High Court of Justice
June 13th, 1941
KING'S BENCH DIVISION
Sir Roger Keyes v. Daily Mirror Newspapers Limited
Before Mr. Justice Tucker
Sir Patrick Hastings, K.C., and Mr. Valentine Holmes appear for Sir Roger Keyes; Mr. G.O. Slade for the defendants.
Statement made by Sir Patrick Hastings:
This is an action for libel brought by Admiral of the Fleet Sir Roger Keyes against the Daily Mirror Newspapers Limited in consequence of an article which appeared in the Daily Mirror newspaper of May 30th, 1940.
The Germans invaded Belgium on May 10th, and a few hours later Sir Roger Keyes, at the request of our Government, left England by aeroplane to join King Leopold as special liaison officer. He was with the King at the Headquarters of his Army throughout the brief campaign in Belgium, and at the same time was in close touch with the Headquarters of the British Army and with the Government. He remained with King Leopold until 10 p.m. on the night of May 27th, the day on which King Leopold asked the Germans for an armistice. During that time he had unrivalled opportunities of observing the course of events.
On May 28th, Mr. Churchill announced in the House of Commons that the surrender had taken place and asked that judgment about the matter should be suspended until the facts were known.
Sir Roger Keyes on the same day, in the lobby, echoed the same advice and rusted that judgment on King Leopold, a very
gallant soldier, should be suspended till all the facts became known.
This advice did not appeal to the persons responsible for the conduct of the Daily Mirror newspaper, and on May 30th that paper published a diatribe attacking violently not only the King of the Belgians but also Sir Roger Keyes.
How far justified Sir Roger was in his advice to suspend judgment is now beginning to be understood.
King Leopold, when his country was invaded, had placed himself and his Army under the French High Command, and the movements of his Army conformed with the orders of the French Command.
On May 20th, the British Army and French Northern Army were ordered to prepare to fight to the south-westward to regain contact with the main with the main French Army, and unless the Belgian Army could conform to this movement it was clear that it would involve a breach of contact between the British and Belgian Armies.
Sir Roger informed the King of the order, and he was asked by the King to inform the British Government and Lord Gort that the Belgian Army had neither tanks nor aircraft and existed solely for defence. He did not feel he had any right to expect the British Government to jeopardize, perhaps, the very existence of the British Army in order to keep contact with the Belgian Army, but he wished to make it quite clear that if there were a separation between the two Armies, the capitulation of the Belgian Army would be inevitable.
At the request of the French High Command the Belgian Army was withdrawn on May 23rd from the strongly prepared position on the Scheldt to a much weaker and longer line on the Lys, to allow the British Army to retire behind the defensive frontier line which it had occupied throughout the winter, in order to prepare for the offensive it was about to undertake to the southward.
On the evening of May 26th, a break through the Belgian line by the Germans seemed to be inevitable and the King moved the remaining French 60th Division in Belgian vehicles to a prepared position across the Yser, which by now was flooded over a wide area and its bridges mined.
Fighting on the Belgian front had been continuous for four days, and the Belgian Army, by May 27th, was running short of food and ammunition and was being attacked by at least eight German divisions, including armoured units and wave after wave of dive bombers.
On the morning of May 27th, the King asked Sir Roger to
inform the British authorities that he would be obliged to surrender before a debacle took place. A similar message was given to the French.
By the afternoon of that day the Germany Army had driven a wedge between the Belgian and British Armies. Every road, village, and town in the small part of Belgium left in Belgian hands was thronged with hundreds of thousands of refugees, and men, women, and children were being mercilessly bombed and machine-gunned by low-flying aircraft.
In these circumstances, at 5 p.m. on the 27th, King Leopold informed the British and French authorities that he intended at midnight of that day to ask for an armistice so as to avoid further slaughter of his people.
This message, like the earlier one on the same day, was promptly received in London and Paris, but all communications with the British Army were cut, and though wireless messages were repeatedly made, it is now known that these did not reach the Commanders-in-Chief.
Sir Roger Keyes, knowing these facts as he did, with a number of details that are unnecessary for the purposes of this statement, felt more than justified in suggesting a suspension of judgment on the King, and he quite naturally resented the insult and injury of the article in the Daily Mirror attacking him. He immediately saw his solicitors and the present acton was started.
The defence to the action pleaded that the words of the libel so far as they were statements of fact were true in substance and in fact, and so far as they were expressions of opinion that they were fair comment.
Wiser counsel subsequently prevailed, and this defence was withdrawn by a letter from the Defendants' Solicitors in the following words:
Temple Avenue, E.C.4.
October 9th, 1940.
KEYES v. DAILY MIRROR
Our Clients have been advised by Counsel that as a matter of law their defence of fair comment in this action cannot succeed unless they can substantiate the statements of fact in the article complained of with reference to the conduct of King Leopold.
Our Clients are not in a position to prove these statements to be truer and we should accordingly be glad if you would treat this letter as a formal notice that their plea of fair comment will no longer be relied upon.
Whether the structures passed upon King Leopold by, amongst others, the Prime Minister of France, were in fact justified, our Clients have no means of knowing; all they can say is that if there was the slightest doubt about the matter, nothing could have been more dignified and proper than your Client's request for a suspension of judgment upon King Leopold and nothing more creditable than that your Client should have made the request at the time that he did, when everyone's hand was against the King.
As the whole criticism of your Client in the article complained of was based upon facts which our Clients then believed and had the highest possible authority for believing to be true, but which they must now assume to be untrue, it follows that every vestige of foundation for such criticism disappears, and our Clients are accordingly desirous of making honourable amends to your Client, who has acted throughout in accordance with the highest traditions of honour and justice.
Our Clients invite your Client to say what he would like them to do as an earnest of their sincerity in making this offer, since they feel that he will not want to fasten too much responsibility upon them for acting upon information coming from sources which they had every right to regard as unimpeachable.
Upon this last aspect of the case our Clients will be serving a notice in mitigation of damages if it should still be necessary for this action to proceed to trial.
SHIRLEY WOOLMER & CO.
Messrs. Alfred Cos & Son,
37, Norfolk Street,
After this withdrawal and the acceptance and publication of the foregoing statement, there was nothing left of the action except the question of damages, and these have now been agreed.
The further account of the proceedings was given by The Times of June 14th, 1941, as follows:
Mr. Slade said that his Lordship would observe from the papers before him how unimpeachable had been the defendants' sources of information as to the conduct ascribed to the King of the Belgians in seeking an armistice from the Germans on May 27th, 1940. The defendants accepted without reservation the statement just made by Sir Patrick Hastings, from which it would appear that they had been entirely misled. They welcomed
the opportunity of repeating in open Court the sentiments expressed in their solicitors' letter of October 9th, 1940.
Sir Roger Keyes's dignified and fair-minded attitude towards the King of the Belgians had been abundantly justified, and the defendants tendered to the gallant Admiral a sincere apology for their criticism of him, coupled with an expression of their appreciation of his conduct and bearing throughout.
The matter did not, however, end there. It was apparent from the facts stated on behalf of Sir Roger Keyes that a very grave injustice had been done to the King of the Belgians, who, like Sir Roger Keyes, had acted throughout in accordance with the highest traditions of honour and justice. The defendants accordingly wished to take advantage of the opportunity to tender also to King Leopold, who was not now in a position to defend himself, their most sincere and respectful apology for the injustice which they had unwittingly done him. They hoped that if and when their apology came to the knowledge of King Leopold he would accept it in the spirit in which it was offered.
Mr. Justice Tucker, in assenting to the settlement and to the withdrawal of the record, said that this libel action, unlike some others, appeared to have served a most useful purpose, and the statements which had been made would give very wide satisfaction.
Solicitors:--Messrs. Alfred Co & Son; Messrs. Shirley Woolmer & Co.
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