HL Deb 31 May 1886 vol 306 cc437-45

, in rising to ask the First Lord of the Admiralty, (1.) For what purpose the Colossus is to be sent to sea; (2.) what trials or tests have the 43-ton guns of the Colossus been subjected to since the bursting of the Collingwood's 43-ton gun on 4th May last; and (3.) what are the orders given to the officer appointed to the command of the Colossus with regard to the use or abstention from use of the ship's guns? said, a very great deal of interest had attached to the Colossus from the day when she was first designed. She was laid down exactly seven years ago, and therefore it could not be said that the Admiralty had shown any great precipitancy in sending the ship to sea. When she was designed by Sir Nathaniel Barnaby she was described as an improved Agamemnon, which, with the sister ship the Ajax, had already been described as small Inflexibles. The Colossus was 5 feet longer than the Inflexible, and her beam was 7 feet less. Her tonnage displacement was 2,000 tons less than that of the Inflexible. Her estimated cost was £500,000, and her actual cost £533,000. She was the first steel ship laid down at Portsmouth. She was one of the first three ships provided with steel-faced side armour—the other two being the Edinburgh and the Conqueror. She had two turrets, in which she carried four steel breech-loading guns, which were almost precisely similar to those of the Collingwood. She also carried five 6-inch guns, 10 Nordenfelts, and some Gardner and other quick-firing machine guns, and she was fitted with torpedo tubes and boats, so that, both in her offensive and defensive aspect, she was one of the most powerful iron-clads afloat. He wished to draw attention to the remarkable history of the 43-ton guns which she carried in her turrets. In 1882 the authorities at the Royal Arsenal recommended the abandonment of wrought iron in the construction of heavy ordnance for the Navy, and supplied a design for the construction of a steel breech-loading gun. With regard to those guns, he did not wish to decry the gun factory at Woolwich; but they could not shut their eyes to the fact that there were in this country men, composing the firm of Sir William Armstrong and Co., who for their long attention to the delicate construction of heavy ordnance were second to none in the world, and they had positively refused to manufacture guns upon the design of the 43-ton guns in question. It was somewhat remarkable, too, that their objections took two points. First, they objected to the construction of the gun itself; and, secondly, they objected to the mode in which it was proposed to manipulate and work the steel. He (the Earl of Ravensworth) was informed, upon indisputable authority, that steel for heavy rifled guns was best when it approached nearest to wrought iron, and that if it departed from the condition of "low" steel and was worked up to "high" steel it might be stronger, but it was more brittle. For gun manufacture the nearer it was kept to those qualities possessed by wrought iron the better. It was a remarkable circumstance that about the time that doubts arose both in regard to the design and the material of these 43-ton guns there were five in hand; but the authorities were not content with completing these—which, having regard to the money already spent upon them, was reasonable enough—but they ordered six other similar guns to be manufactured. These 43-ton guns were originally designed to carry a charge of 400 lbs. of powder. That was subsequently reduced to 290 lbs.; and even with this it was found that after 16 rounds they jammed, and the charge was then reduced to 222 lbs., which was the charge in the gun which burst on board the Collingwood. He should like to hear from the noble Marquess opposite the First Lord of the Admiralty what trials and what tests these guns had been submitted to since that lamentable accident. Of course, he did not deny that accidents to guns occurred in foreign Navies; but when an accident of this kind occurred on board an English ship it was bruited about all over the world; and what must be the effect on the minds of our foreign rivals and competitors in naval construction at hearing that one of our newest and most magnificent ships was being sent to sea with an embargo on her guns? What would be the effect on the gallant officers of that ship and her crew? He hoped that the noble Marquess would inform the House of the orders that had been given with regard to the use of the heavy guns of the Colossus. The noble Earl who preceded the noble Marquess at the Admiralty (the Earl of Northbrook) had, in the course of a debate in December, 1884, upon the Naval Programme, pointed out that it was not enough for us to follow in the wake of other nations. Having regard to the information and knowledge which we possessed as to the steps which were being taken by foreign nations to provide themselves with heavy ordnance, could the noble Marquess say that we were as much in advance of our rivals as we ought to be? If not, he hoped that no time would be lost in endeavour- ing to place ourselves in that position of pre-eminence which we ought to occupy.


, in reply, said, the Colossus had been sent to sea for the purpose of testing her sea-going qualities, her armament, and her general qualities. For that purpose the Colossus would be sent on a summer cruise, which would take place shortly. The noble Earl was aware that there were other guns beside the 43-ton guns which were placed in the turrets of the Colossus; and there were, therefore, many parts of the ship's armament which required to be tested, and in regard to which it was desirable that trials should be made. It was hoped that in the course of the cruise of the Channel Fleet this year various experiments would be made with torpedo boats and with the torpedoes with which the ships were furnished, and in these respects it was desirable to ascertain the fighting qualities of the Colossus. It was for those reasons that the Board of Admiralty had thought it desirable to send this vessel to sea at once, and not to lose the summer, in order to make a thorough trial of her sea-going qualities. In regard to the 43-ton guns, he thought it was desirable that the public should clearly understand the question raised by the bursting of the gun. It applied only to a particular class of the 43-ton gun—namely, the 11 guns of which the noble Earl had spoken. The 43-ton guns which were now being manufactured, and which would be hereafter delivered to the Navy, were of an improved pattern, and were not, as the best authorities believed, liable to the objections urged against this particular class of gun. He should like to mention also that the 43-ton guns of the Colossus, although of the same description as those of the Collingwood, had passed through more trials than those of the Collingwood, and the result of those trials had been satisfactory. The guns of the Collingwood had only been tried at proof, and it was the opinion of many naval men that, in regard to these large guns, the particular danger arose especially in connection with the first round of fire after proof. Whether that was so or not he could not say; but that was the opinion held. Doubts had been thrown, and reasonably thrown, upon this particular class of 43-ton gun, in consequence of what happened the other day on the Collingwood. He (the Marquess of Ripon) and his Colleagues, immediately after the accident, communicated with the War Office, with the view of seeing whether these guns could not be replaced, for the noble Earl knew that the Admiralty was not responsible for the construction of these guns. The War Office was responsible; and it was only fair to the Board of Admiralty, who were concerned in this matter, that he should mention the fact. On inquiry, he ascertained that the War Office were making and would soon complete six 43-ton guns for land service, made upon an improved principle, and not liable to many of the objections which had been urged to the 43-ton guns, mark 2. He, therefore, went to his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War, and asked him to hand over those guns to the Navy. Looking at the circumstances of the case, his right hon. Friend at once agreed to do so. The guns, however, were made with trunnions, and would require to be altered. They would be taken in hand at once; and in three or four months, at the outside, he was informed that the whole of the six guns would be placed at the disposal of the Navy. Besides that he had already ordered two new guns of the very latest and best pattern. He had also under consideration whether the Admiralty should order some more of these guns, although they would not be completed for 12 or 14 months. He hoped, in consequence of the arrangement which he had been able to make with the War Office, that the Navy would receive six 43-ton guns of a satisfactory kind within a period of not more than four months. It was true that, in these circumstances, and looking to the fact that the Colossus was going to sea for the purpose of thoroughly testing her sea-going qualities, as a matter of precaution the Admiralty had directed the captain not to fire these 43-ton guns at target practice. He hoped, however, that soon after the cruise was finished those guns would be replaced by the other and more satisfactory guns to which he had referred. With reference to the Committee appointed to investigate the causes of the accident on the Collingwood, he had to mention that it was under the War Office. He made inquiry the other day as to the date of assembling and the probable period within which their Report would be presented; and he understood that the Committee would assemble in the course of the present week, and it was anticipated that the Report would be forthcoming in a fortnight or three weeks. When the Report was received it would be his duty, in communication with the Secretary of State for War, to consider it and the results arrived at, and to decide whether these showed the necessity of any further inquiry either in regard to those special guns, or, as was more likely, in regard to the large question of the mode in which the supply of guns to the Navy should be regulated.


said, he wished to point out that guns of the size referred to were designed to fire a maximum charge of 400 lbs. of gunpowder. Guns of that calibre should be subjected to the full test for which they were designed before they were placed on board ship, as was done in France, otherwise officers and men would never trust these weapons. The noble Marquess had stated that it was the intention of the Admiralty to "chasehoop" these guns before firing them again; but he (Viscount Sidmouth) thought it likely that guns patched in that way would always be looked upon with distrust by the men. All these things showed how desirable it was that the Admiralty should have the entire control of the guns provided for the Naval Service. If you asked naval officers, you would find that 19 out of 20 were thoroughly dissatisfied with the present method of arming the Navy. The question was raised two years ago, when complaint was made of the way in which the manufacture was carried on; and it was stated, he believed, by the Marquess of Hartington, that we were behind other countries in manufacturing materials, and that the hammers we used were inferior to those in use in Germany. Yet we were now standing still, with no improvements effected, and ships were kept waiting seven or eight years for guns. In every instance in which a ship had been delayed, the delay had been attributed to the necessity of waiting for guns. We were now building five large ships, which would be absolutely useless, because the guns were not ready.


said, he fully appreciated the importance of efficiently testing guns before they were placed in the ships for which they were intended; but he did not think that either Admiralty or the War Office could have taken any better course than that which they had actually adopted, in having all the circumstances connected with the failure of the 43-ton gun in the Collingwood thoroughly investigated. He understood that, in the first instance, the Ordnance Committee was assisted by certain professional gentlemen quite unconnected with the Woolwich manufacturing departments. We were not the only nation that experienced failure in the manufacture of guns. Notwithstanding the great efficiency and the magnificent scale of the French Departments, it was not long ago, if statements in public journals were to be credited that at least two of the very largest of the French guns failed in proof at the chase, precisely in the same way our 43-ton gun had failed. These were two 70-ton guns, and the French Government had been obliged in consequence to alter their designs and patterns. Notwithstanding the magnificence of the establishments abroad, they had met with difficulties just as we had. It was well known that the most successful manufacturer of guns on the Continent, Herr Krupp, had produced several guns which had burst. Therefore, he hoped their Lordships would not suppose that such an accident as that which lately happened on board the Collingwood was to be looked upon as happening only to English guns. The French failures referred to were even more serious, because of the greater size of the guns. The main reason of their failures was the recent introduction of slow-burning powder. The effect of the firing of a charge was a pressure extending throughout the whole gun, instead of being confined to one portion, as it was before, with quick-burning powder. On that account we had been obliged to strengthen larger guns in the chase, so as to provide adequate resistance to the increased pressure resulting from the use of slow-burning powder. The peculiar construction which had caused the failure of the 43-ton gun on board the Collingwood had been avoided in the case of the 63-ton guns for ships of the Admiral class, which had been strengthened in the chase for the purpose of resisting the increased pressure. The still larger type of gun—the 110-ton gun—was designed in the same way. This gun, which was the largest to be placed on board ship, might be regarded with considerable confidence; and there was this additional ground for confidence—that guns of the same size had been supplied to the Italian Navy by the same manufacturer—namely, Sir William Armstrong and Co., who was constructing them for us, and they had been tested, and had stood the test successfully. So far as we could reasonably place confidence in any gun, we might place confidence in the 110-ton guns, not only because of theoretical improvements in their construction, but also because those guns had been tested by practical experience. As regarded the provision for guns for our ships, and the hydraulic machinery by which they were to be worked on board ship, we had no reason to fear comparison with the guns or machinery of other nations. As to the suggestion that the Board of Admiralty should undertake the construction of guns for the Navy, there was much to be said for and against the proposal. It was a very difficult question indeed. The course suggested might concentrate responsibility on the Department concerned; but it would involve the anomalous and undesirable state of things of a separate Department for the manufacture of naval guns and another Department for the manufacture of guns for the fortifications and the Army. An alternative plan which commended itself to his mind was that there should be a resuscitation of the old Ordnance Department, which should manufacture both for the Army and the Navy, and should be neither under the Secretary of State for War nor under the Board of Admiralty. It was possible that some arrangement of that kind might be an improvement upon their present system.


said, he wished to point out that a return to the old Ordnance Department would be going back 30 years. He thought it would be much more to the benefit of the country if the Government placed the whole of the manufacture of guns for both services under one Department, irrespective of the Secretary of State for War and the First Lord of the Admiralty.


said, that this question turned not only on the inefficiency of British guns, but also on the efficiency of the guns of foreign Governments. At that moment there was in the House a noble and gallant Lord who was in a position to thoroughly compare the British guns with foreign guns, because he commanded the Combined Fleets at Dulcigao; and he (the Earl of Wemyss) was anxious to know if that noble and gallant Lord would tell the House what his own opinion was of the guns in those Fleets, and of their relative value? He (the Earl of Wemyss) had heard it stated that a Report was sent home to the effect that, with one exception, the British guns were worse than the others. It was rather remarkable that while the Italian ships carried 100-ton guns which did not burst, the Colossus, which was supposed to be the most powerful fighting ship created in modern times, could only carry 43-ton guns, one of which had burst, and with respect to the others orders had been given that they should not be fired. He did not know who was to blame; but that state of things was not satisfactory to the country, or complimentary to the Departments concerned.


said, in reply to his noble Friend, that he had no recollection of sending home any Report of the kind mentioned by the noble Earl. Indeed, he was quite certain that he never made any such Report. He had seen a great deal of the foreign squadrons in the Mediterranean. At Dulcigno the French, the Austrian, the Russian, and the German ships carried breech-loading guns, while the English and Italian ships carried muzzle-loaders, and in the comparison the English had nothing to fear. He was able to state that the British ships were not the only ships on which gun accidents occurred. He could mention two ships in the French Navy in which, through premature explosions, no less than five men were killed, and several others wounded.