HC Deb 20 May 1919 vol 116 cc343-50

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Pratt.]


I should like to take this opportunity of asking the Under-Secretary to the Air Ministry whether he has any news of Major Hawker; and secondly, can he give the House some account of what assistance was rendered to Major Hawker by the Air Ministry? Personally, I am sure that the Air Ministry showed itself very helpful in this matter, but we should like to know what assistance was rendered in the way of information as to weather and winds, and more particularly as to facilities for the reception of wireless messages which Major Hawker might have sent, and for sending which his machine was equipped. The next point—an important point, and more urgent—is to ask the Under-Secretary whether he will tell us what steps the Air Ministry, in conjunction with the Admiralty, has taken since the presumed disaster to Major Hawker, to assist in the rescue of this very gallant airman?

The UNDER-SECRETARY of STATE for AIR (Major-General Seely)

I deeply regret to say that, up to a late hour, we have had no news of Major Hawker and Commander Grieves, who made this most gallant attempt to cross the Atlantic. There is always a possibility that they may have been picked up by some passing vessel not fitted with wireless. Therefore, there is still some hope, but to a few minutes ago there was no news. With regard to the question as to what steps we took beforehand, as soon as we knew that any competitors were ready—although this, of course, was in no sense a Government enterprise, as I stated in this House—the Air Ministry took the view that they should enjoin caution upon all concerned rather than in any way encourage them to this most gallant and hazardous enterprise—we appointed' an officer to be on duty night and day to apprise the necessary persons the moment the flight was commenced. In accordance with' the plans we had made, yesterday the officer apprised the Admiralty, who, I would like to say, throughout this business have given every assistance in their power. Short of stringing boats across the Atlantic, which, with its 2,000 miles of northern sea, would have been an almost impossible venture—the ships are not available—the Admiralty did everything in their power to make this hazardous enterprise less dangerous. We informed the Marconi Company and also the Admiralty. The wireless stations sent messages to every ship on the route, giving the time of departure, the name of the aircraft that had started and the code word previously arranged, and urged upon all ships to look out for wireless messages and also to look out for the airmen. The preliminary steps taken, about which my hon. and gallant Friend asked me particulars, were to furnish every possible information with regard to the weather and all meteorological information that was available, and to furnish all assistance with regard to instruments. Whatever instruments they wanted for the purpose we enabled them to secure. We warned beforehand all vessels to be on the look out for this prearranged signal.

Captain BENN

Was not a wireless communication made by Major Hawker, and, if so, by whom was it received?

Major-General SEELY

I was saying that we made all the arrangements we could beforehand. My hon. and gallant Friend and the House will be much more interested to know that I think we took every possible step in co-operation with the Admiralty, short of putting a large proportion of the Fleet on the millions of square miles of sea involved in an enterprise of this kind. My hon. and gallant Friend wants to know if any message was received. No message, so far as we can ascertain, I have been in consultation with the First Sea Lord quite recently. It is quite possible that in dropping the under-carriage Major Hawker and Commander Grieves may have injured their wireless installation. That is one explanation why no message of any kind has been received. The explanation given by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Admiralty this afternoon is probably the reason why a message was received last night purporting to show that these gal-Lint men had fallen into the sea not far from the Coast of Ireland.

My hon. and gallant Friend asked me what steps had been taken since it was known that a start had been made and there was reason for anxiety. Yesterday afternoon the available vessels at Queens-town and others from the North of Ireland started out to explore the sea. Since then more vessels have been sent, and although this is not a Government enterprise, and we cannot undertake, with the manifold obligations which the Fleet has to fulfil and the small number of vessels which are therefore available to quarter the sea. As a general rule, every ship of a swift nature has been sent during the last few hours On the chance of finding this most gallant man, who for the first time has dared to attempt to cross the Atlantic.

Captain BENN

Were any aircraft sent?

Major-General SEELY

I am glad my hon. and gallant Friend has asked me that question, because last night, when I heard the news, which unfortunately proved to be erroneous, that Major Hawker had fallen into the sea, I went at once to see the First Sea Lord, and Heard from him what measures bad been taken, and, in consultation with him, I directed the available aeroplane squadrons, which of com so were all ready, to place themselves under the orders of the Admiralty at Queenstown, with a view to quartering the sea, in order to see if they could catch sight of the airmen. They tried to start last night, but there was a gale of wind and rain and fog, and they were unable to get away. Some tried, but could not see at all. Early this morning some of them started and flew over the sea in most desperately bad weather. They did their utmost but without result. I think one may say everything possible has been done to get trace of these brave men but so far without result. We can only express our tribute of admiration to the astonishing courage of these brave countrymen of ours who have made this first attempt.


In view of this very important question that exercises the deepest concern of all Members of the House, I give notice that I will refer to this question of the beer supply to-morrow night.

Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY

From what my right hon. Friend has told us, I think the House will agree that energetic steps have been taken since the suspicion was aroused that Major Hawker and the gallant man who accompanied him had come to grief, but I do not think we are quite satisfied that sufficient steps were taken of a precautionary nature before the flight commenced. In answer to a question I put to the First Lord of the Admiralty this afternoon, we were informed that on the Irish coast there was one flotilla leader which was at Queenstown and two destroyers with reduced crews. There was also a number of motor launches and trawlers. The only vessels that were at all suitable for succouring or searching for aircraft that might have fallen into the sea are the flotilla leader and destroyers. Trawlers have very inefficient wireless, and the outlook from them is very small. Usually they are commanded by very gallant men, but they are fishermen and are not used to operations of this character. They are a perfectly novel thing. This attempt to fly the Atlantic is an historical event. Certainly it was undertaken by a private individual, but nevertheless it is a matter affecting the esprit de corps of the whole Empire. It is most desirable that the first man to cross the Atlantic should be a. British subject. Under the circumstances, the least that we could have done would have been to have taken some steps to assist him. We have in the Navy nearly 300 torpedo-boat destroyers, and I cannot accept the explanation that we had not more vessels available than two destroyers at Queens- town and one flotilla leader at Kingstown. Moreover, it is common knowledge now that we have installed in Ireland and in America a system—I think it is common knowledge now—which can fix the position of aircraft or any other surface vessel by cross-bearings and directional wireless, and it should have been possible for Mr. Hawker or any other airman attempting this perilous voyage to have made at intervals a spark which could have been taken in by directional wireless. We could then have had a plot of his direction across the Atlantic. This was done by the Germans in giving positions to the Zeppelins that were coming over to attack us, and we might have organised our wireless here in order to supply this assistance. That would have been of value to the airman, and it would have kept us advised of his whereabouts during the voyage. I think that as regards wireless organisation and as regards the vessels to effect a rescue if required, or to guide him to land, we have been remiss, and I hope that the next time this flight is attempted, as I hope it will be attempted again and successfully carried out by an Englishman, that every possible assistance that we can give will be provided by both the Air Ministry and the Admiralty.

Captain ELLIOT

May I ask if the Air Minister can see his way to prohibit any further attempts to fly the Atlantic in the desperately hazardous conditions which exist at present? It is not fair that any gallant airmen should be lured to their death by the glamour of this great enterprise, with its desperate dangers, as, unfortunately, this trial has proved.

Major-General SEELY

No, Sir. I do not think the Government would do right to take that step. I have given it, and I need hardly say personally, the most careful thought, and so have the Government, and it seemed to us not right to say that our fellow-countrymen should not take these daring steps, which, as it turns out on this occasion—I hope it may not be—has not been a success. Other feats which have seemed impossible of achievement have been done by men of our race. It is not, I think, the function of the Government to say to men whom we do not control and who are not in our service, "You shall not take these risks." I hope the House will endorse that view. Of course, I appreciate the feelings of the hon. and gallant Gentleman who has made this suggestion.


Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us what steps the American Government took to protect their airmen when flying from St. John's to the Azores? Had they a line of destroyers out which signalled from time to time the progress of the flight? I understand that that is so, and if it is so I really think we ought to know why our Admiralty did not do something of the same sort. It seems to me that unless our Government took every means in their power to protect these gallant airmen during this flight, which they knew was coming, they have been very remiss.

Major-General SEELY

I am glad that question has been asked. Not only is the American Fleet freer to act than our own, not being so actively engaged, but, quite apart from that, the conditions of the flights were very different. These gallant distinguished airmen attempted a flight by direct route from America to Europe. The American enterprise, on which we intended to embark during the War as a test flight, was a very much simpler thing. They were flying over more southerly seas to the Azores, a comparatively short flight, little more than half the distance, where the weather at this time of the year is much more certain and the flight could be begun in daylight. It was, therefore, possible to have ships within sight to assist the man, and to enable him to see his way. That course was impossible in the case of the northern flight. In order to reduce the distance to the 1,860 miles you have to fly a great circle, which takes you in the north up amongst the icebergs. To have a string of ships across the Atlantic along the great circle from St. John's to Ireland would involve a tremendous undertaking—keeping the ships up amongst the icebergs waiting seven weeks for an opportunity until the conditions were favourable—which this House would never have endorsed and would have involved an expenditure amounting to millions of money. It had been intended, if the Board had continued under the direction of Lord Weir, that we should do the same thing with the Porte flying boat that the Americans attempted, but it was not considered wise to do it now and I think that that was a right decision. But the problem is entirely different here. There was a shorter flight of 1,300 miles, which was done in daylight. The other was done across the great circle and a good deal of the flight from west to east had to be done at night, so that the course suggested could only have been adopted by an immense expenditure, and this is not so much a question of money but of the mechanical difficulties, and I have no doubt that the Government were right in saying that for this enterprise they could not ask the State to undertake this tremendous risk.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-two minutes after Eleven o'clock