HC Deb 10 June 1913 vol 53 cc1431-2
63. Mr. COOPER

asked if there is any rule to the effect that in all cases where guns are carried by merchant vessels the captain or the chief officer must be an officer of the Royal Naval Reserve, and, if so, whether this rule is effective; and what arrangements are made to ensure that those in charge are conversant with the handling and firing of the guns?

The FIRST LORD of the ADMIRALTY (Mr. Churchill)

The House will perhaps allow me to take the opportunity of clearing up a misconception which appears to be prevalent. Merchant vessels carrying guns may belong to one or other of two totally different classes. The first class is that of the armed merchant cruisers, which on the outbreak of war would be commissioned under the White Ensign and would then be indistinguishable in status and control from men-of-war. In this class belong the "Mauretania" and "Lusitania." The second class consists of merchant vessels, which would (unless specially taken up by the Admiralty for any purpose) remain merchant vessels in war, without any change of status, but have been equipped by their owners, with Admiralty assistance, with a defensive armament in order to exercise their right of beating off attack. I presume that it is to this latter class of vessel that the hon. Member's question refers. There is no rule that the master or chief officer must belong to the Royal Naval Reserve, and it will be clear from what I have said that no such rule is necessary. The Blue Ensign would only be flown if the vessel has received an Admiralty warrant. Before lending the guns, the Admiralty satisfies itself that the handling and firing of them will be carried out by men who have become conversant with these operations through drill.


Can no ship be chartered for this purpose as an auxiliary to the Navy which was manned exclusively by lascars and Chinamen?


Does the right hon. Gentleman realise the international danger which might underly the placing of guns on merchant vessels unless the Department ensure that under no circumstances shall they be used except under justifiable conditions?


Yes, Sir. We have given a great deal of consideration to this matter, and we realise very clearly the danger which might be apprehended in this and other directions.

Colonel YATE

What is the drill for the men who handle these guns?


It is not very convenient to go into the matter at Question Time, and I am not sure that there is any great advantage in pursuing this discussion day after day. If there are questions on the matter which ought to be cleared up, perhaps when the Vote comes on in July that may be a good opportunity, and I may perhaps make a further statement, if there is a general desire for it in the House. The whole experiment was not undertaken without very good reason, and it is developing slowly, effectively, steadily, and in a satisfactory manner.