HC Deb 05 March 1918 vol 103 cc1880-1

One of the special means of defence we have adopted to which I would like to refer is the convoy system. This system has been greatly developed, with the result that a very large proportion of our overseas trade is now working in this way, and is a real success. In its development and working the Admiralty wishes to gratefully acknowledge the co-operation and help of Sir Joseph Maclay and his entire department, without which its success would have been impossible. Since this measure of protection was adopted over 35,000 ships have been convoyed, and the losses of vessels in every way, whether by submarine, mine, or surface craft is, as the House knows, very low. It is a result of which I think the Allied Navies, the mercantile marine, and all those employed in arranging and working the convoys may be justly proud.

But I wish to point out that in addition to the protection afforded by the convoy, additional security is obtained from the fact that whilst in convoy the Admiralty instructions issued for the safety of shipping are closely followed. This adherence to Admiralty instructions is, I regret to say, not systematically followed otherwise. The greatest safety of all shipping, whether convoyed or un-convoyed, rests, I feel sure, in the observance of Admiralty orders, which are issued in the light of most recent information, although probably to the individual master these may at times appear to be courting navigational difficulties. I am aware, of course, that complaints are made at times and have been brought forward in this House that orders given by Admiralty officials are considered to have been stupid or suicidal to the ship. Upon investigation this has been found in most instances not to be the case, but it may occasionally occur that an injudicious order is given. Such mistakes must occur in every large service, especially when it has been greatly expanded under war conditions, but I have no hesitation in saying that on the whole these orders have been of a most useful and practical type, and testimony of this reaches me every day.

Let me remind the public of what I said in the House when I made my first statement, about the great value of a good look-out, namely, that good eyes are better than good guns, and that successful attacks against shipping when a submarine is seen by the look-out and reported, arc infinitely fewer than when a submarine is not reported. I have now something to add to that appeal. I am very seriously concerned indeed at the returns which I have had before me from time to time showing the increasing number of vessels which are lost at night, not only on moonlight nights, but on nights of complete darkness. I fear the enemy on many occasions has been assisted in his work by negligence. Unless a ship is completely darkened and all navigational lights screened or extinguished in accordance with Admiralty instructions, the darkness of night is no help against the submarine. In fact, the slightest light visible is an excellent target and enables a submarine with her greater surface speed to get into position for attack whilst the blackness of the night is a screen for the protection of the submarine. We know this not only from the unfortunate sinking of ships, but from the reports of our own submarine commanders and coast watchers who have observed how our unconvoyed merchant shipping moves. As instances I would like to quote a report recently received from the commander of one of our own submarines. He says:

"I was able to keep a satisfactory watch with good visibility during most of the patrol. A large number of steamers burning navigation lights were observed, some with side lights only, others with steaming light also, in many cases at full brilliancy and visible more than lour miles. This was not confined to steamers hugging the coast and there were easy submarine targets on each clear night."

We have also received a report from an officer who was specially detailed to spend some hours on a prominent point of the coast to watch the movement of vessels up and down one of the frequented highways of our trade. He has reported that in the space of one and a-quarter hours, out of eight ships which he saw pass only one was properly darkened. The lights of the remainder were calculated to be visible from four to ten miles. Is that not simply asking for trouble? I venture to appeal to ship owners and shipmasters to heed these points, and I ask the Press to give prominence to them—

"Obey Instructions," "Keep a Good Look-out," "Thoroughly Darken Ship."

One result of the convoy system has been to drive the enemy closer and closer to the shore, thus rendering the open sea considerably safer for navigation. During the first few months of the unrestricted submarine campaign 50 per cent. of the total losses in Home waters occurred outside an area of fifty miles from the land, whilst only 21 per cent. occurred within ten miles of the shore. This percentage, unlike others quoted, relates to the numbers of ships and not to tons. To-day, the losses outside an area of fifty miles from the land have fallen to 1 per cent. of the total whilst the losses close in shore have risen from 21 per cent. to 61 per cent. The transfer of attacks nearer to our coasts is not only giving increasing opportunities of attacking the enemy by patrolling surface and aircraft, but has an indirect advantage in that it is enabling us to salve many vessels which, if they had been attacked in open sea, would have been lost, as assistance by salvage tugs would have been impracticable.