§ Order for Committee read.
§ MR. J. P. L. THOMAS'S STATEMENT
§ 4 p.m.
§ The First Lord of the Admiralty (Mr. J. P. L. Thomas)
I beg to move, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair."
The net sum which I ask today for naval services in 1953–54 is £5¾ million. less than for the current financial year. This figure allows for American counterpart aid and for the further grant of £3 million net for which I am asking in respect of the current financial year. The latter sum is needed to meet the excess expenditure likely to arise mainly as a result of increased prices, Korean war expenses, an unexpectedly sharp and prolonged increase in the proportion of married ratings—which I, as a bachelor, did not foresee—and other additional liabilities which I have set out in the Supplementary Estimate.
The Supplementary, of course, takes into account production shortfalls and adjustments of the naval rearmament programme. I should emphasise, however, that neither in the main Estimates nor in the Supplementary Estimate is there provision for the additional expenditure which we have inevitably to meet as a result of the flood disasters.
The Royal Navy and those of us in all parties who have represented, in different capacities, the Admiralty in the House of Commons, have always been grateful to Parliament for the general support that we receive from the whole House in these debates on Navy Estimates. It is comforting to us to know that the belief in the Service continues generally unabated, though I except the grave chronicle of the hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg), who described the Royal Navy, during the debate on the Army Estimates, as being now a "museum piece."
But outside this House, I am forced to say, there is still a little of what I might call "Wiggery," and I am too often asked 1831 about the need for a strong Navy in modern warfare and whether there really is any potential enemy which can bring a Navy of any strength against us. I felt that both in my explanatory White Paper and in the debate today I should seize the opportunity of answering those two questions.
I hope to deal later with the work of the Royal Navy in the "hot" war off Korea and Malaya and with the various tasks which have been allotted to it in what we call the "cold" war; quite apart from its traditional peace-time duties which, I am sure the House will remember, go on all the time. But I would stress at once that the strategic role of the Royal Navy if war in all its modern beastliness should come has not been altered and so we have to see, to the best of our financial ability, that it is fully prepared.
We get a good many prophecies these days as to what a modern war will mean with its first intensive phase, but I would stress to the House that the Navy's supreme task, if this disaster comes, will still be the same—to keep open our sea communications both during that first intensive phase of modern war and following it. If the Navy cannot succeed in this I warn the House that the most up-to-date Air Force and the best equipped Army will be of no avail. That is why we have concentrated our preparations on defeating the mine, the submarine and the threat from the air.
Much as we pray that the coming years may bring a peaceful solution of our difficulties with any potential enemy, I feel I should tell the House frankly the strength of the Russian Navy to-day. It is, of course, true that during the last war Russia suffered heavy naval losses and that, except in the Pacific, warship building came to an end, but as soon as the Germans were driven out and the shipbuilding yards repaired, the Soviet naval construction programme was resumed. Progress was slow at first, but the increase in speed of this programme has been very remarkable of late. At present, it includes many destroyers and submarines, while more cruisers are now being built annually than by all the N.A.T.O. forces combined.
Today, the Soviet Navy has about 20 very powerful cruisers, over 100 destroyers and more than 350 submarines of all 1832 classes. All ships are kept manned with the result that Russia has today the second largest Navy in commission in the world. The first is, of course, the Navy of our American ally, but I would remind the House that while the Soviet naval forces are dispersed in four main fleet areas, by far the greatest part of their strength—and this is of particular import to Britain—is concentrated in the Baltic and in the Northern seas.
There is every indication that Soviet ships are well built and well armed and that a very high proportion of both their surface and underwater craft are capable of laying mines. Russia also has learned a great deal of valuable technical information both from Allied warships lent to her during the war and from German experts after the war, so that the most up-to-date technical equipment has been developed in their latest ships.
In addition to this, Russia also has a powerful naval air force, including an increasing proportion of jet machines which could be used either for bombing or torpedo attacks or for mine-laying. Although all aircraft are admittedly shore based the Soviet naval air force is an integral part of the Russian Navy; and so the Soviet Navy will allow Russia, if war should come, not only to meet her defensive commitments, but also to lend very powerful support to any land and amphibious operations, and also to wage an offensive war against our sea communications——
§ Mr. John Dugdale (West Bromwich)
Could the right hon. Gentleman give us a little more detail of their mine-laying potentialities? He did mention mine-laying.
§ Mr. Thomas
I cannot give any more details. The security curtain comes down. I have given all the information I possibly can with regard to details of the Soviet Navy at the moment.
They are in a position to wage an offensive war against our sea communications and our ports with surface craft, with aircraft, with the very latest mines and torpedoes, atom bombs and, in due course, I suppose, guided missiles. It is, therefore, no use blinding ourselves to the fact that there is a very strongly armed and efficient Soviet Navy with which to reckon and the House will wish to know how, in the event of the disaster of war, how this country is to meet it. 1833 I should like to deal, first, with naval production. As the House knows well, there has been a radical review of the defence policy in the last year for financial reasons and the rearmament programme has been spread over a longer period and held to a lower peak. For this reason the Navy Estimates for 1953–54, instead of rising noticeably, are, as already shown, much the same as those for 1952–53. I know that there is some uneasiness in the House because of this and I was interested, in the defence debate last week, to hear a distinguished officer of the Army express his alarm on this point. I feel that the House will, therefore, wish me to tell them at once the effects on the Navy of the revised programme.
The reductions which we have had to make have, so far as possible, been obtained, as I said in the Explanatory Memorandum, by re-phasing our programme, so this programme for 1953–54 has succeeded in avoiding cancellation of orders on any considerable scale and, although some difficulties have obviously been caused to the shipbuilding, marine engineering and ship-repairing industries, I believe and hope that these difficulties will be passing ones.
As I have just mentioned the shipbuilding industry, which is sponsored by the Admiralty, I should like to add at this stage our thanks to this industry for the splendid contribution which it has made during the past year, despite the difficulties caused by the steel shortage. The value of merchant shipping built in 1952 was about £110 million, of which about 30 per cent. was for foreign owners. Not only is this most valuable in earning foreign exchange, but these ships do more than that, and they do more than anything else in setting an example of the superiority of the British product over all others.
The emphasis on naval new construction is concentrated on ships for minesweeping and anti-submarine duties and on the progress and completion of aircraft carriers. But I must also warn the House to remember that a great part of the Fleet is of pre-war or of war-time construction and that a steady replacement by new construction throughout the future is vital if the Fleet is to exist as an efficient and a balanced fighting force. This is a problem which is becoming 1834 more pressing as time passes, and I make the following prophecy—that in a few years' time the First Lord of the day will be asking the House to vote funds for an increasing shipbuilding programme.
We have not been able to carry on all the anti-submarine and all the countermine work which we would wish to do but, broadly speaking, the amount spent on this work will be between 70 and 80 times as much as in 1949–50, or about four times as much as in the first full year of rearmament. Every service has had to adjust its programme in order to fit in with our present national economy but, so far as the Admiralty is concerned, our reduction has mainly been in the number of small craft planned for new construction, for which substitutes can be found quickly in an emergency, and on other equipment on which production can be stepped up very quickly indeed if the need arises.
I do not wish to repeat in detail what I have said in my Explanatory Statement, but I want to add a little to what has been printed there. I mentioned in it the five aircraft carriers building for the Royal Navy, and personally I was glad to be at the launch of "Hermes" by Mrs. Churchill a few weeks ago. This ship, when completed, will include the new angled flight deck, and perhaps the House will be interested to hear more of the development of this angled flight deck.
It is complementary to the steam catapult which I mentioned in the Estimates debate last year, for, just as the steam catapult makes it easier to launch aircraft, so the angled deck will make landings much simpler. The normal shape of the flight deck is slightly altered so that the landing path of the aircraft is at an angle to the centre line of the ship and parked aircraft can, therefore, remain in their normal position at the bows.
If an aircraft fails to make a successful landing it can fly straight off over the ship's side without altering course and then come round again for a further attempt. We shall be able both to land heavier aircraft and to avoid the risk of machines crashing into parked aircraft or into the personnel attending them which, unfortunately, has happened once or twice of late.
I am told that the total effect of the lay-out of this angled deck is equivalent 1835 to increasing the length of a carrier's flight deck landing area by just over one-third, which obviously means an enormous advantage in operating the new, high speed aircraft.
I said in my Explanatory Statement that during the current financial year two more of the "Daring" class destroyers had been completed and a third was about to do so. The remaining three ships of the eight of this class, "Decoy," "Diana" and "Delight," are expected to complete during the coming financial year. I hope that is of particular interest to the right hon. Member for West Bromwich (Mr. Dugdale), because his wife launched the first of these "Daring" class destroyers.
These ships, which are nearly 400 ft. long with a main armament of 6 x 4.5-in. guns, are to all intents and purposes light cruisers, but they have a power of speed and an ability to manœuvre which no larger cruiser could attain.
§ Mr. Thomas
I cannot say off-hand. The Parliamentary Secretary will give the figure at the end of the debate. I cannot say that they are beautiful in appearance, and I have already been reprimanded in the House for that. My only defence is that, like their Lordships on the Board of Admiralty, they have been chosen for their efficiency rather than their looks.
§ Mr. J. Dugdale
Will the angled flight deck allow bombers to be flown off or will it be possible only to fly fighters?
§ Mr. Thomas
I understand that all strike aircraft can be used. It will cover all strike aircraft—bombers and fighters.
The frigate programme has been delayed, but I am glad to say that 13 ships of the four different types are well in hand and several more will be laid down during the coming year. We are also getting on well with the modernisation of existing frigates and with the conversion of destroyers to anti-submarine frigates.
I am glad to tell the House that the minesweeper programme is making steady progress, in spite of delays over special 1836 materials and, in some cases, an inadequate labour force in the small yards. This minesweeper programme has been carried out in no fewer than 33 separate shipyards all round the coast of the United Kingdom. It is costing two-fifths of the total expenditure on naval new construction during 1953–54 and I can promise the House that during this coming year we shall see the beginning of a very substantial flow of these ships.
The first of the new coastal minesweepers has been completed and by the end of this financial year 47 vessels will have been laid down, 17 of them will have been launched and work will be in hand on the remaining 30. Aluminium is being used both for the framing and the structural casing, and the outer bottoms are wood planked, so that the hulls will be largely non-magnetic. They are driven by diesel engines; they have the latest minesweeping equipment and they will be able to operate sweeps against contact and influence types of mines. Forty-eight of the smaller inshore minesweepers for operating in rivers and estuaries will have been laid down by the end of 1952–53, of which 20 will have been launched.
§ Mr. Walter Edwards (Stepney)
Would the right hon. Gentleman tell me whether the minesweepers will be put into active commission when they are completed, or will they be put into reserve?
§ Mr. Thomas
Some will be put into active commission and some will be put into reserve under special conditions which we are arranging at present and about which something has already appeared in the Press.
§ Mr. Thomas
I cannot give the proportion, but I can get that information for the hon. Gentleman.
I am now coming to the other main subject which is worrying Parliament and the experts outside in the country—naval aviation. I know that right hon. and bon Members will wish to hear as much about it as I can give them within the boundaries of security. I must say, quite frankly, that naval aviation is not being re-equipped with modern types of aircraft as quickly as any of us would like, but the Admiralty and the Ministry of Supply are facing the 1837 coming year with a good deal more confidence. The slowness. is due to a number of causes, and which, I must say in fairness, cannot be attributed to any one particular Government. In the early stages of the aircraft production programme after the war it was felt that it was more important for the Royal Navy to get aircraft specially designed for their tasks than to achieve earlier deliveries. That, I think, has been the main cause of our difficulty till now.
There have been many delays in the production of our various new aeroplanes, and once more the responsibility does not lie in any one quarter. I am sure, however, that the House will agree with me that nothing is to be gained by a policy of recrimination over the past. What we have to do is to try to show that we safeguard our aircraft strength for the future. That, I can assure the House, is being done, and I should like to emphasise that I am much happier today than I was a few months ago, and so are the Lords of Admiralty and the Minister of Supply.
Over a year ago super-priority was given to the Gannet, our anti-submarine aircraft, as a result of which I very much hope that deliveries of these aircraft will not lag in future. Although there was a hold up over the earlier deliveries of the Navy's first jet fighter, the Attacker, this aircraft has been in squadron service in H.M.S. "Eagle" since 1952. I know there have been certain reports that it might not be safe to fire its guns under all conditions. Luckily, that has proved not to be the case, and I am glad that certain technical troubles with the fuel supply have been put right. Apart from this, there has been rather a tendency to run down the Attackers, but I can assure the House that the experts tell me that they are now performing well in service; they are a good aircraft to operate from the deck of a carrier; and I am told that the pilots are getting extremely useful instruction and experience through them in landing jet aircraft on carriers.
We also had a disappointment over the Sea Hawk. This was mainly due to shortage of labour in the early stages of production, but the Minister of Supply has taken special measures for handling the production line, and we believe that it will now go ahead satisfactorily. No. 806 Squadron, formed at the Royal 1838 Naval Air Station, Brawdy, on 2nd March, will have Sea Hawks during this month, and other Sea Hawk squadrons will follow later in the year.
Then there are the Sea Venom and the Wyvern. The Sea Venom all-weather fighter is in two marks. The production of the first mark is only just behind schedule. The second mark is delayed because we need to make certain modifications for carrying special radar, which we hope to obtain from America, and by certain difficulties in design which, I hope. now are being rapidly solved. There have been difficulties, too, with the Wyvern strike aircraft, but this aircraft is now cleared for operation from airfields.
Meanwhile, the United States of America have generously agreed to supply us with a number of aircraft which will be delivered under the Mutual Defence Assistance Programme. We have had Skyraiders for an operational role, and a number of these aircraft are already in H.M.S. "Eagle," and other supplies are coming along, including a later mark of the Skyraider. We have also been allocated 10 Sikorsky S.55 helicopters by America. These are powerful 10-seaters, which first flew in England in the summer of 1951, and we hope that there will be future supplies of helicopters of both heavy and light types.
We are also receiving under the Mutual Defence Assistance Programme a substantial number of Avengers, which will be particularly welcome as they will strengthen our anti-submarine forces until the Gannet is available in sufficient numbers. H.M.S. "Perseus" left to fetch these first Avengers last week and we shall very soon have them in this country because, I understand, H.M.S. "Perseus" arrived in America today.
In addition to the aircraft which are expected to be in service during the next year or two, we have placed a substantial order for a new naval jet fighter of the swept-wing type. It will be twin-engined, and will be capable of a very high rate of climb. For obvious reasons I cannot give any further information at this stage, but I should like to assure the House that this aircraft is getting super-priority as well.
I have not attempted to hide from the House the disappointments which both 1839 the last Government and this one have suffered over naval aircraft, but I can at least say that the aircraft about to come into service in the Royal Navy will be comparable to their counterparts in other countries, and that it will be possible for us to match, and, I hope, to lead, the best that any of our potential enemies may have in mind.
That is all I have to say on the production programme but on the research and development programme alongside it we expect to spend roughly 2½ times as much next year as we did two years ago on underwater weapons and on the development of electronic valves. Obviously, the most important scientific event has been the test of the first British atomic weapon at the Monte Bello Islands. The naval contribution to this successful operation was a big one. One escort carrier, three tank landing ships and a frigate, with a total complement of over 1,000 officers and men, were involved, and our scientists brought back much useful information which can now be used to increase the efficiency and speed of our vessels in the face of atomic attack.
The earlier work that took place in naval laboratories to protect personnel and neutralise the dangerous effects of an atomic explosion turned out to be very effective indeed, and now all Her Majesty's ships, with the exception of the vaporised "Plym,"' have now returned to the United Kingdom. It is said that the hulls still carry some evidence of radio activity, because although they were outside the range of the direct effects of the explosion they had to enter contaminated water later in the period, but the residual contamination is now very light, and the ships can be used; but to guard against any risk they will be decontaminated shortly in the Royal dockyards. I can assure the House steps will be taken to safeguard the health of the workmen concerned. I do not think there need be any fear on this point.
Connected with this, during the past year, in order to make our ships more secure against damage from atom bombs, 11,000 officers and men completed damage control and fire fighting courses in the naval schools. This number included many Reservists and Merchant Navy officers and, in addition, over 24,000 1840 men did short courses. I have myself seen them at those courses, and I can assure the House that the training is very thorough.
I have been asked by one or two Members who are scientifically minded to tell the House something about our latest anti-submarine equipment in H.M.S. "Rocket," which is a British invention, and also about the propulsion machinery of our new warships. I warn hon. Members who are not scientists that they may be in for a technical five minutes. This anti-submarine equipment includes two three-barrelled anti-submarine mortars which are linked to an Asdic set with an improved electronic fire control system. The mortars fire a pattern of large projectiles with a high degree of accuracy, and the projectiles can be set automatically to explode at any given depth. They have tails like those on bombs to make their flights in the air more accurate and their ability to find the target is greater.
These weapons, which are muzzle loaded, can be trained over a wider arc than has been possible in the past. When the range is closed and the so-called electronic brain has absorbed the necessary information from the Asdic set, the mortar is pointed automatically and the weapons are discharged electrically.
The House will be relieved to hear, in spite of the last few bewildering sentences, that the whole process is almost instantaneous, and submarines have little chance of escaping destruction once they are within range of the hunting ships. This new weapon, designed in this country, has been tried with success in American and Canadian waters. It has given those two countries much food for thought and has certainly confirmed the faith which we ourselves placed in this new equipment.
Then there are the astonishing changes that have occurred in the propulsion machinery in our new warships, which will result in a much greater economy in the consumption off uel. Those ships which are propelled by internal combustion machinery have either light-weight high-efficiency diesel engines or gas turbines. The Bold Pioneer and the Bold Pathfinder torpedo boats both have gas turbines.
The Royal Navy believe that the development of the gas turbine will prove 1841 to be as revolutionary in the marine engineering world as the change-over from fire tube to water tube boilers was at the beginning of the century.
§ Mr. F. J. Bellenger (Bassetlaw)
Is any knowledge exchanged with, for example, America about this latest anti-submarine weapon—which, according to the right hon. Gentleman's account, seems to be very effective—in view of the fact that she does not seem to be very willing to give us her information about atomic bomb developments?
§ Mr. Thomas
I have just said that this weapon has been tried in American and Canadian waters, so both those countries have the necessary information about this particular equipment. In the near future gas turbines will probably be found in some form or other in all classes of vessels.
At a time when it is brought home to us so frequently that we are no longer the largest Navy in the world, it is rather comforting to feel that we have been able to show to that world our British technical advances—the angled deck, the steam catapult, the anti-submarine mortar and the use of gas turbines for marine propulsion. If we are no longer the biggest Navy in the world we have no intention of being anything but the best
All this could not have been done without a great deal of the devoted work by the civil staffs of the Admiralty, professional and technical staffs, the draughts-men and all the other grades who have played their part. I am often challenged about the numbers of the civil staff employed by the Admiralty and I shall be willing to argue that matter with hon. Members at another time. However, I would say this: we have cut down the staff on purely clerical work—sometimes irreverently called "pen pushers"—but the cut has, I am afraid, been fully absorbed by an increase in the research and development staffs. But whatever the numbers I hope the House will admit that in this research and development work they are producing the goods.
§ Mr. Thomas
I think it has been somewhere in the region of 200 to 300.
1842 This research work is very costly and we have had to pay for it by considerable sacrifices elsewhere. First, as I mentioned in my Explanatory Memorandum, our provision of ammunition, oil fuel and stores for 1953–54 is on a reduced scale and we shall have, in fact, to draw on stocks to a certain extent. I warn the House that this is a situation which cannot be allowed to continue in future.
In the second place, the Navy has great accumulated arrears still hardly touched in certain of its shore services. I do not wish to trespass into the debate on the intervening Amendment, on the dockyards, but I would only just remind hon. Members who do not represent dockyard constituencies that they are very often both congested and old-fashioned in their building lay-out: they are war damaged and they still have an undue proportion of old plant. Here, again, a good deal of modernisation has to be done.
We also have a tremendous leeway to make up in works and buildings, and even the rate of expenditure under this head for 1953–54, which is no less than £18 million, will not do more than to nibble at the problem. It is a sad fact that much of the shore accommodation is very old, some of it going back as far as Nelson's day, so here again we have to face an enormous programme for the replacement of accommodation for personnel, production buildings and communications, and storage premises. The modernisation of naval airfields is also essential, but it is also very costly. We shall spend roughly £2 million on this for 1953–54 and the commitment will continue for several years.
All that I have mentioned boils down to the simple fact that, to say the least of it, the House cannot expect Navy Estimates to go down in the next few years, and if we are to have what we need and what our fighting men deserve we must be prepared to pay for it.
Now let me say a word or two about our manpower problems. It is difficult with this small majority in the House of Commons for the man who holds my job, or for my Parliamentary colleagues on the Board of Admiralty, to see as much of the Fleet or of naval establishments as we should like to. But the House, as usual, has been kind to the 1843 Admiralty and we have not been altogether without pairs, which have helped us to do a certain amount of travelling. We are grateful for this for, as our predecessors—two of whom are at present on the Opposition Front Bench—will appreciate, it makes all the difference when one can see and talk to the men whose lives one has to run from the Admiralty.
I dare say that many of the personnel problems which will be raised during this debate and answered by the Parliamentary Secretary, whose work is particularly concerned with that side of Admiralty life, have already been heard by us during last year from officers and men in the different ward rooms and mess decks where we have had our talks, but it is all to the good that these problems have another airing today.
During the last year I have had the privilege of seeing the Royal Marines at their work in Malta, on the cliffs of Sandown and on the moors of Devonshire. I have also seen those same cliff-climbers on the barrack square, but it is amazing to me to find that the time spent on Commando training has not the slightest effect on the efficiency of their drill on more formal occasions.
Let me now turn to manpower. In order to achieve the strengthening of the Navy, carried out since the summer of 1951, roughly 1,000 officers and 16,000 men had to be retained after their engagements had expired, and a further 600 officers and 8,000 Royal Fleet reservists were recalled to active service up to the end of 1952. I wish to put on record today that the assistance given by these officers and men to the Navy and to the national defence in general has been of the utmost value. They have enabled the Fleet, directly or indirectly, to play its part, not only in the Korean operations, but also in meeting the many tasks that have fallen to the Navy in fulfilling its commitments in what we call the "cold" war.
I know only too well that for many of them recall to service or retention in service has meant a good deal of hardship and sacrifice, and I have been heartened by the relative absence of complaints. The number of letters I have received from hon. Members is very few in view of the numbers involved. The 1844 other day, some 14 Reservists, whose ship is being diverted unexpectedly to Korea, where they would not normally have been sent, all made requests to be allowed to remain in the ship for this service.
All this speaks volumes for the spirit in which these difficulties have been faced and I can assure these officers and men that without them we should have been faced with most acute difficulties in the Fleet, and could not have met our United Nations responsibilities in Korea. I am glad to be able to say that as a result of the growing strength of the free world today, to which the services of these recalled and retained officers and men have made no mean contribution, we are now able to begin to arrange for the return to civil life of the 12,000 of them who are still serving.
As large numbers are involved releases will necessarily be progressive. We shall have to continue retentions beyond the normal periods of service during the coming financial year, but the period will be steadily reduced. We have kept down the number of recalls of Reservists to the minimum and we intend that all of the retained and recalled men be released by the end of March, 1954, unless, of course, there is any serious deterioration in the international situation.
We must face the fact that two great difficulties will meet us as a result of this large out-flow during the coming year. It is going to be difficult because it includes many of the Navy's most experienced men. The first is going to be the short-term difficulty of the gap in numbers they will leave behind them. I have referred in my Explanatory Statement to certain manpower economies which have been adopted. We have also turned our eyes to the Reserve Fleet in search of manpower savings. We hope that a scheme which has recently been announced for the re-disposition of the Reserve Fleet in commercial ports where it will be looked after by civilian contract labour, will release for service elsewhere about one-half of the officers and ratings previously employed on Reserve Fleet duties, a total saving of about 3,500 officers and men.
The second difficulty, however, arising in 1953 onwards, is the more crucial one of the balance to be struck in the Navy, once the emergency bearings have disappeared, between numbers of senior and 1845 junior ratings. This is not a new problem, as just before the outbreak of the Korean emergency we were running short of senior and experienced ratings in the Fleet owing in the main to war-time policies for entry into the Regular Forces. The present of these men among those who have been retained and recalled gave us temporary relief.
It has been, and still is, an urgent and most important task for us to build up as quickly as we can, by an intensive and imaginative training effort, the numbers of senior ratings on Regular engagements which will ensure that the regular peace-time strength of the Navy is balanced. By this means we have in the last 15 months increased the petty officer and leading rate content of the Navy by some 2,500 ratings but, whatever we do, we cannot avoid having serious shortages in certain branches and the permanent solution obviously lies in increasing the number of continuous service ratings.
While short-service men on seven-year engagements give valuable help and are as important as ever as reservists after their seven years' active service, we cannot get the senior ratings we need from them unless they transfer to longer engagements. Senior ratings must come from long service men. We have high hopes that in view of our efforts to make a naval career attractive, many of these men will decide to turn over to the long engagements. This would do much to redress the balance in naval manpower.
Here, perhaps, I had better make it clear to the House that the rate of the married unaccompanied overseas allowance recently announced for the Army and Air Force will also apply to the Navy ashore and abroad.
Our recruiting policy during the current financial year has, therefore, been to enter a far higher proportion of ratings on continuous service engagements than on seven-year engagements. Between 1st April and 31st December, 1952, 11 recruits entered the Royal Navy on a continuous service engagement for every one entered on a seven-year engagement. In doing this we are looking ahead to the years after 1954 when, unless the task required of the Navy demands a big increase over the normal Vote A, the balance between senior men and junior men and between long service men and 1846 short service men should become increasingly favourable. Given normal conditions the Vote A necessary from 1954 onwards could become sound and well-balanced and readily capable of expansion.
I now come to the officer position which is similar to that of ratings, in that we were experiencing shortages before the Korean emergency and we obtained temporary relief by retaining and recalling officers. This form of relief ends in April, 1954, and the shortage will then be of junior officers, especially serious in the engineering and electrical branches and also in the medical and dental branches which carry a substantial proportion of National Service officers.
To carry us over this period we shall rely, meanwhile, on those retained and recalled officers who volunteer to serve for a further period. To date, about 500 such officers have volunteered and, in addition, about 80 have been given permanent commissions. This means a response of about 45 per cent., which is very satisfactory.
Behind this immediate problem of filling the gaps in the officer structure lies the long-term difficulty to fill the planned number of vacancies in the executive and engineering branches by cadets from Dartmouth and the special entry and in the executive branch, from the lower deck also. I had hoped to be able to say something about the cadet entry today, and I very much regret that I cannot do so. As the House knows, I set up the Committee on Cadet Entry last year and it has been doing a very thorough job of work. It is still sitting, but I hope to have its report and recommendations before long. As soon as I have had time to consider the report, I promise the House that I will make a further statement. Meanwhile, I can only assure hon. Members that I am as much concerned as they to reach decisions in this difficult matter which will be helpful to the future of the Royal Navy and, I repeat, fair to every section of the community.
Recruitment is going up for naval aircrew, which is very important, by roughly 50 per cent., and a higher proportion of permanent executive officers, entered through Dartmouth and the special entry, have said that they wish to specialise in naval aviation. Although, 1847 in 1952, we almost filled the vacancies which existed for aircrew entering on short service commissions, we still need more young men from civilian life to come forward and apply for short service commissions. The experiment of allowing Regular ratings to apply for the eight-year short service commission proved a great success and we are continuing this scheme, but now that the initial response has been obtained the contribution from this source will, of course, be smaller.
Hon. Members may be aware that the Navy grants commissions in the R.N.V.R. to National Service men during their two years' service period. I am glad to say that we have been able to grant a larger number in the past year than formerly—in fact, about double the previous year's figure. I regard this as a very satisfactory development in view of the reliance we must place on this scheme to provide young Reserve officers for the future.
I cannot leave the question of personnel without mentioning the W.R.N.S., who are as efficient as ever. They are doing excellent work ashore at home and in Norway, Germany, Malta and Fayid. As they are decorative as well as efficient, I am afraid that we are suffering a little at the moment from marriage wastage.
There has been little change in the pattern of naval operations in Korea during the year where all ranks have done magnificent work alongside the navies of the Commonewalth and our allies. The performance of our aircraft carriers has been outstanding and on several occasions there have been sequences of over 1,000 accident-free landings.
In Malaya, there have been constant patrols by the Royal Navy to prevent gunrunning and the entry of bandits and the Navy has also sent and manned a squadron of operational helicopters for the support of the Army out there. The manning of helicopters is a fairly new and unusual job for the Navy and it gives another splendid demonstration of how flexible the Service is. It is also a very good example of inter-Service co-operation. The Navy mans its own helicopters to assist the Army under R.A.F. operational control. It needs only a Royal Marine Commando present to make the inter-Service team complete.
1848 We have had many N.A.T.O. exercises, including two in the Mediterranean and two in the Atlantic and home waters. The Mediterranean exercises took the form of convoy cruises so that the ships of several Mediterranean navies may get accustomed to working together. The exercises both in the Mediterranean and elsewhere were made as realistic as possible and the N.A.T.O. navies concerned are making very considerable progress in their team work.
This year there will be a chance for many hon. Members to see for themselves, at the Naval Review, many of the ships about which I have talked to the House today. Details about attendances of Members of both Houses at the Naval Review will, I hope, be with them shortly.
Those Members who saw the 1937 Review and who go to the Review of this year will find a very striking change, not, of course, in the personnel, who are as good as ever they were, but in the make-up of the Fleet brought about by modern conditions. They will see far fewer battleships, cruisers and destroyers, but there will be many more aircraft carriers, considerably more frigates and minesweepers, and other small vessels. That, of course, is due to the type of modern warfare which we have to foresee in the future, and there should be a great deal of evidence of our concentration on anti-submarine and anti-mine craft.
The sight of these vessels at Spithead when Her Majesty the Queen reviews Her Fleet, and the Fleet has its chance to do homage to its Queen, will give a very practical demonstration of the developments to which I referred in introducing the Navy Estimates last year and will bear witness to our determination to be fully prepared for anything that the future may have in store for us.
§ 4.20 p.m.
§ Mr. John Dugdale (West Bromwich)
We have listened to the First Lord's speech with great interest. All sides start with one thing in common; we are all anxious to see the Navy brought to the highest pitch of efficiency and we all realise the vital role that it has to play in warfare should warfare come upon us.
The first Lord has revealed a serious state of affairs in some fields. In particular, he has revealed for the first time the strength, or some of the strength, of the 1849 Russian Navy. I am glad that he has taken a decision to reveal these figures, because it is important that the House and the country should know them. It is important that we should know, for example, that there are 350 Russian submarines as potential agressors against our shores if war should come. The First Lord could not say, for obvious reasons, what the strength of the Russian minelayers was, but I am sure he will agree that this is something of tremendous importance to the Royal Navy and something which the Royal Navy will have to counter.
§ Mr. Emrys Hughes
The First Lord of the Admiralty gave figures for Russian vessels as against this country, but in considering any possible war ought we not to compare the figures for the Communist countries, Russia and China, as compared with the anti-Communist countries, including the United States of America? Would not that put the picture in proper perspective?
§ Mr. Dugdale
I imagine that that question is really addressed to the First Lord, but I should say that we have to act as if for the first period of a few weeks, at any rate, we shall find it necessary to defend ourselves at sea unaided. It may be that from the very first we shall have full American aid, but it would be most unwise for us to say, "We will leave things to the Americans" and neglect defending our own shores.
It is in the light of the First Lord's revelations that I want to examine the Estimates. I want to examine, in particular, the Navy's share of the total defence Estimates. A short time ago the House discussed the total Estimates. I am not arguing whether they are the right size or the wrong size—it would not be proper for me to do so in a discussion concerned solely with the Navy Estimates—but what I am concerned with is the Navy's share of the total defence Estimates, and I submit that the Navy has not had a sufficiently large share of the total Estimates.
Let us look at the position. There has been a drop in the current Navy Estimates of £5.8 million, but an effective drop of £7.3 million because the non-effective Vote has risen somewhat. Let us compare that with the other two Services. 1850 The Army Estimates are the same as they were the previous year and the Air Estimates have risen by £6 million. Let us now take the totals. The Navy has £169 million less than the Royal Air Force and £200 million less than the Army. Is it right that there should be this disproportion between the Services? We on these benches are all for economy, if that economy is genuine, but we are a little afraid that this economy in the Navy Estimates in comparison with the Army and Air Estimates—I am not, I repeat, talking about the total for the Services—may well have been forced upon the Admiralty by the Minister of Defence.
The Minister of Defence is a very distinguished soldier indeed; some may say that he is the most distinguished soldier that we had in the last war. I am not talking about his war record however. The Opposition said from the outset that it was wrong to have a soldier—he is not an ex-soldier; he is a soldier at this moment—in charge of one of the great defence Departments. We said that there should be a political head who could take general broad political decisions.
I believe that our case has been proved abundantly by the fact that the Army has come out so much better than the Navy as regards the money allotted to it for defence. Indeed, perhaps we are all becoming a little too Army-minded. In the recent defence debate there was one reference, or may be two references, to the Royal Navy. It is strange that there should be a debate on the defence of this country and the Royal Navy should be mentioned only once or twice, the debate being devoted almost entirely to the Army. Do not let us wake one day and find that, while we hold the Middle East firmly in our grasp, 45 million people in this country are threatened by starvation as a result of the activity, of enemy submarines.
The Navy is not potentially a very great offensive weapon. I was interested, however, to hear the right hon. Gentleman say that it would be possible to fly bombers off the new flight angle decks. I do not know whether we have yet reached the stage of being able to fly-off long distance bombers, but I would remind the House that the great centres of Russian war potential in Siberia are very much nearer the northern waters above Norway than they are this country For instance, 1851 Magnitogorsk, I believe I am correct in saying, is approximately 2,500 miles from London, but it is only 1,500 miles from a carrier based in the north of Norway. Irkutsz is 3,500 miles from London, but only 1,800 miles from a carrier based on the northern shores of Norway. If it is possible to fly heavy bombers off our carriers, they would be for some aspects of offence more important than the aerodromes in this country from which our bombers fly today.
I want, first, to consider the position with regard to ships and equipment. It would seem that the largest cut which has been made is in Vote 9 F, for guns, torpedoes and mines, a drop from £13 million to £7 million. We are not given any details of this. It may be that it is quite correct that there should be such a drop, but it is impossible to argue unless one has details in front of one. However, we must be certain that our sailors are as well equipped with the weapons of war as are our soldiers and airmen. Do not let us reduce that Estimate if, by doing so, our sailors are less well equipped than are our soldiers and airmen.
Another Vote which shows a great reduction is 8. II, K for Fleet fuel, and I should like the Parliamentary Secretary to give us some explanation of this when he replies. There is a very large reduction indeed here. I want to know why there is this reduction and what the effect of it will be? Is it because our Fleet is to have less mobility next year? It may be simply that prices have dropped. If so, we can all be thankful, but I think this is something for which we ought to have an explanation, and I do not think that the one about prices is likely to be it.
While on the subject of equipment, I should like to ask the Parliamentary Secretary to tell us something about the reports we have had from time to time, which I hope he can deny, that there has been sabotage in the Fleet. At the time the Admiralty did deny it, but I hope the hon. Gentleman will once again tell us that he is perfectly satisfied that there is no sabotage within the Fleet, and that cases where there have been explosions or damage inside ships has been due 1852 entirely to natural causes and not to any deliberate action.
Many people were somewhat concerned to see a curious little incident which, though comical in its way, was none-the-less disturbing. It was the case of a boy who went into a dockyard to take photographs and then sent the photographs to the Admiralty to see if they were all right. The Admiralty discovered that he should never have been inside the dockyard at all. Other people besides small boys can get into dockyards, and small boys can be used for all sorts of things.
§ Mr. Dugdale
We have to take great care that the dockyards have the maximum degree of security.
The First Lord referred to the importance of minesweepers and we are in entire agreement about their importance. He says, incidentally, they are to have super-priority. I wish I knew what super-priority means. It does not seem to be either Churchillian or Follickian, and I do not know what its meaning really is. A lot of things are to have super-priority but why, if they are to have this super-priority, are we selling minesweepers to other countries? It may be it is to our allies, but at the same time that we are selling them we are removing them from our own use to the use of other countries. Will the Parliamentary Secretary tell us why these minesweepers are being sold?
Passing to the subject of frigates, I see that only 13 are being built. Considering the importance of the frigate in defence against submarine warfare, it does not seem a large number. Can we be told why the frigate programme is so relatively small, smaller I think than it has been for some time, though I speak subject to correction on that? The First Lord described, also, the difficulty he was having with naval aviation, and, as one would expect from him, he did not attempt to blame either this Government or their predecessor. But he did say there was grave disappointment in this direction. For all those reasons we want to be quite certain that the Admiralty have, in fact, had sufficient money for naval development on the material side, because only thus can the Navy be fully efficient. 1853 I pass to the subject of manpower. What is the position with regard to manpower? There is to be a reduced Vote A. What is to be the effect on the readiness of the Fleet in time of war? What is to be the effect in the meantime on the training of manpower? When I was at the Admiralty I was always told by those who knew that it was impossible to spread the men available more thinly. It was impossible to reduce the manpower in each ship, otherwise it could not carry out the normal training operations that it was expected to do. I do not know whether the same position still holds, but I should like to know whether their Lordships are satisfied that our ships will be as easily made ready in time of war and kept properly trained in time of peace as they were before this reduction.
One of the things that people might expect to happen when there is a reduction in manpower is that there should be a reduction in the percentage who are shore based. Frankly, I do not think that this is possible, but I cannot help reminding the right hon. Gentleman of what the Prime Minister once said. Speaking in 1948, the Prime Minister said he was concerned that there were 56 per cent. ashore which, he thought, was a disgracefully large number to have with only a small number of ships. What is the position today? After the right hon. Gentleman has done his best, no doubt with constant prodding from the Prime Minister to carry out his wishes, there are 53 per cent. ashore.
It does not seem to be a very great improvement, and I hope that the First Lord will not find himself in trouble with the Prime Minister because his policy has not reduced the officers and men in shore establishments by more than 3 per cent. Incidentally, there are 63 per cent. of officers shore based. I am not complaining, but I am suggesting that the right hon. Gentleman's own leader might complain, if he can give the time to think about the subject, because of the First Lord's failure to carry out his wishes.
When we come to the Admiralty staff the position is even more interesting. In 1948, the Prime Minister, then the Leader of the Opposition, made a speech in which he said:There are nearly three times as many officials, naval and civil, at the Admiralty and 1854 its ancilliary establishments as there were on the outbreak of war in 1939. … The whole presentations of the Admiralty staff is a scandal, which any House of Commons worthy of its financial responsibilities should probe, scrub and cleanse."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 8th March. 1948; Vol. 448, c. 834–5.]That is the real, genuine Churchillian stuff.
§ Mr. J. P. L. Thomas
The armament programme has had to be started since 1948, as the right hon. Gentleman must remember.
§ Mr. Dugdale
Yes, but let us see what these figures were. They were 12,650 and they were reduced by the late Government to 10,221. Today, they are 10,382. They are beginning to go up again, and I do not know how far they are going to go up, but we have to be very careful if the Prime Minister's wishes are to be carried out.
§ Mr. F. A. Burden (Gillingham)
Surely the right hon. Gentleman will agree that that rise is not at all inconsiderable in view of the vast expansion that has taken place, and the fact that National Service has been instituted.
§ Mr. Dugdale
Maybe there has been some increase in the armament programme, but Vote A is the primary consideration here. There is a slight increase in it, I think about 7 per cent., but the percentage of Admiralty staff in relation to Vote A is much the same as it was when the right hon. Gentleman took over.
While on the subject of manpower, may I say that we will have to examine very carefully the possibilities of using colonial manpower? I do not know how far it is possible to use it further. I am pleased to see that the Malayan and East African navies are now both to be called Royal. That is very fine as far as it goes, but it does not make them any bigger and it does not mean we are using them any more. I hope we shall see whether we can make more use of colonial manpower.
I come now to the question of welfare. The previous Government made a number of reforms in welfare. Pay was raised and a great step was taken in beginning to clean out the barrack slums which developed over very many years previous to the war. Married quarters were built in 1855 considerable numbers, and many other smaller but nonetheless important reforms were carried out. I hope that the Government do not intend to put the clock back. I am glad to see, according to the First Lord's Explanatory Statement, that they have made increased provision for married quarters and I should like to hear a little bit more about it. I find it difficult to understand from the Estimates exactly what the effect will be, because there is an increase for married quarters in one Estimate and a reduction in another. It would be interesting to have an explanation how the development will work out.
The most important reform that was brought in by the late Government in naval procedure was the institution of the new Dartmouth scheme. The late Government started with the aim that there should be equality of opportunity for all, which had never existed before in regard to officer selection. With that end in view we first gave grants to make it easier for people to get into the Navy through the special entry scheme after leaving school at 17 or 18, without finding as many financial barriers as had existed before. We then greatly increased the number of people who rose to commissioned rank through the upper yard man scheme which, incidentally had the blessing of the present Prime Minister who, I know took a very active interest in it. But the most important thing we did was to raise the age from 13 to 16 for Dartmouth entry and to make training free there for the first time in history.
We are now told, in the Statement issued by the First Lord:The number of boys of the right quality coming forward for cadetships in the executive and engineering branches has not been sufficient to enable all vacancies to be filled.That is a very serious statement, obviously of supreme importance to the Navy. I agree that it is necessary for a committee to examine it, but why is it so? We find that many boys who have passed their examinations with flying colours have failed on their interview and I want to know why this has happened. Examinations are certainly not enough and do not necessarily bring out people's characters. It is necessary to have a method by which one can bring out character besides intellectual capability.
1856 I am reminded of the story, which the House may know, of the small boy who went to be examined by a number of eminent Admirals on a very hot day. Their Lordships were getting hotter and hotter and were very worried. One thing that disturbed them was that they could not open the window. They said to the small boy: "Open that window." The small boy looked at the window and put a table under it. He stood on the table, but could not get to the window. He put a chair on top of the table. By standing on tiptoe he was able to reach the window. He got a knife out of his pocket and finally opened the window. He put the table and the chair back, and then stood to attention and waited for his interview. Their Lordships said, "That will do, sonny." He was in, because he had shown common sense and ability. Their Lordships felt that such a boy would succeed. That is one kind of test which has great value. I should like to pay a tribute to the attitude of the boards who interview the boys. I have attended while boys have been interviewed and the boards which I have seen showed scrupulous fairness.
Let us not forget, however, that there are forces who would like to see a return to the old system and who are not happy about the new Dartmouth entry scheme. They would like to go back to the system where only boys who could afford it, with the exception of some who got scholarships, could get into the Navy. Under that scheme, the great mass of the boys leaving secondary schools at the age of 16 were kept out. We have to see that those forces do not prevail.
We have heard, for example, of the case of the Croom boy, to whom the "Daily Express" gave a great deal of publicity. It is a serious case, and I am sure that the First Lord has examined it carefully. I would like him, or the Parliamentary Secretary, to say categorically that they want the new Dartmouth scheme of entry at 16 and of free Dartmouth training to succeed. Will the first Lord say that he wants it to succeed, whatever any other people may want? It is important that that should be said. Many people will be very much happier if they know that the head of the Admiralty is determined that this scheme shall succeed.
§ Mr. J. P. L. Thomas
I have said more than once in the House, at Question time 1857 and on other occasions, and I say it again now, that I am anxious for the 16 entry scheme to succeed. I give the right hon. Gentleman the assurance again today.
§ Mr. Dugdale
I am very glad to hear that. I am glad that the Minister states definitely that he wants the scheme to succeed. I hope he will do his utmost to see that it does succeed and that no other forces bedevil it.
I have dealt with material and manpower. In conclusion, I say that, taking the Defence Estimates as a whole, and assuming the figure at which they are to be—I am not arguing that point now—the Navy has had a raw deal. Obsessed with visions of vast Russian armies, the Government have allowed too much of their expenditure on defence to go on the Army at the expense of the Royal Navy. It is time to reverse this trend. I hope that in the next Navy Estimates we shall see some reversal so that the Royal Navy will once again have its rightful measure of expenditure and be no longer subordinated to Her Majesty's other Forces.
§ 4.47 p.m.
§ Lieut.-Commander Clark Hutchison (Edinburgh. West)
I will not follow the line taken by the right hon. Member for West Bromwich (Mr. Dugdale) because I know that a great many hon. Members wish to speak. I shall, therefore, confine my remarks to two technical points upon which I have some personal experience and which are of very great importance.
First, I wish to draw the attention of the First Lord to that part of the Twelfth Report of the Select Committee on Estimates which deals with the inspection of ammunition for the Fleet. I would refer the First Lord, in particular, to paragraphs 86–95 and to the evidence given by the Chief Inspector of Naval Ordnance. I fully appreciate the necessity and desirability of avoidng duplication of inspection of ammunition stores by the staffs of the Chief Inspector of Armaments—the Army Inspector—and the Chief Inspector of Naval Ordnance. There is, I think, room for cutting out duplication in the inspection of what are technically known as "unfilled ammunition stores," but as a former inspector of naval ordnance I would utter a most serious word of warning in regard to the future inspection of filled ammunition stores for the Navy. It is absolutely im- 1858 perative that the inspection of these dangerous stores should continue to be within the full responsibility of the Chief Inspector of Naval Ordnance and of nobody else.
Indeed, if the First Lord will look up this Report, he will see that this point was emphasised by the Chief Inspector of Naval Ordnance in his answer to question No. 3042 by the Chairman of Sub-Committee C. The Admiralty and the House must remember that any relaxation in the standard of inspection of the explosive stores carried in a warship can only endanger the safety of the ship and the lives of everybody on board. Nothing could be more shattering to morale than for any suspicion to gain ground that the present high standard of naval inspection is to be reduced to the less strict systems of inspection of ammunition stores in force in the other two Services.
The House must appreciate the very different circumstances that prevail in the three armed Services. Normally, soldiers and airmen do not live constantly in the immediate vicinity of large quantities of high explosives. On the other hand, in the Navy a sailor spends his entire life in a steel vessel containing, in her magazines, a large quantity of miscellaneous high explosives. I would remind the House that in the 1914–18 war at least four ships—the battleships "Vanguard" and "Bulwark," the cruiser "Natal" and the mine-layer "Princess Irene"—were lost with almost everybody on board through internal explosions believed to be due to defective ammunition which had deteriorated.
§ Lieut.-Commander Hutchison
And the "Formidable," as my hon. and gallant Friend reminds me. These lessons were duly noted and remembered by the Admiralty and in the last war, thanks to the efficiency of the naval inspection service, such terrible tragedies were avoided.
In emphasising the importance of this matter and the necessity for sound design and strict inspection, I recall one episode, of which I have personal knowledge, which occurred during the early days of the last war. It was my duty to inspect explosives stores for the Navy at a certain 1859 factory which was also producing ammunition for the Army. In the course of my work I learned that a certain type of detonator, now happily obsolete, was being manufactured for the Army by that firm and that they feared it might be dangerous to handle.
The very day before the first consignment of those detonators was due to be despatched by rail to the port of embarkation, the whole lot exploded, doing considerable structural damage but, fortunately, not causing any loss of life. I ask the House to reflect on what might have been the consequences if those detonators had exploded two days later in the train or in the munitions ship.
I am aware that the First Lord in conjunction with the Minister of Supply, has appointed a committee under the chairmanship of Mr. Hugh Rogers to look into the question of the inspection of ammunition in the Royal ordnance factories. I do not doubt that there is room for some improvement in this field and that certain economies can be made without sacrifice of efficiency in the case of empty ammunition stores. I would, however, urge the First Lord most earnestly never to accept any relaxation in the present high standard of inspection of the filled ammunition stores for the Fleet. I hope that whoever replies to this debate will be definite on that point.
So far I have spoken about the material side of inspection procedure, but there is another important angle and that is the human aspect of this problem. I have no longer any personal interest to declare in this matter, but I want to say a few words about the future of the Naval Ordnance Inspection Department in which I served for four years during the war and which has now become the Cinderella of the Admiralty. I have taken the trouble to look up my records and I find that during the 10 years which have elapsed since 1943 I have made in this House on this subject no fewer than five speeches on the Navy Estimates and two speeches on Adjournment Motions, I have asked 14 Questions, exclusive of supplementaries, and have accumulated a folder of correspondence with the Admiralty weighing over 2 lb. and still the end does not seem to be in sight. [An HON. MEMBER: "Send it away for salvage."]
1860 I am rather disappointed that the First Lord, in his review today, made no reference to this matter and I sincerely hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will deal with it in his reply. Quite frankly, I think that the vacillations and delays which have occurred are no credit to the Admiralty and I am ashamed of the sluggish attitude of successive Boards. At present, indeed, for the last 10 years, the Naval Ordnance Inspection Department has been hovering in a kind of no-man's land between being a civil Department and a Service Department and the permanent staff receives the worst of both worlds in that they get the minimum pay, allowances, gratuities, pensions and leave privileges possible under either the civil or the naval pay codes.
I can only reiterate, as I have done on many previous occasions in this House, that the Admiralty must decide once and for all whether this is to be a civil or a naval branch of the Service and then proceed to treat it consistently and fairly. For my own part, I have no doubt that far and away the best solution would be to make it a uniformed active service branch of the Navy, and I sincerely hope that in winding up the debate tonight the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to give us an assurance that this is to be done.
§ 4.57 p.m.
§ Mr. Kenneth Robinson (St. Pancras, North)
I hope that the hon. and gallant Member for Edinburgh, West (Lieut.-Commander Hutchison) will forgive me if I do not deal with the somewhat technical but extremely important matters about which he has been talking. My own experience of Naval Ordnance was limited to the last stage of the process, when the guns went off. Beyond that, I know very little about it.
In presenting these Estimates today, the First Lord followed in his speech the pattern set not only by himself but by his predecessors who now occupy these benches. The right hon. Gentleman told us that the emphasis was on the changed nature of sea warfare and that now we are concentrating on naval aviation, on anti-submarine vessels, on anti-mine vessels and on submarines. That leads me to the one point I want to make. 1861 The right hon. Gentleman made one reference to battleships in his speech. He reminded the House that there will be far fewer battleships at the Coronation Review in June than there were in the Coronation Review of 1937. What are the views of the Admiralty about the future of battleships? What is their policy about battleships? Have they got one? There is every indication that they have no policy at all. It is time we faced this situation and made a decision. Either we should decide that the battleship is still needed, in which case we might think about building some new ones or modernising those we have; or we should decide, as I believe, that the battleship is completely superseded as a weapon of naval warfare, in which case we ought to scrap even those we carry in reserve. I see from the Explanatory Statement that we now have one battleship, the "Vanguard," in commission and the four "King George V" battleships in reserve.
I had a little experience in that field in the last war, and I want to give my views about the arguments for and against battleships in war. Perhaps I may remind hon. Members of some of the snags? Even in the last war there were serious disadvantages in the operation of battleships. They represent a very large concentration of valuable resources and of even more valuable manpower, much of which is highly trained. They present an extremely large target for submarines and for aircraft.
The result was that no battleship was permitted to steam in waters where enemy submarines could operate without an anti-submarine screen of destroyers. It used to require three or four Fleet destroyers to screen even one battleship adequately. Similarly, it was never intended that a battleship should operate within the range of enemy aircraft without fighter protection. Hon. Members will agree that in any future war most, if not all, of the seas of this world will be within the range of either enemy submarines or enemy aircraft, and most of them within the range of both. So that we can assume that if we use battleships in a future war, each battleship will probably have to have its attendant aircraft carrier as well as its anti-submarine destroyer screen. So much for the disadvantages.
1862 What are the possible advantages that a battleship could have today? It has two main functions: surface action and shore bombardment. I do not think that shore bombardment from battleships was particularly accurate in the last war—at least, that was my experience. It depended mainly on aircraft spotting, and my experience was that the communications nearly always broke down at the crucial moment. There may, of course, have been better results in other theatres than those in which I was engaged. On the whole, I think that shore bombardment is far better done by aircraft—far more accurately and, probably, far more economically—if it has to be done at all.
Surface action is another story. There is no doubt that in the last war naval gunnery was first rate. The training of the personnel was excellent, as was the fire-control equipment, particularly the radar ranging devices that we got towards the latter end of the war. I remember a practice shoot towards the end of 1944, just off Alexandria, when we had just fitted some of the new radar ranging equipment on the 14-inch armament. We not only hit the battle practice target several times, but we sank it, which, of course, was not the object of the exercise. It proved to have been the only serviceable B.P.T. in the whole of the Eastern Mediterranean.
Surface action is, in my view, a thing of the past. It used to be said that battleships were needed to sink enemy battleships, but the experience of the last war completely belies this. Far more battleships were sunk in the last war by aircraft and by submarines than by other battleships in surface action. I always thought that it was a historic moment in naval warfare when Admiral Tovey had to send his signal in the course of the "Bismarck" action. The "Bismarck" had been peppered by shells from British vessels—battleships and cruisers—and then Admiral Tovey sent the signal, "I cannot sink the 'Bismarck' by gunfire," and she had to be finished off by torpedoes.
§ Mr. Robinson
By a ship, admittedly, but not by a battleship. My hon. and gallant Friend knows very well that battleships do not carry torpedoes. I am not 1863 arguing against surface vessels as a whole, but against the heaviest type, the battleship. And so, I think, this adds up to the strong probability, to put it no higher, that the battleship is now completely superseded as a weapon of naval warfare. It was, I believe, superseded even by the end of the last war, and today it is nothing more than a floating "white elephant."
If my supposition is correct, what can be the argument for retaining the four "King George V" class battleships in reserve? For one thing, their design is now nearly 20 years out of date, and I do not think there will ever be any useful work for them again. The Parliamentary Secretary may say, when he replies, that it costs very little to keep these vessels in reserve. It certainly costs something, however, and my argument is that we get nothing in return for it. What is more—and this is, perhaps, more dangerous—the very existence of those ships must affect the strategic thinking of their Lordships.
What is the main reason for holding on to these flagships of the "mothball" fleet? I think it is quite simply expressed in one word: prestige—not only national prestige, but Admiralty prestige. I remember during the last war the present Prime Minister coming to spend a weekend on board "King George V" at Scapa Flow. It was during a period of some inactivity for the Home Fleet. We had been swinging round "A" buoy for many months and morale was low.
The right hon. Gentleman gave us a speech carefully designed to build up our morale. In that speech he used a phrase which was typical of him, and I do not think it has been quoted elsewhere. He said that the battleships were "the title deeds of sea power." We thought that was grand, and we felt better after it, but it was no more than a half-truth even then. It used to be true once, and it was, perhaps, a half-truth then, but I submit that it has no truth whatever today. Sea power today depends on aircraft carriers, cruisers and smaller vessels.
There is bound to be opposition from the Admirals to any suggestion of scrapping these ships. The Admirals do not like to see their heavy armament going. They are naturally very proud of 1864 the tradition of naval gunnery, and, after all, its finest flower is undoubtedly in the 14-inch and 15-inch armaments of the big ships. I cannot blame their Lordships for having a sentimental attachment to the battleship. Even in a curious way I should myself be a little sad to see them go, because one of them was my home for rather more than three years.
§ Mr. Robinson
I do not think I would buy one.
We have to live in the world of today, and we must face the fact that Britain is no longer the premier sea power. It is extremely doubtful whether she ever will be again. We obviously cannot challenge the might of the United States Navy, even if we wanted to, and I do not think we are likely to want to do that. Certainly, we cannot afford expensive ornaments of that kind.
The First Lord and their Lordships ought to make up their minds about this. They ought to make a policy decision to scrap these four old battleships. They give us an illusion of strength, which fools nobody else and which might be very dangerous if we allow it to fool us. We can keep the "Vanguard" for ceremonial duties and as something in which the Commander-in-Chief can fly his flag and house his staff, but that, I think, is quite enough. I suggest that a public decision that we were taking this step might be regarded by other countries as a lead which they could conceivably follow, and might even be a small step towards the disarmament for which the world is waiting.
§ 5.8 p.m.
§ Mr. Robert Allan (Paddington, South)
The hon. Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. K. Robinson) has given the House a very interesting and well reasoned argument. I so much sympathise with him that if he will forgive me I will leave it to the Parliamentary Secretary to answer him and will not attempt to follow him into that argument. The point made by the hon. Member is very much the same as that which was stressed by his right hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich (Mr. Dugdale) from his own Front Bench. when he deplored the relative size of the Navy Estimates. This is a very 1865 wide question, and I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman was speaking not only for his own side of the House, but for quite a large public who are concerned about the present-day strength and size of the Royal Navy.
The right hon. Gentleman quoted one or two figures. I, too, have been looking back, and I find that in the 10 years from 1904 to 1914 the Navy accounted for 59 per cent, of our defence expenditure and the Army 41 per cent. In the 10 years from 1925 to 1935, the proportions were 49 per cent. for the Navy, 37 per cent. for the Army, and 14 per cent. for the Air Force. Since the war, from 1946 to 1953, the proportions have been 25 per cent. for the Navy, 45½ per cent. for the Army, and 29½ per cent. for the Royal Air Force. And so in 40 years the proportion of our defence budget which goes to the Navy has dropped from well over a half to exactly a quarter. That reduction affects the capital ships, of which the hon. Member has been speaking, and has caused distress—to put it very mildly—amongst those who have had long service and long connections with the Royal Navy.
Even I can remember that when the Home Fleet visited the Clyde in the summer before the war the forces consisted of probably four battleships and three or four squadrons of cruisers. Yet, when I was in the Clyde last summer, in the preliminaries of "Operation Main-brace," there was only one British battleship, which was by no means fully manned, and one British cruiser. That was in contrast to an enormous force of American heavy ships in the same anchorage. I must admit that this was a rather depressing spectacle, not only to myself and others who were afloat, but also to civilians ashore, although the civilians had some material compensation in the lavish expenditure of money by the American seaman.
I do not think that we should allow this regret for things past to sway our minds on this very important matter. Nor do I think we should allow wounded pride—or perhaps wounded vanity, because there is plenty of pride in the performance of the Royal Navy, although it is small—to sway us, because, as the First Lord said, the purpose of sea power is the establishment and exercise of control under, on and over the sea. As my right hon. Friend said, it is absolutely essential to this country that we should 1866 have that control, which is essential not only to our island, but also to our Imperial connection.
It will continue to be essential to us so long as the majority of our commerce or the commerce of the world is carried in ships. But it will cease to be essential to our survival when the majority of the world's commerce is carried in the air. Then, of course, control of the air will be vital. There is no point in keeping sea lanes open to friendly ships and denying them to the ships of an enemy if we do not want to use the sea lanes ourselves and the enemy does not want to use them because he is capable of supplying himself by air.
§ Mr. Allan
It may be in the lifetime of some hon. Members of this House.
We have to prepare for an alteration of the old conception of naval blockade and think in terms of the future, and of an alternative aerial blockade. That time has not come but I think it possibly will come in the lifetime of some hon. Members. Although I speak as a strong partisan of the Navy and admit that I am striking a somewhat jarring note in this debate, I think we have to recognise that some such development is inevitable.
Also, we have to recognise that although no significant part of the commerce of the world is as yet carried by air, air power does play a very important part in exercising control of the sea, which used to be the exclusive province of ships. We in this country know that very much to our cost. We lost a very modern battleship, the "Prince of Wales," and a powerful battle cruiser, the "Repulse," through air attack. On the other side of the ledger, I think there is very little doubt that the "Bismarck" would have escaped and got to Brest if naval aviation had not been able to play its part in the hunt.
We must also remember that although the R.A.F. failed to sink the "Soharnhorst" and the "Gneisenau." they did immobilise them for a very considerable period of time. We must also remember in this connection the increasing role which the R.A.F. played in the battle against the U-boats towards the end of the war. The point, and I am elaborating it more than I meant, is that air power 1867 has already played a very important part in the exercise of control of the sea and in keeping sea lanes open, and when it is a question of keeping sky lanes open the role of the two Services will be altered.
That is in the future, but when we are complaining about the size of the Navy Estimates, and considering the future of battleships, we ought to think in those terms. Our immediate problem, however, is that of ensuring through the exercise of sea and air power that our sea routes are kept open. Judging by these Estimates, have we sufficient naval power for that? Two things are important—relative naval strength and naval skill.
In the American Civil War the South depended for its economic livelihood entirely on the sale of cotton overseas, and its ability to wage war depended on the import of munitions. Historians are apt to overlook the great importance of the Union blockade of the Confederate ports. To my mind that blockade was absolutely vital and in fact established the stranglehold over the capacity of the South to live and wage war which eventually led to the Union victory. The Union navy at the time of the Civil War was tiny. It was less than 50 ships, yet relatively it was strong enough to impose that stranglehold on its foe.
We had a very good example of relative naval skill in the last war. The Italians had naval superiority over the British in the Mediterranean, yet they lacked the skill and will to use it, whereas the skill of the British Fleet and the daring of its commander enabled us to exercise undisputed control over the sea lanes of the Mediterranean, with the result that we were able to bring through essential supplies and protect the right wing of our Armies. The left wing of the enemy's army was exposed. Finally, because of that superiority in skill, the beaten enemy were totally unable to escape.
I spent a few weeks at sea this summer, and I have no doubt whatever that the Royal Navy still retains its skill—skill which can match any fleet which can put to sea. The First Lord made the claim that we intend to have the best Navy. I was in an American warship during the summer, and in the wardroom I saw the original of a cartoon which some hon. Members may have seen. It originated in America. The cartoon showed a huge 1868 American carrier with a very small British ship tied up alongside. An American sailor was leaning over the deck of the carrier and yelling down to the British sailor, "Say, chum, what does it feel like to be in the second biggest navy in the world?" The British sailor was replying: "All right, mate; what does it feel like to be in the second best navy in the world?"
We have the skill, certainly but have we the necessary relative strength? Certainly the picture which the First Lord gave us this afternoon about the potential strength of the Russian Navy is very alarming. But I think we must examine this problem in the widest sense. Because of the conditions and traditions of the sea it is far easier to integrate naval forces than any other type of force.
On a very small scale I had experience of that during the war, when for rather over a year I had the honour to command a force called the Inshore Squadron in the Mediteranean. That force consisted of about 35 operational small British craft; about 30 American craft and about 15 French craft. We were nevertheless a totally unified force. All patrols went to sea with mixed nationalities, and with different nationalities in command, but we worked together in complete and absolute harmony.
I had another experience of co-operation later on, when I served in Washington under Admiral Somerville, the head of our Delegation there, whose opposite number, Admiral King, was generally considered to be a "holy terror." When they first met Admiral King started laying down the law and saying this and that. Admiral Somerville immediately replied, "I know as much about the sea as you do, and if it comes to language I can beat you any time." After the first few preliminary skirmishes those two men worked together in the greatest harmony, much to the general Allied advantage.
I give that as an another instance of how the tradition of the sea, and love for and interest in the sea, can bring together two very great and self-willed men of entirely different temperament. When Admiral Somerville left, Admiral King—who was at one time notoriously anti-British, and had then retired—travelled a very long way to say goodbye to him. 1869 We hear a lot of talk today about the desirability and the possibility of creating an international European army. It is my belief that we have already in being an international North Atlantic fleet. The "Silent Service" has achieved, without any fuss at all, what the other Services are still talking about. To me that was evident during "Operation Mainbrace." I was in a destroyer which had Dutch and French communication ratings who were not serving alongside British ratings, but actually keeping watch on their own.
Hon. Members may know that there is a new signals publication called "The Allied Signal Book." The British officers I talked to were thoroughly disgusted with that book. They said it was entirely American and showed that the Royal Navy had been sold to the United States. After I left that British ship I joined an American ship, and in her the American officers wasted no time at all in taking me aside and showing me the "Allied Signal Book." They said it was a terrible book and showed that the British Admiralty had taken over the United States Fleet. If we can get a compromise like that I think we have gone a very long way towards creating an international fleet.
In view of the effective co-operation which now exists between the navies of the N.A.T.O. countries, we have to think in terms of our combined strength when we are facing the Russian menace. In those terms there is no doubt that the N.A.T.O. navies have an overwhelming advantage. The Royal Navy will supply its quota of ships to that great fleet. I believe that, rather than moan about its present small size, we should derive considerable pride from the fact that the Royal Navy is a constituent part of what is probably the most closely intergrated and powerful allied fleet which has ever existed.
Within that framework the particular task of the Royal Navy will be to keep the approaches to and the sea lanes round the United Kingdom open to friendly ships. That is a vital task, not only to the United Kingdom but to the whole allied cause. From the speech of my right hon. Friend the First Lord, and from the Estimates, it is clear that the Board of Admiralty consider the major threat is the mine. I do not under- 1870 estimate the threat of minings, but I am not convinced that the building of this great quantity of new minesweepers is justified. It represents by far the great majority of our new construction.
We have to face the fact that the modern mine is virtually unsweepable. Moored mines may always be swept, provided the sweep is deep enough. But delayed-action mines laid on the bottom will beat any minesweeper. I do not think I am giving away any secrets when I say that the mechanism in modern mines is such that to sweep them is like trying to open a combination lock without knowing the combination. A mine may be laid on the bottom and set to detonate underneath, say, the 99th ship coming within its acoustic or magnetic range, and no minesweeper can cover the ground sufficiently to say with complete confidence that a channel is clear.
I am not certain, therefore, that this great expenditure on minesweepers is necessary. What I think is necessary to combat the menace of the mine is more active steps to prevent them being laid. That is a formidable task but it is not impossible. It would be possible to establish Asdic patrols round our sea routes the object of which would not be the destruction of a submarine, but rather to see that it did not lay mines in undesirable places. These patrols could be reinforced by more or less permanent anti-E-boat patrols. There is danger of E-boat mining, but it is not so great as some people think.
I have tried to lay mines from an M.T.B. One is usually spotted from the shore and fired on, and under those conditions speed rather than accuracy is the essence of the exercise. I do not think I am indicating any great dereliction of duty on my part when I say that I have at times been rather glad to get away from the area, and have not been too sure whether the mines have been laid in the right place or not.
I think we can discount E-boat mine laying to a certain extent, in that it is not likely to be very accurate. The same applies to mine laying from the air. In this connection I think it important that the mine-watching service should be developed and made efficient. From what I have seen—there is little reference to it in the Estimates—I am not greatly reassured about this, and I hope that the 1871 Parliamentary Secretary will give us some encouraging information. I am sure that the Admiralty are right in their concern about mines, but whether their efforts be concentrated on sweeping or preventing mines being laid they should not be at the expense of anti-aircraft development.
With the increasing range of aircraft both our own naval ships and convoys will be even more liable to air attack than during the last war. We must remember that last time we lost twice as many destroyers from air attack as from mines, and that we even lost more minesweepers from the air than from mines. I do not want to go into the vexed question of Naval Aviation but I know that the A.A. gunnery of the Royal Navy is first-class.
I make a suggestion in order to combat the increased threat of air attack. Our new merchant ships, especially tankers, should be built to carry one or two fighters. There was a development in this direction towards the end of the war, but I am afraid that it has stopped. That is a pity, for I am sure that a sufficient range can be achieved to ensure a return to base. A large convoy with only a small proportion of its ships carrying a couple of fighters could provide for itself most excellent air cover at short notice—and short notice is the key to the question of high-speed bombing.
There is a note accompanying Vote 14 to the effect that the Admiralty still have power to insist on this construction, but the size of the Vote is so small that I wonder whether the power is exercised. I should be grateful if an indication could be given whether there are plans for constructing merchant ships, especially tankers, to carry fighter aircraft. We should not be too fretful about the size of the Royal Navy. We should be proud of the whole of which it forms a part. and confident that, as always, it will perform whatever duties are imposed upon it with skill and daring.
§ 5.21 p.m.
§ Mr. A. G. Bottomley (Rochester and Chatham)
I hope that the hon. Member for Paddington, South (Mr. R. Allan) will not mind if I do not follow him in his most interesting speech. I rise primarily to deal with one or two constituency matters which will be of general interest to the House. I speak for my 1872 colleagues on this side of the House when I say that my right hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich (Mr. Dugdale) effectively followed the First Lord and posed some questions for the Parliamentary Secretary to answer in due course.
The First Lord referred to the Royal Marines. Royal Marines were based on Chatham for many decades. Then they had to go. We were sorry about that, but there were powerful reasons for the decision. When they left the then First Lord gave an assurance that the buildings to be vacated would be used again to house another naval establishment. I believe that a subsequent First Lord from this side of the House agreed that a new replacement could not be organised for financial reasons.
I was then a member of the Government and would have made the strongest possible representations against that decision if time had permitted it being brought to my attention. When I learned about it on the change of the Administration, I made suggestions to the present First Lord that the obligation should be honoured. I regret to say that as yet nothing has been done about re-occupying the barracks with a naval force. Meantime, it has been decided that an Army force shall go there in due course. Chatham is a garrison town, and the Army will be made welcome. If the Financial Secretary can tell me what force is to come, and when, I shall be grateful.
Twelve months ago we were assured that the barracks would be used, but for 12 months they have been deteriorating rapidly. It will be expensive to make them habitable again. I hope that this is not an indication of how the Admiralty carry on their work; otherwise, there will have to be a search for economy within the Department. The wishes of the local authority have been completely ignored. The mayor suggested to the First Lord that the buildings might be used to rehouse people. Nothing was done about that suggestion. Then the local chamber of commerce was anxious that the buildings should be taken over for the purpose of industry. Again, no notice was taken of their representations. I should have been much harder on the First Lord today had it not been that I think that he has done his best within the last few months to try to get the 1873 Army or someone else to occupy the buildings. I expressed thanks for his work, though he would be the first to admit that there were many delays, and that I treated him rather gently in the interval.
The First Lord also spoke about the Royal Dockyards as sponsoring authority for the shipping establishment generally, and the part that has been played in our export trade. I have read in the Press that there is a possibility that the control will be taken off steel. It will be recalled that in 1950, when there were more plentiful supplies of steel, the Labour Government decided to take off the control, with very bad results. It should not be supposed that when steel becomes a little more plentiful it can immediately be released from control.
The very fact that steel has not been put to the best use in years gone by is one of the reasons why our cotton mills are hopelessly out of date and why our coal mines have suffered so much, with the result that we have not been able to get all the coal we need. We must now make sure that steel goes into those industries to bring them up to an efficient competitive standard.
I should like the First Lord to lay claim to some of the steel. He and his predecessor have said that the dockyards need re-equipping and rebuilding and that they could be more efficient only if they could get more steel. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will make it known that if more steel is available it should be used in the Royal Dockyards. If we do not use it for that purpose we may find that the dockyards, like industry, will be run down at the very time when we want them most of all.
I doubt whether we use all the skill that we have available in the dockyards. If we build a prototype, for which we have the management, the technicians and the workers, the work on future ships of the same kind is sent out on private contract. That work ought to be done in the yards. In the Estimate about £49 million of Royal Naval building work goes into private enterprise yards and only just over £1,500,000 goes to the Royal Dockyards. Not only could the work be done, I think much better, in the Royal Dockyards, but there would be the advantage that the private enterprise yards would be avail- 1874 able for other work. The private enterprise yards have plenty of orders for work for the next four years, and if more naval work were to come into the dockyards, more private ships could be built to help our export trade.
Another illustration of how labour and resources may be wasted in the dockyards can be shown by reference to a ship which it was planned to build in Chatham by the name of H.M.S. "Royalist." I am told that the labour force was earmarked and everything was planned. The preliminary shop work was started and then the job was sent elsewhere. Therefore, it will be no use the Parliamentary Secretary telling me that the yards are so fully employed that they cannot find room for other work. In the Chatham Dockyard there is a cruiser building slip. A cruiser of up to about 10,000 tons can be constructed there. It may not be necessary to do that, but we all agree that frigates are required. Three or four frigates could be built in that slip.
§ Mr. Burden
The right hon. Gentleman said that £49 million was being spent on building in private yards and work to the value of £1,500,000 only was going to the dockyards. Is he sure of those figures? They sound fantastic.
§ Mr. Bottomley
Like the hon. Member for Gillingham (Mr. Burden), I looked at it as the result of the Estimates presented here, and that is my reading of it. More expert knowledge may come forward later and say that that is wrong, but, for the present, that is what I believe it to be. and if that is the only amount being spent on building in the dockyard, I gather that the hon. Gentleman will support the plea I am making, and, if he catches your eye, Mr. Speaker, will add further strength to the argument I have been submitting.
May I put two other points, in conclusion? First, in the dockyards we want all the staff we can get, and we have appealed to those in the dockyards to stay on after the age limit is reached. There has been a good deal of discontent in my constituency because one man decided to stay on and then, unfortunately, died. If he had been retiring at the proper age, he would have received the Imperial Service Medal, and the members of his family were very distressed 1875 when they found that the medal could not be awarded posthumously. If it could be decided that, if men stayed on after the normal time served, they could be awarded the Imperial Service Medal, which they would normally receive, I think it would be further encouragement to recruiting, as well as helping to retain the existing staff in the dockyards.
The First Lord talked about ships having been in the area of atomic explosions, and said that some of them were still radio-active. I am sure that all of us who represent dockyard towns would be very glad to be assured that the men who are to do that work of decontamination are either specially trained for it or are afforded special protection.
§ The Parliamentary and Financial Secretary to the Admiralty (Commander Allan Noble)
The statement of the First Lord today was in amplification of what was issued to the Press last week to the effect that that work was to be started. I should like to give the right hon. Gentleman that categorical assurance.
§ Mr. Bottomley
I am very much obliged to the Parliamentary Secretary. If I could have an answer to my question about the Royal Marines Barracks and to the point which I hope is to be reinforced by the hon. Member for Gillingham later, I think we shall both be able to give satisfaction to the Medway towns.
§ 5.42 p.m.
§ Lieut.-Commander S. L. C. Maydon (Wells)
I hope that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Rochester and Chatham (Mr. Bottomley) will forgive me if I do not follow him. It is significant that, in years gone by, a very minute fraction of our present expenditure on all defence services was necessary. If we look at past records, we find that the difference in manpower, which is steadily increasing, would not account for all the difference. It is quite obvious that most of this vast expenditure goes on complicated equipment and weapons.
In spite of our enormous expenditure, another very significant fact is the small influence which British armed power possesses in the world today. By that I do not mean that our influence is insignifi- 1876 cant, but it is small when considered against the vast amount of money which we have to spend and against the influence which is wielded by many other countries today.
If we look at the size of the Service Estimates against that background, and against the fact that, at the moment, we are engaged in a most unnatural state of war—the cold war, with outbreaks here and there in Malaya, Indo-China and Korea—it is not surprising that the share of the Royal Navy is small. All of us who have had any connection with the Royal Navy must regret this, but we can all see the reason for it.
We are today maintaining a very large peace-time Army, very large in comparison with the other Services in the past. The needs of the Royal Air Force are ever-growing, together with those of the more technical services, which have also to be considered, but I hope that this distortion between the various grants to the three Services is not a permanent one, because I am quite convinced that the welfare of our Empire will in the future be based on the protection afforded by sea power. I grant to those who are advocates of the R.A.F. the future of the air in all spheres, and I agree that the air services must have their share, but I do not think that that should detract from the needs of the Royal Navy.
A point which disturbs me very considerably is the fact that within our Armed Forces—and I am speaking particularly of the Army, scattered all over the world—we have a great need, which, unfortunately, at the present time, is not fulfilled, for a strategic reserve in a place where it can be moved quickly to any quarter where it may be needed; but have we adequate ships to lift the equipment which these men will need? I speak particularly of the heavy tank landing craft and tank transporting ships. But tanks are not the only heavy objects in the magazines of war that have to be carried. There are such things as R.E.M.E. workshops, heavy anti-aircraft batteries and other heavy equipment which has to be moved from place to place.
All such needs require specially equipped ships, and some of them, naturally, should fall into the category of naval ships, while others more easily 1877 would be merchant ships. I feel that at the present moment, in spite of our need to have mobile forces ready to move to any quarter, this particular need has been neglected.
Bound up with the same problem is the decline in our Merchant Navy of the dry cargo carrying ships and ships of a similar category, which have been an invaluable reserve in times of trouble. These ships are declining in numbers and tonnage, and they are not being replaced at the speed at which they should be. In this connection, I have been critical in the past of the Admiralty's policy over the allocation of steel to shipbuilding. I have made representations to the Civil Lord, who has heard me very patiently, and I have made various suggestions, but I am still not satisfied that the Admiralty are allocating this steel sufficiently fairly.
I am well aware that the responsibility of the Admiralty is only for the overall allocation, and that thereafter the shipyards have more or less to fight for their own and get what they want from the steel mills. I have here details of a case which was recently quoted to me in which a certain shipyard, during the four periods of 1952, received only 43 per cent. of its needs in the first period, 34 per cent. in the second, 41 per cent. in the third and 69 per cent. in the fourth period. These percentages, of course, are the quarterly deliveries against the quarterly authorisations, and they would work out, roughly speaking, at an average of less than 50 per cent. spread over the whole year.
There are one or two specific questions I should like to put to the Parliamentary Secretary. The first is in regard to the development of the gas turbine. Recently, when I was visiting a Royal Air Force station, I was told that the fuel used for gas turbine aircraft engines was, generally, still paraffin, but that there was a tendency for designers to move towards the use of the higher octane aviation spirit once more.
The reason for that was not cheapness or efficiency, but the fact that when crude oil was distilled a very small proportion of paraffin was produced as compared with a much larger proportion of high-grade fuel. It was merely a matter of the shortage of supply. I should like to know whether research is going on 1878 with gas turbines adapted for naval service which use cruder and more plentiful forms of fuel, or, alternatively, if these are not suitable, whether consideration has been given to the higher octane fuels.
Another point I wish to put to the Parliamentary Secretary is that of married quarters. I understand from my friends in the Navy that measures to provide married quarters on foreign stations for both officers and ratings are proceeding slowly but satisfactorily. There is, however, one big difficulty which one of my friends put to me in this way. A naval rating is drafted abroad. He and his family occupy, let us say, a council house in Portsmouth. He is very reluctant to take advantage of all the facilities offered by the Admiralty for transporting his family to the foreign station in which he is to serve and to take up a married quarter which will there be provided for him.
His reluctance is due to the fact that if he vacates the council house in Portsmouth which, may be, he has occupied for a few months and for which, probably, he was on the waiting list for many months before that, he will, on his return from abroad, after, perhaps, a little more than two years' time, have once again to go on the waiting list for a council house in whichever port he may choose to live. I agree that if the housing drive continues to take its present shape and to make its present forceful progress this waiting period will gradually disappear; but it is a great deterrent to a man taking his family abroad, and it is a matter that should receive most careful consideration.
Another question I wish to raise is that of allowances for officers and men. The submarine allowance for officers is 4s. a day whereas the flying pay for officers varies between 5s. and 12s. a day. The submarine allowance for ratings varies from 2s. 6d. to 3s. 6d. a day while the flying pay for ratings varies from 3s. to 3s. 6d. a day. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary can give an explanation for the apparent similarity between submarine and flying pay for ratings and the very wide discrepancy between those allowances for officers. 1879 Lastly, I wish to emphasise what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Paddington, South (Mr. R. Allan). I shall be glad if the Parliamentary Secretary can reassure us about the future of the Royal Naval Mine Watching Service and give some account of its members, its present activities and the progress being made with its training.
§ 5.54 p.m.
§ Mr. J. P. W. Mallalieu (Huddersfield, East)
I have a great deal of sympathy with the hon. and gallant Member for Edinburgh, West (Lieut.-Commander Hutchison) who told us his very pitiful story about the efforts he had made with the Admiralty in connection with the Naval Ordnance Inspection Department. He told us that in the course of the past eight years he had made five speeches on the subject and had accumulated a file of correspondence which weighed 2 lb.
I can go one better than that. On the first subject I wish to put to the Parliamentary Secretary I can claim to have made seven speeches—this will be the eighth—in successive Navy Estimates debate, and as early as 1948 I accumulated a file which weighed not 2 lb., but 6 lb. I ditched it in that year when rearmament started once again. I sent it for salvage because I felt that there was no possibility of any action being taken about naval barracks. But I am encouraged to resume the matter by the plea made by the hon. and gallant Member for Wells (Lieut.-Commander Maydon) on behalf of married quarters.
I do not propose to discuss the matter today from the limited point of view of welfare, but from the point of view of life and death. In peace-time there is a concentration of officers and ratings in those depots of anything from 3,000 to 5,000 men all told. In war-time, the concentration will be anything from 5,000 to 15,000 men. It is extremely uncomfortable as those of us who have experienced it will know.
But it is not so much the question of discomfort that is worrying me today as the fact that if one atom bomb were dropped on the Royal Naval Barracks at Portsmouth, Chatham or Devonport, some 10,000 to 15,000 men would be wiped out at a single stoke. The First Lord made some reference to his policy for reducing shore establishments. Were 1880 an atom bomb to be dropped on one of these depots he would never have to bother about that matter at all.
Quite clearly, with supplies of steel still short and the demand for housing still preventing the creation of married quarters at the rate we should like to see, it is impossible within the next 12 months or even two years to think in terms of rebuilding those barracks. But they have got to be rebuilt at some time. Indeed, if one or two of them which I know are not rebuilt pretty soon they will fall down on their own accord.
Have the Admiralty any plans at the moment for rebuilding these depots? If so, is it planned to rebuild them on the present sites and roughly of the present size, or is serious consideration being given to the possibility of dispersal and of building these barracks away from the big centres of population or, at any rate, of building them on a much smaller scale so that the tremendous risk which we at present run of having a very large section of our training naval forces wiped out at one blow will be diminished?
I have put that sort of question to successive Parliamentary Secretaries, First Lords, Civil Lords and everybody else, and never once in the course of eight years have I succeeded in obtaining any answer whatsoever; and for that I blame my own side just as much as I do the present Government.
§ Mr. W. J. Edwards
My hon. Friend says that he has never received any reply whatsoever. but I am sure that if he looks up the previous debates on the Navy Estimates he will find that I did reply to this question, but it was not an affirmative reply.
§ Mr. Mallalieu
I remember very well my hon. Friend sending messages to his officials—if I may be allowed to refer to it—during that debate, but the answer was so unsatisfactory that I have chosen to forget it altogether. I hope that if the answer is still to be "No," and that there are no plans for rebuilding the naval barracks, and that there is no consideration being given to the danger of having a large concentration of men at one spot, the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to say that from now on, at any rate, the Admiralty will be prepared to consider the matter and that he will be able to say that some action will be taken. 1881 The only other point which I wish to make today is one which I make with great diffidence because it is upon a subject on which I am very largely ignorant and on which I have had no practical experience whatsoever. The job of the Royal Navy is about the same, I suppose, as it was in the time of Alfred the Great and always will be—to keep our sea lanes open. But the methods by which that has to be done have changed very rapidly in the last 20 to 25 years, as I am sure all of us will agree. Whatever my hon. Friend the Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. K. Robinson) may feel about it, the idea of the battleship is now fading into the mist and nearly everybody is agreed that the main weapon of the Navy is aircraft.
That being so, it really is very disturbing indeed to a complete layman like myself to find that year after year Parliamentary Secretaries, First Lords and Civil Lords have all said that they are not a little bit happy about the state of Naval Aviation. Perhaps I should not say that they say they are not a little bit happy. Rather, the usual technique is to say at the Dispatch Box, "I have only taken up this job quite recently. Five months ago, whilst I was in Opposition I was really horrified at the situation. Now, as a result of the efforts made by my colleagues. matters are somewhat easier." That kind of speech has been made for 25 years and represents the inability of the Navy to secure the air power that it really requires.
I have been reading speeches made in another place only a short time ago, particularly that by a noble Lord who himself was First Lord of the Admiralty only quite recently. I will only quote a sentence from his speech. He said of the Navy:We have never had aircraft worthy of the Royal Navy, at any time, whatever Government was in power, whether it was Labour, Conservative, Coalition or indistinguishable.—[OFFICIAL REPORT, House of Lords; 17th February, 1953; Vol. 180, c. 471.]whatever he meant by "indistinguishable."
§ Mr. Mallalieu
I will not quote any more. That kind of statement is being made by people who have good reason to know what is going on and who say that never at any time has the Navy had the aircraft which it really requires.
If that is true—and I believe that it is true—why is that so? The experiences of exercise "Mainbrace" last September were not really satisfactory. I think that the First Lord today was himself very doubtful about many of the planes that are at present in use. I was not comforted by the fact that we were told that we are going to have a supply of planes temporarily from the United States, because the exercise showed that not only our naval planes were behind the times but that the United States naval planes were behind the times as well.
If it is true that we are not getting satisfactory planes, why is it true and what can we do about it? Lord Dowding, who was Air Member for Supply and Research at the Air Ministry some six years before the war, once said that the reason why in his time the Admiralty did not obtain the planes the Navy really required was that there were no highly placed men in Admiralty who had practical experience of aviation. That may have been so then, and it may be so to some extent now. If it is so, we should set about remedying it as fast as we possibly can. It might well be a good idea to extend the Royal Corps of Navy Instructors to include the Royal Corps of Aircraft Instructors.
I should like to see a great deal more emphasis being placed on aviation at training establishments, starting with the cadets in Dartmouth. I believe that although naval cadets in Dartmouth learn everything about boats and something abouts ships they do not learn anything about the air. I am informed that it is no part of the curriculum. I do not think that upper yardmen, that wonderful source of naval officers, have any practical experience of aviation as part of their course. If we are to get men at the top in the Navy in years to come who are really air-minded and understand the use of aircraft, we must see that at the beginning, when they first conic into the Service, they are taught the intricacies of, and are given the necessary experience in, naval aviation work. 1883 Anybody who has had even as short an experience as I have had, has no doubt whatever that the Navy is always capable of making the very best of the material that it is given. Our job as politicians in this House is to see that the Navy gets the best material it is possible to provide for it. I have always believed that in fact the Navy gets the best. Thanks to the wonderful Department which serves it, it always gets what it thinks is best in the things of which the Admiralty has great experience and great knowledge. In the traditional weapons of the sea the Admiralty will always get what it wants, regardless of whoever might be Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time. But it may well be that there is not even yet in the Admiralty sufficient practical experience of aircraft work. If that is so, it is our job as politicians to see that men are recruited and trained in Admiralty for that work so that the Navy really gets the weapons it needs.
§ 6.9 p.m.
§ Dr. Reginald Bennett (Gosport and Fareham)
Like the hon. Member for Huddersfield, East (Mr. J. P. W. Mallalieu), I must confess to feeling exceedingly disturbed in mind about the subject on which he has been addressing the House. I cannot claim to be a layman to the same extent as the hon. Member as I have had some connection or another with the Fleet Air Arm for a number of years. As far as I can make out, we are now at a time when the Navy is putting one-third of its resources and manpower into aviation and getting almost nothing out of it.
I am exceedingly disturbed. Our seaborne air forces are at one of the lowest ebbs that relatively they have ever reached. The hon. Member for Huddersfield, East said that at no time had the Navy had the aircraft which it required; but I suspect that very often it has had the aircraft it deserved.
The hon. Gentleman said that the Admiralty always gets what it wants, but I do not think it has wanted aircraft for very long. I think that that may underlie this appalling state of weakness which we have had for some time. I seem to remember that at the end of the war, when I was still in that type of uniform, there were aircraft carriers going out to the edge of soundings and pushing over- 1884 board large deckloads of the Avenger aircraft which we are now welcoming back into our Navy. Many people are alarmed, as I am, at this state of our naval affairs.
I am by no means certain either that the present attitude of the Navy is likely to prove in time to be the right one. The hon. Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. K. Robinson) mentioned that the continued existence of large battleships in a Reserve Fleet was liable to lead to wrong attitudes among the naval staff. It is too easy to hanker for that which has passed. Ships carried sail on their masts long after they were regarded as fully powered, and I think that we are hanging on to the capital ship in one form or another after its full time of usefulness.
I do not mean only the battleship and the battle cruiser, but I suspect that the very use of the aircraft carrier is being wrongly retained. I believe that the carriers are no longer the useful type of vessels they were at the beginning of the war. The Navy is still about a generation out of date in the air world, a generation among aircraft being some seven years, compared with the flying forces ashore. The aircraft inevitably are of limited performance, because of the tasks they have to do, particularly getting on to the small deck of a carrier and getting off it with a remarkable collection of odds and ends, and no angled deck or steam catapult will suffice to allow ship-borne aircraft to have performances comparable with those of aircraft ashore. Therefore, at all times aircraft operated from the surface of the sea will tend to be at a disadvantage compared with aircraft which they have got to meet if those are not also ship-borne aircraft.
The functions of aircraft carriers, I think, are three. One is anti-submarine and anti-surface vessel search. The second is strike—and I am sorry if the right hon. Member for West Bromwich (Mr. Dugdale) thought that that was something to do with naval dockyards when that subject was mentioned.
§ Dr. Bennett
I do not think the right hon. Gentleman quite understood the point. Most hon. Members on these benches thought that he was a little taken aback with that expression. 1885 The third function for carrier forces is the use of fighter aircraft for defending against air attack. I believe that the use of aircraft carriers for the first two jobs is now entirely mistaken. I do not think it is entirely mistaken yet for the third hut, taking it by and large, I think that certainly the use of aircraft carriers in large numbers in the oceans of this world runs up the most colossal aggregate of risk. It is the most expensive way that we could possibly think of operating aircraft over the sea. An aircraft carrier is very nearly as costly a loss if sunk as the whole convoy which it is trying to defend. Secondly, the escorts needed by a carrier are just as numerous as the convoy itself needs.
My criticism can be summed up in a familiar phrase, if somewhat paraphrased; it is not so much having all their eggs in one basket as having all their baskets in one egg. The first job for the carrier aircraft is supposed to be anti-submarine and surface vessel search. I believe that with the present aircraft operating even now with the N.A.T.O. Powers the middle of the Atlantic can be adequately covered by shore-based aircraft. It is difficult to calculate with any precision because The mantle of security descends, but I believe that ordinary propeller-driven or turboprop aircraft operating from shore could do the job of the carrier-borne anti-submarine aircraft, involving not more than the use of two or three land-based aircraft as against one carrier-borne aircraft.
Taking into account that ratio as being not unreasonable, I would suggest that the total numbers of squadrons which must be maintained to do the job, keeping the equivalent number of aircraft at sea, together with the amount of fuel, would cost only a small fraction of the cost of the sea-borne aircraft, the fuel, the carrier, the running of the carrier's crew and escort. It would be infinitely cheaper to devote to our deep sea patrols only land-based aircraft.
As far as strike aircraft are concerned, standing patrols of shore-based aircraft flying on partial power could do the job just as readily and could be on call permanently without having to have a carrier in the midst of all the danger. I think my hon. Friend the Member for Paddington, South (Mr. R. Allan) covered the question of fighters, which is the third purpose. As he said, there is still a great 1886 deal of point in the evolution of a light fighter, ship-borne and catapulted, but, unlike those that were used in the Western approaches during a sticky period of the last war, recoverable. They could be facultative seaplanes; they could land on water, or with a skid on shore; and the pilots would be recoverable, not written off, every time one came down on the sea.
If we could have among our merchant ships, particularly tankers, with all the space they have got on top, an arrangement for catapulting off fighters such as my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Watkinson) and I accompanied from time to time in the last struggle, we should certainly save the use of these aircraft carriers which I do not think we ought to imperil.
I do not believe what has appeared in the Press from time to time that the enemy aircraft which would be used for reconnaissance and convoy spotting in the Western approaches would be fast high performanced jet aircraft. Such aircraft cannot operate at low altitudes or have long ranges. The aircraft that could carry out the reconnoitring over the Western Ocean would be propeller or turbo-prop driven so as to be able to fly low and slowly, and, therefore, we do not need the hottest land-based fighters.
We should have a fighter which can carry a few air-to-air missiles or even could direct some of the normal ship-to-air missiles. Even before guided missiles, about which none of us knows anything, come on the scene, I think that the type of fighter necessary to shoot down a deep sea aircraft would be of a moderate performance compared with its colleagues on shore.
There is another point where the Navy's attention has been caught, but which could be caught to a greater extent—a factor in which the Army is interested but in which I do not think the R.A.F. is interested at all. I refer to helicopters. I spoke on some previous occasion such as this about my belief that the Navy should go in for helicopters. Although the Navy has got some, it has not got nearly enough. It will need complete squadrons of helicopters. It has got one operating now, and it was my privilege to talk with some of the officers of that squadron when it returned from Holland recently, when, I believe, 1887 helicopters fitted to take two people in the back seats carried seven, and one helicopter alone rescued between 100 and 200 people.
These helicopters are an infinitely flexible weapon and a flexible "utility" to have around the Navy. We should not only have plenty in operation, but we should have R.N.V.R. squadrons equipped with them. We should start giving helicopter pilots helicopter training without giving them fixed wing training as well, which is a total loss for those who are to fly with rotating wings.
There is another field in which, though perhaps not for very long, there is now no competition. The Navy traditionally operate vessels from the water and I want to bring to their attention the fact that there is now no bidding for flying boats. Although on previous occasions the Air Ministry may have obstructed the Navy on the question of operating flying boats there is now no reason why they should do so. Flying boats can be proved very useful, if the Navy wishes to use them, for communications, patrols, landing operations or as part of the Fleet train.
This is the Navy's best chance. They missed the opportunity of getting Coastal Command when the Air Ministry were not interested in it, but they now have a chance of operating flying boats. They should look at this question and make the most of their chance, because now is the time for them to assert themselves in the air, even though they have failed to do so hitherto.
§ 6.24 p.m.
§ Commander Harry Pursey (Hull, East) rose——
§ Commander Pursey
In the face of my warm and unusual reception from the other side, I must first apologise to the House because, for the first time in the eight years since I have been here, I was not present to hear the beginning of the First Lord's speech. He knows, as do many others, that I was engaged on other Parliamentary duties on the river, witnessing a display of naval strength.
Hon. Members on both sides of the House will wish to pay their tributes to the Navy for the work of the past year, and, in particular, for their excellent ser- 1888 vice in Korea and other difficult circumstances.
This year the Navy Estimates show a reduction of £2¾ million and a reduction of 2,000 in personnel. A study of the detailed Estimates, however, shows a remarkable variation of increases as well as decreases. When they were in opposition hon. Members opposite frequently criticised the bloated Admiralty and advocated reductions in both cost and personnel. We do not hear so much advocacy for economy now that they are on the Government side.
Vote 12 for the Admiralty Office this year shows a reduction in personnel but an increase in cost; whereas there should have been a reduction in both, as advocated by the Prime Minister in many of his speeches in this House on which he has since done a double somersault. Certain reductions in expenditure are, however, being carried out at the expense of the welfare of the men. One example is that of married quarters, which have been referred to by hon. Members on both sides. Apparently the First Lord is trying to justify the argument that more is being done. Questions have been asked where it is being done and doubt has been expressed by my right hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich (Mr. Dugdale).
Until the Labour Government tackled the question of married quarters, they were provided only for men who were not serving in a ship or establishment, in other words, those on compensation allowances. So whatever has been done for the Navy with regard to married quarters must always stand to the credit of the Labour Government. The Armed Forces (Housing Loans) Act, 1949, provided for the building of married quarters, but this year there is a decrease of one-third in Vote 15—from £2 million plus in 1952–53 to less than £l½ million in 1953–54. If there is any doubt about that, it should be cleared up in this debate. The First Lord has said that there is to be an increase, so the question I ask is "Where?" This matter ought to be cleared up for the benefit of the men serving in the Fleet.
Another example is the Further Education and Vocational Training Vote—5H—which includes courses preparatory to leaving the Service and for reestablishment in civil life afterwards. 1889 Last year the sum estimated was £68,000; this year it is only £62,000—a reduction of nearly 10 per cent.
Now I turn to the vexed subject of battleships. I am sorry to see that my hon. Friend the Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. K. Robinson) is not still here. I am not pro-battleship. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] That is the first time I have ever had unanimous support from the Conservative Party. I shall have to be careful in whose company I am travelling tonight. I was tempted to ask my hon. Friend and those who have spoken about battleships how the United States Navy could have got such a high concentration of heavy gunfire for the operations in the Korean campaign without battleships.
In the same way, there were numerous occasions, during the last war when battleships had to be brought in to carry out the shore bombardment before the Army were landed. When it comes to the question of leaving it to aircraft, it must be remembered that they are less accurate than battleships. It is not the battleships which are at fault in carrying out shore bombardment; it is simply a question of making communications more efficient in order to get proper control of battleship gunfire.
I support my hon. Friend on the point that the Admiralty should now say that under present conditions they do not intend to lay down any new battleships. Then we shall know what is their future policy. On the other hand, I am quite firm in saying that so long as we have five battleships the question of when they should be scrapped is a matter for second thoughts, not knowing for what purposes they may be useful in the future.
From there I pass to the controversial argument of aircraft versus battleships. A certain amount of nonsense has been argued this afternoon on both sides of the House. Why should the battleship be considered as the only target which should provide its own aircraft defence? I have contributed a number of articles to the Press on this question, and I say the argument should be on the question of aircraft versus aircraft and battleships versus battleships. The antidote to an attack on a battleship is the provision of aircraft. Although we suffered some serious losses in the war as a result of aircraft attacking capital ships, when any 1890 ships had the aircraft to which they were entitled they were able to operate over the whole of the seven seas.
The arguments before the war, during the war and now, that battleships under modern conditions cannot operate in coastal waters off the enemy's coast, is absolute nonsense. [Laughter.] What is the use of irresponsible Members opposite chittering and laughing? One could give any number of examples. Before we reoccupied France the battleships were going up and down the French coast at will, so what is the good of arguing that they cannot operate in coastal waters? What more limited waters were there than those of the English Channel?
§ Air Commodore A. V. Harvey (Macclesfield)
The hon. and gallant Gentleman may recall that at that period the German Air Force had been shot out of the skies to all intents and purposes.
§ Commander Pursey
The argument is that there was no German Air Force. Well, let us go back a little further, because the same thing happened in the landings in North Africa when the R.A.F. could not provide air cover for the landings. Let the hon. and gallant Member for Macclesfield (Air Commodore Harvey) laugh that one off. The hon. and gallant Gentleman is a very good protagonist for the Air Force, while he sticks to the facts, but it is no good his talking nonsense. He may be very good in the air, but when he comes to the sea he should remember that he needs webbed feet in order to make certain that he knows something about ships. Moreover, it is no good his coming back at me with the suggestion that I know nothing about aircraft, because I grew up with naval aircraft and served in three aircraft carriers; so I will not be sunk by the R.A.F. representative tonight.
Whatever case there is against the battleship, there is no case that it cannot operate in coastal waters off the enemy coast because of fear of air attack by the enemy. If we intend to send a battleship into coastal waters, we have to provide it with air cover. It can then operate precisely as it likes. In other words, it is a combination of air power and sea power, but with the air power controlled by the Navy.
The hon. Member for Paddington, South (Mr. R. Allan), who, I am sorry 1891 to say, is not in his place, put two very queer arguments. In the first place, he cast himself 50 or 100 years ahead to produce an argument that aircraft would then be carrying the present sea cargoes. He was followed by the hon. and gallant Member for Wells (Lieut.-Commander Maydon) who said it was essential to build ships with good lifting power in order to ensure that they could carry Army and Air Force equipment. The two arguments cancel each other out as nonsense.
The hon. Member for Paddington, South then cast himself back 100 years to some war which is a little hazy in my history—the war of the Confederation or some war in America 100 years ago. He argued about cotton seeds and imports and the stranglehold on various goods which won the war. We have had two fairly modern wars in my lifetime, in 1914 and 1939, and I do not see what a dissertation on a war 100 years ago has to do with the present argument.
I did not intend to speak about the Russian Navy, because I have done so before, but the subject was dealt with by the First Lord and references have been made to it since. I have always maintained that the Russian Navy is vastly over-rated. Whatever ships they have, they are not comparable with ours. The crux of the matter is personnel. The Russians have never been sailors. Like the hon. and gallant Member for Macclesfield, they have not webbed feet. [HON. MEMBERS: "Have you?"] Of course I have; do hon. Members wish to look at them?
Three times in my lifetime the Russians have been engaged in a major war. In 1904, or thereabouts, it was a war with the Japanese. They had a comparatively large fleet; they suffered a major disaster and they lost the war. In 1914–18 they played no part of any magnitude in the war at sea. Indeed, the British Navy had to send their submarines at considerable risk through the narrows into the Baltic to do the job of the Russian Navy. In 1939–45, again, the Russians did practically nothing at sea.
What is the threat of the Russian Navy? Is it capital ships? No. [HON. MEMBERS: "What is it?"] I do not mind being asked questions, but let us get them in sequence of diminishing 1892 order. Let us have a certain amount of sense about the debate to cancel some of the nonsense. Is it capital ships for Fleet action? No. Is it cruiser attacks, as commerce raiders? No. Is it destroyers? No. What is it? We have the threat from the submarines. But the antidote to the submarine is already further advanced than the submarine, so that we need not worry about the Russian submarines.
In any case, as I have continually asked hon. Members opposite, where are the Russian submarines? Russia has four seaboards: the Arctic—and I will cancel that one—the Baltic, the Black Sea and the Far East. The Baltic and the Black sea are inland lakes. In the event of war the Russians must keep some craft there and possibly some submarines for defensive purposes, and any craft, other than submarines, which are in those lakes will have to stop there and nobody will be able to get in to help them.
That removes three out of the four Russian seaboards. It is as simple as that. We are left with the vast Pacific seaboard. But whose responsibility is that? It is the responsibility of the Americans, and the Americans are building a navy to do the job; so why are we worrying about it?
This story which is being told about the Russian submarines is as though the 340 or 400 of them—I do not mind what the number is—were being stationed off the Isle of Wight waiting to sink the first convoy which leaves Southampton. It is just as farcical as the story of the Russian troops who were supposed to have landed in Scotland during the first war. People reported—and particularly people from South Ayrshire—that not only had they seen the Russian soldiers who had landed from Russia, but they had seen them still with the snow on their boots.
Hon. Members cannot keep up this argument. The main problem about Russia, from a naval point of view, is in the Far East—and that is the responsibility of the American Navy. It is true that there is the threat of mines being dropped by aircraft, which I do not under-rate. As a mining and minesweeping expert, I appreciate the difficulties created by mines on the bottom if we do not know what they are. But the answer is to stop them from being laid. 1893 We have heard arguments from hon. Members opposite about the advantages of aircraft for attack, as a result of modern development, but, if we have superior numbers, the principal advantage from aircraft lies on the side of defence. In other words, if our aircraft, including those of our allies, are numerically superior and superior in efficiency, we have won from the first day.
It is of interest, in considering the so-called threat from Russia, to reflect that both America and Britain are maritime nations, and, moreover, that if war should break out—and I do not believe it will—it will have to be won by soldiers on their flat feet, who will have to be taken oversea by the Navy, and that our side has got complete freedom of the seas whereas Russia is limited within the largest land mass in the world open to attack on three or more fronts. What will prevent Russia going to war is lack of sea power. So do not let have any more misunderstanding about Russia after that.
The subject of concern to the Admiralty, and, in fact, to the nation as a whole, is the shortage of cadet entries. The First Lord has made reference to it in his statement, and I shall not quote it again, that is, the shortage of cadets for the engineering and executive branches of the Navy. Why not reduce the numbers of cadets required by increasing the number of commissions awarded to the lower deck? Surely, at this stage of our national education, 80 years after the great educational Measure of 1870—and we have made some steps since, in spite of the present Tory Government's attitude to education—the Navy should be able to produce a larger number of officers from its own resources? Vote A this year provides for a total number of 151,000. What, however, is the number of commissions awarded to the lower deck? By commissions I mean proper commissions—not ones to ex-warrant officers—but straightforward commissions. A matter of a couple of dozen.
Commissions for the lower deck were introduced before the first war, and the Admiralty have had 40 years' experience of this scheme in the major branches of executive engineering and the Royal Marines, and there must be something wrong with their methods of training and 1894 selection if they cannot get an increased number of officers from their own entries on the lower deck. Men who have entered by the hawsepipes have become admirals in both the executive and engineering branches. I shall not say anything about them now, but anyone who has any knowledge of the Navy knows that some of them have carried themselves well and taken responsible posts with honour. So that there is no question of the failure of the principle.
Moreover, whenever the Admiralty are in a jam, as they have been from time to time as regards officers in the last 50 or 60 years, instead of promoting men from the lower deck they always go outside and get them from somewhere else, whether they take them from the Royal Naval Reserve officers of the Mercantile Marine—and I am not criticising those officers: they make very good officers—or from the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, the "Wavy Navy," the Navy's sea territorials, the week-enders—and I say nothing against them: they make good officers—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear. hear."]
I hope I am being quite objective and quite fair, but I hope I shall carry the other side with me when I say that men on the lower deck are in a far better position to be promoted, since the Navy is their life's career; and they should have the opportunities—and full opportunities at that—of the training provided by the State that are given to outsiders. whether they come from the sister service, the Mercantile Marine or the sea territorials. Have I the support of the opposite side in that? No, because they are against lower deck promotion on principle. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Well, let us speed it up then. I should make a very good Tory Chief Whip for some of those boys over there.
Furthermore, the First Lord referred to the success of the scheme for training lower deck ratings for aircraft operation. I want to say to the Admiralty and to the other side, if a lower deck rating, whatever his rank, whether a leading seaman or a petty officer, or commissioned as a sub-lieutenant, is capable of performing duties in a modern aircraft, landing on and taking off from a carrier, if he is capable of navigating in the blue with no landmarks to operate from, I say he is worthy of favourable consideration for commission as an officer. And there is 1895 another opportunity of increasing not only the number of executive officers but also engineer officers, because some of the earliest and the finest engineer officers that the Royal Air Force had in its infancy were ex-artificers from the lower deck.
§ Commander Noble
I do not think the hon. and gallant Member meant to mislead the House, but the ratings to whom my right hon. Friend referred, who had gone into flying duties, were in fact promoted to officers.
§ Commander Pursey
I thank the Parliamentary Secretary very much. I am grateful to him for making that point clear. However, he will agree with me that that has not always been the Admiralty policy. [Interruption.] No, it has not. We started with men who went into aircraft being given commissions, and then that policy was cancelled, and then we had the nonsense of ratings and officers performing exactly the same jobs. The Parliamentary Secretary agrees with me. I am very grateful. What I am concerned about is that the present Admiralty will not return to that scheme at some time of demoting men serving in aircraft from officers to other ranks. The hon. and gallant Gentleman has given me a chance to make that clear.
To sum up, from all these arguments I say that there is an overwhelming case for the Admiralty to reconsider the question of promotion to commissioned rank from the lower deck with the object of granting more. Then from that follows—and I shall follow it briefly, because I do not want to take up too much time—[HON. MEMBERS: "Go on."] Am I taking up anyone's time? There follows from that the question whether or not the present Government and the present Admiralty, for class interests and class interests alone, intend to go back to the early entry at 13½ of cadet entries into Dartmouth College, because I can tell the Government that if that decision is made, on this side we shall fight them every inch of the ground.
Under that scheme there was class vested interest, restricted to preparatory school boys—admittedly in the past in some cases they paid money, because they could afford to—and their being given a State education and a certain career, if 1896 only they kept their noses clean, to the age of 45, and of reaching the rank of lieutenant-commander and a pension of £400 a year—at the age of 13½. [Laughter.] At the age of 13½. Oh, of course, the pension was at 45. Hon. and right hon. Gentlemen have not been following me as closely as I thought they were. I cannot go into all these things in complete detail from A to Z. I must leave something to the sense and imagination of hon. Members. At 13½ a boy does not know his thumb from his elbow. He does not know what be wants to do about his career. He was previously pitchforked into Dartmouth, into a monastic institution, insulated and isolated from his fellow schoolboys and everybody else. [HON. MEMBERS: "Nonsense."] The thing was wrong fundamentally and from every point of view.
The future naval officers need to be at the public schools of the country as long as possible, so that in future years, when they become admirals and meet air marshals and generals and even politicians and Cabinet ministers they have got some more knowledge than that of the countryside around Dartmouth, to which they were previously restricted, at the most formative years of their life, from 13½ to 17. There was no justification for it. The answer is to find other means of getting naval officers.
Now I wish to pass on to the question of ship repair work in private yards, particularly in Hull. I have the honour to represent East Hull, which includes the docks area.
§ Commander Pursey
I am very grateful for that "Hear, hear" from the Parliamentary Secretary. I cannot understand why I should be annoying him when, as his Department is under consideration, he has got to be here anyhow. If it were not for that fact, I would say that he could leave the room.
I appreciate the Admiralty problem about the allocation of this work for private yards, but I submit that Hull has certain special claims to favourable consideration. The main shipyard centres—namely, the Tyne and the Clyde, and also Belfast and other ports—have the great 1897 advantage of building warships and merchant ships, and in addition repairing naval ships. Hull, however, even though it is the third port in the country, has no building yard. The reason is that after the First World War private enterprise closed down the only shipbuilding yard in Hull in a cock-eyed system of rationalisation.
The result is that the shipyard workers in my constituency and elsewhere in Hull are entirely dependent on repair work for employment and a pay packet. Yet at present there is no naval repair work whatever in Hull in the main docks. In fact, for several months there were only a couple of small minesweepers, one being repaired for a foreign country. These jobs, however, are mere "chicken feed" for a port the size of Hull with the facilities and the skilled men capable of far larger jobs.
The official unemployment figures for men and boys in Hull on 12th January this year—and I have the full figures here—was nearly 4,000, which is more than double that of July, 1951, under a Labour Government, when the figure was only 1,726. In addition, there is now much under-employment in the shipyards. Recent Ministry of Labour figures show that 32 skilled men, 42 semi-skilled and unskilled workers and some 150 casual unskilled workers with shipyard experience—a total of over 200—were signing the book in order to obtain the much hated dole.
This is the time when the Admiralty have all sorts of repair work to allocate. but Hull is on their "not entitled" list. Moreover, the future holds little or no hope of improvement. As far as my information goes—the Parliamentary Secretary can correct me if I am wrong—no naval repair jobs have been allocated to Hull for this year. We therefore have other ports with heavy new building programmes, which also have Admiralty repair work, while Hull, as the Cinderella of the private ports as far as the Admiralty is concerned, has no new building and is denied naval repair work. Even Gilbert and Sullivan in a shipyard version of "H.M.S. Pinafore" could not have thought of a more Crazy Gang situation than this Hull one.
1898 There is, moreover, another adverse factor which has yet to be fully experienced. The present Government's policy of reduced imports and a reduction in exports has reduced the number of merchant ships employed at sea, both British and foreign. The future prospects for Hull shipyards, therefore, may well become worse before it is better, with the reduction in the number of ships using the port and another further increase in unemployment in the shipyards. There is yet another important adverse factor in the case of Hull. On the Tyne or the Clyde, or in other shipyard areas, ship workers have a larger area in which other employment is possible, but Hull is isolated in a large agricultural area in which there is no employment for shipyard workers elsewhere.
Furthermore, Hull will obtain no advantage fom the new scheme for the laying up of the Reserve Fleet. It may be that there is no accommodation there for the ships, so I will not hold that against the Admiralty. But as that is the case, there is all the more reason why the Admiralty should make certain that Hull gets more than its fair share of naval repair work. I wish to impress on the Admiralty the seriousness of this ship repair position in Hull which should never have been allowed to develop. We have the facilities for naval work and we have the men capable of doing it. Why, then, is Hull on the Admiralty black-list? If there are any charges to be made of high costs or long periods for completion, or any other disadvantages why naval work should not be sent there, let them be stated and dealt with. I am not aware of any such charges.
Shipping is private enterprise, so the only hope for employment in shipyards is the nationalised industries. I appeal to the Admiralty to make an inquiry into the repair work of the ships and craft of the National Coal Board, the Electricity Board and the Gas Board, and the Docks and Inland Waterways Executive to see whether more of their repair work cannot be done in Hull. I appeal to the Admiralty forthwith to allocate naval repair work to Hull. If an announcement cannot be made tonight, then we shall expect to get one on Thursday when we reach the Report stage of the Service Estimates. There is no justification today for ship repair men who 1899 are able and willing to work to be unemployed when national work is avilable and can be allocated to them by the Admiralty.
I appeal to the Admiralty that, with the present lowering of the standard of living, these shipyard men, with their wives and children, should not be dragged down to the degradation of the previous slump years in Hull, with shortages of food and other necessities, increasing ill-health and other consequent expenses to the detriment of the nation and the national Exchequer. Provide them with work so that they can earn a full pay packet and continue to look their fellow men full in the face, pay 20s. in the £ to their shopkeepers and walk down Jameson Street and say, "To hell with the Prime Minister." That is the attitude that made Hull workers what they are.
The Admiralty are in duty bound to give more consideration to Hull. It was the most bombed port in the country outside London during the war, and yet the work of the port, both in the unloading and the repairing of ships, was carried on under the most adverse conditions with the greatest gallantry and the greatest efficiency and success. Is the reward of these men in peace-time to be the dole? "Work not aid" is the motto, and work it has got to be.
§ 6.59 p.m.
§ Mr. Hamilton Kerr (Cambridge)
The hon. and gallant Member for Hull, East (Commander Pursey), with becoming but unnecessary modesty, told us that he could not go into every subject from A to Z, but he did not do badly. He started the afternoon with Marshal Tito, and found himself in the latter part of the afternoon in the dangerous predicament of being in agreement with the Tory Party, and he offered himself to us as a new Chief Whip.
§ Commander Pursey
I only wish to interrupt on a question of fact. I was not on the river with Marshal Tito, or in any way connected with Marshal Tito. If the hon. Gentleman was fully cognizant of the Parliamentary work that was going on, he would know that there was another duty on which hon. Members on both sides of the House were engaged from early morning and throughout the middle of the day.
§ Mr. Kerr
I was admiring the wide range in debate of the hon. and gallant Gentleman.
The First Lord of the Admiralty, in his able presentation of the Estimates, coined a phrase which I have never heard before, and mentioned an item which I have never heard of before in the Navy Estimates. Referring to pretty Wrens, he talked of marriage wastage. As a soured and sere batchelor myself, I may urge him to profit from my sorry state and in next year's Estimates add one First Lord to that particular item.
In five minutes, and with great brevity, I should like to take the House to the Arctic Ocean. I believe that many of us still do not fully realise the importance which the Arctic plays in the modern world. I think that we ignore its importance because we have been taught our geography on maps founded on the Mercator projection. We have come to consider the map of the world as resembling a coloured tablecloth, and to measure on its flatness the distance between various countries and cities. We should realise that, the earth being a sphere, the shortest distance between the great industrial centres of the United States and those of Russia do not lie across the Atlantic but over the top of the North Pole. That realisation is necessary in order fully to understand the importance of the great American naval base at Thule, in Greenland, and the importance of the reported Russian activity on the Siberian coast and in the Barents Sea and Novaya Zemlya.
We should not allow our allies, or possible opponents, to have a monopoly of Arctic research. It is unfortunate that we do not, as I learned from a reliable source, possess a single vessel in the British Navy which is able to enter seas that have a thick coating of ice. A hundred years ago or so, the British Navy possessed a number of vessels able to enter the waters around Greenland. I was told on reliable authority that when the North Greenland expedition set out on its important research work—work which concerned the three Services, Army, Navy and Air Force—it was only possible for it to reach its appointed destination by the lease of a Norwegian sealing vessel.
May I urge my right hon. Friend to give consideration to the fact that, how- 1901 ever great the competition for expenditure in the Navy, we should allocate suitable sums for vessels able to enter these important waters and able to maintain our prestige in that part of the world.