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DELEGATED LEGISLATION

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 101(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation).

European Communities (Treaties)


Question agreed to.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 101(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation).

Gun Barrel Proving


Question agreed to.

EUROPEAN COMMUNITY DOCUMENTS

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 102(9) (European Standing Committees).

Driving Licences


Question agreed to.

12 Jun 1996 : Column 397

273 Squadron (Badge)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Burns.]

8.11 pm

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne): We have all heard about the forgotten army in Burma, a memorable phrase coined by the late Earl Mountbatten. The debate tonight is about the forgotten squadron--a group of brave men who have fought for more than 50 years ago to have their squadron properly recognised.

No. 273 Fighter Squadron was originally formed during the first world war, and was disbanded at the end of hostilities. The squadron was reformed on 1 August 1939 in Ceylon, where it withstood the most ferocious Japanese attack. The squadron went on to be one of the most forward squadrons during the Burma campaign, as it was based just 260 miles south of Japanese lines. It was the first squadron into Rangoon and into Saigon. Its pilots flew sortie after sortie from airstrips cut from the jungle or from dried-up rice fields.

Conditions were far from ideal, and 14 pilots were killed. Since the days of the last war, others have died from natural causes, but the spirit of 273 Squadron has lived on, in the survivors and in the families of those who have not survived.

The campaign, spanning more than 50 years, has sought to give the squadron the recognition it so richly deserves by means of a squadron badge. I was wholly unaware of the history of 273 squadron until I received a letter from a constituent, Mr. Miles Bayly, known affectionately as Bill. He wrote to me on 6 March and told me that he had served as pilot in Burma with 273 Squadron, and also told me of the attempts to obtain a squadron badge since November 1944.

As he put it:


I was touched by that appeal, and immediately raised the matter in correspondence with the Ministry of Defence. I asked for the debate tonight because the MOD is still putting forward what are, in my opinion, inadequate reasons for not honouring the squadron. To grant it its badge would be a relatively small thing for the Ministry, but it would mean so much for the survivors of 273 Squadron, their families and the families of those who did not survive.

The squadron is, I am told, the only active service Fighter Command squadron that fought in any the theatre of war in the second world war, and suffered significant losses, and yet was not granted its own badge. You may ask, Madam Deputy Speaker, why that has presented a problem. Over the years, the MOD has put forward a number of different reasons or excuses.

It is said by Ministers, and most recently by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence, Earl Howe, that badges are not approved for disbanded units. That can hardly be of any real relevance, because the original application for the 273 Squadron badge was

12 Jun 1996 : Column 398

submitted from Ceylon in 1943. The request was received in Whitehall, after some delay, in November 1944, before the squadron was disbanded for the second time.

I take the view, not unreasonably, that any delay after the application was made is a matter for the MOD, and not the fault of the squadron. After all, it was certainly not within its control when it was disbanded at the end of the war.

The actual design for the badge comprises the ancient Asian fylfot or cross Gamadian on a castellated fess, symbolising peace and good will. Superimposed on that is the black widow spider, with the motto "Toujours Pret". It is said that the cost of granting badges in such circumstances would be "prohibitive", apparently because each design submitted must be approved by the College of Arms and Her Majesty the Queen. I would like the Minister to tell us what sort of costs we are talking about. I cannot imagine that they come even close to outweighing the sacrifices made by those who did not survive--or, indeed, by those who did.

Amazingly, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, who wrote to me on 21 May, said that, apart from the cost of granting badges in such circumstances being "prohibitive", it


Well, that may be strictly true in terms of a squadron that no longer exists, but that is far from the case when one considers the feelings of those involved. A squadron does not cease to exist in the hearts of its men merely because it is disbanded. It is important to note that the squadron was disbanded once, and re-formed, and then disbanded a second time. Heaven forbid, there is always the possibility that it may be re-formed in the future.

Another reason for not granting the badge that has been given in the past, and in the Under-Secretary's letter most recently, is that the design originally submitted by the unit incorporated a fylfot, which is synonymous with the swastika. While there may be some similarity between the fylfot and the swastika, the former, which in Asia symbolises peace and good will, is considerably older than the swastika, and was recognised, and in general use, thousands of years before it was hijacked by the Nazi party.

It would indeed be the height of absurdity if that Royal Air Force squadron were to be denied its badge design of choice because of the modern pretensions of the Nazis, one of the very enemies against whom it was fighting. Be that as it may, it has been put to me that, if this still appears to be an insurmountable objection to the granting of the badge, the survivors are prepared to consider a change in design. I think that is only fair, and I hope that it will provoke a dialogue with the MOD and with the College of Arms.

A further objection is that parts of the design and the motto have been incorporated into the badges of other units. I am told that there is no formal objection to the use of a motto more than once. Indeed, King George VI granted 617 Squadron the motto "Apres Moi Le Deluge", which was already in use. I have explained that the survivors are willing to consider a change in the design if it is thought appropriate.

Incidentally, I have received a letter from another constituent, Mr. Reg Baldwin, who pointed out that, during the 1914-18 war, the British National War Savings Committee used an emblem very similar to the swastika.

12 Jun 1996 : Column 399

Another reason that is put forward from time to time is that the granting of 273 Squadron's request would open the floodgates for other units. In addition, there is a rule that a squadron should exist for five years before and after receiving recognition of its badge. Only one other squadron has been mentioned as being in a similar position to 273 Squadron. I very much doubt whether there would be a queue of other units seeking recognition after all these years.

I am told that there are a number of squadrons that did not come within the five-year rule, but they still received badges--including Squadrons 272, 274, 353, 617 and 684. For example, 177 Squadron existed for only two years and seven months, and it was granted a badge after it was disbanded. I have already made the point that 273 Squadron had no control over its disbanding, but that it certainly made its application for a badge before that date. Moreover, it can trace its history back to the great war.

As if this were not enough, there is also a regulation saying that those who made conspicuous contributions are exempt from the normal requirements. I am afraid that I must part company with the Minister, who said in a letter to me:


However, the letter fails to recognise that those who suffered the privations of the Burma campaign and who put their lives on the line on a daily basis feel that their recognition is incomplete without the badge being approved. It means that their badge cannot appear in the RAF church, St. Clement Danes, or in the RAF club in Piccadilly or in the RAF museum in Hendon. That is the issue here, and that is why I urge my hon. Friend to apply a fresh mind to it.

I shall quote from a moving letter that I received from John Taylor MC, from Dorset, who had read of the efforts of 273 Squadron to obtain recognition. He wrote a letter to the editor of The Times and spoke about the involvement of the squadron in his activities when he was attached to the 5th Indian division near Rangoon. He talked about the Gurkhas being cut off on the banks of the Sittang river and about 273 Squadron coming on to the scene.

He stated:


adding, in a masterpiece of understatement--


    "and crossing the line from one side of our perimeter to the other became much easier."


    "Secondly, two nights later, the Japs had succeeded in getting 150 men and 75mm guns into caves on the cliff of the Sittang River . . . I counted 142 shells which landed in our area within half an hour. I took bearings of the gun flashes".

The information was then passed on to 273 Squadron.

He continued:


He concluded:


    "For these two actions 273 Squadron have surely earned the right to be treated in exactly the same way as all other Squadrons of the Royal Air Force, who were so helpful to us on the ground."

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With respect, Mr. Taylor is in a far better position to judge the true contribution of 273 Squadron than any civil servant in Whitehall. The men of 273 Squadron risked their lives flying Spitfires in the heat of battle, alongside the forgotten army. Many paid the supreme sacrifice, and now--50 years later--there are only 90 survivors. They seek the recognition that they and their fallen comrades so richly deserve.


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