HC Deb 04 October 1944 vol 403 cc916-8
26. Captain Peter Macdonald

asked the First Lord of the Admiralty if his attention has been called to an incident which occurred at Bembridge, Isle of Wight, on the 16th instant when an airman lost his life within 50 yards of the shore; and, as the lifeboat crew were prevented by Admiralty Regulations and the control officer on duty from launching the lifeboat, what action he proposes to take to prevent a recurrence of further incidents of this kind.

Mr. Alexander

Yes, Sir, I have received a full report on this unfortunate occurrence, which is very much regretted. The reports first received were that someone was in distress in the direction of Bembridge and secondly that a Wellington aircraft had come down off Bembridge and that one of the crew had landed there. Two high speed rescue craft were sent out immediately to search in the vicinity, one inshore and one further out. Five minutes later a message was received by the naval authorities from the coastguards to say that they had been informed by the hon. Secretary of the Bembridge Lifeboat Station that a man near the lifeboat house was calling for help. Unfortunately, it was wrongly assumed that this message referred to the man who had just previously been reported as having landed at Bembridge. Thus, when a few minutes later a request was received by telephone for permission to launch the lifeboat, it was believed that this was unnecessary and that it would be better to hold the boat in reserve. It was known that boats were already searching in the vicinity. If it had been appreciated that a man was at that time in the water calling for help and that the lifeboat crew knew where he was, permission for the boat to launch would, of course, have been given immediately. It is necessary that traffic in the approaches to all defended ports should be strictly controlled in order that craft may not run into danger or precipitate action by the local defences. For this reason orders had been given by the C.-in-C. which required the lifeboat in its own interests to obtain permission to launch. Orders of this nature are being reviewed in consultation with the Inspector, H.M. Coastguards, in the light of the changing war situation and the changing balance of risk, and I hope that this will prevent a recurrence of this regrettable incident. I wish to take this opportunity of expressing my deep sympathy to the bereaved relatives.

Captain Macdonald

Is it not a fact that those who asked permission for the launching of the lifeboat were informed that the man in distress was in view of the lifeboat crew at the time, and they could hear and see him, and yet they were not given permission; in fact they were told they could not launch it?

Mr. Alexander

The incident was unfortunate and there was an error of judgment in interpreting the Regulations. That has been dealt with.

Mr. R. J. Taylor

Is it not a fact that it was not a question of an error of judgment, but a question of red tape?

Mr. Alexander

Not at all. You must remember that you are dealing also with the lives of a large number of lifeboat- men and you have to consider not only mines laid by the enemy, but the immediate operation of our local defences which would begin to work automatically unless proper steps were taken by the naval authorities.

Sir Irvinǵ Albery

Would not the difficulty be better met if the launching of the lifeboat were immediately notified to the naval authorities? They would still have time to prevent it, if necessary.

Mr. Alexander

In some cases, where defence permits of it, that is done already, and in this case I think it is going to be done in the future.