HC Deb 11 November 1970 vol 806 cc388-90
Mr. George Thomson

(by Private Notice) asked the Minister of State for Defence if he will make a statement about the collision between the "Ark Royal" and the Soviet naval vessel in the Mediterranean.

The Minister of State for Defence (Lord Balniel)

H.M.S. "Ark Royal" together with other Royal Navy and Royal Air Force forces is taking part in a national exercise being held in the Central and Eastern Mediterranean. Last Monday night she was in open waters between Malta and Crete and was engaged in night flying exercises. She had begun launching her aircraft and was displaying the appropriate internationally recognised lights which showed that she could not easily manoeuvre.

After the launch of the first aircraft a Soviet Kotlin class destroyer approached the "Ark Royal" on a collision course from the starboard bow. The carrier took what avoiding action she could and put her engines at full astern but she was unable to miss the Soviet vessel, whose port quarter struck the "Ark Royal's" port bow.

The "Ark Royal" immediately stopped her night flying exercise and diverted the aircraft already airborne so that she and her accompanying frigate, H.M.S. "Yarmouth", could undertake, with Russian vessels, a search for Russian crew members who were understood to be in the water. Although some were picked up by the "Ark Royal" and "Yarmouth", and returned to their ship, I regret that two are still believed to be missing. Only minor damage was suffered by the "Ark Royal" and she had no casualties.

In accordance with normal practice, a naval Board of Inquiry will be convened to consider all the circumstances of the collision. Meanwhile, appropriate representations will be made about the incident to the Soviet Government.

It is not uncommon for Soviet vessels to keep close company with ships of the Royal Navy which are engaged on training and exercises. This particular incident reflects the dangers of this practice, and we trust that the Soviet naval authorities will take full account of it in their future deployment.

Mr. Thomson

Is the Minister aware that we thank him for that statement, and associate ourselves with the regret that he has just expressed that what ought to have been a peaceful naval exercise has resulted in loss of life? Is he aware that there will be widespread agreement with what he has just said about the dangers that are obviously inherent in the kind of close shadowing techniques at present being operated by the Soviet Fleet; and will he consult his right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary about taking some international action to minimise these dangers in the future?

Can the Minister tell us whether the damage to the "Ark Royal" will lead to the vessel being out of operation for any period of time and, if so, for what period of time?

Lord Balniel

I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman's opening remarks. We are signatories of the international regulations for the prevention of collisions at sea, and strict adherence to these is necessary to avoid such incidents as this. It is not likely that the "Ark Royal" will have to be put in dock.

Mr. Farr

Is my hon. Friend aware that the Russians have been playing a dangerous game of hide-and-seek for a number of years? Before British lives are lost, will he ask the Russians now to respect the usual international courtesies, and keep clear of naval exercises?

Lord Balniel

I agree with my hon. Friend. Dangerous situations have arisen in this way in the past, and Soviet vessels have been warned of the dangers they are creating by this kind of action.

Mr. Rankin

As the Mediterranean seems to be a favourite water for one or two countries to carry out manoeuvres, and in view of the dangers evident in this area, would it not be better to seek wider oceans where there are fewer chances for accidents to take place? Have not the Americans a bigger navy than anyone else manœuvring in the Mediterranean? It could be possible for the area to become overcrowded—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Questions must be brief.

Mr. Rankin

It could become overcrowded, because other nations than those already manoeuvring there could join in with their manœuvres. Would it not be better—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Questions must be reasonably brief. Lord Balniel.

Lord Balniel

I appreciate the point made by the hon. Gentleman, but we have responsibilities under N.A.T.O. within the Mediterranean area, and we intend to fulfil them.

Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles

Does the Minister realise that those of us who have been subjected for many years to this sort of snooping and harassment by Soviet forces have felt that such an incident as this would become inevitable in the long run? Does he agree that this regrettable incident highlights the need for adequate sea and air forces for the surveillance of all our maritime trade routes?

Lord Balniel

I find myself in complete agreement with my hon. and gallant Friend.

Mr. Maclennan

Does the Minister expect that evidence from the Russian side will be forthcoming at the naval tribunal of inquiry? Will the tribunal make its findings public?

Lord Balniel

We do not publish the outcome of naval tribunals' reports. I doubt whether that would be forthcoming.

Dr. Bennett

Do I understand my hon. Friend to say that the Russian vessel approached the "Ark Royal" from ahead? If so, is not this a very curious form of shadowing?

Lord Balniel

The Russian destroyer approached from starboard, and approached the "Ark Royal" immediately after the first aircraft had left the deck of the "Ark Royal".