HL Deb 09 March 1909 vol 1 cc364-7

rose to ask the Government whether, considering that the crews of Russian and Japanese destroyers came to hand-to-hand conflict during the Russo-Japanese war, wrestling with one another, and using their fists, and that some of our destroyers carry seventy officers and men, of whom twelve are armed with rifle and sword-bayonet, twenty with cutlass and pistol, leaving thirty-eight men unarmed, they will take into consideration the desirability of appointing an Admiralty Committee for the purpose of inquiring and advising them as to whether all officers and men in small vessels should not carry arms of some description, and as to what pattern of pistol, sword, hunting-knife, or other weapons are the most suitable for close conflict in the confined spaces to be found on board destroyers, picket boats, torpedo boats, or submarines, bearing in mind that an enemy might attempt to cut such vessels out while under repair at a temporary base; and, secondly, the desirability of not renewing those sections of the Geneva Conventions which restrict the shape and materials of bullets used in short range firearms, such as pistols, the Committee to have power to make public or confidential reports to the Admiralty as it thought fit.

The noble Lord said

My Lords, during the Russo-Japanese War on at least two occasions the Japanese captured Russian destroyers by boarding them. On March 9, 1904, when outside Port Arthur, the "Sazanami," said to be a thirty-knot boat, raced up alongside a slower Russian destroyer, the "Steregutchi." A Japanese sprang on board of her and knocked her captain overboard before he could use his cutlass. In spite of a gallant defence the Russians were overpowered and their vessel captured. The "Steregutchi" was, however, so badly damaged that her captors were unable to bring her into harbour. On the night of the 11th August the Russian destroyer "Ryshitilini" was boarded by Japanese while at anchor at Chefoo. The Russians had unfortunately no arms, but they made the best resistance they could, throwing some of their adversaries into the water. The Japanese, however, soon overcame their defenceless opponents, and made off with their prize.

I understand that some of our destroyers, such as the "Derwent," carry seventy officers and men, of whom twelve are armed with rifle and sword-bayonet and twenty with cutlasses and pistols, leaving thirty-eight men unarmed. In some of our torpedo boats eight out of twenty-one men are unarmed. The fifteen officers and men in a submarine carry no arms whatever. Of course, if attacked while ready for action, she might dive and leave her assailants swimming about on the surface of the water; but if she was not ready to dive, or was under repair at a temporary base, her crew would be unable to offer the slightest resistance. Some form of dirk or hunting-knife might be supplied to men on board the smaller class of vessels, as they would seldom have room to use a cutlass. I was once present at a fight between half-a-dozen seamen, armed with cutlasses, and a mad dog of considerable size. It was in the night. We were at sea under sail, and there were no lights in the engine-room to which the dog had retreated. The officer in command of the party carried a lantern, which he dropped on the dog springing at him. The rest of the battle was carried on with no light but that of the sparks of the cutlasses as they struck the iron in the engine-room. The shouts of the men who were afraid of wounding one another, the clash of the cutlasses and the howls of the dog made up a scene to which it would not be easy to find a parallel. This episode had the effect of impressing upon me the extreme inconvenience of having to use weapons of too great a length in a confined space.

If a committee is appointed, I think that among other matters it might take into consideration the patterns of the weapons used by the ancients, and inquire as to whether the short swords used by the Greeks and Romans are not better suited for use in the small craft of the present day than the naval cutlass actually issued to our seamen. The ancients had far more experience of hand-to-hand conflicts than we have. Battles in their time were chiefly decided by them. Long range fire-arms have decreased the number of occasions when swords actually cross. But though such opportunities are few and far between that is no reason why we should not be fully prepared for them when they arise. Some of the invisible or internal parts of pistols might, I think, be nickel-plated. They are constantly being rusted by salt and spray, by the damp arising from the engine-room, and by the much-breathed air in the men's sleeping places. I can quite understand that during peace time the crews of small vessels would prefer not to have in addition to their other duties the trouble of keeping weapons in order. This work, however, might be lessened if the nickel plating of parts that would not attract the attention of an enemy was adopted. I also think that a four-inch barrel might be substituted for the six-inch pistol barrel, which would render it much lighter and handier without interfering with the accuracy of the shooting at short ranges, but I should not recommend a bore of less than 450, which is the present size. Our own experience in China, New Zealand, in other campaigns, and miners' fights in the Western States of America, have shown the inutility of small bore pistols. I think that when the Geneva Conventions are renewed an exception should be made permitting the use of expanding bullets in pistols, for the reason that it is useless to inflict a wound on your adversary when at close quarters unless it is one that disables him. His dying next day is not the slightest use to you if he has previously run you through the body. A wounded enemy might take three or four lives at close quarters, whereas if injured by a rifle at a distance say of 1,000 yards, he would probably be quiet enough for the rest of the day. Even if he was very combative, his wound would handicap his shooting at long ranges, but when within reach of cold steel a slight wound would have little effect on his revolver practice. I beg to put the Question standing in my name.


My Lords, the noble Lord has given us a very interesting dissertation on different forms of weapons, and has told us that on two occasions boarding took place during the Russo-Japanese war. I do not think the noble Lord is correct in that. The only authentic case known to the Admiralty of a hand-to-hand encounter taking place between Japanese and Russian destroyers during the Russo-Japanese war was at Chefoo during the night of August 11, 1904, when after the Russian boat "Ryshitilini" had been disarmed by the Chinese the Japanese boarded and took possession of her. The late war, therefore, supplies no evidence against the views held by the Admiralty as to the extent of small arm armament necessary for destroyers and torpedo boats in war time. The main armament of destroyers is ample to deal with all cases of normal attack. Picket boats are supplied by their parent ships with such armament as may be considered necessary for the service on which they may be employed. The Admiralty cannot perceive under what conceivable conditions small arms would be of any use to submarines. As regards the Geneva Convention, the Admiralty have no intention of not renewing the particular clause with regard to the use of the hollow-nosed bullets; and I am sure that if any Government made the suggestion that they should be used, even in short-range fire arms, the whole of Europe would be up in arms against them.