HC Deb 21 January 1948 vol 446 cc211-5
The Civil Lord of the Admiralty (Mr. Walter Edwards)

I wish, Mr. Speaker, with permission, to make a statement on decisions which have been reached to dispose of certain major units of the Royal Navy.

The battleship strength of the Royal Navy has been under review in the light of the age and condition of the ships concerned and their possible value in a future emergency. The useful life of a battleship is normally reckoned to be approximately 20 years. This period is calculated on a normal peace-time usage, and is greatly reduced when the vessels are subjected to arduous war service. As a result of the review, the Admiralty have come to the conclusion that of the capital ships remaining in the Royal Navy, "Queen Elizabeth," "Valiant," "Renown," "Nelson" and "Rodney" are likely to be of the least value as fighting ships.

The possibility of maintaining the battleships in reserve was taken into consideration, but they would be costly to maintain in this state both in money and manpower. Moreover, if they were to be of any value in a future emergency they would need extensive refits and modern- isation, which, in view of the heavy cost and labour involved, could not be justified during the next few years. Even if the work was done, the vessels would fall considerably short of the standard and capabilities of modern construction. In particular their speed could not be increased to such an extent as to render them capable of taking their place in a modern fleet.

In view of the above considerations, instructions have been issued that these vessels should now be scrapped. A number of cruisers and smaller ships, all obsolescent or of little fighting value, will also be disposed of in the near future. This action does not represent any new departure, but is a continuation of the process which has been going on since hostilities ceased, under which redundant and out-dated warships have been scrapped or sold if a market could be found. The Admiralty is satisfied that these reductions do not reduce the effective strength of the Navy below that required to meet any emergency which is likely to arise in the foreseeable future.

Mr. J. P. L. Thomas

May I, on behalf of hon. Members on this side of the House, pay a tribute to the magnificent service of these great ships and those who have served in them for a very long period. including in some cases two great wars? May I also have an assurance that vigorous steps are being taken to replace the loss of this potential fighting strength?

Mr. Edwards

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the tribute that he has paid to the value of these ships and the men who fought in them. I can assure the House that that feeling is shared throughout the Admiralty in particular, and in the Government as well. None of us wanted to see the passing of these ships—they have certainly proved of very great value to this nation in two serious trials in our history—but, unfortunately, they have lost their fighting efficiency for the future. With regard to the second part of the Question, the Admiralty always have under consideration the question of bringing the Fleet up to the required strength, and the hon. Gentleman can rest assured that that factor will be paramount in our minds.

Commander Noble

Would the Civil Lord give an assurance that there is an adequate programme of construction, research and modification, because a very large number of our other ships and equipment are also rapidly becoming out of date?

Mr. Edwards

I think I can give that assurance. This matter is under constant review, and, in the light of the financial position of the country, everything possible is being done.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the serious shortage of steel which is needed in the Clyde at present for commercial shipbuilding, and will he accelerate the process of scrapping these warships?

Sir R. Ross

Will the Admiralty publish a list of the other ships, besides capital ships, which it is proposed to scrap immediately, and will they publish from time to time supplementary lists if they decide to scrap additional ships? Further, has the Admiralty borne in mind the great value, particularly for escort purposes, of obsolescent capital ships, and could the decision to scrap the "Nelson" and "Rodney" be reviewed?

Mr. Edwards

I am afraid the answer to the latter part of the question is "no," because this matter has received very careful consideration indeed. With regard to the first part of the question, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the position is fully covered. As I have already stated, the Admiralty are alive to the necessity for maintaining the strength of the Fleet. I think the best way of meeting the hon. Gentleman's request would be to arrange for Questions to be put down periodically, when we should be only too pleased to consider the publication of further names.

Mr. Henderson Stewart

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that by the scrapping of a considerable number of these and other capital ships, a large gap is created in our fighting Services? In those circumstances, is it not proper that the Minister should indicate now to Parliament precisely what replacement programme is in mind?

Mr. Edwards

There really is no such gap. This matter has been taken very carefully into consideration. Perhaps I might repeat the last sentence of my statement: The Admiralty is satisfied that these reductions do not reduce the effective strength of the Navy below that required to meet any emergency which is likely to arise in the foreseeable future.

Mr. Scollan

Is there not something inconsistent in the Government's policy of scrapping these battleships because they are out of date, while the Army is equally out of date and yet it seems to be quite satisfactory?

Mr. Edwards

This is a matter for the Admiralty, who have decided to scrap ships which they regard as being of no further use to them.

Mr. Joynson-Hicks

Can the hon. Gentleman assure the House that there are available facilities for scrapping five capital ships simultaneously, and for the absorption of the scrapped material? Would it not be better to stagger the rate of scrapping so that the industry can cope with the material ship by ship?

Mr. Edwards

I do not think there are five places where these ships can be scrapped simultaneously. I should tell the House that this scrapping will mean the saving of about 1,000 officers and men in the Navy. The longer we keep these vessels doing nothing and absorbing men, the more costly they become.

Mr. J. P. L. Thomas

May we also be assured that the scrapping of these vessels will not result in the reduction of the strength of the battleship training squadron based at Portland?

Mr. Edwards

The scrapping of these ships will have nothing at all to do with the battleship training squadron at Portland.

Vice-Admiral Taylor

Can the House be informed how many battleships will be left after these five have been scrapped?

Mr. Edwards

We have five very good modern battleships and a new aircraft carrier, and they are as good as most battleships which may be obtained by any other country in the world.

Mr. Usborne

When experts at the Admiralty examine the case for obsolescence in regard to a particular piece of equipment, does it further occur to any of them that the whole case for national Armed Forces is, in fact, obsolete?

Major Legge-Bourke

May I ask the hon. Gentleman if this scrapping will cause any alteration in the building programme and whether the existing building programme has the cuts in these vessels taken into account?

Mr. Edwards

This had nothing whatever to do with the present building programme.

Major Bruce

Will the hon. Gentleman give an assurance that all possible material will be salvaged and put to every possible purpose instead of being destroyed as in previous cases?

Mr. Edwards

Yes, Sir, I will readily give that assurance.

Dr. Segal

In view of the sentimental value attached to some of these ships, will my hon. Friend give an assurance that there is absolutely no other alternative to scrapping them—such as training or use in recruiting?

Mr. Edwards

There is no real alternative to scrapping them except a waste of manpower and money. There is a shortage of scrap in the country, and, as a result of the scrapping of these vessels, we anticipate obtaining something like 82,000 tons of scrap.

Mr. Medland


Mr Speaker

I think we should proceed with the next Business.