HC Deb 31 October 1912 vol 43 cc707-14

Whereupon Mr. SPEAKER, pursuant to the Order of the House of 14th October, proposed the Question, "That this House do now adjourn."


I desire to raise a question as to the efficiency of His Majesty's Dockyard at Sydney, N.S.W., and also as to the condition in which His Majesty's ships "Torch" and "Prometheus" were sent to sea last year. I would not detain the House were it not for the fact that the matter is one of extreme importance, and the facts have only come to light quite recently owing to the docking of His Majesty's ship "Torch." The "Torch" was built in the year 1895, and is therefore seventeen years old. She is a sloop of about 1,000 tons burthen, and was placed on reserve in Sydney Harbour in 1906. Between then and July, 1911, she was only twice commissioned for short periods of about six months each. During the whole of the five years, with the exceptions of those two commissions, she was in the care of two civilian shipkeepers. It is obvious to everyone that one of His Majesty's ships merely under the care of a couple of shipkeepers for four years must deteriorate to a very great extent. In 1911 she was ordered to be commissioned, and a commanding officer was sent out from England. He arrived in Sydney in April, 1911, and took over the command. The ship was then in dockyard hands. The estimate which the dockyard furnished for making this ship fit for commission was £300. The captain of the ship protested against the inadequacy of this amount, and said that the ship was in such a condition that nothing like £300 was sufficient. Under pressure from the captain, the dockyard increased their estimate, and eventually a sum of between £l,000 and £2,000 was expended upon the ship. I ought to mention that three years before, in 1908, on the occasion of her last commission, the captain of the ship had reported upon her inferior condition and the fact that she wanted considerable repairs. After the dockyard had repaired the ship on the new estimate, the captain, under strong pressure, took her to sea. I draw the attention of the House to the fact that the certificate which is necessary in every case, according to the King's Regulations (Article 1094), that the ship is in all respects efficient and ready to go to sea, was not given in this case. The certificate should also lay down that the dockyard are aware of no defects which affect the fighting or seagoing efficiency of the ship. In this case that certificate was not furnished. The captain of the ship was not aware of the very serious condition in which the ship was at the time, because it was impossible for him to find out in how bad a state she was without having effected certain repairs which only the dockyard could show him. The ship went to sea for six months, to cruise in unsurveyed and unfrequented waters of the Southern Pacific. During that cruise her screw dropped off, and eventually she was towed back to Sydney in November, 1911.

During the cruise she was in Suva Harbour, Fiji, in company with His Majesty's ship "Prometheus," and both ships were unable to get up steam under forty-eight hours' notice without relinquishing repairs which were absolutely necessary and urgent. They were lying in Suva Harbour, Fiji, at the time when relations were strained last year. It will be within the memory of the House that that was the case in September last year. Suva is the landing place of the Pacific cable which runs from Vancouver, through Fiji and Norfolk Island and thence to Australia and New Zealand. Whilst these two ships were lying there unable to get up steam within forty-eight hours, unless they relinquished repairs which were absolutely necessary, and then only to get up steam for eight knots, relations were strained with another at present friendly nation, and at that time a German cruiser, a ship of 1,600 tons—that is to say, in fighting efficiency between the "Prometheus" and the "Torch," larger than the "Torch," but smaller than the "Prometheus"—was lying in that harbour. That alone is a very serious matter which the Admiralty have to answer.

The "Torch" went back to Sydney, and on her way dropped her screw. She was towed back to Sydney, and put into dock in December last year. Then it was found, after removing the wooden sheathing, which only acts as a background for the copper sheathing outside the vessel, that the whole steel bottom of the ship was corroded over an area of something like 500 square feet. I have circulated some few photographs of the condition of the ship's bottom, and I also produced some days ago at Question Time a specimen of the corroded bottom plates of the ship, which were described in one paper as "pieces of blotting-paper", and in another as "pieces of decayed wood." It was impossible for the captain of the ship to know how serious was her state, because he on his own initiative, was unable to have the wooden sheathing stripped off the bottom; but I say it was the duty of the dockyard to examine the bottom before she was sent to sea. The ship was sent to sea in April, 1911, in a condition which meant that if she had met with heavy weather in all probability she would never have been heard of again. She had a crew of 108 officers and men, and she was in such a condition as well that if she had been a merchant ship the owners would have been liable to prosecution and to a heavy fine if they had been found guilty. Quite apart from that, there is the matter of her fighting efficiency. The steel upper deck, which is the foundation for the wooden upper decks, was rotted away until in places the deck was so thin that it could be folded up like a piece of cardboard, and this was the condition of the deck round the gun mountings on either side, so that she was in no condition to fight, as well as being in no condition to fight the elements. The condition of the ship was so bad on her leaving dock at Sydney in April, 1911, that the captain had made several protests about her condition. He made a report to the admiral in command on that station, in the course of which, he said:— Placed in the dilemma of having no money appropriated for repairs which were admittedly advisable, with difficulties about the number of hands available and their rates of pay the dockyard became almost frenzied in their resistance to my demands. After I had driven my fist through the ventilating shaft and torn away one of the steel plates with my hand the captain in charge protested that it was no use my knocking the ship about. That was the official report, which the Admiralty have in their possession. This ship, which was in such a condition that the captain could knock it about, was allowed to go to sea and to face perhaps a hurricane in the Southern Pacific. These two facts—the condition in which she was sent to sea and the fact that she was in Suva Harbour in a position in which she might have had, though happily she had not, to fight an action within a few hours, point to the fact that she was neglected, and that the Admiralty are seriously to blame for not allowing sufficient money for repairs in the Sydney dockyard. The "Prometheus," after leaving Suva went to Sydney, and from there she was ordered to proceed to Hong Kong in November last year. She left Sydney on the 15th November and arrived at Hong Kong on the 1st March, taking three and a half months to proceed a distance of 4,400 miles. The reason was that she broke down hopelessly in the Malacca Islands, and was towed to Hong Kong by a cruiser. That also shows she was not in a fit condition to fight an action or to go to sea at all. The charge which I bring against the Admiralty is that not only have they not replaced the cruisers which were scrapped under the policy of 1904–5—these cruisers were required in these waters—but that they have starved the dockyards abroad, and have ordered, in the words of the official instruction, "rigid economy" in the dockyard of Sydney, with the result that the ships were not able to get the necessary repairs to enable them to go to sea.

I am sure no Member of the House, whether he belongs to the Little Navy party or to the Big Navy party, wishes in any way to see necessary repairs scamped on His Majesty's ships. Forty-one years ago, in 1871, there was a similar case to this. Her Majesty's ship "Megaera" was sent from England to Australia. She also had corroded plates on her bottom, and the result was she sprang a leak, and had to be beached on St. Paul's Island, in the South Indian Ocean. A Royal Commission was appointed to inquire into the circumstances as to why the ship was sent to sea, and the proceedings of the Commission are embodied in a very voluminous Report. The result was that Sir Spencer Robinson and several Admiralty officials were severely censured for having sent the ship to sea. The case is very similar to the one to which I have called attention, because four years before the "Megaera" went to sea a report was made as to the unseaworthy condition of the ship. In this case a report was made in 1908 as to the unseaworthy condition of the "Torch." I venture to say that the facts which I have disclosed point to this, that the Admiralty have starved the dockyards abroad, and that they have not efficiently carried out the demands of the country as regards cruisers abroad. I ask the First Lord of the Admiralty to give an assurance that no such lapse from efficiency will take place in future, and that he will take steps for carrying out the most careful inquiry into the case of the "Torch," and also that of the "Prometheus." I ask the right hon. Gentleman to see also that all the sister ships of the "Prometheus" class— there are nine altogether—are in an efficient condition. Another ship, the "Proserpine," also broke down at sea, and had to be towed into port. She is now lying at Malta, and will probably never reach England at all. There are seven other ships, and I see that one of them, the "Pegasus," is going to be commissioned at an early date. I wish an assurance that the whole of the ships in the "P" class will be carefully examined, and will not be allowed to proceed to sea in the condition the "Torch" and the "Prometheus" were in last year.

The FIRST LORD of the ADMIRALTY (Mr. Churchill)

The House will not, I hope, suppose that the description given by the hon. Gentleman of the condition of the "Torch," can be taken as typical of the standard of efficiency of vessels of that class in the Navy. The "Prometheus," which is the first ship to which he referred, is a small cruiser of about 2,100 tons, and as the hon. Gentleman has said, is one of a class of nine. These vessels are, of course, of moderate fighting power, but they are useful for work in the Pacific round about the islands, and especially where vessels of no very great draught are required. Early in 1911 it was necessary to reinforce the China station, and the "Prometheus" was sent on a long voyage from Australia to the China Seas. The "Prometheus" was one of the three ships of the P class which were not originally fitted with the improved kind of distilling machine, and though she was sufficiently equipped for what we may call short sea service in the Australasian archipelago, it was a task beyond Improper power to send her all the way to China; and but for the fact that she was required with some urgency she would not have been selected for this duty. The "Prometheus" was delayed by her boilers driving, and by a break down in her evaporator; and it was not until many weeks after she started that she eventually reached her new station. The cause of the break down of the "Prometheus" was that though fitted for the comparatively simple duty she was discharging, it was too much to send her across the Pacific. [HON MEMBERS: "Why was she sent"?] She was sent because events required her there, and it was not considered by those responsible at the time that the strain would prove too much for the evaporating machinery. However, the departure of the "Prometheus" from Australia made it necessary to make certain changes, which led to the recommissioning of the "Torch." The "Torch" is an older vessel than the "Prometheus." It took the place of the "Pegasus," which was one of the vessels removed in the course of the various alterations, to discharge the duties of carrying letters about from one island to another, and carrying Governors and other persons, with transports, on different voyages which from time to time they required. The "Torch" would not have been recommissioned but for the fact that a vessel had been drawn suddenly away to China. A boiler of one of the vessels was cracked, and she had to be placed in the Reserve. Under the Regulations of the Admiralty she ought to have been thoroughly inspected, and her condition watched from year to year, but the Dockyard Officials at Sydney failed to carry out the authorised periodic survey upon this ship, and the consequence was deterioration which had taken place in her was not fully appreciated when she was hurriedly commissioned for sea. I do not at all pretend to regard the episode with satisfaction. There is no question of grudging the money necessary for repairs. This was a ship which had not been intended for sea again, but urgent need made it necessary to fit her up, and it was because of certain prescribed instructions having been improperly neglected—of course, no doubt none of us thought the vessel would be needed—that her condition was not satisfactory. I am told the chief defects consisted of the steel plate deck under the wooden plate being rusted and the boiler plate under the boiler being largely reduced in thickness. Both of these defects would have been attended to if the dockyard officials had carried out the authorised instructions. Of course, this is a matter of which official notice has been taken. The hon. Gentleman has not been the first to draw the attention of the Admiralty to this matter, and I cannot quarrel with him for the interest he has taken in it, or for the facts he has brought out before the House. At the same time I should recommend the House not to assume that the statement he has made does, in any respect of the facts, actually represent the condition of affairs as they exist in His Majesty's Navy.


I have listened to the speech of my hon. Friend below the Gangway, and I think it was perfectly clear and called for a perfectly definite answer. The First Lord of the Admiralty, I think all shades of the House will agree, has made a most lame and halting answer. The point is this. There was a ship called the "Torch." The First Lord might have got up and told us the fact as it stood. She was sent to sea in a disgraceful condition. There is an Admiralty order which enacts that a ship is not to go to sea until a certificate is signed by the dockyard and by the Captain to say that she is in all respects fit and ready to proceed to sea. My hon. Friend asked the First Lord why was that certificate not signed? That ship was sent to sea in a condition that risked the lives of the officers and crew. That ship went to sea in a condition that if it was a merchant ship, and if it came before this House, all sides would have condemned most severely, and the owners would have got into trouble. I maintain that this matter should not be allowed to drop in the House of Commons, and there should be an inquiry into it the same as there was in the case which I remember very well of the "Megaera," which went to sea under the same conditions, except that she risked 700 lives. My hon. Friend has pointed out about the screw of the "Torch"—and fancy a ship going to sea when the screw dropped off; and fancy a ship going to sea with the plating and the wooden sheathing which is three and a half inches in a state in which you could bend it up! I have seen some of the platings, and I know what I am talking about. The whole question was a disgrace to His Majesty's Admiralty. I do not know if I should be in order, or whether I should bring it up on another adjournment, but I should like to move that there is a full inquiry into the reasons why that ship went to sea, risking the lives of the officers and men in the disgraceful condition she was in. I will ask the First Lord whether he will accede to my request that there should be a full public inquiry as to why that ship was sent to sea in that condition. My hon. Friend is perfectly right as to orders going to the dockyards not to spend money. We have naval bases abroad4 and most of them were dismantled. I have seen two of them. I was at one of them this time last year, where we spent £56,000 on machinery shortly before, and it has been dismantled. There is one minute more, and I ask the First Lord if he will sanction a full public inquiry into the reason why this ship was sent to sea, and the lives of officers and crew jeopardised. [Several HON. MEMBERS: "Answer."]


Might I ask also whether this matter has already been inquired into within the Admiralty, and whether the responsibility has been brought home to the persons concerned? [Several HON. MEMBERS: "Answer."]

And it being half an hour after the conclusion of Government business, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put.

Adjourned at Twenty minutes after Eleven o'clock.