HC Deb 07 March 1945 vol 408 cc2002-4
20. Mr. Quintin Hogg

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs whether he has any statement to make concerning the incident in which the British ship s.s. "Blackheath" was boarded and looted by Spanish officials off Tangier, her ensign hauled down and replaced by a Spanish flag and in which His Majesty's tug Nimble" was several times chased away from assisting her by a Spanish warship; and whether the incident took place within the territorial waters abutting on the International Zone.

Mr. Eden

Yes, Sir. Reports from His Majesty's Acting Consul-General at Tangier and from the naval authorities at Gibraltar show that the s.s. "Blackheath," carrying a cargo of war material, was torpedoed on 10th January. She was subsequently abandoned by her crew and ran aground near Cape Spartel in the international zone of Tangier, where the Spanish authorities placed a guard of six men on board her. Information just received from Gibraltar confirms that in the absence of the British crew members of this guard tried to pilfer personal effects which they found on board, but that their efforts were frustrated when members of the crew of the s.s. "Blackheath" returned to the vessel. The attention of the Spanish Government will be drawn to the matter with a request that they should take appropriate action against the offenders. Information just received from Gibraltar also confirms that in the absence of the British crew the Spanish guard took down the Red Ensign and replaced it by the Spanish flag, apparently under the impression that the vessel had been finally abandoned by its crew and that it therefore became open to the territorial maritime authorities (who under the present arrangements are for the time being the local Spanish authorities) to take possession of the ship. The Spanish flag was subsequently struck when the members of the crew of the "Blackheath" returned to the vessel. Representations will also be made to the Spanish authorities in regard to the hauling down of the Red Ensign.

The naval authorities at Gibraltar state that there is no question of His Majesty's tug "Nimble" having been chased away from the ship by a Spanish warship. On 15th January, however, when the s.s. "Blackheath" broke her back, the Spanish authorities temporarily withdrew permission to salvage the ship on the ground that she had become a total loss. In order not to prejudice our efforts, which I am glad to say were finally successful, to obtain permission to salvage the vessel's cargo, His Majesty's tug "Nimble," being a naval tug, was instructed by Gibraltar to leave Tangier territorial waters until permission to reenter them had been obtained, which it subsequently was.

Mr. Hogg

Does this reply, for which I thank my right hon. Friend, mean that we accept that the Tangier territorial waters are to be treated as wholly Spanish, and will he not say that British naval vessels will be free to go there as and when they please during this war and after it?

Mr. Eden

I could not possibly say that, either during this war, or, under present arrangements, after it, because the Tangier zone has always been regarded by us as neutral waters. It is now Spanish controlled, but previously neutral; but whichever regime, whether Tangier was or was not Spanish controlled, we cannot treat it as other than neutral. It is not an unsatisfactory settlement under which we were able to salvage a complete cargo of war material in what we accept as neutral waters.

Mr. Martin

Does not this incident show it is time that this occupation of Tangier by the Spanish authorities was ended?

Mr. Eden

It does not affect this at all.