HC Deb 21 November 1939 vol 353 cc1033-4
Mr. Attlee

I desire to ask the Prime Minister—whom I am glad to see back in his place—a Question of which I have given private notice, namely, in view of the fact that the laying of mines such as that which sank the "Simon Bolivar" during the last week-end in trade routes and without warning is contrary to international law, whether His Majesty's Government propose to take any action thereupon?

The Prime Minister

I should like to make my grateful acknowledgment to the right hon. Gentleman for his courteous reference to my recovery from the respectable complaint from which I have been suffering.

In reply to the right hon. Gentleman's question, the House will be aware that during the last three days upwards of 10 ships, six of which were neutrals, were sunk, with very serious loss of life, by German mines. The Hague Convention, to which Germany is a party, and which she announced her intention of observing as recently as 17th September last, provides that when anchored mines are used every possible precaution must be taken for the security of peaceful navigation. This is the very essence of the Convention, as the mine cannot discriminate between warship and merchant ship, or between belligerent and neutral. The Convention particularly requires that the danger zone must be notified as soon as military exigencies permit, once the mines cease to be under observation by those who laid them. If unanchored mines are used, they must become harmless one hour at most after those who laid them have lost control over them.

None of these provisions has been observed by the German Government in laying the mines which occasioned the losses I have mentioned, and this fresh outrage is only the culmination of a series of violations of agreements to which Germany had set her hand. I need only recall the sinking of the "Athenia" with the loss of 112 lives and the subsequent destruction of British, Allied and neutral vessels by mine, torpedo or gunfire. These attacks have been made, often without warning and, to an increasing extent, with a complete disregard of the rules laid down in the Submarine Protocol to which Germany subscribed or of the most elementary dictates of humanity.

His Majesty's Government are not prepared to allow these methods of conducting warfare to continue without retaliation. I may remind the House that in the last war, as a measure of justified reprisal for submarine attacks on merchant ships, exports of German origin or ownership were made subject to seizure on the high seas. The many violations of international law and the ruthless brutality of German methods have decided us to follow a similar course now, and an Order-in-Council will shortly be issued giving effect to this decision.

Miss Wilkinson

Can the Prime Minister say whether his experts take the view that these merchant ships were sunk by any new type of magnetic mine?

The Prime Minister

I think that that matter is not one upon which any very definite opinion can be expressed at present.

Mr. J. Morgan

May I ask the Prime Minister whether his right hon. Friend the First Lord of the Admiralty can share his views with the rest of the House, and whether he has any fresh news to impart?