United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
Practice Relating to Rule 47. Attacks against Persons Hors de Combat
Section C. Quarter under unusual circumstances of combat
The UK Military Manual (1958) provides:
A commander may not put his prisoners of war to death because their presence retards his movements or diminishes his power of resistance by necessitating a large guard, or by reason of their consuming supplies, or because it appears that they will regain their liberty through the impending success of the forces to which they belong. It is unlawful for a commander to kill prisoners of war on grounds of self-preservation. This principle admits of no exception, even in the case of airborne or so-called commando operations …
Whether a commander may release prisoners of war in the circumstances stated in the text is not clear … If such a release be made, it would seem clear that the commander should supply the prisoners with that modicum of food, water and weapons as would give them a chance of survival.
The UK LOAC Manual (2004) states:
“When persons entitled to protection as prisoners of war have fallen into the power of an adverse Party under unusual conditions of combat which prevent their evacuation as provided for in Part III, Section I, of the Third Convention, they shall be released and all feasible precautions shall be taken to ensure their safety.” … This rule covers cases such as commando operations or long-range reconnaissance patrols in enemy held territory.
In its chapter on air operations, the manual states:
12.64. Although it is forbidden to “kill or wound an enemy who, having laid down his arms, or having no longer means of defence, has surrendered at discretion”, in air-to-air combat, surrender is usually impracticable and occurs very infrequently.
12.64.1. In the special circumstances of air-to-air combat the continuation of an attack after an indication by the opponent of a wish to surrender is not inconsistent with the rule in paragraph 12.64 as the enemy pilot who remains in his aircraft cannot be said to have “laid down his arms” or to have “no longer a means of defence”. However, if the surrender is offered in good faith and in circumstances that do not prevent enforcement, for example, when the engagement has not taken place over enemy territory, it must be respected and accepted. Surrenders of enemy aircraft and crews should not be discouraged because not only is a psychological advantage gained, but an enemy aircraft and defecting aircrew can provide intelligence which, if promptly and properly evaluated, may be of inestimable benefit to operations planning.
Aircraft in distress
12.66. If it is clear that an enemy aircraft is disabled beyond recovery and is unable to continue and will not resume combat, or indeed is unarmed, and its immediate destruction would offer no military advantage then the attack must be broken off to allow its crew and passengers to evacuate.
12.66.1. A topic very closely related to that of surrender in the air is whether an attack should be continued against a disabled aircraft. The rule of the law of armed conflict forbidding the killing or wounding of an enemy who is hors de combat
is difficult to apply in the context of aerial warfare. Sometimes pilots simulate disability or loss of control. It is frequently necessary in aerial combat to pursue to destruction an enemy aircraft apparently in distress because of the impossibility of verifying its condition. Despite its apparent condition the aircraft may not have lost the use of all its offensive systems.
With regard to “downed” airmen in enemy-held territory, the manual states:
12.68. On land, a “downed” airman from an aircraft in distress must be afforded a reasonable opportunity to surrender before the attack upon him is resumed. Clearly if the “downed” airman is incapacitated he is hors de combat and the general rule will apply. The attack may be resumed immediately if he offers violence, attempts to escape or if, suffering no incapacity, he is in territory controlled by his own forces. The pilot who has crash-landed his aircraft and is attempting to complete its destruction or the destruction of any part of his or its equipment is committing a hostile act and may be attacked immediately.
Combat rescue of downed aircrew on land
12.69. The use of, for example, military assets to rescue aircrew who have been “downed” on territory under the control of the enemy is a combat activity. It is therefore legitimate for an enemy in such circumstances to attack the rescuers or by some other means to impede or prevent the rescue activity. However, that would not apply in the case of medical personnel, units or transports collecting the sick or wounded, see chapter 7.
12.69.1. The mere fact that a rescue service saves enemy personnel as well as its own does not entitle it to immunity from attack. Once taken prisoner, such enemy personnel should be accorded all the rights of a prisoner of war, at least until their status has been determined. Arguably, any communication by downed aircrew with their national authorities constitutes a hostile act, which would at that point justify an attack upon that aircrew. Such justification may also arise from other conduct indicating that the downed individual is seeking to continue the fight.
Combat rescue at sea
12.70. A “downed” airm[a]n at sea falls within the definition of “shipwrecked” so that he must not be attacked if he refrains from hostile acts.
12.70.1. Although it can be argued that search and rescue by aircraft used exclusively for rescuing airmen “downed” at sea in areas either not controlled by friendly forces or not occupied by enemy forces should be regarded as a protected activity under the provisions of Geneva Convention II 1949, it has been the general practice not to afford such protection.
In its chapter on prisoners of war, the manual states: “It is unlawful
to kill prisoners of war on grounds of self-preservation or because holding them would impede or endanger military operations.”
(emphasis in original)
Upon signature of the 1977 Additional Protocol I, the United Kingdom stated: “The word ‘feasible’ means that which is practicable or practically possible, taking into account all circumstances at the time including those relevant to the success of military operations.”
Upon ratification of the 1977 Additional Protocol I, the United Kingdom stated that it understood the term “feasible” as used in the Protocol to mean “that which is practicable or practically possible, taking into account all circumstances ruling at the time, including humanitarian and military considerations”.
The Report on UK Practice cites a former director of the UK Army Legal Services who stated that UK soldiers were not required to risk their own lives in granting quarter. He added that it may not be practicable to accept surrender of one group of enemy soldiers while under fire from another enemy position. Capture was to take place when circumstances permitted.