HC Deb 28 January 1999 vol 324 cc564-76

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Kevin Hughes.]

6.28 pm
Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

On the afternoon of 8 June 1940, two German battle cruisers, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, sighted a wisp of smoke on the arctic horizon. Two hours later, the carrier HMS Glorious and her two escorting destroyers, Ardent and Acasta, had been sunk. More than 1,500 lives were lost, qualifying the incident as one of the worst naval disasters of the second world war.

I have no direct personal link with the tragedy, but some of my constituents do. A cousin of mine was close by, serving as a rating in the escort party to the Norwegian royal family and the diplomatic corps as they embarked for evacuation on HMS Devonshire, which features in the story that I am about to unfold. He was never able to tell me about these events, because he was lost with almost the entire complement of HMS Hood a year later, another tragedy with a similarly massive loss of life.

My constituent Mr. Sam Farrington lost his brother, who was only 17 when he went down with the Glorious. Another constituent of mine was Captain Nick Barker, who died not long after retiring to Northumberland. He famously commanded HMS Endurance at the time of the Falklands war. He lost his father, Lieutenant Commander Ben Barker, who was in command of HMS Ardent. Nick's son produced a television programme about the event, which appeared in the "Secret History" series on Channel 4.

Those family members, and others, have written to me from all over the country, and they have convinced me that the official history of the tragedy needs to be revised to take account of what has subsequently come to light.

For many years, those people have been deeply troubled by the belief that the loss of their loved ones has not been properly explained. No one is looking, after all these years, for blame or retribution, but where a supreme sacrifice has been made on such a scale, the record should surely be as accurate as possible. An unconvincing explanation produced in conditions of war should no longer be given unchallenged official approval.

The families have aroused the interest of several hon. Members. The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), who is here, my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) and the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) have all spoken or written to me. The Admiralty, and now the Ministry of Defence, always maintained that the sinkings were merely an unfortunate accident of war. A significant number of naval historians continue to suggest what the few survivors and the relatives have long suspected—that a catalogue of errors and misjudgments culminated in the tragic events of that afternoon.

On 8 June, HMS Glorious and its two escorting destroyers were heading for Scapa Flow, having left the coast of northern Norway that morning. At about 4 o'clock, two German battle cruisers were spotted on the starboard horizon. Unable to launch its protective aircraft into the wind without turning straight towards the enemy, Glorious sent out her first radio signal at 16.15, fired up the boilers, which had been shut down, and slowly increased to full speed in an attempt to run to the south-east.

Shortly afterwards, one of the battle cruisers opened fire with terrifying accuracy. Following several direct hits, the order to abandon ship was eventually given at about 17.20. Ardent was sunk at 17.28, and at 18.08 Acasta joined her. The bravery of the men of the doomed destroyers was later vividly praised by German crew members from the Scharnhorst. In the programme, one was quoted as saying: Our flags flew at half mast and the whole bridge stood to attention because of the courage of the English sailors". Only 41 survivors were picked up after two days in the icy waters.

Two Members of Parliament who suspected that the sinkings might not have been only another tragic accident of war first expressed disquiet about the explanation for what had happened in this House in the summer of 1940. In 1946, when morale and security were no longer paramount with the war over, Labour MP Richard Stokes asked the First Lord of the Admiralty when the promised report on the loss of H.M.S. "Glorious" and her attendant destroyers will be published.—[Official Report, 8 May 1946; Vol. 422, c. 1050.] Pressure was growing in the Admiralty for a full inquiry into the sinking, but in a memorandum that came to light many years later, R. Powell, head of military branch, advised strongly against a detailed investigation. He wrote: A full report at this date would make very dismal reading and would invite Mr. Stokes or other MPs to ask why this or that was not done. We are still asking those questions 60 years later.

The official account given by the Admiralty in Hansard on 8 May 1946 has remained almost unaltered to this day. It has frequently been criticised by naval historians and some naval officers for raising opinion and conjecture to the level of fact and for failing to give an adequate explanation of the main areas of controversy.

Why was Glorious returning home independently of the main convoy? Why was she so badly prepared? Why was her air power not used even for reconnaissance? Was there not sufficient intelligence about German activity in the region to suggest that Glorious should have been in a much greater state of readiness? Could HMS Devonshire have helped the stricken vessel or did its commander have no idea of what was happening?

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

I welcome profoundly the fact that the right hon. Gentleman has raised this matter. If they still exist, should not the orders of the Commander-in-Chief of the Home Fleet be made available? That would be important, because the film put the captain in a bad light. I wonder whether that is fair.

Mr. Beith

Those are among the records that should be readily available to the naval historical branch. The point can be pursued after the debate.

The list of those who cast doubt on the explanation of the Admiralty and the MOD is distinguished. It is headed by the First Sea Lord of the day, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Dudley Pound, who in 1940 questioned whether Glorious was suitably prepared for such an encounter. Aware from survivors that she had no reconnaissance aircraft aloft, no aircraft ready on deck, and no proper lookouts, and that her crew were at only the fourth level of readiness, he wrote in an Admiralty file: Glorious seems to have forgotten that she was a Man o' War —a comment that hardly sits comfortably with the official explanation that the disaster was due to a series of misfortunes rather than errors. A naval historian later wrote:

An aircraft carrier not operating her aircraft is one of the most helpless things afloat. In 1948, in his history of the second world war, Winston Churchill expressed his doubts about the reason given for HMS Glorious leaving the relative safety of a convoy of ships to head home independently. The official reason, still expressed today, is that the ship needed to return to Britain because she was running low on fuel. Churchill wrote:

This explanation is not convincing. The Glorious presumably had enough fuel to steam at the speed of the convoy. In 1970, Captain Roskill, who had earlier written the Navy's official and authoritative war history, expressed his view about why Glorious left the convoy. Following preliminary research, he wrote a letter to a senior member of the staff at the Royal Naval Staff College at Greenwich and said: the shortage of fuel theory is bunkum". Ten years later and after much more detailed work, he took the debate further in a long article that appeared in The Times. He stated: The answer is distressing. The Admiralty has tried to suppress the truth for 40 years, but it looks as though 1,515 men were killed partly as a result of a whole chain of Admiralty errors". The same man, 20 years earlier, had been charged with the responsibility of writing the official history of the Royal Navy.

The MOD's naval historical branch, apparently unaware that Roskill had changed his mind about what happened, used his official war history as recently as 1997 to support its theory that a lack of fuel was fundamental to Glorious's decision to depart from Norway. There has never been supporting evidence that fuel was the reason for Glorious's independent return from Norway. The arithmetic of Glorious's ton-mile figures would seem to torpedo the MOD's certainty. Furthermore, if a ship is low on fuel—as Glorious was, with up to a third of her boilers shut down—she cannot raise full power and speed in an emergency. She was a lightly armed and thinly armoured second world war carrier, but she should not have proceeded independently. Had she remained under the protection of other warships, she would have been steaming at convoy speed, which would have consumed less fuel.

The truth may lie in a different direction. HMS Glorious may well have become detached from the greater safety of the convoy because of a serious breakdown in relations among her senior officers. She was an unhappy ship. Her commander, D'Oyly Hughes, was a brave and distinguished veteran of submarine warfare in the 1914–18 war, but he seems to have been unsuited to commanding a carrier. He was ill at ease with the role of air power at sea and seemed unable to work with officers experienced in, and responsible for, air operations from his ship. Tensions ran high. After a major dispute he put ashore his Commander, Flying, J.B. Heath, and was preparing to court martial both Heath and Lieutenant Commander Slessor. Lieutenant Commander Slessor had written a despairing letter to his wife saying, J.B. and I are in great trouble. I can't tell you the story but you'll guess the cause of it. It was bound to come sooner or later I suppose, and perhaps it's a good thing. I needn't tell where right lies, nor that my conscience is absolutely clear, but we do need your thoughts and prayers very much. That was a message from a man serving on a very unhappy ship.

Lieutenant Commander Slessor perished in the sinking. Commander Heath was cleared of all charges and continued his distinguished service in other sectors, finishing as Commanding Officer of HMS Heron at Yeovilton.

In 1968, Commander Le Geyt, one-time captain of the destroyer Diana, wrote in an Admiralty file that he had seen Glorious send a long signal by lamp to her Admiral in Ark Royal asking permission to part company and proceed ahead to Scapa Flow for the purposes of making preparations for the impending courts martial. Why would that signal have been sent if fuel was really the reason for Glorious to leave the convoy? D'Oyly Hughes' known state of mind and the implausibility of the fuel theory lend credibility to the alternative explanation.

In 1978, Sir Harry Hinsley, an historian and vice-chancellor of Cambridge, wrote the official story of British intelligence in world war two. He states that, during the 10 days prior to the Glorious' sinking, Bletchley Park—where, as a young man, he analysed German naval wireless traffic—repeatedly informed the Admiralty that analysis of the traffic indicated that German "main units" were likely to emerge from the Baltic and proceed to Norwegian waters. He tells how that intelligence was ignored and consequently, in his words: The Glorious was caught unprepared". In attempting to counter Sir Harry, the MOD's naval historical branch drew attention to what it felt was an inconsistency between his more recent comments and those found in his official history. The NHB pointed to a sentence in that history which reads: It is not difficult to understand the Admiralty's scepticism. Traffic Analysis was an untested technique and one that yielded only broad and inferential clues. What the MOD did not draw attention to was Sir Harry's very next sentence, which reads: But … although the evidence of Traffic Analysis was unsupported by other indications, the (Navy's) Operational Intelligence Office had no good reason for resisting Bletchley Park's suggestion that it should at least issue a qualified warning to the Fleet. That differs sharply from the MOD's 1997 comment paper, called "Points of Controversy", which asserts: There was no indication from any source that a powerful German squadron was preparing for a sortie. That statement is wrong. At this point, we are not arguing about alternative theories; it is a matter of fact, and the comment paper should be corrected on that point. In a letter written shortly before he died last year, Sir Harry wrote: The Admiralty later realised that it had made a mistake". Indeed, it was his view that lessons were learnt from the mistake and that much greater attention was given to the results of traffic analysis thereafter, with considerable benefit gained.

What of events surrounding the incident itself? Glorious sent several signals during the engagement, but the MOD has claimed that, although the nearby HMS Devonshire did pick up one of those signals, it was "garbled", "corrupt" and "almost unintelligible". The Devonshire was under instructions to maintain radio silence. On board were the King of Norway and the Norwegian Cabinet, so there are legitimate questions as to what she could have done to help the stricken vessel. However, that radio silence was broken 12 hours later, when Devonshire checked on an expected escort. More important is that five members of Devonshire's crew have testified that the signals from Glorious were far from unintelligible. Despite differing in the detail, all five were adamant that the signal was sufficiently clear to cause considerable consternation on Devonshire's bridge.

At 16.25, Devonshire's log states, "Exercised main armament"—the first time that all her 8-in turrets had been exercised in more than a month, and at almost the same time as a petty officer on Devonshire claims that he received an audible signal from Glorious. To man all one's 8-in guns is indicative of a perceived surface threat, as they are not much use against aeroplanes. The official explanation for the exercising of the main armaments has been that it was coincidental to the time of Glorious' signals. That seems too much of a coincidence.

Similarly odd is that, during her passage of 1,300 miles, Devonshire travelled at almost top speed only once. That occurred within four minutes of Glorious' last signal at 17.19, just before she was sunk, when Devonshire's log states "Increased to 30 knots", which was probably her maximum speed, and for seven minutes "Negative zig-zag". That speed was held for two hours, until she reduced to 26 knots. Why did she accelerate if she found the signal "unintelligible" and—according to the Admiralty—did not even know where Glorious was? Would she not have feared that, by doing so, she was accelerating into danger? The MOD has suggested that the unusual behaviour demonstrated by Devonshire that afternoon was coincidental to Glorious' signals, but it seems more likely that she gleaned sufficient information from a supposedly "almost unintelligible" signal to be worried about something.

Those who inquire of the MOD what actually happened that afternoon will be sent a paper called "Points of Controversy". The covering letter states that there is sufficient collateral evidence received by this department from key participants to permit reasonable conclusions to be drawn and convincing explanations to be given for the sequence of events. I suggest that there are reasonable conclusions and convincing explanations—long advanced by respected naval historians—that are different from those advanced to this day by the MOD.

Two of the key participants in the covering letter were Fleet Air Arm squadron commanding officers in Ark Royal. One of them, Commander Casson, denies that he was involved in any way in any of the decisions or actions surrounding Glorious's early departure for home or in the subsequent circumstances of her sinking. He was not even asked by the MOD if he could be cited as a key participant, and he expressed surprise when he found out that the MOD was using him as a supporting witness. Commander Casson's colleague was no closer to the seat of decision making that day. In short, while both may have valid contributions to make on Fleet Air Arm practice and procedures of the 1940s, neither was involved, directly or indirectly, in what happened.

One of the other key participants was Stanley Rogers, a telegraphist on Devonshire, who testifies that he heard nearly all of Glorious's enemy report. The MOD, by contrast, claims that the signalman supports its contention that the signal was almost unintelligible. He wrote to the MOD in an effort to set the record straight. The recollections of another key participant, who was also a signalman, are also at variance with the MOD's account.

The covering letter sent by the MOD also states that official conclusions have been reached following exhaustive analysis of all available records. It has subsequently become clear that that really means analysis of all official records—those held by the Admiralty. For example, it does not include the Roskill papers in the Churchill archives in Cambridge, which are a good source of information containing all of Roskill's research into the controversy.

As well as the First Sea Lord of the day, Winston Churchill, and later, the Navy's official war historian, there are other well-known naval historians such as John Winton, Julian Thompson and Correlli Barnett, who maintain that the official version lacks credibility.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon)

Is there any evidence, other than the hearsay evidence provided by the MOD connected with receipts of signals by Devonshire, that the signalling equipment in HMS Glorious was defective?

Mr. Beith

I know of no such evidence, although there is testimony as to the difficulty of reading some of the signals. However, there is strong evidence that they were far from unintelligible, both in the recollections that I have quoted and the fact that there appears to have been a response by Devonshire to what must have been worrying indications in those signals.

As I was saying, several well-known naval historians have cast doubt on the official version. They ask other questions that are too numerous to raise in a short debate. I cannot believe that the Ministry of Defence would suggest that it has, in its in-house naval historical branch, a monopoly of competent or credible naval historians, or that they are uniquely qualified to arrive at the true version of what happened.

I have great respect for the knowledge and diligence of those in the naval historical branch and the care that they have taken in responding to letters from me and in assisting Ministers to do so in the two years that I have been involved in the matter. However, they can be wrong or, as in this case, too zealous in defending conclusions reached in more difficult times with less information than we have now.

The sinking of HMS Glorious and her escort ships took place almost 60 years ago. Definitive conclusions may never be reached. All the surviving evidence is freely available, yet respected naval historians have consistently come to conclusions different from those of the MOD. The few remaining survivors and the relatives of those who were lost, many of whom have written to me, are entitled to an open and public recognition in the official account that there are other viable explanations for what happened.

It is perverse and harmful to go on defending an explanation in which hardly a knowledgeable person outside the Ministry of Defence believes. I hope that the Minister will tonight recognise the need to put the record straight as far as possible and, in doing so, to give the naval historical branch the brief to consider all relevant records, not just official records.

6.49 pm
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

The House owes a debt to the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) for raising this subject.

I shall explain my own locus in this matter, such as it is. As a child, I repeatedly saw Glorious in the Firth of Forth, because she was often based at Rosyth. My parents had friends on the ship. I recollect their extreme distress when it was sunk, since many of the crew who had been with the ship since 1938 or 1939 were on board.

I ought to declare two other loci. I was taught by the late and wonderful Sir Harry Hinsley, who talked about this matter. I used to go to see him, especially during the Falklands war and afterwards, in the master's lodge of St. John's college, Cambridge. That relationship lasted until he died. I was also a student friend of Tim Slessor who, along with Mr. Harrison, has done so much work on the film. I was very sorry for Captain D'Oyly Hughes's daughter, who was obviously put in a very difficult position over the film, and naturally came to her father's defence.

I should like to put gently—it is very difficult to be wise after the event—a point made by Tim Slessor, which I have given in writing to the Minister and his advisers: The MOD tries to have it both ways. In the Under Secretary's letters, it claims to have nothing stronger than 'reasonable conclusions' and 'convincing explanations'. In the MOD's 7-page paper 'HMS Glorious—Points of Controversy' it goes much further; it is firm and quite unequivocal in its assertions. For example, on the matter of intelligence available about likely German warship movements into Norwegian waters, the MOD paper claims: 'there was no indication from any source that a powerful German squadron was preparing to sortie, let alone that one had been at sea since 4 June'. This is in direct contradiction to the Official History of British Intelligence (HMSO 1978—page 141) by Sir Harry Hinsley: `A fortnight before the German battle cruisers made their sortie, Bletchley Park began to report to the Admiralty that German main units were preparing to move from the Baltic northwards up the Norwegian coast … The Admiralty had no good reason for resisting the suggestion that it should at least issue a qualified warning to the fleet … Glorious was caught unprepared'. This is many miles from the MOD claim that 'There was no indication from any source'. I ought to add that I was also taught by the late Sir Frank Adcock, who was also a decryptor at Bletchley, and who had perfect knowledge of German, which he had studied in Berlin under Williamwitz Nöllendorf. Sir Frank later edited the "Cambridge Ancient History". In his discussions about Bletchley, Adcock again referred to hindsight. I never put Hinsley's and Adcock's accounts together, although Hinsley was sometimes given to exaggeration. I suspect that we cannot regard him as an absolute, definitive source in his recollection of what he did in his youth. If we are to talk of the distant past, we ought to be a little careful.

Slessor says: Given that John Spellar's letter to Alan Beith (t August 1997) specifically says 'I agree that if any one of these contentions [of which the above is just one] to which the Admiralty and the MOD have consistently adhered could be disproved, then [it] would justify public concern over the handling of the matter [the whole of the official account] from 1946 to the present day". In a sense, there is a balance between Sir Harry Hinsley's work and that of the naval historical branch. I do not come to the conclusion that the naval historical branch is necessarily wrong, although the Minister's reply will be of very great interest.

6.54 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. John Spellar)

I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to hon. Members who have spoken and the rest of the House—although one term almost encapsulates the other—for the state of my voice. I hope that it lasts until the end of my speech.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) that we are grateful to the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) for raising the issue of the loss of HMS Glorious, HMS Ardent and HMS Acasta off the coast of Norway on 8 June 1940. Several issues were raised on which I shall need to write to the right hon. Gentleman, but I hope to reply to him on other issues during the debate.

As we all agree, the tragic loss of the Glorious was one of the greatest disasters suffered by the Royal Navy during the second world war. I am sure that hon. Members would wish to join me in expressing sympathy to the families and loved ones of those lost.

Over the years since the loss of the Glorious and her escorts, Members of the House have understandably expressed concern over the circumstances surrounding their loss. It is a sensitive issue. It is of genuine interest to the House, and interest has been revived by the recent showing and repeat of the Channel 4 documentary "Secret History"—mentioned by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed—about this episode. It may help if I expand further on the background that the right hon. Gentleman has provided.

The evacuation from Norway, in May 1940, took place at one of the blackest and most confused periods of the war. At that time, the German army had invaded France. British forces, including the Royal Navy, were heavily involved in these operations, which culminated in the fall of France and the evacuation of the British expeditionary force from mainland Europe. Moreover, Italy had just entered the war on the side of the Axis powers and, understandably, the risk of a German invasion was regarded as a serious threat.

The aircraft carriers Ark Royal and Glorious had sailed from Scapa Flow for Narvik, in Norway, on 31 May. Ark Royal was tasked with providing fighter cover during the withdrawal from Norway. Glorious was tasked with the evacuation of RAF aircraft from Bardufoss in the north of Norway; those aircraft would be urgently required for the defence of the United Kingdom.

At 03.00 on 8 June, having embarked the RAF Hurricanes and Gladiators, the Glorious, together with the destroyers Ardent and Acasta as anti-submarine escorts, set sail for Scapa Flow.

At about 16.00, Glorious sighted the mastheads of what we now know were the battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, which were on course to close on the Glorious. Ardent was ordered to investigate, and the Glorious altered course to the south. At the same time, orders were given to prepare a Swordfish reconnaissance aircraft, but it was too late, and none were airborne before the Scharnhorst opened fire at 16.31, followed shortly after by the Gneisenau. As the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed said, the order to abandon Glorious was given at 17.20. At 17.40 Glorious sank. The Ardent sank at about 17.30. The Acasta, with great gallantry, continued to close with the enemy and succeeded in damaging the Scharnhorst, which was forced to return to Trondheim.

Understandably, and regrettably, no report of proceedings, or deck logs for May and June 1940 survived the loss of the Glorious—nor, tragically, did any officer or senior rating who was in a position to comment on navigation, operations or command decision making. Any reconstruction or analysis—I believe this would be common ground—is therefore wholly dependent on evidence given to the board of inquiry by relatively junior personnel, and external sources such as signals received during the period under review, the reports of other ships and naval authorities, and recollections of participants. In addition, we now have the unambiguous German records. Nevertheless, the picture is not complete. Inevitably, there are gaps, which cannot be filled, and that has understandably allowed room for speculation to grow about the circumstances of the loss of the vessels.

Over the years, several points of contention have been raised. I should like to make it clear that we believe that many of those arise entirely from genuine differences of interpretation. What is clear is that, when Glorious detached to return to Scapa Flow, she had already carried out the mission for which she had been despatched—the retrieval of the RAF fighters. She could make no further contribution to the safety of the evacuation convoys, which were the fleet's next main concern. It is also assumed that, after five days at sea off Norway, she had only sufficient fuel to return to base, allowing for the obligatory requirement to maintain a reserve of 33 per cent. The House may be interested to know that that figure has been increased to 60 per cent. for today's royal naval vessels. That is not just because of problems with sludge at the bottom of fuel tanks, although that is a serious consideration.

It being Seven o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Betts.]

Mr. Spellar

The need to maintain stability is another consideration. I asked exactly the questions that the right hon. Gentleman raised. Those are relevant technical matters, and I am satisfied with the answers.

The assumption has been challenged in recent years but there is no documentary evidence to support the attack on it. What is known is that Glorious had been at sea at considerable distance from base for six full days, and that her normal routine would have allowed her to remain at sea for only five days.

The right hon. Gentleman said that Glorious had to leave the convoy. At the time of her departure, the convoy had not formed, and if she had remained off the coast of Norway waiting for the convoy to form, fuel would certainly have been consumed and could have become an issue. In that event Glorious might not have had enough fuel to reach the United Kingdom and also to retain a prudent margin for emergencies.

Mr. Beith

Does the Minister know anyone outside the current MOD who believes that part of the theory, bearing in mind that the amount of fuel used on convoy passage at convoy speed would have been less than that required for the vessel to proceed with any hope of safety at a faster speed to make for home with only the destroyer escort?

Mr. Spellar

As I said, that would also have meant waiting for the convoy, and the possibilities had to be balanced. The question is whether the decisions were honestly made. We have to work on that assumption. There seem to be reasonable grounds for doing so. It is difficult at this distance and with the lack of records, but the assumption seems reasonable, given standard working practice in the Navy at that time, so we should not lightly discard it.

For reasons that I have explained, it is still considered likely that lack of fuel was a consideration in the decision that Glorious should return to the UK, but it is not possible to state that as a definitive fact. We have agreed that. What I can say is that even if Glorious was low on fuel, she would have been capable of raising full power and speed in an emergency.

I shall deal with the question whether the Admiralty ignored intelligence warnings about naval activity in the area. Although the right hon. Gentleman draws from the late Professor Sir Harry Hinsley, he does not make it clear that the last warning to be circulated within the Admiralty related to German ships in Norwegian waters being associated with operations in the North sea. A day later, the Glorious and the destroyers were sunk nearly 1,000 miles to the north of the North sea.

In the letter that Sir Harry wrote shortly before he died last year, to which the right hon. Gentleman referred, Sir Harry speculated: I think that the best evidence that the Admiralty later realised it had made a mistake in ignoring my warning lies in the fact that its relations with the naval Section at Bletchley Park changed significantly after the disaster". That is an example of conjecture, but it may also have been selectively quoted fact.

My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) advised me that he had urgent travel arrangements and apologised to the House for the fact that he could not stay until the end of the debate. The quote from Sir Harry Hinsley's "Official History of British Intelligence" compressed quotations that were expanded by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed—a page of text is compressed into a few lines. Among those phrases, into which comes a warning of a move from the Baltic into the Skagerrack, is a warning that ships in Norwegian waters may be associated with operations in the North sea.

I draw the attention of the House to the section which, as we heard, gives a balanced view. Sir Harry Hinsley stated that it was not difficult to understand the operational intelligence centre's scepticism that traffic analysis was an untested technique. However, as the right hon. Gentleman commented, Sir Harry stated later in the paragraph that the OIC had no good reason for resisting Bletchley's suggestion that it would issue a qualified warning. I would say to my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow that there is therefore a balance of judgment to be struck. We have to look at both sides, as did the official history.

Another main issue of speculation, which has been raised in the debate, has been the signals dispatched by Glorious and the role played by HMS Devonshire. It is known that Glorious sent two signals before it sank: the first, "enemy report", at 16.15 hours; the second, an "amplifying report" at 16.40 hours. There are no British records which record the receipt of the first signal. Receipt of the second signal is recorded. It is difficult to conceive that Devonshire would record receipt of the second signal and not the first. It is known that the first signal sent by Glorious was not received by any British vessel, although subsequent records have shown that the full text was recorded by the Gneisenau.

The text of the second "amplifying signal" was recorded by Devonshire in the admiral's record as "My 16.15. 2P/B". The time of the signal was also given. Unlike the first signal, this signal did not give the position of Glorious, nor was it stated whether the sighting was made from the ship, or if it resulted from an air sortie.

That signal did not state that the ship was under attack. Records show that the quality of the signal was poor. I suggest that the content, which was discussed on the bridge, may have puzzled the hierarchy on Devonshire, but did not provide information which would give cause for Devonshire to break radio silence.

The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed also raised the question of Captain D'Oyly Hughes and the early departure. The official documentation on that subject consists of one note—by the Commander-in-Chief, Home Fleet—instructing the Glorious to proceed to Scapa How to conduct the court martial.

That does not automatically lead to the conclusion that Captain D'Oyly Hughes was responsible for that decision, which had to be approved by Vice-Admiral Wells. I was slightly concerned when the right hon. Gentleman questioned whether all the records were available. As far as I am aware—he should write to me if he has any information to the contrary—all the official records are available, including records from the Commander-in-Chief, Home Fleet.

The right hon. Gentleman also asked whether it was coincidence that the Devonshire exercised its main armament as Glorious was transmitting the "enemy report". I have looked into that as well, and I am advised that that would appear to be so. I understand that, traditionally, the Navy uses the period between 16.00 and 18.00 for what is known as evening quarters, to exercise the gun crews. It might also be worth noting that the cruiser was already at defence watches, with three out of four turrets manned.

The right hon. Gentleman also asked whether Devonshire would have manned its main armament, because of the prospect of an attack from the air rather than an attack from the sea. I am advised that the 8-in guns of the County class cruisers were designed as dual-purpose weapons, for long-range use against aircraft as well as surface ships. The turrets enabled a 70-deg angle of elevation, and rapid rates of slew and elevation, for anti-aircraft use. In the absence of surface ships, German long-range reconnaissance aircraft were the expected threat to the west of Norway.

There are a number of alternative theories, and we could discuss them and their merits, but I am not sure that that would serve any great purpose. Many of these issues are inevitably matters of interpretation. We believe that there is a sound basis for the interpretation that the Ministry of Defence has put forward, drawn quite properly from departmental records, and supplemented, where appropriate, from personal recollections. The severe loss of life and lack of documentation means that there is no definitive record, and no one is qualified to arrive at a true version. I am satisfied, however, that all Admiralty records relating to the incident are in the public domain.

Mr. Beith

I think the Minister took to be from me a comment made by the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) about the availability of records. I have not questioned the availability of records.

May I discourage the Minister from going wholly into defensive mode? He has suggested that there is a considerable area for speculation and disagreement.

The nub of my case is this. The paper "Points of Controversy" suggests that is so, but the text of the official report—which has, however, been slightly revised since it first appeared in Hansard in 1946—does not.

It would greatly help the families concerned if the area of disagreement, or the potential alternative explanation, were aired more clearly in the document.

Mr. Spellar

We are satisfied that there has been no cover-up of these tragic events, and that the MOD's interpretation is soundly based. We are satisfied that it is the most likely explanation. As I have said, however, it is a question of interpretation—as we accept, honest interpretation—of different views. The problem is that there is no new evidence on which we can draw to resolve the differences.

I feel that those who criticise the MOD's interpretation of events should themselves accept that our conclusions have been honestly drawn and rigorously researched. We argued it all through, and also looked at new information, which, in some instances, led to a slight modification of our conclusions.

We provided the right hon. Gentleman with a detailed and, perhaps, complicated account of the incident in July 1997, which we believe will interest other Members. I shall arrange for it to be placed in the Library. Members who read the record of the debate will gain an impression of its nature, and of the reasons for the position taken by the MOD and the naval historical branch: an honest position that has, I think, stood the test of time.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twelve minutes past Seven o ' clock.