HC Deb 07 February 1938 vol 331 cc655-61
26. Lieut.-Commander Fletcher

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs what steps have been taken to obtain compensation for the owners of the "Thorpeness," recently bombed at Valencia by General Franco's aircraft, and for the relatives of the men killed?

Mr. Eden

As a result of a full investigation into the circumstances attending the bombing of the "Thorpeness" which, I deeply regret to state, caused the death or injury of several members of the crew, His Majesty's Government have reluctantly reached the conclusion that this ship was the object of a deliberate attack. Instructions have accordingly been sent to the British Agent in General Franco's territory to draw the attention of the Salamanca authorities to the deliberate nature of the attack, to inform them that His Majesty's Government take a serious view of the incident and to request a full explanation. Sir R. Hodgson has also been instructed to state that His Majesty's Government reserve their right to claim full compensation in respect of injuries suffered by the crew of the steamship "Thorpeness" and of material damage to the ship.

Mr. Attlee

In view of the precarious-ness of General Franco's position, is it wise to postpone all these claims? Should they not be made while he still has some assets?

Mr. Eden

The right hon. Gentleman misunderstood me if he thought there was any intention of postponement. The postponement is only until the figures can be checked.

Mr. Thurtle

In view of this deliberate attack on British shipping, which cost British lives, and of other attacks, can the right hon. Gentleman understand how any Englishman can continue to support Franco?

30. Mr. Thurtle

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs whether the Non-intervention Committee has had under consideration the recent communication from the Spanish Government that submarines and other warships now operating in the Mediterranean on behalf of the Spanish insurgent forces were formerly part of the Italian naval forces; and whether he has any statement to make on the matter?

Mr. Eden

With respect to the action of submarines in the Spanish conflict, I would ask the hon. Member to await the statement I propose to make at the end of questions. So far as other warships are concerned, I am not in a position to make any statement at present, for, as the hon. Member is no doubt aware, no communication from either party in Spain can be presented to the Non-intervention Committee except on the responsibility of one of the Governments represented on it.

Mr. Thurtle

Does not the Foreign Secretary think that, in view of the fact that Italy is represented on that Committee, so material a fact as this ought to be brought to her notice on that Committee?

Mr. Eden

I must request the hon. Member to await my statement.

31. Mr. Thurtle

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs how many cases of attacks on British vessels in the Mediterranean, either by submarine or aeroplane, apart from the recent attack on the "Endymion," have been reported to the Non-intervention authorities in the course of the last six weeks?

Mr. Eden

One such attack, that on the Steamship "Alcira," has been reported to the Non-intervention Board during this period.

Mr. Thurtle

Does not this Government receive reports of attacks on vessels of nationalities other than British?

Mr. Eden

The hon. Member asked about British vessels, and I have answered him.

32. Mr. Alexander

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs whether the Government have yet obtained information as to the ports which pirate ships in the Mediterranean use as their base; and, if so, what representations have been made to the authorities of the territory in which those ports are situated?

Mr. Eden

While I have no definite information as to ports from which the pirate vessels in question have carried on their operations, there is reason to believe that they are based on Majorca. So far as the second part of the right hon. Gentleman's question is concerned, I would ask him to be good enough to await the statement which I propose to make at the end of questions.

33. Sir Arnold Wilson

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs whether, as a result of his inquiries, he can say if the report as to the sinking by a torpedo of the steamship "Endymion," has been substantiated by any witnesses and, if so, by whom they have been examined; and whether it is certain that a torpedo and not a mine was responsible for the destruction of the vessel?

The First Lord of the Admiralty (Mr. Duff Cooper)

I have been asked to reply. Three of the survivors of the steamship "Endymion" have now been interrogated by the Naval authorities at Gibraltar. No submarine, torpedo track, or floating mine was seen from the bridge. The depth of water where the explosion occurred is, however, such as to rule out the possibility of a moored mine.

35. Mr. Thurtle

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs whether he has any information to give the House regarding the circumstances in which the British steamer "Alcira" was sunk off Barcelona on 4th February; and whether he can say if this vessel carried an observation officer of the Non-intervention Committee?

37. Lieut.-Commander Fletcher

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs whether he has any statement to make regarding the sinking of the British ship "Alcira"?

38. Mr. Wedgwood Benn

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs what action has been, or will be, taken in respect of the sinking of the "Alcira"?

Mr. Eden

I will, with permission, answer these questions in the course of a statement which, with the permission of the House, I propose to make at the end of Question Time.

Mr. Thurtle

Can the Foreign Secretary say whether he has any doubt at all as to the identity of the aeroplanes which carried out this attack?

Mr. Eden

No, Sir, I have not.

At the end of Questions:

Mr. Eden

As I explained at Question Time I desire, with the leave of the House, to make a statement to the House in regard to the attacks in the Mediterranean on the British ships "Endymion" and "Alcira" and to the action which has been taken in an endeavour to secure increased security for non-Spanish ships carrying on their lawful trade on the high seas. The House is already aware of the circumstances in which the steamship "Endymion" was sunk with the loss of 10 lives some 16 miles from Cape Tinoso. In view of this serious incident in particular, and of the recent recrudescence of attacks on merchant shipping by submarines in the Western Mediterranean in general all concerned have been informed of the intentions of His Majesty's Government in the following terms: The two parties to the Spanish conflict are aware that the naval forces of certain Powers with special interests in the Mediterranean were authorised under the Arrangement concluded at Nyon to take certain measures for the better protection of merchant ships, not belonging to either of the Spanish parties in conflict, from interference on the High Seas in a manner contrary to the rules above referred to. Recent experience has, however, shown that these measures as at present applied are not sufficient to protect merchant shipping against illegal attack. In these circumstances, His Majesty's Government are forced to the conclusion that, in order to secure adequate protection for British shipping and in the interests of the safety of the shipping of other nations, it is necessary to proceed to further measures in addition to those provided for under the Nyon Agreement. They, therefore, desire to inform the Spanish Government and the Salamanca authorities that if from now onwards a submarine is detected submerged in the zone in the Western Mediterranean in which the British Fleet operates in accordance with the division of the area agreed upon between the French and Italian Governments and His Majesty's Government, it will be considered as contemplating an attack on merchant shipping. His Majesty's Government will not tolerate submarines being submerged in this zone, and orders have accordingly been given to His Majesty's warships that if a submarine is found so submerged henceforth it shall be attacked. His Majesty's Government informed the French and Italian Governments of the action that was proposed, and I am glad to tell the House that these Governments have now agreed to take similar action in the zones for which they are providing patrols. The other parties to the Nyon Agreement have been informed of the above, as have also the Governments of the United States, Germany and Portugal.

The House will also be aware of the circumstances in which the British steamship "Alcira" was bombed and sunk by two aeroplanes on 4th February when about 20 miles south-east of Barcelona. I would add that this ship was at the time carrying an Observing Officer of the Non-intervention Board. Although full reports of this incident are still awaited there is every reason to believe that the attacking aircraft were in the service of General Franco. The British Agent at Salamanca has accordingly been instructed to impress upon General Franco's Administration the very serious view which His Majesty's Government take of this incident.

Sir Robert Hodgson has further been instructed to communicate with the Salamanca Authorities in the following terms: His Majesty's Government have in the past treated these unjustifiable attacks on British shipping with the utmost patience, but their patience is not inexhaustible; and they have come to the conclusion that the time has come to let it be known once and for all that they cannot continue to deal with these attacks solely by protests and claims for compensation, which have failed to check the attacks or to secure any material satisfaction for the damages done. It should, therefore, be made known to General Franco that His Majesty's Government reserve to themselves the right henceforth without any further notice to take such retaliatory action, in the event of any recurrence of these attacks, as may be required by and appropriate to the particular case.

Mr. Thurtle

Arising from that statement, does the Foreign Secretary propose to ask the Powers concerned to take the same action against aircraft as is proposed to be taken against submarines?

Mr. Eden

The aircraft trouble is a different one, and the method which is adopted, in addition to the Nyon proposals, is that which is set out in the second part of my answer, the significance of which on study the hon. Member will, I feel sure, appreciate.

Mr. Alexander

Is the right hon. Gentleman now satisfied that the steps proposed with regard to submerged submarines in the particular zone are really adequate, or whether there will not continue to be immediate danger to British shipping by the use of submarine tactics in other than the zone area, and in that event, does he not consider, as the ports at which the submarines acting in a piratical fashion are based are well known to the Navy, it ought now to be the duty of the Government to prevent once and for all those submarines ever emerging for piratical purposes?

Mr. Eden

My advice is that the steps which His Majesty's Government have decided upon will be sufficient to put an end completely to these piratical attacks. I am confident that will be so. Should we be mistaken in our conclusion, His Majesty's Government would not exclude any further action.

Mr. A. Henderson

Would not the parties to the Nyon Agreement be well within their rights under international law if they were to take action to blockade any port which was being used by pirate submarines?

Mr. Eden

His Majesty's Government, of course, are perfectly confident that the action which they are taking is within international law, and indeed imperative in order to uphold it.

Lieut.-Commander Fletcher

In future, will Franco surface ships found in the British zone be held to be operating in support of submarines, and dealt with accordingly?

Mr. Gallacher

Arising from the original answer and in view of the possibilities of very serious developments if the lines proposed are followed, would it not be more advisable to withdraw the embargo on armaments to the Spanish Government and allow the Spanish Government to finish Franco?

Mr. Sandys

Is my right hon. Friend aware that throughout the country there is the utmost confidence in his handling of this very difficult situation?