HL Deb 09 July 1888 vol 328 cc693-705

, in rising to call attention to the foreign squadrons, and to the large expenditure on ships not effective for the operations of war or the protection of trade, said, that he disavowed all intention to criticize the present Admiralty, which had rendered excellent service to the country. His object was to propose a change of system, to increase the building of effective ships by diminishing expenditure on those which were comparatively ineffective. The experience of the last two years must have impressed on all who were interested in the Navy the imperative necessity of concentrating our efforts on essentials. Under a Government which could not be suspected of indifference to the security of the Empire we had seen a sweeping reduction of Navy Estimates. He did not condemn the Admiralty for accepting reductions, or the Government for showing some distrust of the assurances so glibly given in various quarters that the country was ready to spend unlimited amounts on the increase of the Navy. The experience of every Chancellor of the Exchequer was the same. Proposals to build ships and to raise seamen were popular enough. There was always some fatal objection to new taxes. Impressed with the difficulty of increasing Estimates, while at the same time earnestly desiring to obtain more protection for our commerce, he would consider the means—in effect the only means—by which the object in view could be attained. It was not necessary to make exaggerated statements as to the inferiority of the British Fleet in comparison with other Powers. In the construction of swift and powerful vessels great progress had been made within a recent period. In vessels built or completing we had established a decided superiority. When, however, we turned to the programme of building now in course of execution in France and England, it was evident that our position in the future was seriously threatened. Setting aside the torpedo gunboats, which were in no sense cruisers, the English programme of shipbuilding for 1888–9 included the two first-class cruisers, Blake and Blenheim, 9,000 tons, 22 knots; the five second-class cruisers, M type, 2,900 tons, 20 knots; and two third-class cruisers, 1,800 tons, 19.5 knots. The French shipbuilding programme was much more ambitious. It included the 20-knot ships Dupuy de Lôme, belted cruiser, 6,360 tons; and the Davoust and Suchet, protected cruisers, 6,027 tons. Their list of 19-knot vessels included 11 ships—Tage, 7,045 tons, Cécile, 5,766 tons, three Alger type, 4,162 tons, and six third-class cruisers, Surcouf type, 1,850 tons. Of ships steaming 19 knots and over France was building 14, England nine. Making full allowance for greater rapidity of construction, when we looked to the vessels in progress in France and to the figures recently published by Lloyds, showing the approximate value of our Mercantile Marine to that of France as £93,000,000 to £9,000,000, we saw that greater efforts were required on the part of the British Admiralty. As an immediate step Sir Arthur Hood recently asked for six additional cruisers. The question to be considered was how such a reinforcement of the Fleet might be obtained with the least charge to the public. When we were building for the protection of commerce speed was the first condition of efficiency, and we were now, as in the past, wasting money in building too many cruisers greatly inferior in speed to those building in France. We were building four third-class cruisers of the Barossa class—1,580 tons, 16.5 knots. No figure was named for those ships in the Estimates; but the cost could not be less than £400,000. Then there were the five ships of the Buzzard class, 1,140 tons, 14.5 knots, and the Melita, 12.5 knots, costing, in round figures, £65,000 each. There were also 15 gunboats of the Pheasant type—13 knots; cost £41,000. In all we had in hand 25 comparatively slow vessels, which would cost in the aggregate at least £1,405,000. France had only five vessels of the corresponding class. The cost would be under £400,000. We were spending on cruisers conspicuously inferior to those building for France, Italy, and the United States, a sum which would have given us 10 more 20-knot cruisers of the Medea class; and it was not open to question that such an addition to the Navy would have been more valuable for the protection of commerce than any number of gunboats. All that unsatisfactory expenditure on peace-service vessels to which he had referred did not fall on the Estimates of the current financial year; but the proprotion chargeable to 1888–9 formed a serious deduction from the money available for building effective ships. Excluding indirect charges, £2,667,000 was taken for new construction in 1888–9. An analysis showed that the expenditure on ships designed for war service, including the armoured and protected vessels over 19 knots and the torpedo flotilla, was £1,944,814. Surveying and other necessary services absorbed £101,000. Thus far the appropriation of the shipbuilding Vote was entirely satisfactory. What was not satisfactory was that we should spend no less than £621,520 on protected vessels under 17 knots and unprotected vessels under 15 and 14 knots. The excessive construction of vessels of inadequate speed was not a new defect in our naval administration. The extent of this drain on our resources was shown in some striking figures presented to Parliament with the Navy Estimates of this year. Taking the period from 1866–8 onwards, our total expenditure on shipbuilding was £33,134,851. Looking through the figures in detail, it was painful to see that millions had been sunk in corvettes, sloops, and small vessels designed only for peace requirements, not suitable by reason of insufficiency of speed for the protection of commerce, and not powerful enough for the line-of-battle. Our larger partially protected ships approached very near in the cost per ton to some of our most powerful ironclads, and in the last 10 years we had completed 16 such vessels of the Comus and Satellite types, none having a speed of more than 13 knots. Eleven corvettes of somewhat inferior speed had been built, the earliest having been completed in 1870. Since 1872 we had built 19 sloops, 15 gun vessels, and 28 cruising gunboats, with speeds ranging from 14 knots in the latest to under 10 knots in the earlier types. The total cost of these vessels was no less than £5,483,733. The cost of maintenance after completion to the 31st of March, 1887, was given at £1,385,000; and if they added the Dockyard incidental charges apportioned to each ship, amounting to over £1,018,610, they arrived at a total expenditure in the period subsequent to 1865 amounting to £7,887,522. It was because we had been building so many vessels adapted only to peace requirements that we were driven, when the prospect of a conflict with Russia seemed imminent, to take up at great cost for conversion into cruisers merchant steamers absolutely unprotected and weakly armed, but possessing the speed which was indispensable, and in which the ships built for the Navy were wanting. That unhappy experience should not be renewed. They had been more successful in France in checking unprofitable expenditure on what had been happily described as the poussière navale. Of 13 to 14-knot vessels France had four and England 26. Of vessels of 13 down to 10 knots France had 43 and England 52. Under 10 knots France had 15 and England 69, Mere harbour-service craft were not included on either side. It was worthy of notice that our numerical superiority increased as we descended in quality. No administration would willingly have incurred a large and continuous expenditure on vessels known when they were laid down to be practically useless in war. We had been building, and we were now building, to satisfy demands pertinaciously pressed upon the Admiralty for the display of the flag in every quarter of the globe where we had commercial interests to protect and Consuls to represent us, no matter how inferior the vessel upon which it was borne. How seriously our Administration was hampered by these impolitic requisitions was readily seen upon an examination of the squadrons on foreign stations. Taking the numbers as they stood at a recent date, of ships steaming 17 knots and over, we had nine, as against two French ships. Of the ineffective class steaming 14 knots and under, our ships in commission were 63, to 29 under the French flag. These numbers were exclusive of 11 tenders to our reserve ships, and the gunboats attached to our home ports. Where we were dealing with savage races, as in the Eastern Archipelago or the Pacific, the mere display of the flag was sufficient for the maintenance of order. With civilized nations, however, it was not the flag, but the effective power of which it was the symbol which alone produced any sensible impression. France was the only foreign Power which had attempted to follow our system of maintaining numerous small vessels in every quarter of the globe, and her policy in this regard was condemned by her most distinguished officers. Nothing existed in our naval administration for which no good reason could be given at the time when it was established; but many things were survivals of the past, and not suited to present conditions. That was eminently true in relation to our foreign squadrons. The excessive number of small vessels under the British Flag on foreign stations originated in the building of gunboats by hundreds in the Crimean War, for service in the Baltic. Having these gunboats on our hands, the desire to find a use for them was natural, and at a time when communication was slow and difficult, it was desirable to keep vessels near at hand to give protection to British interests. With the introduction of the telegraph and steam, the conditions were altered. The policy which we should follow in the altered circumstances of the case was well described in a letter which he had received from Sir Spencer Robinson. Instead of showing our flag in slow and inefficient but costly vessels, scattered singly over the globe, squadrons of swift and powerful vessels should be kept ready at home, and at certain stations abroad, within reach of the electric telegraph, and thence despatched to the place where a naval force might be required. Flying squadrons under the British Flag should occasionally visit every sea. If a question were raised as to the means by which officers and men would be trained when the small vessels were reduced, the answer was that there was little to stimulate energy, no emulation, and but limited opportunity for gaining professional knowledge in scattered vessels of inferior type. The instruction of the navy would be best carried on in flying squadrons, in training squadrons, and by an annual mobilization, such as the present Board of Admiralty had twice carried out, to the great advantage of the Service. He should be glad to learn that the Admiralty had resolved on some revision of the programme of building now before Parliament. It would be satisfactory to receive the announcement that those fast cruisers were about to be ordered which Sir Arthur Hood was so desirous to lay down. As an immediate practical step, he would urge that our naval requirements abroad should be specially considered at the Foreign and Colonial Offices. As a result of such an examination, he looked for the gradual withdrawal of some 30 or 40 small craft. With Estimates framed in anticipation of peace, we must look for the means of strengthening our position, not so much to an increase of expenditure as to efficient administration. He submitted the case, which he had endeavoured to state as clearly and plainly as he could, with confidence to the deliberate consideration of the Government.


said, the noble Lord, with the knowledge he had of the conduct of affairs at the Admiralty, must be perfectly well aware that in the month of July it would be impossible to make any radical change in the programme fairly considered and decided upon in the early part of the year. He could only assure the noble Lord that the suggestions he had made would be kept in view by the Admiralty when the building programme for next year came to be considered. He thanked the noble Lord most cordially for his kindness in providing him with a précis of his speech, because it would enable him to deal with the various subjects he had taken up. Now, since the year 1885, the First Lord of the Admiralty had laid down no less than 57 vessels, and of 60 vessels now building, 56 would be completed in two years' and the remainder in three years' time. The whole of the vessels now being constructed were being pushed forward in the most rapid manner possible, a considerable saving of money being effected thereby, and the present rate of construction was such that we were turning out two ships for one of any Foreign Power. In his enumeration of the shipbuilding programme of 1888–9, the noble Lord should have mentioned in addition the Australian cruisers and two torpedo boats; while, with regard to comparisons with the French programme, which he said was more ambitious, he had to point out that that programme existed only on paper, no commencement having yet been made in carrying it out. It was perfectly true that great efforts were required on the part of the British Admiralty in the building of effective cruisers, and in 1890 the relative number of cruisers of France and England would stand thus:—France would have 13 cruisers and England 22 cruisers, with a speed of 19 knots. With regard to the noble Lord's remarks on the list of comparatively small vessels, he maintained that it was an absolute necessity that we should build small vessels as well as large, considering the variety of our interests to be protected and the overwhelming proportions of our commerce sailing every sea. He did not quite follow what the noble Lord tried to prove by his figures showing the comparative number of small vessels of France and England; but, for one thing, they showed that France, with fewer Colonies and less trade and a smaller Mercantile Marine, found it necessary to employ 29 small vessels; while we, with our much larger trade, found it necessary to employ 61, the respective interests of the two countries being, as the noble Lord had shown, as 93 to 9. The building programme had been most carefully considered by the Board of Admiralty. They had to consider the strength of our squadrons on foreign stations based on the requirements of each station, and they were of opinion that vessels of various classes were absolutely required in order to protect those interests efficiently. For instance, in the East Indies, the Pacific, China, and Australia, where long distances had to be covered, and where facilities for re-coaling were few and far between, it was necessary to have a certain number of vessels of moderate size sheathed and coppered in order to maintain their speed without docking frequently, and that such vessels should be provided with a moderate amount of sail-power to enable them to economize their coal. Again, it was absolutely necessary to have gun vessels of mode-rate draft of water in order to ascend the rivers. This was indispensable on the coast of Africa, the East Indies, and China. Fast vessels with steel bottoms were quite unfit for such duties. He remembered an instance in which, having been sent to destroy a piratical stronghold on the coast of North Borneo, piloted by a smaller ship belonging to the East India Government, that small vessel was ashore four times in one forenoon; had she been a fast vessel, with a steel bottom, instead of destroying the stockades, which he did two days afterwards, our whole time would have been employed in repairing the smaller vessel, if, indeed, there was anything left of her to repair. It was also necessary to have some fast cruisers on the foreign stations, and as the slow vessels completed their time the Government were replacing them with new and fast vessels. In China, for instance, the Audacious, flagship, was being replaced by the Impérieuse, having a speed of 17 knots. The Leander, of the same speed, was also on that station, and the Porpoise, of the same speed, had also been sent there. In Australia, the Nelson, flagship, would be replaced by the Orlando, with a speed of 19 knots, and one of the newest gunboats, the Lizard, of 715 tons and 13 knots speed, had replaced two sailing schooners. On the West coast of Africa, the Brisk, 1,770 tons, was about to replace the Icarus, of 970 tons. In the Meditteranean they had four vessels of 17 knots speed, the Phaeton, Fearless, Scout, and Surprise, and this course of replacing slow cruisers with fast ones would be proceeded with. No foreign vessel on any foreign station could steam 16½ knots, the speed of the Barracouta class. Armament, coal-carrying capacity, and sea-going qualities were more essential on distant stations than mere speed on the measured mile, which was often obtained by a sacrifice of these qualities and by light scantling. Then the noble Lord said that 30 or 40 of our slow gunboats ought to be gradually recalled and paid off, beginning with those on the Mediterranean Station and on the coasts of America. But, as a matter of fact, we had only 13 slow gunboats in commission on foreign stations, three in the Mediterranean, three on the North American Station—to which one relief had gone—one at the Cape, four at the China Station, and two at the Australian. Three new gun-boats had already gone out, and those now building were for the purpose of replacing these 13 gunboats. Then the noble Lord suggested that a training squadron and a flying squadron, such as that which had been cruising under the German Flag, should occasionally be seen in every quarter of the globe. As a matter of fact, the German training squadron consisted of four corvettes. The English training squadron consisted in like manner of four corvettes, the crews being changed every six months. The Channel Squadron also served as a training school, and on each of the foreign stations the ships were assembled annually and cruised together as a fleet for about throe months. Looking to the varied interests of the country, scattered as they were over every part of the globe, they did not think it possible, or even desirable, to concentrate their vessels as suggested at the end of a telegraph wire. Then the noble Lord hoped that the Admiralty had resolved upon some revision of the programme of building now before Parliament; in lieu of the gunboats not as yet commenced it would be satisfactory to receive the announcement that those fast cruisers were about to be ordered, which Sir A. W. Acland Hood is desirous to lay down. But what were the words of Sir A. W. Acland Hood? In answer to Question 4,315 before the Commissioners, he used these words— As I said before, I do not consider it a point of vital importance, but I should be glad to see six more fast cruisers by the end of 1890. With regard to that building programme, it consisted of the two most powerful protected cruisers in the world, the Blake and the Blenheim, of 9,000 tons displacement, 22 knots speed, and coal-carrying power to steam 15,000 knots at 10 knots speed; the Vulcan, 6,600 tons, 20 knots speed, and coal-carrying power to steam 12,000 knots at 10 knots speed; the Bellona and Barham, third-class cruisers, of 1,800 tons and 19½ knots speed, four protected and sheathed third-class cruisers of the Barossa class, of 1,580 tons and 16½knots, and two gun vessels of the Buzzard class, 1,040 tons and 15 knots, with a draft of 12ft. 2in. These last vessels were for the distant foreign stations. They were building six improved Rattlesnakes, first-class gun vessels of 750 tons and 21 knots speed; five fast cruisers of 2,500 tons each and 19 knots speed; and two torpedo gunboats of 750 tons and 21 knots speed for the protection of trade in Australia. This was a very suitable programme to meet our most pressing requirements. It was the largest building programme we had ever had with the exception of one in the time of the noble Earl opposite (the Earl of Northbrook). The noble Lord advocated speed as the one essential. The noble Lord forgot the price that had to be paid for speed; the boiler and engine-room space had to be increased, to the detriment of the health and comfort of officers and men. The noble Lord had travelled much by sea, but he had always had the comfort of a yacht, and he little knew what it was to serve for years, or even months, in a hot climate on board a man-of-war. With regard to the question of building small vessels, he would ask the noble Lord, who had been for five years in the Admiralty, whether he had ever during that time condemned that policy as he now did? Had the noble Lord ever remonstrated? If he did so it was evident that he had failed to carry his Colleagues with him. If he did not remonstrate while he was in Office, why did he come down now that he was in Opposition, and condemn a policy which he had himself supported? As a good many remarks had been made at meetings, and in the public Press about the unprepared state of our Navy, it might be interesting to their Lordships to know what had actually taken place during the past week in the organizing and assembling of the two Fleets at Spithead and Portland. On July 2 the Commanders-in-Chief at the home ports were informed by telegraph that certain vessels were to be commissioned on the 4th, manned and prepared in all respects for sea as rapidly as possible. On the 7th the following ships were assembled and organized into fleets:—At Spithead, 13 armoured ships, 11 cruisers, 2 torpedo gun vessels of 20-knots speed, and 12 first-class torpedo boats, in all 38 vessels, under Admiral Baird; at Portland, 9 armoured ships, 8 cruisers, 2 torpedo gun vessels, and 12 first-class torpedo boats, under Sir George Tryon; inclusive of 9 armoured ships of the coast district squadron, and 4 of the Channel Squadron, the whole manned by 16,090 officers and men, The ships, when commissioned, were in the condition in which they would be at a time of strained relations—coaled, and with their filled shell on board. In addition to the 22 armoured vessels at Spithead and Portland, we had in commission 7 battle ships, and 1 torpedo ram in the Mediterranean, and 8 armoured ships abroad, making a total of 37 armoured ships, and the armoured torpedo ram in commission, and ready for any service. He did not wish it to be supposed, from what he had said, that he was attempting to show that the strength of the Navy was sufficient for the various duties which in time of war it would be called upon to perform. The First Lord of the Admiralty had said, on more than one occasion, that we were not so strong as we ought to be, or as strong as we would be provided that his building programme was steadily pursued; but that, in his opinion, it was better to carry out a continuous and well-considered building programme rather than to rush into a hasty, and what might be termed, a panic programme.


said, he should not enter into the general question of the comparative strength of different European Navies, which was a subject difficult adequately to discuss in a debate in that House. He, however, desired to refer to the matter of the supply of naval guns. This was a vital point in regard to the strength of our Navy. All other preparations were futile unless there were the necessary guns available. He thought he should be supported by a consensus of opinion that we were at present very deficient in the matter of such guns, and that this was, in some degree, due to the competition between the Army and Navy. The recently constructed 12in. gun, corresponding to the 43-ton gun, which cost so large a sum of money, and consumed two years in its manufacture, had been an entire failure, and could not be used in its present condition. Nor had the 10in. guns been a success. His noble Friend said that the policy of the Admiralty was a policy of rapidity. That was certainly a very excellent policy, for the great cause of complaint hitherto had been the enormous delay in the manufacture of the necessary guns. No doubt as time progressed guns which were excellent at one period became obsolete; but that was no reason why guns of the best type should not always be available. It was owing to the Germans having acted on this principle that when the Danish War broke out they found themselves so advantageously placed. And at the present time Germany continued to act upon this principle; and, as a matter of fact, found no difficulty in getting an adequate supply of Krupp guns. Nor should we find any difficulty if we proceeded in the right way. Manufacturers were quite ready to carry out any orders they received, provided that the orders were given in time, and upon a sufficiently large scale to make it remunerative for them to lay down the necessary plant. To manufacture such guns as these, very expensive plant was required, and manufacturers would not provide it on the mere chance of future orders; they must get large orders before the outlay was incurred. Our Colonies found no difficulty in obtaining the large guns that they required. In Victoria, New Zealand, New South Wales, and Canada there were guns of the most modern type. But it must be borne in mind that guns could not be got at the moment that they were required, and that if they were to be obtained at all they must be ordered in time, and upon such a scale as to induce manufacturers to undertake the contract of supplying them. When, some years ago, the Commission, of which he was Chairman, was appointed to inquire into the coaling stations, the state of Gibraltar, Malta, Halifax, and Bermuda was withdrawn by the Government from the scope of that inquiry. He did not blame the Government for that, but the fact threw upon the Administration of the time, and all succeeding Administrations, a grave responsibility. He did not, on the present occasion, desire to refer to Bermuda and Halifax, though he believed that adequate steps were not being taken there, and that things were in a condition of slumber and apathy. But Malta and Gibraltar were essential to our naval subsistence in the Mediterranean, and he hoped that Her Majesty's Government would look closely at the state of affairs there. Very serious questions arose owing to the altered condition of naval affairs, and that which was satisfactory a few years ago might not be so now. Though he was aware that much money had been spent on these stations, still he feared that all that was adequate was not being done. He had information which he did not desire to lay before the House, but which led him strongly to urge Her Majesty's Government to attend carefully to those important Mediterranean positions.