HC Deb 19 July 1950 vol 477 cc2266-8
The Civil Lord of the Admiralty (Mr. Walter Edwards)

I will, Mr. Speaker, with your permission, make a statement on the recent explosions in.the ammunition barges in Portsmouth Harbour.

An explosion took place at about 6.45 p.m. on Friday, 14th July, at Bedenham Pier, Portsmouth. It was caused by the detonation of ammunition which was being loaded into an ammunition lighter for transfer to an armament supply issuing ship due to sail in a few days' time for the Far East. Fire brigades fought the flames, but at 7.15 p.m. another ammunition lighter exploded. By 10.30 p.m. the fire was under control and no further explosion occurred. In addition to the damage to Bedenham Pier, nine barges were sunk, or destroyed, damage was caused to houses in the district and windows were broken over a wide area. Five Admiralty civilian employees and 14 other civilians needed hospital treatment, all for minor injuries.

At present it is not possible to say more than that the fire and subsequent explosions may have been due to defective ammunition, mishandling, or some other breach of the safety regulations, or, possibly, to sabotage. An official inquiry is proceeding. The Admiralty will be guided in any subsequent action by the report of the inquiry.

I wish to express the sincere regret of the Board of Admiralty for the casualties and the damage which has been caused by these explosions. As has already been announced, pending investigation of the cause of the explosions, claims for compensation will be accepted by the Admiralty without prejudice to their legal position.

Mr. J. P. L. Thomas

The House will understand that it is difficult for the Civil Lord to make a fuller statement while the inquiry is in progress, but may I ask two questions? In view of the public disquiet at this and other incidents, would the Civil Lord do his best to be in a position to make a fuller statement before the House rises for the Summer Recess? Secondly, in view of the fact that seven other instances of possible sabotage have been reported since the beginning of last month, including one aircraft carrier, four destroyers and two submarines, does he consider that the security precautions are adequate?

Mr. Edwards

The hon. Gentleman will know that the Admiralty must have sufficient time to consider the report of the Board of Inquiry, but I can assure the House that, as soon as we are in a position to make another statement, we shall be only too glad to do so. If we can do it by next week we shall be happy to give it to the House, but it all depends on the consideration of the report. On the second part of the hon. Gentleman's supplementary question, I can assure the the House that the Admiralty are very disturbed about these occurrences and that every possible step within our power is being taken to maintain the security of the Service.

Surgeon Lieut.-Commander Bennett

Can the hon. Gentleman tell us whether the Admiralty are prepared to take responsibility for all the damage in this case, and to pay appropriate compensation?

Mr. Edwards

I cannot go any further than the statement made in the Press in regard to the legal issues.

Mrs. Middleton

When my hon. Friend makes a statement to the House, will it include the incidents which have taken place at Devonport and about which I have put a question?

Mr. Edwards

As far as my answer today is concerned, it must be confined to the explosion at Portsmouth.

Brigadier Clarke

Would the hon. Gentleman pay tribute to the dockyard workers who stood by and tried to put out the fire and prevented the explosion from spreading?

Mr. Edwards

I am very glad of the opportunity of doing so, and I can tell the hon. and gallant Gentleman that certain questions in regard to the men are being looked at now.

Commander Noble

Will the hon. Gentleman consider issuing a comprehensive report on the other incidents as well?

Mr. Edwards

I must confine myself to this question today, but if a Question is put down dealing with the other incidents, I will, of course, consider the matter.

Mr. Gammans

When the hon. Gentleman spoke of the second ammunition lighter catching alight, did he mean that it caught alight from the earlier explosion, or was it an explosion on its own, quite apart from the other?

Mr. Edwards

The flames from the first lighter extended and, although I must not say too much because the board of inquiry is still sitting, it seems that it might have caught fire from the other one.