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22 Mar 2000 : Column 242WH

Salerno Mutineers

1 pm

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South): Almost two years ago, a constituent of mine, Bill Bradbrook, contacted me about what he saw as an injustice that occurred in 1943, during the second world war. He thought that now was the time to forgive, and to set the record straight. Mr. Bradbrook contacted me not on his own behalf, but on behalf of his friend, another constituent, Hugh Fraser. Mr. Bradbrook brought his friend to my surgery and I sat and listended to Hugh Fraser's story. It was the story of a young man who had proudly joined the Cameron Highlanders to fight for his country and had risen to the rank of corporal; a young man who had fought bravely with the 8th Army in the desert campaign and was of undoubted high moral integrity. It was the story of a retired man who, despite having achieved much as an inspector of police in Aberdeen, could not shake off a black stain on his character.

As I listened to the story I found myself getting caught up in the events in north Africa and Italy more than 50 years ago. Despite having been a history teacher, this was the first time that I had heard of the mutiny at Salerno, in Italy. Since that day, I have become increasingly fascinated by the events surrounding the largest war-time mutiny in British military history.

What had motivated 191 men all to make the same decision to disobey an order to fall in in a field near Salerno on 20 September 1943? Why had these men, when told that their action constituted mutiny and that mutiny was a capital offence, remained where they were? Why did so many of them do this? Not all of them could have decided that they did not want to fight any more. Surely something must have gone wrong with the line of command for so many men to refuse to obey the same order. The more I have studied the details of what happened to those men, including my constituent, Hugh Fraser, the more convinced I have become that a great injustice was done, which should now be put right. I called for this debate to highlight what happened to those men in 1943, and afterwards, and to ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence to give serious consideration to awarding the men, who were convicted of mutiny, a free pardon.

What went wrong at Salerno? The Highland and Tyne Tees divisions had fought bravely with Montgomery and the 8th Army in north Africa and he promised them that he needed them for only one more action. One reason Montgomery was so successful as a military commander was the loyalty that he generated among his men. As essential part of the north Africa campaign had been the esprit de corps that Montgomery had fostered. If a man was separated from his unit, he was to do everything in his power to get back to it.

When the 8th Army crossed over to Sicily, many of the men were wounded or ill, often with dysentery. After all, they had taken part in the long desert campaign. This group of men who were to become the Salerno mutineers were sent back to hospital in Tripoli. From there they were taken to transit camp 155, which was also in Libya.

During that time, Major-General Douglas Wimberley, who commanded the 51st Highland Division, of which my constituent, Hugh Fraser, was a

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member, visited camp 155 and said that his men should be returned to their units. There is no doubt that the men believed that they would be. This is confirmed by a number of men who were in camp 155 at the time--especially the camp duty sergeant-major, Sergeant-Major Green who gave evidence for the defence in the subsequent court martial. My constituent remembers Green telling him that he would be going back to his own unit.

In the belief that they were to rejoin their units, the men agreed to join the draft that was called on 14 September 1943. They did not know exactly where their units were; they knew only that they were somewhere in Italy. No one told them that they were going anywhere else: their true destination was kept secret.

Where were the men going? At the time, things were not going well for the American 5th Army in Salerno, so reinforcements were sent for, and three light cruisers dispatched. The American commander had expected the reinforcements to come from what was then Philippeville, in Algeria, which was the official reinforcement camp for Salerno, and also the closest.

There was some confusion over signals and a draft was called at camp 155 instead. The men from the Highland and Tyne Tees divisions readily volunteered, even though many of them were far from fully recovered from their wounds or illnesses. These were the men who had fought so bravely along with Montgomery and they believed that they were rejoining their comrades-in-arms. At no time were they told that they were rejoining the 46th division that was fighting alongside the US 5th Army at Salerno.

Montgomery did not know what was happening to his men either. He wrote on 10 April 1944 to Sir Ronald Adam, the Army's senior administrative officer, saying that, had he been consulted, he would have said no. Montgomery was angry and blamed the whole confusion on Major-General Charles Miller, the man in charge of Army administration in Africa, whom he described as

The first that the men knew of their true destination was off the coast of Italy when the message came over the ship's Tannoy system. Many of the men did not believe what they were hearing. They had been told that they were to join their own units. When the men disembarked, the new recruits who had accompanied them were marched away and the veterans of the 8th Army were herded into a nearby field. There they stayed for three days. The men at this time were convinced that if they only stuck together, someone, somewhere, would realise that there had been an administrative error and sort it out. They genuinely believed that right was on their side and that good sense would prevail. Unfortunately, it did not.

After another two days they were told to parade. That was on 20 September 1943. The corps commander, Lieutenant-General Richard McCreery arrived and admitted that there had been, in his words, "a cock-up" which he would sort out when the men joined the new unit. He said that there could be no compromise and that they had to obey orders. If they disobeyed it would be mutiny, which was a capital offence. The order was

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then given. The men were told to pick up their kit and fall in by Captain Albert Lee. The order was repeated three times. Some of the men moved off the field at that time, but 191 did not. They knew that they had disobeyed an order in wartime. They knew that that could be construed as mutiny but they did not feel that they were mutineers. They were not refusing to fight. They just wanted to fight with their own comrades.

All 191 were placed under arrest and marched to a nearby prisoner of war camp. By that time, ironically, the reinforcements were no longer needed at Salerno, as the crisis had passed, but it had not passed for the 191. The mutineers were shipped back to Africa where they were held in a prison near Constantine in Algeria for five weeks before their trial. The whole affair had been an embarrassment for the British Army and so was kept very hush hush.

On 22 October 1943, the defence team for the mutineers met at Constantine for the first time. Captain Hugh Quennell took control. They had six days to prepare a defence, which was an impossible task. They did not even have time to interview the men. Moreover, as this was at least a month after the men had been arrested, they did not know how ill many of the men had been at the time of their arrest.

The court martial opened on 29 October in the gymnasium of the local French school, the only place big enough to hold all the defendants. The men were each given a number to hang round their necks to identify them; my constituent, Hugh Fraser, was given the number 111. The transcript of the trial has only recently been released and it shows that it proved impossible for the defence team to call the witnesses that it needed, as many of the men were then on active duty. Those witnesses would have spoken up for the men and proved that they were following orders in insisting that they should return to their own units. The only witness called was Sergeant-Major Green from camp 155, who confirmed that the men had been told that they were returning to their own units; that there was an order from GHQ, which confirmed that; and that the men had not had the necessary medical to determine their fitness to return to active duty.

The trial lasted for five days, but not one of the mutineers was called to the witness stand. Even so, they were found guilty. As a corporal, Hugh Fraser was kept in solitary confinement and passed his time--when he was not breaking rocks--reading the New Testament and polishing his mess tin, which he says became the shiniest in the British Army. On 15 November he was told his sentence: 10 years' penal servitude, and to be reduced to the ranks. He could not believe what he had heard.

The next day, 16 November, the three sergeants involved in the mutiny found out their fate: they were sentenced to death. Luckily, two weeks later, that was commuted to 12 years' hard labour. However, fortunately for the mutineers, on 15 November, Adjutant-General Sir Ronald Adam, the second most senior man in the British Army, arrived in north Africa. He asked to see the papers relating to the mutiny. He was horrified by what he read and demanded that the men be released. Their sentences were therefore suspended, but the men's misery did not end there. They were released but were sent to join the units they had refused to join in September. Many were treated

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harshly, and 80 of them subsequently absconded. That fact has been used in the past by the Ministry of Defence to refuse the men a free pardon. John McFarlane was one of those men and he was stripped of the medal that he won before the mutiny for his bravery in the desert campaign. Unfortunately, he is now dead, but that he absconded twice has been given as the reason to his family why his medal cannot be reinstated. I pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Mr. Roy) who raised John McFarlane's case with the Minister.

My constituent, Hugh Fraser, was not one of the abscondees. Even so, he still says:

Most of the research into the events leading up to and after the mutiny at Salerno was conducted by the historian Saul David, and I recommend his book "Mutiny at Salerno--an injustice exposed" to anyone who is interested in the subject.

In January this year, Saul David submitted new evidence to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence from Eric Griffin, who came across two men, whom he called the Tunis mutineers, in the summer of 1944 when he was serving as a clerk to the command psychiatrist, Major O'Hanlon, based in Naples. There is no doubt that the two men were Salerno mutineers. The men's commanding officer had been told that the mutineers' original sentences had been commuted to continuous duty in the front line and, as his unit was being taken out of the line for a rest, so these men could not go with them, he sent them to the psychiatric unit. There is no such punishment in British military history; but if that unofficial vindictiveness was widespread, it is little wonder that the men absconded, as they had been left with little choice.

I shall sum up the reasons why the men who disobeyed an order on that fateful day of 20 September 1943 now deserve a free pardon. They should never have been in Salerno; they were the wrong men from the wrong transit camp. The men genuinely believed that they were lied to about their destination. It is certainly true that those officers who knew that they were going to join the 46th division did not tell the men before embarkation.

The men should not have been put in the position where they had to decide whether to obey the order to fall in or not. Sir Richard McCreery admitted that there had been an error. He should have sorted it out and not insisted that the men joined the new units, especially as, by that time, they had lost faith in the officers who were dealing with them. The men may have disobeyed one order, but they believed that they were carrying out the orders of the one commander whom they trusted, the one who had led them through the desert campaign--General Montgomery. He had told them that, come what may, they were to try to get back to their own units at all costs. The court martial was not thorough in its investigation and the defence was cursory in the extreme.

New evidence now suggests that the men were victimised subsequently in their new units and forced to stay on active front-line service, even when the new units

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were given leave. Perhaps that helps to explain why so many men absconded. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will carefully consider the evidence that I have presented to him and that he will reach the same conclusion as me: that the time has come to make reparation for the injustice that was done to the Salerno mutineers. I am asking for a free pardon, not to say that the men were innocent--they all admit that they disobeyed an order in wartime--but to allow them or their families to collect their campaign medals.

The men were not cowards. They did not refuse to fight. It is time for the Army to put its embarrassment at the sorry incident behind it and admit that the men were victims of a failure of command and should not have been put in such a situation. We all like to think that, when tested, we will stand up for our principles. That is what men such as my constituent, Hugh Fraser, did. I shall leave the last words to him, a man who, after the war, rose to the rank of inspector of police, a man of undoubted high moral integrity. He said:

1.17 pm

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. John Spellar ): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) on securing a debate on a matter that has aroused the sympathy of many hon. Members over the years. The events surrounding the Salerno mutiny of 1943 have been carefully examined by the legal authorities and the Ministry of Defence, including Ministers, on several occasions. The examinations included consideration of points raised by hon. Members as well as several researchers, particularly in the past 20 years.

Many misunderstandings and erroneous claims surround the Salerno mutiny. Let it be understood at the outset that there is not, and never has been, any suggestion by the authorities that the men were cowards or traitors. Nor was the value of their previous service or strong regimental and divisional loyalty ever denied or ignored by the authorities. Nevertheless, I must refer to the key point that has been overlooked in many discussions on the subject. It has long been a basic tenet of military life--it was during the second world war, and it is today--that a solider has no defence in military law that allows him to choose which lawful orders he will obey and which he will not. My hon. Friend mentioned the letter of 10 April from General Montgomery, who wrote:

In September 1943, after an opposed landing on the Italian mainland at Salerno, the allies had gained a precarious foothold. The main British element of the 5th Army force consisted of the 46th and 56th divisions that were not part of the 8th Army. However, fierce German resistance inflicted heavy casualties, primarily on the infantry and General Alexander, the senior commander, arranged for several drafts of infantry reinforcements to be moved as quickly as possibly to Salerno. Among those was a draft of 1,500 men moved on 15 September by Royal Navy warships from a transit camp at Tripoli, holding primarily 8th Army soldiers awaiting posting. Among that draft were, as my hon. Friend said, some

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300 men formerly with two 8th Army formations, the 50th Northumbrian and 51st Highland divisions. Those two divisions were resting in Sicily and had been earmarked soon to return to the UK to prepare for the D-Day landings in June 1944.

The use of those men from Tripoli was not, as is often claimed, an administrative error by the staff at higher headquarters. Contemporary signals show that the relevant headquarters was made aware that those reinforcements from Tripoli would include men previously with 8th Army formations in Sicily, rather than men already earmarked for the 5th Army, who could not be moved in time.

Miss Begg : I do not know whether my hon. Friend agrees, but there is evidence that there were conflicting signals that day. One signal was apparently sent to what was then Philippeville, and another to camp 155. That confusion resulted in the Salerno mutineers volunteering for a draft for which they should not have been asked to volunteer; there were already plenty of men at Philippeville and they, in normal circumstances, would have been called to assist the 46th division.

Mr. Spellar : My hon. Friend points to evidence that, contrary to what I described, there was an order from headquarters to transfer those troops. Areas of confusion often arise in such circumstances. The key issue, to which I hope to come if there is time, is that when a matter is resolved by a legitimate order, it is not within the duties of soldiers to resist and refuse it.--[Interruption.] My hon. Friend may intervene, but I will not be able to go through the whole case.

Miss Begg : Will my hon. Friend confirm that the men of the 8th Army, of the Highland and Northumbrian divisions, need not have volunteered for that draft?

Mr Spellar : As I said, headquarters ordered the movement of troops because of an emergency in Salerno and heavy casualties taken by the infantry division; other units that might have been used were not thought to be able to get there in time, and there was therefore a legitimate order for the troops to be transported. Indeed, such cross-posting of men to new units and formations was justifiable, lawful and not at all uncommon in emergencies.

Miss Begg: How common was it, in such cross-transfers, for men to be returned to active duty after an illness without a medical examination to determine their fitness?

Mr. Spellar : I could go into the research on those areas, but we are dealing with a military emergency, an invasion of Italy, unexpected but heavy losses at Salerno and the order to send in reinforcements. My hon. Friend reiterated the usual allegation that the men were misled about their destination and did not know where they were going. I am sure that hon. Members will understand that operational security meant--and often mean--that the destination of an emergency draft was not announced so that only a handful of more senior

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people in the camp actually knew. That is standard security procedure. Until the destination was announced during the voyage to Salerno, some men assumed that they were returning to their units.

Much emphasis has been placed on whether the men were needed when they arrived. The mutineers' testimony shows that, even while at sea, when they had no knowledge of the situation at Salerno, there was already a conspiracy to refuse to serve there.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that German attacks peaked on 16 September. However, commanders had to plan for the continuing, immediate threat. A further important factor often overlooked is that such had been the casualties among the British infantry that non-infantry troops from the Royal Engineers and the beach administration companies at Salerno were already fighting at the front as infantry. Even on 16 September, a further 400 Royal Artillerymen were posted as temporary infantry reinforcements. Clearly, replacements for the non-infantrymen in the front-line were needed, and these non-infantry troops were needed to resume their normal tasks. The inevitable difficulties of operating a beachhead under attack had been exacerbated by their removal, which might explain some of the feelings of chaos among the new arrivals.

After landing at Salerno on 16 September, some 1,200 of the 1,500 reinforcements went, without any protest, to join the troops at the front. The remaining 300, largely from the 50th and 51st divisions, refused to move, saying they would serve only with their own units and divisions.

As the men's refusal became clear, the operational situation was explained to them a number of times, but to no avail. The men were personally addressed by the corps commander, who explained why they were needed. He was aware of their grievance at being cross-posted, so he promised that, provided that they complied with current necessary orders, they would be given the opportunity to re-join their previous units once the emergency was over. There is evidence that that promise was kept.

Finally, a formal parade was held at which an explanation was again given of the seriousness of the 300 men continuing on the same course, including the reading of the relevant parts of the applicable legislation. About 100 of the group obeyed the commands and joined units at Salerno. However, 192 stood fast and refused to obey the orders. They were again told of the serious nature of the crime of mutiny, and were allowed time for further reflection before the order was repeated. As my hon. Friend suggested, those who failed to comply were arrested and subsequently charged with mutiny at a court martial at the allied base in north Africa.

It shall speak about the conduct of the court martial and the actions of the defence team. Eleven extenuating circumstances were properly presented. No evidence was submitted by the defending officers to say that the men had been unfit to fight by the operational standards of the time, nor did the men choose to give evidence themselves and be cross-examined. The court subsequently found all but a few of the men guilty of mutiny.

The court heard all the defence statements of

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extenuating circumstances in mitigation before passing sentence; they reflected the responsibility expected according to rank. Three sergeants were initially sentenced to death, but that was subsequently commuted to 12 years' imprisonment; the corporals received sentences of 10 years and the remainder received sentences of seven years. However, all sentences were subsequently formally suspended, thus offering the men a chance to redeem themselves; the sentence would be activated only if there was later misconduct.

The conviction for mutiny led to the loss of campaign medals but no gallantry medals were forfeited automatically on conviction. Of the two military medals held, only one was forfeited later, following the subsequent conviction of the holder for another offence.

Following suspension of sentence, the men were posted to other units in the Mediterranean theatre. Retaining the men there, rather than posting them back to their own units--by then in the United Kingdom--was lawful and probably understandable. It could hardly be expected that men who had broken military law should be allowed to achieve the objective of their unlawful action, and the bonus of a return to the UK.

We fully understand the strong loyalties to former units felt by the men, but, as General Montgomery suggested, those could not override lawful orders based on operational necessities and did not give them the right to mutiny. General Montgomery was in no doubt: he could not condone their action in refusing, when called upon, to provide operationally necessary reinforcements for the battlefield. The inescapable fact remains that the men mutinied on active service in the battlefield. By any account, that is a serious offence. To grant a pardon for that offence would be a disservice to the many men, including other 8th Army veterans, who obeyed orders, whether they liked them or not, and fought on. It would be a particular slight to those who gave their lives as a result.

Many who took part in the mutiny--

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody) : Order.

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