HC Deb 09 February 1949 vol 461 cc379-81
The Civil Lord of the Admiralty (Mr. Walter Edwards)

I wish, Mr. Speaker, with permission, to make a statement.

As the House will be aware, a motor pinnace containing fifty-one liberty men from H.M.S. "Illustrious" was sunk on the night of 17th October last in Portland harbour with a loss of 29 lives. All the circumstances of this disaster have been thoroughly sifted by two boards of inquiry, and it has also been possible to raise the pinnace to investigate the cause of its sinking.

The weather when the pinnace left Weymouth pier shortly after 10 p.m. for H.M.S. "Illustrious," which was moored in Portland harbour, was rough, but had not varied appreciably since noon. During this time the pinnace had made several trips to and from the ship to Weymouth and Portland and was manned by the same crew throughout. The Commanding Officer of H.M.S. "Illustrious" had carefully considered whether the state of the weather justified the continued use of liberty boats for recreational purposes, and the Admiralty are satisfied that the decision to allow their use was the right one. The whole boat's crew had been given special instruction in boat handling before leaving Portsmouth and had run this boat with success under varying conditions of tide and weather for some weeks.

The immediate causes of the disaster were the overloading of the boat, which should not have contained more than 40 men, and the apparent failure to reduce speed or to turn back to Weymouth pier when the boat encountered rougher water on coming out of the lee of the breakwater and entering Portland harbour. At this point the boat was steered directly into a head sea and foundered when at a distance of only 50 yards from H.M.S. "Illustrious." Despite the utmost exertions by rescue parties from the parent ship and other ships in the harbour, whose boats conducted unflagging searches until all hope of further rescues had to be bandoned, I regret to say that it was only possible to recover 23 of the occupants of the pinnace, and of these one died without regaining consciousness. It is possible that failure to make full use of the canopies which are provided in these boats for protection from the weather was a contributory cause of the accident, but it is doubtful whether the disaster would have been prevented had the additional canopies been rigged.

With great regret, the Admiralty have reached the conclusion that the responsibility for the accident must be laid at the door of the officer in charge of the boat who, unfortunately, lost his life. To prevent any misunderstanding owing to the publicity which has been given to this accident, I should like to say that expert examination of the pinnace after raising revealed no defects which could have contributed to the accident. A small leak in the after part of the boat was of trifling consequence. The officer in charge was well aware of it and had caused the boat to be baled out before leaving Weymouth pier.

In conclusion, I should like to repeat the expression of the deep sympathy of the Board of Admiralty with the relatives of those who lost their lives in this deplorable accident.

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

Will the hon. Gentleman associate the Opposition with the sympathy expressed to the relatives of all those who suffered in this disaster, including the family of the officer in charge who at the time of the disaster behaved with great personal courage?

Mr. Edwards

I shall be very happy to associate the whole House with the sentiments of the Board of Admiralty.

Colonel J. R. H. Hutchison

In arriving at the conclusion as to responsibility which the Government have announced, have the Government been guided by any official court of inquiry or court martial?

Mr. Edwards

We have had two boards of inquiry into this matter.