HC Deb 12 February 1914 vol 58 cc333-5

asked the First Lord of the Admiralty if he will inform the House why the firing practices carried out when His Majesty's Ship "Empress of India" was used as a target were conducted in deep water; and if he will state the number and class of guns that were on board the ship at the time she was sunk in the Channel?


Perhaps I may take advantage of the question to give a full answer. The place and conditions of the "Empress of India" firing were selected by the Commander-in-Chief of the Home Fleet in consultation with the naval members of the Board of Admiralty. I accept full Parliamentary responsibility for approving the course proposed. The object of the firing was not, as the Noble Lord appears to suppose, to ascertain the effect of shell fire on the structure of the target vessel, the soft armour and antiquated construction of which would have afforded no useful information. The object was primarily to give the officers and men of the Fleet experience in firing at a ship under conditions approximating as nearly as possible to those of war, and in these circumstances to test and correct the methods of controlling fire and fire tactics. Every effort was made to render the target unsinkable; but I was informed that it was advisable to anchor her in deep water so that in the event of her sinking she would not become a danger to navigation. All fittings and moveables of value were stripped from the ship. The guns on board, four 13.5 inch and ten 6 inch of very early patterns, would not have repaid for the expense of removal. I shall be very ready if desired to discuss fully the general policy of so costly an experiment when the Estimates are being debated. For the present it is sufficient to observe that other leading maritime countries, especially France, Germany, and the United States, have found it necessary in late years to employ old war vessels as targets under conditions which have in many cases led to their total loss, and considerable sums of money have, in addition, been provided for the experiments. We ourselves have periodically adopted a long succession of similar measures entailing, in the present century, the destruction, among others, of the following vessels: "Belleisle," "Scorpion," "Landrail," "Hero," "Edinburgh," and "Empress of India." In October last the Hussian battleship, "Chosma," a vessel of somewhat larger displacement and of approximate value to that of the "Empress of India," was fired at and sunk by a division of the Black Sea Fleet under similar conditions, and presumably for similar purposes as those of the "Empress of India" firings. The information derived by such experiments is considered by the responsible Naval authorities of this country fully to justify the expense involved, and is indispensable to the progress of British naval science and the efficiency of the Fleet. In these circumstances it would have been a very serious step for a Minister to over-rule his professional advisers, and on purely financial grounds to deprive the Navy of experience and information for which other countries, to whom sea power is of less consequence, have shown themselves ready to pay.


Was the real object of firing at the "Empress of India" to see how soon she could be sunk in deep water?


I have given the Noble Lord an answer to his question in the full reply which I have read.


Is it the case that the market value of this vessel was £50,000?


I think between £30,000 and £35,000.