Liberated Countries (Supplies)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 28 March 1945.

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Photo of Viscount  Turnour Viscount Turnour , Horsham and Worthing 12:00, 28 March 1945

We have, in the course of to-day's proceedings, very properly paid a tribute to a great figure who has left this House, and who has left our midst. I would ask attention to another matter, that is, how to succour the living—because I do not think it is going too far to say that that is the point at issue—over a large portion of liberated territories in Western Europe. I cannot refrain from saying, as one who had the most deep affection and admiration for Earl Lloyd-George, that I feel his spirit is with us to-day in this Debate, because there is no subject in which, throughout his long Parliamentary life, he took more interest than that of how to help those who were in dire need of help. It will be quite impossible to go over the whole field of the conditions of Western Europe, of the situation that exists there to-day, and of the situation that may arise there. For example, there would be no time to talk of the case the enemy countries, but I may say in passing that in my opinion recent events in Germany, the tremendous successes of our Armies there, have exacerbated rather than diminished the problem with which we are faced, because without getting off the main line of my argument, I would like to point out that the immediate power of Germany to produce food and goods is being rapidly destroyed, her civilian population, at any rate that portion which is not being deported, very properly, to Russia, or killed by our bombs, will soon be largely wandering homeless and without food. It is quite certain that the Allies will feel a great responsibility in this matter after the occupation of Germany. Nor have I time to-day to talk on the subject of the refugee problem. Indeed, it would perhaps be improper for me to do so on this occasion because I perform, on behalf of His Majesty's Government, rather important functions in connection with refugees on the Inter-Governmental Committee on Refugees, of which I am Chairman. I will take the opportunity of saying, as a purely personal matter, in parenthesis, that I am in complete agreement with the policy of the Government on the question of refugees, and I have no criticism to offer.

I propose to confine myself to the case of the liberated countries of Europe. Those of us who are interested in this matter and who have, in private conversation, discussed the questions at issue, put forward four contentions. First, we say that the economic condition of freed Western countries is very serious. I think it is unnecessary, and would only delay the House and take up the time which is much needed for the many hon. Members who wish to take part in this Debate, to give chapter and verse for that statement, but it is a statement of fact, not mere assertion. I make no secret of the fact, I have nothing to be ashamed of, as an ex-Minister and a Privy Councillor, in saying that I have been in consultation with some very high Allied authorities. They have told me that I am justified in using that phrase, that the economic conditions of the freed Western countries is very serious, indeed, that it is resulting in malnutrition, and is sowing a possible crop of illness, tuberculosis, all sorts of deficiency diseases among the children of these countries.

Secondly, my contention is that this state of affairs means much present human suffering and future political danger and trouble. Thirdly, a great responsibility rests upon the United States and ourselves in the matter, since we command practically all external air and sea transport and, for military reasons, most of the internal transport. I would like to give the House some figures which I have taken the trouble to check, so far as I am able to do so—no doubt the Lord President, who is to reply, will tell me if they are incorrect figures—which I think are very striking. The Allied Armies are using in France 40 per cent. of all the locomotives, 50 to 55 per cent. of all the railway wagons, trucks, etc., 25 per cent. of all the passenger coaches and 4o per cent. of all the coal allocated to the railways—that over and above the terrible destruction which our bombing has necessarily done to the French economic system.

I would mention some very significant statistics and facts in this connection. The French pre-war merchant marine was about 3,000,000 tons. About 2,000,000 tons have been lost or destroyed, chiefly by necessary Allied military action. Of the remaining 1,000,000 tons about 200,000 is being used for various purposes, such as the coastal traffic in North Africa. The remaining 800,000 tons is still in the Allied shipping pool and has not been released. Recently enough shipping has been employed, so I am informed, to import 400,000 tons of cocoa into the United States, but no shipping can be found to transport 40,000 tons of cocoa to France which is at present rotting in North Africa. Some hon. Members might say, of what interest are these domestic details? They are a matter of life and death to the French people, a question of whether an individual French man, woman and child has a chance of decent healthy life, or whether he or she has not. I am informed that shipping is found to carry sugar from Mauritius to England, but not to carry sugar from the neighbouring island of Reunion to France.

Vegetable oils are carried from Dakar to England, but not from Dakar to France. A large part of the sugar beet crop is in dumps in Northern France, and a lot of it is deteriorating for lack of lorries to carry it to the refineries. The sugar ration is about ¾lb. per month, when you can get it and that is not always. My fourth contention is that the question for decision is whether we and the United States have taken sufficient remedial measures; while admitting the supreme military needs of the moment, never forgetting that hungry people are never of a discriminatory nature, and that France, Belgium and Holland are democratic countries par excellence. If ordinary people there think that we and the United States have mishandled the food situation for military reasons, the war of liberation will cease to be as popular as it should be and the liberating Powers will fail to get the gratitude that they deserve. That is human nature especially with people who have been submitted to the torture and strain that these freed peoples have. It is no use deploring the result which will occur—we must try to prevent it.

I agree that there is such a thing as high-tension international relationship between Allies; and we ought in this Debate to avoid saying anything which might make the relationship between us and the United States less good than I think it is to-day, but I would earnestly say that there is also a relation between us and the freed countries that is equally important. We must never discriminate between Allies, and say that it would be unwise to say a frank thing about one Ally because that Ally is powerful, but that we can say it about another because it less powerful. The Foreign Secretary, whom I am glad to see here to-day—I understand that he has to leave shortly because of an important engagement—would be the first to agree that we must treat all our Allies on an equalitarian basis, and that it is wrong to say that you should refrain from criticising one Ally but that you may criticise another. It is because I do not want to increase any tension, which I hope does not exist now, between us and our major Ally that I propose to make my speech mainly interrogatory rather than critical.

I want to say a further word about—to use an overworked term—the psychological condition of the Western freed countries. I think it is impossible to exaggerate the mental, physical, and I might say spiritual, strain that these people have gone through. They have these terrible memories of Boche tyranny. There are also bitter hatreds between individuals. Anyone who has gone to these countries knows that it is a common thing, when there is ill-will between neighbours, for one to go to the police to try to get the other arrested, on the ground that he or she was a collaborator; and generally there is the utmost internecine struggle. I do not want to be frivolous, but the term "Fascist" as applied in the one case by the Left to the Right, and the term "Communist" as applied in the other case by the Right to the Left, have become as meaningless as a certain vulgar term in this country. When you use that vulgar term in this country you do not mean that the person about whom you use it practises a certain vice, but that you do not like his face; and when someone is described as a Communist by those on the Right, or as a Fascist by those on the Left, it does not mean that that person is a Communist or a Fascist; but that the other people dislike his political point of view. So long as it goes no further that is a question of politics, but when it means trying to denounce people to the police, and getting them locked up, all civilised democratic life must be brought to an end if that policy is persisted in.

I do not think I am exaggerating when I say that most of those psychological troubles arise not only from the conditions of the occupation, but from the terrible lack of proper vitamins and nutrition for the inhabitants, which has reduced their physical powers and almost abolished their powers of moderation and judgment. I do not want to get on to a subject on which all the House may not agree, but I have a very strong feeling that the conditions in Western Europe are similar to those which my right hon. Friend referred to in Greece—and I supported him in that. What the ordinary people in the Western countries want is food, work at reasonable wages, housing, security for their businesses, freedom to choose their own Governments, and freedom for those Governments, when they are elected, to control the destiny of their countries. Especially important is the question of freedom for a Government to control the destiny of their own country. It is immensely important that the British and United States military authorities should exercise no more control than is necessary for military reasons, because nothing arouses greater suspicion in the freed countries than the idea that this is an occupation not for military reasons but for other reasons. That idea is fantastic: no one in this country or in the United States would attribute such motives to the Higher Command in France; but it is essential to have the minimum of interference, and to see that what interference there is takes the form of allowing the people to have as much transport as possible, and as much freedom of movement for that transport as possible. Deny these conditions, and I am sure that bitter internal hatred will persist. Violent political solutions of an extreme kind, possibly even a dictatorship of the Left or of the Right, will be advocated, and perhaps achieved.

On the all-important subject of food and reasonable means of existence, some very wise words were used by a distinguished former Member of this House, Lord Templewood, at a luncheon the other day. Speaking with all the knowledge and authority gained from his recent post as Ambassador in a European country, he was reported in "The Times" as saying: Unless we made a swift and united effort, Hitler, although broken in the military field, would win in the civil. His would be the last victory, the victory that would count, the victory of destruction. He believed Hitler could only be beaten in this battle by applying in the civil field the strategy that had been so successful in the military—by a war on two fronts, material and moral. On the material front a much more concerted movement was needed than we had to-day. They needed for Europe a supreme commander, an economic Eisenhower, aided by an economic general staff. Unless there was some European personality of the calibre of Nansen after the last war, the machine of Allied administration was now so complicated and the demands on it were so great that relief would continue to arrive too little and too late. I should have thought that those figures which I gave—which I hope the Lord President will be able to deny, but which I fear are authoritative—very strongly supported what the noble Lord said. I would quote someone even more authoritative, a personal friend of mine, with whom I have some slight official personal relationship through his position in U.N.R.R.A. This is what Governor Lehmann, speaking with all the authority that he commands, said in New York on 26th February: It is absolutely essential that U.N.R.R.A. has adequate shipping, adequate supplies, inland transport, and the full co-operation of the Governments concerned in furnishing or distributing supplies. It may be argued—and certainly no one would have any reason to object to it—that our French Allies are not especially good at organisation. The individualism of the French character does not, as a rule, make for good organisation in that country. But for all that, it is the fearful ravages of war, although they may have been superimposed on this characteristic of lack of organisational power in France, which have been mainly responsible for the trouble. As long as there is that lack of transport, as long as there is that lack of food, no country can possibly deal with its black market. Black markets flourish in countries of scarcity. Therefore, it would be no good any hon. Member saying that France should try to deal with the situation. They cannot deal with it until we give them the ships and the wagons. The other day I saw a gentleman who is the first Regional Commissioner in Normandy, and he said: "You may very likely have someone in your House, who has been to Normandy, saying, 'I do not understand what you are talking about. When I was in Normandy I saw plenty of butter in the houses.'" My French official friend said: "That may have been true at the time of the invasion. To-day, in so far as there is any stock there, it cannot be moved where it is wanted." He gave me the figures—I have not got them here, and I shall not attempt to give them, but they were calamitously small—of the number of trucks and lorries placed at his disposal. I was told by someone, whose name I must not give, because he is a serving officer in the British Army, who has special knowledge of the subject, that every word that this distinguished French gentleman told me was true. He said that even in Normandy, unless they got transport before the next harvest, there would be a terrible lack of necessaries; which at the worst might lead to starvation conditions and at the best would lead to a very low nutritional standard for people who have suffered from four years of war in their country.

It is necessary to make one comment, which, I hope, will not be regarded as wounding. I make myself fully re- sponsible for this statement. Unquestionably the situation has been worsened by the confident belief of the military authorities, and presumably of the Governments of the United States and this country, that the war was going to be over earlier than it was. I must not be considered critical of any particular general if I say that the one respect in which the very famous men who lead our Armies are to be distinguished from the great Duke of Wellington—I think that in many respects they are equal to him in capacity—is that the Duke of Wellington never prophesied the end of the war. If people in the freed countries are given to understand that the war will be over by a certain date, it makes the situation worse. I believe that the great Allied Powers have been caught short: they believed that the war would be over sooner than it was, and that is one reason for this lack of transport.

I turn only for a moment to Belgium to say that the situation there is very much the same as in France. In Holland, I am informed on high authority, conditions in the liberated area are good, but in the occupied area they are calamitous. Speaking with all the power of, I would almost say, emotion which I can command, I want the House to realise the frightful conditions in Holland. I really would ask the Allied commanders—and I see no reason why it should not be done—to take note of this fact. Unless they can free Holland, even at some military cost, and at some cost in the time of the ending of the war, hundreds of thousands of Dutchmen will die of starvation in the next six weeks. The decision must rest with the Allied Governments and the Higher Command, but they have to realise that, if Holland remains occupied by the Germans and without help in the next six weeks or two months, hundreds of thousands of people will die of starvation. The information which has reached the Dutch Embassy here beggars description; and, incidentally, when Holland has been freed, it will be a major responsibility of the Allies to supply the food to feed its people.

My last point is this. Where is the food to come from, assuming that we deal with the transport situation? I have been talking mainly of transport. In France, if the transport is available, the question would be largely solved. It would not be so in Holland and it certainly will not be so when it courts to a question of feeding a large number of former enemy civilians as well. Where is it to come from? It is a very big question, perhaps too big to be more than touched upon in this Debate; it requires a Debate in itself. I do not think we can spare any food from here at this moment, but I think the Government might allow something which has been suggested in Questions again and again, and towards which, I do not know why, the Food Minister takes up such a very rigid attitude. It is that friends of France shall be allowed to give up food coupons if those coupons can be used to send food to France. It would be a gesture that would greatly please the French people. It is not a matter to be approached with a rigid, red-tape attitude. I feel that this is something that would please the French people, who may be quick to anger but are equally quick to rise to great gestures.

I am going to mention a matter which I have pondered whether I ought to mention, but I feel I am justified in doing so only because it affects a country, in the shape of the United States, which has been in the very van of humanity and of succour to countries in distress. What that nation has done in famine relief in China through the American Red Cross is one of the most magnificent tales in the history of national philanthropy. Therefore, I do not think that the facts that I am going to mention would be considered by the great bulk of opinion in that country as facts which should not be stated at this Box. I am informed on high authority, which I hope is wrong but which I fear is not, that the U.S. Army rations are about twice those of the British in quantity. They are about four times those of the British civilian, and they are nine or ten times those of the average civilian in France. But what follows is even more striking in contrast.

I understand that, under the Hague Convention, when German prisoners are captured, the private soldier has to be given more or less the same rations as those received by the American G.I. A friend of mine, occupying a very important position, but whose name I cannot mention in this Debate, has said that another friend of his, a very high-ranking officer of the R.A.F., was present in one of the parishes or districts, French districts, on the border-of Germany, which had just been liberated. There had been a fight in the village, in which a number of Free French who had joined up with the American Army took part, and they took a number of German prisoners. There was a scene of great rejoicing, with the Free French shaking the hands of the Americans. Then, their looks turned to blank astonishment and dismay—the looks of the F.F.I., the Maquis, and especially of the children—because they saw those German prisoners being handed out American Army rations and receiving oranges, cigarettes, meat in tins, and everything thing that they themselves had dreamt of but had not seen for four or five years.

I only mention these facts. I do not suggest a remedy. I think it would be out of Order to do so, and it would certainly be tactless; but I think they should be mentioned in the most public way they can be—in this House. If these facts are anything like true, they will make ill-feeling in France, not so much directed against us but against our Allies, which will take years to remove. I know something of rural France, and I know the suspicions which existed in France after the last war. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House will agree that those suspicions were largely founded on the quite wrong belief that we were a wealthy country and had all we wanted, and that we thought the Germans, on the whole, better than the French and always treated the French worse than the Germans in the long run. Nothing could be more calculated to support that belief than this disparity between the rations which the German prisoners get, those which the military of the Allies get and those received by civilians. I am convinced that we shall have to deal with this situation and deal with it drastically. For example, what is going to happen when we go into Germany? Are we to continue to treat the German prisoners in this way? Are the prisoners in the cages to be given all the food they want while the starving population get nothing? This would be the best way of preserving that legend I have mentioned. There is no better way of appealing to an ignorant and gullible population. I call attention to these matters and ask that something should be done about them.