HC Deb 28 October 1919 vol 120 cc476-8
Sir WILLIAM JOYNSON-HICKS (by Private Notice)

asked the Under-Secretary of State for the Air Ministry whether his attention has been called to the statements recently made by Colonel G. L. P. Henderson as to the serious number of deaths to pilots on the new air route to Egypt, and whether he can make a full statement to the House in regard to the whole position?

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

I cannot go into detail within the limits of a Parliamentary answer, but I shall be glad to make a full statement on the first possible occasion.

The broad facts are these: In the spring and early summer the War Office communicated to us the urgent demands of Egypt for aircraft of large size and endurance in order to cope with the situation, which was described as critical. At the end of March the request was for as many Handley-Page machines as could possibly be spared, and at the end of April they telegraphed urgently for additional squadrons. In view of the fact that no Handley-Page machine had ever been packed and sent by sea it was decided that the machines must be sent by air to meet the critical emergency, although considerable risks were necessarily involved.

At the end of April the first squadron was ordered to proceed, and special measures were taken to assist the move of this squadron. An officer with a special and practical knowledge of the route was sent out to arrange for facilities such as landing-grounds, spares, petrol, etc. Flying-boat escorts based on Toranto at first and then on Alexandria were also arranged. The squadron left on 3rd May. On account of the accidents which occurred, an officer was then stationed at each aerodrome on the route, whose primary duty it was to assist machines in getting through. Great difficulty, however, was experienced by these officers in getting messages by telephone or telegram through in time for action to be taken, and also in getting the necessary spares to the points required, owing to the difficulty of transport. Train communication was equally ineffective. A further difficulty was that owing to rapid demobilisation it was impossible to get the best qualified personnel within the time available. It was further arranged that replacements for the three squadrons who had gone to Egypt should be sent by air by the staging method. Two pilots and a few mechanics were stationed at each staging aerodrome. At the present moment fifty-one Handley Page machines have left for Egypt; of these twenty-six have arrived, ten are on later stages of the route, and fifteen have been written off.

A month ago the Chief of the Air Staff requested that a special committee of inquiry should be instituted composed of officers outside his own Department, and that inquiry is now proceeding. I should here like to emphasise the fact that the making of this route had nothing whatever to do with civil aviation, the whole being organised by the Service side. One machine crashed badly and four lives were lost. Three other bad accidents occurred, involving four fatal and four non-fatal injuries. This loss of life is greatly to be deplored, but it must be borne in mind that the situation was critical, and that prompt action was essential. I am advised that the sending of these machines by sea would have meant that they could not have been ready for action until many months after they were required.


Having regard to the very large loss of life and large cost involved, would not the right hon. Gentleman consider the desirability of having a more independent inquiry than that by some officers of the Air Service?

Major-General SEELY

This inquiry is as independent as it can be. The Chief of the Air Staff realised that it was important to have as independent an inquiry as possible a month ago, owing to the accidents involved in transporting this great number of machines over a practically untried route. The officers who arc investigating it—I think they must be officers, because practically everyone who understands the air has been in the Air Service during the War—are outside the Department of the Chief of the Air Staff and are quite independent of that Department.


Who are they?

Major-General SEELY

I know some of them. If the hon. Member will put down a question I will give him full details. The fullest inquiry will be made, and if it be found -that a mistake has been made by anyone concerned, from myself downwards, I need hardly say appropriate action will be taken.


How many of the Air Force are missing?

Major-General SEELY

The machines lost—fifteen—have been totally written off and others have been damaged. The total casualties so far are what I have given.


When the right hon. Gentleman says fifteen machines have been written off does lie mean that these machines have crashed?

Major-General SEELY

It means that they are of no further use—either fallen into the sea or so broken up that they are of no use. Twenty-six have arrived.

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