HC Deb 16 March 1922 vol 151 cc2457-68
Rear-Admiral Sir R. HALL

I beg to move to leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof the words in the opinion of this House, the Naval Air Services should be put under the control of the Board of Admiralty for the full development of the efficiency of these services, for their better co-operation with the Navy, and for the most economical administration and expenditure. I join with my hon. and gallant Friend who has just spoken in expressing admiration of the speech delivered by the Financial Secretary to the Admiralty. I regret that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Molton (Mr. Lambert) is not in his place, as I wished to express my regret at having interrupted his speech. I do not propose this evening to touch on the general question of the Navy Estimate. I will confine myself to the terms of my Resolution as it appears on the Order Paper. The Navy has a very definite function to perform in order to obtain definite ends. Those ends may be- summed up in the phrase, "Control of sea communications," which means that while an enemy is unable to carry trade or troops across the sea, we are able to do both. For the present I venture to prophesy that for some years to come the carriage of trade and troops at sea will be done by surface ships, for 1 cannot visualise our possessing sufficient air ships or aeroplanes to do the work. 1 propose, with the permission of the House, to deal with this question on three separate grounds. I am very glad to see present so many hon. and gallant Members in touch with the work of the Air Force. The whole object of my remarks is the best development of the Air Force and its best efficiency in a combined service, and my remarks will be couched entirely in that spirit. Dealing first with the passage of troops across the sea, we are faced with the problem of defending or attacking shipping carrying troops, and this involves acknowledgment of maritime conditions of transport work, of harbours, tides, and navigation. Whether aircraft exists or not, defence has to be provided by naval men against surface vessels, submarines, and mines. Since the introduction of the air weapon, assistance by and defence for aircraft have to be added. But this does not mean that the air should act separately against the enemy air forces, any more than on the introduction of the submarine that the submarine should act separately. Strength is not employed to the fullest extent by separate action but by combined action, and the most effectual employment of any type of fighting vessel can only be developed by study of its function in combination with other types. If there are two separate services the authorities of each will develop their own theories as to the best employment. We shall have two sets of people studying the problem of invasion in watertight compartments. We have suffered enough from this in the case of the Army and Navy Our difficulties will be increased out of all proportion by the introduction of the Air Force, because not only shall we develop different ideas, but a new factor comes into the game which does not exist in the case of the Army, and that factor is this. Two services fighting in the same area will be proceeding on different lines. There will be two sets of strategical ideas governing the action of the forces on a common fighting ground which are spared this clashing in the case of the Army, because the Army fights on land and the Navy at sea. It is a commonplace in war that command in a given theatre should be exercised by one authority only. To have two commands of separate arms, when it is possible for each of them to have their own views as to how the object is to be attained, is unworkable. We tried it in the War and it failed, and we had to get back to the single command. This is not invalidated by the fact that in a combined operation a dual command is possible. In the case of the Army and Navy, there is a clear division of interests between sea and land, and each service is the servant of the other at various well-understood points. No such division is practicable in the case of the sea and the air, working in combination to maintain control of a given water area for a prolonged period. There must be single control in that area. The problem of control of trade routes and of trade defence has two parts— attack upon and defence of sea-borne commerce. The problem of attacking commerce involves an acquaintance with maritime trade, trade routes, shipping, ports, and seasons. It involves acquaintance with certain broad outstanding principles. Are we to have two sets of authorities, Naval and Air Force, studying these problems, each preparing its own solution; or is the Air Service to decide what allocation of aircraft is to be made for the purpose? Unless it has made a study of all these subjects, it has no basis on which to form its opinions, and if the Air Force makes a study of the subject, it may arrive at a different conclusion from that of the naval authorities. There may be, as there frequently are, two solutions, both correct; but only one can be used at a time. Who, then, is to decide which shall be put into force in such a case? That is no mere casuistry. It is, I regret to say, a precise representation of what is going on at the present time. I believe there is a school which is advocating methods of attack on trade by air which are wholly at variance with the opinion of the other Service. This is to be regretted, because it is waste of effort, and this difference of opinion can only lead to friction between the two Services. That is what we have to try to overcome. The defence of trade involves practically the same considerations. In the late War there were many lessons which the Navy learned and assimilated, and upon which it is improving to-day. If the Air Force undertake the defence of trade, they will have to start at the beginning where the Navy began. They will have to set up their own intelligence organisation, their own shipping officers, and all the other organisations that the Navy had to establish. If they cannot do that, they must leave the defence of trade to the Navy, and it will be for the Navy then to decide, as ever, in what manner the Air Force shall act under its direction and in combination with it in order Jo ensure the security of commerce.

In minor strategy the air arm is part of the naval arm, and must be worked in combination with it. It has been said that long-distance reconnaissance, is a function demanding a separate service. There is, however, no difference between long-distance reconnaissance and any other reconnaissance. We do not say that the submarine should be a separate service because it is capable of long-distance reconnaissance and of supporting itself at a long distance away from its base; nor docs the monitor become a separate service because it can bombard at long range. It remains a part of the naval service. The Air Force, in naval warfare, has to assist the Navy to obtain control of the waterways. How that control is to be obtained and maintained is a naval question, and how the Air Force can contribute most effectively to that end is also, I venture to think, a naval question. If, however, the Air Force is to contribute effectively, the operations must be planned by the Navy. As it is the naval commander who will use that arm, so it is he who must define what he desires that its personnel shall be capable of doing. It is believed by many officers that scouting can be performed by anyone, that an air officer has only to be sent up to report what he sees. It is not sufficiently understood I that an untrained man does not recognise what he sees, and those who have studied naval history, and have had practical experience at sea, know well how brimful of mistakes operations have been through wrong observations and deductions from what, people saw. If such mistakes at sea can be made by experienced seamen, it is not necessary to enlarge upon how much greater mistakes may be made by men who have not been bred to the sea.

A separate air service necessitates a separate air staff and the development of a strategy of its own, and, accepting that premise, it involves the inevitable claim that it should put that strategy in force. That must lead to dissipation of effort, the creation of types different from those needed by the Navy, training on lines that may not coincide with those required by naval strategy, and, worst of all, the weakening of that association of the Air Force with the Navy which is vital to efficiency. If you come to the question of battle, and the tactical side of air operations, the same must hold good, though in a smaller degree than I have tried to describe in regard to the larger strategy. A fleet in battle, at present consists of a set of units—battleships, cruisers, destroyers, aircraft—all under one directing authority in accordance with one common doctrine. The Air Force is capable of performing many important functions, like reconnaissance, artillery spotting, torpedo attack, bombing attack, air fighting, or direct attack on exposed personnel by gunfire. In battle it must be for the naval authorities to determine how many of these functions require to be developed. It is for the naval authorities to decide which type of vessel is best suited to develop torpedo attack. It is for the naval authority to decide whether tonnage is better employed in carrying aircraft and in defending them, or in the form of ships of fighting capacity capable of attacking the enemy. In fact, there is at sea no place, for a separate air service; all arms in battle require to belong to one service, to subscribe to a common doctrine, and to be trained in accordance with that doctrine. I have heard future naval battles described as fought by a host of aircraft, bombing, scouting, spotting for artillery, and other things, without sufficient carrying capacity to. carry a quarter of the aircraft required for such services.

Captain W. BENN

Have more carriers.


I am glad the hon. and gallant Member made that interruption, because the last speaker pointed out that our tonnage of carriers is limited by our agreement with Washington, which limits the extent of the form of naval battle thus visualised. We hear a great deal of the need for a separate air service for independent work, but I venture to say that those who have studied naval strategy and know the sea will agree that there is no place at sea for a separate air service. All operations at sea must be part of the common whole, the ultimate object being the control of communications and the provision of the most effective means of destroying the enemy's fighting forces. Whether the strategy of the fleet is directed towards destruction of the enemy's fighting forces by direct attack upon them wherever they can be found, or towards forcing the enemy to fight, is a matter for consideration by those who are able to take a complete survey of the maritime position. Going back to the late War, I venture to say that one of the prime causes of the failure of the German submarine campaign was that in the German Navy the submarine was practically an independent service. The operations were not co-ordinated with those of the High Sea Fleet, or the commerce destroyers that they had in the open sea. The only form of common connection in an active sense, and that very limited, was the work of the surface ships in the Heligoland Bight in keeping open the channels through the mine fields that we laid. Valuable as this was, it only enabled the submarine campaign to continue, because without it the submarines could not have got out. Had they used the submarines and their Fleet in combination as a tactical whole, I venture to think that our task in the Navy would have been far more difficult. The German submarine campaign failed, and it failed largely because it was based on false strategy. The failure was not due to personnel or to material. The Geddes Report says that all the arguments for amalgamation of the Air with the Navy and Army are equally applicable to the amalgamation of the Navy, Army and Air Force in a Ministry of Defence, but I repeat that this is not so. The Army does not fight at sea: it is not a tactical unit of the Navy, while the Air is; and I do not think that that conclusion of the Geddes Report will be substantiated by those who have made a close study of sea strategy. During the War the Air Ministry was set up and a separate Air Force was formed. It was my good fortune to be at the Admiralty in the early part of the War and during the latter part, and I have a distinct recollection of the very fine work of the Royal Naval Air Service. I have a still more lively recollection of the way in which they supplied the best machines and how they secured the best engines; and, although I do not wish to make invidious comparisons, I venture to say that they got the best personnel, too. I am glad to see present an hon. and gallant Gentleman who was a distinguished member of that force, and has occupied various important positions at the Admiralty, and I venture to think that he will not be prepared to say that the Royal Naval Air Service was so inefficient, so badly manned, so badly engined, that it should be compelled to amalgamate with other forces. I am afraid that some arrangements made during the War will have to be revised. I am sorry that the Colonial Secretary is not here, because much is due to him for his initiative in starting the Royal Naval Air Service. The Air Ministry, however, was started under the stress of war. So was the Ministry of Propaganda. I believe I am right in saying that the Leader of the House the other day, in reply to a question, stated that each Minister now does his own propaganda, and that there is no Publicity Department. On that ground alone I venture to think there is a case for a revision of the establishment of a separate Air Force. Further, I do not know any foreign nation which has a separate Air Force, and I do not know of any Admiral of a foreign nation, who held high rank in the War, who recognised a separate Air Force; nor do I know any distinguished British Admiral holding a high position at sea to-day who recognises a separate Air Force. There may be such officers; I do not know. I only speak from my personal experience, and shall be glad to be corrected if I am wrong.

7.0 P.M.

On the last part of my Motion, the economic and technical side, I will put only a few points. I venture to think economies could be effected by a revision of the present arrangement. We have a very largely reduced Navy, we have very large barracks which are half empty, staff colleges at Greenwich which will bear filling up, and which perhaps might relieve the expense of building further staff colleges and barracks in other parts of the country. In regard to the point of moral, with a largely reduced fleet in being and a reduced amount of personnel moving about at sea, opportunity must be given in the Navy for young men to specialise on adventurous and daring lines, or on scientific research for men given that way. Opportunities must be given in the Navy to retain the officers and not to offer them the attraction of adventurous and scientific work outside, because if we have had the task of training the young officer in the Navy and we afterwards allow him to go to another service it means that they will take the really adventurous and scientific and leave us those who are not so well gifted. I think on that ground alone we in the Navy are entitled to some consideration. I would go further and emphasise the point raised by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Maidstone (Commander Bellairs) that if the Navy had its own Air Service they would specialise in air as they do in submarines. When submarines were introduced, did we draw our personnel from outside? We drew it from the Navy. They do a period in the submarine, and one of the most valuable things we have to-day, and which we are careful in the Navy to try to carry out, is the system that no destroyer officer goes to a command unless he has had experience in a submarine, and vice versâ, because he knows what his enemy can do, having tried it. If you have your officers in the Navy who specialise in air, perhaps when the attractions of flight are not so great, or age creeps on them, they can give up active service in the air and return as specialists, become staff officers in air, and eventually Admirals who know-something about the air. At present the jibe we have in the Navy that Admirals know nothing about air may or may not be true, but the present arrangement absolutely prevents them or their staff knowing anything about the air.

I admit that when you come down to first principles in the matter of personnel it comes to this. At sea we have an expression which for years I have always believed, and still believe, to be true, namely, "A seaman first; a specialist afterwards." I think on the personnel side that air is a speciality of the sea, and that they should be trained as seamen and specialise in the air. I have endeavoured to deal with these matters from the practical point of view of those who have to decide operations of war, and to show that there is a case for consideration. I have endeavoured to show the technical side, in which economics could be effected. I have endeavoured to show that from the moral and personnel point of view there is another side of the question, and, in conclusion, I would emphasise that with which I began, namely, that I raise this point out of no hostility to the air. I have a great belief in it, I desire to see its development, and I honestly believe its interests will be served best by having behind it the prestige of the British Navy, and by being able to draw on its fine personnel, with its tradition for daring and resource, which has never failed. If the question is looked into from that point of view, the Government can hardly fail to think there is a case for consideration, and it is on that ground that I move my Motion.

Viscount CURZON

I beg to second the Amendment.

What has struck me about the present Naval Estimates is that there does not appear, so far as I can make out, to be one single solitary word about the employment of aircraft at sea. If you look at the explanatory memorandum of the First Lord, you might imagine the Navy had no aircraft at all. I think there must be something wrong. Aircraft carriers are the only class of ship not specifically referred to in the explanatory memorandum, and I think that should not be forgotten. I do not wish to make an attack upon the Air Ministry, or upon the present Royal Air Force—far from it; I only look upon the problem as I have seen it myself, and as I know it to exist from various sources of information to which I have access. There is one fallacy. I know it to be a fallacy, though it is a belief largely held amongst people who are interested in flying. I am not sure that it exists in the Royal Air Force, but it is a belief largely held. It is that the Admiralty have no sympathy with the Royal Air Force and the employment of aircraft. I know there is no more fallacious argument or statement that could be made to-day. I know the Admiralty are profoundly impressed by the enormous strides made by aircraft, by the march of modern invention, and by the enormous tactical questions which the skilful employment of aircraft has conjured up. To show exactly what I mean by that, I would point out that aircraft can be used at sea now for the carrying and discharge of torpedoes, for the carrying and dropping of mines, for the carrying of bombs, for attack with machine-guns on the control positions of hostile ships, on observation balloons, on spotting for guns, for the mass firing of torpedoes, for scouting and attack on hostile bases, for creating smoke screens, for attack on hostile aircraft, and so on. That is their present function as they are used to-day. But the march of modern invention may make that far more important to-morrow, and I should not be surprised if in the future war, with invention going on at the same rate as that at which it has progressed in the last few years, the Commander-in-Chief himself has to go up in an aeroplane in order to direct his fleet.

From what I have said, I think the House will realise that the employment of aircraft at sea nowadays is of vital moment to the Navy. I maintain that it is of vital moment, that all officers and men at sea should have full acquaintance with and full responsibility for the control of all the officers and men under their command. You cannot have in any sense in a ship at sea dual control. You can only have one man in command. If you judge things from that point of view, and if it be admitted by most people— as I think it is—what is the present state of affairs? The fleet to-day has aircraft carriers, but neither the admiral in command nor the Admiralty have any control or responsibility for any of the machines carried in the carriers, or for the personnel working them. The Air Ministry at the present time may do anything it likes with the pilots who fly the machines, or with the observers. The Air Ministry may withdraw pilots if they want to do so, and send them to another quarter of the globe, or they may do the same with the observers. A notable case occurred a little while ago, I believe, where machines were required in Iraq. No others were available, so orders were given by the Air Ministry that a squadron—I am not quite sure whether it was a full squadron, but it was a certain number of machines with pilots and observers—which had been allocated to the Navy should be withdrawn and sent to Iraq. That state of affairs is thoroughly unsatisfactory, because had the fleet required to use its machines or to carry out tactical exercises at the time requiring the use of aircraft it would not have been able to do so as the machines were in Iraq.

Take officers who are skilful pilots in the flying arm. The flying arm is a thing which only a very few have or can ever accomplish. At the present time it is open to the Air Ministry to withdraw one of these super-officers required for special and difficult operations and send him to an aircraft station employed in the guarding of oil-fuel tanks in some other parts of the world, at Aden or some other place. I do not say it will be done, or that it has been done, but it can be done. The Admiralty have no say at present, I gather, in the qualifications of a pilot or in any recommendations they may wish to make about a pilot. The Admiralty may make their recommendations, but they go to the Air Ministry. While the Admiralty may recommend an officer as very suitable for work at sea with the Fleet, when his recommendation comes to the Air Ministry it is not necessarily dealt with solely by Air Force officers concerned with naval affairs, but may be judged by Air Force officers who are military officers, and that recommendation may be turned down on quite other grounds.

Take another aspect of the matter. The increased use of aircraft at sea may possibly lead to very great economy of naval power. At present a naval scouting group consists, as a rule, of a squadron of light cruisers. That, during the War, was anything up to six. It may be possible in future, by the use of aircraft, to economise in the number of light cruisers, and a scouting group might consist of three light cruisers with an aircraft carrier, and a certain number of machines taking the place of two or three ships. I do not know that the Admiralty have any power to set up such an organisation at the present time, because they are in no way responsible for the supply of machines. The Admiralty may ask the Air Ministry for machines, but the Air Ministry may or may not grant them.

I should like to ask the Admiralty this question: First of all, what were the aid squadrons allocated to the Navy in 1921? I have searched the Geddes Report, and from that I gather that, roughly, 6½ squadrons were working for the Navy in 1921. I should also like to know what reduction is actually going to take place in the numbers for 1922? Another thing I should like to know is, was that reduction settled on the Admiralty's recommendation, and did the Admiralty concur in the reduction made? I particularly want to get an answer to that question, because upon it will probably hang the crux of the whole matter.

There is another point about the Admiralty controlling its own aircraft. During the War, it is said by the hon,. and gallant Gentleman (Sir R. Hall) that the Air Ministry was set up, and the Services still continued to control their own aircraft, and therefore, if that arrangement has been departed from, I should like to know on what grounds. I want to urge as strongly as I can that the Government should consent to have the whole question inquired into. Those who care for the Navy are all anxious to have a reduction of the Air Force to meet the present situation. We think the present situation does not lead to the efficient or the best use of aircraft from the point of view of the Navy, and I believe the way to reassure people throughout the country on questions of waste and economy of strength, and everything else, would be if some impartial inquiry should be set up to assure the country if possible, or to make recommendations with regard to the present status of aircraft, at any rate so far as the Navy is concerned, and I daresay the same question arises in connection with the Army. But I particularly want the Government to give consideration to this point, whether some Committee could be set up which could inquire into the use of aircraft by both Services, and which could assure us that we are, at any rate, getting value for the money we spend,. and reaching 100 per cent, of efficiency.