EXTRACT FROM HOUSE OF COMMONS SITTINGS IN THE U.K. CONCERNING THE FIVE RAF HANSARD AIRCRAFT SHOT DOWN
MAY 11, 1949
HANSARD 1803–2005 → 1940s → 1949 → May 1949 → 11 May 1949 → Commons Sitting → ORAL ANSWERS TO QUESTIONS
ISRAEL (ATTACKED BRITISH AIRCRAFT)
§ Statement issued in London on 8th January of the circumstances in which five British aircraft were shot down over Egyptian territory on 7th January, 1949.
During the last few days, R.A.F. aircraft from the Canal Zone have been carrying out reconnaissances to ascertain the depth and scale of Jewish incursion into Egyptian territory. These reconnaissances have been strictly confined to the Egyptian side of the frontier.
On the morning of 7th January, two formations, one of four R.A.F. Spitfires, and one of a single Mosquito escorted by four Tempests, which were on reconnaissance inside the Egyptian Frontier, were attacked by Jewish fighters and the four Spitfires failed to return from the mission. A few hours later, a further air reconnaissance force, despatched to obtain information as to the fate of the missing Spitfires, was also attacked by Jewish aircraft and one Tempest has been reported missing.
The R.A.F. aircraft in question had strict orders not to cross the frontier into 1824 Palestine. The pilot who was the leader of the Spitfires reported he was attacked 15 miles inside Egyptian territory and compelled to bale out. He was wounded and was picked up by a Bedouin near Bir Gabr Amir approximately 15 miles West of Rafah.
Our aircraft had been under strict orders to avoid combat. In view of these unprovoked attacks, our aircraft have now been instructed to regard as hostile any Jewish aircraft encountered over Egyptian territory.
JANUART 19 1949
HANSARD 1803–2005 → 1940s → 1949 → January 1949 →
§ VISCOUNT SWINTON
§ I now turn to Palestine. We await with anxious interest any further information which the Government can give us about events in Palestine. If there are matters 33 in regard to which the Government are open to criticism, that in no way palliates or excuses the attack which was made by Jewish airmen upon British aircraft. I want to deal with that episode. I will assume, as I think the Government have stated, that the British aircraft which were attacked were flying inside Egyptian territory—though how a pilot flying along an undefined frontier in the desert is to know for certain on which side of the frontier he is I find it difficult to understand, unless there are obvious landmarks—and very obvious landmarks—along his whole line of flight. I think, however, that a good deal of further explanation is required as to whether it was necessary or wise to send British aircraft on a reconnaissance along the Egyptian frontier at all; and certainly as to why, if such an expedition was to be sent, it was not sent in much greater force.
§ On the facts at our disposal, it appears to me that the right people to conduct reconnaissance, whether by land or by air in or adjoining the Negev and its frontier, were the United Nations. I know that the Jews had refused to allow the United Nations' observers access to that territory, but surely the right course in that event was for the representatives of His Majesty's Government on the Security Council to press that the Council itself should use its collective influence and insist upon the observers of U.N.O. exercising their rights. If we had been requested by the Security Council to undertake this reconnaissance, that would have been a very different matter. We should then have been acting as the agents of U.N.O., and the Jewish Government would have been notified to that effect.
§ I think it is important at this stage, too, that I should ask whether His Majesty's Government did in fact notify the Jewish authorities of their intention to make this reconnaissance. But, even if it be insisted that in the face of Jewish resistance to the directions of the United Nations it was desirable for the British Government to undertake the reconnaissance themselves, there can be no excuse for sending an inadequate force for this purpose. It was well known to His Majesty's Government that, again in breach of the United Nations' ruling, large reinforcements in aircraft and 34 skilled airmen had been sent from Czechoslovakia to Palestine. It was equally well known, for His Majesty's Government had frequently complained about it, that Jewish forces had disregarded the United Nations' ruling, had recommenced hostilities in the Negev and had violated Egyptian territory. In those circumstances, if the Government were going to order the Royal Air Force to undertake a reconnaissance, not as agents of U.N.O. but on their own, then the Government ought surely to have directed that this operation should be conducted by a force of aircraft so strong as to deter any aggressive attack—or at any rate to ensure that if such an attack did take place it would be overwhelmingly defeated.
§ My Lords, let me, in support of this, give another argument which will I think be endorsed by experienced air officers. As I understand from statements that I have read, the pilots were instructed that they were not to fire unless they were attacked. I submit that that is really an impossible order to give to a pilot, unless he is supported by a very strong deterrent force. It is not like a battle at sea where, though the first salvo may be pretty serious, it is not necessarily fatal. Still less is it like an engagement on land, where one gun starts firing. With fast modern aircraft, air combat is a matter of seconds. The first burst of fire, accurately directed, is decisive, and there is no justification for subjecting our airmen to such a risk unless the circumstances are absolutely unavoidable.
§ At the request of the Transjordan Government, His Majesty's Government have now sent a force to Akaba. There can be no question that Akaba is outside the Negev and is part of the territory of Transjordan. I believe that in the past some claim was made by Saudi-Arabia, but it was not persisted in, and to-day it is universally accepted that Akaba is part and parcel of Transjordan. What is quite certain is that it is not part of Palestine! It may be that the Government were not only entitled but were virtually bound by treaty to send forces there. I am not challenging that. But in view of what has already taken place, I ask for this definite assurance: that the forces which have been sent are amply sufficient, not only to withstand aggression but to deter aggression.
§ Here again, what is the overall plan and objective to which action should conform? It must be to establish lasting peace between the Arabs and Jews. The war has inflicted grievous losses and suffering on both. Whatever immediate advantages the Jews may gain, without peace and the good will of the Arab countries the State of Israel will be artificial, and its situation uneconomic and precarious. The Jews have done a wonderful job in Palestine, not only in agriculture but also in building up an ingenious and varied industry. But apart from the domestic market, which can take only a fraction, the outlet for that industry must lie predominantly in the adjacent Arab countries. Every interest lies in peace and settlement, and it is indeed our most earnest hope that the present negotiations will succeed. I feel bound to add this: I think we should be in a better position to help, and to discharge out duties and our obligations to the Arab States, and to Transjordan in particular, if His Majesty's Government were represented at Tel-Aviv. The existence of a Jewish State is a fact, and de facto recognition is a logical and desirable recognition of that fact. Finally, of course, the greatest factor for peace, here as elsewhere in the world, is Anglo-American agreement.
§THE PARLIAMENTARY UNDER-SECRETARY OF STATE FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS (LORD HENDERSON) My Lords, ...
Noble Lords will not, I hope, expect me, in view of what was agreed and the reasons for the agreement in another place yesterday, to deal with Palestine and the Middle East. This House will, I felt sure, be no less responsive to the Foreign Secretary's advice that we can best contribute to the successful outcome of the delicate negotiations at Rhodes by postponing discussion for a time. I am happy to say that the first reports we have received of these negotiations, and of tendencies elsewhere, indicate that hopeful progress is being made. The noble Viscount, Lord Swinton, referred to the circumstances in which five R.A.F. aircraft were shot down near the Egyptian Palestine frontier on January 7. I will, with the permission of the House, read the text of a factual statement which has been made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Air. The statement is as follows: Towards the end of December, reports were received that Jewish forces had crossed the Egyptian frontier. It was clear that this raised serious questions for us, in view of our Treaty obligations and our vital interests in the Middle East. As United Nations observers were prevented by the Jewish authorities from moving to the front, it was essential to obtain independent confirmation of the fact and extent of Jewish incursion into Egypt. As there were no other means of obtaining accurate information, R.A.F. aircraft were, therefore, sent on reconnaissance flights. On the first two reconnaissances made on December 30, Egyptian aircraft accompanied R.A.F. aircraft but did not take part in subsequent reconnaissances. All the flights took place with the knowledge of the Egyptian authorities. The decision to send these reconnaissance flights was taken on His Majesty's Government's responsibility, but in addition, in conversations which His Majesty's Ambassador in Washington had with the American State Department at the end of the year, the urgent need for precise information on this subject was clear to both sides. The information obtained by these reconnaissances was made available to the United States Government, who were aware of the means by which the information was obtained. The reconnaissance on December 30 established that Jewish forces had reached the area of Abu Aweigla, which is approximately 49 seventeen miles inside Egyptian territory. This was confirmed by reconnaissances on the 1st, 2nd and 4th. A further reconnaissance on the 6th revealed fresh incursion in strength into Egyptian territory. Consequently, on the morning of the 7th a tactical reconnaissance of four Spitfires was ordered. The timing of the reconnaissance was chosen in consultation with the Egyptian Air Force to minimise the risk of encounter with Egyptian aircraft. Four aircraft were briefed, two for reconnaissance, two for cover, and were given the following orders: The Palestine-Egyptian frontier not to be crossed; aircraft not to make hostile approach or fire on any other aircraft unless our aircraft were being attacked; the time over area where land operations were progressing to be limited to the minimum to lessen risk of incident; known anti-aircraft positions were given. Simultaneously, a high photographic reconnaissance by one Mosquito escorted by four Tempests was ordered, with the same briefing as for the tactical reconnaissance. The tactical reconnaissance was executed as ordered. Tactics were to fly at best height to minimise risk of ground fire, but flying lower as necessary for identification. The leader of the formation (Flying Officer Cooper) reports that after turning west from the reconnaissance along the Rafah-El Auja road, he felt his aircraft being hit and saw his number two (Pilot II Close) climb up steeply and bale out from his aircraft which was on fire. He saw him land safely at a position ten miles inside Egyptian territory. After this, the leader himself was attacked by aircraft of the Spitfire type with red spinners similar to those of his own squadron. After a turning engagement, in which the Jewish aircraft had the advantage of height, he was wounded and his aircraft hit. He continued to climb to 9,000 feet when, his aircraft being uncontrollable, he baled out, landing in a position over fifteen miles west of the frontier. This pilot's statement is confirmed by the finding and identification by an R.A.F. search party of parts of all four British Spitfires within a three-mile radius of a point thirteen miles west of the frontier. As far as can be judged, pending full investigation by a Court of Inquiry, it appears that Jewish aircraft dived on the top pair, shooting them down at once. One of the lower pair was shot down by ground fire and the other damaged by ground fire, and subsequently attacked by fighters. All the evidence is that this formation did not cross the frontier and that the pilots were captured by Jewish troops some ten miles inside Egypt. Moreover, there are landmarks, such as the loop of the El Auja-Rafah Road and the road itself, a road block south of Rafah and Rafah itself, all in Egyptian territory. The high photographic reconnaissance was executed without incident. In the afternoon, a further tactical reconnaissance of four Spitfires was ordered to carry out the same reconnaissance as in the morning, and to look out for crashed aircraft on the outward and homeward routes in search of the Spitfires missing from the morning sortie. In view of the possibility that the fate of the missing aircraft might 50 have been due to hostile action by Jewish aircraft over Egyptian territory, two formations of Tempests were ordered to provide cover for the Spitfires at 6,000 and 10,000 feet respectively. When turning west over Rafah railway station the leader saw five aircraft diving steeply on to his Section. As a result of this, the leader at once ordered his section to break to starboard and keep turning. In this initial attack, one Tempest was shot down and finally crashed on the Palestine side of the border. We now knew that the pilot was killed. Three other Tempests were hit and slightly damaged. The top cover, seeing aircraft diving on to the lower Tempest formation, chased the attacking aircraft, having left one section to remain as cover. The hostile aircraft flew back over the border where our aircraft could not follow. As I have said, in all these incidents R.A.F. aircraft were instructed not to cross the frontier and not to make a hostile approach or open fire on any other aircraft unless it was quite certain that our aircraft were being attacked. These instructions were given to minimise as far as possible the risk of a clash. In the event, these instructions placed our pilots at a grave disadvantage when aircraft, which had obtained a tactically superior position, made an unprovoked and surprise attack on them. The risks were fully appreciated by the Air Commander-in-Chief, but in view of the fact that air reconnaissance was the only means available of ascertaining quickly the true facts regarding the incursion into Egyptian territory, I consider he was justified. In these operations the lives of two R.A.F. pilots were lost. Two pilots are in the hands of the Jewish authorities but we hope that they will shortly be repatriated. Our squadrons have carried out a difficult task, calling for accurate flying and good discipline. The results of their reconnaissances, now confirmed from other sources, show that they fully achieved what was asked of them. I am sure the House would wish me to express their sympathy with the next-of-kin of the two officers who lost their lives. I will now deal briefly with China. Noble Lords will be aware, from references which have recently been made in another place, that His Majesty's Government are very carefully watching developments in China. Peking is the only major city
§VISCOUNT SWINTON My Lords, I feel that we would all agree, whatever views may have been expressed, that this debate has been well worth while, and that the Lord Chancellor has wound it up with a characteristically able speech. I am not going to inflict another speech on the House, otherwise I would be tempted to follow him in the very odd explanation he gave about Indonesia. ..
There is one subject on which I must say a word or two, because it is of paramount importance. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Henderson, for a very kind reference to me at the beginning of his speech. If I was not too old to blush, I should be blushing now. I am also grateful to the noble Lord for the full account which he gave about the unhappy incidents with regard to the Air Force reconnaissance. He gave us an absolutely accurate and unvarnished account, and concealed nothing from us. That was characteristic of him. But I am bound to say that the explanation which he gave was a most complete condemnation of the enterprise. There was no answer to my question: Why, if the reconnaissance was to be made at all, did we not propose that we should do it as the agents of U.N.O.?
As the story unfolded itself it was really more strange, almost more incomprehensible, than I had at first supposed. Why on earth did we send out a few fighters of our own in company with Egyptian fighters, unless we were asking for trouble? I really cannot understand that. Why did we go on with these reconnaissances day after day? I think there were seven of them, and certainly there were six. One I could understand: but why go on day after day sending out these fighters until, one might almost say, the inevitable happened and the clash came? The last two fatal reconnaissances seem to be the least explicable of all, because those two reconnaissances, in both of which our aircraft were shot down, were sent out, so far as I could follow from the dates, long after we knew that the Jews had been across the Egyptian border, and were within a few hours of the cease fire. If that is the fact, it really passes my understanding.
Then there is the story the noble Lord told us of how the attack came. Could there be a more complete justification of what I said at the beginning of the debate, that we had no business at all to send out fighters with orders that they were not to fight unless attacked? It was all over in a second. It is a most unhappy story. It ought not to have happened. I am still not clear as to on whose orders the reconnaissances were made. I am quite clear about this: the Air Force—indeed, any of the three Services—will never question or hesitate to obey an order which is given them, however hazardous the carrying out of that order may be. That is right. But when an order so wrong is sought to be given, then I say it is the duty of the Secretary of State for Air to say: "That is not an order which should be given to the Service for which I am responsible." I say no more. I felt that I could not say less. I think this has been a most unhappy occurrence, and I pray God that such an episode will not occur again. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.
§ Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.
MIDDLE EAST (R.A.F. RECONNAISSANCE FLIGHTS)
JANUARY 19, 1949
§Mr. Henderson My hon. Friend can work out the number per week in relation to the total number of flights in this period. If it works out at two or three per week, that is the case.
§Mr. Stanley Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman seriously mean that after the troubles arose in Palestine this Summer the decision as to reconnaissance over Palestine, and that part occupied by Israel, was a matter solely for the decision of the local commander, and was not one in which the authority of London had to be sought?
§Mr. Henderson I said that this type of reconnaissance flight was carried out before the troubles began in the middle of last year, and they were certainly continued. There was, as I said, no Ministerial authority given because they were carried out within the discretion of the Commander-in-Chief, Middle East.
§Mr. Stanley Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman mean to say that after British troops evacuated Palestine no fresh directives were given to the Commanders in the Middle East, and that the discretion was left to them in exactly the same way as it was when Palestine was a British mandated country?
§Mr. Henderson Yes, Sir. That is the position.
§Mr. Piratin In view of the fact that the British Government have not been very friendly with the Israeli Government was the Israeli Government informed that these reconnaissance planes were operating over their territory, even if that were done with the understanding of the United Nations Mediator?
§Mr. Henderson Perhaps the hon. Member will put that question down.
§Squadron-Leader Fleming Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman make quite clear to the House whether any of these reconnaissance flights were undertaken on instructions from the United Nations to our own Government?
§Mr. Henderson I am not suggesting that we were carrying out the instructions of the United Nations. I am saying that the benefit of these flights—the results—were conveyed to the United Nations.
§Squadron-Leader Fleming Were we asked to do so by the United Nations?
§Mr. Henderson Not so far as I am aware.
§Mr. Emrys Roberts Were these armed reconnaissance flights or not?
§Mr. Henderson No. The photographic reconnaissance machines are unarmed.
§Mr. Stanley At any rate, have fresh instructions now been sent that these reconnaissances are not to be carried out merely at the discretion of the local Commander, and if so when were those new instructions conveyed?
§Mr. Henderson I would like notice as regards the date, but I can say definitely that these flights have been stopped.
§Mr. Austin Is it true that the information gained by R.A.F. reconnaissance flights was passed on to the Egyptian Air Force headquarters with a view to its being used in further combat?
§Mr. Henderson I should prefer to have that Question put down.
§Sir Peter Macdonald Is it a fact, as stated by one of the pilots who was shot down, that his guns were loaded at the time he was shot down, because that absolutely contradicts the statement which the Secretary of State has made that reconnaissance planes carried only cameras.
§Mr. Henderson I am afraid there is a misunderstanding. The reply I have given today deals with the high altitude long distance photographic reconnaissance. The statement to which the hon. Member has referred is one alleged to have been made by one of the pilots who was shot down on 7th January, when he was engaged on a tactical reconnaissance—a short distance reconnais 168 sance. I will deal with those incidents in the statement which I shall make at the end of Questions.
§Mr. Pritt Would the Secretary of State answer the Question which he was asked a little earlier whether, although these flights were within the discretion of the Air Officer Commanding out there, the Foreign Office have anything to do with the carrying out of these flights?
§Mr. Henderson I would prefer that Question to be put down to the Foreign Office.
§Mr. A. R. W. Low Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman answer this question? Was he kept informed after the expiration of the Mandate in May of last year that these flights were in fact taking place? Was he kept informed on each occasion that a flight took place, or once per month?
§Mr. Henderson No, Sir, I was not personally kept informed. The results of these reconnaissances which, as I say, were carried on for a considerable time in the Middle East as a matter of routine, as a part of the peace-time operational training programme—
§Mr. Stanley That was when Palestine was a mandated country.
§Mr. Henderson —the results, as 1 have said in my reply, were conveyed to the United Nations Mediator, and I have no doubt that the results were received in the Foreign Office.
§Mr. Harold Davies On a point of information. The Minister has already said that he prefers this Question to be put down to the Foreign Office. It was for that specific reason that I addressed the original Question to the Foreign Office, and the Minister has informed this House that he is now answering for the Foreign Office. May I have an explanation of that?
§Mr. Henderson This Question asked for the number of reconnaissances that took place. It is for me, as Air Minister, to reply, and I have done so.
§Mr. Wadsworth Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman say whether the reconnaissance planes were protected at all with fighters?
RE AIRCRAFT SHOT DOWN NEAR TEL AVIV
§Mr. Henderson No, Sir. This type of reconnaissance is conducted on practically every occasion by one machine flying at a very high altitude, say 30,000 feet, and they take what are called vertical photographs, as against oblique photographs taken by the low-flying fighting machines.
§Mr. Paget Is it not a fact that these planes were being used by the Foreign Office without reference to the Air Ministry?
§Mr. Stanley Is it not a fact that some months ago one of our planes on one of these reconnaissances was shot down near Tel Aviv? Did not the right hon. and learned Gentleman then regard the matter as no longer a question of routine and issue fresh instructions as to these reconnaissances?
§Mr. Henderson Yes, in the light of an actual incident one might have been very well advised to take further action—
§Mr. Stanley But did the right hon. and learned Gentleman take it?
§Mr. Henderson Yes, I have already said that these flights have been stopped.
§Mr. Stanley But when?
§Mr. Henderson Following the report of this incident over Tel Aviv. It is quite clear, if I may say so, that the House is confused over the two types of reconnaissance. The reconnaissances that took place on 7th January are not included in this reply. This reply only deals with what is called photographic reconnaissances.
§Mr. Pritt On a point of Order. Could we have your direction, Sir? The Question was put down to the Foreign Office and not transferred, but answered by the right hon. and learned Gentleman on behalf of the Foreign Office. In those circumstances is it right that he should say in reply to a supplementary question that he would like it put down to the Foreign Office, when he has the representative of the Foreign Office sitting at his left hand?
§Mr. Speaker I have no control over how a Minister answers Questions. That is not my province at all.
§Mr. Harold Davies On a point of Order. I would like to point out that the word "reconnaissance" is a comprehensive term, and when I put the 170 Question down I wanted information of reconnaissances, whether the reconnaissance was high or whether it was low, or whether it was within 12 miles of Tel Aviv. I think the House is entitled to an answer in accordance with the ratio of its intelligence.
§Mr. Blackburn Further to that point of Order. May I point out that the hon. Member opposite and myself, who had constituents killed in one of these operations, had put down Questions previously and refrained from asking any supplementary questions on them, because we understand that there is to be a statement after Questions. It is somewhat embarrassing to have that statement anticipated.
§Mr. Henderson I want to make it quite clear that the Question asked for information about reconnaissances which have been made over territory in Palestine occupied by Jewish forces. The answer to that is that no reconnaissances have been made over Jewish territory, except as I said in my reply.
§Mr. Speaker I think that we had better await the statement before further questions are put now.
§At the end of Questions—
§Mr. A. Henderson Towards the end of December, reports were received that Jewish forces had crossed the Egyptian frontier. It was clear that these raised serious questions for us in view of our Treaty obligations and our vital interest in the Middle East. As United Nations observers were prevented by the Jewish authorities from moving to the front, it was essential to obtain independent confirmation of the fact and extent of Jewish incursion into Egypt. As there was no other means of obtaining accurate information, R.A.F. aircraft were, therefore, sent on reconnaissance flights.
On the two first reconnaissances made on 30th December, Egyptian aircraft accompanied R.A.F. aircraft but did not take part in subsequent reconnaissances. All the flights took place with the knowledge of the Egyptian authorities. The decision to send these reconnaissance flights was taken on His Majesty's Government's responsibility, but, in addition, in conversations which His Majesty's Ambassador in Washington had with the American State Department 171 at the end of the year, the urgent need for precise information on this subject was clear to both sides. The information obtained by these reconnaissances was made available to the U.S. Government, who were aware of the means by which the information was obtained.
The reconnaissance on 30th December established that Jewish forces had reached the area of Abu Aweigla, which is approximately 17 miles inside Egyptian territory. This was confirmed by reconnaissances on the 1st, 2nd and 4th. A further reconnaissance on the 6th revealed fresh incursion in strength into Egyptian territory. Consequently, on the morning of the 7th, a tactical reconnaissance of four Spitfires was ordered. The timing of the reconnaissance was chosen in consultation with the Egyptian Air Force to minimise the risk of encounter with Egyptian aircraft. Four aircraft were briefed, two for reconnaissance, two for cover, and were given the following orders: the Palestine-Egyptian frontier not to be crossed; aircraft not to make hostile approach or fire on any other aircraft unless our aircraft were being attacked; the time over area where land operations were progressing to be limited to the minimum to lessen risk of incident; known anti-aircraft positions were given. Simultaneously, a high photographic reconnaissance by one Mosquito escorted by four Tempests was ordered with the same briefing as for the tactical reconnaissance.
The tactical reconnaissance was executed as ordered. Tactics were to fly at best height to minimise risk from ground fire, but flying lower as necessary for identification. The leader of the formation (Flying Officer Cooper) reports that after turning west from the reconnaissance along the Rafah-El Auja road, he felt his aircraft being hit and saw his number two (Pilot II Close) climb up steeply and bale out from his aircraft, which was on fire. He saw him land safely at a position 10 miles inside Egyptian territory.
After this, the leader himself was attacked by aircraft of the Spitfire type with red spinners similar to those of his own squadron. After a turning engagement, in which the Jewish aircraft had the advantage of height, he was wounded and his aircraft hit. He continued to climb to 9,000 feet, when, his aircraft 172 being uncontrollable, he baled out, landing in a position over 15 miles west of the frontier. This pilot's statement is confirmed by the finding and identification by an R.A.F. search party of parts of all four British Spitfires within a three-mile radius of a point 13 miles west of the frontier.
As far as can be judged pending full investigation by a court of inquiry, it appears that Jewish aircraft dived on the top pair, shooting them down at once. One of the lower pair was shot down by ground fire and the other damaged by ground fire, and subsequently attacked by fighters.
All the evidence is that this formation did not cross the frontier and that the pilots were captured by Jewish troops some ten miles inside Egyptian territory. Moreover, there are landmarks, such as the loop of the El Auja—Rafah road and the road itself, a road block south of Rafah and Rafah itself, all in Egyptian territory. The high photographic reconnaissance was executed without incident.
In the afternoon, a further tactical reconnaissance of four Spitfires was ordered to carry out the same reconnaissance as in the morning, and to look out for crashed aircraft on the outward and homeward routes in search of the Spitfires missing from the morning sortie. In view of the possibility that the fate of the missing aircraft might have been due to hostile action by Jewish aircraft over Egyptian territory, two formations of Tempests were ordered to provide cover for the Spitfires at 6,000 and 10,000 feet respectively.
When turning west over Rafah railway station, the leader saw five aircraft diving steeply on to his section. As a result of this, the leader at once ordered his section to break to starboard and keep turning. In this initial attack, one Tempest was shot down and finally crashed on the Palestine side of the border, and we now know that the pilot was killed. Three other Tempests were hit and slightly damaged. The top cover, seeing aircraft diving on to the lower Tempest formation, chased the attacking aircraft, having left one section to remain as cover. The hostile aircraft flew back over the border where our aircraft could not follow.
173 As I have said, in all these incidents, R.A.F. aircraft were instructed not to cross the frontier, and not to make a hostile approach or open fire on any other aircraft unless it was quite certain that our aircraft were being attacked. These instructions were given to minimise as far as possible the risk of a clash. In the event, these instructions placed our pilots at a grave disadvantage when aircraft, which had obtained a tactically superior position, made an unprovoked and surprise attack on them.
The risks were fully appreciated by the Air Commander-in-Chief, but in view of the fact that air reconnaissance was the only means available of ascertaining quickly the true facts regarding the incursion into Egyptian territory, I consider he was justified. In these operations, the lives of two Royal Air Force pilots were lost, two pilots are in the hands of the Jewish authorities, but we hope that they will shortly be repatriated.
Our squadrons have carried out a difficult task, calling for accurate flying and good discipline. The results of their reconnaissances, now confirmed from other sources, show that they fully achieved what was asked of them. I am sure the House would wish me to express their sympathy with the next-of-kin of the two officers who lost their lives.
§Air-Commodore Harvey Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman say, if he or the Government knew that these reconnaissance flights were taking place, why the Air Ministry did not know that the high level reconnaissance flight was taking place in December? My second question is—he referred to the aircraft flying as four Spitfires, two as cover—whether, it is not a fact that all four aircraft were flying at, approximately, 400 feet? Is he not aware that it is almost criminal to brief pilots—without discussing the rights or wrongs of the flight—to fly in such formation without any top cover over a battle area, and would he say what action has been taken to see that justice is done to those who have been lost?
§Mr. Henderson With regard to the second part of the question, I am quite sure that the hon. and gallant Gentleman will agree that we must not prejudge the investigations which will be undertaken by the Court of Inquiry. As regards the 174 first part, I have already tried to make it clear to the House that the high altitude long-distance photographic reconnaissances of the Mosquito aircraft were laid on as part of the essential training that has gone on since the end of the war whereas these tactical reconnaissances were put on for the purposes I have indicated in my statement.
§Mr. Clement Davies Is it quite clear that these planes were sent on their mission without the knowledge of, and without consultation with, any member of the Security Council? Although, apparently, they were sent with the knowledge of the Egyptian Government, were the reasons of the Egyptian Government given beforehand?
§Mr. Henderson On that point, I cannot go beyond the reference I made in paragraph two of my statement.
§Mr. Crossman In view of the fact that the first reconnaissance on 7th January took place at very low level, and over an area where a land and air battle was taking place, does the right hon. and learned Gentleman believe that the Israeli forces could possibly distinguish between English and Egyptian Spitfires flying over the battlefield, and, if he does not, was it not totally irresponsible to send these aircraft on that mission?
§Mr. Henderson I want to be quite frank with the House and to say that, in my view, it is conceivable that as regards the Jewish ground forces, they might well have mistaken these aircraft for Egyptian aircraft, but I do not take that view with regard to the Spitfires which were shot down by the Jewish Spitfires which swooped down on them, because they should have been able to see the distinguishing marks on the wings.
§Mr. Stanley Is it not a fact that these reconnaissances were undertaken within a few hours of a proposed "cease fire," and that the result of these reconnaissances could not, in fact, have been available to anybody before the "cease fire" had actually taken place? In these circumstances, what was the urgency for sending these people on a dangerous mission to a fighting area?
§Mr. Henderson I think that, again, is a point which must be elucidated by this court of inquiry; I can only give the 175 facts to the House. This reconnaissance was laid on by the Commander-in-Chief. It is quite true that it was three hours before the appointed time for the cease fire, but he considered it ...
§Sir P. Macdonald Can the Minister say whether the Egyptian Government invoked the Treaty which they had previously given notice to revoke, and, if they did not ask for our assistance, what right had we to carry out this open reconnaissance over a battle area at a time when a battle was taking place?
§Mr. Henderson The hon. Gentleman's question is entirely hypothetical.
§Sir P. Macdonald Did they invoke the Treaty?
§Mr. Churchill Have the Egyptian Government invoked the Treaty or have they not?
§Mr. Henderson The answer is "No, Sir."
§Mr. Blackburn May I ask the Secretary of State whether he is aware that the parents of Pilot Officer Tattersfield have received information from an absolutely reliable authority which not only states that this fight took place on the Egyptian side of the frontier, but also, that the attacking aircraft were Spitfires wearing British camouflage, and that it was for that reason that the pilots concerned were not able to take the necessary action by way of evasion or retaliation? Will the Minister look into that, and will he further impress on the Government that there is great concern over the fact that the Israeli forces had Spitfires? Where did they get them from?
§Mr. Henderson They certainly did not get them from me and I am not in a position to answer the question without proper notice. It should be addressed to another Department.
§Mr. M. Lindsay I want to ask the Secretary of State if he does not realise that this shocking event could not conceivably have occurred if it were not for the very low level of prestige to which His Majesty's Government have brought this country?
§Mr. Benn Levy As my right hon. and learned Friend has made it clear that these reconnaissance flights took place without the invitation of the Egyptians, without the invitation of the Mediator, without the invitation of the United Nations, can he say whether he himself gave the necessary instructions and if not, who did?
§Mr. Henderson I do not think it is for me to pick out a member of the Government when action is taken. As I have said in my statement, the policy was authorised by His Majesty's Government.
§Mr. Boyd-Carpenter In view of the fact that when the afternoon patrol was sent out it was known that aircraft of the morning patrol had been attacked and shot down, were the pilots of the afternoon patrol sent out with the same restrictive orders as to self-defence as those of the morning patrol, and if so, why?
§Mr. Henderson As far as I can understand from the signals—that particular point has not been dealt with—they were given the same instructions on both occasions.
§Mr. Harold Macmillan I hope I have not misunderstood the right hon. and learned Gentleman, but on the question which he answered just before the last, is it the case that, as Secretary of State for Air, he allows other Members of the Government to give instructions to the Department for which he is responsible?
§Mr. Henderson No, Sir. I am not suggesting that at all. I am one of the number of Ministers who take decisions in a matter of this kind and I see no reason why I should not state my position. I was fully consulted by the appropriate Ministers on all occasions except one, when I was absent from London.
§Mr. Churchill What is this doctrine of the "appropriate Ministers"? Decisions of this character surely have to be given through some specific Department whose Minister is directly responsible. Is that not so? What is the "appropriate Minister"? Yet the right hon. and learned Gentleman, when tackled in the House on the subject, seems to suggest that others intervened upon him and gave him directions which he carried out.
§Mr. Henderson I was not. After all, the right hon. Gentleman has had greater experience of Government than I have and he knows perfectly well that not even the most distinguished First Lord of the Admiralty in his day was allowed to move ships about for operational purposes or any other purposes, except in consultation with any other Minister who might be involved.
§Mr. Churchill Is it a fact, then, that the instructions were given to the right hon. and learned Gentleman from the Foreign Office?
§Mr. Henderson The instructions that go out to the Air Force go out from me, but certainly I am entitled to have, and the right hon. Gentleman on many occasions must have had, consultations with other Ministers whether a certain course of conduct was necessary.
§Mr. Churchill No, no; I asked a precise question. The right hon. and learned Gentleman says he acted upon certain instructions and used his authority, quite properly, under those instructions. Did those instructions come from the Foreign Office?
§Mr. Henderson They certainly did not come from the Foreign Office as such, but I am quite prepared to say that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs was one of the Ministers with whom I had consultations.
§Mr. Churchill Then we understand they came from the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs himself?
§Mr. Henderson I said that the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs was one of the Ministers concerned—one of them.
§Mr. Swingler Can the House have an answer to these questions? Did the Secretary of State for Air or did he not have prior knowledge of the actual tactical reconnaissance flights over the battle area which were to be made? Did he have prior knowledge or not?
§Mr. Henderson Yes, Sir; as I have said, in principle, Yes. I have already explained to the House that authority was given to the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief to carry out these tactical reconnaissances, but it would be for the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief to decide, day by day, whether or not a particular reconnaissance should be put on.
§Mr. Churchill The right hon. and learned Gentleman told us that one of the Ministers who asked him or instructed him to undertake these reconnaissances was the Foreign Secretary. Which other Minister, except the Prime Minister, has an equal responsibility for deciding upon these particular matters? Which other Minister? I think the Prime Minister might say something on this.
§The Prime Minister (Mr. Attlee) The right hon. Gentleman is very well aware that in these matters, where there is a question which may involve matters of foreign policy and high policy, a question of this kind is often discussed by. Ministers and then the appropriate action is taken by a particular Service Minister. The action taken is the action of the Government. The Government are responsible; I am responsible; the Government are prepared to answer for their actions.
§Mr. H. Macmillan Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman fully accept, first, his responsibility as the Secretary of State who will give final instructions, whether with or without consultation with his colleagues; and, secondly, is he satisfied that the terms of the instructions given to these officers, in view of the rapidity of movement in air battles, gave them, a reasonable chance of carrying out this work without endangering—as, in fact, they did endanger—their lives and their machines?
§Mr. Henderson I think that is the kind of question that ought to be elucidated at the inquiry, but I can say this—the actual instruction that was sent out made it as clear as language can make it clear, that no pilot was to cross the Egyptian frontier.
§Air-Commodore Harvey On a point of Order. I am fortunate enough to have the Adjournment Debate tomorrow evening on a subject dealing with Royal Air Force efficiency. It is now my intention to refer on that occasion to this matter.
§Mr. Paget In view of the fact that the Egyptians were using Spitfires, what did the Secretary of State expect the Jews to do to Spitfires flying in from Egypt? Secondly, were the photographs which were taken by these Spitfires supplied to the Egyptian Command?
§Mr. Henderson My hon. and learned Friend seems to have accepted the view of the Jewish authorities that it was a case of the Royal Air Force planes flying into Palestine. The evidence I have put before the House, and the statement I have made this afternoon, make it quite clear that the Royal Air Force planes did not cross the Egyptian frontier, but that it was a case of the Jewish planes crossing the Egyptian frontier.
§Mr. Paget Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman answer the second part of the question?
§Mr. Speaker The hon. and gallant Member for Macclesfield (Air-Commodore Harvey) said he would refer to this subject on the Adjournment tomorrow. If he means that he intends to raise this matter on the Adjournment tomorrow he has changed his subject. To be quite frank, I do not quite see how he can refer to this subject tomorrow—although he can deal with any subject—seeing that the subject he has put down is "Fats for fish friers."
§Air-Commodore Harvey I saw one of your staff last week, Sir, and the subject has been changed to one dealing with Royal Air Force efficiency.
§Mr. Speaker I have the wrong notice. I beg the hon. and gallant Member's pardon.
§Mr. Churchill Would it not be in accordance with the general convenience of the House not to have a Debate on this extremely difficult and serious subject in so short a time as that permitted?
§Air-Commodore Harvey If I may be allowed, I think in the circumstances, to allow questions to be continued, I will say that I do not intend to raise this subject on the Adjournment.
§Mr. Paget May I have an answer to my question—whether these photographs were supplied to the Egyptians?
§Mr. S. Silverman May I ask two questions? The first is: In view of the precautions taken to avoid any incident by warning the Egyptian Government that these planes were to go, can my right hon. and learned Friend say why similar precautions were not taken by warning the Israeli Government that these planes were going, and the purpose of the flight? The second question is: Since under the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty we are entitled to fly planes outside the Canal Zone only on training flights unless the Treaty has been invoked, and since this was not a training flight, was not the flight of these planes a breach of the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty?
§Mr. Henderson As regards the first part of my hon. Friend's question there was no need to inform the Jewish authori 182 ties of the fact that our planes were going to fly in Egyptian territory, because there is no reason at all why they should be told about what is taking place in other countries. All I can say is that these unfortunate events might well have been avoided, because these reconnaissances might well have not been necessary had not it been for the fact that the Jewish authorities prevented observers from the United Nations organisation from visiting the areas in which this fighting was taking place. As regards the second part of the question, it is a legal point whether there has been a breach of the Treaty. I am not prepared to accept my hon. Friend's suggestion that there has been a breach. Apparently the Egyptian Government do not take this view that there has been a breach, first of all because they have been well aware of the fact that these reconnaissances were taking place, and, in fact, as I said in my statement, they participated in the first one on 30th December.
§Mr. Boothby May we take it that whoever else gave instructions for these reconnaissance flights over a battle area, they were not authorised by the right hon. and learned Gentleman in his capacity as Secretary of State for Air?
§Mr. Henderson I certainly am not going to shirk my share of any responsibility. I thought I had made it clear to the House that I had, in consultation with other Ministers, or after consultation with other Ministers, sanctioned in principle the carrying out of these tactical reconnaissances.
§Mr. Thomas Reid In view of one of my right hon. and learned Friend's previous statements, that our planes did not cross the Egyptian frontier, would he say if our pilots have made statements asserting that they had flown over the Egyptian frontier into Palestine?
§Mr. Henderson Yes, Sir. There is a conflict of statements between Pilot-Officer Cooper, on the one hand, and Pilot-Officer Close, on the other hand, that can be determined only as and when we have the court of inquiry.
§Mr. W. Fletcher Could the right hon. and learned Gentleman inform the House whether a report of the attack made on 183 the morning reconnaissance was received in London in time to countermand, if necessary, the afternoon reconnaissance? In view of modern signalling methods it was perfectly possible. Can he say whether that was so or not?
§Mr. Henderson Certainly not. No, Sir.
§Wing-Commander Millington Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that whereas Flying-Officer Cooper was shot down on 7th January and taken to an Arab hospital with three wounds in his leg, his parents learned of this fact from two successive broadcasts before being advised by the Air Ministry, and that this advice came through the medium of the local village constable?
§Mr. Henderson I am not in a position to deal with that now, but I shall be very grateful if my hon. and gallant Friend will give me an opportunity of going into it.
§Mr. Keeling Air combat being what it is, is there not a very strong likelihood that an aircraft ordered not to fire unless attacked will be shot down before it can reply?
§Mr. Henderson After all, that is a matter of opinion and experience, and I am not in a position to express a view 184 on a matter like that without advice from those who have the knowledge and experience.
§Mr. Speaker I think we had better await the Debate now.