740.00117 E.W./3–845

The British Ambassador (Halifax) to the Acting Secretary of State

No. 118
Ref 705/9/45

His Majesty’s Ambassador presents his compliments to the Acting Secretary of State and has the honour to refer to Mr. Stettinius’ note of the 31st of January last regarding the interception of the German hospital ships Tuebingen and Gradisca while en route between Trieste and Salonika in order to evacuate German sick and wounded.

In his note under reference Mr. Stettinius stated that the United States Government fully appreciated that the decisions of the British Naval authorities in intercepting the hospital ships referred to were defensible in the light of international law but that, nevertheless, the United States Government had some misgivings regarding the effect of the execution of these policies upon the general protection and immunities which may be accorded hospital ships in other theatres of the present conflict or in any other wars which may unfortunately occur.

Under instructions from His Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs,45 Lord Halifax now has the honour to inform Mr. Grew that in the view of His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom there can be no doubt whatever of the legality of the removal of sick and wounded from an enemy hospital ship. This is merely an application of the normal rights of visit, search and capture, categorically affirmed in Articles 4, 12 and 14 of the 10th Hague Convention of 1907, which itself merely restated the common law of nations. No other proof of this is needed than the fact that although the Germans have addressed several notes to His Majesty’s Government concerning the interception of the hospital ships Gradisca and Tuebingen, they have made no complaint whatsoever about the removal of their sick and wounded.

His Majesty’s Government first considered this question in 1942 when they were themselves anxious to withdraw from the crowded and bombed hospital of Malta.

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The Italian Government were approached, but insisted on the hospital ship calling at an Italian port, and in view of their presumed intent of capturing the sick and wounded on board the ship was not sent. When control of the Mediterranean was regained the tables were turned. The first British interception of a hospital ship was the “Gradisca” on the 8th. December 1943, as she was considered likely to have British sick and wounded from the Dodecanese Islands on board. In the event, 66 British sick and wounded, 63 British protected personnel, 791 Italian sick and wounded, and 33 Italian protected personnel, were liberated, No German sick and wounded were found. Subsequently, this ship and the Tuebingen have been intercepted whenever opportunity offered, in order to prevent the Germans bringing back into the battle lines sick and wounded members of outlying garrisons. Some 3,500 German military personnel have thus been captured, of whom at least three-quarters have been pronounced by the British medical authorities as likely to be fit again for active service within nine months. The remainder have either been repatriated direct in the hospital ships or examined by the Mixed Medical Commission for repatriation in the normal way.

His Majesty’s Government do not consider that there can be any question of putting thoughts into the heads of the Japanese which are not already there. The legal right is of long standing, and the risk of sick and wounded being captured inevitably arises if hospital ships are sailed in waters where they can be easily intercepted by the enemy. Throughout the war they have refrained from sailing their hospital ships in waters freely patrolled by the enemy, and in the European theatre the Axis showed the same caution until force of circumstances drove them to risk capture of their sick and wounded in the Mediterranean. No belligerent can be expected to watch enemy military personnel, often lightly wounded and comprising valuable technical grades, pass unmolested through waters under their control and we are quite certain that the Japanese, if given a favourable opportunity, would exercise the right of capture without any prompting.

His Majesty’s Government are unable to accept the view that the exercise of a legal right by them against the Germans is likely to lead to retaliation by the Japanese, and they have been unable to find any evidence to suggest that Japanese policy in such matters as hospital ships has been affected by occurrences in the European theatre.

The Japanese have already made numerous allegations of illegal attacks on the Japanese hospital ships by American and British forces. The Japanese have rejected all explanations of these attacks and have thus, according to their own ideas, built up a case for reprisals. In any event His Majesty’s Government consider there is no doubt at [Page 451] all that if any Allied hospital ship is placed within easy reach of the Japanese navy, the ship, as well as the sick and wounded on board, will be lost. In this connection it may be recalled that in 1942 even before the Japanese had begun their propaganda campaign concerning Allied attacks on their hospital ships, they intercepted and appropriated the Dutch hospital ship Optenoort on the flimsiest pretext.

His Majesty’s Government have already carried out several interceptions in the Mediterranean, and they consider that a change of policy now in the European theatre would probably be too late to affect Japanese policy.

For the reasons set forth in the preceding paragraphs His Majesty’s Government feel convinced that the misgivings expressed by the United States Government in regard to the policy of His Majesty’s Government are groundless.

His Majesty’s Government believe that a more practical issue may be whether the same policy that they have pursued in regard to German hospital ships should also be pursued in respect of Japanese hospital ships, and in this case other considerations may apply, owing to the peculiar Japanese psychology and the different conditions of the Pacific war. His Majesty’s Government have not yet considered this question in relation to the Pacific and with such consideration in mind they would be grateful to be informed as to what standing instructions, if any, have been issued by the United States authorities concerning the treatment of Japanese hospital ships when encountered.

  1. Anthony Eden.