AIRBORNE FORCES & THE PEGASUS SYMBOL – 19 January 2000

Dr Julian Lewis: I am delighted to have secured the opportunity to raise the issue of the Pegasus symbol and airborne forces in this short debate. I am particularly grateful for the presence of the entire Conservative Front-Bench shadow defence team. Another Conservative Member who would very much have liked to be here is my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr Howarth), who has taken a close interest in this matter, but who is unavoidably on a Select Committee visit to the Netherlands. My hon. Friend has, however, left me a copy of a publication which is one of his prized possessions. It is a venerable, official history of British airborne divisions, entitled "By Air to Battle". Typically, because the Pegasus symbol is directly identified with anything to do with the airborne forces, that symbol adorns the front cover of the publication.

My hon. Friend particularly drew my attention to the part of the publication that refers to members of the airborne forces being honoured in December 1944 at a special investiture held in Buckingham palace. It says:

"Each officer and man of these ... divisions wears upon his shoulder the badge of Pegasus, the winged horse and its rider, brandishing a lance. As an emblem it is singularly appropriate, and whenever the citizens of Britain catch sight of it, they may perhaps call to mind that other horse which, long ago, it is said, brought armed men into the city of Troy –the vanguard of a victorious army."

To have an entire debate about insignia might seem to exaggerate the importance of such symbolism but, when we consider it in contexts other than the military, we know that that is not the case. Only today, the papers are full of the argument about the future of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and no doubt part of that will be the question of what signs, badges and insignia will in future represent that police force.

When one looks at any publication dealing with events in the history of the airborne forces, such as the account of the battle of Arnhem in Martin Middlebrook's definitive version that I have here, it is always Pegasus that illustrates its cover because Pegasus is the brand name that is inextricably bound up in the public mind with the image, the record and the heroism of the airborne forces. It is astonishing that the symbol should have been scrapped when it is so well known.

I am concerned about that matter because I view it not in isolation, but as part of a continuum. I have been noting with dismay a succession of events that have been chipping away at service morale and the military ethos. As I customarily do in these debates, I have taken the trouble to tell the Minister in advance nearly all the points that I intend to make today.

The Minister knows of my concern that, all too often, senior serving military personnel are being pushed forward by politicians into debates, to take the flak and to justify and try to excuse controversial decisions made by politicians. That is not good for the forces; it is not good for the impartiality of serving personnel, and it is imposing too much on military chiefs who have to put on a brave face when confronted by unpalatable decisions.

Politicians have a habit of showing spite to those who embarrass them. That is as true of the military field as it is anywhere else. I am old enough to remember the case of Colonel Colin Mitchell of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, who was deployed in Aden in the 1960s, when Harold Wilson had announced that it was not possible or viable to continue to maintain British control there.

Colonel Mitchell, on his own initiative, showed by his successful activities in Crater and the Radfan mountains that it was entirely practicable to do so. I believed then, as I do now, that it was no coincidence that, within a very few years, a Labour Government were hell-bent on destroying his regiment, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.

I shall touch briefly on other examples before I return to Pegasus itself. The first is the Berlin airlift, which was commemorated in a number of ways in this country. However, unlike in other countries, no commemorative stamps were issued here last year to mark the 50th anniversary of that successful key moment in the cold war. I have a particular interest because my constituent, Mrs. Jessamy Waite, is the widow of Air Commodore Rex Waite, the RAF officer who conceived the practicability of the Berlin airlift.

On 6 April 1998, in a parliamentary question, I asked:

"Will the Minister consider the representations of the British Berlin Airlift Association, which wants the Royal Mail to issue a commemorative stamp to mark that crucial turning point in the war? That suggestion has so far been given a idle brush-off."

The Minister for the Armed Forces was then merely the Under-Secretary. He replied with his usual insouciance:

"I cannot accept that. I have had discussions with the Department of Trade and Industry, which as the sponsoring Department, is discussing this matter with the Post Office." – [Official Report, 6 April 1998; Vol. 310, c. 13-14.]

Sadly, those discussions were unavailing and no stamp appeared.

Subsequently, when I was in Germany, I saw the German postal 50-year anniversary cover of what they call the Luftbrücke, the aerial bridge. That followed the stamp that Germany had issued for the 40th anniversary, which followed a stamp to commemorate the 25th anniversary. It is sad that the Germans have a better appreciation of what the RAF did than do the British Post Office, whatever representations the Ministry of Defence managed to make to it.

The second example is the changing-over of the long-term volunteer reserve decorations, known as the RD and the TD. In March 1999, those gave way to a combined long service decoration for reserve forces, which is applicable to all ranks. As someone who never got above the lower deck in the Royal Naval Reserve, I welcome that change.

I do not, however, welcome the fact that, whereas previously officers had the incentive to stay on and work hard for 10 years to put the letters RD and TD after their name, that incentive has now disappeared. Instead of entitling officers and other ranks to have those letters after their name, the change ensures that nobody now has those letters after their name, except those who were awarded the decoration before the end of March 1999.

The next example is the Royal Tournament. Almost by stealth, and certainly without any major public debate, more than 100 years of history were scrapped virtually without notice. The first that most people knew about the loss of the tournament was that it was a fait accompli. When one looked at the Royal Tournament website, one read the following announcement:

"The Royal Tournament will run from 20th July to 2nd August 1999. It will be a show that will live on in your memory, make its mark in history and make you proud of our heritage. This is the year you must not miss. You will not see its like again."

You can say that again.

What did the MOD have to say about that? Mr George Robertson, who was then Secretary of State, issued a press release in which he said that

"it is timely for us to take a fresh look at this event .... A number of alternatives are under consideration for this tri-service contribution to the year 2000" –

he was referring to the tournament's successor. He continued:

"A study team is currently examining how to modernise the permanent annual tournament after this millennium spectacular has completed."

That press release makes it quite obvious that the Government had no clear idea of what they wanted to put in place of the Royal Tournament; all they knew was that they wanted to get rid of an established and historic institution.

I revert now to the question of Pegasus and the airborne forces. In the early hours – at about a quarter past midnight – on the night of 5-6 June 1944, three gliders landed at the foot of a bridge over the Caen canal. In one of those gliders was a friend of mine, Mr Bill Jolliffe, who was then a sergeant-major. He was a quiet, unassuming man, whom I met on what turned out to be his last trip to visit the grave in Normandy of his brother, who had been killed 10 days into the battle. Bill is not able to tell us what he thinks of the abolition of the Pegasus symbol, but one of my constituents, Mr Bill Cornick, who is now 82, was in the second wave of gliders that landed during D-day itself. He has written to me, saying:

"How can those who have not served understand the morale-boosting effect the right to wear such insignia has upon soldiers? Arguably this is the driving force which makes men rise to efforts seemingly impossible, like all those things which go to make the individual think that his unit is the best. It's part of man management."

That is the voice of a veteran, but what do ordinary serving soldiers think about the loss of the insignia? I offer a couple of quotations from the comments of serving soldiers that were published in a service magazine. I shall identify neither the soldiers nor the magazine, in case Alastair Campbell gets to work on them. One states:

"I think it is disgraceful. I would be upset if the REME" –

the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, of which he is a member – 

"got amalgamated, which is one of the worst things, but to have something your parents and grandparents earned taken away must be heartbreaking. People died for that badge."

Another says:

"Each unit needs an identity so I feel they should keep it. It gives them a sense of the past and the endeavours of those who went before them. There are too many changes going on around the Army."

A third says:

"I don't think they should scrap the Pegasus; perhaps the whole air mobile force should keep it as their emblem. I don't know if the Paras would like that, but it is one way to keep it. It would keep everyone happy, I think."

He is absolutely right – that would be the sensible solution.

In August, I wrote to the Minister about the issue. The second paragraph of his reply of 1 September appeared to be contradicted by the fourth. The second paragraph states:

"The emblem of Bellerophon astride Pegasus was introduced in 1941 for all elements of the Airborne Forces" –

I emphasise, all elements –

"which during World War II included the Parachute Regiment, the Glider Pilot Regiment" –

we know that from my account of the glider attack on the bridge that later become known as Pegasus Bridge –

"the SAS, and all within the WW II Army Air Corps."

However, the fourth paragraph states:

"The reason why this emblem has not been incorporated into the new 16 Air Assault Brigade badge is that the parachute element of this new Brigade is only one of the two constituent parts – the other being the aviation or airmobile element".

That argument is undermined by the second paragraph, which states that the symbol has, in the past, been used far more widely than just by the Parachute Regiment.

The change in insignia, like the scrapping of the Royal Tournament before Ministers had any idea of what would be put in its place, is rooted in a word that we hear all too often from new Labour –modernisation. New Labour means Labour without socialism and modernisation in the armed forces means the armed forces without their history. The problem is that the Government have no sense of history, no sense of military morale and, apparently, no sense of the value of the Pegasus symbol as a brand synonymous in the public mind with the concept of airborne forces.

I conclude by referring to one of my frequent visits to Arnhem – I have friends who live close by – made in September of last year, the 55th anniversary of the battle. I have here three photographs taken during that visit. The first shows the sign erected over the road leading toward Oosterbeek cemetery: it says, in Dutch and in English, "Welcome veterans", and silhouetted against the skyline is Pegasus, selected from all the signs that might have been chosen.

The second photograph is that of a veteran in a period Land Rover: he is wearing his red beret and his Parachute Regiment badge – the Minister will, no doubt, assure us that those are not to disappear yet; his tie is covered with the symbol of Pegasus.

The final photograph is of two wreaths, side by side on the memorial in the Airborne cemetery in Oosterbeek. One represents the British Legion: the card reads, "Lest we forget". The other represents the airborne forces: at the heart of it is the Pegasus symbol. By their despicable action, the Government and the Ministry of Defence have ensured that it is far more likely that we shall forget what we owe to the airborne forces of the United Kingdom.