HL Deb 17 June 1902 vol 109 cc819-26

My Lords, I beg to ask the First Lord of the Admiralty whether, in view of the advance in penetration of modern projectiles and energies of guns forming the armament of many foreign cruisers, it is intended to increase the thickness of the belt and casemate armour of the ten ships of the "Monmouth" class, of which none are, at present, ready for commission, having regard to the fact that the Krupp non-cemented-armour as utilised in these ships is quite ineffective to resist the attack of modern projectiles with moderate striking velocity; and whether it is intended to supply the Fleet with an adequate number of capped armour-piercing shot so that our war vessels will not be at a disadvantage in this respect with the other great Navies of the world. I would point out that the French cruisers of about the same date as the Monmouth class are armed with heavier and more powerful guns than our vessels, and they would make very short work of the 4-in. armour. The French cruisers of the "Montcalm" class have 6-in. armour, and a speed of twenty-one knots. The "Monmouth" class, with 4-in. armour will have a speed of twenty-three knots. I believe that if an additional 2-in. were added to their armour it would only reduce their speed by one knot, so that they would still have the advantage in that respect of the French cruisers I have named. As to the capped armour-piercing shot, these are used by all the principal foreign Navies.


My Lords, the answer to the first part of the noble Lord's Question is No. I am very glad to find that the noble Lord takes an interest in this question, and I hope he will continue to do so and to bring these questions before the House; but I entirely object to his attempting to deal with anything so big as the issues hero involved, merely in the form of such a Question as he has asked. I submit that it is impossible for such a subject to be dealt with merely in the form of a Question, and in a speech so brief as that which the noble Lord has delivered. His Question is full of suggestions, and, although it may not be intended, it is full of insinuations. The suggestions are that the British Navy is, in respect of a certain class of ships, in a position of inferiority which is not to be paralleled with the case of any other Navy, and that a very important improvement in projectiles is being neglected. But that is only part of the objection that I take to the form of the Question. There is also a suggestion that it is very easy to deal with the ships of the "Monmouth" class because they are not at present ready for commission. No, they are not at present, but some of them are very nearly finished, and all of them are far advanced towards completion. You do not put a new belt of armour on a ship designed to have another belt with the ease with which the noble Lord puts on a clean collar. The armoured belt is part of the design of the ship, which is nothing but a mass of compromises. The noble Lord says the "Montcalm" cruiser can only go twenty-one knots with thicker armour, while the "Monmouth" class are designed for twenty-three knots. Exactly, that is the kind of compromise which every ship, whether cruiser or battleship, represents. The Board which preceded the present Board, whether rightly or wrongly may be a matter of opinion, deliberately sacrificed part of the armour which is to be found in the "Cressy" class, which has only twenty-one knots, in order to obtain the speed of twenty-three knots which is to be found in the "Monmouth" class, if at this present moment the Board was so ill advised as "to endeavour to recast the whole design of the ships, I am quite sure of one thing, the result could not be satisfactory, and the delays would be very great. What we want is to have these ships in commission to fulfil the purposes for which they have been designed, not to throw them back months, or perhaps years, by endeavouring to recast the whole compromise of speed, armour, and armament, just at the moment when they are verging towards completion.

There is a complete fallacy at the bottom of the suggestion that there is one ideal type of cruiser, any departure from which is a falling off from the needs of the country. The House knows perfectly well that in cruisers, as in battleships, the whole thing is a process of development, and the "Monmouth" class do not stand in an isolated position. First of all, we started with cruisers that had not even a protected deck, then we passed to cruisers with a protected deck, then to cruisers like the "Powerful" and "Terrible" with casemates, then to cruisers with an armoured belt. In all these cases, it is a process of development which is not singular to this Navy, but is to be found in every Navy in Europe and other parts of the world. We have cruisers in some of which speed has been the main object. I take the "Monmouth" as a class. There are others in which other objects have been achieved, as in the case of the "Cressy." Take the "Drakes," where an attempt has been made to combine both speed, gun-power, and armour, and you have reached a ship of the dimensions of a battleship and the cost of a battleship, and vet one not fit to cope with a battleship. Each one of these considerations opens up problems and subjects of discussion which are absolutely endless. But exactly the same is true with the French or any other Navy. Almost the last important cruiser that has been added to the navies of the world is a very fine Russian cruiser, the "Varyag," which has no armour belt at all. Docs anybody suggest that she is not a valuable ship? She is of immense value. You cannot combine every quality in every ship. Of course there are some cruisers now building in meeting which these "Monmouths" would be handicapped. No cruiser can meet a battleship. Every cruiser, in nautical parlance, has its opposite number; there are cruisers it can meet with advantage; there are others which it cannot meet without being handicapped. All these cruisers have their uses, all have their part in the battle array of the Fleet; and I entirely demur to the suggestion that because these particular cruisers have only four inches of armour they are practically useless.

I have only mentioned the compromises in respect of armour and engines and armament. But there is the question of cost too. It may be right or it may be wrong, but the "Drakes," which combine all the qualities that the noble Lord desiderates, cost £1,000,000 each. The "Monmouths" cost only about £700,000 each; therefore it is quite obvious that you can get ten "Monmouths" for the same sum for which you get seven "Drakes." All these are questions that have to be taken into consideration by the Board of Admiralty of this or of any other country; and that is the reason why there is no sealed pattern of cruisers, but each class, as it comes out is designed to meet some special need of the time. Whether these designs were wise or unwise originally, there is nothing but unwisdom, in my opinion, in trying to turn one class into another when it is nearly completed.

I will pass now to the second part of the noble Lord's Question, in which he alludes to the caps. He asks "whether it is intended to supply the Fleet with an adequate number of capped armour-piercing shot so that our war vessels will not be at a disadvantage in this respect with the other great Navies of the world." There, again, that is an insinuation that all the other great Navies of the world are provided with this particular improvement, that there can be no doubt as to its nature and capacity, and that the Board of Admiralty have not paid sufficient attention to it. That is exactly the same class of criticism that is perpetually coming up, and I had to deal with it last year in the case of what are called armour-piercing shells. I was asked how it was that this and that Navy had had these armour-piercing shells for years, whilst we were only just issuing them, and the answer I gave was a good answer. The armour-piercing shell the other nations had adopted, rightly or wrongly—I think absolutely rightly—was, in the opinion of the naval experts of this country, not good enough to adopt; and we did not adopt an armour-piercing shell until we had one which, we thought, fulfilled all our requirements. I give the noble Lord the same answer with regard to these caps. Other nations may have already adopted them—I know they have in some cases—but is it a simple question? It is a very difficult question. These caps, when they are properly made, as they appear to have been made in some recent experiments that have been published, when the shot strikes exactly at the normal, at absolutely right-angles, have a most remarkable effect of increasing its penetration. But what proportion of shots in an action are going to strike exactly at the normal? The noble Lord forgets to tell the House that once you get off the normal on to an angle, you soon get to a point where the caps not only do not assist penetration, but absolutely deter and diminish the penetrating effect of the shot. Therefore, if the noble Lord is going to ask a Question in this kind of way and dogmatise upon it, he must first of all tell your Lordships exactly what proportion of shots are going to be at the normal and what are not, and explain the point at which shots off the normal are not assisted by the caps. That is why I object to this form of question, because it is not a simple, but a complex, one. The matter is engaging the most careful attention of the Admiralty, along with all these questions—and most important questions they are—of the velocity and the nature of the guns.

I know there is an impression in some parts of the Press that these artillery questions have not been receiving sufficient attention in this country. I do not think that this is a just accusation. The Admiralty and the War Office have now got two strong and well-equipped Committees working in combination on these questions—the Ordnance Committee and the Explosives Committee—and it is recognised that what we require is a higher velocity Again, that is very far from being a simple question. It has been suggested that cordite is not a good powder. I believe cordite to be a most admirable powder; but the reasons why we have not achieved the velocity with cordite that we first anticipated has been because of its erosive effect on the linings of the guns. The problem before us is to find a powder that will combine all the good effects of cordite with an increased velocity without that erosive effect that cordite has. But I would point out that the question is not one of muzzle velocity only. It is a question of what effect a given projectile will have when it strikes a ship at fighting ranges. That is a very different question from muzzle-velocity alone. That is the first question to be considered. The second is the trajectory at which that projectile will be propelled. I merely indicate these points to show that the Admiralty is studying them carefully, and the worst service that we could do would be hastily to adopt a new powder that does not really fulfil all naval requirements. I have seen it stated over and over again here and there that such and such a powder has such and such a well-known velocity, and the question is asked why the Admiralty does not adopt it at once. No consideration is given in these allusions to questions which must be; always considered in regard to this matter—Will the magazines of the ships contain the charges of this proposed new powder; will the hoists, the cages, or the chambers of the guns themselves contain the charges of this or that new powder which alone could produce the muzzle-velocity named? It would be a mad Admiralty that ever adopted a powder which it was not certain would stand the climatic trials that a powder used in the British Navy would have to stand. AH these points have to be worked out before we can embark on a new powder; and all I want to assure your Lordships is that these points are not being for one moment neglected, and that we are, with these two committees, well equipped for the elucidation of these most important problems.

I would make one passing allusion to our guns. I believe our guns to be very good indeed. I do not believe we have fallen behind foreign nations in our guns. I have explained to your Lordships the position of affairs as regards powder, and we are continually working at the improvement of our guns. No foreign navy is equipped with the last pattern of gun in all its ships. You take any Navy of any nation you like. You go through the guns in the ships, and you will find exactly the fame process of development in the case of guns as you do in the case of the ships themselves. The last ships have the last guns and so you go back from pattern to pattern, and the hierarchy of patterns of guns that you will find in our Navy you will also find produced in all other Navies. What the country has a right to demand is that in this matter of gunnery, in which I include powder, guns, and projectiles, we should not fall behind. I do not think this country is going to fall behind. We have skilled experts, well-trained in these artillery questions, and with their minds constantly turned upon them. We have the assistance, as I have already said, of these two strong Committees, and we are working with those great firms in this country who have done so much for the development of the whole science of artillery. But even if we have the most perfect powder, the best projectiles, and the most perfect guns, all these will be useless unless the men behind the guns can shoot. It is far more important, in my opinion, than these questions of the chemical improvement of powder or of the manufacture of guns, that every officer in His Majesty's Navy should understand that his primary and most important duty is to make the men under him the best shots in the world.


My Lords. I think we may congratulate the noble Lord who introduced this question, and who has been a little hardly dealt with, on having succeeded in inducing the First Lord of the Admiralty to make a most admirable and lucid statement on a very important subject. I am not going in detail into this matter; but it is evident, after the noble Earl's statement, that the idea of having every ship in the Navy fitted with all the latest improvements is an impossibility, for we cannot by a magic wand change old ships into modern ones. The question of changing the character of ships has always been a most difficult one, and has to be considered with the greatest possible care. Time after time proposals have been submitted for altering our ships, and those who have gone into them have always said that it would be wiser and more economical to build new ships rather than transform the whole arrangements of the old ones. The noble Earl has clearly shown that we must have what he calls a hierarchy of patterns of ships and of guns, and that that is the case not only in our Navy, but in all other Navies. From the speech we have just heard we may be assured that the present Board of Admiralty—as I believe every Board of Admiralty within, at all events, our recollection—has very strongly impressed upon it the necessity of bringing up our ships to the highest position of perfection, not only in regard to their defensive armament, but also in regard to their speed, coal endurance, the power of storing coal which is one of the most important of all matters—their guns, and, lastly, in the skill and efficiency of officers and men. I think we may be assured that the present Board, certainly with the present First Lord at its head, is perfectly alive to this, and I do not think, whatever criticism may be passed upon it, that His Majesty's Navy need fear from comparison with other Navies in the world.

House adjourned at a quarter past five o'clock, to Thursday next, half-past ten o'clock.