Foreign Affairs

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:04 pm on 7th April 1987.

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Photo of Lieut-Colonel David Mather Lieut-Colonel David Mather , Esher 6:04 pm, 7th April 1987

I hope that the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) will forgive me if I do not follow his line of argument, because I am on a slightly different tack. I think that this afternoon is an opportunity to try to look at some of the origins of the problems that we face today in foreign affairs. My right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary said that, in common with the Russians, we should think long, and I believe that we should think longer than we usually do. Therefore, I make no apology for going back in time to consider some of the problems.

First, may I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary on their extremely successful visit to Moscow. There has been a great change of atmosphere between ourselves and the Soviet Union, indeed between the West and the Soviet Union, and that change has been greatly enhanced by this recent visit. I believe that we are witnessing the biggest change in atmosphere in the postwar period. I can think of no other period when we were involved in such dialogue with Russia other than the year of 1944 when we were allies with the Soviet Union, and the Germans and their collaborators were our enemies.

Of course, things changed in 1945 when we began to see the true nature of the Russian bear. We learnt this at the Yalta conference when we were trying to deal with the intractable problems of the reoccupation of Germany by the allied powers, free elections in Poland and the repatriation of our prisoners, both Russian and British. I wish to dwell on the problem of repatriation for a few moments because that problem has not gone away.

The reasons why it was so important for us to come to an agreement at Yalta were, above all, that we had 50,000 allied prisoners in Russian hands. We also had a continuing war with Japan, which looked likely to continue for another two years—it was important to have the Russians on our side—and there were vast problems in Germany and the occupied territories. There were millions of emaciated people in Germany and Austria whom we were trying to feed as well as vast numbers of refugees and large numbers of displaced persons—Poles, Hungarians and so on.

Then, the urgent problem was to repatriate the people hack to their homelands while we had enough food for them. I had experience of this because I was with the northern armies and was liaison officer to Montgomery. I was working on those problems, visiting the camps and trying to report on how we would repatriate all the people. It was an immense problem.

In the north there were 20 million Germans and displaced people to look after and to feed. Housing had been destroyed and the standard of health was low. There were 2·5 million German prisoners of war and 1 million displaced persons—Russians, Poles, Hungarians and so on. In West Berlin alone there were 3 million people whom we had to feed, not from the hinterland, but from the western zone of Germany. There was one policy alone—everyone must go home. It was the same in Austria.

In addition to such problems, we were faced by the frightening attitude adopted by the Soviet Union under the leadership of Stalin. At that time our future was indeed precarious. In the biography of Eden written by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mr. Rhodes James) Churchill is reported as saying that the situation was more dangerous in 1945 than it was in 1939.

By far the most important factor in our discussions was, of course, the prisoners—the return of our prisoners to us and vice versa in the case of the Russians. My noble Friend Lord Barber wrote an interesting letter. He was a prisoner of war in Russian hands in East Germany, overrun by the Russians. He made an important point which was reported in a debate in the House of Lords in 1976. He was a member of an air crew which had been captured. His letter said: We realised at the time that we were being kept as hostages until the return of the Russians, who had been liberated by the British. If the Government had refused to return the Russians, I do not doubt that most of us would have accepted our unhappy lot as being a necessary consequence of the aftermath of war! That was a noble sentiment, but it did not wash at home. It would not have been in accordance with British public opinion at the time when the main desire was to get everyone back home. That is the background to events in Austria in 1945.

My first contact in Normandy after we landed on D plus one was, strangely enough, with a Cossack unit. They were among the first German troops that I met. I was having my breakfast. They were more surprised at seeing me than I was at seeing them. Those were the people with whom we were faced in many of the German units.

Under the Yalta agreement we repatriated about 45,000 Wehrmacht Cossacks to the Soviet Union. Inevitably, White Russians were included in those numbers. If we had not maintained the Yalta agreement we would have been in dire trouble. At the same time, major units of Russians and Ukranians were spirited away—the Ukranian division of some 10,000 men and the White Russians Schutz Corps of some 4,500 men.

That has been the subject of two books by Mr. Nicholas Tolstoi which contain some pathetic stories. But untold so far have been the successful efforts by anonymous pimpernels to thwart the Soviet intentions and free those people to the West. I have no personal axe to grind in this, but I should like to see historical justice done. Tolstoi, in his book, "Minister and the Massacres", accuses the then Minister resident in those parts, Harold Macmillan, of conspiring to send those people to their deaths. That is the clear implication of what he said.

There is plenty of opinion by the author in that book, but very little hard fact. It casts a slur on the War Cabinet of those days and on the commanders and staff in the field as well as on our allies who were in full agreement with the policy. I utterly reject the theory that the late Lord Stockton was involved in a devious plot.

What was the outcome? Stalin insisted upon his pound of flesh and we had to send the Soviet citizens back. Many of them were shot or perished in the gulags. There were no free elections in Poland, as we had agreed, and many of the smaller old European countries were swallowed up by Stalin.

But this last outcome, in particular, could have been avoided. Unfortunately, there was a dispute between the British and the Americans about our policy in the final stages of advance. The Americans favoured a broad front advance and we favoured a narrow one, as advocated by Montgomery. I am convinced that we could have been in Berlin by Christmas 1944 if we had adhered to the narrow front strategy. As it was, we halted and waited for the Russians to move up. We could also have occupied Czechoslovakia. I remember being sent to Czechoslovakia in 1946 by Montgomery to see the commander there. I talked to the people and I remember how fearful they were of being swallowed up by the Russians, as, indeed, they were. If we had continued with our advance, Europe would have been a different place today.

There are two more cautionary tales that I would like to tell and they concern the middle east. The Attlee Government ordered the evacuation of Palestine in October 1947. It was to be evacuated by May the following year. I and my chums who were there were told to pack up and go home. We had been keeping the peace there and we were astounded by that drastic and ill-considered decision.

As it turned out, the Arabs did not see off the Jews. The Jews were trained for war because they had been fighting us, and the Arabs, unfortunately, were seen off and lost their lands. That has set off a kind of political Chernobyl, whose noxious fumes are still poisoning the world today. We have only to look at worldwide terrorism, events in the Lebanon and the rising of the Arab Jihad to see what a pot we stirred up in those days.

My final tale concerns the events in the Persian gulf a few years ago. When the Conservative Government came to power in 1970 it was virtually a fait accompli that we had to leave the Persian gulf. That had been decided by the previous Labour Government. I want to ask some rhetorical questions to which there are no answers, but they should still be considered.

If we had retained our presence in the Persian gulf and had been in communion with the Arab rulers who were friendly towards us, would the oil crisis have taken quite the same form that it took? Would OPEC have arisen in the form that it did? Would the Shah have fallen if we had been there to hold his hand? Would the American hostages have been taken by the following Government? Would, indeed, the Iran-Iraq war have taken place?

I hope that recounting those experiences gives some clues to the problems that we are facing today. This is, in a way, my maiden speech, but, in case it is also my valedictory one, I wanted to put that on the record.