HC Deb 20 March 1918 vol 104 cc1016-8

It is a source of great satisfaction to me that I have this opportunity of addressing the House to-day, because now, for the first time, I am at liberty to give the actual figures of merchant ship losses for the world and for the United Kingdom, and also the figures of construction. I may say, in passing, that it is proposed to give the figures of output regularly in future, and so far as the United Kingdom output is concerned, as nearly up-to-date as possible. As regards sinkings, while it is proposed to publish returns of tonnage sunk, it is not considered to be in the national interest to give these absolutely up-to-date, and although I would ask to be allowed not to commit myself definitely on the subject to-day, my view at present is that it will be necessary to issue these returns quarterly in arrear. As to sinkings and output, they will be given regularly. I have been very much impressed, in reading the Debates, with the natural and, if I may say so, welcome anxiety and interest with which the House has dealt with this all-important national problem, and also with the constructive suggestions which have been made by many hon. Members. I cannot but feel that, to a great extent, the present excessive uneasiness about shipbuilding and the dissatisfaction—because one must admit there is anxiety about the present position—is largely the outcome of incomplete knowledge of the facts which the Government alone has hitherto possessed, but which I am now able very largely to supply; and it is with satisfaction that I realise that the complicated arithmetical calculations of my previous statements will no longer be called for. The world's tonnage, from the commencement of the War until the 31st December, 1917, exclusive of enemy-owned tonnage, has fallen by a net figure of, roughly, 2,500,000 tons. This is out of 33,000,000 estimated Allied and neutral ocean-going tonnage, which is arrived at after deducting small craft, river and estuary craft, and a considerable amount of lake tonnage, tugs, etc. So that with a net loss of 2,500,000 tons, on an estimated ocean-going tonnage of 33,000,000 tons, we have suffered, the Allies and neutral world, about an 8 per cent. reduction in ocean-going tonnage of the world, excluding enemy countries. The total world's tonnage, exclusive of enemy tonnage, is 42,000,000, and the deduction is made after the most careful consideration and investigation.

I will not burden this statement with masses of figures, but details are being given on all these points in a White Paper which will be presented to the House forthwith. The percentage of net loss in British tonnage alone—I have given 8 per cent. for the world, Allied and neutral tonnage—is higher than this, and it reaches 20 per cent. net.

Colonel Sir F. HALL

To the end of the year?


To the end of the year, from the beginning of the War; the more favourable Allied and neutral tonnage percentage being, of course, due largely to a credit brought in by the United States of interned German ships. The reason for the greater reduction in British tonnage is, of course, obvious, and known to hon. Members, but for the information of the country I will explain it. Firstly, the main submarine attack is upon us. It was to starve these Islands that the enemy instituted this form of warfare. In 1915 and 1916 the output of new tonnage was very low, and lowest in 1916; in fact, before the intense submarine warfare commenced, we had built over 1,300,000 tons less than our losses from all causes since the beginning of the War. I would like to make it clear that the figures I have given are in connection with marine risks or anything else, and they represent the total deductions from any causes. Then, in addition to that, our shipping has been in the War zone to a far greater extent, and perhaps far longer, than has that of some of our Allies, and our navigational risks and losses are greater owing to the absence of lights in the waters round our coast. These are also included in the figures, which explains the reason why the percentage of the losses of British tonnage is higher than the percentage of the losses of the Allies and the neutral world. I would like here to refer to a point which I have mentioned before. I have never been able to give the House the exact figures as to the measure of exaggeration which has been introduced by Germany into their figures of tonnage sunk.


Before the right hon. Gentleman leaves that question, is there any reason why we should not be told the actual tonnage represented by the 20 per cent.?

4.0 P.M.


That will all be given in the White Paper, but roughly, comparing the 33,000,000 and the 2,500,000, the figure is 18,000,000 and 3,500,000, and that will work out at 20 per cent. I was mentioning the fact of the exaggeration introduced by Germany into their claim of tonnage sunk in submarine warfare. For the twelve months of unrestricted submarine warfare, from the 1st of February, 1917, to the 31st January, 1918, the enemy has proclaimed that he has sunk over 9,500,000 tons of shipping, British, Allied, and neutral. The actual figures of vessels sunk by submarine action, including those damaged and ultimately abandoned, amounts to roughly 6,000,000 tons; so we have an exaggeration of 3,500,000 tons in twelve months, or something over 58 per cent. In January the exaggeration was 133 per cent. It is rather amusing that since I publicly showed up this grossly false declaration of results the usual return of submarine sinkings for February has not been issued by Berlin, and is now overdue. If proof of the failure of the campaign were needed, these exaggerations and Berlin's reticence now they are exposed appear to me to supply it.