HL Deb 30 June 1909 vol 2 cc123-7

LORD ELLENBOROUGH had the following Notice on the Paper— To call the attention of His Majesty's Government to the fact that if ships were sunk or mines were laid in or at the mouth of the River Thames the night before or the night after the intended visit of the Lord Mayor and Sheriffs to the Fleet, nearly the whole of our available naval strength would be bottled up and unable to leave that river, thereby laying our coasts open to invasion; and to ask them whether, considering the enormous interests at stake, and the extraordinary progress of modern inventions, the time has not come when precautions equivalent to those constantly observed at Gibraltar, but varying in accordance with circumstances, should not at all times be taken to prevent the main body of our Fleets becoming the object of a successful surprise, and whether precautions of this nature will be taken while our principal Fleets are assembled in the Thames.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, my Question as it appears on the Paper was originally based on the plan which appeared in the newspapers, and which I understood to be a copy of the Admiralty plan. Whether that was the case or not, the plan has since been considerably altered. In the original plan nineteen large ships, including the "Inflexible," the "Indomitable," and the "Invincible," which are of the Dreadnought type, were marked to be moored in the narrow waters between Erith and Thames Haven. This morning I received another plan from the Admiralty. In it I find that all the large ships referred to and a number of others are to be placed much lower down the river in positions where the Thames is so broad that any attempts to block its channel by sinking ships are not likely to meet with success. A number of destroyers and submarines are also to remain near the Fleet instead of being placed near London Bridge, as in the original plan. It formed no part of my Question to ask for a detailed account of the precautions that ought to have been taken. It is enough for me to say now that I consider that if the Admiral in command is allowed a free hand as regards merchant vessels and others that may approach his lines of anchorage the means at his disposal appear to be sufficient to ensure the safety of the Fleet during its stay at Southend.

There is, however, the second part of my Question, in which I ask whether, considering the enormous interests at stake, and the extraordinary progress of modern inventions, the time has not come when precautions equivalent to those constantly observed at Gibraltar, but varying in accordance with circumstances, should not at all times be taken to prevent the main body of our Fleets becoming the object of a successful surprise. We remain, and I hope we shall long continue to remain, on friendly terms with Spain; yet certain precautions against surprise are taken at Gibraltar every day, and these are redoubled every night. In future when our Fleets are within reach of a powerful rival they ought habitually to take precautions as much as Gibraltar does. If they did that as a rule and as a matter of habit it would not excite attention, whereas if they only did so when relations were strained it would increase the probability of war breaking out.

Many people consider that the danger of a successful surprise is not great. In the next war an effort may be made to make the initial hostilities the war itself instead of a mere incident in the opening of a campaign. Such an attempt would, of course, never be made unless the country attacked was possessed of territory, commerce, or some other advantages that her rival was desirous of obtaining for herself. We have these, and if we wish to keep them we must recollect that we shall have to contend with a post-torpedo diplomacy—a very different thing from the pre-torpedo diplomacy of which we have historical knowledge. Diplomacy is invariably flexible, and is sure to adapt itself to the situation created by the new weapons.

I have lately been reading a German book, Deutschlands Flotte im Kampf, which is written in the form of a naval history of the next war. It commences with what the author calls a Fallen-stellen. Mine-layers disguised as merchant ships, with British names and ports painted on them, steam slowly about in the open sea in disconnected manner until they receive by wireless telegraphy the order to attack. The officer in command of them calls this a most genial idea. After describing the manner in which the surprise was effected, the writer sneers at our Minister of Marine, who, when taunted in Parliament for not having taken measures to prevent this disaster, feebly replies that— It was impossible to be prepared against an attack delivered with such infamous cunning. The reason which induced me to put down the first part of my Notice no longer exists, but I still desire to ask the Question which forms the second part, as it is of vital importance that every precaution should be taken for the safety of our Fleets.


My Lords, it will not be necessary for me to detain your Lordships for more than a few moments in replying to my noble friend. I am sorry that he had the trouble of putting down this Question, especially the first part of it. If he had waited until this morning he would have seen the official programme, from which it is clear that only twelve large ships go above Southend.


They are only comparatively small ships. I did not count them among the nineteen to which I referred.


Therefore, so far as the first part of my noble friend's Question is concerned, he is perfectly satis- fied. Then the noble Lord spoke of the precautions necessary and asked whether the time had not come when precautions equivalent to those at present observed at Gibraltar should not at all times be taken. I will bring the suggestion of the noble Lord to the notice of the Admiralty and ask them to consider it very carefully. At the present moment, however, they are of opinion that all adequate precautions are taken for the safety of the Fleet wherever it happens to be at rest. The noble Lord seemed to contemplate the outbreak of hostilities without any declaration of war, and that everything would be done by an initial surprise. I cannot believe that such a thing would ever happen, and I need hardly say that any such act on the part of any foreign country would be regarded as, I might almost say, an act of treachery. At present our arrangements with foreign Powers are excellent. There is no cloud on the horizon, and I sincerely trust that that state of things may go on for many years to come.


My Lords, I should be glad if the noble Earl could throw a little further light on this subject. In the original statement published in the newspapers it was stated that a considerable number of large vessels were to be in very narrow waters up the Thames. That was felt, and not unreasonably felt, by the uninitiated, and even by others, to be a somewhat risky operation, and people were naturally anxious to know what the object of the operation was. It certainly does appear to me that it is unnecessary to place ships in what may be a risky position, except for some really useful purpose. The noble Earl has told us that there is not a cloud in the sky, and that an act such as setting mines and blocking the Channel would be an act of treachery. I hope we are not going to rely for the safety of our Fleet upon anything of that kind; our business is to make it perfectly certain that such operations will be impossible. I should like to know whether the first scheme set forth in the newspapers was the scheme of the Admiralty, and, if so, why it has been changed.


My Lords, I am afraid that we are not in a position positively to answer the question which the noble Earl has put. My impression is that the first scheme described and published in the newspapers was not the authorised scheme, but I should not like to say so with certainty. We will make inquiries as to whether the scheme, which I understand is now considered to be unobjectionable, represents a modification, or whether it was the first scheme which the Admiralty devised.

On the general question, I entirely agree with the noble Earl who has just sat down that it is not right, in affairs of this kind, to exclude the possibility of a coup de main of any kind, and in the disposition of our defences undoubtedly we ought not to ignore the possibility of sudden attacks. But, on the other hand, there are limits to the precautions which it is possible to take—limits which must, I think, be dictated partly by the teaching of history and partly by what we may assume to be human nature. If the noble Lord who introduced this subject is right, every one of His Majesty's ships should always have her torpedo nets down and the guns' crews should be perpetually ready every hour of the day and night for a presumed attack. If such were the practice of all nations, national life, I venture to submit, would become altogether impossible. The strain upon the service would be so great that the mere fact of taking such exaggerated precautions—precautions which alone, I think we must all agree, would meet certain kinds of absolutely unprovoked attack—would make war almost inevitable.

The noble Lord and those who agree with him are also represented in other European countries. The same kind of scares exist there—rumours of British fleets appearing and preparing to bombard important towns when no difference or question of any kind exists between the two countries. We know how impossible such an attack on our part is, and whatever we may think of other countries, we are bound to assume that there is a certain sort of what I may call brigand attack which would not be made by any civilised Power. But I am far indeed from saying that we ought not at all times, in time of peace as well as in time of anxiety, to take all reasonable precautions, and I am quite certain that my right hon. friend at the head of the Admiralty is as fully convinced of this as the noble Earl opposite.