HL Deb 23 June 1898 vol 59 cc1177-83

My Lords, I rise to call attention to the very unsatisfactory condition of the armament of seven first-class battleships—namely, Sanspareil, Benbow, Anson, Camperdown, Collingwood, Howe, and Rodney—and to recommend certain modifications in armament which would have the effect of very greatly increasing their fighting power. At the present time, when so very much is being done abroad to increase the power of armanents of foreign battleships, I consider it to be very important that the present unsatisfactory condition of the seven battleships I have named should be modified in such a manner as to render them, at all events, capable of meeting on equal terms the first-class battleships of foreign Powers. The ships I refer to were built 10 years ago, but they are still, with the exception of their armaments, very powerful vessels. They have very thick armour belts and thick armour protection for their principal armaments, they have good speed and good coal-carrying capacity; but since they were built considerable advance has been made in the construction of heavy guns, with the result that their power has been greatly increased and their weight very considerably diminished. There has also been a great advance in the construction of quick-firing guns, which in every future naval war must produce most disastrous effects on the armaments of ships not properly protected from them. The most grave defect in the armament of these seven ships is the unprotected condition of their secondary armament, which consists of 6-inch breechloading guns mounted on the broadside, without any protection from the deadly effect of quick-firing guns. The result must be that in a naval engagement the men whose duty it will be to fight those guns could not possibly live at them. The objects I have in view are, first, to substitute modern naval guns of greater power and considerably less weight for the principal armament of these ships; and, secondly, to use the weight thus saved for the protection of the guns of the secondary armament, which are now utterly unprotected. I will now proceed to state the armaments of these seven battleships in detail, and the modifications which I recommend in order to greatly increase their fighting power. The principal armament of the Sanspareil consists of two 110-ton breechloading guns, mounted in an armoured turret in the fore part of the ship, and one 29-ton breechloading gun mounted in the after part of the ship. This gun is very weakly protected. The secondary armament consists of 12 6-inch breechloading guns mounted on the broadside, without any protection from the destructive fire of quick-firing guns. In the Benbow the principal armament consists of two 110-ton breediloading guns, each mounted in an armoured barbette. The secondary armament consists of 10 6-inch breechloading guns mounted on the broadside without protection. The principal armament on the Anson, Camperdown, Howe, and Rodney consists of four 67-ton breechloading guns mounted in two armoured barbettes; and of the Collingwood four 45-ton old-pattern breechloading guns in two barbettes. The secondary armament of all these ships consists of six 6in. breechloading guns, mounted on the broadside without protection. The modern 46-ton wire gun, although less than half the weight of the 110-ton gun mounted in the Sanspareil and Benbow, possesses very nearly the same power of penetration of armour, combined with far greater rapidity of fire. The 46-ton gun is also very superior in all respects to the guns which now form the principal armament of the Anson, Camperdown, Collingwood, Howe, and Rodney. The modifications of armament which I recommend, in order to very greatly increase the fighting power of these seven ships, are the substitution of 46-ton wire guns for the guns now forming the principal armament in all seven ships; also that each of the 6in. breechloading guns forming the secondary armament should be placed in a casemate, as has been done in all our later battleships, and thus efficiently protected from the disastrous effect of quick-firing guns. The results which would be produced by the modifications of armament which I recommend would be as follows:—In the Sanspareil three 46-ton guns to replace the two 110-ton and one 29-ton guns, thus increasing the gun power, with a reduction of 112 tons in the weight of the guns; in the Benbow four 46-ton guns to replace the two 110-ton guns, thus doubling the fighting power, with a reduction of 36 tons in weight of the guns; in the Anson, Camperdown, Collingwood, Howe, and Rodney, replace the guns which now form their principal armament by 46-ton guns, thus greatly increasing their gun power, with a reduction of 84 tons in the weight of guns in each ship. My Lords, the question of the efficiency of the armaments of our battleships is one which, in my opinion, is of great national importance. I feel strongly the unprotected condition of the armament of these first-class battleships and therefore I have considered it to be my duty to bring this question to the notice of the House, and I trust, my Lords, that the facts which I have laid before you will have the effect of convincing you and the country of the extreme desirability of modifying the armaments of these seven first-class battleships, and thus greatly increasing their fighting power.


My Lords, the Admiralty have the very responsible duty of deciding between the rival claims of construction and reconstruction. The capacity of our dockyards for work is, no doubt, immense, but it has limits, and the question has to be decided as to whether it is better policy to proceed with new ships, about whose perfection and power there can be no doubt, or to lay aside some of the new work in favour of the alteration and improvement of old ships. The question, too, of the best moment to carry out these alterations has to be carefully considered, and the number of ships which it would be politic to withdraw from the fleet at the same time must be governed by strategic considerations. The ships mentioned by the noble and gallant Lord, though not entirely up to date, are capable of meeting on equal terms all but the most modern ships of foreign Powers, and it would be most unfortunate if the idea got abroad that, even in their present state, they are not excellent and efficient fighting machines. Plans for the reconstruction of the vessels of the Admiral class have been prepared and are under consideration. It is not considered, however, that much improvement could be made in their defensive power without large and costly alterations, as they are already too deep in the water. The substitution of 46-ton guns for the 67-ton guns carried by four of these ships would reduce their offensive power, as, while the penetration at 1,000 yards of the 46-ton gun is about the same as that of the 67-ton gun, the energy of the latter is greater, and it carries a larger shell. The saving of weight in these ships by this change would not be nearly sufficient to provide casemates for the guns of the secondary battery. In the Benbow the saving of weight, if any, would be small, and in the Collingwood there would be a loss; in the case of the Sanspareil, to substitute 46-ton guns for the 110-ton guns would make a great reduction in offensive power, and to replace the 10-inch gun, which she carries at present by a 46-ton gun, heavily protected, as the noble Lord suggests, would bring the ship more down by the stern than she already is, and increase her draught—a serious consideration, since she already draws nearly 30 feet of water aft. It is fully recognised that the present condition of these vessels leaves something to be desired, but no proposals for reconstruction or alteration of armament can be profitably discussed without a careful consideration of the cost of those alterations, and of the time that the ships would be placed hors de combat. Alterations in engines, boilers, guns, and armour such as would bring these ships up to date in all respects would entail a heavy cost, and would require at least 12 months to carry out, during which time they would be off the strength of the Navy.


My Lords, I am not able to speak with any knowledge on this subject, but I merely want to ask the noble Earl a question with regard to one statement which I understood him to make, and which, I think, is in contradiction of what the noble Lord said who brought this matter before the attention of the House. I understood the noble Earl to say that to replace the 110-ton guns in one or more of these vessels with 46-ton guns would reduce the offensive power. That appears to be in contradiction of what the noble Lord said. Can the noble Earl explain how the offensive power would be reduced?


I should like to ask the noble Lord whether it is true that the 16-inch guns in the Sanspareil and the Benbow are not muzzle-loaders? I also understand from the noble Earl that a 13-inch gun has more penetration at a thousand yards than a 12-inch gun, and if that be so, I do not understand why in that case the most modern class of ships—the Majestic class—have been armed with 12-inch guns instead of 13-inch guns, with which the Sovereign class is armed?


In reply to the question of the noble Marquess behind me (the Marquess of Lothian), I have to state that the 110-ton guns referred to are breech-loading guns, not muzzle-loaders. With regard to the question put to me by the noble Earl opposite (the Earl of Camperdown), I can only state that the opinion which I have given to the effect that the changes suggested by the noble and gallant Lord would reduce the offensive power of these vessels is the opinion of the experts at the Admiralty, and as such I am bound to lay it before your Lordships. The 46-ton gun has undoubtedly less penetration than the 110-ton gun, and less energy and bursting power of shell than either the 110-ton gun or the 67-ton gun. The reason of the adoption of the lighter gun in our most modern battler ships is, I understand, that, in the event of a breakdown of the machinery connected with it, it can be more easily worked by hand.


It strikes me that the argument of the noble Earl who answered for the Admiralty that these things cannot be done that the noble Lord wishes to be done because it would be a great expense is not a good one. How are you going to have a Navy without great expense? Every day brings change, and you must change if you want—to use a horrible expression that I do not like—to be up to date. You must change, and you must go to great expense. I think the noble Earl said that 67-ton guns did not do better than 46-ton guns, except by delivering a bigger shell; that the amount of penetration at a thousand yards was the same in each; so that I think that argument would break down. What I do venture to say is that I think the excuse of expense is one which ought not to be brought forward by the Admiralty.


In supporting the answer of the noble Earl (Hopetoun), I would point out to your Lordships that the reasons given are not, as I understand it, entirely based on the question of cost. The reasons given were the difficulty of withdrawing ships from active service, it being necessary to consider our ships in various parts of the world before making alterations, and also the difficulty of dealing with the work in the dockyards in regard to new construction and the repair of ships. I can assure you that it is a matter of very considerable difficulty to distribute work and to choose what is the most desirable work to be done at any particular time. I think, after the answer of the noble Lord on behalf of the Admiralty, your Lordships may be satisfied that the Board of Admiralty will take into consideration the desirability of altering the armament of the ships pointed out and suggested by the noble and gallant Lord opposite, and in all probability, at the proper time, take measures to improve the armaments of those ships, which improvement has become necessary in consequence of the great improvements in. naval ordnance, especially of the introduction of the quick-firing gun.

The subject then dropped.

House adjourned at 5.25.