Ernest Millington, last of the World War II MPs, dies aged 93

May 10, 2009 at 8:20 pm Leave a comment

In his own words, he progressed from being a “homeless, jobless outcast at the age of 16, chucked out of home and obliged to leave school” to a war hero and then an MP, just in time to hear Churchill tell the Commons that he had secured victory over Nazi Germany.

Wing-Commander Ernest Millington won a famous by-election victory in Chelmsford in 1945 – Tory MP John MacNamara had been shot down in action over Italy.

Millington, already already a highly-rated RAF officer, stood for the fringe socialist Common Wealth party.

Due to the wartime coalition Labour and the Liberals did not stand against the Conservative candidate, who saw a majority of 16,624 overturned by more than 6,500.

Millington became the Baby of the House, the youngest MP.

After the 1945 general election he switched to the Labour party, and lost his seat just five years later.

In an interview with the BBC Millington recalled that during first parliamentary session he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC).

As was the practice for military leaders at the time, he wore his ribbon strip on his uniform into Parliament.

“I was approached by a Tory MP dressed in civilian clothes and with a hand in his trouser pocket. ‘Your DFC ribbon is worn too wide’.

“He was, I think, not expecting my reaction. ‘If you are talking to me as an RAF officer: stand to attention; take your hand out of your trouser pocket and address a senior officer as Sir. If you are talking to me as a fellow Member of Parliament, mind your business and bugger off.'”

Millington’s most famous moment in the Commons was this speech he gave on 12 March 1946, when he became one of the first critics of the aerial bombing of Germany by US and UK forces.

Many cities were destroyed, among them Dresden, where 1,300 heavy bombers dropped more than 3,900 tons of high-explosive bombs and incendiary devices in four raids, destroying 13 square miles and killing between 24,000 and 40,000 people.

He said: “As I listened to this Debate, I thought I was back in the Royal Air Force, because wing commanders always follow air commodores and group captains; and so I think it is proper that I should follow an air commodore and three group captains at this moment.

On 1st May, 1945, I first took my seat in the House of Commons after winning a by-election.

The Daily Telegraph newspaper said that my entering the House of Commons was astounding.

The thing that astonished me was that I was alive to come into the House, because I had just completed a tour of operations with Bomber Command.

I remember well, that when I first joined my squadron, the night before I received my posting, the station to which I was posted lost 12 aircraft out of the 28 that had flown that night.

The Under-Secretary of State, in his introductory speech, referred, I thought, a little casually and in passing to the fact that 50,000 men lost their lives in Bomber Command during the war.

He forgot to mention 15,000 others who suffered serious casualties, including being taken prisoner of war, and the overriding fact that this enormous number of casualties, 65,000 in all, was out of a sum total of 110,000 trained.

The fact that when I first reported to a squadron 12 out of 28 crews had ” gone for a Burton,” as we used to say, and the fact that when I first reported for operational duty, the average expectation of life for nine new crews out of 10, in the group to which I was posted, was less than six months, have a significance in the whole of my outlook in the political world in which I live, and also upon the attitude I have towards the Royal Air Force and towards this particular Debate.

We want—that is; the people who served in Bomber Command of the Royal Air Force and their next-of-kin—a categorical assurance that the work we did was militarily and strategically justified.

I am sorry I should go back to this old question. There have been words of high praise spoken in this Debate and written in the Press, words of congratulation, but there has also been an undercurrent of thought that the strategic work of Bomber Command was wasteful of our manpower and over-destructive in its effect upon the enemy.

I feel I am justified on behalf of 50,000 widows and bereaved mothers in asking the Under-Secretary of State to make much more clear than he did in his speech—upon which I join in congratulating him—that the work that was done by Bomber Command was completely justified from the military point of view and, particularly, from the strategic point of view.

If it was not completely justified, then some investigation must be held into the position of those people who were responsible for the direction of Bomber Command, particularly from the years 1943 to 1945, which resulted in such a great waste of manpower.

This matter is precipitated in my mind by the signal fact that, in the terminal honours, at the end of last year, in the New Year’s Honours List, the name of the chief architect of Bomber Command, Sir Arthur Harris, was a conspicuous absentee.

I know it will be argued that in the Honours List six months previously the Commander-in-Chief of Bomber Command received the Order of the G.C.B.

But he retired from the Royal Air Force without any public expression of gratitude for the work, not that he had done, but which his Command had done under him.

He left the country in a bowler hat for America, without having been included in the terminal Honours List.

There is a feeling amongst the men who have served in Bomber Command that what appears to be an affront to the Commander-in-Chief of that Command is, in fact, an affront to the people who served in that Command and, of course, to those who suffered casualties.

We feel that if our organisation did a good job of work in all respects, as we believe it did, the least that should be done is that an honour should be conferred on its head, comparable to the honours paid to commanding officers of similar units, particularly in the other Services.

I go from that to some consideration of the nature of the organisation of the permanent Royal Air Force.

I heard with interest the remarks made by the air commodore and group captains who preceded me in this Debate.

But it does not seem to me that they have really got to the most important consideration in the structure of a permanent regular Air Force.

During the war there was the incentive to work and fight such as one can never hope to expect to have in peace time, the consciousness that in the daily or nightly facing of danger men were “sticking out their necks,” as we used to say, for something which was worth while.

In peace time you have not the ever present spur to endeavour, and, particularly, the spur to self-sacrifice that is always present in war.

The function, particularly of a Labour and Socialist administration, should be to provide the spur for proficient and self-sacrificing service, if we are to attract to the ranks of the regular Air Force precisely the kind of men upon whom this country must depend if ever her shores are threatened with invasion.

We have all been interested in what the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr. Driberg) earlier this afternoon called the “troubles” in the Air Force.

Similarly, most hon. Members who sit on the Government benches have been interested in the discussion held in recent meetings of the Trades Union Congress on the question of conscription.

I think that both the speech of the hon. Member for Maldon, and the conclusions arrived at by the Trades Union Congress, have a direct bearing upon what I have in mind, this question of the future of the Air Force.

It will be remembered that, apart from the specific question of demobilisation and repatriation, it became apparent, particularly in the Far East, that the Air Force is made up now of a body of men who have achieved during the last six years a fairly high degree of political consciousness.

Similarly, the Trades Union Congress gives as one of the conditions on which it will approve conscription for the armed Forces, that there shall be a measure of democratisation of the Forces.

I ask the Under-Secretary whether he cannot make some pronouncement to show that the Air Ministry realise that the character of the men who make up the Air Force has changed during the last seven years.

A man in the Royal Air Force is now conscious of his status as a citizen, as well as of his status as a member of the Armed Forces.

Are the Air Ministry prepared to go any way in the direction of democratisation?

This is a time in our history when the men in the Air Force, and in the other Services which are governed by King’s Regulations, should no longer be bound by irksome rules which deny them rights as citizens.

I refer in particular to an incident which will be within recollection of the Undersecretary.

It is the scandalous incident which occurred this year at Grantham, where an aircraftman was brutally treated by the police of his unit, because he dared to pen an anonymous letter to a local newspaper.

Mr. Sidney Shephard (Newark): Will the hon. and gallant Member give a definition of what he means when he uses the word “brutal? ”

Wing-Commander Millington: Yes, I will.

Brutality is not merely a question of physical violence.

Mental violence is almost more brutal than physical violence, and, when a 19 year old lad has to be summarily arrested and intimidated by R.A.F. police in a public place, that, in my submission, is greater brutality than if someone had struck him.

I am not submitting that the officer commanding the unit in that particular case went beyond his powers under the appropriate regulations.

I submit that the regulations are wrong, and that it is time it was possible for a young man, who is serving in a military capacity, to take a full share in the political life of the country in which he lives, to take a full and active part in public meetings, and to be allowed the right freely to write letters and articles, even on Service matters, for publication in the local and national Press.

If that kind of relaxation of the regulations were followed by Service Ministers, we should be taking the first step towards making men in the R.A.F., the Army and the Navy realise that they are men, and not a peculiar brand of children who can be entrusted with millions of pounds’ worth of equipment, but cannot be trusted with, perhaps, the chief weapon of all, the weapon of ideas.

The Under-Secretary, in consideration of the kind of Air Force which we are to have, and which is to attract the men we want, should pay attention to the traditional basis of promotion, and particularly of promotion to commissioned rank.

During the period of the war, there has been a considerable relaxation from the traditional approach.

This has been inevitable, because the supply of men of what used to be called “the right type,” has not been sufficient to fulfil the demands, of war.

When an other rank completes a form of submission for promotion to commissioned rank, he is still asked for particulars of his school, sports and clubs.

I submit that these considerations are irrelevant, if there has been built up in the Service in which these men have served as other ranks, a proper relationship between officers and men.

All that should be required is a detailed report on efficiency, powers of leadership and the like, and a recommendation by the local unit commander; these should carry the men forward without reference to what is known as background.

A board should be more concerned about a man’s ability, efficiency and powers to lead, than about the kind of school or club of which he happened to be a member.

There is a final consideration, and I was delighted to hear the . Under-Secretary refer to it in his most interesting peroration, and that is, that it does not matter how much money you may give the men, and how much better are their quarters, if the direction of the Service is wrong, then, because the men have become politically minded, we shall not get the men freely to join the Forces and serve in them.

The Under-Secretary said there was a great hope for the people of the world who had been born during the last twelve months by the formation of U.N.O., although some may doubt how much hope was demonstrated at the recent meetings.

Recently I have had submitted a questionnaire which was circulated among men of an R.A.F. station in Norfolk.

It was circulated from the rank of A.C.2 up to corporal; apparently it was felt that sergeants and commissioned officers ought not to be included, because they had some vested interest in the Service.

These men were asked whether they would continue in the Service more willingly if the pay was doubled, and only one per cent. said that in these circumstances they would.

They were asked whether they would continue in the Service if they were given something to do during the time when they could not normally be employed on Service training and duties.

An overwhelming number “opted” in favour of having more to do, which is one of the instances where the working men of this country choose to have more work to do.

The conclusion is that button cleaning, and what is known in the Services as “buli,” of one sort and another, excessive discipline and excessive parades at unduly early hours in the morning, are conditions of service which put off rather than attract the people we want voluntarily to make their career in the Royal Air Force.

Finally, the question was put whether the men would rather serve in a national Royal Air Force, or in a Royal Air Force which was part of the international Forces working under U.N.O. for international law and security.

I cannot possibly convey to this Committee, or indeed to my personal friends, what it means to people with my experience during the war to see their friends killed on operations night after night.

It is not the immediate menace to one’s self which is so destructive to one’s morale, because I have not yet met an airman who thought that it could possibly happen to him, even when the losses were 50, 60 and 70 per cent.

It is this business of having to go up three or four nights a week, losing one, or three from a squadron, or 30 from a group in one operation, which makes the airmen, of all people, conscious of the fact that there is no profit for anyone in war for nationalistic purposes.

I submit that the future recruitment of the Air Force is entirely bound up with the foreign policy of the British Government.

If it is made clear that the Air Force will be used as an instrument for international law and peace, then the men will come in voluntarily to assist in the building up of that international Force.

It is my most terrifying nightmare that ever again the Royal Air Force should be used as an instrument of nationalistic war.

One final word which I feel I ought to say, because I am a member of no Party but my own.

In consideration of matters of foreign policy and of the future of the Armed Forces. we have to thank whatever God we may believe in, that we have a Labour Government sitting on the benches opposite I believe, although there are a thousand things on which I disagree with individual Members of the Labour Party, that in their desire to make the fighting Services a career in which a man can find full self-expression and a decent way of life, they are many years in front of their predecessors in Government.

Furthermore, in the Secretary of State for Air, particularly on today’s showing, I am convinced that the Royal Air Force has a political leader of whom they will always be glad.


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