Orders of the Day — Defence

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 1st August 1961.

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Photo of Mr George Wigg Mr George Wigg , Dudley 12:00 am, 1st August 1961

It was not only a previous Session, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, but a previous Parliament. This took place several Parliaments back. I am quoting from a speech made on 9th May, 1957. I am sorry if you thought that I was seeking to breach the rules of order. I have consulted Erskine May on the subject.

On 9th May, 1957, the House of Lords was debating the 1957 White Paper. This is what Lord Tedder had to say on the subject of a British supersonic transport aircraft in relation to the White Paper: I believe that no British supersonic manned bomber means, quite literally, no British supersonic civil aircraft."—,[OFFICIAL REPORT, House of Lords, 9th May, 1957; Vol. 203, c. 588.] Perhaps the greatest criticism of our civilisation is that we can renovate and keep up to date our basic industries only through preparation for war, and that as soon as we in the West start to think in terms of disarmament and the redeployment of our labour force through cutting down arms we get into an economic crisis. If it be true—here I accept the evidence of Lord Tedder—that there can be no supersonic civil transport aircraft because there is no bomber, it is a very grievous state of affairs. I mention it because that speech four years ago is now forgotten. In the course of what I have to say I want to relate, broadly speaking, the current happenings which interest me to the 1957 White Paper and what actually exists at present.

The next subject on which I want to touch is the operation in Kuwait. Again I have earned the strictures of the hon. Member for Stroud in commenting on it. He said he thought that I was unfair or was making much of the difficulties of the Army. I do not complain, but it seems to me to be a totalitarian argument. That is the reason why I refer to it now, not because I think it important but because every hon. Member, particularly on this side of the House, finds himself whenever he criticises the Armed Services exposed to the charge from the other side of in some way being disloyal. When I criticise the Armed Forces I am criticising the Minister—not those serving in the Army and not the Army. I would not appeal to the hon. Gentleman's generosity in asking him to believe that the last thing I would wish to do would be to harm the Army, but if he believes in our democracy really deep down, I ask him to refrain from that kind of argument, not because it hurts me—I can look after myself—but other hon. Members may find it a little difficult to meet his gibes and the gibes of his hon. Friends when they criticise the actions of the Service Departments.

Let us look in some detail at the Kuwait operation. The first and most remarkable thing about it is the similarity in treatment by my right hon. Friends between this issue and Suez and Jordan. As to the debâcle of Suez, we had the dispatches of General Keithley published in September, 1957. I tried unremittingly to get a debate on those dispatches, because they revealed, in General Keithley's words, a serious shortage of tank landing ships and transport aircraft. I was unsuccessful. Finally, I had to raise the subject on the Adjournment at the end of 1958.

In the case of Jordan the situation was precisely the same. We crawled into Jordan and were sustained there by American transport aircraft. We had gone into Suez with an American antitank weapon because our own was no good, and we went into Jordan with the 106 mm. gun.

Here we go into Kuwait in the early part of July, and, despite all the pressure—I raised the question on many occasions—again we had no debate. I should have thought that it was absolutely fundamental that when we were engaged in circumstances which might lead to war, to a conflagration on a very large scale, one of the first actions should be that the Government should be answerable not only to the House of Commons but to the public in general. This did not happen.

I have done some researches into this business, and I must confess that I am a little amazed. Let us deal with the start of the position itself. On 3rd July the Prime Minister came to the House and made a statement which was cordially received by my right hon. Friends. What he said was this: On 29th and 30th June, evidence accumulated from a number of sources that reinforcements, especially reinforcements of armour, were moving towards Basra In these circumstances, the Ruler felt it his duty to make a formal urgent request for British assistance under the exchange of Notes. This he did on the morning of 30th June. Later in his statement the Prime Minister came back again to this important date. He said: What we had to do on Friday was to decide whether to take certain action which, I hope, will lead to the Government of Iraq having second thoughts."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 3rd July, 1961; Vol. 643, c. 1006–12.] I invite the attention of the House to the first words used by the Prime Minister. He said that reinforcements of armour were moving towards Basra. I should have thought that that meant—it certainly meant that to me at the time—that there was armour in the vicinity of Basra, that if it was moving towards Basra it was somewhere near there, and Basra would be the point of deployment if an attack was to be made upon Kuwait. If I am wrong about this, I invite hon. Gentleman on either side to interrupt me, but that is honestly what I thought it meant.

I then put down a Question to the Minister of Defence asking him for some more information about Kuwait, but I did not get it. Again I am not complaining about his treatment of me or the way in which it was done, but on 11th July, the Minister of Defence came to the House on what was not his day, and answered Question No. 69 at the end of Questions. We had four columns of supplementary questions and replies, and then the right hon. Gentleman said that he would be circulating the rest of it in the OFFICIAL REPORT.

When I read it the next day the first thing that struck me was that the Minister's statement about General Kassem's statement on 28th June was wrong. Again, in my humility, I felt that perhaps he was right, and I made a prolonged search to find out what was said on 28th June, but I could not find anything.

I would draw attention to the words used by the Minister of Defence. He did not talk about reinforcements near Basra. He moved away from that. There is no definite statement at all. He said: It was decided, in the light of indications that Iraqi forces in the Basra area"— I emphasise those words— were being reinforced with tanks … "[OFFICIAL REPORT, 11th July, 1961; Vol. 644, c. 214.] Again I assumed, as I had assumed from the Prime Minister's statement, that there was a reinforcement here which was threatening the Kuwait border.

I continued my researches. I got hold of a copy of the statement which was issued by the Kuwait delegation to the United Nations, an official document issued by the Kuwait authorities. This said: The threat was manifest and menacing, leaving no shadow of doubt that an immediate and forceful annexation was intended. That referred to General Kassem's statement of 25th June. It went on: In the last week of June reports were received from many sources of preparations being made to move units and a tank regiment from Baghdad to Shaiba …"— That is, over 500 miles— … an area near to Basra, and Basra is only a few miles from the border of Kuwait. A further piece of evidence came from Mr. Ian Colvin a distinguished correspondent whose reporting is first class. I have never met him. On Saturday, 22nd July, he said that he had been to Basra and wrote: … for 20 miles at least behind the border there is nowhere that armour or motorised troops could be hidden or housed. Roads and all approaches to the front are bare and open.Among the Britons in Basra I have not found one who has seen tank transporters in the past month. So the story told by the Prime Minister begins to wear a little thin. Let us go on a bit. Of course, the Prime Minister always has a little bit of luck. I was delighted that my right hon. Friend the Member for Belper (Mr. G. Brown) took up a point which I had made in the New Statesman a fortnight ago. How fortunate it was that H.M.S. "Bulwark" happened to be not in Singapore but in Karachi in the week during which all this happened. It is not widely known that "Bulwark" missed the tide, but she sailed on Thursday, before the events. Even then it would have been nine hours earlier had it not been for an odd happening.

That, again, is not the whole story however. I know little of technical things except for what I pick up. But I am certain that even the present Secretary of State for Air could not find a magic carpet to lift a "Centurion" tank by air. Yet on the morning of 1st July, as if by magic, "Centurions" were in Kuwait. Let me not rely here upon my own evidence. The Sunday Pictorial correspondent reported on 10th July that he had been told that some of the tanks were in Kuwait all the time, waiting for crews. That is not my information however. The "Centurions" came from a squadron of the Royal Armoured Corps in Aden, and I should have thought that the tanks were being pedalled backwards and forwards from Aden to Bahrain.

I think that two tank landing ships were involved—the "Empire Glow" and the "Striker". I am prepared to believe that, by a stroke of luck, there were tank landing ships in Bahrain, but here are reports which do not suggest that the Prime Minister was lucky. In this particular week not only were the ships there but lots of tanks as well. These are fortuitous happenings which, on investigation, do not stand up.

The matter is clear if one examines it. I learned my geography the hard way. I know the distance from Basra to Bagdad because I have walked it. I know that one cannot fly from Cyprus to Bahrain unless one over-flies Turkey and Iran. I was pretty sure that these Beverleys, with their very high payloads which fall sharply if one asks them for too much, did not fly round the corner but over Saudi Arabia. I put down a Question asking for the time and dare on which permission was given by the Iranian and Saudi Governments to fly over their territory.

In the case of Iran, I am quite prepared to believe that permission was given, because we are on close and cordial terms with the Iranians. But we have had no relations with Saudi Arabia since Suez. I believe, however, that the Beverleys over-flew Saudi territory. Again, this matter had a chequered history. My Question was passed to the Foreign Office. The Answer was "No". Yet I would have thought that, if everything had been straight and above board, the Government would not have been afraid to answer.

I also asked for the times and dates of sailing of the "Bulwark" from Karachi and of the Centurions from Aden. I was told that it would not be in the public interest to give that information about the Centurions, but the Government gave me the information about the "Bulwark"—because I could have got it from Lloyds, and they could not very well withhold it from me.

So much for the operation. I am mystified. I can have a guess about it, but I shall not guess because I am not sure. I can only recall the facts in this House and point out that something needs explaining. I should have thought that on such a matter—remembering that we are still committed—the Government would be only too anxious to give information. We have managed to drag out of them information about the cost. It was £1 million. I asked the Lord Privy Seal how much the Ruler of Kuwait, who has £400 million in London, contributed to the operation. The answer was that the right hon. Gentleman had nothing to add to his statement.

I suggested that the operation was not quite the success that the Press had made it out to be—and I rightly pay tribute here to the Prune Minister's public relations department, including his chief public relations officer, the Minister of Defence. Let us see what happened. Involved were 7,000 troops and 700 tons of stores. I want now to recall the American operation in the early part of this year, which I referred to during debate on the Air Estimates. It was called "Operation Big Slam". The Americans thought that it was a failure, and there were bitter complaints about it, because they could only lift 11,000 tons of stores. The reason why we could not lift stores in Kuwait or to anywhere else at that distance is because we have not got a long distance freighter. This is another by-product of the 1957 White Paper.

In "Operation Starlight" the amount we lifted by air was derisory. Yet we find the Minister of Defence claiming that everything in the garden is lovely. I do not think that it is. I happen to have a letter written by the Minister of Defence, not to me—he does not give information to me—but to one of his constituents. The right hon. Gentleman did not know to whom he was writing. I shall not reveal the name of the person concerned, but the letter is signed with the right hon. Gentleman's own fair name. He wrote: If we had to mount a large operation today it could be done almost entirely by air. Does any hon. Member, including the Minister himself, believe that statement? Does any hon. Member believe that we could mount a major operation today entirely by air? Of course not. Nor shall we be able to do so for many years. In May last year—again with only a handful of hon. Members present—I raised the question of the Britannia, which was "soaped" across the British public. To start with, the aircraft was called the Britannic because the present Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations—then the Minister responsible—regarding his fellow countrymen as "suckers", wanted to convey the impression that the derivation was from the Britannia, although one was a low wing and the other a high wing aircraft. It did not get very far, but last year ten were ordered. None of them has flown. They will not fly until next year, and then only if they are lucky. Does the House know what the Royal Air Force already calls this plane? They call it the "Short Harland Saviour", because without it Short Harland would have gone bust. They will cost between £2¾ million and £3 million each. It is a turbo-prop aircraft. It is out of date today, before it ever takes off into the air. The project was only entered into because it suited the Government's political book to have a number of aircraft built as a kind of sop to Northern Ireland, regardless of the defence consequences to this country.

Basically what was revealed by Kuwait was that without something like the Belfast we can do nothing. The plane is now called the Belfast. That is presumably because it is hoped that we shall forget its earlier names. Until the Belfast comes along we can do nothing. It is not only a question of the shortage of transporter aircraft.