HC Deb 03 August 1943 vol 391 cc2088-91
Mr. Shinwell

(by Private Notice) asked the Prime Minister whether he can make a statement on the offer by the American Government to transfer merchant ships to the British flag?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir, I am obliged to my hon. Friend for asking this Question. I will, with the permission of the House, read the letter which I have received recently from the President:

"The White House, Washington.


When you were with us during the latter part of December, 1941, and the first few days of 1942, after we had become active participants in the war, plans for a division of responsibilities between your country and mine became generally fixed in certain understandings. In matters of production, as well as in others matters, we agreed that mutual advantages were to be gained by concentrating, in so far as it was practical, our energies on doing those things which each of us was best qualified to do.

Here in this country in abundance were the natural resources of critical materials. Here there had been developed the welding technique which enables us to construct a standard merchant ship with a speed unequalled in the history of merchant shipping. Here there was waiting cargo to be moved in ships to your Island and to other theatres. If your country was to have carried out its contemplated ship construction program, it would have been necessary to move large tonnages of the raw materials that we have here across the Atlantic to your mills and yards, and then in the form of a finished ship to send them back to our ports for the cargo that was waiting to be carried.

Obviously this would have entailed a waste of materials and time. It was only natural for us then to decide that this country was to be the predominant cargo shipbuilding area for us both, while your country was to devote its facilities and resources principally to the construction of combat vessels.

You, in your country, reduced your merchant shipbuilding program and directed your resources more particularly to other fields in which you were more favourably situated, while we became the merchant shipbuilder for the two of us and have built, and are continuing to build, a vast tonnage of cargo vessels.

Our merchant fleet has become larger and will continue to grow at a rapid rate. To man its ever increasing number of vessels will, we foresee, present difficulties of no mean proportion. On your side, the British merchant fleet has been diminished, and you have in your pool as a consequence trained seamen and licensed personnel. Clearly it would be extravagant were this body of experienced men of the sea not to be used as promptly as possible. To fail to use them would result in a wastage of man-power on your side, a wastage of man-power on our side, and what is of equal importance, a wastage of shipping facilities. We cannot afford this waste.

In order that the general understanding that we reached during the early days of our engagement together in this war may be more perfectly carried out, and in order, as a practical matter, to avoid the prodigal use of man-power and shipping that would result from pursuing any other course, I am directing the War Shipping Administration under appropriate bareboat arrangements, to transfer to your flag for temporary wartime duty during each of the suggested next ten months a minimum of 15 ships. I have, furthermore, suggested to them that this be increased to 20.

We have, as you know, been allocating to the British services on a voyage-to-voyage basis large numbers of American controlled ships. What I am now suggesting to you, and what I am directing the War Shipping Administration to carry out, will be in the nature of a substitution, to the extent of the tonnage transferred, for the American tonnage that has been usually employed in your war program. The details of the arrangements we can properly leave to the national shipping authorities for settlement through the Combined Shipping Adjustment Board, whose function it is to concert the employment of all merchant vessels and will, in accordance with its usual practice, do so in connection with these particular ships.

Always sincerely,


In my discussions with the President which were furthered in great detail by the Minister of War Transport, we confined ourselves purely to the war period, leaving arrangements suitable to peace-time settlements to be discussed at a future date. The transfer to our Flag of 150 to 200 ships has already begun and will be spread over ten months. It will absorb our reserves of trained seafaring population, and the resources of both countries will be economically and providently applied to the main purpose.

It gives me much pleasure to read to the House this letter from the President, which I have received his permission to make public. I think it shows a deep understanding of our problems, and of the general problems of the war, by the Head of this most powerful State, and of the intimate and sympathetic relationships prevailing between our two Allied Governments. This will I am sure be a source of keen satisfaction to the House and to the country, and certainly a powerful factor towards the abridgment of this period of war and destruction.

I should add that the Canadian Government are making a similarly generous arrangement in connection with ships built in Canada.

Mr. Shinwell

While fully appreciating the very practical assistance rendered by the American Government in respect of merchant vessels for this country, might bask whether my right hon. Friend is in a position to state what are the types of vessels to be transferred, whether they are of the "Liberty" type or the "Victory" type; and can he, perhaps not now but on some future occasion, indicate the details of the financial arrangements affecting this transfer, which may bear on the future state of the Mercantile Marine in this country?

The Prime Minister

I could not give the classes of ships, but they are new ships which are being built in the United States. As to exactly in what proportion the different types are mingled, I have not been informed at present. There is no financial arrangement. The method we work on is that we use all things to the common advantage.

Mr. Shinwell

Can my right hon. Friend make a statement on this matter perhaps on some other occasion? Will he look into the matter to see whether these vessels are of the somewhat slow "Liberty" typo, or are any of them of the faster "Victory" type?

The Prime Minister

I think that whichever type they are we shall be very glad to put some of our sailors, who are accumulating surplus, and our good engineers and so forth, who are already trained for the sea, on them. These men are very eager to pursue again their dangerous avocation.

Sir Alfred Beit

My right hon. Friend did not make it clear whether these are all new ships, or whether they are older ships, transferred from the American Mercantile Marine.

The Prime Minister

I did not expect to be cross-examined on details of that sort.

Mr. Kirkwood

Cannot the Prime Minister make a blunder, and give them some excuse to criticise?