only on condition that she should assist the People's Liberation Army to cross the Yangtse. Such a condition was obviously unacceptable.

My attention has been drawn to a communiqué broadcast by the Communists which said that on the date in question warships on the Yangtse opened fire to prevent its crossing by Communist forces. It further stated that it was not until the following day that they learned that these ships were not all Chinese but that four British ships were among them. The Communists state that their forces suffered 252 casualties as a result of this firing and claim that His Majesty's Government have directly participated in the Chinese civil war by firing on Communist positions. These claims are, of course, so far as they relate to His Majesty's Government or the Royal Navy, as fantastic as they are unfounded.

If there was any initial misunderstanding as to the nationality of H.M.S. "Amethyst" this would have been speedily resolved had the authorities in Peking acted on H.M. Ambassador's message. Moreover, had the Communist authorities objected in the past to the movement of British ships on the Yangtse it was always open to them to raise these through our consular authorities in North China. It is the fact that for reasons best known to themselves the Communists have failed to notify any foreign authority present in areas which they have occupied of the channels through which contact can be maintained and that they have rejected all communications made to them. In these circumstances His Majesty's Government can only reserve their position.

The House will wish to join me in expressing sympathy with the relatives of all those who have been killed or wounded in this action and in expressing admiration of the courage of all those who took part in it. Five names deserve special tribute. Lieut.-Commander Skinner, R.N., the Captain of the "Amethyst," behaved with the utmost gallantry till he succumbed to his wounds. The First Lieutenant, Lieut. J. C. Weston, refused to leave the "Amethyst" although dangerously wounded until relieved in command by Lieut.-Commander Kerans fifty-six hours later. Telegraphist J. L. French showed superlative devotion to duty. He was the only telegraphist left in the "Amethyst" after the early hours of 21st April; and from then onwards his efforts kept the ship in almost continuous communication with Shanghai. The name should also be mentioned of Flight-Lieut. K. H. Letford, D.S.O., D.F.C., who landed a Sunderland aircraft under fire to convey the naval and R.A.F. doctors to "Amethyst." The fifth name is that of Mr. Youde, whose one-man mission through the Communist armies I have already described.

Without a doubt many other cases of bravery and devotion will be revealed when all the facts are known. But we already have ample evidence that the conduct of the whole ship's company of H.M.S. "Amethyst" was beyond all praise, though a considerable proportion were young sailors under tire for the first time. We have had reports of seamen and marines remaining at their tasks for up to 24 hours though bady wounded, and of men declining to have their wounds treated until cases they considered more urgent had been dealt with. I have heard too that in H.M.S. "London" and "Black Swan," when there was a possibility of volunteers being flown to "Amethyst," there was almost acrimonious rivalry for selection—as they put it "to go back for more."

I should mention that the United States naval authorities at Shanghai placed their resources unstintingly at our disposal, and the kindness and help of the British communities at Shanghai have been beyond all praise. Finally, the Chinese Nationalist forces in the Chinkiang area were most helpful in providing medical aid and stores which they could ill afford. The House will join with me in expressing our gratitude to all of these.

I should like, in concluding this statement, to pay a tribute to the British communities in China who have shown such steadfast behaviour in the difficult conditions in which they find themselves and whose decision to remain in China in spite of the uncertainties created by the civil war is in accordance with the best British tradition.

The House is now in full possession of the facts known to His Majesty's Government, and we shall of course continue to keep the House informed of developments as they occur. It will be realised that the situation is at present very fluid, but if, at a later stage, there is a general desire for a Debate on this matter, I am sure that this can be considered through the usual channels.

May I be allowed to say that we all join with the Prime Minister in the expression of sympathy which he has made towards the relatives of those who were killed and. wounded, and also in the terms in which he has referred to the creditable behaviour of our officers and men in the difficult circumstances into which they were put?

May I ask whether he does not think that there is a certain resemblance—a coincidental resemblance—between this episode, where a vessel goes on a routine cruise or journey up the river on the very eve of a battle—a civil war battle—and the sending out of aeroplanes some weeks ago in Egypt into a battle area within a few hours of a truce being declared? Does this not require very careful attention from the point of view of not putting our airmen and sailors into unnecessary dangers? Does it not require very careful attention from the Government and a further report on the details to the House? Is it not very unsatisfactory that the discharge of duties of routine should not be shown in all cases to have been done in full cognisance and comprehension of local circumstances, such as a large battle about to begin or a small quarrel about to be ended by a truce? May we have the Prime Minister's assurance that this matter will be the subject of a further statement from the Government to the House of Commons?

The other question I should like to ask at this moment—and I have no doubt that other hon. Members wish to ask questions on this subject—is this: How is it that at this time we have not got in Chinese waters one aircraft carrier, if not two, capable of affording protection to our nationals who may be increasingly involved in peril and misfortune, and capable of affording that protection in the only way which is understood by those who are attacking us, murdering us and insulting us, namely, by effective power of retaliation? Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will consider this matter? As regards the question of a Debate, I shall take that up a little later.

We shall, of course, give the fullest possible details. With regard to the first point raised by the right hon. Gentleman, we have to consider the position, as I stated, of the British communities and representatives in this disturbed area. Over a long period there has been civil war. It was decided that it was wise to keep a vessel at Nanking. It is therefore a matter for decision by those on the spot as to when relief should take place. If it is put off all the time, because of a possible danger—and it is very difficult when there are irregular forces on one side—we should never get that relief, and so I think a decision had to be come to. The right hon. Gentleman would notice that there was talk of an armistice, and the armistice expired but hostilities were not opened. A period of waiting then ensued to consider the position. Then, when there was an ultimatum, it was decided to relieve this ship in time before the ultimatum expired. In our view, the commanding officer there on the spot exercised a right judgment.

Whoever was responsible managed to send that ship up the river almost exactly at zero hour.

I am afraid the right hon. Gentleman could not have followed what I said, because it was pointed out that the voyage would have been completed 24 hours before zero hour. That is the reply to that. With regard to the allocation of ships and the rest, I do not think I could make any further statement on that. It is a matter we could well debate.

Now that we have received this statement from the Government as to the facts, might we have an indication of what their reaction is upon them? We have suffered very serious injury and our prestige has been affected, except in regard to the valour of our men, and is this to be the end? What course do His Majesty's Government intend to pursue? I am not asking for a statement on this today, but it is obvious that a matter like this cannot be allowed to go away in default with a mere statement of the facts from the Prime Minister and with a passive acceptance of them by the House of Commons. Something more than that must be done. I am not pressing for an immediate statement, especially as one cannot say beforehand what it is necessary and right to do, but I should like to have an assurance from the Government that they will face this matter in a robust spirit and will make sure that the British flag is respected and that British lives are not flung away without Parliament pursuing the matter with vigour and attention.

The right hon. Gentleman, I think, clearly recognised, as he said just now, that he could not expect a statement on that matter to be made today. I have said that I shall give the fullest information. The situation is still fluid, but certainly we shall make a statement on the position.

May I ask the Prime Minister two questions? He has referred to the warning which had been given by the Nationalist Government before they moved to Canton. Can he tell us exactly when that warning was given, the nature of it and to whom it was given, and why it was that His Majesty's Government came to the conclusion that they should not heed that warning whatever happened? Secondly, may I ask him what steps are now being taken, or can be taken even at this late stage, for the further protection of His Majesty's subjects in this danger zone?

On the first point, I have not got the exact date by me, but it was a considerable time ago. The right hon. and learned Gentleman will remember that the Chinese Government moved to Canton, that various changes in the Government took place, and that they subsequently came back to Nanking. For a considerable period of weeks, indeed I think months, there has been the passage of our ships and the ships of other nations up the Yangtse. I think one would be entitled to say that it was notified on every occasion and there was no objection. As a matter of fact, this practice has been allowed.

If the right hon. Gentleman was disregarding that serious warning, in view of the steady advance made by the Communist armies, if no guarantee could be obtained from both sides before the ship was sent up, would it not have been better to withdraw our nationals and protect them at that particular moment?

The decision was announced in the House that we did not propose to withdraw our nationals, and that decision was taken in consultation with other nationals there. I think it is right that they should remain.

Is the Prime Minister aware that because this ship had previously gone up and down the Yangtse without being attacked, that does not in any way justify or excuse the fact that no steps were taken to have aircraft in the vicinity such as rocket firing planes which could, I understand, have been used even if an aircraft carrier was not available? The other question I wish to ask the Prime Minister is that, in view of the fact that the "Amethyst" was taking supplies to our Embassy in Nanking as well as being engaged on relief purposes, surely, although we may agree that there was no means of knowing that the attack was going to take place at that moment, it must have been so imminent that steps could have been taken so that it would not have been necessary to renew the supplies or to relieve the personnel until, at any rate, the immediate danger of the invasion was over?

I think I tried to point out to the House that there had been this question of additional tension over a great period—that had been going on for a very long time with rumours of imminent crossings—and, therefore, they did as a matter of fact delay the ordinary relief because of the alleged termination of an armistice. Then there came the extension of the armistice and the opportunity was taken of that extension to effect the relief. I think that was right.

Can the Prime Minister say what instructions had been given to our naval forces at present standing off Shanghai, in case Shanghai should fall?

The Prime Minister said just now that we must avoid continuing to postpone routine sailings because of dangers that might go on for some time, but, surely, having put it off until what was really the crucial moment, when the crossing of the Yangtse was imminent, it would have been sensible to put it off a little longer until the matter was clearer and a safe guarantee obtained from each side?

I did not say that this was a routine matter on the kind of lines that one could either do it or not; there had to be the supplies and there had to be the relief, and the commander on the spot had to consider what was the time to do it. I have been through the dates very often, but this was the time selected as, otherwise, he might not have been able to reach them at all. He considered—and I. think he was right in thinking that, in view of the evidence available and actions of the past—that the relief could be effected during this pause.

Can the Prime Minister say whether the Government have any indication of the general attitude of the Communist authorities in China towards the treaty rights of foreign Powers as a whole, because we ought to avoid further incidents of this kind?

Can the Prime Minister say whether any steps are being taken to establish relations, not at a consular level or with local commanders, but with a Government which is controlling a very large part of China because, unless such steps are taken, what is there to prevent further incidents of this sort occurring?

As I have already stated, we have made and are making every effort to get in touch with the Communist authorities, but so far we have not been able to get a letter through.

In view of the changed circumstances, do the Government still regard themselves as bound by the Moscow Declaration which means that, while we are doing our best to halt Communism in Europe, we are prepared to do nothing to check it in Asia? In view of the southward advance of the Communist forces, can the right hon. Gentleman give this House an assurance right here and now that Hong Kong is safe both from external aggression and fifth column activity from within?

I would prefer to have these detailed questions put on the Order Paper; they do not arise directly out of this incident.

The Prime Minister said that the Consulate at Nanking was short of supplies, but is he not aware that during the period of the truce both the road and rail were open and could have been used, had it been desired, for sending in supplies? In joining with the expression of sympathy with the friends of those who have been lost—[Interruption]—surely, I know what it is to suffer bereavement and I deplore this wanton sacrifice of British lives—may I ask the Prime Minister, in view of the fact that the authorities must have known that the Kuomintang authorities were not going to accept the terms of the truce, whether there will not be an independent inquiry into the responsibility for sending this ship up the Yangtse at a time when it was known that hostilities were going to start?

The hon. Member is, of course, quite wrong. I have no information as to what the Kuomintang authorities were likely to do. I have already told the House that our information was that hostilities would not begin until the time given on the 21st. Had this firing not taken place before the ending of that armistice, there would have been no question of the ship being hit.

Will the Prime Minister say, first, whether any other foreign Powers had warships in the vicinity of Nanking at the time of the incident, and, secondly, why there were not sufficient land-based aircraft at Hong Kong which could have given air cover to these warships at the time of the incident?

I do not think that the hon. and gallant Member quite understands that we were engaged on a peaceful mission. We were not engaged in staging a punitive war, and the vessels were going up and down the Yangtse on their lawful occasion.

On a point of Order. I have not had a reply to the second part of my question.

I have already pointed out that American ships based at Shanghai had been up and down the Yangtse quite recently.

Further to that point of Order. I asked the right hon. Gentleman whether he would refer to the question of land-based aircraft at Hong Kong, and I have had no answer.

I answered that we were not engaged in warfare; we were engaged in a peaceful mission.

With regard to the men remaining on the "Amethyst," is it not possible for the Admiralty to get greater information for their relatives here at home, many of whom are very much concerned? They have scanned the casualty lists to see if the names of their sons are included in them, but any further information which could be given would relieve their anxiety.

Every possible effort will be made to get the names, and the fullest possible information will be given as soon as the names come in.

With regard to the question of a Debate on these matters, I feel that there are several matters on which the Government will wish to make a statement later. I have indicated them and, therefore, I do not wish to press for an adjournment of the House today, but we shall accept the offer of the Prime Minister to discuss, through the usual channels, a Debate upon this issue in the near future. Because it has many aspects, I should like to make it absolutely clear that whatever criticism we may male of what I may call the unfortunate handling of a difficult situation, which has led our people to lose their lives, that in no wise detracts from our resentment at the atrocious outrage of which we have been the victims, or from our determination to press the Government to take effective steps to make sure that we are treated with respect in the future.

As I have told the right hon. Gentleman, we are perfectly willing to have a Debate. We want to take every possible step to protect the communities in China—our British community; that is one of the points we have to bear in mind in dealing with this matter.

Does the Prime Minister consider that the main reason for our subsequent inability to extricate the "Amethyst" was largely due to the absence of any air support whatever? Is that not very unusual in modern conditions of warfare—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."]—of warfare in a very disturbed area? Can the Prime Minister assure us that immediate steps have been taken to ensure that air cover will in future be given?

I am not prepared to state in advance any steps with regard to the movement of any forces in this area. I am quite well aware that aircraft are used in warfare, but this was not a matter of warfare at all. There was no suggestion of making an attack anywhere at all. We were engaged in the peaceful process of bringing supplies up the river and it would have been quite unusual to have provided a bomber force or anything like that in conjunction with peaceful operations of that kind.

If it is considered not provocative—and I agree that it is not provocative—to send these ships up the Yangtse, how would it have been any more provocative to give them adequate air cover?

I naturally leave this matter to be one for the commanders on the spot to deal with. I am not sheltering myself and I take full responsibility, but I am now being asked to answer detailed questions about how this operation of keeping a warship at Nanking should be conducted and how those reliefs should be done. I am repeating the point that we were engaged in a peaceful occupation. The suggestion seems to be that we were staging something like an operation. We were doing nothing of the kind.

Would the Prime Minister tell the House what steps are being taken to protect those who are still on the "Amethyst"?

I cannot make any further statement except that all possible steps are being taken.

Would the Prime Minister confirm or deny that an apology has been asked for from the Government by the Communist authorities; and, if it has, will he give this House an assurance that in no circumstances will he apologise for going to the aid of British lives?

I thought it was quite clear from my statement that we were unable to contact the Communist authorities. There could be no possible question of making any apology.

In view of the fact that Merseyside has had some casualties, I want to ask the Prime Minister what protection is to be afforded now to our British naval men there on the spot, so as to see that no further affront will take place on account of our having inadequate protection there to guard against it?

I have already stated—and I am sure the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Woodford will agree—that whatever steps we are taking, we cannot make a public announcement of the exact steps that we are taking.

Is it not a fact that until 1947 there were two aircraft carriers on the China station? Could the right hon. Gentleman say why, in the face of the obviously deteriorating situation in China, His Majesty's Government reduced rather than reinforced this squadron?

In view of the fact that it was known that an ultimatum was about to expire and that a crossing of the Yangtse might then be contemplated, would it have been prudent or practicable to attempt to inform both sides before the operation was commenced of the nature of the operation and its peaceful purposes—the same sort of attempt as was made after the incident occurred?

I thought I had already made it clear to the House that we did every possible thing to contact the Communist forces and that we could not get any message through.

I thought my right hon. Friend's statement referred to an attempt made subsequently. I was asking whether an attempt could not have been made before the operation.

If my hon. Friend will study my statement he will see that that was an addition I made saying "afterwards"; we had already done it before.

When he was asked why air cover was not provided, the Prime Minister stated that the voyage of the "Amethyst" was not an operation of war, but surely it was clear that some thing like an operation of war was involved in the subsequent movement of the ships in support of the "Amethyst." I rather think the country will like to know why air cover was not provided at that juncture.

Could the Prime Minister tell us how on earth air cover could have assisted in preventing the "Amethyst" from being attacked from guns in forts on the banks?

The right hon. Gentleman has explained the absence of air cover by describing this as what he calls a peaceful operation. Will he assist the House in this matter? After this unjustified attack on a British ship had been made and it was considered right to send other warships to the assistance of the "Amethyst," why were not aircraft ordered up then? Furthermore, as this matter must have been considered, who took the decision that aircraft should not be brought into operation?

Any decisions for action in this matter were taken by the men on the spot at the time. I have given full information to the House; I cannot give more information of what occurred than that which I have given. We simply have this information.

Will the Prime Minister indicate whether, before the "Amethyst" proceeded up the river. the commanding officer on the spot sought for and obtained instructions in relation to that movement from the headquarters of the Admiralty and the Government itself; whether the seeking of such advice was necessary or advisable; whether it was sought and what instructions, if any, were given?

This matter was a matter within the responsibiity of the local commander. He consulted with His Majesty's Ambassador, but there was no reference back here before action was taken.

Would the right hon. Gentleman say whether aircraft were actually available to the commander on the spot?

Will the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that the Government will not be stampeded into an intervention in this civil war that might lead us into war?

In view of the fact that the north bank of the Yangtse had been occupied for four weeks before this incident and that local rumour that it was to be crossed was apparent every day, and in view of the fact that this expedition had to take place to help in Nanking, will the Prime Minister say what steps were taken to see that it was carried out in the manner that provided the maximum safety, either by protection from aircraft or by sending more than one vessel at one time?

No one has yet pointed out exactly what the aircraft would have done in this matter.

In any further Debate I am quite prepared to answer any questions. All I can say now is that this was a matter which was decided by the authorities on the spot. No suggestion or order was given from here that aircraft either should or should not be used. This was a matter in which, whatever operations were undertaken, were undertaken by those on the spot. In my view they took the right line in the decision they took.

Are not the First Lord of the Admiralty and the Minister of Defence in close touch with the men on the spot? Ought they not to be following this situation and able to make—

What did the hon. Member say? Are those right hon. Gentlemen keeping in close touch, instead of leaving it to the men on the spot, and so being confronted with an unfortunate episode of this character?

I am quite sure the right hon. Gentleman would not think it right that day-to-day meticulous orders should be given to local commanders to carry out. No commander would wish to have them.

Would it not have been right for the Admiralty authorities and the Government, when' they had information that this ship was to proceed up the river, and when the Communists had been entrenched along, or in strong occupation of, the north bank for weeks before, and when an armistice was expiring in a few hours—would it not have been right for them to have been in the closest touch with their officers on the spot, instead of throwing the whole burden on them, and expecting that they could get off behind them for all their muddle?

I am not prepared to take that from the right hon. Gentleman. The right hon. Gentleman knows quite well that there has been this difficult situation for weeks along the Yangtse.

He knows that there have been rumours of crossings, and rumours of an armistice. We are keeping in touch with the situation, but a particular occasion like this is one for decision. There is no question of sheltering behind any commander on the spot. The commander on the spot took action. I approve his action. I support his action. That does not say that all the time from the Admiralty, the man on the spot, who knows the exact conditions, should be receiving detailed orders.

Would the Prime Minister not agree that when a ship is sent on a peaceful mission of this kind there may be something to be said for sending the supplies in either an unarmed ship or in an adequately armed ship, but that a cruiser in a river, without the availability of air protection, is armed, but inadequately armed?

Is the Prime Minister aware that his statement will prove to the country that the Government were actuated by the motive to keep clear of this civil war in China? Is he also aware that the Opposition have indicated that they are prepared to make political capital out of it?

Can the right hon. Gentleman say whether, in point of fact, the Commander-in-Chief Far East, Admiral Brind, is out in China or is in London? If he is here, when will he return to his post?

The Prime Minister mentioned the assistance of United States officials in the area. Can he say whether there is likely to be any concerted action for the protection of British and United States civilians?

In fairness to the local commanders on the spot, would the right hon. Gentleman say whether, in fact, aircraft were or were not available for them to use, if they desired to use them?

Quite apart from whether aircraft should or should not have been used, the Prime Minister said just now that he did not know what part aircraft might have played in a rescue operation such as this. I want to ask whether it is not a pathetic state of affairs to have a Prime Minister so sublimely ignorant of elementary military matters?

The hon. and gallant Gentleman does not quote me correctly. I said that no one on the Opposition side had suggested exactly what they could have done about it.

On the question of the availability of aircraft. Were there anywhere any aircraft which the Commander-in-Chief on the spot could have got on call in sufficient time?

I cannot answer as to the exact time in detail without notice. If the hon. Gentleman will put down a Question I shall answer it.

Will the Prime Minister give an assurance that, in spite of the exuberance of the Opposition, he will not take any steps any stronger than those taken by the Americans, whose Embassy has already been violated?

We have had nearly an hour of these questions, and there is certain other Business to be taken. I do not want to stop questions on an important matter such as this, but I would remind the House that we have to deal with other Business.

Is the Prime Minister aware that the country can draw only one inference from his answers—

Is the Prime Minister aware that the country can draw only one inference from his answers, and that is that no air support was available at the time?